This chapter begins a section of detailed laws, which God gave to Moses and which he in turn 'set before' the people (v.1). They are probably more like 'principles' than what we would call 'laws', because they do not cover every conceivable scenario - so wisdom would be needed in actual cases.
Implicit in these laws is the fact that the people will not be able to live up to the 10 commandments in the previous chapter. God is a realist, and their failures will not come as a surprise to him, so he lays out provisions for dealing with those failures.
Many of these laws may appear to us arcane, and the punishments harsh. But by the standards of the day they were progressive. For example, unlike the legal codes found in many other ancient civilisations:
- They show comparable respect to the lives of men and women, rich and poor, adults and children, slaves and free
- Although the existence of slavery is taken for granted (mainly as a way of dealing with people who get into massive debt), slaves have rights. Most significantly, people cannot be held in slavery for more than six years (v.2), unless they love their master and choose to stay for life (vv.5-6)
- They place limits on the level of punishment or retribution which can be applied, so cycles of escalating vengeance are prevented
- In what way has God already made provision for your future failings? How should that affect your attitudes and prayers?
- Does your commitment to justice exceed that of the people you live and work amongst?
- Are you involved in, or aware of, any 'cycles of escalating vengeance', and how should you respond?