Week 9 / Exodus 21-24
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal.5:1). What is freedom? How did ancient Church understand ‘freedom’ in the light of the lists of commandments delivered in passages such as Ex.21-23. For our culture ‘freedom’ is the absence of restraint - the ‘freedom’ to define ourselves as we like. But if, as Christians, we think of freedom like this we’ll struggle to make sense of the Scriptures, where a much deeper vision of freedom is held out to us. Jesus teaches that our throwing off the restraint of God is in fact slavery – the antithesis of freedom. ‘Everyone who sins is a slave to sin’ (Jn.8:34, see similar comments from Paul in Rom.6:16-23). Freedom is not to be thought of in terms of our independence from God and our ‘freedom’ to choose how we will live. True freedom is precisely the opposite. We are only free when we are restrained by God, and so live without sin. True freedom is true Christlikeness.
This recalibration of our vision of freedom has far-reaching and often subversive consequences. To take just one example, we often think that the LORD, in order to maintain the authenticity of our freedom to love Him with integrity, had to allow for the possibility of our rejection of Him. The opportunity to reject God for sin (should we wish to) constitutes our ‘freedom’. But in the light of Jesus’ & the Apostle’s teaching, we see that this is not a liberating grasp for freedom, but a terrifying decent into slavery – the tragic surrendering of freedom. Adam & Eve were almost free, but not quite. They had a single opportunity to squander that freedom, which they took.
Only Christ has lived in total freedom. And only in our union with Christ can we know that freedom. As the Holy Spirit rebuilds in us the image of Christ we find an ability to live in a way shaped by the royal Law (Jas.2:8). If Israel could have kept the Law they too would have been freed. But as we saw last week, the corruption of humanity subverts the Law that is good, and uses it as an occasion to violate God’s vision for life. The great tragedy of Exodus is that rather than allowing the Law to drive them to their Messiah, they sought instead to establish their own righteousness by keeping the Law themselves (Rom.10:1-4). The Law was not something that threatened their freedom, as if the LORD was substituting one tyrannical regime for another in their redemption. Rather He was offering a vision of true freedom, life and rest. This is the lens through which we should read Ch.20-23. It is the unpacking of what it means to love the LORD our God … and our neighbour as ourselves. It is the vision of life that emanates out from and reflects the life of God Himself. It is a life we strive for now, but which we will only enjoy fully in the righteousness of the New Creation, where there is no sin and no possibility of sin. That is not the surrendering of freedom, it is our inheriting of it. For there we shall be truly like Christ. Hence Paul’s triumphant declaration: ‘Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses’ (Acts 13:39).
Last time, we were asking the question about which, if any of the 10 Commandments we thought Christians should still be expected to keep. What did you answer? What about the laws of Ex.21-23? Are they still applicable? Is your answer different to the similar questions about keeping the 10 Commandments? If so, why?
Bible scholars sometimes suggest that there are 3 parts to the ancient Law of Moses: Civil (the legislation of the nation, e.g. 21:2-11); Religious (worship in the Tabernacle e.g. 23:14-19) and Moral (how we live as people e.g. 23:1-8). Such scholars maintain that ‘moral’ laws are applicable to all, whenever and wherever they live; that the Religious laws are fulfilled in Christ, and no longer applicable to the Church, and the Civil Laws are redundant as the Church is no longer tied to the life of one nation. Do you agree with this analysis? Are there passages in the Bible which would confirm / deny these ideas?
The OT is often called immoral on the basis of certain aspects of the Law of Moses. Passages such as Ex.21:20 (see also e.g. 23:12; Lev.25:44-46 etc.), carrying as it does the sense that it condones slavery raise such questions. How would you answer someone who said they couldn’t believe the Bible was the word of God because it legislated for slavery? How do you make sense of these kinds of passages yourself? What would you say to someone who justified slavery on the basis of the Mosaic Law?
…and how do you reconcile passages that legislate for slavery, with passages like 21:16, which clearly condemns enslavement?
Do you think that the Law given through Moses should be used to shape the legislative life of a nation – or to put it another way: should the Laws in the Bible (such as 21:12-14) be used as Laws of e.g. the UK? What about Laws such as the one in 22:20? If you have different answers, why?
How has living in a secular culture shaped your thinking about the role of the law of the land, and the areas of our national life that should be affected by that law? Do you think a secularised vision for the law of the land is better than a religious one? How would your answer change (if at all) depending on which religion informed the law-makers (Islam? Hinduism? Christianity?)
Why is attacking (21:15), or even cursing (21:17) your father or mother a capital offense? How would this influence your reading of passages such as Rom.1:30 (‘they disobey their parents’)? How does how we relate to parents (and teach children how to relate to parents) shape how we relate to God?
Why does Jesus feel He is at liberty to set aside / redefine laws such as ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth…’ (see: Matt.5:38-41, though also Matt.5:17)? How does Jesus doing this affect how we interpret the Law of Moses?
How are the three annual festivals of 23:14-19 fulfilled in and by Christ? Why do you think these three are singled out as ones which require a national assemblage?
Read Ex.23:21 carefully. What do you make of the fact that the Angel who bears God’s Name will not forgive rebellion? How does that fit with the vision of God who also institutes the Tabernacle in the next chapters of Exodus, precisely to provide atonement and therefore forgiveness? How does this affect your own thinking of God?
Ex.23:23 & 27-33. How can we worship a God who instigates genocide in order to provide His own people with a land to live in?
Ex.23:25-26. How can we make sense of promises like this in the Church today, when clearly Christians do get sick, and miscarry, and suffer from poverty and famine, and die young? How would you respond to someone who argued on the basis of verse like these that Christians shouldn’t get ill, or suffer, but should in fact live lives of health, wealth and prosperity?
The Apostle Paul sees a great (but not total) continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and the experience of the Church living in each. We often think of (and perhaps overplay?) the discontinuity, but don’t let that cause you to lose sight of where things remain the same. To take just one example, Romans sees the OT as proclaiming the righteousness that is by faith (Rom.10:6-9), through trust in Christ (Rom.10:11 & 13); and sees the Israelites of Isaiah’s day having the opportunity to respond to the ‘good news’ i.e. the Gospel (10:16). By contrast we often still hear people talk as if in the OT salvation came through obeying the Law, and in the NT it comes through faith in Christ. This is clearly an area we need to navigate with great care, guided by the Bible itself. But one of the greatest lines of continuity is that the Law itself teaches that salvation comes through faith in Christ, and is designed to drive us to Christ. Only when we have been united to Christ, can we begin to live like Him.