Studying Exodus 23 1-12

We will be examining some of the demands of Biblical justice as we are studying Exodus 23:1-12 for Sunday, January 16. This is in keeping with our quarter-long focus on “justice, law, and history.” [A few questions on this text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text comes from Exodus, one of the books of the Torah. Specifically it’s part of the Torah portion Mishpatim, meaning “judgments” or “laws,” which comprises Exodus 21:1-24:18. Scholars identify the whole larger text from Exodus 20:22-23:19 (or so) as the “Book of the Covenant” or “Covenant Code,” one of four major compilations of expressly legal material in the Torah. [The others, according to the Jewish Study Bible, are the Priestly Laws, contained in Exodus 25-40, most of Leviticus, and parts of Numbers; the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26; the Deuteronomic Laws, Deteronomy 11:31-28:69.]

Reading law books isn’t most people’s idea of fun, or even of “religious reading.” But in the case of the legal material in the Bible, we understand it to be instruction that emanates from God; that no doubt makes a difference in our attitude.

It can be eye-opening to read through the Covenant Code and make a list of the matters the Code covers. And perhaps, that exercise will raise some questions, too. One question it might raise is whether other people have had similar laws. The answer to that question seems to be “yes.” The Covenant Code shares some formal and technical features with other ancient Near Eastern law codes. [Those are discussed in some detail in a helpful summary article in the Encyclopedia Judaica.]

Our text specifically could be said to deal with impartiality in legal cases, regarding testimony and regarding passing judgment. Verses 10-12 include the first part of a section on festivals (Exodus 23:10-19), including the festival of Jubilee.

None of this material shows up in the lectionary. Parts of Exodus 20 that include the 10 Commandments, which immediately precedes the Covenant Code, do appear on the Third Sunday in Lent (B), and the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A). But the entire Covenant Code would be something you wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all you knew was the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, be warned.

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CLOSER READING: In verse 1, we might want to think of a “false report” as a rumor (per Robert Alter). The word translated “malicious” in “malicious witness” is hamas, in other contexts rendered “violence” or “harshness.” That lets us know what might really be at stake in presenting false testimony.

In v2, the main thrust of the verse seems to be not to side with a majority in a wrong decision, to twist justice. An alternative translation tradition, however, renders “multitude” or “majority” as “mighty”. You should not go along with the mighty to pervert justice. The same goes for not skewing justice in favor of the poor. Either way, it’s supposed to be … justice, not favoritism, seems to be the meaning.

Verse 4-5 deal with animals as well as adversaries, and the rabbis identify v5 in particular as the first place in the Torah that deals with not being cruel to animals. Regardless of how we might feel about their owners, the welfare of the beast comes first.

Verses 6-9, according to Alter, are addressed to judges specifically. The preceding verses are addressed to everyone. If so, it seems to imply that how we ourselves form our opinions, in particular about whose cause is right or wrong, matters. As in, we ought not to be swayed by the majority, and in particular not by a wicked majority. [No matter how many likes on whatever social media platform it gets us. For instance.]

Verse 6 is the third repetition of the idea of “perverting” justice, twisting it or skewing it or tilting it to favor someone for some reason other than that they are in the right. Emphatically, don’t do that.

Verse 7, the word for “charge” is literally “word.” The point about God not acquitting the guilty seems to be addressed to judges who would kill the innocent. In our legal system, that might also apply to juries, which might give us pause.

In verse 8, a different word – NRSV translates “subvert” – is literally something like “ruins” or “corrupts” the cause, or words, of those in the right. The effect of a bribe, then, is to interfere with the judge’s senses. People under the influence of a bribe can’t see what’s right in front of them, and don’t hear what people are saying – even when the evidence is plain and clear.

In verse 9, the NRSV translates Hebrew ger as “resident alien,” but in other contexts it’s rendered “stranger” or “sojourner” – that is, someone who is vulnerable because they are different, “not from here,” “not one of us.” The rationale is that the Israelites themselves have been strangers like this. In our contemporary US context, this translation issue may have gotten political. [I’ve heard people insist that the word ger refers to people who were living in the community “legally.” But there were no pink cards, even in post-exilic Judea, as far as we know; given that, the “resident alien” translation might lean a little to the anachronistic.] This whole matter probably always was “political,” though, in the sense of “political” as being about “how are we going to do things around here?” God’s politics are adamantly on the side of the ger, as usual.

In verse 12, the NRSV translates “your homeborn slave and the resident alien,” but in Hebrew it’s literally “the son of your amah” and “the ger,” both of which words might echo from our text last week. Those people are supposed to have the opportunity to, as Alter translates, “catch their breath.” Or, perhaps, to restore their soul [nefesh] – the verb there might make us think of that bit of poetry.

Overall, these instructions remind us not to let either the “bandwagon effect,” or resentment, or even compassion for the poor, or desire for revenge, or self-interest, or xenophobia, tilt our judgment away from what’s right. “What’s right” as defined, I think we suppose, by the larger body of this instruction. There’s an example of what “Biblical justice” means.

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Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. Volume I The Five Books of Moses. W.W Norton & Company, 2019

Tigay, Jeffrey H. “Exodus: Introduction and Commentary,” The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Mark Zvi Brettler, eds. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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Image: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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