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.
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 deal with servants and slaves.
According to the rabbis, the six years 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 father David.
Several verses later, the painful experiences of the Israelites in Egypt are highlighted again, this time to create 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)
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 carried 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 wellbeing 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)
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. In fact, Israel is, at this time, in the seventh year of letting the land lie fallow.
“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)
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)