History or Law?

Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21-24

by Jared Eaton, Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT


This week’s parasha may contain one of the most jarring chapters in all of literature. If you were reading the Bible in order up to this point, you would have been looking at the story of God’s relationship with humankind and especially with the Jewish people.

The book of Genesis tells of the Creation, and then the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The tragic tale of Cain and Abel is next, followed by the great flood and Noah and his family. After recounting the many families of the earth and the trouble they got into at the Tower of Babel, the story then narrows its focus onto a single family, and we read of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, and the fate of their family in Egypt. The narrative then switches to Moses and his partnership with God in freeing the Hebrew nation from the clutches of slavery.

While there have been many different characters and events in this unfolding tale, the one consistent thing about the Bible is that it’s been a very human story. That is, until we get to Mishpatim.

The Bible, which had been developing very much like a history book, all of a sudden changes genres completely. The narrative structure of the book completely disappears and what had once been a riveting tale of God and men and miracles transforms into a rather dry recitation of legal statutes and strictures.

Perhaps it’s not unexpected; the word “Torah” after all, is often translated as “Law”, but it still feels incongruous. What happened to the story? It’s certainly not over yet. In just a few chapters we will read the very human account of the sin of the golden calf. The Bible isn’t finished telling our history yet, so why are these chapters about laws squeezed into the middle of the narrative? What do our laws and our history have to do with each other?

Perhaps there is not so great a division between law and history as one might think. What if the mitzvot are a response to the history of the people of God?

Consider the first mitzvot spoken of in Exodus 21; laws concerning human servitude. The Lord introduced himself to Israel at Sinai as Adonai your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Isn’t it fitting that he would first concern himself with ensuring that his chosen people never afflicted themselves with the same evil from which he had just delivered them?

Slavery was an ugly reality in the ancient world and wasn’t abolished, even in the West, until the 19th century. With just a few words, however, God took the greatest tragedy that the Jewish people had experienced until then, and used it to lay the groundwork for an entirely different system. In this system, slavery was not an existential condition but a temporary circumstance that one would be liberated from in the Sabbath year.

Slavery is given limitations; women indentured to other families have a system in place that allows them to be elevated within the household. Servants, once regarded as property, are given rights as human beings, and all of Israel are reminded that God is the true master.

God takes the painful history of his people and uses it as a guide to shape his laws so that the evils of the past need not be repeated.

After addressing slavery, the next mitzvot concern the difference between premeditated and accidental murder. The examples given once again recall the history of the Jewish people.

Compare the intentional murderer, who hunted down his prey, to Cain, who slew his brother with malice aforethought, or Esau, the hunter, who waited eagerly for the day of his father’s death so that he might kill his brother Jacob. Contrast those men with Moses himself who, in a fit a righteous anger against an Egyptian taskmaster, struck and killed a man. As with the hypothetical accidental murderer in Exodus 21:13, God grants Moses a place of refuge where he can run and hide from Pharaoh’s wrath.

Again, in Exodus 21:16 we hear echoes of the past in the prohibition against stealing a person to sell him. The reference to the traumatic kidnapping and subsequent sale of Joseph could not be more clear.

The laws in Parashat Mishpatim are not a diversion from our history, they are our history, and an antidote to the hurts we have suffered at each others’ hands.

In a world without Torah, men killed and stole and enslaved one another with no regard for the pain they inflicted on their fellow man. But now, God is showing us a better way to live, a way that allows us to reverse the downward course of history and turn ourselves upwards towards him.

The chapters about laws in Exodus may seem like a divergence from the main story of Torah, but in actuality, the Law looks back into our history and forwards towards a time when the Law will be perfectly fulfilled in Messiah Yeshua. When that day comes, the wounds of the past will be fully healed and the tale of God and men and miracles will come to its glorious conclusion.

Stephanie Escalnate