When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God declared: “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, you will be for me . . . and a holy nation” (vv. 3–6). God’s rescued people needed to live as a testament to Him before the nations, a calling contingent upon their obedience to God and faithfulness to His covenant. To illustrate this, God outlines a steadfast life. The Ten Commandments identify general instructions regarding love for God (Ex. 20:2–11) and neighbor (20:12–17). The Book of the Law follows the Commandments (Ex. 20:22–23:33) and outlines righteous living in various settings and relationships. Our texts today are situated within this Book of the Law.
Exodus 21:2–11 addresses treatment of Hebrew servants. For ancient Israel, indebted labor allowed people to escape poverty and destitution as a means of economic debt recovery. A Hebrew male became a servant because of bankrupt parents, personal indigence, or to make restitution for theft. A Hebrew female became a servant if her father was unable to supply a sufficient dowry. Old Testament law ensured that these servants were not abused, oppressed, or deprived of justice. God instituted provisions for them to be released from debt “without paying anything” (21:2, 11).
Exodus 22:21–27 prohibits mistreatment of vulnerable people. Foreigners lacked support from family; widows and orphans lacked protection from husband and father. God advocates directly for them as their compassionate protector and defender (22:23–24, 27). He expects the same from His people. Exodus 23:1–11 forbids various forms of injustice such as false testimony, denying legal rights to the poor, and taking bribes.
There are two theological reasons for obedience. First, the Israelites know what it is like to be victims of injustice and oppression, so they must treat others justly out of empathy and common humanity (22:21; 23:9). Second, the Lord is compassionate and just (22:27; 23:6), and God’s people are to imitate Him.