The Common Good
September-October 1999

Liberated by Law

by Perry Yoder | September-October 1999

Beginnings and endings are important.

Beginnings and endings are important. We are familiar with the beginning of the book of Exodus and, of course, we are most familiar with the incidents that fill the first 20 chapters: the thrilling story of baby Moses, his boat ride and rescue, his flight to the desert as a young man, his encounter with God at the burning bush, and the subsequent deliverance of the people and their meeting God at Mount Sinai. But our interest usually peaks around chapter 20 with the Ten Commandments.

In Hebrew the name of the book is Shemoth, literally "names"—from its beginning line, "These are the names." The book begins in continuity with what has gone before, the family narratives of Genesis. As in the Genesis accounts, so in Exodus we begin with a people few in number. They are a pastoral people who live at the margins of the more settled and urban people.

The book does not end with chapter 20 and the Ten Words—which, in fact, is just the halfway point. In chapter 40, the book of Names ends with cloud and fire filling the completed tabernacle. Indeed, the glory of God so filled the sanctuary that even Moses could not enter it. The cloud and fire also served as guides for the people on their journey. When it moved, they moved. When it stayed, they stayed.

Exodus as a whole traces the journey of Israel from being a small band of shepherds settled among foreigners who despised them to being a people among whom God dwelled and who God would lead on their journey to a new place. It recounts the story of a marginal group who became enslaved but who by miracle became free to follow God. These two journeys are intertwined—the journey to peoplehood was also the journey to becoming God's people. The journey from slavery to liberation was also the journey from serving human taskmasters to serving God as their Lord. Freedom from human domination meant freedom for God's presence and God's leading.

How did this journey take place? How did these transformations happen? What markers carve out the contours of this journey? The answers to these and other questions form the plot of the book of Exodus. The major turning points and the events that lead up to them form the exciting and dynamic stages along which the narrative line moves from beginning to end.

Mentioning a narrative line and plot brings another dynamic to our attention, a dynamic interaction between our interests and our interpretation of the book of Exodus. In this book we find not only narrative, but also law. And not only narrative and law, but also the tedious description of the tabernacle and its building—tediousness squared by repetition! Our interpretation, however, normally accents the narrative. It is the stories about Moses that fascinate us, not the law of the goring ox. It is the freedom of the Israelites who are liberated by God that stirs us, not the commands and the description of the building of the tabernacle.

Protestants in particular have a penchant for narrative. This can be seen quite clearly not only by which passages attract lay readers and preachers, but also in the history of the scholarly study of Exodus and the other four books of Moses. Protestant scholars have long held that the stories of these books and their broad narrative outline came first. Narrative was foundational and formed Israel's credo as found, for example, in Deuteronomy 26. This creed told the story of how a small straggly band became a great nation and found freedom in their own land. At a later point in time, perhaps in the Exile, the laws and the events at Mount Sinai were joined, inserted really, into this narrative material; consequently, they form an intrusion into the story, which was basic for Israel's faith.

However, the attractiveness of the narrative in Exodus should not eclipse the attention given to law in our study and understanding of it. Even from a narrative point of view, the events at Sinai and the receipt of the law mark the purpose of the journey and form the climax to the narrative. This is already foreshadowed in Moses' call in the somewhat humorous interchange between Moses and God in Exodus 3:11 and following verses. In reply to a protest by Moses, God offers him a sign: When Moses liberates the people from Egypt, they will worship (serve) God at "this mountain." This will be the vindication of his calling—after the fact, of course!

Likewise in Moses' first address to Pharaoh in Exodus 5:1, the demand is that Pharaoh send God's people free (the form of the Hebrew verb has the connotation of sending off without expecting a return) so that they might worship God in the wilderness. Freedom from Egypt was for the sake of worship and celebration, which we later find instituted at Mount Sinai. From the plot of the story, we find the narrative leading Moses and Israel on the road to Sinai.


Gratitude and Respect for Life

It is not only the narrative that points toward Sinai and the law, but the laws themselves point back to the narrative. One of the striking features of biblical law is that it is motivated law. The people are given a reason for doing it, a reason from their own past experience. For example, in Exodus 23:9 Israel is commanded not to oppress the sojourner—because the Israelites themselves know very well what the life of a sojourner is like. In fact, in chapter 20 the collection of commandments headed by the Ten Words are prefaced by a reference to past history: "It is I, Yahweh your God, who delivered you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery" (20:2). It seems, then, that in Exodus story presumes law, and law presumes story.

In the latter half of the 20th century, scholars have pursued similarities between the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai and contemporary international vassal treaties between Near Eastern emperors and their vassal kings. One feature of these treaties that bears a resemblance to Israel's covenant is the coupling of narrative and stipulation. These treaties begin with the identification of the sovereign who is making the treaty. This identification is then followed by a listing of the gracious actions that the sovereign or his predecessors have performed for the vassal or his dynasty. Following this listing of the sovereign's graciousness comes a list of responsibilities or regulations that the vassal must obey. In this literary form we might say narrative comes in the service of law. It provides the rationale and motive for obeying the stipulations of the treaty. (Of course, if this isn't enough, at the end come the blessing for obedience and the curses for disobedience!)

In Exodus 20:2 we find both of these elements in abbreviated form. Yahweh is identified as the speaker, as the author of the stipulations that follow, and Israel's deliverance from Egypt is given as God's gracious deed toward Israel. In light of God's graciousness, then, Israel is to respond in obedience to the stipulations that will regulate the Israelites' relationship with God and with one another.

We see in this microcosm a fundamental and powerful conceit of biblical religion: Grace precedes law; and where we find law, we find grace. Israel's salvation from slavery precedes the giving of the law at Sinai and when the law is given, Israel is reminded of the salvation God has already effected for it. Both Israel's liberation and Israel's law are gifts of God that are inextricably linked together. When we separate them, we lose the proper significance of Israel's narrative and the proper function of Israel's law.

UNFORTUNATELY the uncoupling of salvation and law has meant the tacit connection of law with legalism. In this view, the law is to be obeyed because we want to earn something, we want to gain God's favor. Or the reverse might also be true: Law is to be obeyed because we fear God's judgment and hope to escape God's wrath through keeping the law. In making this connection of law and legalism, we have forgotten that the law comes after Israel's salvation and in response to it. We have forgotten that Israel's liberation was an act of God's grace, not a necessary response to Israel's merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God say thank you!

The understanding of Israel's liberation from Egypt as an instance of God's grace in which God alone acts to deliver is underscored by the concluding act in this drama of Israel's salvation. In Exodus 14 we find the Egyptian army pursuing the Israelites, pinning them against the shore of the sea. Annihilation seems certain. The people are powerless against this juggernaut. Would that they had stayed in Egypt. Slaves yes, but dead no. In this scene of terror and panic, a clear word comes: "Stop panicking! Stand up! See the salvation of Yahweh which Yahweh will perform for you today, for you will never again see the Egyptians as you see them today. Yahweh will fight for you, but you will be still" (Exodus 14:13-14). Israel is to do nothing. It is Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, who liberates.

In a one-sided emphasis on narrative, the connection of liberation and law has not always been clear. Liberation sounds great; law sounds regressive. Liberation is that for which the oppressed yearn; law would put the manacles back on them. What is missed in this false dichotomy is that law is necessary for liberation, because it is law that allows the liberated to become liberating. What is to keep today's liberated from oppressing others in their liberation? A law that continues to liberate continues the work of God's liberation. In short, in response to liberation, the law sketches out the way by which God's people live liberation.

How do the laws given by God enable liberation? I would suggest that they do so in at least two ways: They inculcate the incomparable value of human life and they show concern for the victims of oppression.

It has been noted that in the Bible, in contrast to the law collections of the surrounding cuneiform legal tradition, life may not be taken in exchange for a crime against property, and the taking of life may not be compensated for by the payment of a fine. What sounds harsh to us (a life for a life) places all human life on the same level—as having the same worth, on the one hand, and as qualitatively different from the animal and material world, on the other.

This principle is seen to have provided an organizing framework for the laws found in Exodus 21-23, the Covenant Collection. The first section of these laws treats topics in which humans figure: slavery (21:1-12), capital crimes (21:12-17), assault and battery (21:18-27), and finally the case of the goring ox that killed (21:28-32). The second part of the collection applies to the nonhuman: negligence causing the death of cattle, such as an unprotected pit or a goring ox (21:33-36); the stealing of cattle or breaking and entering (22:1-4); negligent damage to agricultural land (22:5-6); damage to, or loss of, pledges (22:7-15); and the monetary loss to the father of an unbetrothed virgin who has been seduced (22:16-17). (In the Hebrew, the numbering and order of verses 22:1-4 is slightly different.)

What seems significant in this arrangement is that the so-called law of the goring ox is split into two sections. The first paragraph, which deals with the loss of human life, is treated at the end of the first section of the laws; while the second paragraph, which is the case of an ox goring another ox, is separated from the first paragraph and occurs in a section concerned with the loss of livestock.

This separation of the stipulations concerning the goring ox and their arrangement and context is quite different from that found in Mesopotamian law where the goring ox law is found in a sequence of laws that prescribe punishments for various degrees and severity of negligence. In Hammurabi's law collection, for example, the laws regarding the goring ox began with a case in which the ox is a victim and proceed by degrees up to the case in which a human is a victim. Here there seems to be a seamless web from the loss of animal life to the loss of human life. In the biblical arrangement, the loss of animal life and the loss of human life belong to different planes and have different values.

The second way that the laws are liberating is in their overt concern with those most likely to become victims of future oppression. In Israel this class is represented by the sojourner, the orphan and the widow, and the destitute. Not only are laws given to protect their rights, as in Exodus 23:6 and 23:9, but positive commands are also enjoined upon Israel so that these persons may have access to the resources of the community. The Sabbatical year regulations (Exodus 23:10-11), given in the context of laws for the marginalized, provide positive relief for them. In the seventh year it is the poor who can enter into fields and vineyards of others and eat their produce, thereby providing for their own food supply.

The Book of Names, in the end, is a book about the Name, Yahweh. In the narrative prologue, so to speak, Yahweh's name is not known. In the course of the narrative, however, Yahweh becomes known by what Yahweh does. It is through action that Israel and the Egyptians know who this God is—this God is the God who saves the oppressed. With the establishment and recognition of this name, Yahweh establishes a people whose actions will continue the liberating actions of their God. The center of the book, its pivot, is the giving of the law so that God's people know how to live as God's people.

But God's salvation and liberation has its dark side. Not only is there a danger that today's liberated will become tomorrow's entrenched, but liberation for some may also be judgment for others. In the final act of God's saving grace for Israel, Israel's salvation was the annihilation of the Egyptian army. God's justice is a two-edged sword. For those who are oppressed and enslaved and who work for liberation, God's sword is an agent of justice and freedom. For those who oppose liberation, for those who would seek to oppress and enslave, it spells judgment. Perhaps it is this other side, the underside of the liberation shekel, that ought to give us in the West the most to ponder in reading the story of God's salvation in Exodus. This God of Exodus, who saves the oppressed, is the God who judges the oppressor who will not let go.

The denouement to the book is the building of a meeting place so that God may reside among the people who live lives of liberation. With the triad of liberation, law, and meeting place, Israel is ready for the journey ahead. They are ready to be led by God.

Perry Yoder was professor of Old Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, when this article appeared.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)