The social laws of the Pentateuch were not designed for the modern world,
They were clearly designed for a different kind of world, a mainly agricultural society.
But since they were published in the name of the Biblical God, they can still throw light on his nature and intentions.
Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.
Let’s take, for example, what his law says about dangerous oxen.
Strictly speaking, in theory, the phrase should be an oxymoron.
In modern usage, “oxen” are normally cattle which have been surgically treated to make them more “docile and tractable”.
The animals in these cases have clearly not been treated, or the treatment has not worked.
So perhaps we should follow the NIV and call them “bulls”.
The problem is that beasts are prone to wander off their owner’s land.
It’s clear from some of the other laws in the Pentateuch that there won’t be many physical boundaries to prevent them.
So what happens if two such beasts meet, and start fighting, and one of them gets killed?
If the fight was unpredictable, the law on the subject is very pragmatic;
“When one man’s ox hurts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead beast also they
shall divide”- Exodus ch21 v35
The effect of this law is that both men suffer damage to the same extent.
The implication is that there is no point in trying to assign blame for the incident.
These things will happen.
The fight could have gone either way, and neither owner is really responsible for the outcome.
Let them, therefore, shrug their shoulders and split the difference.
The case is very different if the guilty beast has already shown itself to be aggressive, because then the owner has knowledge of what it can do, and
should have been taking steps to prevent repetition;
“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 pay ox for ox, and the dead beast
shall be his” Exodus ch21 v36
In other words, all the loss falls upon himself.
In the popular understanding of English law, there’s a maxim that “every dog is allowed one bite”, which is the same kind of principle; the
owner is more liable if there’s a known history of aggression.
The loss of human life is a much more serious matter;
“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 be clear”-
Exodus ch21 v28
The stoning of the ox is the same legal principle that applies in cases of murder- “You shall give life for life”.
The ban on eating the flesh of the homicidal ox reflects the sense of horror which the deed has provoked, and it’s also an indirect way of
penalising the owner.
If the dead animal can’t be eaten, then it can’t be sold, so he’s lost the value of it altogether.
Apart from that, the owner is “clear”- he won’t be held accountable.
Once again, the case is very different “if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but not kept it in”.
Since he knew the beast could be aggressive, he shares the responsibility for what happened;
“…the ox shall be stoned, and the owner also shall be put to death”- Exodus ch21 v29
The principle of “life for life”, as in the case of murder.
However, the law doesn’t insist on this penalty if the victim was only a slave.
In that case, the owner will simply be obliged to pay thirty shekels of silver to the slave’s master, though the ox will still be stoned.
In fact it might be possible for him to “redeem” his life, even if the victim was free, by the payment of whatever “ransom” has been arranged-
Exodus ch21 vv30-32
Many societies (including our own, when dealing with corporate bodies) have allowed the option of paying money to a victim’s family instead of
applying a death penalty, but Israelite law makes a point of banning the practice in the case of more direct homicide.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
As in other cases, the principle that runs through them is that people should not suffer loss from the actions or from the neglect of others.
So they seek to promote a sense of responsibility for the behaviour of domesticated animals, while accepting that owners can’t be blamed for events
beyond their control.
And they seek to reduce the scope for conflict, by providing solutions to contentious problems.
So this is a God who wants neighbours to live in peace with one another.
At a later time, this can be made more explicit in the teaching of “love”.
Meanwhile, the principle of “life for life” implies that nothing else can have comparable value, and this reflects the Biblical understanding that
God is the source of human life.
Wherever these laws resemble the laws of other societies of the time, that’s instructive in itself.
It shows us a God who deals with people as he finds them, starting with the customs they’ve got already and allowing time to improve them.
This will be the reason why the principle of “life for life” isn’t yet applied consistently, and the negligent owner is sometimes allowed to
“ransom” his life.
The law still shows the persistent influence of the older way of doing things.
edit on 7-2-2014 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)