Exodus 21:28-36 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave-owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.
If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.
These laws are easy for us to skim over and ignore as irrelevant rules for a bygone era that has no bearing on our modern lives whatsoever. Let me try to convince you otherwise.
Notice first the assumptions about the culture in which these laws would apply. People would be familiar enough with their neighbor’s ox to testify whether or not it had a history of goring and violence. People are intimately familiar with their neighbors, their animals and the land. This is very different than the world most westerners, particular urbanites, experience. Many people see more concrete than trees, actively avoid getting to know their neighbors and only see occasional animals. How would our lives and relationships to people, animals and the land be different if we had this kind of intimacy? The Bible assumes this kind of relationship. Perhaps we need to recover some of that in order to begin understanding the relevance of these laws.
It’s also important to remember that this economy is very different from our own. Cows are currency. Oxen provide horsepower for plowing and working a field, transportation of goods, and eventually meat. Damaging, killing or stealing someone’s ox would be like sabotaging an industrial farmer’s combine or tractor. The work could not get done and would be completely overwhelming. These are serious stakes.
The difference between the ox and a tractor should be clear. The ox is a sustainable part of agriculture. They tread lightly on the soil, not causing devastating compaction and erosion. They don’t require off-farm inputs of petroleum. They don’t need ongoing maintenance and repair. They also produce resources for the farm in manure for fertilizer and eventually meat for the family or village. Our imaginations are captured by industrial notions of efficiency. When laid out this way, ox and horsepower may be slower, but in the end it is more efficient, better for the soil, produces higher yield long-term and does not divorce us from the land and animals the way machinery does.
The key to this passage seems to me that being rightly related to the land makes us rightly related to our neighbor. Inevitably there will be conflict and problems, but here we see that the solutions are much easier when we are connected to our neighbors and the land.