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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter has the rest of the Book of the Covenant, the character of the stipulations here being similar to those of Exodus 22. A strong humanitarian concern is manifested throughout, and there is also a strong emphasis upon the rights of the people, especially of those groups so frequently disinherited, neglected, and oppressed in ancient societies: resident aliens, foreigners, the poor, widows, and orphans, etc. The principal purpose seems to be, “to create the moral attitudes which shall permeate all legal decisions. No penalties are specified for transgressions. The concern is not with specific cases but with an all-pervasive sense of justice.”(F1)

Verses 1-3

“Thou shalt not take up a false report; put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause.”

The scene here focuses upon a time when judicial decisions were still resolved by the citizens in assembly, before the judiciary was formally established, and the aim of these regulations was that of protecting accused persons against false witnesses, and against opinions of majorities. In matters of truth and righteousness, it has often been the tyranny of majorities that perverted and denied justice. Exodus 23:3 even has a caution against favoring the cause of a poor man, not through a sense of justice, but through pity. True decisions must not be made upon the basis of what is popular, or upon the basis of pity for appelants, but upon the basis of what is just and equitable, favoring neither rich nor poor, young nor old, popular or unpopular men.

“Thou shalt not take up a false report” This is an extension of Commandment IX of the Decalogue, referring not merely to the initiation of a lying report, but to the taking up of it and repeating it.

“Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” Johnson applied this to mob violence, such as a lynching,(F2) but far more than that is included. Before Exodus was concluded, all Israel followed the majority report of the ten unfaithful spies, resulting in a 40-year probation for the whole nation. Majorities in all ages have been disastrously wrong. It was the vociferous and clamorous insistence of “the majority” that crucified the Lord, and it is no less true today that “the majority” on almost any important religious question are wrong! “It is extraordinary that so many, even of professing Christians, are content to go with the many.”(F3) Our Lord said, “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). The truth is always, in every field of concern, a very narrow and exact thing. There is an exact velocity that must be reached to send a satellite into space. Chemical compounds must be of the most precise and exact combinations. A safety vault in a great bank never opens upon an approximate manipulation of its intricate combination lock.

“Neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause” Rawlinson wrote, “This is a shock!”(F4) Harford suggested that we read it, “Great instead of poor, because partiality for the poor needed no prohibition.”(F5) Johnson declared that, “There is no need to warn against injustice due to wrongly directed sympathy.”(F6) It is a shame that God did not check in with such commentators as these and get their opinions before issuing the eternal prohibition of these verses! Of course, those who disagree with God on this point suggest that the text be “emended” changed (only a little mark or so would do it), but there is no fault with the text here. And, as for wrongly directed sympathy, our own generation has witnessed all kinds of violations of this very commandment. As Fields said, “Our times have seen the rise of the foolish notion that we should pass every possible law to take wealth from the rich and give it to the poor.”(F7) This was the same procedure as that followed by the Caesars whose pandering to the insatiable appetites of the multitudes of the poor pressing upon Rome to receive “free bread and circuses” resulted eventually in the destruction of their society. Violation of the command of God will never go unpunished. There is not enough material wealth on earth to give everyone all that he wants! When there are no longer any wealthy persons to exploit on behalf of the poor, the abject poverty of all shall have been, at that time, fully accomplished.

Verses 4-5

“If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, thou shalt forbear to leave him, thou shalt surely release it with him.”

Here is the germ of the Christian teaching that men have duties of friendliness and helpfulness even toward their enemies. “One should not allow personal animosity to destroy one’s willingness to be of assistance in a time of need.”(F8) The need in view in Exodus 23:5 is that of a helpless, over-burdened animal, slipping, or failing, under a load and unable to get up. There is also the need of that designated enemy for assistance with a problem that one man could not handle. It was a major premise of Judaism that kindness and thoughtfulness for animals were required by God (See Exodus 20:10; Leviticus 22:27; Deuteronomy 22:6-7; Deuteronomy 25:4). Here the kind help of one’s enemy was also enjoined.

Seeing, therefore, that regard for an enemy was inculcated into the Book of the Covenant, what must we think of Jesus’ words: “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy?” (Matthew 5:43). “Some Jewish authorities are incensed at Jesus’ words, which they regard as a baseless charge against the Torah and the rabbis.”(F9) However, it must be noted that Jesus did NOT say, “God said, `Hate thine enemy… etc.’“ Despite the fact that God indeed had said no such thing, it was an incontrovertible truth that whole generations of learned Jews had been preaching exactly what Jesus said that they had preached and that “ye have heard it.” Of course, they had. A famous sect of the Jews, the Essenes, wrote a Manual of Discipline with these lines: “They (their members) are to bear unremitting hatred toward all men of ill repute, and to be reminded to keep in seclusion from them.”(F10)

However, the pre-Christian Jewish community was not the only place that vicious and evil hatred prevailed in human hearts. There are even Christians who have been unsuccessful in eradicating the cancer of hatred from their hearts. Christ went far beyond what is visible in these verses, requiring his followers to “love their enemies,… do good to them that despitefully use you,” “turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” “agree with thine adversary quickly…,” etc.

Verses 6-9

“Thou shalt not wrest the justice due to thy poor in his cause. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked. And thou shalt take no bribe: for a bribe bindeth them that have sight, and perverteth the words of the righteous. And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

“The innocent and righteous slay thou not” In context, this means “do not support some false matter, because it might result in slaying innocent and righteous people.” Also here is the converse of the edict in Exodus 23:3 regarding the cause of the poor. In Exodus 23:3, favoritism toward the poor based solely upon sympathy is forbidden. Here, discrimination against the poor is prohibited. Justice must be impartial, equal, and blind to ALL such distinctions as race, social excellence, wealth, poverty, or anything else. That is why the sculptor has depicted Justice as a seated figure holding the balances, and blind-folded.

“Take no bribe” There is no indication whatever that Israel, to any great extent, heeded this law. Eli’s sons “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 7:3). In David’s time, men’s hands “were full of bribes” (Psalms 26:10). King Solomon complained of wicked men “taking gifts out of their bosoms to pervert the ways of judgment” (Proverbs 17:23). Isaiah spoke of the princes of his day, “who love gifts and follow after rewards” (Isaiah 1:23), and he mentioned those who “justify the wicked for reward, and turn away the righteousness of the righteous from him” (Isaiah 5:23). Micah condemned the heads of the house of Jacob, “who abhor judgment and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward (Micah 3:9-11); Zephaniah spoke of Israel’s bribe-hungry judges as “evening wolves who leave nothing till the morrow” (Zephaniah 3:3). This was a fatal failure of Israel. It was the gold of the Pharisees that shut mouths of the soldiers who witnessed the resurrection, and brought together the mob that clamored for the crucifixion of the Son of God.

“A sojourner shalt thou not oppress” “The rabbis interpreted this to apply to Jewish strangers.”(F11) Of course, that is totally incorrect. It is exactly like the “Christian” interpretation of the Great Commission to mean “Go preach the gospel to all the English-speaking nations!” This law must be understood as vital to the history of mankind. Concerning this, Esses said:

“The alien is to be protected, not because he is a member of one’s family, one’s clan, or one’s religious community, but because he is a HUMAN BEING. In this law, the concept of humanity was born, the concept of love and grace and mercy.”(F12)

Verses 10-13

“And six years shalt thou sow thy land, and shalt gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner shalt thou deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard. Six days shalt thou do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest; that thine ox and thine ass may have rest, and the son of thy hand-maid, and the sojourner may be refreshed. And in all things that I have said unto you take ye heed: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.”

The sabbatical years were introduced here, but there is no evidence that Israel ever paid much attention to them. “The seventy years of Babylonian captivity were partly intended to make up for unkept sabbatical years, 2 Chronicles 36:21.”(F13) There was somewhat of a social welfare system inherent in the purpose of this legislation. All indentured servants were also intended to be free of duties in such years, and the seventh sabbatical year, the fiftieth, was to be observed as a Jubilee, when all servants were given their freedom.

The commandment not to mention pagan gods was generally observed, and this probably accounts for the changes made by the Jews in certain names containing the name of Baal. “Instead of Baal, the word [~bosheth] (meaning shame) was introduced.”(F14)

Jerubbaal (Judges 6:32) became Jerubbosheth (2 Samuel 11:21). Eshbaal (1 Chronicles 8:33) became Ishbosheth (2 Samuel 2:8). Meribaal (1 Chronicles 8:34) became Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4).

“Note that the Book of Samuel, which is prophetic in character, avoided the name Baal.”(F15)

Verses 14-17

“Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year. The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep: seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib (for in it thou camest out of Egypt); and none shall appear before me empty: and the feast of the harvest, the first-fruits of thy labors, which thou sowest in the field: and the feast of ingatherings, at the end of the year, when thou gatherest in thy labors out of the field. Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord Jehovah.”

“Three times in the year” This is repeated (Exodus 23:14; Exodus 23:17) and is the new revelation of these verses, two of the feasts being introduced here for the first time. Note that the Feast of unleavened bread was not a new feast. It had already been mentioned at the time of the Passover, hence, the words, “As I commanded thee” (Exodus 23:15), an expression conspicuously omitted in this first mention of the other two feasts. These three great festivals were known throughout the history of Israel as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Martin Noth and other critics have alleged that these feasts were taken over by the Jews from the pagan peoples surrounding then, and adopted into their worship,(F16) but the Scriptures leave no doubt whatever of the origin of all three. In all history, there is no record anywhere of unleavened bread being considered anything special in pagan religions. How did it get into these feasts? It all went back to that hasty departure of Israel from Egypt. When they were in too big a hurry to leaven bread! No critic on earth will ever be able to get rid of that witness of the divine origin of these feasts. The omission of the word Passover in connection with the feast of unleavened bread in these verses was due to its being absolutely unnecessary to mention it.

Verses 18-19

“Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened breads; neither shall the fat of my feast remain all night until morning. The first of the first-fruits of thy ground thou shalt bring into the house of Jehovah thy God, Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

That the Passover itself was clearly in view in the previous verse is proved by the mention here of one of the key regulations of that feast, namely, that all of it should be consumed, before morning.

“Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” Rawlinson assigned this reason for this prohibition: “Feeling revolts from it, and the general sense of civilized mankind re-echoes the precept.”(F17) The mixing of meat and milk dishes is in no circumstance considered `Kosher’ by the Jews their custom being founded partially upon this verse. “They even keep separate kitchens for the preparation of milk and meat dishes.”(F18)

The most probable reason, it seems, for this prohibition lay in the pagan use of “a kid boiled in its mother’s milk” as a magical formula for increasing the fertility of the land! “Milk so boiled was sprinkled on the crops. The pagan idea was that the new life of the kid added to its mother’s milk produced double fertility.”(F19) This prohibition seemed at such variance with other Divine commandments that for generations men simply could not understand the reason for it; as Rawlinson said, “Reason has nothing to say against such a mode of preparing food.”(F20) However, the mystery was unlocked in the 1930, when the reason for this pagan practice was discovered in Ugaritic literature.(F21) With this information, it is easy to understand why God would not allow Israel to do anything resembling the pagan rites of idolatrous nations around them.

Two other things in these passages should be noted. The command not to come “empty” before God (Exodus 23:15) established giving as an essential and normal part of the worship of God, a principle that is brought over into Christianity and made binding upon all believers.

The prohibition that leavened bread should not be offered with the blood of the sacrifice was repudiated by the religious apostasy in Northern Israel. Amos 4:5 mentioned among the sins of Israel the offering of a sacrifice with leavened bread, the significance of this being that these Pentateuchal regulations were familiar to Israel for long centuries prior to the dates some critics would like to affix to the Pentateuch. Amos’ mention of such a perversion of God’s worship also proved that it was not social issues alone that formed the burden of Israel’s apostasy. See extensive notes on these issues in Volume 1 of my commentary on the minor prophets.

Verses 20-24

“Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Take ye heed before him, and hearken unto his voice; provoke him not, for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed hearken unto his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, and I will cut them off. Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works; but thou shalt surely overthrow them, and break in pieces their pillars.”

“An angel before thee” This can be none other than the Angel of Jehovah, not Moses, or the Ark of the Covenant, or any such thing. This Angel: (1) would bring them into Canaan, which Moses did not; and (2) he had the power to withhold forgiveness of sins, which Moses could not do. He is that same glorious Being who came to Joshua as the Captain of the hosts of Jehovah, and the one who was “among the myrtle trees” of Zechariah 1:8.

“The Hittite… etc.” These were the more comprehensive groupings of the nations of Canaan, which, of course, included some thirty-two little kingdoms in all.

“I will cut them off” The quibble that it is God who here will destroy the Canaanites, and that it is Israel who will do so, “thou shalt drive them out,” in Exo. 23:34, is an excellent measure of the blindness of critical interpretations. Of course, God would remove the Canaanites by the strength of and through the efforts of Israel. What one does through his servants is legitimately held to be what he himself did.

“And break in pieces their pillars” “These were idolatrous stones carved with some heathenish symbol.”(F22) Some, if not all of these were phallic, great orthostatic symbols, some relics of which may still be seen in Japan. They were intimately associated with the licentious worship of Baal, later incorporated into the worship of Jehovah in Northern Israel, as a number of the minor prophets charged. This commandment to destroy all signs, instruments, symbols, and artifacts connected with paganism was intended to protect the Iraelites against the encroachments of paganism upon their religious beliefs and practices. The great sorrow was that lsrael failed to do this.

Regarding those pagan gods, Israel was commanded: (1) not to bow down to them (Exodus 23:24); (2) to destroy them (Exodus 23:24); (3) to drive them out (Exodus 23:31); and (4) to make no covenant with them (Exodus 23:32).

Verses 25-27

“And ye shall serve Jehovah your God, and he will bless thy bread, and thy water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee. There shall none cast her young, nor be barren, in thy land: and the number of thy days I will fulfil. I will send my terror before thee, and will discomfit all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee.”

In essence, these verses promise Israel health, happiness, and length of life, but it should be noted that all of these blessings were made to be contingent absolutely upon their obedience to the words of the Angel of the Covenant who would, through Moses, declare unto them the words of God. Any interpretation of God’s promises to Israel are grossly in error if they fail to recognize the fact of every one of those promises having been given conditionally, the condition being that Israel would keep the Covenant and obey the Word of God.

“I will send my terror before thee” This dreadful fear of God was most effective in bringing Israel into Canaan. It is seen in the case of Balak and the Moabites. “Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many” (Numbers 22:3), and again in the instance of Rahab the harlot who confessed that, “The fear of you has fallen upon all of us” (Joshua 2:9; Joshua 2:11).

Verses 28-30

“And I will send the hornet before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee. I will not drive them out from before thee in one year, lest the land become desolate, and the beasts of the field multiply against thee. By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land.”

“The hornet” Some have viewed this as a literal infestation of those dreadful and feared insects; some have supposed it referred to diseases and other hindrances to the proscribed populations, and others have supposed the reference to have been to the bringing of hostile armies against the Canaanites, such as the invasion of that area by one of the Pharaohs of Egypt about the period of the wilderness experience of Israel. The simple truth is that we do not know exactly what was meant by this, but no one can doubt that it happened as God promised.

“The Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite” The omission of the other Canaanite peoples did not exclude them from the terror that God would bring upon them. The mention of only three here actually stands for all of them, the same being a type of metaphor called synecdoche, in which one, or two or three, of related entities is merely a short form for all of them.

“Little and little” It is here revealed for the first time that the conquest of Canaan was scheduled to be a gradual thing, and not a sudden conquest. Israel needed the time to grow into a vigorous and powerful state sufficiently strong and experienced enough to handle the problems involved in dispossessing so large a group of peoples, and in developing an orderly and civilized nation.

Verses 31-33

“And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee. Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.”

God’s plans for Israel reached into the far future, for the boundaries of Israel as outlined here were not actually reached until four hundred years later in the reigns of David and Solomon. “The River” spoken of here is the Euphrates; the Sea of the Philistines is the Mediterranean. The Red Sea is the Gulf of Aqaba. Ezion-Geber was at the head of that gulf where Solomon launched his great navy.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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