January 27, 2007

Exodus 22-24: Why are we doing this again?

Today's reading is Exodus 22-24 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers various laws of the Hebrews, including those about property, social responsibility, justice and mercy, the sabbath, and the three annual festivals. It also covers the confirmation of the covenant and Moses' ascent to Mount Sinai.

First, I would like to apologize to my devoted readers for the delay in the release of this essay. Partly this was due to my life becoming somewhat more hectic than normal, and partly it was due to there being very little of interest in today's passage. I sat down a number of times to write this essay, only to be thwarted each time by sheer boredom. Hopefully I will be able to produce something of marginally more interest than the text itself.

People today sometimes think that modern societies have a monopoly on social justice. After all, we have orphanages, hospitals, and schools, all of which (at least in Canada) are nominally free to the users. Contrarily, we think back to the Middle Ages and remember the horrid ways old women were treated, and imagine that we are far more humane than previous societies.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the ancient Israelites had fairly firm laws in place to protect the underprivileged: widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers.

The text commands the Israelites not to take advantage of widows or orphans. (Ex. 22:22-24 NIV; KJV: "afflict") Similarly, it commands them not to deny justice to poor people. (Ex. 23:6) To our modern sensibilities, these laws are good ones: they prevent stronger people from taking advantage of the weaker.

However, in addition to these groups, strangers are also singled out. Ex. 22:21 and 23:9 both tell the Israelites not to "vex" or "oppress" a stranger. (KJV; "mistreat" or "oppress" in NIV) Why are strangers a privileged group, alongside the truly misfortunate widows and orphans? In today's anonymous society, everyone is a stranger. However, in ancient societies, strangers were immediately suspect. People did not travel as much as they do today, and communities were closer-knit. A stranger had no one to vouch for him, no social network to support him, and no friends in his new community. People could deceive or cheat him at will. He was, therefore, in quite a vulnerable position.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the lower tier of society was protected is why they were protected. There are two distinct reasons, depending on which group we are discussing.

The first reason for obedience is in relation to widows and orphans. Ex. 22:22-24 in the NIV reads as follows: "(22) Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. (23) If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. (24) My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." In essence, these verses use fear of force. "Do not do this," says God, "or I will kill you, and your family will be put in the same position."

Some people might argue that this is quintessential Old Testament reasoning. Mere chapters before, in Ex. 15, the Israelites praised God as a war god, crushing their enemies before them. No matter how benevolent God could be to people following his commandments, he could be extremely forceful against those who didn't. The Hebrews knew God's power, and so the sort of reasoning presented here would have been a powerful incentive to follow the commandments. On the other hand, as many rulers throughout history have learned, fear on its own is rarely effective as a long-term governing strategy.

The other reason to obey these rules applies to strangers. Ex. 22:21 reads as follows in the NIV: "Do not mistreat an alien ("stranger" in KJV) or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." Ex. 23:9 reads: "Do not oppress an alien ("stranger" in KJV); you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt."

Here, unlike with widows and orphans, God appeals to the Hebrews' sense of empathy and compassion. "You were in the same situation," he says. "You know how it feels to be mistreated as strangers. Don't be like the people who oppressed you." The Israelites, mere months in the desert, could remember all too well the torment they faced under their Egyptian taskmasters. Most Hebrews never had the experience of being a widow or an orphan, but they did have the experience of being strangers (or "aliens") in a land where they were unwanted. Thus God was able to draw upon the more powerful force of compassion, as opposed to fear, to govern the Israelites' behaviour towards strangers.

Where, then, does this leave us? As of Moses' ascent on Mount Sinai, the Hebrews were commanded not to mistreat widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. Later chapters will give us much more detailed instructions for how to treat them, but the framework is here that will be built upon later. When possible, God relies on compassion and shared experience to govern the Hebrews' behaviour. Where that is not possible, he relies on the age-old maxim of rulers everywhere, "do what I say or I'll kill you." I, for one, would find that reason compelling... at least until I found a bigger sword.


Damien said...

Not that the Hebrews had a monopoly on social justice; I recently read a description of arrangements in ancient Athens.

I've seen claims -- John Hartung? -- that the Torah is talking about strangers as in Jews-you-don't-know, as opposed to non-Jews; I don't know if that's accurate.

Julie said...

Hi Damien,

I wasn't trying to claim that the Israelites were the only ones who had a sense of social responsibility, just that they had one. I think that many people consider the Biblical period a barbarious time, and this is a way of countering that response somewhat.

In terms of "strangers" being defined as "strange Jews," I would have no problem believing that. I suspect travel in general was much less then than it is now, but especially travel between countries would have been far less common. Most "strangers" people would meet would likely have been Jews.