A Justice Sandwich

February 11, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Posted in Exodus | 6 Comments
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Exodus Chapter 21 starts off by addressing the rules governing servitude or slavery. The laws involving servants for Israel were supposed to be far different from the way the pagan nations practiced slavery. Remember, the Israelites had just come out of real slavery in Egypt, so, what is being dealt with primarily here is much closer to what we would call “employment,” than what we think of when we think of “slavery” as practiced by those who kidnap people and treat them like animals.

Most “servants” in Israel (except for foreign prisoners of war) were contract employees – the way the owner of a professional football team is said to “own” the players he signs to a contract. This type of employment contract was limited, under the Covenant Code, to six years, although the servant could decide to stay with his owner after that. The decision to place oneself into legally enforceable servitude for longer than the initial limited time period was to be taken seriously, and even discouraged to an extent, so there was a formal public ceremony to impress upon all involved the nature of what was being undertaken.

And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.

Exodus 21:5-6

The laws in this section of the Covenant are what are called casuistic and paradigmatic. They are casuistic, meaning that they are case-law examples. They were not intended to be applied by the judges narrowly or only to the specific situations described. They were designed for extrapolating into unforeseen or unusual circumstances. For example:

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

Exodus 21:20

What if the boss didn’t hit the employee, but chained him to a tree until he starved to death? Could he escape punishment by claiming the law didn’t apply to him? After all, there was no smiting involved. No. The law concerning the rod was a casuistic example of a broader principle. A wise judge could easily see this.

These laws were paradigmatic in this sense: What if a woman rather than a man hit her servant? The principle of the law would still apply. The genders were interchangeable unless otherwise specified. What if the boss hit the servant with an ax instead of a rod? It’s the same idea, and the same punishment would adhere. The paradigm was still in place

In studying the laws of the Covenant Code it is also helpful to understand that they are often chiastic in structure. Otherwise, they might seem random to the casual reader. A chiasm is a literary or an oratorical device that is used mnemonically. Since these laws were given verbally and were largely transmitted verbally, chiasms helped group laws together in interesting and therefore memorable ways. For example:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death. And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee. But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.

Exodus 21:12-14

The structure is A-B-A. A general principle is stated: (A) The one who kills shall be killed. An exception is described: (B) If the killing is not premeditated, the killer may find a safe haven pending inquiry. Then, the general principle is restated with greater clarity: (C) One who kills with malice aforethought is to receive the death penalty.

The technique of chiasmus may be thought of like a sandwich. Two pieces of bread are the outer brackets, and the most bland parts. But each subsequent ingredient has a match on each side as you move closer to the center: mustard on each slice of bread, two pieces of lettuce, two slices of tomato, pickles on the top and bottom of the meat, which is in the center, and which is the most interesting (and least obvious) and defining thing about the sandwich. So, many of the chiasms are more complex than A-B-A, and may look more like:


“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death” is very general – basically a restatement of the 6th Commandment. “And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee” seems like a nonsequitur – like it applies to negligent homicide or to manslaughter. “But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die” returns to the theme – with an additional detail.

It is also worth noting at this point that the subject of this particular chiasm is the well-known lex talionis – from the Latin for “law” (lex) and talia, meaning “in like kind.” The “law of retaliation” – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – was the law of perfect justice. The punishment was supposed to fit the crime. This was in contrast to many laws of the ancient world, which focused on monetary or material fines and allowed rich people to count the cost and hurt people when it was more convenient. On the flip side, though, the qualifiers to the lex talionis in God’s law were also in stark contrast to the too-strict laws of the ancient world that often allowed vengeance to take the place of justice.

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Exodus 21:22-25

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