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Parasha Mishpatim (Laws): Once We Were Slaves

MISHPATIM (Laws)
Exodus 21:1–24:18; Jeremiah 34:8–22, 33:25–26; Colossians 3:1–25

“These are the ordinances [mishpatim הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים] that you are to set before them.”  (Exodus 21:1)

In last week’s portion of Scripture, Israel received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

This week, God gives specific legislation—laws called mishpatim, which means judgments.  These are intended to guide the daily lives of His holy nation in justice and righteousness.

A Jewish man wearing tefillin (phylacteries) holds a Torah scroll protected by a study case called a tik.

A Jewish man wearing tefillin (phylacteries) holds a Torah scroll protected by a study case called a tik.

Once We Were Slaves

“When you acquire a Jewish bondsman, for six years he shall work and in the seventh year he shall go free.”  (Exodus 21:2)

Since the Israelites had just been released from slavery, the first of God’s mishpatim deals with servants and slaves.

According to the rabbis, the six years that a slave is obligated to work represent the 6,000 years that we will work to serve the Lord.  The seventh year of freedom represents the Messianic age—the thousand years when we will rule and reign from Jerusalem with Messiah, who will sit on the Throne of His earthly father David.

Several verses later in this passage, the painful experiences of the Israelites in Egypt are highlighted again, this time to elicit empathy for the foreigner.  God commands the Israelites that foreigners be treated with kindness and respect.

“You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 22:21)

A Jewish teen holds a Torah scroll covered by an ornately decorated Torah mantle that commemorates those who perished in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

A Jewish teen holds a Torah scroll covered by an ornately decorated Torah mantle that commemorates those who perished in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

In total, Parasha Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot (commands)—23 imperative commandments and 30 prohibitions.

This series of laws, also called “The Covenant Code” by some Bible scholars, specify penalties for various violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and assault.  Pre-meditated murder, kidnapping, and striking or even cursing a parent all carry the death penalty.

“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”  (Exodus 21:17)

Laws were also given regarding how to make reparation for assault and injuries caused by animals, as well as damage to crops or livestock.  They prohibit seduction of virgins, the practice of sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, and mistreating the disadvantaged of society.

Infractions of these laws often carry the severest of penalties—death by stoning, since God wanted to keep peace and order within the camp.

But it is more than that.  God has genuine concern for justice and the well-being of the individual.  For instance, if a widow or fatherless child is to cry out to God because of someone’s ill treatment of them, God promises He will pour out His fierce wrath upon their oppressor and kill them so that their wives would be widows and their children fatherless (Exodus 22:22–24).

An Israeli family in Jerusalem

An Israeli family in Jerusalem

Remember the Sabbath and the Appointed Times

This week’s Parasha also reveals the law of the Sabbath, which is more than a Sabbath rest for people every seventh day.

Every seven years, the land is to enjoy a Sabbath rest called the Shemitah.  Israel ended its last seventh year of letting the land lie fallow in September 2015.

“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.”  (Exodus 23:10–11)

As well, the three pilgrimage festivals are mentioned as a time when all adult Jewish males are to appear before the Lord:  Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

“Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.”  (Exodus 23:17)

An Israeli boy helps to decorate the Sukkah during Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). (Go Israel photo by Dana Friedlander)

An Israeli boy helps to decorate the Sukkah during Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). (Go Israel photo by Dana Friedlander)

In this Parasha, Moses reads before all the people the Book of the Covenant that God has given Israel.  After the people commit to keeping God’s law, Moses sprinkles blood upon the altar and on the people as well, since all covenants are formally ratified and are usually sealed with blood.

“Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.’  And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’” (Exodus 24:7–8)

Likewise, the New Covenant was sealed with the blood of Messiah, Yeshua, the Lamb of God.  At the Passover meal with His disciples, Yeshua held up the cup of redemption and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”  (Luke 22:20)

The most righteous of all men—Yeshua HaMashiach became the final atonement for all generations who accept His sacrifice on their behalf.

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.  I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”  (Isaiah 42:6–7)

A Jewish family commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt at the Passover Seder. The order of this special meal is set forth in the text called the Haggadah (telling). (Go Israel photo by Jorge Novominsky)

A Jewish family commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt at the Passover Seder. The order of this special meal is set forth in the text called the Haggadah (telling).  (Go Israel photo by Jorge Novominsky)

Haftarah (Prophetic Reading) for Mishpatim 

Haftarah Mishpatim opens with a covenant that King Zedekiah (last king of the First Temple time) and the people of Jerusalem made with each other before God in His holy Temple.

In that covenant, they agreed to free the Hebrew slaves who had been held longer than the prescribed term of six years.

Sadly, it seems the people tried to manipulate God by freeing their slaves as God commanded so that He would turn back siege forces coming against Jerusalem. Once those siege forces turned back, the people broke the covenant by forcing the freed men and women back into slavery.

God reminds them of the seriousness of this covenant with each other by including in Jeremiah’s prophecy their act of walking between two halves of a slaughtered animal.

Why such a gory scene?

Covenants are not to be taken lightly.  As covenant parties walked through these bloodied carcasses, they saw the punishment that would be given to themselves for violating the covenant they made—they would also be cut in two, metaphorically if not literally.

Jewish pilgrims visit the Western (Wailing) Wall during Passover. On the Temple Mount, the Muslim Dome of the Rock occupies the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood.

Jewish pilgrims visit the Western (Wailing) Wall during Passover. On the Temple Mount, the Muslim Dome of the Rock occupies the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. In this Haftarah, God chastised the people for violating the covenant they made. They also violated the law God gave their ancestors when they left Egypt — to free slaves after six years of work.

As a result, God promised to release famine, pestilence, and the sword over the city—to bring Babylon against Jerusalem, which occurred under Zedekiah’s watch.

Jeremiah 34:8–16, therefore, is a judgment prophecy against the re-enslavement of Judean slaves and the breaking of covenant.

Still, today, we cannot make a covenant with God in order to get a particular result (in this case, the safety of Jerusalem), and then renege on our agreement once we get what we want.

Just as God had His eye on the covenant made with Zedekiah, He has His eye on the covenants and promises that we make with Him and with one another.

Moreover, we cannot expect to treat people as less worthy than ourselves—to take away their inalienable rights or take advantage of their time, talents, or labor—and expect God’s blessings.

God is not like that; He is a covenant-keeping God and He wants us to be just as faithful.

“If I have not made My covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.”  (Jeremiah 33:25–26)

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