“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.
35 “When one man’s ox butts another’s, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and share its price, and the dead beast also they shall share. 36 Or if it is known that the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not kept it in, he shall repay ox for ox, and the dead beast shall be his. (Exodus 21:33-36)
When the Hebrews were still slaves in Egypt, their lives had become dominated by Pharaoh. And when their lives were dominated by the Tyrant of Egypt, their whole lives were squeezed so that every last drop of what they had was given to Pharaoh, as they were required to make bricks without straw. Now in their new lives as a free nation under Yahweh, their lives are dominated by God. But not in the same way as Pharaoh. Their whole lives, their everyday lives, were to be lived out in accordance with God’s law, and God’s law touched every aspect of their lives. But God’s laws are freedom. God had called them to take dominion, but He didn’t squeeze every last drop out of them. He gives them what they need for the task: animals, land, property ownership, families – all things that are to be stewarded well under God’s rules.
With Pharaoh it was “take, take take,” – “you will own nothing and be happy.” With Yawheh, He has given much to them. And since God has given them property for the task of the dominion mandate, God then gives them laws that will protect their property, and protect their neighbors, so that they may be able to fulfill the dominion mandate. The dominion mandate can be successful when in conformity to God’s ethical standards. Pharaoh’s tyrannical laws hindered their progress in it, God’s laws freed them and protected them to obey it.
In like manner we are reminded that God is concerned with our everyday lives. There are certain ways God wants us to live, and there are certain principles of justice that God has for societies – for the well being of groups of people. Many people think that Christianity is fine so long as it is just your personal and private religion and it stays there. But the Christian religion is not a mere private spirituality that can be left at home when you go to work. It is a religion of dominion – since Christ has dominion, authority, and something to say about every area of life – public and private – personal and societal. He even has something to say about what you are supposed to do if you open a pit and your neighbor’s animal falls in. That matters to God, so it should matter to us. God’s eye sees every little area of our lives and our every interaction with others, and God cares how we act in every little interaction. Every little interaction we have with our neighbors’ property matters to God. Therefore we ought to be thoroughly concerned with living before God in every moment, every little way we relate to our neighbor and their property is a matter of integrity before God.
So let’s take a few minutes and look at the cases before us today.
Case 1, v. 33-34
In the first case a man opens a pit or digs a pit. Now in those days the pit would most often have been a cistern or a well. This was very important for their households and livestock. But this of course would apply to any pit dug in the ground for whatever reason. If a pit was uncovered or dug, it was then to be covered when it was not in use. If a man did not cover his pit and his neighbor’s animal fell into it, the owner of the pit is liable for the harm of the animal. Leaving a pit uncovered would be negligent behavior. So if this happened, the owner of the pit would have to make restoration by paying the owner of the animal and being responsible to remove the dead animal and do with it whatever he had to do. His neighbor lost a valuable asset in an ox or donkey because of that man’s negligence, so he must be properly compensated.
Case 2, v. 35
In the second case, you have two animals from two different owners fighting, and one dies. In this case it is two domesticated animals fighting, and there isn’t the same level of liability involved – it is not necessarily the owners’ fault. Therefore, the live animal is to be sold and the profits split, as well as the dead animal.
Case 3, v. 36
But in the third case in verse 36 we have an animal that has been accustomed or known to gore in the past, and this animal kills another man’s animal. In this case, the man with the notorious ox is held liable since he knew his ox was prone to fighting and he did not restrain it and keep it in, just like if a notorious ox gores a man. So he has to restore his neighbor’s ox and take care of the dead animal.
These case laws are pretty straight forward, so let us consider the principles that inform how these cases are to be handled.
The Responsibility of Property Ownership
The underlying principle in these cases is that with God’s blessing of property ownership comes responsibility for your property. With property comes responsibility. Freedom from slavery and tyranny is not freedom from responsibility, but the embracing of responsibility. And with the responsibility of ownership also comes costs. If you have the asset of something like a well on your property, there are costs that come with that ownership. If you have a pit, you have to make the investment of securing a proper covering for it. We are not allowed to cut corners and costs at the stake of responsibility. But, the cost of properly maintaining the hazards on your property is much less than the costs that will come because of your negligence. It will cost you more when others are harmed because of your trying to cut corners and costs. If an ox or donkey fell into your well and died, it would likely contaminate and ruin your well as well, which would be a much greater cost than if you would’ve taken the time and cost to properly cover it in the first place.
True ownership does not come without the weight of the responsibility. The responsibility that comes with property ownership shows us the legitimacy and need for boundaries, fences, barriers, and things like that. Such is what a well covering would have been, a form of a boundary or barrier.
There is another principle here that is extremely important for us to consider. And that is that property rights are not absolute. Property rights are not ultimate. Most of us in our society and culture have a very high view of property rights and so does the Bible. However, if a society no longer looks to God as ultimate, but turns to property rights as ultimate, then you have problems. For example, a sentiment that many of us are probably very sympathetic to is, “it’s my property, I can do what I want with it!” Well, when we live in a bloated bureaucratic nanny state that won’t allow us to breath on our property without a license, this is a very attractive sentiment. However, the fact is, under God, we cannot do whatever we want with our property. If you want to dig a pit on your property and leave it uncovered and unprotected, you can do that, but you can’t do that without being held liable and responsible should someone stumble into it. In such a case you have acted negligently and are held accountable for it. One of my criticisms of Libertarianism is that it provides an excuse for irresponsible men to act negligently. The idea that you can do whatever you want with your property is legally negligent behavior. So the idolization of property rights that sees property rights as ultimate actually devalues property, because it devalues the cost and responsibility that comes with property ownership. Biblically speaking, private property means more responsibility, not less. Our standard should not be an ultimate commitment to property rights, it should be “what has God said about how I am to take care of my property?” If this case law implies that God wants us to cover up deep pits on our property, then we should not say, “it’s my property, I’ll leave it uncovered if I want.” We should love God’s law, and God’s principles of justice such that we will gladly cover the pit. And we should love our neighbor and our neighbor’s property such that we don’t negligently leave hazards for them. Love for God and love for neighbor is reflected in how we take responsibility for our property. I’ll get into some practical applications and examples in a moment, but first, there is one more principle here to mention.
Not only does property ownership bring responsibility, but the more you know about your property, the more you are responsible. This is the third case here. If you know you have an ox prone to gore, you are now much more responsible than if your animal had no prior history of such behavior. As Gary North says, “Greater knowledge establishes greater responsibility.”
This is the principle that Jesus speaks of at the end of a certain parable in Luke 12, verse 47-48, Jesus says, “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” So the more you know, the more you are given, the more responsible you are to do what is right with what you know and what you are given.
Now you might say, “these are great case laws and good principles, but where is Christ in this text?” Because I have asserted that the case laws are not only filled with practical wisdom and principles of justice, but they are also Christological. Yes, these are case laws given with specificity to the Old Covenant nation of Israel, but these are also our Christian Scriptures which testify to Christ. These laws of the covenant trained Israel of old to await the Christ and prepared the way for Him.
Church, I would assert to you, that Jesus is the cover to the pit. We are frail men and women, boys and girls, walking around this life with lives that are so vulnerable and at any moment we could fall into the pit of death and hell. We do not know when it is our time to go, we do not know when we may stumble and take our last step, it could be at any moment. At any given moment we could go from living life as normal to being in eternity one way or the other. The only thing that stands in between us and taking our next step into eternity is God’s sustaining of our life. We never know when we could be wandering around as normal and then suddenly find ourselves having fallen into the pit of death. There are so many things in life all around that could take our lives in any instant.
And for those outside of Jesus Christ, who do not believe in Him, you are so dangerously and recklessly close to falling into the pit of hell. The only thing keeping you from doing so at this very moment is God’s mercy sustaining you to hear the gospel one more time. What shall keep you from falling into that pit? Only Jesus Christ. He is the only sufficient covering from the pit of hell. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved.
- He went into the pit and came out of it with the keys in His hand – both to free us from death by opening the doors of it, and by locking us out of hell, as it were.
- Without Jesus Christ you never know when you might fall into the pit of hell. It is a dangerous and foolish game to play, to live life without a covering of the pit.
- Do not go another moment without your covering.
- Most men who fall into hell do so when they least expect it. It comes on them in a moment, in a sudden, unexpectedly, like stumbling upon an uncovered pit.
- Do not risk having an uncovered pit.
- Only Jesus Christ is the sufficient cover to keep you from falling into hell.
If you have Jesus Christ and you know Him, then do all you can do to warn your neighbor of the danger that they could fall into. As the case laws lay out, you can love your neighbor by covering your pit and taking responsibility so that no harm comes to your neighbor because of your negligence. If that is true of temporary matters on earth with our neighbor’s animals, how much more for their own souls? For their own eternity? You could be the means that God uses to cover the pit of hell for them if you will love them enough to warn them.
Do you know what they so often used in ancient days to cover their wells? Large stones or rocks. Such shows us that there is no greater covering than the Rock of our Salvation, the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. Should you have Christ, you have a sure, firm, immovable, rock of salvation, where your foot will not slip.