MIshpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18)

The tone of the Torah changes with this parasha.  Whereas up to now the focus has been principally on narrative, the Torah now presents the rules by which the the Israelites are expected to live.

 Where to start? So much is necessary beyond the initial commandments which frame essential truths.  Now there is to be a Book of the Covenant which spells out in greater detail what those truths mean in practice.

 Slavery and the liberation from it has been the great cause of the exodus from Egypt.  So perhaps that is the reason the Book of the Covenant begins with slavery.  A clear precedent is established.  Unlike in Egypt, the status of being a Hebrew slave is not a permanent condition unless a slave formally requests it.  The slave is to be released after six years of service, and his wife, should he have one, can join him. (21:2-6)

 A female Hebrew slave who has been sold by her father cannot be freed after six years. But if her owner finds her displeasing, he must let her be redeemed.  And if he designates her for his son and he marries another, he is not permitted to withhold her food, her clothing or her conjugal rights.  However imperfect this appears to 21st century eyes, it marks a clear distinction to what previously occurred in Egypt, for unlike then, Hebrew slaves now have some rights. (21:7-11)

 From the discussion on slavery, the topic jumps to murder.  “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.”  (21:12)    However, “If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God I will assign you a place to which he can flee.” (21:13) Discerning intent thus becomes of paramount importance:  accidental or deliberate?   Certainly, as far as former Hebrew slaves are concerned, this is revolutionary.  No Egyptian cared much that Moses’s slaying of an Egyptian overseer was impulsive, with the intent of stopping the beating of a helpless Hebrew slave.

Questions for discussion:  Do you think that the intention of the Book of the Covenant is to draw a clear distinction between what the Hebrews had experienced as slaves and the new society of freedom?  If not, why not?  If so, were there other considerations as well?

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