Four Sheep for a Sheep
Bible Text: Exodus 21:28-22:17 | Preacher: The Rev’d William Klock | Series: Exodus | Four Sheep for a Sheep
by William Klock
We’re returning this morning to our study of the book of Exodus. We’ll pick up where we left off, at Exodus 21:28. We’re in the middle of that part of Exodus called “The Book of the Covenant”. It follows the Decalogue and here the Lord gives his people various social and religious regulations. We could emphasis that word “various”, because it’s not always easy to know why these regulations are grouped together here. Some are more detailed. Some are short and seem to stand all alone and unrelated to the others. Some raise some aspect of law, but only give one circumstance and we’re left to look in, say, Leviticus or Deuteronomy to find the rest. The law isn’t comprehensive. It singles out one thing here and another there to sort of give Israel examples of what it means to live as the Lord’s people in his land—how to be a witness to the nations. Remember, Israel was the people who lived with the Lord in her midst. The Lord gave his law so that this specific people living in a specific place and a specific time could witness what it looks like to love God and to love each other. They were, in their small way, giving the nations a glimpse of the Lord’s project to set Creation and humanity to rights.
As I’ve said before—but it’s been a while—the torah was Israel’s law. It’s not our law. It doesn’t apply directly to us. It was bound to a people, place, and time. We need to read it with that understanding. As we read Exodus, this is the Lord speaking to his people. We’re listening in on the conversation. But we can still learn something from that—even in these passages that might seem obscure or irrelevant.
Now, before we jump back into Exodus 21, I want to remind you of a story we all learned in Sunday School—one that St. Luke tells us—a story about a “wee little man” named Zacchaeus. He was the tax collector everyone hated who climbed up into the tree to see Jesus. By the time the episode was over, Zacchaeus had committed himself to following Jesus. And do you remember what he did as result of having met Jesus? Remember, tax collectors were known for ripping people off. That’s why everyone hated them—that and that they worked for the hated Romans. Zacchaeus showed his repentance and showed his new life in Jesus by announcing that he was going to go back to all the people from whom he’d stolen and he was going to pay them back four-fold. Four-fold. Brothers and Sisters, that wasn’t some arbitrary number he pulled out of the air. It came from the law. In fact, it comes from our passage today, right from Exodus 22:1. It was the maximum penalty laid on a man for stealing. By Zacchaeus’ day they’d worked out other things. If he’d stood before a judge, the likely penalty would have been twenty per cent on top of what he’d stolen. But Zacchaeus committed to more. You know those signs you see in the dressing room when you’re trying on clothes: “If we catch you stealing, we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law”. They’re not going to go easy on you. They will press charges and they won’t be making any deals or plea bargains. They’re going to squeeze you for the maximum the law allows. Well, of his own free and repentant will, Zacchaeus commited himself to the law’s full penalty. More on that later, but that penalty is found here in Exodus.
So let’s look at Exodus. This next section gives us laws that regard property and compensation. They kind of range over a variety of subjects, but property and compensation are the unifying themes. We’ll look first at 21:28-36—all at once, and then we’ll come back to some of the details.
“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.
“When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his.
Oxen and pits. Exodus here looks very much like other law codes from Mesopotamia. Goring by an ox was a common example along with being bitten by a dog. And open pits were a common example used to lay out laws having to do with liability. And yet, as much as Exodus uses the same legal examples we see elsewhere, God’s law is very different in important ways. Last time we were in Exodus we talked about the death penalty and how it goes back to God’s instructions in Genesis 9: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (9:6). We saw before how this applies to human beings. Now we see it applied to animals. An ox that gores a human being to death is to be killed. The animal has killed one who bears the image of God. It’s tainted by that and not to be eaten. If your ox died or was killed under other circumstances, you’d be out the ox—and oxen were important work animals in their world—but at least you could eat it. It wasn’t a total loss. But not so in this case. The flesh was tainted. Notice, the ox is to be stoned—executed—not slaughtered. The ox faces the same penalty as a murderer. The owner wasn’t liable beyond the loss of his ox.
But that assumes the ox didn’t have a history of goring people. If the ox had done this before—presumably, not fatally—and the owner failed to keep it safely penned or to cut off its horns, and someone dies as a result, then the owner is liable. As before, the ox is to be stoned, but the owner is also to be put to death. Life is precious and he failed in his duty to protect it. The law treats him like a murderer with one exception. A murder had to be executed. His life could not be ransomed. In this case, the owner of the ox can pay a ransom in exchange for his life.
Israel’s law has some other important differences from the laws of her neighbours. Hammurbi’s law, for example, said that if your negligence led to the death of a man’s son, your son was the one who was killed. It was an extreme case of an eye for an eye—a son for a son. But the Lord is just. He does not hold children accountable for the crimes of their parents. If your negligence causes the death of another, you’re the one who pays.
The other example here is the open pit. You can’t just do your own thing and ignore the impact it may have on your neighbour. That’s not loving your neighbour as yourself. God’s people are to look after each other and their well-being. If your neighbour’s animal falls into your pit because you didn’t cover it, it’s on you. The same goes if your ox gores your neighbour’s ox. There’s no death penalty, but you have to make your neighbour whole.
Now, these are matters of negligence at worst. What about deliberately doing your neighbour wrong? What about theft. What if you outright steal his livestock? Look at 22:1.
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.
Here’s where Zacchaeus got his idea to pay back four-fold. Steal an ox and get caught and you owe five in return. Steal a sheep and you owe four in return. It’s not clear why the difference, but the likely reason is that oxen were much more valuable than sheep. Sheep were good for wool. They didn’t eat their livestock as readily as we do, but you could also eat a sheep. But an ox was a draught animal that was used to do a lot of work. Verse 4 addresses the situation if the thief is caught with the animal still alive:
If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
The owner gets his property back with an additional animal as compensation.
Hammurabi condemned a thief to death, but the Lord has declared human life sacred. A thief may steal your ox or your sheep, but neither is worth a human life. The thief is simply required to make the owner whole and to pay restitution. Now look at verses 2-3:
If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
We’ve talked about these verses before. The Hebrew literally speaks of the thief “digging” his way into your house—right through or maybe under the mud-brick wall. The owner is required to show restraint. If he catches the thief at night and kills him, he’s not guilty. It’s dark. Is the thief there to steal? Is he going to kill you while you sleep? It’s hard to say. It’s okay to defend yourself if doing so is warranted. But in the day, it’s more likely you can see what the thief is up to. You can probably call for help. If he did try to kill you, you’d be justified in using lethal force against him, but again, there are probably other options and your ox or sheep or your wife’s pearls aren’t worth his life.
I used to work with a guy whose cousin was shot running from the scene of a robbery. He was in a gas station, the cashier was helping someone else, opened the cash drawer, and he reached over and grabbed a wad of cash—about $80. He ran out the door and down the street. As it happened, there was a policeman in the parking lot. The cashier and customer ran out yelling about the thief. The policeman yelled for the thief to stop, but he just kept running, so the policeman shot him in the back and killed him. For $80. You couldn’t do that in Israel. No life was worth $80—or a sheep or an ox or a donkey.
In verses 5 and 6 we get back to the subject of negligence:
“If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.
“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.
In the first situation, a man lets his animals graze and trample his neighbour’s field. The implication is that it’s deliberate. In the second example, a fire gets out of control. A man was burning chaff left over after the harvest or something like that and the fire gets away from him, resulting in the burning of his neighbour’s field. He’s required to make “full restitution”—presumably the best of your own field as in the previous verse. What stands out is that restitution isn’t just paying back for what was damaged. Restitution involves paying back by giving one’s best. No “Oops, I burned your wheat field. Here’s some leftovers from last year’s harvest.” No, “Oops, my donkey got loose and ate your grapes. Here are some over-ripe apples in exchange. No wine this year, but hey, you can make applesauce.” Nope. You pay him back with your best.
Now, continuing with the theme of negligence, what about loaning something to a neighbour or leaving it with him for safe-keeping and something happens to it? Look at verses 7-9:
“If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.
Something similar goes if you give an animal to your neighbour for safekeeping and it goes missing without witnesses. If he can show evidence that it was eaten by animals (verse 13), he’s not liable for the loss, but otherwise verse 11 says he’s to take an oath:
…an oath by the Lord shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property. The owner shall accept the oath, and he shall not make restitution.
So if we’re talking about theft and the thief is found—maybe it’s the neighbour you gave the property to—the law of restitution applies as we saw before. But if there were no witnesses, it comes down to taking an oath before God. Actually, the Hebrew is a little difficult. I may mean taking an oath that invokes the Lord, it may be an oath made before the Lord, or it may be an oath or statement made in the presence of the local elders.
We’ve all been in that spot—especially as parents. Your kids get in a fight, you ask what happened, and they both tell you different stories. Or you come home and something’s broken. You ask the kids what happened and they say they don’t know. You know something happened. Maybe it was an act of God, but it sure seems like someone’s not telling the truth. And so you tell them to look you in the eye, you remind them that God knows what happened, and you ask them to tell you the truth. That’s when they break down and tell you what really happened. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they look you in the eye and swear up and down on a stack of Bibles that they didn’t have anything to do with it. Maybe the dog really did eat all the cookies. Maybe the vase really did fall over all on its own and break. Maybe your kid is a just a really good liar. But this is the point where you just have to take their word for it and leave it to the Lord. He knows. He’ll deal with it. If you left your ox with your neighbour and he swears it was stolen and that all the meat he suddenly has came from the butcher and not your ox, well, you’re going to have to leave it to the Lord to sort out and trust that he will, even if you never know about it.
This is the point where Israel was different from her neighbours. Her people were trust in the sovereignty of God and in his justice and not to take the law into their own hands. They weren’t to seek revenge. They weren’t to go vigilante. Justice was to reign, and that meant due process and proportionate restitution.
Now, finally, we’ll skip down to verses 16-17.
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.
Most modern translations put these verses in the next section having to do with “social” issues or with “social justice” instead of leaving them in this section that has to do with property. I think this has more to do with our hang-ups than anything else. We don’t like the idea of daughters being treated as property. But the fact is that in many respects, that’s how they were treated in the ancient world, including in Israel. That doesn’t mean that that’s all they were, but I think it’s pretty clear that these verses, in how they deal with the issue, clearly stand with the verses about property. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is telling us that we need to treat our daughters as property. This is Israel’s law, not ours. This is how their world worked and here the Lord is regulating that. That’s all.
So back to the text: the issue here isn’t rape. That’s dealt with in Deuteronomy. This is an instance where a girl willingly lies with a man to whom she’s no betrothed. It’s important to understand this from their perspective. The party wronged wasn’t the girl; it was the father. Having lost her virginity, she’s now “damaged goods”—she’s going to be harder to marry off—and her father is out the bride-price. So restitution—the payment of the bride-price—is made, not to her but to her father. In most circumstances she would be expected to marry the man. This would allow her to save her honour. But her father reserves the right to refuse the marriage. Maybe this man is a terrible creep and this father wants to protect his daughter or it might just be that he’s not someone from their family or social circle—something vitally important to them if not to us—but even if the father refuses to give his daughter in marriage, the man must still pay the bride-price to compensate the girl’s father for what’s been lost. Again, if we set aside our hang-ups about sex roles and family matters, we can see that the issue here is, like the preceding verses, about “theft”. The one who stole must make the wronged party whole.
So that’s the text. The subject matter of the regulations shifts in verse 18 and we’ll pick up from there next week. Now we need to ask what this means for us. All this talk of oxen and pits and sheep—not to mention bride-prices—can seem pretty irrelevant. It’s like real-life Settlers of Catan. You took my sheep, now give me four in return! But that four in return—that “penalty” for theft that inspired Zacchaeus to pay everyone back—that gets to the heart of the matter. Notice the penalties here. If you’re negligent and it hurts your neighbour, you don’t just say “I’m sorry”. You don’t give him your left-overs or your second best. You make him whole by giving your best. And the thief, he doesn’t just pay back; he goes above and beyond. The intent was to discourage stealing. There wouldn’t be much incentive not to steal if all you had to do was give the goods back if you were caught. So you make your victim whole and pay a penalty. That was God’s law.
You see, God’s law taught the people respect and love for neighbour. Now, I doubt there were many—if any—thieves who were feeling generous when they gave over four sheep for the one they stole—or when they were sold as slave to pay the four-sheep debt that they couldn’t otherwise pay. But it’s not hard to imagine the guy who accidentally set his neighbour’s wheat-field on fire, feeling real remorse for the accident and going out of his way to be generous in reimbursing his neighbour. But regardless of the situation, this was what it looked like to love your neighbour in Israel. And history shows that for the most part, the Israelites failed. The prophets repeatedly condemned the nation for failing to live up to these standards. The strong took what belonged to the weak. The rich took what belonged to the poor. Perhaps the worst, the religious leaders were amongst the most guilty. They were the people who lived with God in their midst and when they failed to live to his standards, when they failed to be light in the darkness, he allowed them to be removed from his land and carried off into exile. But the Lord also promised that a day would come when he would set his people right, when he would give his own Spirit to turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
Brothers and Sisters, that’s what we see in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, the sleazy, scummy tax collector who stole from everyone, the rich man who abused the poor, the man who stood with strong Roman soldiers at his back and took from the weak, that man met Jesus, the Messiah, the one in whom the Lord was fulfilling his promises. And that man’s heart was changed. Zacchaeus was moved to repentance. And Zacchaeus—of his own regenerated free will, out of the abundance of his renewed heart—happily took the full penalty of the law. No one was forcing him. And he probably could have paid back with a twenty per cent penalty—which was how many interpreted the law in his day. But that’s not what his changed heart did. He didn’t quibble about it. He didn’t look for a loophole. He knew the law and he did it.
Brothers and Sisters, there are two lesson here. The first is a lesson in what real repentance looks like. The first is in what it looks like to really follow Jesus. What it looks like is a truly transformed heart. It’s more than words. It’s more than a prayer. It’s a changed life. It’s a life that’s transformed. It’s a life and a heart that feel remorse for sin. It’s a life and a heart that truly desire to make things right: to repay what’s been taken, to restore what’s been broken by our old sinful way of life.
The second point is that as Zacchaeus fulfils the law as a result of having encountered Jesus, we see the faithfulness of God. There’s a reason why Luke makes a point of the details here. Zacchaeus wasn’t just showing his renewed heart by being good and nice in some arbitrary way. He did it by submitting himself to God’s law—the law that Israel had failed to uphold, but that the Lord had promised they one day would after his Messiah had transformed their hearts. Zacchaeus reveals that Jesus is the one who came to fulfil the promise. Zacchaeus reveals that Jesus is the one who brings God’s Spirit to his people, transforming hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, turning hearts from love of self to love of God and neighbour. That’s the wonderful part of that story and it adds something to our Exodus lesson that might otherwise seem like a cold, legal text that has no bearing on us.
As we read these texts during Epiphanytide, they ought to be to us like the star the Magi followed. That star revealed to them that the Lord’s Messiah had been born in Israel, the one who would set all to rights. We don’t have a star. The Lord doesn’t leave us to rely on astrologers to find Jesus. He’s given us something far better. He’s given us the story of his people and the story of Jesus and there we see his goodness and his mercy, his grace and his faithfulness. And, Brothers and Sisters, the story leads us to Jesus. Let us come in repentant faith and be transformed, our hearts of stone made hearts of flesh.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for your word. Thank you even for these parts that are so often hard to read and understand and even kind of boring, because in Jesus we see them brought to life as your people are brought to life. Fill us with that same life as we come in faith to Jesus, transform our hearts and minds by the power of your Spirit that we may love you with heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbours as ourselves. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.