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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Thora, EXODUS, part 3

Inside NOAHs Arch



For the third time the people grumble against Moses. Their rhetoric grows stronger and more threatening; they even question God’s providence. The seriousness of the episode left an indelible impression on the national historical memory, and its locale was called by a derogatory, symbolic name: Massah-Meribah. The frequent mention of this narrative in the Bible indicates that it had become a favorite subject of homiletic and didactic interpretation in ancient Israel.
Biblical authors used the theme in various ways. Frequently the episode serves as the motif of Israel “trying” and “provoking” God. Numbers 14:22–23 makes a general statement of the many such occasions during the wilderness wanderings. Deuteronomy 6:16 and 9:22 specifically cite the grumbling at Massah as the prime example of such discontent. This theme is echoed and emphasized in Psalm 95:8. Furthermore, a few texts associate the testing of God with the keeping of His commandments; in Deuteronomy 6:16–17, 8:2 and Psalms 78:56, we find the idea that the people make obedience to God dependent upon His benefactions. Having already so richly experienced God’s blessings and favors in the events connected with the liberation from Egypt, they must be judged guilty of lack of faith and gross ingratitude.
The Massah-and-Meribah theme also served as the paradigm of God’s active presence in sustaining Israel during its moment of dire need. Deuteronomy 8:15 and particularly Psalms 78:15–16, 20 relate to it in this way. And although Isaiah 48:21 and Psalm 114:7 do not specify the locale, it is almost certain that these texts have the present narrative in mind.
Most creative and original is the third usage of the Massah-and-Meribah theme in biblical literature. Here the situation is reversed; it is God who is seen as trying Israel. The trials and tribulations that the people experienced in the wilderness on their way to the promised land were intended to test their faith. It is one thing to be able to affirm that “when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (Exod. 14:31). It is quite another matter to know whether that faith was powerful enough and disinterested enough to be sustained also in times of adversity and misfortune. Deuteronomy 8:2, 16 explicitly declare that the experiences during the forty years of journeying in the wilderness took place in order “that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not” and “in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end.” This interpretation is taken up in Psalm 81:8: “I tested you at the waters of Meribah.”
Deuteronomy 33:8 seems to preserve an otherwise unrecorded tradition about the special role of the Levites in this incident. It is possible, however, that that text refers to quite a different narrative concerning “the waters of Meribah,” an incident that occurred many years later and at another location, as recounted in Numbers 20:1–13 and cited often in biblical texts.

1. Repbidim The last station on the journey from the Sea of Reeds to Sinai, according to Exodus 19:2 and Numbers 33:14–15. Its location is uncertain. Verse 6 in the present chapter shows that it must be very close to Horeb/Mount Sinai, but the identity of the latter is itself a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. Certainly, a wilderness station must be assumed to be an oasis. Why then was there no water at Rephidim? Unlike the situation at Marah (Exod. 15:23), potability is not mentioned as a problem here. Therefore, either drought conditions had caused severe depletion of the usually available local resources, or the people were forcibly denied access to them. The latter seems the more plausible explanation because it ties in with the next episode, verses 8–16. The hostile Amalekites were in control of this region and blocked the approaches to the sources of water.

2. quarreled The two preceding stories about popular discontent employed the Hebrew verb l-w-n/l-y-n, “to grumble.” The present narrative uses r-y-v as its key word, a far stronger term that carries quasi-judicial overtones. It conjures up a picture of angry and hostile confrontation in which the people, professing to be an aggrieved party, levy charges against God and Moses.

Give us water The peremptory demand is, in effect, a denunciation and an accusation.

3–4. This situation has seriously deteriorated. The language of the mob is intemperate, the ugly mood is explosive, and a riot may break out any moment.

5. the rod This pointed allusion to the first plague, as described in 7:17–24, conveys a subtle lesson. Whereas, on the earlier occasion, striking with the rod had deprived the Egyptians of drinking water, the same action now serves to satisfy Israel’s need for water.

6. I will be standing there This anthropomorphism, or use of human language for God, is a response to the people’s skeptical questioning of God’s continued support (v. 7). God’s immediate and potent presence will indeed be manifest.

at Horeb This site is known as “the mountain of God,” apparently another name for Mount Sinai; see Comment to 3:1. Here Moses first received both the call to leadership and the promise of Israel’s redemption. The name is probably evocative and heartening to the hard-pressed leader, for on that occasion God had given Moses the assurance, “I will be with you.”

Strike the rock The phenomenon is most likely to be explained by the presence of waterbearing formations of soft porous limestone, which has high water-retaining capacity. A sharp blow to such rock may crack its crust and release a flow of groundwater. What is of importance is that the miracle is credited to God not Moses, something that is emphasized several times in the Bible. As often in times of crisis, Moses acts only by divine instruction as the agent of God’s will; he does not act on his own initiative.

7. Massah Literally, “trial.”

Meribah Literally, “quarrel.” This double-barreled name arises out of the verbs used by Moses in verse 2 and repeated here. It is to be noted that Israel’s grumbling and lack of faith here, as at Marah, goes unpunished, probably because it too occurred before the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai.

A somewhat more expansive account of this incident is given in Deuteronomy 25:17–19, which reports that the Amalekites made a surprise rear attack on the famished and exhausted Israelites not long after the escape from Egypt. They ruthlessly cut down the stragglers—the elderly, the weak, and the infirm. Israel was forced to fight its first defensive war for survival.
Who were the Amalekites? The name itself is non-Semitic; its origin is obscure. We first encounter Amalek as the thirteenth descendant of Esau-Edom in the lists in Genesis 36. He was born of Timna, a concubine of Esau’s first-born son, Eliphaz. She is said to have been a “Horite,” which means that she belonged to the people who were indigenous to Mount Seir. The Edomites displaced them and largely wiped them out.7
Translating the genealogical shorthand of Genesis 36 into terms of historical reality, we may reconstruct the following situation: The tribe of Amalek had been a late and subordinate adherent to the twelve-tribe Edomite confederation. Forced out of its habitat, it pursued a nomadic existence in the Negeb and Sinai Peninsula. The Amalekites interpreted the sudden appearance of the Israelites in this region as a menacing encroachment upon their territory and as a threat to their control of the oases and trading routes. The Amalekites thereupon savagely attacked the Israelites.
This episode, like the preceding one, occurred at Rephidim. Apart from the locale, the two narratives also share in common certain other features: the rod (vv. 5, 9); the similar-sounding Hebrew stems n-w-s, n-s-h, and n-s-s, (vv. 2, 7, 15); and the demonstration of God’s protective and supporting presence in times of adversity.

9. Joshua Although not previously mentioned, he is not further identified, which suggests that he is already well known. Later he is revealed to be the son of Nun and grandson of Elishama, who was a chieftain of the tribe of Ephraim. According to Joshua 24:30, Joshua was buried in the hill country of the tribal territory of Ephraim.
Joshua was Moses’ faithful attendant and became his designated successor. As commander-in-chief of the army, he led the conquest of Canaan, which is described in the biblical book that bears his name. The present incident is the only reference in the Torah to Joshua’s military skill.

rod of God See Comment to 4:20.

10. Hur Like Joshua, he too must have been an important public figure at this time. Exodus 24:14 associates him with Aaron in judging the people during Moses’ absence on Mount Sinai. A later tradition identifies him as the husband of Moses’ sister, Miriam. He may be identical with the Hur who was the grandfather of the master craftsman Bezalel.12

11. held up his hand The significance of this gesture is unclear. The hand, often the symbol of action and power, is also the instrument of mediation. The expression “the laying on of the hands” exemplifies this idea. Moses’ action might therefore be interpreted as a sort of mysterious focusing of supernal power on Israel. If so, it is noteworthy that Moses is here presented as being subject to the ordinary human frailties, in possession of no superhuman or innate magical powers. Another interpretation, highly plausible, is that of Rashbam, according to which Moses held up a standard bearing some conspicuous symbol that signified the presence of God in the Israelite camp. The name that Moses gave to the altar after the battle lends support to this explanation. Standards emblazoned with religious insignia are known to have been in military use in the ancient Near East.
A rabbinic comment on this verse reads as follows: “Did the hands of Moses control the course of war? [No! The text] teaches that as long as the Israelites set their sights on High and subjected themselves to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; otherwise they failed.”

12. remained steady Hebrew ʾemunah, “faithfulness,” occurs in this physical sense only here. Generally, the word bespeaks a moral quality.

13. overwhelmed This unique use of Hebrew ḥ-l-sh, “to be weak,” as a transitive verb seems to convey the notion of inflicting heavy casualties, rather than of victory. Therefore, the Amalekites were forced to break off the engagement and withdraw.

14. Inscribe This is the first reference to writing in the Bible.

a reminder On the Hebrew stem z-k-r, see Comment to 2:24. Deuteronomy 25:17–19 asserts an unconditional injunction to remember Amalek, which is reinforced by the negative admonition “Do not forget!”

I will The parallel account in Deuteronomy 25 has “you shall blot out.” The two versions are complementary. The present text is a theological statement, a divine assurance of ultimate victory over Amalek. The later one makes the fulfillment of that promise conditional upon Israelite initiative and action.

15. built an altar As an expression of gratitude to God and as a memorial and witness to the battle and its portents. The practice of giving names to altars is attested in Genesis 33:20, 35:7, and Judges 6:24. In none of these examples is any sacrifice mentioned. In fact, Joshua 22:26–27 explicitly excludes sacrificial rites from such a commemorative altar. The practice of designating commemorative altars seems to have ceased with the founding of the monarchy.

Adonai-nissi Literally, “The Lord is my standard.” See Comment to verse 11.

16. This enigmatic verse appears to be a fragmentary citation from some ancient poetic text, now lost—perhaps the Book of the Wars of the Lord, mentioned in Numbers 21:14, or the Book of Jashar, cited in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18. These works seem to have contained collections of war songs and poetic accounts of battles. The present verse may well be excerpted from a poetic version of the battle against Amalek.

He said, “It means, …” Although the passage purports to be an explanation of the altar’s name, the relationship between the two is difficult to discern.

Hand upon the throne Jewish exegesis, ancient and medieval, understood the unique kes as kisseʾ, “throne,” and interpreted the phrase to be an oath-formula uttered either by Moses or by God. It reinforces the promise of verse 14.

the LORD Hebrew yah; see Comment to 15:2.

throughout the ages Hebrew mi-dor dor is unparalleled and is probably a poetic form of the phrase “from generation to generation” found in Isaiah 34:10. In Ugaritic texts, dr dr means “eternity” and is used in parallelism with lʿlm, “forever.” The Hebrew phrase envisages a protracted cycle of wars between Israel and Amalek. Several references to those wars are recorded in the biblical narratives. In the course of the wilderness wanderings, Amalekites and Canaanites jointly inflicted “a shattering blow” on an Israelite force, as told in Numbers 14:44–45. Amalekites, either as mercenaries of neighboring kingdoms or independently, made devastating incursions into Israelite settlements throughout the period of the judges. It was King Saul who first dealt effectively with the recurring Amalekite menace,21 and King David who finally confronted the implacable enemy on its home ground. He decisively neutralized its war-making capacities. Still, it was not until the days of King Hezekiah (715–687/6 B.C.E.) that “the last surviving Amalekites” were destroyed, according to 1 Chronicles 4:43.
In later Jewish literature, Amalek became a synonym for the implacable enemies of Israel. Haman “the Agagite” was identified with Amalek; Josephus made him a descendant of Amalek.24 Rome, too, was given the code-name Amalek.


Jethro’s Visit and the Organization of the Judiciary (vv. 1–27)


Two distinct but interrelated units make up this chapter: verses 1–12, describing the visit of Jethro to the camp of Israel; verses 13–26, dealing with his proposal for organizing the judicial system in Israel. The action of the two sections takes place over two days.
As early as the second century C.E., it was recognized that this chapter is not in its proper chronological sequence and that the episode took place after the revelation at Sinai. The internal evidence for this judgment is set forth in Zevaḥim 116a and in the Mekhilta (Yitro 1:1). It is summarized in the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra as follows:

The people are already encamped at “the mountain of God” (v. 5), that is, at Sinai, where-as the notice about their arrival there does not appear until 19:1–2; Jethro brings burnt offerings and sacrifices (v. 12), so that an altar must by this time exist; the only such mentioned so far was located at Rephidim, not Sinai, and was purely commemorative, not functional; therefore, the altar on which sacrifices are brought must be either that mentioned in 24:4 or the one in the Tabernacle, both belonging to the period following the theophany; Moses and his father-in-law refer to “the laws and the teachings of God” (vv. 16, 20), a phrase that is far more appropriate following the giving of the Torah than before it; the account in Numbers 10:11, 29–32 testifies to Jethro’s presence in the camp of Israel in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus”; accordingly, the report of his departure given here in Exodus 18:27 must be dated to that time; finally, the story about the establishment of the judicial system is repeated in Deuteronomy 1:9–17 and is immediately followed by the notice that the people set out from Horeb. All this strongly suggests that the events took place toward the end of the sojourn at Sinai.

That the order of the narratives in the Torah need not necessarily be chronological was well recognized in rabbinic times. Radak, who subscribes to the view that this particular narrative is out of sequence, explains, in his comment to Judges 1:16, its intrusive position in the Torah as intending to contrast the treacherous behavior of the Amalekites with the friendliness of the Midianites/Kenites. It is to be noted that 1 Samuel 15:6 can be adduced in support of this explanation. Before King Saul punished the Amalekites for their treacherous attack on Israel at the Exodus, he first exhorted the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.” In fact, there is good reason to believe that the visit of Jethro to the Israelite camp belongs to a now lost record of a treaty of friendship between Israel and the Midianites/Kenites, probably contracted with a view to neutralizing the Amalekite menace. At any rate, 1 Samuel 15:6 provides the clue to the present literary arrangement, which places the Jethro episode immediately after the account of the war with the Amalekites. At the same time, the second part of this chapter, verses 13–26, focuses on God’s “laws and teachings” and deals with the administrative arrangements for their implementation in the daily life of the people, thereby smoothing the transition to the theme of the succeeding chapters: the giving of the law.

1. Jethro See Comments to 2:18 and 4:18.

2. after she had been sent home We are treated to a fleeting glimpse into Moses’ domestic life. The narrative in 4:20–26 affirms that Moses’ wife and sons accompanied him as he set out to return to Egypt. Hence, this verse presumes a story, now lost, about how they separated and rejoined their family in Midian. A midrash has it that Aaron convinced Moses of the folly of bringing his family into Egypt at such a time, and so Zipporah and the children were sent back to Jethro. It is quite possible that the full story about the “bridegroom of blood,” now abridged in 4:24–26, originally provided the details of Moses’ separation from his wife.
The translation “sent home” for Hebrew shilluḥim is by no means certain. The other biblical usages of this noun denote either “dowry,” as in 1 Kings 9:16 and the cognate Ugaritic ṯlḫ, or “a farewell gift,” as in Micah 1:14. Neither sense fits the context here. The verbal form shillaḥ frequently means “to divorce”; but in light of Jethro’s reference to his daughter as Moses’ wife (v. 6), it cannot have this meaning here.

3. Gershom See 2:22.

4. Eliezer This fairly popular biblical name means literally “God is help.” Although the birth of this son is hinted at in 4:20, it has not been previously recorded.

The God of my father See Comment to 3:6.

the sword of Pharaoh This probably refers to the incident recorded in 2:10–15. The explanations given for the names of both Moses’ sons are also symbolic of Israel’s experience in Egypt.

5. the mountain of God See Comment to 3:1.

6. He sent word Literally, “He said.” In view of verse 7, it can only imply that Jethro announced his arrival through a messenger. The Septuagint and Syriac versions translate, “It was told,” presupposing a Hebrew reading va-yeʾamer instead of va-yoʾmer.

I The Samaritan version reads “hinneh, “Lo,” instead of our Hebrew ʾani. This is also how the Septuagint and Syriac render it.

7. Moses and Jethro engage in the formal civilities customary in the East.

10. Blessed be the LORD Jethro the Midianite invokes YHVH, the divine name of the God of Israel. It is not uncommon in the Bible for a non-Israelite to do so when dealing with Israelites. In the present instance, the treaty background to the proceedings may well have influenced the usage.

who delivered you The Hebrew plural object probably refers to both Moses and Aaron, whose lives had been threatened by Pharaoh.

11. Now I know This formula ʿattah yadaʿti may either introduce something newly discovered or reaffirm what was hitherto accepted. For Jethro, the divine superiority of YHVH has been demonstrated by the disaster suffered by the Egyptians in return for their machinations against Israel.8 The sentiment may well echo the idea expressed in Exodus 12:12 that the Exodus constitutes a mockery of paganism.

yes … Most traditional Jewish commentators have understood this difficult clause to be an incomplete statement, its unexpressed complement being supplied by the imagination. It is taken to mean that the Egyptians were punished measure for measure. They perished by drowning—the very fate they had devised for the Israelites (Exod. 1:22).

12. This ceremonial most likely possessed a juridical function. In the ancient Near East, treaties and pacts were often ratified by the involved parties participating in a solemn meal. This symbolic rite is mentioned in connection with the pact between Abimelech and Isaac, described in Genesis 26:30, and that between Laban and Jacob, as told in Genesis 31:54. Similarly, the covenant at Sinai is sealed with a sacrificial meal-sharing ceremony, detailed in Exodus 24:5, 11.

burnt offering and sacrifices These are the two main types of sacrifice offered in ancient Israel. The first, the ʿolah, was wholly consumed by fire upon the altar as a tribute to the Lord; the second, the zevaḥ, was only partially offered up, the major portion being eaten at a festive meal.

Jethro, observing the daily routine in the Israelite camp, is highly critical of the inefficient and tiresome procedure employed by Moses in judging the people. The narrative is remarkable in several ways, not least because so important an Israelite institution as the judiciary is ascribed to the initiative and advice of a Midianite priest. This extraordinary fact testifies to the reliability of the tradition and to its antiquity. In light of the hostility that later characterized the relationships between the Midianites and the Israelites, it is hardly likely that anyone would invent such a story.
Also remarkable is the secular nature of the judicial agency. Its organizational structure is humanly devised, and its personnel are drawn “from among all the people” (v. 21), from “all Israel” (v. 25)—from the civil and not the ecclesiastical sphere. Elsewhere in the Torah—for instance, in Deuteronomy 17:9 and 19:17—priests and Levites are also involved in the judicial process. Furthermore, it seems that Moses bypasses the existing power structure. The “elders,” who usually exercise judicial functions in a tribal-patriarchal society, are, surprisingly, not mentioned. In fact, the tribal divisions are wholly ignored in the appointments to this new judiciary. The restructuring creates a centralized, supratribal system.
The judicial machinery itself is decentralized to a certain extent by an internal hierarchy of authorities. Moses, who acts as the supreme judicial authority, functions as the mediator of divine will, but not as lawmaker or as one who dispenses justice by virtue of superior wisdom.
The origin of the judiciary in Israel is also recounted in Moses’ farewell address. There too it is not attributed to divine command, although no mention is made of Jethro’s role. Deuteronomy 1:9–18 tells that Moses found the people too numerous and too litigious for him to bear the judicial burden alone. He therefore suggested that the people select representatives from each of the tribes to share it with him, men who are “wise, discerning, and experienced.” The proposal met with popular approval and was promptly put into effect. It involved the same multilevel system as is set forth in Exodus 18:21, 25. An added feature is Moses’ charge to the judges: “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:16–17).
Two interesting parallels to these narratives in Exodus and Deuteronomy may be cited. The first comes from Egypt, from the days of Pharaoh Haremhab (ca. 1333–1306 B.C.E.). This pharaoh, who lived not too long before the Exodus, issued a decree for the reformation of the Egyptian judiciary. He writes that he sought out “persons of integrity, good in character,” and placed them in the towns of Egypt. He charged them as follows: “Do not enter into close relations with other people, do not accept a gift from another.”
The other parallel comes from 2 Chronicles 19:5–8, where we are told that King Jehoshaphat (873–849 B.C.E.) appointed judges “in all the fortified towns of Judah, in each and every town,” and charged them as follows: “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of man, but on behalf of the LORD, and He is with you when you pass judgment. Now let the dread of the LORD be upon you; act with care, for there is no injustice or favoritism or bribe-taking with the LORD our God.”

14. act Literally, “sit,” as in verse 13.

15. to inquire of God This biblical phrase originally meant to seek divine guidance in a situation in which human wisdom has unavailingly exhausted itself. Here it has acquired a legal nuance with the sense of “seeking a judgment or decision,” “making judicial inquiry.”14 This usage reflects the conception of true justice as being ultimately the expression of the will of God communicated through the human judge.

16. Moses does not function as lawgiver but as adjudicator. He operates by known rules—the laws and teachings of God. Doubtless, in practice, the interpretation of the law in a specific situation creates a precedent that then becomes the basis of future adjudication.

17–18. The inefficiency of the system is bound to have a debilitating effect on Moses and to impose hardship on the public.

19. Jethro volunteers his services as a management consultant. He fills for Moses the role that Joseph had filled for Pharaoh.

21. Jethro now defines the ideal social, spiritual, and moral qualifications for judges—those necessary to create and maintain a healthy and just legal order. In the corresponding account in Deuteronomy 1:13 the requirements for judges are given as “wisdom, discernment and experience.”

chiefs of thousands Israel is frequently depicted in the Torah as an army marching out of Egypt and proceeding in military formation through the wilderness to the promised land. The administrative structure recommended here corresponds to the organization of the army in the days of the united monarchy.18 The setup seems also to have been in wide use beyond the Israelite sphere. The analogy between the military and the judiciary may have its origin in the practice of assigning judicial functions to military officers. This would explain why the judge is here termed “chief” (Heb. sar), a military title. This situation is well illustrated by an inscription discovered at an Israelite fortress at Yavneh-yam (ca. 630 B.C.E.). It is an appeal for justice addressed to the commander (sar) by one of the company.

22. at all times So verse 26. This new judiciary is to be a permanent, professional institution, not one that is convened on an ad hoc basis.

every major dispute In verse 26 this is defined as “the difficult matters.” To act as supreme judge was traditionally the prerogative of the leader and king.

23. will go home unwearied In contrast to what is described in verse 18. The phrase translates literally as “will go to its place in peace.” It may well mean that the new court system will fulfill its assigned function to keep domestic peace and preserve the social order.

27. Numbers 10:29–32 relate that Moses tried to persuade his father-in-law to act as guide for the Israelites through the wilderness.

The Covenant at Sinai (19:1–20:21)

The arrival at Sinai inaugurates the culminating stage in the process of forging Israel’s national identity and spiritual destiny. The shared experiences of bondage and liberation are to be supplemented and given ultimate meaning by a great communal encounter with God. Henceforth, Israel is to be a people inextricably bound to God by a covenantal relationship.
The Hebrew term for a covenant is the seminal biblical word berit. The Christian designation of sacred Scripture as “testament” reflects this understanding of the covenant concept as the controlling idea of biblical faith; “testament” is a now largely obsolete word for the written record of a compact.
In the ancient world, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties. Numerous examples of such instruments of international diplomacy have survived, deriving from various parts of the ancient Near East. These divide into two basic categories: (1) a parity treaty, where the contracting parties negotiate as equals; (2) a suzerain-vassal treaty, where one party transparently imposes its will on the other.
A study of these documents, particularly those of the latter type, leaves no doubt as to the influence of the ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns on the external, formal, literary aspects of the biblical berit. The affinities are to be expected. In order for the berit to be intelligible to the Israelites, it made sense to structure it according to the accepted patterns of the then universally recognized legal instruments.
The Decalogue and its contents are, however, in a class by themselves. The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled. Similarly unique is the setting of the covenant in a narrative context. It is the latter that imparts to the covenant its meaning and significance; the covenant would be devalued were the link between them to be severed. Another major and original feature is the manner in which the content of the berit embraces the internal life of the “vassal” by regulating individual behavior and human relationships. Such a preoccupation with social affairs is beyond the scope and intent of all other ancient treaties, whose sole concern is with the external affairs of the vassal.
The uniqueness of the Decalogue notwithstanding, it is undeniable that many of its provisions are closely paralleled in the wisdom and ethical literature of the ancient world. Several other ancient law collections rest upon foundations of ethical and moral principles of justice and morality. Sins of a moral and ethical nature, such as bearing false witness, disrespect of parents, theft, adultery, and murder, are all listed in the magic texts from Mesopotamia known as the Shurpu series. The “Declaration of Innocence,” located in chapter 125 of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” is formulated in negative terms and clearly testifies to the reality of positive moral ideals. It is obvious that the great civilizations of the Nile and Mesopotamian valleys could not have functioned without a commitment to a set of ethical ideals and principles of morality.
What is revolutionary about the Decalogue in Israel is not so much its content as the way in which these norms of conduct are regarded as being expressions of divine will, eternally binding on the individual and on society as a whole. Both are equally answerable to the deity, which was not the case in pagan cultures.
Another extraordinary Israelite innovation is the amalgamation of what in modern times would be classified separately as “religious” and “secular,” or social, obligations. This distinction is meaningless in a biblical context, where both categories alike are accepted as emanating from God. Social concern, therefore, is rooted in the religious conscience.
Still another outstanding feature of the Decalogue is the apodictic nature of its stipulations—the simple, absolute, positive and negative imperatives are devoid of qualification and mostly presented without accompanying penalties or threats of punishment. The idea is that the covenant is a selfenforcing document. The motivation for fulfilling its stipulations is not to be fear of retribution but the desire to conform to divine will, reinforced by the spiritual discipline and moral fiber of the individual.

1. On the third new moon The closer definition “on that very day” shows that Hebrew ḥodesh, usually “month,” is here used in its original sense of “new moon.”

on that very day Midrash Tanḥuma comments that the Hebrew has “this” instead of “that” in order to teach that the revelation at Sinai—the words of the Torah—should be newly experienced each day.

2. Rephidim See Comment to 17:1.

the mountain The one selected to be the site of the revelation.

These verses express the essence of the covenant idea. Israel is chosen to enter into a special and unique relationship with God. This bond imposes obligations and responsibilities. The prophet Amos (3:2) formulated it this way: “You alone have I singled out/Of all the families of the earth—/That is why I will call you to account/For all your iniquities.”

4. on eagles’ wings The king of the birds, the eagle, impressed the biblical writers for the prodigious expanse of its outstretched wings, its solicitous and protective carrying of its young on its back,3 and its ability to soar to great heights at considerable speed5 and to fly over long distances.

5. My covenant The stipulations soon to be set forth. This is the first mention of the covenant in the Exodus narrative. A new dimension is now introduced into the relationship between God and Israel.

My treasured possession Hebrew segullah, like its Akkadian cognate sikiltum, originally denoted valued property to which one has an exclusive right of possession. It has this literal meaning in Ecclesiastes 2:8 and 1 Chronicles 29:3, and it is also so used in rabbinic texts.8 It then came to be employed in a figurative sense in theological and political contexts in the ancient Near East. A royal seal of Abban of Alalakh designates its owner as the sikiltum of the god, his “servant” and “beloved.” A letter from the Hittite sovereign to the king of Ugarit characterizes his vassal as his “servant” and sglt, “treasured possession.” The biblical description of Israel as God’s segullah or as his ʿam segullah, “treasured people,” as in Deuteronomy (7:6; 14:2; 26:18–19), thus expresses God’s special covenantal relationship with Israel and His love for His people. At the same time, those biblical texts, as well as Exodus 19:6, all uniquely emphasize the inextricable association between being God’s segullah and the pursuit of holiness.

6. This statement further defines the implications of being God’s “treasured people.” National sovereignty, here expressed by “kingdom,” is indispensable for the proper fulfillment of Israel’s mission. Without it, the nation becomes the passive tool of historical forces beyond its control. At the same time, the priest’s place and function within society must serve as the ideal model for Israel’s self-understanding of its role among the nations. The priest is set apart by a distinctive way of life consecrated to the service of God and dedicated to ministering to the needs of the people.
The present verse finds an echo in Psalm 114:1–2. The striving for holiness in the life of the people is to be the hallmark of Israel’s existence. Time and again the Book of Leviticus repeats this exhortation. Holiness is to be achieved by human imitation of God’s attributes (Lev. 19:1).

Moses conveys the divine message through the agency of the elders. On this institution, see Comment to 3:16. The unanimous and unhesitating response is to accept, readily and freely, God’s charge—even before hearing the terms of the covenant (cf. 24:3, 7). Moses, in turn, reports this to God.

The mood has now been set for the solemn, formal enactment of the covenant between God and Israel. Preparations are begun at once. They comprise the following elements: authentication of the role of Moses; purification, which involves sexual abstinence and, most likely, bathing, and laundering of clothes; and repeated warnings against encroachment upon the holy domain of the mountain.

9. This passage may well allude to the declaration in 3:12 that the climactic Sinai experience would be the ultimate validation of Moses’ leadership. Here, in addition, the point is made that the public nature of the forthcoming revelation would further verify his authenticity. Finally, the statement anticipates the awestruck and fearful reaction of the people to the revelation as described in verses 16 and 20:18–19. As a result, according to Deuteronomy 5:5, 20–24, the people requested that the divine pronouncements be conveyed through the intermediacy of Moses rather than directly to them. For this reason, it is of vital importance that Moses’ credibility as the true bearer of God’s message be unchallengeable. This is achieved by a sign visible to all: the sudden appearance of a thick cloud, understood to symbolize God’s corroborative presence.

a thick cloud Compare 13:21. Anthropomorphism is carefully avoided.

Then Moses reported This phrase refers not to the immediate antecedent but to the quote in verse 8. It is an instance of resumptive repetition, a literary device in which the text, following a digression, reconnects with an earlier text. Classic examples are to be found in Genesis 37:36, 39:1, 43:17, and 43:24.

10. to stay pure This is defined in verse 15. It most likely includes bathing, which is taken for granted.

11. the third day In biblical consciousness, three days constitute a significant segment of time. As with Abraham at the Akedah (Gen. 22:4), so here the longish interval is crucial to the trial of faith. The people’s immediate assent to God’s declaration may otherwise have been given impulsively, without proper consideration. The three days of preparation and self-restraint allow time for sober reflection, so that acceptance of the covenant can be considered an undoubted act of free will.
According to Jewish tradition, the third day fell on the sixth of Sivan and is identified with the harvest festival of Shavuot, which consequently came to commemorate the giving of the Torah.

will come down This fairly frequent figurative depiction of God’s action in terms of human motion expresses at one and the same time God’s infinite transcendence and His personal and intimate involvement with humanity.

in the sight of The people will become intensely conscious of the Divine Presence.

12–25. As Ramban noted, Mount Sinai assumes the character of a sanctuary for the duration of the theophany. A close similarity to the wilderness Tabernacle is suggested by several shared characteristics. Both Sinai and the Tabernacle evidence a tripartite division. The summit corresponds to the inner sanctum, or Holy of Holies.14 The second zone, partway up the mountain, is the equivalent of the Tabernacle’s outer sanctum, or Holy Place. The third zone, at the foot of the mountain, is analogous to the outer court.16 As with the Tabernacle, the three distinct zones of Sinai feature three gradations of holiness in descending order. Just as Moses alone may ascend to the peak of the mountain, so all but one are barred from the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. Just as the Holy Place is the exclusive preserve of the priesthood, so only the priests and elders are allowed to ascend to a specific point on the mountain.18 The confinement of the laity to the outer court of the Tabernacle, where the altar of burnt offering was located, evokes the parallel with Sinai in the restriction of the laity to the foot of the mountain, where the altar was built. The graduated restrictions on access, touch. and sight are the counterparts of the repeated regulations about the unlawful invasion of sacred domain in the same three ways.20 God is said to “descend” upon the mountain as upon the Tabernacle, and He communicates with Moses on the summit as He does in the Holy of Holies.22 Finally, the vivid descriptions of smoke, dense cloud, and fire that issued from and enveloped Sinai are paralleled by the cloud and fire that become associated with the Tabernacle.

12. shall be put to death By human agency, as verse 13 makes clear.

13. no hand shall touch him The trespasser shall not be seized since this would itself bring another person to violate the restriction. He shall be executed when he is beyond the limits of the mountain.

ram’s horn Hebrew yovel seems originally to have meant a sheep or a ram, as in Joshua 6:4, 5. It is also so used in the Punic Marseilles Tariff (line 7) of the fourth century B.C.E. However, it came to be restricted to the horn. Yovel lies behind the word “Jubilee,” which was inaugurated by the sounding of the ram’s horn (Lev. 25:9).

they may go up Sinai possesses no inherent or “natural” holiness, nor does it acquire such by virtue of the theophany. Its sanctity and hence untouchability do not outlast the limited duration of the event. See Comment to 3:5.

15. for the third day Literally, “for three days,” but verse 16 determines the precise meaning.

16–19. Violent atmospheric disturbances are said to precede and accompany the theophany. The Bible frequently portrays upheavals of nature in association with God’s self-manifestation. Apart from the present context, such mention is always confined to poetic texts. The conventional and stereotypical nature of the language employed here, and the numerous parallels found in ancient Near Eastern religious compositions, prove that a widespread and well-entrenched literary tradition lies behind it. However, the gods in the pagan religions inevitably inhere in nature, for they are actually personifications of natural phenomena. The upheavals and disturbances are taken literally as aspects of the lives of the gods. In Israelite monotheism, by contrast, God the Creator is wholly independent of His creation and is sovereign over it. The picturesque imagery constitutes, so to speak, the overture that sets the emotional tone for the grand drama that is to follow. The vivid, majestic, and terrifying depictions, which draw their ultimate inspiration from the storm and the earthquake, are meant to convey in human terms something of the awe-inspiring impact of the event upon those who experienced it. The narrative of 1 Kings 19:11–12 is intended to dispel any possibility of mistaking the atmospherics for the substance of the theophany.

17. toward God Toward the site of the theophany.

the foot of the mountain The lowest part, on the level ground.

18. mountain Some Hebrew manuscripts, as well as the Septuagint, read here “people” as in verse 16. Bekhor Shor observes: “The terror of God was over the mountain so that all who observed it were terror-struck.”

19. the born Hebrew shofar, not the same term as in verse 13. A celestial flourish heralding the arrival of the King is imagined; compare 20:15. In Zechariah 9:14 the Lord Himself is poetically said to “sound the ram’s horn” and advance in a stormy tempest as He manifests His presence. The shofar in these texts is figurative for the blasts of thunder.

20. Moses alone is privileged to ascend to the top.

21. to gaze One to whom God’s majesty and holiness are not unapproachable, and who is indifferent to the divine potency with which the mountain is charged, is no longer a participant but a mere spectator, a detached observer disengaged from the covenantal experience.

22. the priests According to Exodus 28 and 29, the priesthood was not established in Israel until after the Sinaitic revelation, which would make the present reference to priests, like that in verse 24, an anachronism. Many modern scholars regard these verses as reflecting a different strand of tradition about the origins of the priestly institution. Jewish commentators understood “priests” here as referring to first-born males, in that the latter functioned as priests until they were replaced by the Aaronides, as recounted in Numbers 3:11–13 and 8:16–18.

break out So in verse 24. The effect of such action is given in verse 21. The verb, with God as the subject, connotes a visitation that is sudden, violent, and destructive, as in the case of Uzzah, described in 2 Samuel 6:7–8.

THE DECALOGUE (vv. 1–14[17])

The Title The present chapter carries no designation for this document. The popular English title “The Ten Commandments” is derived from the traditional, although inaccurate, English rendering of the Hebrew phrase ʿaseret ha-devarim that appears in Exodus 34:28 and in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4. In fact, the term “commandment” (Heb. mitsvah, pl. mitsvot) is not employed in the present context. The Hebrew means, rather, “The Ten Words,” which the Jews of ancient Alexandria in Egypt translated literally into Greek as deka logoi. This gave rise to the more accurate English alternative “Decalogue.” In fact, traditional exegesis derived thirteen, not ten, commandments from the Decalogue as, for instance, in the Sefer ha-Ḥinnukh (13th cent.).
Hebrew devarim does appear in the introductory verse as well as in the epilogue to the repetition of the Decalogue found in Deuteronomy 5. In rabbinic texts, and generally in Hebrew down to modern times, the common designation is ʿaseret ha-dibrot. This latter word is the plural of diber, which in Jeremiah 5:13 denotes the revealed word of God, a meaning that is singularly appropriate in the present context.

The Tablets of Stone Several biblical texts testify to the inscribing of the Decalogue on two stone tablets. The practice of recording covenants on tablets was well rooted in the biblical world, as was also the custom, mentioned in Exodus 25:16, of depositing the document in the sanctuary. A treaty between the Hittite King Shuppiluliumas (ca. 1375–1335 B.C.E.) and King Mattiwaza of Mittani in Upper Mesopotamia noted that each of the contracting parties deposited a copy in his respective temple before the shrine of the deity. Similarly, when Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite King Hattusilis concluded a treaty around the year 1269 B.C.E., the clauses were inscribed on a tablet of silver, which was placed “at the feet of the god.” In Rome, too, treaties (Latin foedera) were written on tablets—bronze—and stored in the Capitol.
In Israel a special container was fashioned to house the stone tablets. When the portable Tabernacle was erected in the wilderness, the container was placed in the Holy of Holies. In fact, the Ark, as the container was called, was designated the “Ark of the Covenant” (ʾaron ha-herit) or the “Ark of the Pact” (ʾaron ha-ʿedut). It was the only item of furniture in the most sacred part of the Tabernacle.
Why two tablets were needed for the Decalogue is unclear; nor do we know the spatial distribution of the text. The Mekhilta assumes that five declarations were incised on each tablet, which is the tradition reflected in Jewish art since the thirteenth-century Spanish illuminated Bible manuscripts. However, such an arrangement would have resulted in a grave imbalance; one tablet would have contained 146 Hebrew words and the other only 26. The Palestinian Talmud has preserved a different tradition, there given as the majority view, that each tablet contained the entire Decalogue. Saadia maintained that the two tablets featured respectively the variant versions as found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

The Internal Division As noted, the Decalogue has come down to us in two distinct versions. The differences between them are minute and generally insignificant, except with regard to the Sabbath commandment, which is discussed in the Commentary below. Of greater importance is the matter of the internal division and numbering.
Context, style, and language suggest a basic division of the Decalogue into two distinct groups. The first governs the relations between God and the individual Israelite; the second regulates human relationships. The first group is characterized by the fivefold use of the phrase “the LORD your God,” while the second contains no reference to Him. In addition, there is the striking fact that the document opens with “the LORD your God” and closes with “your neighbor,” Further, the first group features obligations unique to the religion of Israel, while the second series, which consists entirely of prohibitions, is of universal application and has numerous parallels in other literature of the ancient world. Only in Israel, however, are these injunctions presented as divine imperatives rather than as the fruit of human wisdom.
While these broad, basic divisions are clear and convincing, less obvious is the manner in which the number ten is attained. Here, there are varying traditions that center on (1) whether verse 2 is an independent declaration on a par with the others or simply an introduction to the entire document; and (2) whether verses 3 and 4 are treated as a single item or as two distinct commandments. On each of these issues, rabbinic tradition favors the first alternative. This is reasonable, given the understanding of ʿaseret ha-devarim as “Ten (divine) Pronouncements.” Another approach is taken by Philo of Alexandria (d. 50 C.E.), in his work on the Decalogue, and by Josephus (d. after 100 C.E.); both reflect early Jewish traditions that make verse 3 the first commandment and verses 4–6 the second. Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions interpret verses 3–6 as the first commandment and divide verse 14(17) into two commandments.
It should be noted that from verses 13 on there are differences in the numbering in many editions of the Bible. These are here given in parentheses.

The Decalogue in Liturgy and Ritual From Mishnah Tamid 5:1 we learn that in the days of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the Decalogue enjoyed a special status, next to the Shemaʿ, in the daily morning service held in the Chamber of Hewn Stones within the Temple precincts. A Hebrew papyrus from Egypt, known as the Nash Papyrus and dating from about 150 B.C.E., contains the Decalogue followed immediately by the Shemaʿ. This must be either a liturgical text or part of a ritual object such as a mezuzah or tefillin. There is indeed evidence that the Decalogue once constituted one of the biblical passages contained in the tefillin, at least among certain segments of Jewry. Tefillin of this type have been found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea.
Rabbinic sources inform us that at some unspecified time the liturgical use of the Decalogue was discontinued so as not to give credence to sectarian claims that the Decalogue alone, and not the rest of the law, was given at Sinai.

1. This introductory statement is unique in the Torah in that it does not indicate to whom the divine declaration is addressed. The lack of specification satisfies an inherent complexity. On the one hand, it is “all the people” as a corporate entity, a psychic unity, that enters into the covenantal relationship with God. On the other hand, each member of the community is addressed individually, as is shown by the consistent use of the second person singular. Moreover, from verses 15–18(18–21), and from the recapitulation of events found in Deuteronomy 5:4–5, it is clear that at some point in the course of the revelation the people, out of fear, demanded that Moses act as mediator between them and God. According to rabbinic tradition, the people heard the divine voice utter only the first two pronouncements; the rest of the Decalogue was mediated by Moses. This understanding receives support from the use of the first person by God through verse 6, followed by the third person in reference to God in the subsequent verses. The omission of an indirect object allows the opening statement to encompass all aspects of the situation as it unfolded.
In rabbinic legend, the Decalogue was offered by God to all the other peoples of the earth only to be rejected by them. That it was proclaimed in the wilderness, and not within any national boundaries, highlights its universality. It is also said to have been simultaneously translated into all the languages of humankind.12 Again, because the audience in verse 1 is left undefined, the text permits of various readings.

2. For the origin of this royal, self-identifying formula, see Comment to 3:6. In the present case its use not only underlines the unimpeachable sovereign authority behind the ensuing pronouncements but it also emphasizes that the demands of the Decalogue have their source and sanction in divine will, not in human wisdom. Hence they remain eternally valid and unaffected by temporal considerations.
As noted above, Jewish tradition came to regard this verse as the first of the ten divine pronouncements and understood it as enjoining the belief in the existence of God who is the ultimate controller of the processes of history.

who brought you out In this historical review God bases His claim to Israel’s allegiance on His role as the Liberator of Israel, not as Creator.

house of bondage See Comment to 13:3.

3–6. Rabbinic tradition treats these verses as a single unit.

3. You shall have no Hebrew does not feature a verb “to have” but expresses possession by h-y-h le-, literally “to be to.” Since the idea of possession necessarily involves relationship, the same term is used for entering into the marriage bond and for establishing the covenant between God and Israel.15 This command, therefore, warns against violating the covenant by recognizing in any manner or form what other peoples accept as deities. Israel’s God demands uncompromising and exclusive loyalty.

4. The forms of worship are now regulated. The revolutionary Israelite concept of God entails His being wholly separate from the world of His creation and wholly other than what the human mind can conceive or the human imagination depict. Therefore, any material representation of divinity is prohibited, a proscription elaborated in Deuteronomy 4:12, 15–19, where it is explained that the people heard “the sound of words” at Sinai “but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.” In the Israelite view any symbolic representation of God must necessarily be both inadequate and a distortion, for an image becomes identified with what it represents and is soon looked upon as the place and presence of the Deity. In the end the image itself will become the locus of reverence and an object of worship, all of which constitutes the complete nullification of the singular essence of Israelite monotheism.

5. an impassioned God The Hebrew stem k-n-ʾ, in its primitive meaning, seems to have denoted “to become intensely red.” Because extreme and intense emotions affect facial coloration, the term came, by extension, to express ardor, zeal,17 rage, and jealousy.19 It is used in a variety of contexts, even with God as the referent. The limitations of language necessitate the application to God of phraseology that typically belongs in the human sphere. The present epithet ʾel kannaʾ is most frequently translated “a jealous God,” a rendering that understands the marriage bond to be the implied metaphor for the covenant between God and His people. God demands exclusive loyalty from Israel, and, according to this interpretation, His reaction to their infidelity is expressed in terms of human jealousy. It should be noted, however, that the form kannaʾ is used in the Bible solely of God, never of a human being, a distinction that testifies to a consciousness that the emotion referred to differs qualitatively from the human variety. Whether one renders kannaʾ as “jealous” or “impassioned,” the term emphasizes that God cannot be indifferent to His creatures and that He is deeply involved in human affairs. It underscores the vigorous, intensive, and punitive nature of the divine response to apostasy and to modes of worship unacceptable to Himself.

visiting the guilt … The Israelite conception of itself as a community bound to God by a covenant has dual implications. Society is collectively responsible for its actions, and the individual too is accountable for behavior that affects the life of the community. There is thus forged a mutuality of responsibility and consequences. It is further recognized that contemporary conduct inevitably has an impact upon succeeding generations. These historical effects are perceived in terms of God “visiting the sins” of one faithless generation upon the next or of His “showing kindness,” that is, rewarding fidelity, far into the future. This understanding of God’s governance of the world recurs many times in the Bible, and it has an educational function. Over time, however, intensification of the problem of evil led to a revision of this view, for it was perceived as engendering or deepening a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and apathy in an era of acute national crisis. The popular mood is well illustrated in Lamentations 5:7: “Our fathers sinned and are no more;/And we must bear their guilt.” Jeremiah and Ezekiel felt compelled to deny cross-generational punishment: “People shall no longer say, ‘Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted,’ but everyone shall die for his own sins; whosoever eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be blunted.” Such is the teaching of Jeremiah. Similarly, his contemporary Ezekiel denounced the popular belief:

What do you mean by quoting this proverb upon the soil of Israel, “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted”? As I live—declares the Lord God—this proverb shall no longer be current among you in Israel. Consider, all lives are Mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins, only he shall die.… A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.

And the Talmud in Makkot 24a asserts: “Moses pronounced an adverse sentence on Israel—the visiting of the iniquities of the fathers on the children—and it was revoked by Ezekiel.”
It is important to note that the statement in the Decalogue concerning the generational extension of punishment has nothing whatsoever to do with the administration of justice in Israel’s legal system. There, vicarious punishment is never mandated; indeed, it is explicitly outlawed in Deuteronomy 24:16.

the third and … fourth generations This conventional phrase is otherwise always found in a context of longevity as a divine reward for righteousness, not only in the Bible but also in Aramaic inscriptions.27 Here, it is used to describe the enduring, baneful effects of evil.

who reject Me This phrase may modify “parents” or “children” or both. Rabbinic exegesis seized on the ambiguity to soften the apparent harshness of the statement: The verdict applies only when subsequent generations perpetuate the evils of their parents.

6. showing kindness On Hebrew ḥesed, see Comment to 15:13.

thousandth generation The corresponding text in Deuteronomy 7:9 shows that this is the correct rendering of Hebrew la-ʾalafim. The rabbis were quick to point out the contrast between God’s boundless beneficence and the limited extent of His punishment.

7. This command deals with the abuse of the divine name.

swear Hebrew n-s-ʾ, literally “to take up,” is here an ellipsis for “to take upon the lips,” that is, “to utter” the divine name.

falsely Hebrew la-shavʾ can mean this as well as “for nothing, in vain.”32 The ambiguities allow for the proscription of perjury by the principals in a lawsuit, swearing falsely, and the unnecessary or frivolous use of the divine Name. In Berakhot 33a the view is expressed that even the recitation of an unnecessary blessing is a transgression of this command. It should be noted that several biblical passages favor the use of God’s name in oath-taking when done in sincerity and truthfulness.

will not clear That is, God will not allow the deed to go unpunished even though it may go undetected or not be actionable in a human court of law.

8. The Sabbath, as a noun, is not found in Genesis 2:1–3. Only the verbal form, with God as the subject, is used. Already implied in 16:23–30, the Sabbath (Heb. shabbat) is not established by the Decalogue as a fixed, weekly institution. With the Creation as its rationale (as also reiterated in Exodus 31:13–17), the seventh day of each week is invested with blessing and holiness. It is an integral part of the divinely ordained cosmic order and exists independent of human effort. For this reason it is described here as “a sabbath of the LORD Your God.”
The Sabbath is wholly an Israelite innovation. There is nothing analogous to it in the entire ancient Near Eastern world. This is surprising since seven-day units of time are well known throughout the region. Yet the Sabbath is the sole exception to the otherwise universal practice of basing all the major units of time—months and seasons, as well as years—on the phases of the moon and solar cycle. The Sabbath, in other words, is completely dissociated from the movement of celestial bodies. This singularity, together with Creation as the basis for the institution, expresses the quintessential idea of Israel’s monotheism: God is entirely outside of and sovereign over nature.
The etymology of Hebrew shabbat has been debated. It is uncertain whether the noun is derived from the verbal stem meaning “to desist from labor,” or vice versa. Semitists have long drawn attention to the similarity of sound to the Akkadian shabattum (or shapattum) which designated the fifteenth day of the lunar month, that is, the full moon. This is described in cuneiform texts as “the day of the quieting of the heart (of the god),” the meaning of which is uncertain. It has also been noted that in the Mesopotamian lunar calendar the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of certain months, corresponding to the four phases of the moon, were all regarded as days of baneful character, controlled by evil spirits. Special magical rites had to be performed, and the king, in particular, had to refrain from all sorts of activities. These days, however, were not called shab/pattu. Whatever the true etymology of the Hebrew term may be, the institution itself has no connection with any known Mesopotamian observance.

Remember See Comment to 2:24. It is fitting that the law of the seventh day commences with the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The narrative about the manna in Exodus 16:5, 22–30 presupposes the institution of the Sabbath prior to the Sinaitic revelation.

keep it holy Its intrinsic sacred character derives from God. By following a pattern of living and observance in conformity with that intrinsic holiness, Israel transforms its mundane existence into a spiritual experience one day a week. Texts like Hosea 2:13 and Isaiah 58:13–14 show that already in biblical times the Sabbath was a day of “rejoicing” and “delight.” It was these aspects of the day that rabbinic authorities sought to intensify in making the Sabbath “the cornerstone of Judaism.”

10. work The definition of prohibited labor (melaʾkhah) is not given here. Elsewhere in the Bible certain types of work are specified: “leaving one’s place,” that is, walking beyond certain limits, agricultural activities,37 kindling fire, gathering wood,39 conducting business, carrying burdens,41 treading the winepress, and loading asses.
The rabbis of the talmudic period formulated the rules governing the Sabbath in systematic fashion. They were guided by the close proximity in the Torah of the prohibition of work on the Sabbath and the instructions for building the Tabernacle. Acts that were essential in the construction of the Tabernacle are termed “principal” categories (ʾavot); thirty-nine such acts are listed in Mishnah Shabbat 7:2. Other subcategories, analogous but not essential in the construction of the Tabernacle, are called “derivatives” (toladot). Of course, all Sabbath prohibitions are suspended when human life is deemed to be in danger (pikkuaḥ nefesh)—in such a situation it is a religious duty to violate them if that is what is required to save a life. This principle is grounded in Leviticus 18:5: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live; I am the LORD.”

you … the stranger The order of Creation is translated into a social pattern and woven into the fabric of society. By proscribing work and creativity on that day, and by enjoining the inviolability of nature one day a week, the Torah delimits human autonomy and restores nature to its original state of pristine freedom. Human liberty is immeasurably enhanced, human equality is strengthened, and the cause of social justice is promoted by legislating the inalienable right of every human being, irrespective of social class, and of draft animals as well, to twenty-four hours of complete rest every seven days. Exodus 23:12 emphasizes the social function of the Sabbath—“in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.” This humanitarian approach is the only one given in the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” Appropriately, the list in the present verse comprises seven categories of God’s creatures who benefit from the rest on the seventh day.

the stranger In the ancient world strangers were often without rights and were outside the protection of the law. The Torah is particularly sensitive to their feelings and solicitous of their needs and welfare. Numerous injunctions and obligations are set forth to ensure their humane treatment.

12. This command forms the transition from the first to the second group of divine declarations, in that it simultaneously possesses both religious and social dimensions. It shares with the preceding command the formula “the LORD your God.” Also, the relationship of Israel to God is often expressed metaphorically in filial terms, and the same verbs of “honoring” and “revering” are used in expressing proper human attitudes to both God and parents.48 In fact, the obligation to respect is enjoined only for God and parents, and the offender in either instance is liable to the extreme penalty. The parallels point up the supreme importance that the Torah assigns to the integrity of the family for the sake of the stability of society and generational continuity. Family life is the bedrock on which Jewish society stands. No other item in the Decalogue is similarly formulated wholly in positive terms, and for none other is there a promise of reward. The prophet Ezekiel includes the dishonoring of parents among the grievous sins that characterized the generation of the destruction of the First Temple.

father … mother The command applies equally to son and daughter irrespective of their age, and it holds for both parents.

long endure Respect for parents is deemed to be vital for the preservation of the social fabric; dishonoring parents imperils the well-being of society.

13. murder The Hebrew stem r-ts-ḥ, as noted by Rashbam and Bekhor Shor, applies only to illegal killing and, unlike other verbs for the taking of life, is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war. Also, it is never employed when the subject of the action is God or an angel. This command, therefore, cannot be used to justify either pacifism or the abolition of the death penalty, both of which would have to be argued on other grounds. Genesis 9:6 provides the rationale for the prohibition on murder: “Whoever sheds the blood of man,/By man shall his blood be shed;/For in His image/Did God make man.” This means that society must exact satisfaction for the crime of murder because life, being derived from God, is infinitely precious and is His alone to give and to take. By his unspeakable act, the murderer usurps the divine prerogative and infringes upon God’s sovereignty; and, because human beings are created in the divine image, he also affronts God’s majesty. For this reason, it is not in the power of human beings to forgive a murderer or to commute the death penalty into ransom, as Numbers 35:31 makes clear. In practice, however, at least in Second Temple times, imposition of the death penalty was a rare occurrence. Mishnah Makkot 1:10 states:

A Sanhedrin that carries out the death penalty once in seven years is designated destructive. Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah says: Once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been members of the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have received the death penalty. Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel says: They would also have multiplied those who shed blood in Israel.

Significantly, the narrative about the first murder notes the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain to Abel seven times, a way of indicating that all homicide is fratricide. Commenting on God’s censure of Cain in that text—“Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10)—the rabbis in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 interpreted the use of the plural form (demei) in the Hebrew to encompass not only the blood of the victim but also that of all his potential offspring, now doomed never to be born. They further commented: “Why was only one man created by God?—to teach that whoever takes a single life destroys thereby a whole world [of human beings].”

adultery In a society in which polygamy but not polyandry is socially acceptable, the definition of adultery is sexual intercourse by mutual consent between a married woman and a man who is not her lawful husband. Such was the case throughout the ancient Near East. Adultery was a private wrong committed against the husband, an infringement of his exclusive rights of possession. Hence, the punishment or pardon of the violators was left to his discretion. True, adultery is termed “the great sin” in both Egypt and Ugarit, but the gods were not involved in its interdiction or in its legal consequences. In Israel, by contrast, the marriage bond has a sacral dimension, and the prohibition of adultery is divinely ordained. Since adultery is treated as both a public wrong and an offense against God, the husband has no legal power to pardon his faithless wife or her paramour. The gravity of adultery in Israelite law may be gauged both by its place in the Decalogue—between murder and theft—and by the extreme severity of the penalty.52

steal The precise application of this prohibition is complicated by the lack of specifics. The Hebrew verb g-n-v may cover theft of chattels and kidnapping. Rabbinic tradition interpreted the command according to the latter meaning. Many modern scholars do likewise, arguing that otherwise there would be an overlapping with the last commandment; that, in the context of the foregoing items, a capital offense rather than a tort is more likely;54 and that, in the kind of pastoral society that is presupposed in the Decalogue, the protection of individual property rights would not have played sufficiently significant a role to have warranted inclusion. These considerations are not entirely persuasive. The summaries of the Decalogue’s provisions found in Leviticus 19:11, Jeremiah 7:9, and Hosea 4:2 also fail to specify the category of theft that is intended. It would seem best, then, not to define this command so narrowly as to exclude from its scope the protection of property rights.

false witness Each individual is here directly addressed as a potential witness in a juridical forum. This is not the same as “swearing falsely,” discussed above, for witnesses did not testify under oath in ancient Israel. The purpose of court procedure was to establish the truth, on which decisions could be based. The witnesses, whose testimony about the facts with which they were acquainted was always given orally, constituted the key factor in the judicial process. False evidence not only hindered the administration of justice in any particular case, but also undermined public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system—and thereby jeopardized the very stability of society. As a consequence, various measures were taken to discourage false testimony. Two witnesses were necessary in order for the evidence to be valid, and false witnesses were punished according to the principle of talion. That is, for their mendacious, damaging testimony, they would receive the same punishment that would have been meted out to the accused. Also, the witnesses themselves had to initiate the execution in cases involving capital punishment.56

14. covet A study of the biblical contexts in which the Hebrew stem ḥ-m-d occurs discloses that it does not signify the general human proclivity for acquisitiveness and cupidity; rather it always focuses upon a specific object of desire, the sight of which stimulates the craving to possess it. However, because of an inherent ambiguity in the biblical usages of that Hebrew stem, the meaning of the present command has been a matter of dispute. Action, not just a hidden mental state, is certainly implied in Exodus 34:24: “No one will covet your land when you go up to appear before the LORD.” Yet a decidedly inward feeling is understood in Proverbs 6:25, literally, “Do not desire her beauty in your heart.” Further, passages like Deuteronomy 7:25, Joshua 7:21, and Micah 2:2 indicate that ḥ-m-d, itself having a passive nuance, is of sufficient intensity to stimulate active measures to gratify the desire. The issue is further complicated by such questions as whether desire or its avoidance can be commanded or legislated, and whether there can be liability for mere intention or feeling. But this poses no greater difficulty than does the oft repeated command to love God, one’s neighbor, and the stranger, and not to abhor an Edomite or an Egyptian, or not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart. The Mekhilta, citing Deuteronomy 7:25, decides that one is culpable only when actions accompany the covetous feelings. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, understands the thrust of the commandment to be an obligation to discipline and condition the mind so that its automatic response to covetousness is a sense of repulsion.
It must be remembered that the Decalogue deals with the ideal. It does not concern itself with penalties, if any, to be imposed by a court of law.

house Hebrew bayit here, as frequently elsewhere, means “household.” The following six items, listed in decreasing order of importance or worth, constitute the components of the household. They reflect a seminomadic society. In contrast to Deuteronomy 5:18, land is not included here.
THE PEOPLE’S REACTION (vv. 15–18 [18–21])

15–16. (18–19.) witnessed Hebrew r-ʾ-h, “to see,” is extended to encompass sound, thus creating a “sense paradox.” The figurative language indicates the profound awareness among the assembled throng of the overpowering majesty and mystery of God’s self-manifestation. It is an experience that cannot be adequately described by the ordinary language of the senses. The encounter with the Holy universally inspires fascination; inevitably and characteristically it also arouses feelings of awe, even terror (see Comment to 3:1–6). Fear of death is a frequent reaction. The unique, transcendent, supernal holiness of the Divine Presence is felt to be beyond human endurance.

17. (20.) Moses allays their fears. The purpose of the personal, direct, unmediated nature of the mass experience was to prove the quality of their faith. The enduring, living memory of the encounter should instill the fear of God and so be a deterrent to sin.

18. (21.) the thick cloud Hebrew ʿarafel. The dense, dark cloud poetically expresses God’s mysteriously perceptible yet invisible presence.
THE REGULATION OF WORSHIP (vv. 19–23 [22–26])

These verses bridge the foregoing and following sections. They continue the preceding narrative by featuring the instructions that Moses received as he “approached the thick cloud”; they also serve as a crucial introduction to the following laws because without verse 19 (22) there would be no antecedents to 21:1. At the same time, these verses, together with 23:19, encase the regulations controlling interpersonal and societal behavior within a framework of prescriptions that govern the relationship of the individual to God.
It is to be noted that verses 19–20 (22–23) are of general concern, being addressed to all Israel and couched in the plural. Verses 21–23 (24–26) are formulated in the singular and pertain to the individual in a specific circumstance. The delineation of the authentic modes of divine worship is the unifying theme of the entire section.

19–20. (22–23.) The theophany was direct, public, and communal. All Israel was witness to the phenomenon of God speaking from heaven; that is, His abode is neither on nor of the earth. He is wholly removed from the natural confines of this material world. The noncorporeal nature of God’s unmediated self-manifestation was apparent to all. As Deuteronomy 4:12, 15–18, 36 emphasize, the experience was entirely auditory. Those present “perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.” Therefore, God may never be represented by any shape or form; nor may God be associated with any idol such as other peoples accept as gods.

21–23. (24–26.) These laws, addressed to the individual, reflect and regulate the altars and worship that characterized the popular lay religion before the implementation of Deuteronomic law concentrated all sacrificial worship exclusively in one official national-religious center. The altars referred to are the kind erected ad hoc by Noah,62 the patriarchs, Gideon,64 Manoah, and the people of Beth Shemesh.66 See Comment to 27:1–8.

21. (24.) altar of earth One made by heaping up a mound of earth in an open field. It was just such an altar that the Syrian commander probably had in mind, as told in 2 Kings 5:17, when he requested two mule-loads of the earth of the land of Israel to take back home with him. There, in Damascus, he could offer sacrifices on the earthen altar.

in every place Hebrew makom, like Arabic maqam, most likely means here “sacred site,” that is, a site rendered sacred by the location there of an altar to God, as in Genesis 12:6 and other texts. If the verse is to be integrated into its surrounding context, it must convey the teaching that God is content with a simple earthen altar and requires no elaborate structure.

I cause … mentioned This construction, with both subject and object referring to God, is unparalleled. God would not be expected to call on Himself or evoke His own name in worship. Hence, the medieval Jewish commentators, followed by the present translation, understood the verb ʾazkir to be causative. In this way, the sentence is harmonized with the Deuteronomic demands for the centralization of the sacrificial worship at one site chosen by God, be it Shiloh, Nob, or Jerusalem.
In order to make the same point, Rabbi Yoshiah, in Sotah 38a, transposes the order of the clauses to read: “In whichever place I will come to you and bless you I will cause My name to be uttered.” He, of course, identifies the “place” with the Temple in Jerusalem, where the full divine name YHVH was uttered in worship in the days of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.

22. (25.) This prohibition is reiterated in Deuteronomy 27:5–6 in regard to the instructions for the altar to be erected on Mount Ebal, and Joshua strictly enforced it. We are told that in the construction of Solomon’s Temple “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built.”71 Many centuries later, when Judah Maccabee built a new altar following the liberation of Jerusalem, he was careful to use only uncut stones. Josephus, describing Herod’s Temple, reports that no iron was used in the construction of the altar.73

tool This is undefined, but Deuteronomy 27:5 and 1 Kings 6:7 specify iron. Mishnah Middot 3:4 explains the prohibition as follows: “Iron was created to shorten man’s days [it being usedb to fashion weapons of destruction], while the altar was created to prolong man’s days [by effecting reconciliation with God]. It is unseemly that that which shortens [life] should be wielded against that which prolongs [it].” Put another way, it means that it is illegitimate to promote spiritual ends by violent means.
Rashbam suggests that the ban on the use of a tool blunted the temptation to decorate the altar stones with images.

23. (26.) The altar must be so designed as to permit access to it with suitable propriety. This contrasts with many scenes in ancient Near Eastern art that feature priests officiating in the nude. Ritual nudity is a phenomenon known to many religions. It is symbolically associated with both death and rebirth, and it also has a variety of magical uses.
The instruction is clearly intended for the layman at a private altar since the uniform of the priests included “linen breeches to cover their nakedness.” The priests who removed the ashes from the altar each morning had to wear such a garment.76 It would seem, then, that the official altar was approached by steps. This inference is supported by Ezekiel’s vision of the renewed altar; explicit mention is made of steps (maʿalot), and the priests wear “linen breeches on their loins.” Breeches are otherwise unknown in the Bible and Near East in preexilic times. The dress of the ordinary person included a shirtlike garb but not breeches. The Israelite altar excavated at Tell Dan, dating from the first half of the eighth century B.C.E., has a wide, monumental stairway built against the southern face of the platform on which it stands. In the Second Temple, however, the altar was approached by a ramp.

The Book of the Covenant: The Laws (21:1–24:18)

These chapters, containing the first body of Torah legislation, have become known in English as the “Book of the Covenant,” Hebrew sefer ha-berit. This name is based on 24:4, 7, which recount that Moses put the divine commands into writing and then read aloud the covenant document to the people, who gave it their assent. The title is of major importance, for it underscores the outstanding characteristic of the collection: its divine source. Social rules, moral imperatives, ethical injunctions, civil and criminal laws, and cultic prescriptions are all equally conceived to be expressions of divine will; all form the stipulations of the covenant between God and Israel enacted at Sinai. Unlike the ancient Near Eastern corpora of laws, the document here is not a self-contained, independent entity; rather, it is an inseparable part of the Exodus narratives. The narrative context is essential to the meaning and significance of the document.
The Book of the Covenant falls into four distinct parts. The first, 21:2–22:16, treats a variety of legal topics that relate to civil and criminal matters. They are mostly couched in the casuistic style that is typical of all ancient Near Eastern collections of laws. The individual topics are presented in the form of specific rulings about hypothetical, concrete contingencies, not as abstract legal principles. The implementation of the rulings is left to the jurisdiction of the courts.
It should also be noted that this body of legislation cannot strictly be called a law code. It is not comprehensive in scope and is silent on important areas of legal practice, such as inheritance, the transfer of property, commerce, and marriage. The gaps must have been filled by orally transmitted customary law that regulated vast areas of human relationships. The items dealt with in the Torah must be regarded as innovations and amendments to existing practice. For the connections with the cuneiform collections, see Excursus 6.
The second part of the legal corpus, 22:17–23:19, is quite different. The style is mainly that of the Decalogue, categorical and apodictic. It encompasses a wide variety of discrete topics, with special emphasis on humanitarian considerations. In the main, these laws are not enforced through juridical forms; enforcement is left to the promptings of conscience informed by the conviction that the source and authority of the laws is divine.
The third section, 23:20–33, is an appendix that affirms the divine promises to Israel and warns against the dangers of assimilation to paganism.
The fourth section, chapter 24, rounds out the entire pericope of the Book of the Covenant with a ritual of ratification of the document and with Moses receiving the Decalogue incised in stone.


1. This verse serves as a heading for the entire section.

These are Hebrew ve-ʾelleh, literally “And these are,” the conjunction indicating continuity. It connects the following laws with the preceding Decalogue, all of which emanated from the same Source at Sinai. This interpretation of Rabbi Ishmael in the Mekhilta is supported by the recapitulation of events found in Deuteronomy 4:13–14 and 5:28–6:17, where it is explicitly stated that in addition to the Decalogue many other laws were promulgated at Sinai. Nehemiah 9:13 similarly features this same tradition: “You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules [mishpatim] and true teachings, good laws and commandments.”

the rules Hebrew mishpatim originally meant “judicial rulings,” and then came to be used for legal enactments in general, that is, authoritative standards of conduct. Here they are specifically formulated in the casuistic style.

you shall set before them Knowledge of the law is to be the privilege and obligation of the entire people, not the prerogative of specialists.
Laws Concerning Slaves (vv. 2–11)

The list of mishpatim (enactments) begins with ten laws regulating the institution of slavery. None of the other law collections from the ancient Near East opens with this topic. Hammurabi’s, for example, deals with slavery last (pars. 278–282). The priority given to this subject by the Torah doubtless has a historical explanation: Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave.
This association of the Exodus with the regulation of slavery already appeared in the opening words of the Decalogue, where God is identified as the One who freed Israel from the thralldom of Egypt. The Decalogue then mandates the right of the slave to enjoy the weekly Sabbath rest. The same correlation of the themes of Exodus and slavery is present in the laws of Deuteronomy 15:13–15 and in the narrative of Jeremiah 34:13–14.
All the law collections of the ancient Near East deal with the topic of slavery. However, there is no evidence that this evil institution, although widespread, persistent, and socially sanctioned, was of major economic importance in the region. Everywhere the attitude to the slave was marked by ambivalence: He was a human being in close daily contact with the master and other members of his family; but he was also an item of property to be assessed in terms of monetary value. Biblical legislation is directed toward enhancing the social and legal status of this human chattel. This humanitarian approach expresses itself in a variety of ways: The slave is termed “your brother”; he possesses an inalienable right to rest on the Sabbath day and on festivals;4 when circumcised, and thus identified with the covenant between God and Israel, he participates in the Passover offering; he is to be “avenged” if he dies from a beating by his master;6 and the loss of a limb, even a tooth, at the hands of his master automatically gains him his freedom. A fugitive slave may not be extradited and is accorded protection from maltreatment and the right to live wherever he chooses.8 Finally, a six-year limit is set on his term of service. No wonder the rabbis observed in Kiddushin zoa that he who buys a Hebrew slave is like one buying himself a master.
The Male Slave (vv. 2–6)

2. When you acquire The reduction of an Israelite to slave status could result from poverty or insolvency. By self-sale, the desperately poor could gain a measure of security. The labors of a debtor or a thief could discharge the debt or compensate for the stolen property.
There are scriptural indications that, in practice, defaulting debtors or members of their family would be subject to seizure by a creditor and forced into service. Whereas the prophets denounce this practice, Mesopotamian laws actually provide for the seizure of debtors.10 Rabbinic tradition interpreted the present text as referring specifically to an Israelite thief who is legally sentenced to work off the value of stolen goods.

a Hebrew slave A fellow Israelite, called a “brother” in Deuteronomy 15:12 and Jeremiah 34:9, 14.

six years The slave laws of Leviticus 25:40 rule that this maximum limit on his term of service is shortened should the Jubilee year occur in the meantime. Hammurabi (par. 117) limited a debtor’s service to three years.

in the seventh year Rabbinic tradition understood this to mean the seventh year from the commencement of his indentureship. However, Targum Jonathan, representing an earlier stratum of halakhic interpretation, interpreted it as referring to the Sabbatical year. So did Bekhor Shor.

free, without payment Emancipation is his by right, and no compensation is due to the master. The parallel law in Deuteronomy 15:12–15 requires the master to make generous provision for the slave on leaving his service.

free Hebrew ḥofshi, on the basis of its Akkadian cognate ḫupshu and Ugaritic ḫpt̮, originally seems to have been a technical term for one who belongs to the low social class composed of emancipated slaves. By a shift of meaning in the Bible, it came to mean simply “free.”

3. if be bad a wife The master would have been responsible for the maintenance of the slave’s wife and children throughout the period of his service.

4. In the ancient Near East it was common practice for a master to mate a slave with a foreign bondwoman solely for the purpose of siring “house born” slaves. In such instances, no matrimonial or emotional bond was necessarily involved, and the woman and her offspring remained the property of the master.

5. It must have been a fairly frequent occurrence that the slave felt comfortable and at home in his master’s household and also formed an emotional attachment to the bondwoman and to the children he had begotten through her. In addition, he did not relish the prospect of freedom in poverty. These considerations might lead him voluntarily to surrender his right to personal freedom. In such a case, he had to make a solemn declaration to that effect.

6. A change from temporary to permanent slavery is a step of transcendental human importance. In order to avoid abuse on the part of a master and to safeguard the rights of the slave, it must be carried out according to a procedure fixed by law.

before God This term appears again in 22:7–8, also in a legal context. There, the accompanying verb is in the plural so that ʾelohim is not likely to have the literal meaning of “God.” The court records from Nuzi frequently mention the administering of an “oath of the gods” taken by a litigant in the presence of, or perhaps by actually holding, the figurines of the gods. The phrase “before ʾelohim,” an echo of pre-Israelite legal terminology, is in the Torah divested of its original association with gods and most likely simply means “in the sanctuary.” Probably the slave had to repeat, in the presence of witnesses or the local authorities, the formal declaration of his intention, uncompelled, to forgo his freedom. Rabbinic tradition understood the phrase in question to mean “in the presence of the judges.”

the door or the doorpost Of the sanctuary. This interpretation is supported by an analogy with the laws of Eshnunna, which mandate, in a certain case, “an oath in the gate of Tishpak,” the chief god of the city.

pierce his ear Rashbam took this as a sign of permanent slave status. Rabbinic tradition specified the right ear. It saw in this act a symbolic punishment: “Because the ear heard on Mount Sinai: ‘For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude [Lev. 25:42],’ and it divested itself of the yoke of Heaven and accepted the hegemony of a human yoke—let it be pierced!”

for life Rashbam took this literally; the rest of his life. But according to rabbinic interpretation, the new term of service ends at the next Jubilee year or at the death of the master, whichever comes first.
The Female Slave (vv. 7–11)

The Hebrew term ʾamah, used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.
In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi. The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price.
Rabbinic interpretation restricted the power of the father to dispose of his daughter in this way. He could do so only so long as she was a minor, that is, below the age of twelve years and a day, and then only if he was utterly destitute. She could not sell herself into slavery nor could she be sold by a court as an insolvent thief, as could a male, in order to make restitution for the stolen articles. Further, she could not be designated to be the wife of the master or his son without her knowledge.
The status of the ʾamah in biblical times is demonstrated in practice through the discovery of a preexilic epitaph of a royal steward from the village of Siloam outside Jerusalem. The inscription mentions his ʾamah, and it is clear that he arranged to be buried next to her. Another discovery is the seal of “Alyah the ʾamah of Hananel,” who obviously enjoyed superior social rank. In like vein, an extant Babylonian document mentions a slave girl of a married couple who is described as both the ašš, “wife,” of the husband and the ʾamat of the wife.

8. outsiders Hebrew ʿam nokhri means one outside the nuclear family. This ancient technical term preserves the original meaning of ʿam, “kin”; it has survived vestigially in the expression “to be gathered into one’s kin.”

broke faith That is, the master has repudiated the presumption that accompanied his acquisition of the girl.

9. the practice with free maidens The girl is to be raised within the family and given the status of a daughter. As such, she would normally be protected from sexual abuse.

10. The laws of Lipit-Ishtar similarly stipulate that if a man takes a second wife, now his favorite, he must continue to support his first wife. The Torah extends this protection to the slave girl and here specifies three basic necessities of life to which she is entitled. The formulation once again gives every appearance of being ancient technical legal language. It is generally agreed (1) that Hebrew sheʾer, literally “flesh,” is an ancient word for “meat,” perhaps, like leḥem, extended to cover food in general, and (2) that kesut is certainly “clothing.” It is the unique word ʿonah that has generated debate. The Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targums all understood it to refer to the woman’s conjugal rights. This interpretation, which has no philological support, is also found in rabbinic sources. If correct, it would reflect a singular recognition in the laws of the ancient Near East that a wife is legally entitled to sexual gratification.
Rashbam and Bekhor Shor favor another rendering of ʿonah as “dwelling,” “shelter,” which is supported etymologically by the Hebrew noun maʿon, meʿonah, “dwelling, habitation.”
A persuasive, although as yet philologically unsustained, argument has been made for understanding the term to mean “oil, ointment.” In many ancient Near Eastern texts there are clauses that make provision for “food, clothing, and ointment.” This same triad of commodities is found in Hosea 2:7 and Ecclesiastes 9:7–9. Likewise, the Egyptian wisdom text known as “The Instruction of the Vizier Ptah-hotep” advises “a man of standing” to fill his wife’s belly, clothe her back, and provide ointment for her body.

11. in these three ways Any of the aforementioned possibilities: marriage to the master, or to his son, or allowing her to be redeemed.
Three Capital Offenses (vv. 21:12–17)

This section elaborates on three of the topics of the Decalogue: murder, dishonoring parents, and kidnapping. Violation of each law, under specific conditions, incurs the death penalty.

Murder (vv. 12–14)
The reference here is to criminal homicide where malice aforethought has been established beyond question. The same law appears again in Leviticus 24:17, 21. Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 stipulate that capital punishment is to be carried out only on the evidence of two witnesses. Numbers 35:30–31 add that monetary compensation cannot substitute for the murderer’s execution. This last provision has no parallel in other ancient Near Eastern law collections, which view murder only in terms of economic loss to the family or clan. For the rationale behind the biblical approach, see Comment to 20:13. Although the text does not prescribe the mode of execution, rabbinic sources specify decapitation.
ASYLUM (vv. 13–14) Unintentional homicide is treated differently from murder. Here the implicit issue is the ancient and widespread phenomenon of the blood feud. In the absence of centralized authority, family and clan solidarity led people to administer private justice. The “avenger of blood,” Hebrew goʾel ha-dam—generally the nearest relative of the victim of homicide—would be duty-bound to seek revenge. With the development of the concept that crime should be punished by the state, and not by means of private vengeance, it became imperative to eliminate the blood feud. The present measures are designed to protect the innocent manslayer and allow established legal procedure to take its course. The law of asylum, which also covers the prevention of its abuse, is therefore set forth. The considerable attention given to the blood feud in the legal texts of the Torah and the attempts to exert social control over it are indicative of the tenacity of the institution.

13. by design With premeditation.

by an act of God The theological assumption is that the death of the victim occurred by the intervention of Providence; thus, the manslayer was the unwitting agent.

I will assign you The manslayer is to be guaranteed temporary asylum pending judicial disposition of the case. This is the only instance in the enactments (mishpatim) of God that addresses Israel directly. The anomaly emphasizes the high degree of concern for the protection of life.

a place Hebrew makom, like its Arabic cognate maqam, probably means here “sacred site,” a sanctuary. Its precincts are inviolable. The other biblical sources dealing with this topic specifically provide for “cities of refuge.”

14. Even the sacred area of the altar loses its inviolable, extraterritorial status if abused by the willful murderer. Rabbinic exegesis derives from this text the rule that a priest who is a convicted murderer is to be summarily interrupted and removed from the Temple even if he is engaged in the act of performing his sacred duties.

altar The narratives about Adonijah in 1 Kings 1:50–53 and Joab in 1 Kings 2:28–34 illustrate in practice the custom of claiming asylum by seizing “the horns of the altar,” that is, the four corner projections. In these two cases, however, the particular circumstances rendered the claim ineffective.
Abuse of Parents (vv. 15, 17)

Although separated by the law of the kidnapper, these two verses belong together and, in fact, are so placed in the Septuagint. Verse 15 concerns violent assault on a parent by a son or daughter; verse 17 deals with verbal abuse. The extreme severity with which both offenses are treated clearly indicates the importance that biblical religion attached to the integrity of the family as the indispensable prerequisite for a wholesome society. There is also here the unassailable conviction that the dissolution of the family unit must inevitably rend to shreds the entire social fabric. See Comment to 20:12.
The corresponding law in Hammurabi’s collection (par. 195) prescribes the amputation of the hand of a son who strikes his father. The mother as the victim is not mentioned there.

15. strikes According to rabbinic exegesis, only the actual infliction of physical injury by an adult son or daughter entails the death penalty.

17. insults This law is repeated even more forcefully in Leviticus 20:9. For several reasons, “insult” is too weak a rendering for the Hebrew stem k-l-l. First, its frequent antonym is b-r-k, “to bless,” and second, it is used with God as the object, as in Leviticus 24:11, 15. The kind of behavior understood here includes uttering a curse. The horrendous nature of this offense is intensified in a culture that believed the malediction to possess potent force and to take on a devastating life of its own, especially if uttered in the name of God. The stem k-l-l is also used in both Hebrew and Akkadian42 as an antonym of k-b-d, “to honor.” It denotes “treating with contempt and humiliating”; in other words, the flagrant violation of the Decalogue’s imperative in Exodus 20:12. It also encompasses the kind of misdeeds described in Deuteronomy 21:18–19 in the case of the “wayward and defiant son” who is disobedient, incorrigible, disloyal, a glutton, and a drunkard.
Kidnapping (v. 16)

The prevalence of the slave trade clearly spurred this item of legislation. The principal motive for kidnapping was to coerce the victim into servitude, either to the kidnapper himself or to another master who is willing to pay for the human merchandise. The sale of Joseph, as reported in Genesis 37:25–28, 36 and 39:1, vividly illustrates this type of traffic in human misery.
Hammurabi’s laws (par. 14) also prescribe the death penalty for kidnapping but define the victim as “the young son of a [free] man.” The context in which the law appears shows that it was considered an economic crime. The Hittite laws (pars. 19–24) also treat kidnapping as an economic offense, the penalty for which is restitution not execution.
The law in Exodus is formulated comprehensively; it applies whoever is the victim. The parallel in Deuteronomy 24:7 is more restrictive. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:1 the mode of execution for assaulting parents and for kidnapping is strangulation. Ramban explains the close association of two such different laws in the Hebrew text as a function of their common penalty. For the offense of verse 17, the punishment is death by stoning, according to the rabbis.
Bodily Injury Inflicted by Persons (vv. 18–27)

These laws deal with the redress of personal injuries caused by the physical attack of one human being upon another. The basic principle here centers on intention—whether or not the assailant intended to inflict the injury. The section is famous for its formulation of the lex talionis, or “eye for an eye,” system of justice.
Injury Resulting from a Quarrel (vv. 18–19)

quarrel The Hebrew stem r-y-v essentially denotes an exchange of words. What starts out as a verbal quarrel degenerates into a brawl, as one strikes a blow that temporarily incapacitates the other. The aggressor must indemnify the victim for loss of income, here called “idleness,” and for medical expenses as well. This text is curiously silent on the law governing the infliction of permanent injury.

unpunished Presumably, if a fatality ensues, then the laws set forth in verses 12–14 are operative. Rabbinic tradition required the assailant to be held in custody pending the victim’s full and certain recovery. The extenuating circumstances in the present case are the clear absence of unlawful or prior intention to cause bodily injury. The corresponding laws in Hammurabi’s collection (pars. 206–208) deal not with a verbal dispute but with a brawl; the assailant must swear that he did not “strike wittingly,” and he then pays only the medical expenses. Should the victim die from the blow, monetary compensation must be paid, the amount determined in accordance with the social status of the victim.
Injury to a Slave (vv. 20–21)

This law—the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters—is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social and human values and expresses itself once again in the provisions of verses 26–27. The underlying issue, as before, is the determination of intent on the part of the assailant at the time the act was committed.

his slave The final clause of verse 21 seems to indicate that the slave in question is a foreigner. Otherwise the terminology would be inappropriate, given the conditions under which an Israelite might become enslaved.

a rod Hebrew shevet, the customary instrument of discipline. The right of a master to discipline his slave within reason is recognized. But according to rabbinic exegesis, it is restricted to the use of an implement that does not normally have lethal potentiality, and it may not be applied to a part of the body considered to be particularly vulnerable.46

there and then Literally, “under his hand,” in contrast to “a day or two” in verse 21. The direct, immediate, causal relationship between the master’s act and the death of the slave is undisputed. The master has unlawfully used deadly force, and homicidal intent is assumed.

he must be avenged The master is criminally liable and faces execution, in keeping with the law of verse 12.
Rabbinic tradition prescribes decapitation. This interpretation—that the Hebrew stem n-k-m means the death penalty—is supported by the early tradition behind the Samaritan version, which, in place of our received Hebrew text, actually reads here, “He must be put to death” (mot yumat). Ibn Ezra notes that the verb n-k-m, as used in the Bible, principally involves meting out the death penalty. In the absence of the office of public executioner, it would generally be the victim’s next of kin who would administer the supreme penalty, as provided for in Numbers 35:19 and Deuteronomy 19:12. This would hardly be the situation in the case of a slave, who would be unlikely to have local relatives. Hence, the obligation to exact the penalty falls on the community, which is probably why n-k-m is used here and not the usual yumat.
The verb n-k-m is popularly taken to signify “revenge.” Actually, it means “to avenge,” that is, to vindicate, or redress, the imbalance of justice. Its use in the Bible is overwhelmingly with God as the subject, and in such cases it always serves the ends of justice. It is employed in particular in situations in which normal judicial procedures are not effective or cannot be implemented. It does not focus on the desire to get even or to retaliate; indeed, Leviticus 19:18 forbids private vengeance.

21. Should the beaten slave linger more than a day before succumbing, certain new and mitigating circumstances arise. The direct, causal relationship between the master’s conduct and the slave’s death is now in doubt, for there may have been some unknown intermediate cause. The intent of the master appears less likely to have been homicidal and more likely to have been disciplinary. He is given the benefit of the doubt, especially since he is losing his financial investment, the price of the slave.
Unintended Harm to a Pregnant Woman (vv. 22–25)

The legal issues in this case are complicated by several additional factors. Unlike the earlier instance of a verbal quarrel that was initially not unlawful (vv. 18–19), the present one involves physical violence from the beginning. There was prior intent on the part of each antagonist to cause bodily harm to the other, and thus their activity was intrinsically unlawful and hazardous. Since the possibility of indirect damage was foreseeable, the antagonists are liable for injury caused to an innocent bystander, in this case, a pregnant woman. Restitution is to be made, but there is no retaliation if death does not ensue.
Unfortunately, the Hebrew text is replete with difficulties, which are further compounded by the attachment of the law of talion (vv. 23–25). For example, it is not clear why the phrase expressing expulsion of the fetus should speak of “children” in the plural; nor do we know whether stillbirth, premature birth, or term delivery is intended. Nor is it certain to what and to whom the Hebrew ʾason, here rendered “other damage,” refers.
The legal consequences of causing a woman to miscarry are treated also in the Sumerian law fragments, in Hammurabi’s collection,49 in the Middle Assyrian Laws, and in the Hittite laws.51 All call for monetary compensation for the loss of the fetus. Only the Sumerian laws distinguish between accidental and intentional assault. Hammurabi’s provide for vicarious punishment: Should the parties involved belong to the upper class, the assailant’s daughter is put to death if the victim dies. The Middle Assyrian laws are particularly harsh. They too mandate vicarious punishment and vary the penalty according to social status, but, in addition, they inflict multiple torments on the aggressor. The Hittite laws, alone, take into account the age of the fetus in estimating the fine imposed on the assailant. In none of the cuneiform parallels do the particulars correspond exactly to the details of the case presented here in the Torah, so they shed little light on the complexities of our text.

fight The Hebrew stem n-ts-h implies the use of physical force.

a miscarriage remits Literally, “her children emerge.” The common Hebrew stem y-ts-ʾ, “to go out, emerge,” is used of parturition.

damage Hebrew ʾason elsewhere always signifies a major calamity; therefore, the most likely issue here is whether or not death ensues. Rabbinic tradition construes the phrase in this way and understands it as referring to the mother.55

based on reckoning Hebrew pelilim means “estimation,” “assessment,” the idea being that the husband makes a claim based on some recognized system. Rabbinic interpretation takes pelilim to mean “the judges,” that is, those who are to approve the sum demanded by the husband.

23. other damage Presumably, the death of the mother, in which case the principle of life for life is invoked, as opposed to monetary fine. This accords with the rule that the killing of a human being cannot be compensated for by the payment of money (Num. 35:31).
Lex Talionis (vv. 23–25)

These verses formulate the law of talion, or exact equivalence for injury, usually understood to mean identical physical injury inflicted in retaliation for physical injury suffered. This legal principle was first introduced by Hammurabi and finds expression in such laws as these:

If a seignior has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.
If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.
If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

Another law of this type decrees that if a house collapsed and killed its owner as a result of faulty construction, then the builder is put to death. If the casualty was the owner’s son, then the builder’s son is put to death.
Prior to Hammurabi, monetary compensation, not physical retaliation, was the rule for inflicting bodily injury. This principle is operative in the laws of Ur-nammu, Eshnunna,61 and the Hittites, as well as in the Middle Assyrian laws.63
It is now recognized by legal anthropologists that before the time of Hammurabi, assault and battery was considered a private wrong to be settled between the families of the assailant and the victim. As a result of the socially disruptive effects of the cycle of violence and counterviolence, it became acceptable to take monetary compensation for the wrong committed. With the growth of urbanization and centralized government as well as the increased importance of maintaining domestic tranquillity, the state more and more tended to encroach upon the private domain. Physical violence became an issue of public welfare, and the state began to regulate the payments for various types of injuries. In a revolutionary development, Hammurabi categorized assault and battery as criminal conduct to be prosecuted by the state. The central government took on the responsibility of protecting the public and preserving the security of its citizens. The lex talionis strove to achieve exact justice: only one life for one life, only one eye for one eye, and so forth. In pursuit of this goal, however, the laws allowed physical retaliation and vicarious punishment and did not accept the principle of equal justice for all but, rather, adjusted penalties according to social class.
The same legal principles that underlie the lex talionis of Hammurabi are present in biblical law. The formulation appears three times in the legal texts of the Torah: here, in Leviticus 24:17–22, and in Deuteronomy 19:18–19, 21. The list found here, the most comprehensive of the three, begins with the maximum penalty, loss of life, and then cites four instances of loss of limb, arranged in anatomical order from head to foot. These are followed by three types of painful surface wounds.
Rabbinic tradition understood the biblical formulation to mean monetary payment and not physical retaliation. The present Exodus passage exhibits several strange features indicating that such was indeed the original intent. The section is introduced in the Hebrew text by a verb in the second person—“you shall pay.” That this stylistic formulation is unique in these otherwise impersonally and casuistically formulated laws indicates that the passage in question is not an organic part of the wider text. Another peculiarity lies in the fact that the list of damages is singularly inappropriate to the circumstances described. Other than “life for life,” none of the injuries listed can be included under the rubric of the term ʾason used in verses 22 and 23. Nor can loss of limb be relevant to the case in hand. If the mother who carries the fetus is killed, any other injuries would be irrelevant. If she only suffers loss of limb but survives, then the fact of her pregnancy is immaterial.
Remarkably, the two other citations of the talion formula in the Torah are also inapplicable to the legal context in which they are embedded. The Leviticus passage deals with blasphemy, and talion is extraneous to it. The passage in Deuteronomy concerns false witnesses, and the law states that they are subject to the very penalty that would have been inflicted on the accused had their falsehood not been exposed. Since, with the singular exception of Deuteronomy 25:12, mutilation is not a penalty in biblical law, the entire list, other than “life for life,” is again irrelevant.
The most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing is that the talion list is a citation from some extrabiblical compendium of laws and has been incorporated intact into the Torah. That is why the stylistic variant “you shall pay,” noted above, appears in our Exodus text. The list is actually a general statement of legal policy that formulates the abstract principle of equivalence and restitution in concrete terms.
Of all the equivalency items in the list, it is obvious that only “life for life” can be implemented literally because all human beings are created equal. But exact equivalency in respect of bodily injury is inherently unattainable. Therefore, the only available avenue of redress is monetary compensation.
Additional evidence in support of the nonliteral interpretation of the biblical “eye for eye” phraseology lies in Leviticus 24:18: “One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it [lit. “shall pay for it”]: life for life.” Here the legal prose can be sensibly construed only in terms of monetary compensation. Further, in Judges 15:11, when Samson butchered the Philistines because they had burnt alive his wife and her father, he justified his act by saying, “As they did to me, so I did to them,” even though the punishment he inflicted did not correspond exactly to the crime they had committed. Finally, there is the law in Numbers 35:31 forbidding ransom for the life of a murderer and insisting on his death. The clear implication is that monetary compensation was the usual practice in respect of other, nonfatal physical assaults.
To sum up: Biblical law accepted the principle that assault and battery are public crimes and not simply private wrongs. However, it instituted monetary compensation not retaliation for bodily injury. It also insisted on equal justice for all citizens (for the slave, see vv. 20, 26–27). And it outlawed vicarious punishment.
How was the amount of restitution calculated? The Torah information itself provides no answer. According to rabbinic tradition, however, it was to be based on the diminution in value of a slave who sustained a similar injury.
Injury by a Master to his Slave (vv. 26–27)

Verse 20 established the culpability of one who kills his own slave. These clauses deal with the case of a master who causes his slave irreparable bodily injury. The biblical law does not give the master the benefit of the doubt that only disciplinary chastisement was intended; were that the case, it would indeed have been cruel and unusual punishment. Intent to cause injury is assumed, and the master is guilty of aggravated assault. He has robbed his slave of his humanity and dignity, and for this the slave, male or female, gains freedom. As Ibn Ezra points out, the prospect of losing his financial investment [not to mention the services performed] must inevitably in such circumstances act as a deterrent to cruel treatment on the part of the master.
This biblical law, like that of verses 20–21, is without parallel in other ancient Near Eastern legislation; the latter simply does not concern itself with the well-being of the slave.

his slave According to rabbinic tradition, a non-Israelite.

eye … tooth Or any other of the chief external organs of the body. Rabbinic law lists twenty-four such, including the fingers, toes, tips of the ears, and the tip of the nose. Should the master injure any of these, the slave is given his freedom.
The Homicidal Beast (vv. 28–32)

This section contains three cases involving the attack of a homicidal beast—here exemplified by an ox—upon human beings. They are the cases of (1) the beast that has no previous record of viciousness; (2) the beast that has such a previous history and whose owner has been so warned; and (3) the beast that gores a slave.
The legal topic of the goring ox is treated in the laws of both Eshnunna and Hammurabi.70 The former deal only with cases 2 and 3, but the latter include all three and in the same sequence as the Torah. All three collections share in common the general principle that the owner who has been duly warned about his vicious ox is responsible for guarding it. Beyond this, there are considerable differences between the Mesopotamian and biblical approaches. Eshnunna and Hammurabi interest themselves exclusively in the economic aspects of the case. The incident itself is treated as a relatively minor affair. Eshnunna, for instance, imposes the same penalty on the forewarned owner of the ox that kills a man as it does for the offense of cutting off someone’s finger. Neither law collection recommends any action against the ox, and Hammurabi explicitly disavows as an actionable offense the first-time killing of a man by an ox.
By contrast, the entire treatment of the case in the Torah is grounded in religious and moral considerations. Thus, legislation here demands the destruction of an ox that has fatally gored a human being, whatever the past history of the beast, and it proscribes the eating of its flesh. If the owner had been forewarned, it regards him as being worthy of the death penalty. The gender of the victim is immaterial. The two Mesopotamian law collections mention only the goring of a male.

28. the ox shall be stoned The killer ox is not destroyed solely because it is dangerous. This is clear from the fact that it is not destroyed when the victim is another ox and from the prescribed mode of destruction—not ordinary slaughter but stoning. The execution of the ox was carried out in the presence, and with the participation, of the entire community—implying that the killing of a human being is a source of mass pollution and that the proceedings had an expiatory function. The killing of a homicidal beast is ordained in Genesis 9:5–6: “For your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast.… Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.” The sanctity of human life is such as to make bloodshed the consummate offense, one viewed with unspeakable horror. Both man and beast that destroy human life are thereafter tainted by bloodguilt.

its flesh This hardly needs mention since the stoning would in any case render the flesh of the animal inedible. The proscription rests on the notion that a beast tainted by the taking of human life cannot be fit for human consumption.

not to be punished In contrast to the next case. Here there is no implicit negligence.

29. This is a case of unmistakable criminal negligence. The owner is guilty of reckless disregard of the safety and rights of others. His liability is therefore great.

has failed to guard it Hebrew ve-loʾ yishmerennu; the Septuagint reads, “he did not destroy it,” apparently based on a Hebrew text: ve-loʾ yashmidennu. This accords with the interpretation of Rabbi Eliezer, who understood the term “guarding” to mean putting the knife to the ox.

30. ransom Numbers 35:31 forbids the acceptance of ransom for the life of one found guilty of murder. This man is not, strictly speaking, a murderer since he did not directly cause the homicide and did not have such intent; the sentence is therefore mitigated. Rabbinic exegesis interprets the death penalty mentioned in verse 29 to mean “death by the hand of Heaven,” not by a human court.

whatever is laid upon him Presumably by the family of the victim (cf. v. 22). Targum Jonathan preserves a tradition that it is the court that fixes the amount of the ransom.

31. Such an amplification of a law is unparalleled in the Torah legislation. It is thought to emend or polemicize against some earlier Semitic law that stipulated vicarious punishment. Although such practice is indeed attested in Hammurabi (pars. 116, 210, 230), it is not applied there in the present case, which enjoins a fine for the owner only in the case of an ox that kills a man.

32. thirty shekels This is the evaluation, for purposes of vows, of a woman between the ages of twenty and sixty, as given in Leviticus 27:4. It is also the fine imposed by Hammurabi’s laws (par. 251) on the owner of an ox that gored to death a member of the aristocracy. The same laws (par. 252) impose only twenty shekels if the victim was the aristocrat’s slave. The laws of Eshnunna (par. 55) exact fifteen shekels. In the law of the Torah, the stoning of the ox means that it was regarded as having incurred bloodguilt, just as it had for killing a free person.
Damage to Livestock (vv. 33–36)

33–34. The presumption is that the pit or cistern was located on public property or that there was unobstructed access to it from public property. Behavioral norms would expect the individual to exercise reasonable prudence and not leave such hazards exposed. For this act of omission, which constitutes negligence, the offender must make restitution for the value of the animal.
The last phrase of the Hebrew text, which literally translates “and the carcass shall be his,” is ambiguous. As noted by Rashbam, the straightforward meaning favors the present translation. Rabbinic exegesis awards the carcass to the claimant, but its value is deducted from the compensation paid for the loss of the animal. The carcass would be valued for its hide.

35–36. Here, one ox kills another of presumed equal worth. The amount of compensation will depend on whether or not the attacking ox had a history of viciousness. If it had none, then, because neither party was at fault, they share the loss. If it had such a history, then its owner was negligent and must make full restitution for the dead ox.
Paragraph 53 of the laws of Eshnunna is almost identical with verse 35 here but lacks the circumstance of verse 36.
The Law of Theft (21:37–22:3)

37. This verse, in some editions of the Bible numbered 22:1, must be taken together with 22:2b(3b) and 3(4). The operative principle here is that the slaughter or sale of the stolen animal constitutes unmistakable evidence of mens rea, that is, evil intent on the part of the thief. The theft cannot be interpreted as merely an impulsive act. The thief must pay back in kind fivefold for the ox and fourfold for the sheep. Rabbinic tradition understood this to mean replacing the animal plus four more or three more animals respectively.
The reason for the difference in compensation for the two animals has been a matter of conjecture. Targum Jonathan and Rabbi Meir maintain that since the ox, unlike the sheep, is a draft animal, its comparative worth, and hence the loss, is greater. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai argues that the Torah is sensitive to human dignity, even in the case of a thief. Since the miscreant had to carry the sheep—a very humiliating experience—a lesser penalty is imposed. Bekhor Shor explains that the owner is compensated for his considerable investment of effort and toil in training the ox, as well as for the loss of its labors. In the case of the stolen sheep, it may be added that the owner has been deprived of the potential value of its fleece, milk, flesh, and hide. Doubtless, the multiple restitution also takes into account the benefit derived by the thief from slaughtering or selling the animal. It also functions punitively as a deterrent to crime. Mishnah Ketubbot 3:9 rules that a thief who voluntarily confesses his crime before the court makes restitution only for the stolen item and is exempt from the penalties.
Verse 2b(3b) stipulates that the aforementioned restitution must be made and that an insolvent thief is to be indentured by the court to work off the value of his debt. Hammurabi sentences an insolvent thief to death.
Verse 3(4) specifies that should the animals be discovered unharmed and still in the possession of the rustler, then only double restitution is to be made. In this instance, the loss to the owner has been minimal and temporary. From 22:6, 8 it is clear that, apart from the case of 21:37, the standard penalty was double restitution. Mishnah Bava Kamma 7:1 applies this penalty uniformly to all goods and effects.
Violations of property rights occupy much attention in the laws of Hammurabi, Assyria, and the Hittites. Hammurabi’s laws show that in the earlier period the penalty for theft was death; later, the penalty became multiple restitution, which might be ten times the value of the stolen article and, in the case of theft from a temple or the royal palace, as high as thirty times. The Middle Assyrian laws deal with women thieves and inflict mutilation as a punishment.81 The Hittite laws are disproportionately preoccupied with issues of property violations. In all cases, multiple restitution is enforced. In the Torah, by contrast, theft, while a serious offence and a sin, is not particularly emphasized. As the following verses show, the humanity even of the thief is of concern.

22:1–2a. The particular case of a thief who is surprised in the act of breaking and entering is parenthetically injected into the law dealing with theft. The contrast between the phrases, “If the sun has risen” and “while tunneling” shows the latter to presuppose a nighttime setting. This is confirmed by Job 24:16, as well as by the fact that the presence of bystanders outside would discourage such a laborious mode of entry by day. Because the burglar is likely to encounter the occupants and must anticipate that they will use force, his nocturnal timing creates a presumption of homicidal intent. The condition of imminent threat, necessary to satisfy lawful self-defense by the householder, is thus fulfilled. Hence, no bloodguilt is incurred should the intruder be killed. The operative moral principle, as formulated in Bava Metsia 62a, is that “your life takes precedence” over his. For this reason, as Sanhedrin 72a puts it, “If one comes to slay you, you forestall by slaying him.”
If the break-in occurred in broad daylight, however, it is not presumed to present imminent danger to life; the use of deadly force is therefore deemed to be unwarranted, and bloodguilt would ensue. Here the issue is the hierarchy of values. The biblical scale gives priority to the protection of life—even the life of the burglar—over the protection of property.
According to the Mekhilta, Rabbi Ishmael understood the phrase “If the sun has risen” to be figurative for absolute certainty. In other words, he eliminates the distinction between the nighttime and daytime slaying of the burglar and restricts the privileged killing to the circumstance in which the murderous intent of the intruder is absolutely beyond doubt.
The laws of Eshnunna also deal with the topic of theft and likewise distinguish between daytime and nighttime offenses, but they are concerned solely with the protection of property and ignore the humanitarian issue. Hammurabi3 simply prescribes the death penalty for the thief who made a breach in a house or committed robbery.
Damage to Crops (vv. 4–5)

Two cases are under consideration: the destruction of crops (1) by livestock or (2) by fire. The first is treated more severely—the cattle owner must compensate for the choice crops of the yield—because he carelessly, although without malicious intent, allowed his beast to stray into another’s field. In the second case restitution of choice produce is not required because the damage was wholly accidental. These two cases are wedged between laws relating to theft because all are viewed under the broad heading of damage to property.
The Hittite laws similarly feature and juxtapose the same two legal topics although in reverse order, and they likewise insert them among laws of theft.
The Hebrew text contains several obscurities, discussed below.

4. lets … loose to graze The two Hebrew clauses are complementary, the second (ve-shillaḥ) accounting for the action of the first, with the connecting vav being explanatory. The Hebrew stem b-ʿ-r most frequently means “to set fire, burn,” as in verse 5. But it can also mean “to ravage,” which is the action of a beast (Heb. beʿir). Isaiah 5:5 illustrates the present case: “Now I am going to tell you/What I will do to My vineyard:/I will remove its hedge,/That it may be ravaged [le-vaʿer];/I will break down its wall,/That it may be trampled.” The Septuagint similarly understood the verb b-ʿ-r in the Hebrew text in the sense of “graze over.”

for the impairment Hebrew meitav, literally “the best.” In tannaitic sources there is a difference of opinion as to the intent of this law. It is unclear whether the compensation imposed on the owner of the beast is calculated according to the best property of the defendant or of the plaintiff. Both the Septuagint and the Samaritan texts interpolate a clause making the normal crop the criterion of compensation when the crop was only partly destroyed, and the top of the crop the standard when the entire field was grazed over.

5. When a fire is started For legitimate purposes, but the flames spread by the wind to someone else’s property.

thorns These would be collected and used as fuel by the poor and for building hedges.

growing grain Literally, “the field.”
The Law of Bailment (vv. 6–14)

With the exception of verse 8, this section deals with the stipulations governing various types of guardianship of another’s movables or livestock, and the degree of each bailee’s responsibility. The general principle is that liability increases with the benefit that the bailee receives or expects for his services or that he gains from the entrusted property.
Mishnah Bava Metsia 7:8 (= Shevu. 8:1) distinguishes the following four categories: (1) a gratuitous bailee (Heb. shomer ḥinnam), (2) a borrower (shoʾel), (3) one who takes a fee (noseʾ sakhar), and (4) a hirer (sokher). “The gratuitous bailee must swear [to innocence of negligence] in all cases [of loss of the deposit, and is then freed from liability]; the borrower must make restitution in all cases; both the paid bailee and the hirer take the oath [in a case] pertaining to an animal that was injured, carried off, or died, but must make restitution if it was lost or stolen.”
Movable Goods (vv. 6–7)

A bailee claims that movable goods entrusted to him for safekeeping have been stolen. If the thief is not caught, the bailee must clear himself of suspicion of misappropriation by taking an oath before the proper authorities.
Since “money or goods” are kept in the house together with the bailee’s own possessions, they require no special attention or effort, and there is no expectation of benefit or consideration. As a gratuitous bailee (shomer ḥinnam), he is not liable for loss or theft that does not result from his own negligence.
Similar cases are dealt with in the other law collections of the ancient Near East. The laws of Eshnunna rule that where a deposit disappears, and there is no evidence of a break-in, the bailee must replace the property. However, if the house collapses or is burglarized and the bailee’s own property is also lost, he takes an exculpatory oath to that effect before the chief god of the city and is then free of all liability.
Hammurabi’s laws contain several clauses relating to issues of this kind; they reflect a highly developed commercial society in which witnesses and written contracts govern such transactions. They are not, however, strictly analogous to those detailed in the Torah.

6. they are stolen So the bailee claims.

pay double In accordance with the rule of verse 3.

7. shall depose Literally, “shall draw near.” The Hebrew stem k-r-v often has legal force in the sense of applying for a judicial determination. In the present instance the term means to make a statement under oath, which becomes determinative.

before God See Comment to 21:6.

laid hands on That is, misappropriated. If he made use of the deposit for his own benefit, he has become a paid bailee and thus liable for theft or loss.

property Hebrew melaʾkhah, “labor, the product or fruit of labor,” covers both money and goods.
A Claim of Tortious Conversion (v. 8)

This is a general, comprehensive formulation that deals with an allegation that another has wrongfully taken possession of the claimant’s chattel and has contested his right of ownership.
As was recognized by Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Joseph, recorded in Bava Kamma 107a, “an interweaving of sections” (ʿeruv parashiyyot) has occurred here. This observation is explained by Rashi to mean that the verse is an interpolation and is extraneous to its immediate context. We may conjecture that it has been wedged in between the two types of bailment because, like them, the dispute involves a claim of illegal assumption of ownership, and because it shares legal phraseology in common with them both: “before God,” “shall pay double,” “ox, an ass, and a sheep.”

charges of misappropriation Hebrew devar peshaʿ. Davar frequently carries the legal denotation of “case, suit, action, controversy at law.” Peshaʿ basically connotes the denial or repudiation of the right of another to exercise dominion and control. Hence, it is used in the political context of renunciation of the status of vassalage, an act of treachery in the ancient world; and it is used in a religious sense of violating God’s covenant, transgressing His law.14 Here peshaʿ bears a legal nuance: a breach of trust, a case of lawbreaking.

“This is it” The plaintiff claims to identify his property. Alternatively, the phrase might be rendered “This is he,” referring to the alleged offender.

shall pay double The livestock or movable property has remained intact in the possession of the guilty party, so the rule of 22:3 applies.
Livestock (vv. 9–12)

Unlike the case of “money or goods,” the safeguarding of animals is complicated by their being out in the fields and requiring much attention and labor. It may be assumed, therefore, that the bailee is paid for his services (noseʾ/shomer sakhar), and this fact alone affects the degree of responsibility that is expected of him. Three contingencies are presented: (1) The bailee claims that the loss to the owner was caused by an “act of God,” an unforeseeable and unpreventable natural phenomenon. In the absence of corroborating witnesses, an oath of innocence is required to free him from liability (vv. 9–10). (2) The loss is blamed on theft. A measure of negligence is presumed, and the bailee must make restitution (v. 11). (3) The entrusted animal was savaged by a wild beast. The burden of proof is on the bailee; if he can prove his claim, he is exempt from liability.
Hammurabi’s laws similarly discuss the case of the entrusted animal. They stipulate that the shepherd is free of liability if the beast was killed in the sheepfold by an “act of god” or by a lion—provided that he prove himself innocent “in the presence of the god.” In that case, the owner receives the dead animal. If, however, the animal be lamed in the fold due to negligence, the shepherd must make good the loss.

carried off A case of cattle rustling, as in Job 1:15, 17, not the same as ordinary theft mentioned in verse 11.

10. an oath before the LORD Rather, “an oath by the Lord.” The use of YHVH here in place of “God” (ʾelohim) reflects the actual wording of the Israelite oath, just as in the regular oath-formula ḥai YHVH, “as the Lord lives.”

between the two of them It is uncertain whether both parties have to swear.

must acquiesce Literally, “accept”—the oath as incontestable.

12. he shall bring it as evidence He would be expected to attempt to save at least some part of the animal, as David notes in 1 Samuel 17:34–35. Amos 3:12 illustrates this custom: “As a shepherd rescues from the lion’s jaws/Two shank bones or the tip of an ear …” The material circumstantial evidence suffices to exempt him from responsibility.
In place of ʿed, “witness, evidence,” some ancient versions read the preposition ʿad, “up to”: “He shall bring him [i.e., the owner] to the savaged animal.”
Borrowing (and Hiring?) (vv. 13–14)

The act of borrowing falls within the category of bailment. Since the use of the object is obtained gratis, entirely for the borrower’s benefit, his degree of responsibility and liability exceeds that in the previous cases, unless certain conditions are fulfilled.
As will be shown below, it is not entirely clear whether the contingency of hiring actually appears in the Torah’s legislation. The preserved fragments of the laws of Lipit-Ishtar deal with the various payments to be made for different kinds of injuries caused by the hirer. Hammurabi23 absolves the hirer if a rented ox or ass is killed by a lion in the open, but he requires full restitution if the death of the animal was caused by negligence or maltreatment; a tariff of payments for various types of injuries is also included.

13. borrows The verb has no object. The theme of verses 9–12 and the phrase “it dies or is injured” make it certain that an animal, most likely a work animal, is meant.

14. If its owner was with it This provision may presuppose the borrowing of the services of the owner together with his animal. At any rate, the presence of the owner at the time of the mishap absolves the borrower from liability. The reason may be that the owner has the responsibility of supervision and is expected to save his own animal.

if it was hired This rendering presupposes that Hebrew sakhir has adjectival force and refers back to the unmentioned but posited animal, thus creating a fourth category of bailment. However, other than the poetic phrase in Isaiah 7:20, “the razor that is hired,” sakhir is always a noun meaning “a hired man, a day laborer,” so that the translation could well be, “If he [the borrower] was a hired laborer,” implying that the latter borrowed the animal from his employer.

he is entitled to the hire Hebrew baʾ bi-skharo is puzzling. The present rendering means that the owner who hired out his animal—which then suffered misfortune—is not compensated for it but is entitled to receive only the hiring fee. Another possible rendering is “It came with his hiring fee”; that is, the owner is assumed to have taken the risk into account when he rented out the animal and therefore receives no restitution. Still a third translation could be “It comes out of his pay”; that is, the restitution is deducted from the wages of the hired laborer, who is fully responsible.
In the times of the Mishnah the responsibility of the hirer was a matter of dispute. Rabbi Meir classed him with the gratuitous bailee; Rabbi Judah, with the paid bailee.
The Law of Seduction (vv. 15–16)

The Book of the Covenant does not regulate the laws of marriage. Long established by custom in Israel, they were transmitted orally over the generations. The present law must be an amendment to existing practice. The extant corpora of laws from the ancient Near East devote much attention to the case of rape but none to the specific issue dealt with here.
Ibn Ezra points out that the sequence of legal topics is “from the case of stolen property to that of a stolen heart.” Both are offenses that occasion economic loss and entail payment of compensation.
A man has seduced an unattached virgin. Ordinarily, her father would receive the mohar, or bride-price, customarily paid him by the husband-to-be. This is in compensation for the loss of the daughter’s services and potential value to the family. But the mohar was predicated on the woman’s premarital virginity, which was expected on moral and social grounds and was essential to the marriage contract. Thus, the deflowering of the girl caused her a loss of social status and resulted in her father’s forfeiture of the mohar. Consequently, the seducer had to make good the lost sum, regardless of whether the father permitted him to marry his daughter.
The origin of the technical term mohar is uncertain. Since it is common to Hebrew, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Arabic, the practice must have been widespread. A similar institution, known as tirḥatum in Akkadian, is regulated in the cuneiform law collections. From the story of Dinah and Shechem, as told in Genesis 34, it is clear that the mohar was in force in pre-Israelite Canaan (v. 12).
The mohar was occasionally paid in services or heroic deeds instead of in money, as was the case with David’s marriage to Saul’s daughter, Othniel’s betrothal to Achsah, daughter of Caleb,31 and Jacob’s many years of service in return for Laban’s two daughters.
The mohar was paid to the bride’s father, who in most cases would only enjoy the usufruct, that is, the profit and utility it produced. The original sum would eventually be turned over to the daughter. This practice seems to underlie the complaint of Laban’s two daughters in Genesis 31:15 that their father “had used up [the] purchase price,” that is, the original capital. In the Aramaic legal documents of the Jewish colony in Elephantine, in Egypt, deriving from the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., the mohar was paid to the father but counted among the wife’s possessions.

15. seduces By persuasion or deception35 but not by coercion. There is a presumption of consent on the part of the girl. For the law of rape, see Deuteronomy 22:22–29.

the bride-price has not been paid Hebrew ʾasher loʾ ʾorasah means that she had never been betrothed; that is, she has not previously had a fiancé, one who paid the mohar for her but had not yet consummated the marriage.
Biblical marriage comprised two separate stages. The first is expressed through the stem ʾ-r-s used here. The origin of the term is uncertain, but it may mean “to ask”—for the girl’s hand in marriage. Once the mohar was paid, the girl was considered betrothed (Heb. meʾorasah) and had the legal status of a married woman even though she was still entirely under the care and authority of her father. This status explains Hosea’s (2:21–22) figurative use of this verb to describe the binding love relationship between God and Israel.

He must make her his wife Hebrew mahor yimbarennah are verbs formed from the noun mohar.

16. the bride-price The amount is not specified, it being assumed that the existing practice was well known. Based upon Deuteronomy 22:29, rabbinic tradition understood fifty shekels to be the average amount.
Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (S. 93–135). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.


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