Mishpatim – Exodus 21:1 to 24:18
The text from this week is often called the “Covenant Code.” Its ordinances form the covenant between the Israelites and God creating a holy people. This week we explore what constitutes being “holy.”
In the last verses of last week’s parsha God told Moses how the Israelites should worship God. These verses and the bulk of this week’s text are often referred to as the “Covenant Code.” The verses in this code contain a collection of civil, criminal, and ritual laws for the Israelites and are the basis for a covenant between God and them.
Mishpatim begins: “These are the rules that you shall set before them (the Israelites):” (Ex. 21:1)
After all the rules or ordinances were given to Moses, he “went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Eternal and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Eternal has commanded we will do!’ Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Eternal.” (Ex. 24:3-4) Thus a covenant between the Eternal and the Israelites was completed.
As stated above, the first verses of the section, often called the “Covenant Code” contain rules on how the Eternal should be worshiped…. No images of any gods should be made of silver or gold (the text uses a small “g” in the word “gods”. I assume this includes the Eternal as well as any other god worshiped by others)… The remaining verses tell the people about the altar for burnt offerings and sacrifices to God. (Ex. 20:19-23)
This parsha continues by offering a wide range of laws covering civil, criminal, and ritual matters. As with any group of people, rules or laws are needed …. or else chaos results. However, most of the legal systems at the time of Moses were written to benefit the ruling class. These laws were designed to create a better community.
In the middle of the long list of laws is a statement that explains the direction and intent of these laws: “You shall be holy people to Me (God): you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” (Ex. 22:30) Even though the statement saying that the people shall be holy to God precedes a specific law, I see this request as an underlying theme through out the entire parsha.
An examination of the word “holy” tells us a great deal. The Hebrew word for holy is kadosh – meaning holy or sacred according to the dictionary. But actual application of the word in real life is “separation” … separation between that which is associated with God, and that which is secular…. For example, Shabbat is holy – We are commanded that on six days we work, on the seventh we shall rest. Shabbat is separate from the other days – making it holy or kadosh. Another example… “You [communal leaders] shall not ill treat any widow or orphan.” (Ex. 22:21) Other peoples may not pay any attention to these unfortunate people … in fact, many people with means cast them aside and fail to help them because there is no personal gain. The text tells us that to be a holy people [kadosh] you must act differently than other people… You must separate yourself from the other peoples of the world…. You must not only “not ill treat” them, but other ordinances tell us to treat them as you would treat yourselves…. “You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.” (Ex. 23:6) In Leviticus we are commanded to provide for the helpless through tithes and certain crops left unharvested in fields.
The text also provides many ordinances relating to slavery. Although it does not condemn the practice of slavery, it provides for a “holy” treatment of slaves. This treatment of Hebrew slaves is a great improvement over the treatment by the Egyptians. It acts to “separate” the Israelites from the Egyptians and other peoples.
We are also told: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:20) Commentators have noted that a stranger is not only a person who is not of one’s community; but, also includes people different than you… like the poor, the handicapped, and the uneducated. To be holy, all peoples should be treated equally. This concept separates the Israelites from the Egyptian traditions they had experienced. The fact that this concept is repeated several times in this parsha indicates its importance.
So, what the “Covenant Code” presents is more than just a set of laws to prevent chaos. It is designed to produce a nation of people that are living in a “holy” [kadosh] community that will separate them from the other peoples of the world. They will be living a lifestyle that is closer to the world envisioned by the Eternal.
Do all the laws apply today?…. Definitely not. The laws of slavery, for instance, seem very strange by contemporary standards. However, the concepts behind the laws – equal treatment of all people, honest business practices, and the equal treatment for the stranger and disadvantaged certainly apply today. And, unfortunately, these laws still need to be repeated to those who are not abiding by them today…. Yes, even though these laws were written more than 3,000 years ago, the concepts are still fresh today. In fact, some of the ideas are considered progressive by contemporary standards.