It has been said that “fences make good neighbors.”
What does that mean?
It means that knowing and abiding by a clear delineation of property, ownership, and rights helps people relate better. Knowing the boundaries--whether physical, social, relational, or sexual--makes living together easier and more peaceful.
Exodus 22 is an exercise in creating the kinds of fences that make for good neighbors. God knows what those fences are and where they should go.
There are consequences for sneaking through or breaking through the fences and stealing from a neighbor. Those who steal a lamb, or damage another person’s property, or violate a woman’s virginity must pay restitution. Restitution was often twice the amount of that which was stolen, destroyed, or damaged. This works as a deterrent to theft but also acknowledges that theft does more damage than just the loss of what was stolen. Making things right is costly.
The Law gives lots of examples, but one can’t cover every possible scenario. Judges were needed to apply general principles to particular cases. Justice requires wise judges.
Notice that the Law was able to draw some fine distinctions. For example, the homeowner who kills an intruder at night is not guilty of murder; however, if the same thing happens during the day, the homeowner can be held liable for manslaughter. We can speculate as to the reason for this. Thieves rarely steal in broad daylight, so such an event begs the question “What was really going on?” In the daylight, one may not need to use lethal force to scare off an intruder.
At times, the Law could seem harsh. Idolaters and those who practice witchcraft were condemned to death.
On the other hand, the Law emphasized mercy. The foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and the poor were to be treated with dignity, kindness, and generosity. James must have had Exodus 22 in mind when he wrote: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). In one sentence, James brought together social justice and moral purity.
The Law had authority because it was rooted in the Person and character of God. It reflected his truth and grace. Those who obeyed it discovered that they were on the path of wisdom.
It is not hard to discern echoes of Exodus 22 in American law. After all, OT Law and the Roman legal system were the foundation of western jurisprudence. Unfortunately, western cultures have rejected God and the Bible. In some courtrooms, witnesses still must swear to tell the truth with their hands on a Bible. But that is an empty symbol when one has no understanding of the Author of the Book or of its contents.
For all the talk of tolerance and inclusivity, it appears that people are having an increasingly difficult time getting along. The polarization and fragmentation just keep getting worse. This is partly because we’re losing the “fences” that once made for good neighbors, namely fear of the Lord and respect for God’s good commands and laws. That has happened in the broader culture. Let’s not allow it to happen in the church.