Exodus 21:12-36

justice_iconExodus 21

12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. 15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. 16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. 17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. 18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, 19 then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed. 20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. 22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. 28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. 31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. 33 “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his. 35 “When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. 36 Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his.

On October 23, 1963, Bob Dylan recorded a song that some consider the greatest protest song ever written. It is entitled, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It is about the death of a fifty-one year old African American barmaid at the hands of a white man named William Zantzinger and the injustice of his light sentence. The details of the song have been disputed, as any search online will show, but the song itself stands as a fascinating and well-done exposė on the nature of injustice.

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll

With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger

At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’

And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him

As they rode him in custody down to the station

And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years

Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres

With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him

And high office relations in the politics of Maryland

Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders

And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was snarling

In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel

To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level

And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded

And that even the nobles get properly handled

Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em

And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom

Stared at the person who killed for no reason

Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’

And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance

William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Bury the rag deep in your face

For now’s the time for your tears

The power of the song lies in its contrast between the crime committed and the insufficient punishment for the crime. The song (again, whether accurate or not) suggests that the wealthy and powerful can take life without having to really pay a proportionate price for it. Furthermore, it taps into racial and class injustice: a wealthy white man essentially gets away with killing a poor black woman.

At the end of the day, human beings recognize that what makes a just society just is that the laws are equitable and fair and are upheld with a sense of consistency for the common good. Our text shows that this was a concern for ancient Israel as well. In these verses, the Lord prescribes punishments for certain crimes. Philip Ryken proposes that the verses can be broken down into three sections reflecting three different types of crimes.

Section 1: capital crimes (v.12-17)

Section 2: personal injuries (v.18-27)

Section 3: criminal negligence (v.28-36)[1]

That is helpful. These verses contain numerous references to numerous crimes and their respective prescribed punishments. For our purposes, let us consider two crucial details that emerge and that can help us understand the nature of justice in Israel and the nature of justice in our day as well.

Equitable and just law prescribes punishments that are proportionate to the crimes committed and that restrain the vengeful impulse of man.

Our text has numerous case studies of crimes and proportionate punishments, but at the heart of it is a basic principle of foundational justice. In verses 23 through 25 we see the idea of what would come to be known as lex talionis.

23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

As we will see, Jesus would in time bring further light to this, but it should be noted that this basic principle of justice had the benefit of (a) deterring crime, (b) restraining the one wronged from a disproportionate response, and (c) restraining the state from a disproportionate response. It also exalted a high view of life and demonstrated that the taking of life was a heinous crime indeed. St. Augustine commented on these verses by arguing for their value, even though he argued that there was a higher way than even this.

Not to exceed due measure in inflicting punishment, lest the requital be greater than the injury…And it is a high degree of justice, for it would not be easy to find a man who, on receiving a fisticuff, would be content to give only one in return and who, on hearing one word from a reviler, would be content to return one word exactly equivalent. On the contrary, either he exceeds moderation because he is angry, or he thinks that, with regard to one who has inflicted an injury on another, justice demands a penalty greater than the injury suffered by the innocent person. To a great extent, such a spirit is restrained by the law, in which is written the directive, “An eye for an eye” and “A tooth for a tooth.” Moderation is signified by these words, so that the penalty may not be greater than the injury. And this is the beginning of peace. But to have absolutely no with for any such retribution – that is perfect peace.[2]

There is indeed moderation in these verses, and a helpful restraint to the more vengeful impulses of man and the state. These vengeful impulses and the danger of failing to restrain them can be seen in the memorable conversation between the characters Jim Malone and Elliot Ness in the 1987 film, “The Untouchables.”

Malone: You said you wanted to know how to get Capone. [Ness nods] Do you really want to get him? [pause] You see what I’m saying? What are you prepared to do?

Ness: Everything within the law.

Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the ball on these people, Mr. Ness, you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they won’t give up the fight until one of you is dead.

Ness: I want to get Capone. I don’t know how to get him.

Malone: You want to get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone! Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m making you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to put this man away with any and all legal means at my disposal, and I will do so.

Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward. Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?

Ness: Yes.

Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.[3]

That is what happens when restraining parameters are removed. Knives are met with guns and morgues are the response to hospitals. In other words, violence and rage increases with each wrong inflicted and suffered and the world is reduced to a madhouse.

Here is the genius of this basic law code: they deterred and appropriately restrained. They recognized that it is possible to respond, even to a great wrong, wrongly. These laws were provided to protect good people from wicked people and then good people from themselves, for all of us are capable of great harm in the name of vengeance.

Christ Jesus, however, pushes us past mere justice and into grace.

When Jesus came among us, He spoke of these words in the sermon on the mount. In so doing, he pushed us past justice and into grace. We find His words in Matthew 5.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

To be sure, there is still great evil in the world and the state still must use force against individuals and other states that threaten human life, but Jesus is offering a better way, a way that should be adopted by His people, the Church, and that should increasingly infiltrate fallen society through the life and witness of the Church. Cyril of Alexandria suggested that the Old Testament law was a schoolmaster for Israel that prepared them bit by bit for the coming of the higher and highest law preached and demonstrated by Christ.

[T]he general bearing of the legal mode of life was by no means pleasing to God. It was even given to those of old time as a schoolmaster, accustoming them little by little to a fitting righteousness and leading them on gently toward the possession of the perfect good. For it is written, “To do what is just is the beginning of the good way”; but finally all perfection is in Christ and his precepts. “For to him that strikes you on the cheek,” he says, “offer also the other.”[4]

“The perfect good,” Cyril called this. He was correct. For the people of God, there is a concern that trumps both vengeance and justice: eternal life. The children of God are not primarily seeking to have those who wrong us imprisoned, we are seeking ultimately to have them redeemed. This is the call of Christ to turn the other cheek, to give to those who take you to court, to go the extra mile is a call to a Kingdom-focused and Kingdom-driven life of subversion whereby the assumptions and exercise of mere justice are infused with the sweet aroma of grace.

By not being consumed with a desire for recompense, we may just open a door where grace can enter in. By not seeing justice as the highest goal, we allow the higher goal of salvation to be seen through the moral fog of our times.

In truth, the most disarming act we can take is the act of refusing to take up arms, and the greatest vengeance is to see the devil frustrated by our refusal to enact revenge.

I once heard the late Calvin Miller tell of visiting a difficult man in the community where he pastored. The man was notorious for his wild living, his rough behavior, and his general wickedness. He lived in a small Nebraska home with his wife and sons. Dr. Miller said that he visited the man and began to present the gospel to him. The man angrily refused to listen. When Dr. Miller asked him if he did not feel some responsibility to raise his children in the Lord, the man snapped and punched him in the face. Dr. Miller recounted that he woke up, staring at the man’s ceiling and feeling the blood from his nose and mouth seep into his beard. He then recounted how he stood up and quietly left the house without reacting or responding. The next Sunday, the man was sitting on the front pew. He would go on to accept Christ, join the church, and become a faithful and great leader in the church and friend to Dr. Miller.

I sometimes wonder what the reaction would have been had Dr. Miller responded with anger or outrage. What would have happened if he would have filed a police report for assault? I am not sure, but I rather suspect it would not have ended with the man coming to Christ and becoming valuable in the Kingdom.

That is but one of many examples of those who have refused to respond to evil with evil, and it is but one of many examples of God moving mightily through the refusal of his people to demand justice and retribution.

Does society need justice? Yes. It does. In a fallen world we need just laws and proportionate responses. But Christ brings grace to the table. Society needs that two. And the individuals who make up society need that. You need that. I need that. The whole world needs grace. And the grace that Jesus offers is enough for the whole world. He has opened wide His arms on the cross to welcome home all who will come.

Our eternal hope rests in the fact that Jesus met the demands of justice so that you and I can receive the sweet gift of divine grace and mercy and forgiveness. To receive these gifts, all we need do is come to Jesus in repentance and faith and be saved.


[1] Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.710.

[2] Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament, Vol.III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.113.

[3] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Untouchables

[4] Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., p.113.

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