16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins. 18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live. 19 “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death. 20 “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction. 21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. 25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. 28 “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people. 29 “You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. 31 “You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
One of the interesting things about reading these holiness codes is the way that they highlight the differences and the similarities between ancient Israel and modern America. They are similar in that both recognize the need for the rule of law and both see the need for laws to be just. Both recognize the right of property but also the responsibility of those who have to care for those who do not have enough to survive. There are other similarities, but there are also striking differences. Ancient Israel was organized in a very different way than is modern America. Navigating these differences while honoring the immutable character of God from which these legal codes came is an interesting but important challenge.
Israel was a theocracy in which God held direct rule in the state and in which there was no separation between the people as God’s people and the people as Israelites.
The most striking difference between the two societies, and the one that offers the greatest challenge in interpreting these codes is that Israel was a theocracy. I am going to define that here as the direct rule of God as opposed to the modern definition of theocracy as the direct rule of a priestly caste or religious body. At this point, Israel does not have any King other than the Lord God. While God’s commandments were often mediated, for instance, through Moses, they were still God’s words governing the people.
This, obviously, is quite different from modern America. In America, the people of God are a people among the peoples. In Israel, there was no distinction between the people of God and the people of Israel. To say one was to say the other.
Modern America is not like this. While we are all, in reality, under the rule of God by virtue of being human beings, our government is increasingly secularized in its laws and actions. However, there is no intentional application of biblical laws to American society (though many laws derived from scripture are indeed applied to our society) and the vast majority of Christians would say that a direct, wooden application of the laws governing ancient Israel to modern society would be profoundly problematic anyway. What is more, Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and allow our interpretations of the Old Testament to be colored by Christ’s handling of the same. We do this under the conviction that Christ is the author of the law and, as such, the supreme interpreter of it.
There are Christians, however, who do believe that we should seek to recreate in modern America the same kind of direct theocracy that was operative in ancient Israel. Consider, for instance, the theonomists, a relatively small group of people but nonetheless a group that has exerted some influence among certain strands of conservative Christianity. The Wikipedia entry on theonomy is fair enough.
Christian Reconstructionists advocate a theonomic government and libertarian economic principles. They maintain a distinction of spheres of authority between family, church, and state. For example, the enforcement of moral sanctions under theonomy is carried out by the family and church government, and sanctions for moral offenses are outside the authority of civil government (which is limited to criminal matters, courts and national defense). However, these distinctions become blurred, as the application of theonomy typically increases the authority of the civil government; prominent advocates of Christian Reconstructionism have written that according to their understanding, God’s law approves of the death penalty not only for murder, but also for propagators of all forms of idolatry, active homosexuals, adulterers, practitioners of witchcraft, and blasphemers, and perhaps even recalcitrant youths (see the List of capital crimes in the Bible). American Vision’s Joel McDurmon responded to these criticisms by denying that Reconstructionists have promoted coercive means.
Conversely, Christian Reconstructionism’s founder, Rousas Rushdoony, wrote in The Institutes of Biblical Law (the founding document of reconstructionism) that Old Testament law should be applied to modern society and he advocates the reinstatement of the Mosaic law’s penal sanctions. Under such a system, the list of civil crimes which carried a death sentence would include homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying about one’s virginity, bestiality, witchcraft, idolatry or apostasy, public blasphemy, false prophesying, kidnapping, rape, and bearing false witness in a capital case.
Kayser points out that the Bible advocates justice, and that biblical punishments prescribed for crimes are the maximum allowable to maintain justice and not the only available option, because lesser punishments are authorized as well.
I mention this only to recognize that one can encounter those who would argue that the legal dictates of Exodus 22 should be practiced in America today. I disagree, for a host of reasons, as do most other Christians. Christians on the main would argue that we should seek the timeless principles of such passages though we are not to seek to impose the actual details of the Israelite legal codes upon the modern state. More than that, we would note that nowhere in the New Testament is the Church of Jesus depicted as working to see the secular society adopt these laws in their particulars or even as practicing them themselves. We would do well to draw a distinction between eternal divine moral laws and the particular ways that societies may apply these laws. What we do find in the early Church, however, is the honoring and living out of the timeless divine truths undergirding these specific laws.
In a theocratic system, the community’s relationship with God is safeguarded by laws intended to punish violations that threaten this relationship.
When we look at the laws in Exodus 22, we see that we can group them under certain headings which involve clusters of laws and restrictions.
Laws against sexual deviations and abuses.
The Bible has a great deal to say about sex. This is because sex is such a sacred thing, such a powerful thing, and carries within itself not only the seeds of great good but also, when abused, the seeds of great individual and social harm.
16 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.
In ancient Israel, when a couple got married, a man would pay his betrothed’s father a bride price, a sum of money that would compensate the family for the loss in revenue they would have when the young lady left the family, leaving the family with one less working and producing member. What this law is saying is that if a man had sex with a woman who was not his wife, he must pay the bride price to her father and he must marry the girl, but only if the girl’s father agreed.
This may sound primitive to us and maybe even offensive, but I would suggest that seeing it as such says much more about us than the ancient Israelites. For one thing, this law suggests that sexual intercourse is profoundly significant and powerful, that it is the act of marriage whether it happens in marriage or not.
“Or do you not know,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:16, “that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’” That is, the sexual act is the marital act. It is, to use the terminology of Stuart Douglas, “virtual marriage” and the virtual marriage of a couple who is sexually active outside of marriage “is not regarded as an actual marriage in God’s sight.” Even so, the law recognizes that sex is anything but casual and cheap, a fact that our society today should perhaps remember.
What is more, the law values the woman and warns men against seeing women as mere sexual objects. Douglas explains:
Paying a price for a bride can seem a practice degrading to women, one that treats them as mere property. This was not the way it was understood in ancient Israel. In fact, it honored the value of a woman. Consider that the system does not allow one to think of price paid as an indicator of worth since the bride pays zero for her husband…yet there is no doubt of the husband’s worth. Part of the utility of a bride price was the way it forced a man to make a full and formal arrangement for marriage that properly involved both his interests and those of his bride to be, as well as the interests of his family and hers. The bride price requirement necessarily involved the families in substantial formal negotiations, and the price showed that something serious and important was at stake. Taking a woman to oneself and taking away her virginity were honorable if the proper negotiations had been completed, and a proper indication of her worth had been paid to the family, and the couple were legally married. Simply having sexual relations with her, with or without her permission, devalued her and showed blatant disregard for her worth.
We next see a law against bestiality.
19 “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.
We may hope that this prohibition against bestiality is simply common sense. However, and, one hopes, to our horror, the destigmatizing of bestiality has been argued for by one of the most famous ethicists in the world.
Peter Singer of Princeton is back, this time with an essay on bestiality. “One by one, the taboos have fallen,” he writes, but people still have this hang–up about doing it with animals. Singer’s view seems to be that there is nothing wrong in having sex with animals, so long as no cruelty is involved. For instance, some men do it with chickens, sometimes killing the chicken in the process. Singer disapproves of that, although he notes that “it is no worse than what egg producers do to their hens all the time.” His chief complaint is against “the Judeo–Christian tradition” that imagines there is “a wide, unbridgeable gulf” separating us from animals. He goes on to cite many examples of this mistaken view. He might have, but does not, cite the fact that only human beings get appointed to tenured chairs of ethics at Ivy League universities. Given his argument, that would seem to be profoundly unfair. I have no doubt that in such a position my dog Sammy would perpetrate less intellectual and moral confusion than some who are unjustly privileged by virtue of the speciesism that is rampant in our institutions of higher learning. The fact that we too are animals, Singer concludes, “does not make sex across the species barrier normal or natural, whatever those much misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offense to our status and dignity as human beings.”
Let us be clear: the Bible condemns with no qualifications “sex across the species barrier” and it does indeed see such to be “an offense to our status and dignity as human beings,” regardless of what Ivy League ethicists may say.
Whether or not there should be restrictions on human sexuality is one of the most hotly debated issues today. It is widely agreed, even among secular people, that sex acts committed against minors or against those to whom such acts are uninvited or unwelcomed are abhorrent and should be banned. When one moves into the realm of sexual expression that, in theory, does not harm another, it is safe to say that America has become libertine to the extreme. This fact has been observed even by some who are not in the Church. For instance, novelist Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) describes himself as “not religious,” but is nonetheless shocked at America’s obsession with sex:
“Yes, there is this Puritanism,” says Wolfe, “and I suppose we are talking here about what you might call the religious right. But I don’t think these people are left or right, they are just religious, and if you are religious, you observe certain strictures on sexual activity – you are against the mainstream, morally speaking. And I do have sympathy with them, yes, though I am not religious. I am simply in awe of it all; the openness of sex. In the 60s they talked about a sexual revolution, but it has become a sexual carnival.”
“Sexual carnival” is correct. It is likely the case that what we are seeing in the carnivalization of sex in modern America is a natural but misdirected desire for transcendence. In the absence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, human beings must look for transcendence somewhere else. And, in a materialist world, the closest physical thing to spiritual transcendence is sex. Flannery O’Connor put it like this:
The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end itself…Perversion is the end result of denying or revolting against supernatural love, descending from the unconscious superconsciousness to the id…The sex act is a religious act and when it occurs without God it is a mock act or at best an empty act.
That is very true. This means that man’s sexual explorations are really efforts to find God after the reality of God has been rejected.
Laws against the mistreatment of sojourners or the poor.
The issue of justice is likewise extremely important in the Bible. This is reflected in the laws we find protecting sojourners and the poor. Leviticus 22 offers us some good examples.
21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. 25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
Few issues in our day are as contentious as the question of immigration. Furthermore, there are few if any times in human history that can compare with our own in terms of displaced people in need of help. Regardless of where one stands on the politics of these issues, this passage makes it perfectly clear that we must show kindness and offer a helping hand to the sojourner in our midst. It is not impossible to offer kindness and assistance while seeking to uphold just laws, but the moment one’s efforts to uphold just laws causes one to treat a wondering soul wrongly or cruelly or oppressively, one has violated sacred law.
The same must be said for our treatment of the poor, the fatherless, and the widows. You do not loan a poor man money with interest and you do not take his cloak and leave him to shiver in the cold. You do not oppress widows and you do not mistreat orphans. In fact, James defined pure religion in these very terms in James 1.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
For the people of God, care for the poor must be a great priority! Fred Craddock has shared a story from his own life that illustrates the conviction we should feel about our treatment of those in need.
I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt. I had left the family and children in the little parish I served and moved into a little room to prepare for those terrible comprehensive exams. It’s make-it-or-break-it time; they can kill you. I would go every night about 11:30 or 12:00 to a little all-night diner – no tables, just little stools – and have a grilled cheese and a cup of coffee to take a break from my studies. It was the same every night; the fellow behind the counter at the grill knew when I walked in to prepare a grilled cheese and a cup of coffee. He’d give me a refill, sometimes come again and give me another refill. I joined the men of the night sitting there hovering over coffee, still thinking about my own possible questions about the New Testament oral exams.
Then I noticed a man who was there when I went in, but had not yet been waited on. I had been waited on, had a refill, and so had the others. Then finally the man behind the counter went to the man at the end of the counter and said, “What do you want?” He was an old, gray-haired black man. Whatever the man said, the fellow went to the grill, scooped up a little dark patty off the back of the grill, and put it on a piece of bread without condiment, without napkin. The cook handed it to the man, who gave him some money, and then went out the side door by the garbage can and out on the street. He sat on the curb with the eighteen-wheelers of the night with the salt and pepper from the street to season his sandwich.
I didn’t say anything. I did not reprimand, protest, or witness to the cook. I did not go out and sit beside the man on the curb, on the edge. I didn’t do anything. I was thinking about the questions coming up on the New Testament. And I left the little place, went up the hill back to my room to resume my studies, and off in the distance I heard a cock crow.
How very powerful. How very convicting. Bonaventure, the early biographer of St. Francis, quoted Francis as saying this:
When you see a poor man, my brother, an image of the Lord and his poor mother is being placed before you. Likewise in the case of the sick, consider the physical weakness which the Lord took upon himself.
That is a helpful way to think about it. Christianity, at its strongest and best, has always sought to honor these divine restrictions against indifference and cruelty to the plight of the weak and the poor.
Laws against the corruption of pure worship and for the strengthening of Israel’s relationship with God.
Leviticus 22 also articulates clear strictures against anything that would corrupt the true worship of the true God.
18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
Victor Hamilton offers some helpful background information on this particular law.
The two main forms that magic assumed in the biblical world were divination and sorcery. Milgrom…helpfully observes that the two differ in their objective. The purpose of divination, through whatever means the diviner uses, is to predict the future. The purpose of sorcery is to alter the future. Says Milgrom, “The magician who claims to curse or bless is a sorcerer, whereas the one who tells events but cannot affect them is a diviner.” Such a distinction, if on target, puts the practice of sorcery in a more reprehensible position than the practice of divining. The divining person reaches conclusions passively. The practicing sorcerer reaches conclusions actively. One reports; the other programs. One prognosticates; the other manipulates.
Such occultic behavior should have no place among the people of God. We live in a religiously diverse and pluralistic society. Even so, the people of God should see such divine truth as warnings against any dark spiritual practices that seek to foretell or tinker with the future that is in God’s hands alone.
In verse 20 and verses 28-31 we find a clear call for true and upright worship.
20 “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.
28 “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people. 29 “You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. 31 “You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
Only the one true God was to be worshipped in Israel. He was not to be blasphemed. What is more, the first fruits and first offerings of all that you possessed should be offered to God. Peter Enns reminds us that the command for the firstborn sons to be given to God “should be read in the light of its fuller explication in chapter 13.” In Exodus 13, we find this:
11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
The firstborn was to be sacrificed to the Lord. Firstborn human males, however, were to be redeemed by something being sacrificed in their place, presumably a lamb. The same happened, interestingly, with donkeys.
What is the modern Christian to make of this? Simply put, we too are to offer all that we have to God, to worship Him in purity and in truth, to reject blasphemy and everything that is unholy, and to refuse to worship any other God. Modern America sees religious pluralism as a great strength. For the Christian, we should befriend, seek to know and understand, and show nothing but kindness and neighborly love to our non-Christian neighbors. Nonetheless, this must be done alongside our rock-solid devotion to Christ and Christ alone. Kindness, love, and generosity do not mean abandoning our convictions. Rather, it means that we present to everybody the whole world over the truth of the gospel with genuine kindness, love, and generosity.
America is not a theocracy, though the Church should live out in its own lives the timeless principles found in these divine laws.
Once again, what are modern Christians to do with Leviticus 22? We are to read and understand these verses in the shadow of the cross. We are to apply the timeless divine truths found therein to our own lives. We are to learn from the wisdom of God reflected in these verses. Furthermore, we are to live lives of sexual purity, lives of kindness to the least of these, lives of generosity and compassion, and lives of true and uncompromising worship to the Lord God. We should find in these laws a clear warning against the sins that they condemn and clear encouragement to embrace the lives to which they are clearly trying to steer us.
We are not ancient Israel. We are modern America. The direct application of what we find in Leviticus 22 will look necessarily different than it did in their theocratic society. Nonetheless, we still honor the spirit and intent of the law by embodying the righteousness called for therein in our own lives. The word of God was given to us for our edification. We dare not turn away from truths given to us from the loving heart of God.
For the believer, there is yet something else we must remember. Our salvation hinges upon the righteousness of Christ who alone kept the law in perfection. Our best efforts are imperfect. We will fail. But the law drives us ever and always to the Savior. We see in the law our need for divine help and a divine rescue. That help and rescue has come, for us and for the whole world, in Jesus.
The law shows us our need.
Only Jesus can meet it.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. The New American Commentary. Vol 2. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.509-510.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. June/July 2001.
 “The Liberal Elite Hasn’t Got a Clue” Monday, November 1, 2004, The Guardian (https://www.guardian.co.uk/ uselections2004/story/0,13918,1340525,00.html)
 Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal. (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p.31.
 Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.48-49.
 Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis (San Fancisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p.83.
 Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 12993-12996). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Peter Enns, Exodus. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p.453.