If we properly regarded the Golden Rule of doing to others as we would wish them to do to us, many particular precepts – such as we find in this chapter – might be omitted. But alas! This is not the case. This chapter contains more laws and directions for the preservation of good order and decency in society.
The people of Israel were instructed in Exodus 23:4-5 to show kindness even to their enemies. How much more, then, ought they be expected to do the same kindness for one of their own brethren? The Lord directed that stray cattle were to be restored to their rightful owner. If the one who found the lost livestock knew who the owner was, then they must take it back themselves. But if they did not know who the owner was, they were to take the animal home to themselves, and feed and care for it until the owner came searching for it. If such care was to be taken for a neighbor’s ox or donkey going astray, how much more care ought we to have to ensure that our brother himself is not going astray from God and his duty! We ought to do our utmost, in such cases, to restore him, in the spirit of meekness (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20).
Although the significance of these laws may seem to be very little, it is not so. Notwithstanding their minuteness, they are found among the things of God’s law; and so they are to be accounted as great things. The distinction between men and women was here ordained to be kept up by a difference in apparel, for the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity. Nature itself teaches us that a difference is to be made between men and women in their hair (1 Cor. 11:14); and the same rule also applies to their clothing, which therefore ought not be confused. This rule also forbids the confounding of the dispositions and callings of the two different sexes; men must not be effeminate (1 Cor. 16:13), nor ought women usurp authority (1 Tim. 2:11-12).
This chapter also contains laws forbidding cruelty to God’s creatures. Although God has made us wiser than the birds and animals, and given us dominion over them; yet we must not mistreat them, nor rule them with rigor. Does God take care for birds and animals? (1 Cor. 9:9) Yes, certainly! And perhaps it is to this law that our Savior alludes in Luke 12:6-7: “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?” Then He goes on to remind us to “fear not,” for He values much more than “many sparrows!”
In building a house, the Israelites were reminded that care must be taken to make it safe, so that none might receive mischief by falling from it. The roofs of their houses were flat for people to walk on, as it is evident from many Scriptures. Nevertheless, in order that no one – through carelessness – might fall off these roofs, they were to be surrounded with battlements around the edges. If this was not done, and mischief followed; the owner, by his neglect, brought the guilt of blood upon his house. Thus we see how precious men’s lives are to God, Who not only protects them by His Providence, but also by His law.
Unnatural mixtures were also forbidden in this chapter, such as plowing with an ox and a donkey together, or wearing a garment made of wool and linen woven together. It is possible that these things were forbidden because they would show conformity to some idolatrous customs of the heathen, or because they were contrary to the plainness and purity of an Israelite. They were not to gratify their own vanity and curiosity by joining those things which the Creator, in infinite wisdom, has made separate. Herein we are reminded that we must not be unequally yoked with unbelievers, as an ox with a donkey. Nor must our profession of religion before the world be varied or multi-colored; rather, it must be all of one consistent kind.
The law concerning fringes upon the Israelites’ garments, as reminders of the Lord’s commandments, was repeated here. By these fringes upon their garments, they were distinguished from other people – so that a person might be able to say, upon first sight, “There goes an Israelite!” This taught them to not be ashamed of their country, nor of the peculiarities of their religion – no matter how much their neighbors looked upon them with contempt. If we wish to prove ourselves to be God’s people, then we must have respect to His will and His glory, and not the vain fashions of the world. Even in putting on our clothes, or in eating our daily meals – all must be done with a serious concern for the preservation of our own and others’ purity, both in heart and actions. Our eye should be pure, our heart should be simple, and our behavior should be consistent.
The rest of the regulations in this chapter are certainly needful, and yet it is not necessary that we must examine them too deeply in order to understand what they are teaching us. These laws relate to the seventh commandment – laying a restraint upon all manner of fleshly lusts, which war against our souls. These laws are given for “the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.” And it is a shame indeed that humans have degenerated so far into such depths of sin, that it is even necessary for such things as these to be specifically spelled out and forbidden!
Lord, help us to keep our souls chaste and pure to You, and spotless among our fellow human beings. Preserve us blameless to the day of Your coming; and help us to walk in true love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us! Amen.
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