Social transformation is often a long and painful process. Think about efforts at equality within the United States. The founders’ vision was for a society where everyone had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence expressed this in 1776. Yet it took nearly a century and a Civil War to bring an end to slavery. It took nearly 150 years for women to be able to vote and it nearly 200 years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make significant strides toward racial equality.
How does one take a community that has been enslaved for over 400 years and transform them into a nation that shines a beacon of light to all other nations in the world pointing them to the true God. How does an entire nation become holy, set apart for God’s service and God’s glory?
This is the challenge that was before God, Moses and the nation of Israel. They were leaving behind one type of structure, slavery, to enter into a new way of living. They needed a new structure to help them know how to live. They had to be taught how to live in community. They had to be taught how to work, and how to rest, how to care for their neighbors, and how to punish wrongdoing that threatened to destroy their community.
In today’s reading we see how God begins to organize and structure the transforming community of Israel. He teaches them how they are to live and become a holy nation and a royal priesthood. This transformation would not come quickly or easily.
They had to be taught how to show respect for personal property: “Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.” (22:1) Those who steal must give restitution.
They had to be taught to respect the family structure and to place their sexuality within proper boundaries: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.” (22:16-17)
They had to be taught that there were severe consequences for failing to follow appropriate sexual boundaries: “Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal is to be put to death.” (22:19).
They had to be taught to have empathy and to show kindness to strangers and people who were different: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (22:21).
They had to be taught to have compassion for people in the community who had suffered major losses: “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. (22:22).
They had to be taught to show respect both to God and to their earthly leaders: “ Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.” (22:28)
They had to be taught how to live as a just community by not giving false testimony, and by neither showing favoritism toward the poor nor withholding justice from the poor (23:1-6).
They had to be taught to care for their bodies and minds by getting appropriate rest. (23:12).
It was also important that everyone be taught these and other guidelines for how to live in community as God’s people and that they verbally acknowledge that they understand and intend to follow “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” (24:3)
Israel’s transformation from slavery to covenant people of God living a set apart life as the community of God’s people was a slow and challenging process. It was painfully difficult, but necessary. In the end, people failed more often than they succeeded to carrying out their assignments. And yet, somehow, despite tremendous opposition from aggressive and hate filled neighbors, the Nation of Israel survived.
As Christians, we can learn much from studying how God worked with His people Israel to bring about their transformation. It is important to note that they were God’s people first, and then they were given this particular set of laws. In the same way, as Christians, we become God’s people first, through faith in Jesus Christ, and then we commit to following Jesus and obeying Jesus’ commands. We do not become God’s people by following laws, but by following Jesus Christ. However, when we follow Jesus Christ, we do not descend into lawlessness. Structure is still required. So Jesus spends three years teaching his disciples how to live as the people of God who are called to be holy, set apart to be a light to all nations. We complete the mission that the nation of Israel began, and we do so following the yoke or community guidelines as laid down by Jesus Christ. The foundational teaching of Jesus is to Love God and Love our Neighbors. That is a good place for each of us to start each day.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=exodus+22-24&version=NIV
Tomorrow’s Bible reading will be Exodus 25-27 as we continue on the 2020 Chronological Bible Reading Plan