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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Exodus 23

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Exodus 23 – More Laws Directed to Judges

A. Laws promoting justice.

1. (Exo 23:1-3) Commands to respect the law, not convenience or the crowd.

“You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute.”

a. You shall not circulate a false report: This command is connected with the next because the circulation of a false report was and is a fundamental way to put your hand with the wicked and follow a crowd to do evil.

i. The only way to obey this command is to put a stop to a false report. Doing nothing or remaining neutral is to allow the false report to circulate. “The inventor and receiver of false and slanderous reports, are almost equally criminal. The word seems to refer to either, and our translators have very properly retained both senses.” (Clarke)

ii. Since the issue was a false report, it was proper to ask and require proof from the person bringing the report, and proof as required in the Bible – from two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).

iii. An unrighteous witness: “Better translated ‘witness in a charge of violence’, for the thought is that a verdict will be fatal to the defendant.” (Cole)

b. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil: It has always been in the nature of man to follow a crowd to do evil, since the time Adam followed Eve into sin.

i. It is easy and dangerous to turn aside after many to pervert justice, to follow with our peers and popular opinion. When doing so promotes a false report or perverts justice, then it is sin.

ii. This is why it is so important for us to choose our crowd carefully: Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits.” (1 Corinthians 15:33).

iii. “The history of all right movements has been in the first place the history of lonely souls, who, having heard the authentic voice of God, have stood alone or in small minorities.” (Morgan)

c. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute: No partiality was to be shown to a poor man; the poor were not to be favored just because they were poor, any more than the rich should be favored because they are rich. The facts of a case and the principles of justice should decide a dispute, not the high or low standing or perceived victim status of those involved.

2. (Exo 23:4-9) Laws promoting kindness and righteous civil conduct.

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it. You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute. Keep yourself far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous. Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

a. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again: This command to do good for your enemy was important. It showed that goodness and kindness in Israel was not only required for those one liked and loved, but to all. One might not need a command to do this for a friend, but it was necessary for the enemy and one who hates you.

i. The principle was clear: How you feel about someone does not determine right and wrong behavior towards them. There are principles of justice that must be observed above our feelings.

ii. “Enemy in this context probably means ‘legal adversary’. Justice demands that we treat him like any other neighbor.” (Cole)

b. You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute: God knew that it was always easy for the poor to be neglected in the administration of justice. Being poor did not make one right in a legal dispute, but it should never keep them from getting a fair hearing and justice.

c. Keep yourself far from a false mater; do not kill the innocent and righteous: The promotion of truth was essential under God’s law. God knew how much evil and injustice is justified among men by lies, so He emphasized truth telling in Israel’s daily life and legal practices.

i. The command do not kill the innocent and righteous not only spoke to the need to protect life in the womb, but also that there are instances where justice requires the death of the guilty and wicked.

d. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous: In the promotion of justice, God also commanded against bribery. Specifically, He commanded against the taking of a bribe; bribe makers can’t exist without bribe takers.

e. Your enemy’s ox…one who hates you…you shall not oppress a stranger: God commanded Israel to show kindness and fairness towards those who they might not be kind towards by nature. In later times, some rabbis taught there was an obligation – or at least a permission – to hate one’s enemy. Here, fairness and kindness were commanded even to one who hates you – even as Jesus made clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).

i. You know the heart of a stranger: “The Hebrew is not the usual word for ‘heart’ but nepes, which can be translated ‘life’ or ‘self’. Here it seems to have more the meaning of ‘desires and longings’.” (Cole)

ii. Jesus simply summarized these laws promoting kindness and fair conduct in the community of Israel: You shall love…your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

B. Laws of ceremonial devotion.

1. (Exo 23:10-13) The Sabbath principle.

“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed. And in all that I have said to you, be circumspect and make no mention of the name of other gods, nor let it be heard from your mouth.”

a. Six years you shall sow your land: The principle of the Sabbath applied to more than the workweek. There were also Sabbath years, where the land was to rest and lie fallow one year out of seven.

i. “The law of the Sabbatical Year. This was unique in the world, and associated only with Israel.” (Thomas)

b. The seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow: By tradition, some in Israel accomplished this by only cultivating six-sevenths of their land at any one time, and practicing a method of crop rotation.

i. That the poor of your people may eat: One reason God commanded the Sabbath year was to give the poor something to eat, in that they were allowed to harvest and process that which grew unplanted from the fallow ground. This was a way to help the poor that demanded both that the landowners hold themselves back from maximum profit, and that the poor work to help themselves.

ii. Failure of Israel to give the land its Sabbath-years determined the certainty and the duration of the Babylonian exile (Leviticus 26:32-35, 2 Chronicles 36:21).

c. On the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest: The principle of Sabbath rest was intended for all people, and even for animals. In the same pattern, the Sabbath rest fulfilled in Jesus is intended for all people (2 Peter 3:9), and even for all creation (Romans 8:21).

d. Make no mention of the name of other gods: The Sabbath was to be dedicated to the Lord God, and not to any foreign or false god.

2. (Exo 23:14-17) Three national feasts.

“Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.”

a. Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: God commanded that three times a year, all men in Israel had to come together to keep the most important feasts. These included Unleavened Bread (connected to Passover), Firstfruits, and Ingathering (Pentecost).

i. “Old men, sick men, male idiots, and male children under thirteen years of age, excepted; for so the Jewish doctors understand this command.” (Clarke)

b. Feast of Unleavened Bread…Feast of Harvest…Feast of Ingathering: Details regarding the observance of these feasts will be given later in the Book of Leviticus.

3. (Exo 23:18-19) Laws regarding sacrifice and firstfruits offering.

“You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor shall the fat of My sacrifice remain until morning. The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

a. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread: Since leaven was a symbol of sin and corruption, atoning blood could never be offered with leavened bread.

i. “It means that individual Israelites were not to kill the Passover lamb while leaven was still in their houses.” (Kaiser)

b. Nor shall the fat of My sacrifice remain until morning: If atonement was to be regarded as a complete work, it must be wholly offered unto the Lord – everything must be given to God, not a portion reserved for later. This especially included the fat of My sacrifice, the best portion of the sacrificed animal.

c. The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord: When Israel came into Canaan, they had a special responsibility to make a firstfruit offering to God, in addition to their regular firstfruit offering (Exodus 23:16). Giving God the first and the best honored Him as the Good Provider of all things.

d. You shall not boil a young kid in its mother’s milk: This strange-sounding command was actually a command to not imitate a common pagan fertility ritual.

i. “The Canaanite texts show this to be a magic spell, so the prescription is more ritual than humane.” (Cole)

ii. “It was a custom of the ancient heathens, when they had gathered in all their fruits, to take a kid and boil it in the milk of its dam; and then, in a magical way, to go about and besprinkle with it all their trees and fields, gardens and orchards; thinking by these means to make them fruitful, that they might bring forth more abundantly in the following year.” (Cudworth cited in Clarke)

iii. But because of strange rabbinical interpretations, today this command is the reason why an observant Jew cannot eat a kosher cheeseburger. Observant Jews today will not eat milk and meat at the same meal (or even on the same plates with the same utensils cooked in the same pots), because the rabbis insisted that the meat in the hamburger may have come from the calf of the cow that gave the milk for the cheese, and the cheese and the meat would “boil” together in one’s stomach, and be a violation of this command.

iv. This law also speaks of keeping distance between a mother and the death of her offspring. Meyer says this law was meant “to inculcate a tender appreciation of the natural order, and of the relation subsisting between the mother and her offspring. It was against nature to make the mother an accomplice in the death of her child.”

C. The promise of God’s presence and blessing.

1. (Exo 23:20-21) The Angel who has the name of God in Him.

“Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him.”

a. I send an Angel before you: This unique angel commanded obedience from Israel and had the right of judgment over the nation. Most of all, the name of God was in this angel (for My name is in Him).

i. We only know a few angels by name, and in a sense, Micha-el and Gabri-el each have the name of God in their name. But neither Michael nor Gabriel commanded this kind of obedience from Israel or presumed to sit in judgment over them. This is the specific Angel of the Lord, Jesus appearing in the Old Testament, before His incarnation in Bethlehem, who often speaks directly as the Lord.

ii. “The Angel (v. 20) was not a created angel but a divine manifestation, the Second Person of the Trinity in angelic form.” (Thomas) “My name is in him seems to translate the ‘messenger’ into the supernatural realm, for God’s ‘name’ is the equivalent of His revealed nature.” (Cole)

iii. My name is in Him: Of course, the name Yahweh is in Jesus. His name is literally Yah-shua. Jesus was with Israel in all their wilderness experience. “This Angel with the authority and prestige of the name of God was evidence enough that God himself was present in his Son.” (Kaiser)

b. And to bring you into the place which I have prepared: The Angel would go before them into the place which I have prepared. The same principle is true of our life with Jesus today. Not only is it true that Jesus goes before us to prepare a place for us in heaven (John 14:2-3), but the place we walk in today was prepared by God, and where we will walk tomorrow is prepared by Him also.

2. (Exo 23:22-26) Blessing promised to an obedient Israel.

“But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars. So you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will take sickness away from the midst of you. No one shall suffer miscarriage or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.”

a. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak: It was characteristic of the Mosaic covenant that blessing was based almost purely on Israel’s performance. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed.

i. Under the New Covenant we operate on a different principle. Though there are inevitable consequences of sin and God’s loving correction for disobedience, we are blessed in Jesus, and not because we have been obedient (Ephesians 1:3).

b. My Angel will go before you: God did not bring Israel out of Egypt to leave them in the wilderness. His plan was to bring them into His land of promise and abundance. Though there were mighty nations in Canaan, His Angel would bring an obedient Israel into the Promised Land.

c. You shall not bow down to their gods: The Canaanite people were deeply depraved and morally degraded, and this was a natural result of the depraved and degraded idol gods they served. Therefore it was essential that Israel did not imitate their idol worship or allow it to continue.

i. “Concerning the people to be driven out, it is worthy of note that this paragraph shows that ‘their gods’ were their undoing. Everything in the life of a man or a nation depends on the character of its worship.” (Morgan)

d. So you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water: If they did reject the gods of the Canaanites and continue in faithfulness to God, He promised to bring blessing through their whole life.

3. (Exo 23:27-30) How God will help Israel take possession of the land.

“I will send My fear before you, I will cause confusion among all the people to whom you come, and will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beast of the field become too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased, and you inherit the land.”

a. I will send My fear before you…and will make all your enemies turn their backs to you: God promised that He would go before Israel into the land for them, using both obviously supernatural methods (send My fear) and seemingly natural phenomenon (send hornets before you).

i. “My terror explains the method that God will use to subdue the Canaanites before Israel: a divine panic will grip them.” This was fulfilled in passages such as Joshua 2:11. (Cole)

ii. “From Joshua 24:12, we find that two kings of the Amorites were actually driven out of the land by these hornets, so that the Israelites were not obliged to use either sword or bow in the conquest.” (Clarke)

iii. “He who is an angel to the saint is a hornet to His foes.” (Meyer)

b. Little by little: God promised to drive out the enemies of Israel from Canaan, but He would not drive them out all at once. Israel may have wanted to have the land all cleared out before them, but God knew it was not best for the land or for them.

i. Though it sometimes frustrates us, this is often the way God works in our life. He clears things out little by little, though we might prefer it all at once. But God wanted Israel to have increased in the process of taking the Promised Land. He wanted them to grow. God cares that we grow, and so He often grows us little by little.

ii. “God crumbles his mercies to us; we have his blessings by retail. So the cloud empties not itself at a sudden burst, but dissolves upon the earth drop by drop.” (Trapp)

c. Lest the land become desolate and the beast of the field become too numerous: This was just one reason why it was better for God to defeat their enemies little by little. Doing it in what seemed to be the easy way – clearing out all of Israel’s enemies all at once – had consequences Israel could not see or appreciate.

4. (Exo 23:31-33) Boundaries of Israel’s inheritance.

“And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the sea, Philistia, and from the desert to the River. For I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”

a. From the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River: This encompassed a huge portion of land, one that Israel has never fully possessed. Many suppose that the closest they came was in the days of King David and Solomon.

i. Yet this was a territory that at some points stretched all the way to the Euphrates River. ” ‘The river’ in the Bible is always ‘the great river’, i.e. the Euphrates, just as ‘the sea’ is normally the Mediterranean.” (Cole)

ii. There is a spiritual principle here. God may grant, but we must possess. He withholds our possession of many blessings until we will partner with Him in bold faith and obedience. We have been granted every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3); but will only possess what we will partner with Him in faith and obedience to receive.

iii. God is not an indulgent, spoiling father, pouring out on His children resources, blessings, and gifts they are not ready to receive or be responsible with. When His people are ready to possess in faith, what was promised becomes realized.

b. You shall make no covenant with them: Through lack of discernment, Israel did end up making a covenant with some of the people of the land (Joshua 9). There is no area of the law that Israel – or anyone – has ever kept perfectly.

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

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