Chapter 23

To assure that justice would be administered in an impartial manner, certain commands prohibited actions that would have led to corrupting the arrangements for handling disputes and other legal matters. The Israelites were not to make themselves guilty of spreading a false report or a malicious rumor. According to the Septuagint, they were not to accept a baseless report. For an Israelite to “join [his] hand” with a corrupt man to be a “malicious [an unjust (LXX)] witness” for him would have meant making a prior agreement to pervert justice or to promote violence or wrongdoing. This was prohibited. Group pressure can be a powerful force that interferes with the proper administration of justice. Therefore, the law prohibited following the crowd to commit evil or to be influenced by the crowd to pervert justice in a dispute. Although others often victimized the poor, they were not to be shown deference when they were guilty of serious wrongdoing. (23:1-3)

While it would have been wrong to treat the poor with partiality, their rights were not to be subverted in their disputes. The Israelites were to keep far away from false charges or refuse to entertain them. They were to remember that YHWH, as the ultimate Judge, would not acquit the wicked ones. Therefore, the Israelites were not to make themselves guilty of grave injustices, leading to the death of innocent or upright persons. The accepting of “gifts” or “bribes” was ruled out, for bribes can blind individuals who are responsible for administering justice and can lead to corrupt decisions that subvert the cause of persons who are in the right. (23:6-8)

Hateful or vengeful action even toward a man who had demonstrated himself to be an enemy was to be avoided. The Israelite who saw his enemy’s bull or donkey going astray was to take it back to him. If the enemy’s donkey had not been able to bear up under a heavy load and was lying down, the Israelite was to render assistance to raise the animal up. This kind act would also have reflected compassion for the overburdened donkey. The Septuagint says, “You must not pass it [the donkey] by, but you must raise it with him.” This rendering could be understood to refer to raising the animal together with its burden. (23:4, 5)

The Israelites were not to forget how they had been treated as strangers or foreigners in the land of Egypt and the affliction their ancestors endured there. Accordingly, they were not to oppress strangers or foreigners in their land, for they knew the “soul of a stranger” or how it felt to be mistreated as a foreigner. Instead, they were to treat the resident alien like a fellow Israelite, loving the person as they would love themselves. (23:9; Leviticus 19:33, 34)

The survival of a people depends on the wise use of resources, and the commands given to the Israelites, when heeded, contributed to maintaining the productivity of arable land. After sowing seed and cultivating crops for six years, the people were to let the land lie fallow in the seventh year. Whatever the fallow land produced of itself was to be designated for the poor and the wild animals, and (according to Leviticus) the owner, his servants, his hirelings, his domestic animals, and the wild animals could eat from the yield of the uncultivated land. Grapevines were not to be pruned, and the grapes from the untrimmed vines and the olives in the olive groves were not to be harvested in the seventh year but left for the needy to gather and to eat and for the wild animals to consume. (23:10, 11; Leviticus 25:2-6)

The seventh day that followed six days of laboring was to be a day of rest, providing welcome rest from work and refreshment for domestic animals (oxen or bulls) and donkeys, servants, and resident aliens. (23:12)

In the Scriptures, the names of false gods are recorded. Therefore, the command not to mention the names of false gods must refer to not mentioning them in a reverential way or in a manner that attributed existence to them. These gods and goddesses were to be regarded as something abhorrent and therefore their names should not have been heard from the mouths of the Israelites (unless it was in a demeaning way). Of necessity, parents needed to mention false deities when warning their children against engaging in idolatrous practices, and the prophets named false gods and goddesses when reproving fellow Israelites regarding their failure to worship YHWH exclusively. (23:13)

Once settled in the land, the Israelites were to observe three sacred annual festivals — the Festival of Unleavened Bread (in the month of Abib or Nisan [mid-March to mid-April), the Festival of the Harvest, the Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost (in the month of Sivan [mid-May to mid-June]), and the Festival of Ingathering or the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths at the conclusion of the agricultural year in the month of Ethanim or Tishri (mid-September to mid-October). All the Israelite males were required to appear before YHWH at these three festivals. Initially, the location was the tabernacle that was set up in the land of Canaan, and later the place was the temple at Jerusalem. While the men were commanded to be present for the festivals, the women could choose to be in attendance. It was a kindness on God’s part to exempt the women from obligatory attendance, as their being pregnant or having to nurse babies and to care for small children would have made it burdensome to travel a considerable distance to the designated location and then to stay for the duration of the festivals. (23:14-17)

Nothing leavened was to accompany the “blood of [YHWH’s] sacrifice,” and no fat from a festival offering was to remain until the morning of the next day. The firstfruits from the cultivated soil were to be brought into the “house of YHWH” (initially the tabernacle and later the temple that replaced it). (23:18, 19a)

From early times, the Jews have interpreted the command prohibiting the boiling of a kid of the goats in its mother’s milk to indicate that meat should not be mixed with dairy products. Targum Jonathan (thought to have been composed in the second century CE) is specific in stating that one must not “eat of flesh and milk mingled together.” Originally, the command may have reminded the Israelites that the milk that was designed to nourish the kid should not be used as a means contrary to its original purpose to preserve the animal’s life. This command may also have served to teach the Israelites compassion, for the natural and instinctive attachment of the female goat to her kid in no way agrees with the use of her milk for the total destruction of her offspring. (23:19b)

The opening word (“look”) of verse 20 introduces a new subject. YHWH (doubtless through the agency of his representative angel) informed Moses that he would be sending his angel to accompany the Israelites, guarding them and leading them to the place he had prepared for them (the Promised Land). The angel who would be with the Israelites had God’s name “in him,” indicating that he represented YHWH and possessed the full authority to act in his name. Therefore, failure to heed his authoritative words or to rebel against him would not be pardoned or left unpunished. There is a biblical basis for identifying this angel who had God’s name “in him” as having been Michael. Daniel 10:21 and 12:1 indicate that Michael had a special relationship with the Israelites, and Jude 9 refers to a dispute the archangel Michael had with the devil over the body of Moses. (23:20, 21)

For the Israelites to listen to the voice of his angel denoted heeding YHWH himself. Accordingly, YHWH’s message regarding this angel to Moses was: “If you listen attentively [literally, listening, you listen] to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” The angel would bring the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the land which the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, (Gergesites LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites then inhabited, and YHWH promised to blot out these peoples. (23:22, 23)

The Israelites were forbidden to revere the deities of the peoples in the land and to engage in the abhorrent practices associated with these deities. As a people to be exclusively devoted to YHWH, the Israelites were to destroy the sacred pillars (which appear to have been phallic symbols of Baal or other false gods) in the land. Their serving YHWH exclusively would lead to his blessing their “bread” or food, their “wine” (LXX), and their “water.” Blessed with good food and an abundance of good water, the people would enjoy good health. This would fulfill YHWH’s promise to remove sickness from their midst. Women generally would not miscarry or be barren, and the people would be blessed with a long life. (23:24-26)

To enable his people to gain possession of the land he had promised to give to them, YHWH declared that he would send his terror before them (or cause the inhabitants of the land to be overwhelmed with fear), throw into confusion or panic all the people against whom they would come, and cause all their enemies to turn their backs in flight from before them. (23:27)

There is a measure of uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word (tsir‘ah) relating to what YHWH would send forth to impact the inhabitants of the land he had promised to give to his people. The Septuagint rendering is the plural of sphekía (hornet or wasp), and this is also the rendering found in footnotes or in the main text of modern translations. Other possible meanings of the Hebrew word tsir‘ah that have been suggested include “terror,” “dejection,” and “discouragement.” It is questionable that “terror” or “fear” is the meaning here, for in verse 27 the word ’eymah can be specifically defined as “terror” or “fear.” Regardless of how the word tsir‘ah may be defined, it designates means that would contribute to driving out the Amorites (LXX), Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites from the land. YHWH promised not to drive them out in a single year, for this would have left too much desolation in the land and caused beasts of prey to enter the desolated regions, posing a threat to the safety of his people, particularly their young children. (23:28, 29)

Instead of effecting a swift depopulation of the land, YHWH purposed that the inhabitants of the land be driven out progressively (“little by little”) as the population of his people Israel increased. The boundaries of the land to be occupied by the Israelites extended from the Sea of Reeds (yam suph) or the Red Sea (LXX), the eastern arm of the Red Sea (now known as the Gulf of ‛Aqaba), to the Sea of the Philistines (the Mediterranean), and from the “wilderness” (the Syro-Arabian Desert east of the Promised Land and the arid Sinai Peninsula south of the land) to the “River” (the Euphrates). With YHWH’s support, the Israelites would eventually drive the native inhabitants out of the land. (23:30, 31)

After entering the Promised Land, the Israelites continued to live among many of the native inhabitants. Therefore, they were commanded to make no covenants or agreements with them nor to have anything to do with their gods. The native inhabitants were not to remain as the prominent population in the land, as close association with them could lead the Israelites astray to the point where they would begin to revere their false gods. (23:32, 33)