Verses 22–36

Observe here,

I. The particular care which the law took of women with child, that no hurt should be done them which might occasion their mis-carrying. The law of nature obliges us to be very tender in that case, lest the tree and fruit be destroyed together, Exod. 21:22, 23. Women with child, who are thus taken under the special protection of the law of God, if they live in his fear, may still believe themselves under the special protection of the providence of God, and hope that they shall be saved in child-bearing. On this occasion comes in that general law of retaliation which our Saviour refers to, Matt. 5:38; An eye for an eye. Now, 1. The execution of this law is not hereby put into the hands of private persons, as if every man might avenge himself, which would introduce universal confusion, and make men like the fishes of the sea. The tradition of the elders seems to have put this corrupt gloss upon it, in opposition to which our Saviour commands us to forgive injuries, and not to meditate revenge, Matt. 5:39. 2. God often executes it in the course of his providence, making the punishment, in many cases, to answer to the sin, as Jdg. 1:7; Isa. 33:1; Hab. 2:13; Matt. 26:52. 3. Magistrates ought to have an eye to this rule in punishing offenders, and doing right to those that are injured. Consideration must be had of the nature, quality, and degree of the wrong done, that reparation may be made to the party injured, and others deterred from doing the like; either an eye shall go for an eye, or the forfeited eye shall be redeemed by a sum of money. Note, He that does wrong must expect one way or other to receive according to the wrong he has done, Col. 3:25. God sometimes brings men’s violent dealings upon their own heads (Ps. 7:16); and magistrates are in this the ministers of the justice, that they are avengers (Rom. 13:4), and they shall not bear the sword in vain.

II. The care God took of servants. If their masters maimed them, though it was only striking out a tooth, that should be their discharge, Exod. 21:26, 27. This was intended, 1. To prevent their being abused; masters would be careful not to offer them any violence, lest they should lose their service. 2. To comfort them if they were abused; the loss of a limb should be the gaining of their liberty, which would do something towards balancing both the pain and disgrace they underwent. Nay,

III. Does God take care for oxen? Yes, it appears by the following laws in this chapter that he does, for our sakes, 1 Cor. 9:9, 10. The Israelites are here directed what to do,

1. In case of hurt done by oxen, or any other brute-creature; for the law, doubtless, was designed to extend to all parallel cases. (1.) As an instance of God’s care of the life of man (though forfeited a thousand times into the hands of divine justice), and in token of his detestation of the sin of murder. If an ox killed any man, woman, or child, the ox was to be stoned (Exod. 21:28); and, because the greatest honour of the inferior creatures is to be serviceable to man, the criminal is denied that honour: his flesh shall not be eaten. Thus God would keep up in the minds of his people a rooted abhorrence of the sin of murder and every thing that was barbarous. (2.) To make men careful that none of their cattle might do hurt, but that, by all means possible, mischief might be prevented. If the owner of the beast knew that he was mischievous, he must answer for the hurt done, and, according as the circumstances of the case proved him to be more or less accessory, he must either be put to death or ransom his life with a sum of money, Exod. 21:29-32. Some of our ancient books make this felony, by the common law of England, and give this reason, “The owner, by suffering his beast to go at liberty when he knew it to be mischievous, shows that he was very willing that hurt should be done.” Note, It is not enough for us not to do mischief ourselves, but we must take care that no mischief be done by those whom it is in our power to restrain, whether man or beast.

2. In case of hurt done to oxen, or other cattle. (1.) If they fall into a pit, and perish there, he that opened the pit must make good the loss, Exod. 21:33, 34. Note, We must take heed not only of doing that which will be hurtful, but of doing that which may be so. It is not enough not to design and devise mischief, but we must contrive to prevent mischief, else we become accessory to our neighbours’ damage. Mischief done in malice is the great transgression; but mischief done through negligence, and for want of due care and consideration, is not without fault, but ought to be reflected upon with great regret, according as the degree of the mischief is: especially we must be careful that we do nothing to make ourselves accessory to the sins of others, by laying an occasion of offence in our brother’s way, Rom. 14:13. (2.) If cattle fight, and one kill another, the owners shall equally share in the loss, Exod. 21:35. Only if the beast that had done the harm was known to the owner to have been mischievous he shall answer for the damage, because he ought either to have killed him or kept him up, Exod. 21:36. The determinations of these cases carry with them the evidence of their own equity, and give such rules of justice as were then, and are still, in use, for the decision of similar controversies that arise between man and man. But I conjecture that these cases might be specified, rather than others (though some of them seem minute), because they were then cases in fact actually depending before Moses; for in the wilderness where they lay closely encamped, and had their flocks and herds among them, such mischiefs as these last mentioned were likely enough to occur. That which we are taught by these laws is that we should be very careful to do no wrong, either directly or indirectly; and that, if we have done wrong, we must be very willing to make satisfaction, and desirous that nobody may lose by us.