Scripture Portion of Week 18: Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1-24:18

The understanding of the Torah (תּוֹרָ֣ה direction, instruction, law) among many New Testament Christians tends to be relegated only to the Ten Commandments that all of Israel heard blasted like thunder from Mount Sinai in chapter 20 of Exodus. However, the rest of the rules in the subsequent chapters are inextricably linked as God continues to give instructions regarding other matters, such as building an altar and offering sacrifices (20:22-26). The Torah is not limited to ten commandments, but includes all that Yehovah spoke to Moses.

Torah scroll

The chapters following the Ten Commandments give instructions on how to treat other people. Even when, due to differences in time, place, and culture, we cannot literally follow the instructions, we should extract the principle meaning and purpose of the instructions and apply them to our own lives as best as we can.

The first group of instructions deals with slaves (Hebrew עֶ֣בֶד eved, Greek δοῦλος doulos). Slavery in Israel was debt servitude. Cross-references for instructions regarding slavery are Leviticus 25:39-55, Deuteronomy 15:12-18, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, and Jeremiah 34:8-22. Points to consider regarding slavery in ancient Israel:

  1. Hebrew slaves worked to pay their debt no more than 6 years at a time. Non-Hebrew slaves did not have this time limit (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). 
  2. Hebrew slaves were freed and returned to their ancestor’s property at the end of every Jubilee cycle (at the end of every 49 years) on the Hebrew calendar. Non-Hebrew slaves did not have this time limit (Lev. 25: 39-40).
  3. Masters must generously give starting capital to the slaves after they are freed (Deut. 15:13-14).
  4. Slave masters sometimes provided a wife and family for the slaves (Ex. 21:4).
  5. Slaves sometimes chose to remain with their masters for a lifetime (Ex. 21:5).
  6. If a master changes his mind about a female slave, he must sell her back to relatives (Ex. 21:8).
  7. If a female slave marries into the master’s family, she must have rights as a daughter (Ex. 21:9).
  8. If the master marries a female slave, she shall have full rights as his wife (Ex. 21:10-11).
  9. Masters should not rule ruthlessly but treat the slaves as hired servants year by year (Lev. 25:43, 52-53).
  10. Female captives of war cannot be married until they have a time of mourning for their families and the man has time to consider the decision. Once married, she has rights as a wife. If divorced, cannot become a slave once again but must go as she pleases (Deut. 21:10-14).

The pivotal event ending Israel as a nation was the destruction of Jerusalem and slavery into Babylon. This was the penalty for Israel mistreating their slaves (Jeremiah 34:8-22). Today, those who have outstanding debt may have their wages garnished or may be imprisoned. Garnishing wages is a similar concept to the debt slavery practiced in ancient Israel. Curiously absent from the Torah is any consideration of a prison system.

The next group of instructions explain in detail how we should treat others. Various punishments ensue after physically harming people. Due to secular government law, the punishments cannot be implemented. God’s people should attempt to obey the instructions as best as they can even though the punishments incurred for disobedience may be different. For example, God protected the rights of the unborn child and required severe punishment to those who caused an unborn child harm, but most governments today allow abortion. God’s people must still oppose abortion even though this action has no legal punishment today.


  1. Intentional injury to others requires a punishment of the same, regardless of social status as a free man or a slave (Ex. 21:12, 20).
  2. Unintentional injury to others requires the guilty person to run away to a city of refuge. (21:13).
  3. Unintentional injury done to an unborn child requires punishment of the same injury (21:22-25). Those doing violence toward or swearing violence toward parents receive the death penalty (21:15, 17). Swearing violence toward the government rulers is forbidden (22:28).
  4. Kidnapping receives the death penalty (21:16).
  5. People can use lethal force to defend themselves and their property from burglars and home intruders, but killing the intruder should be avoided if possible (22:2-3).Injury resulting in loss of work requires worker’s compensation (21:18-19).
  6. Mistreating others is especially abhorrent if they cannot defend themselves, for example a foreigner, an orphan, or a widow (22:21-24).
  7. If proper precautions are not observed when doing field work or other work changing the environment (such as digging a hole), and this causes injury to someone’s animals or other people, then the person is responsible (21:33-34).Animals that cause injury to humans or other animals must be put to death (21:28-29, 35-36).
  8. People should be good neighbors by returning property to them when found or by rescuing their animals (23:4-5)
  9. Masters who permanently injure their slaves must let the slaves go free (21:26-28). Animals known to be violent that cause death to a person must be put to death along with the animals’ owners (21:29).
  10. Stealing from others requires reimbursement and sometimes even paying back more than the value of the items (22:1).
  11. Damaging other people’s property requires reimbursement (22:5-6).
  12. Losing a neighbor’s property results in a stricter punishment if the person has received payment to keep his neighbor’s property safe (22:7-11). If he has been paid to keep it safe, he has to reimburse the value of the lost property. If he was not paid and kept his neighbor’s property as a favor, he makes an oath – swears by Yehovah – that he no longer has the property and doesn’t know where it is.
  13. Damage done to things borrowed from a neighbor results in a stricter if the neighbor has lent it out for free (22:14-15). If the things are damaged while lent to someone, that person must make full reimbursement. If the things are damaged while rented to someone, that person does not have to pay any more fee except for the rental fee.
  14. Lenders should not require high interest from borrowers, especially if they borrower is poor. Lenders trying to collect their loans should not take away from the borrower the basic property needed to live (22:25-27).
  15. Sex outside of marriage requires a wedding and marriage covenant. If no marriage covenant is made, the man must pay a fine to the family of the woman (22:16-17).
  16. Bestiality results in the death penalty (22:19).
  17. Sorcery and other dealings with evil spirits requires the death penalty (22:18).
  18. Sacrificing or worshiping any other god except for Yehovah results in the death penalty (22:20).
  19. We should generously and quickly give our offerings to God (22:29-30).

God gave great detail about maintaining justice in the courtroom by avoiding lies, avoiding partial justice, and having consistent laws even for foreigners (23:1-9). Overall, all of these instructions in this reading passage teach us to be fair and honest with people, regardless of their social status, financial status, gender, or nationality. We should take great strides to understand the purpose of each law and apply the spirit (principle) of the law to our own lives.


An ancient seat of Moses (of authority)

An ancient seat of Moses (of authority) from New Testament times, located at the old village of Chorazin

God re-emphasized the importance of the weekly Sabbath (23:10-12), and he introduced three major annual Sabbaths that require traveling to the religious center of Israel. (23:14-19). These three annual Sabbaths are called by different names in Scripture: (1) Passover, called Unleavened Bread (2) Pentecost, called Harvest (3) and Tabernacles, called Ingathering.

Yehovah repeated multiple times to obey all of his instructions. He emphatically stated that when Israel entered the promised land of Canaan, they were to completely obliterate the Canaanites and their religious structures (23:23-33). He gave instructions not to remember or speak about the names of other gods (23:13) or to do what other people do for worshiping other gods (23:19b). God promised them victory over their enemies, blessings, many children, health, and wellness if they obeyed him fully. God promised the borders of Israel would be from the Red Sea in the south to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to the desert in the north, to the Euphrates in the east.

After giving all of these instructions, warnings, and promises, Moses made a blood covenant with the people of Israel. Moses read all of these laws to the people and sprinkled blood on them, sealing the contract that the people had made with God (24:1-8). Then God invited Moses and the chiefs of Israel to come up Mount Sinai where they saw God in some form (24:9-11). Moses climbed higher into the fiery mountain top and received a set of the Ten Commandments from God to replace the ones that he has broken (24:12-18).

Exodus 21 by Sweet Media

Exodus 21 by Sweet Media

Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that Yehovah has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!”

So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which Yehovah has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Exodus 24:7-8

About Jonathan Lankford

Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Jonathan has provided education and training services to organizations and individuals in Vietnam since 2007.
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