Ox-Goring, Pit Bulls, and Liability


Exodus 21:18-19, 22-25, 28-32, 35-36


Has anybody’s ox been gored lately? Or has anyone here been gored by an ox lately? Both the Law of Moses, and just about all of the other law codes from his day, have laws on ox-goring. Why?? In case these laws sound strange to you or too long-ago and far-away, let me ask you how many stories about pit-bull attacks do we see today on the news or in the paper or on the court TV shows? Take the words “When an ox gores” out, and put in the words “When a pit bull attacks” and we see that vicious animal liability was and is an important issue, both to them and to us.

Liability is a foundational issue for any body of constitutional law like Moses’ Book of the Covenant. Who’s at fault? Who’s to blame? Who has to repair the damage? The cases in this section read somewhat like an ancient episode of “Judge Judy.” Picture yourself in the 13th century BC, watching these cases come before Moses.

The ox-goring laws in verses 28-32 are a powerful statement to underscore the value of human life. What do you do if a bull that has never been violent before kills a human being? Hammurabi’s law says that if an ox with no history of violence gores a gentleman to death on the street, the case is not subject to claim, and nothing is done to the ox. But if someone’s ox has been known to gore and his city council has warned him but he does not blunt or pad its horns or control it, and it gores a gentleman to death, the owner has to pay 30 shekels of silver, or 20 shekels if it’s a slave.

The Bible ups the standard. Even if an ox strikes without warning, the ox shall be stoned to death and left uneaten. God declares in Gen 9 that any beast that kills a human destroys the image of God and must give a reckoning for it. The beast is to be destroyed, not enjoyed; it is defiled by bloodguilt, and is therefore an object of horror. Here is a very different view of the value of human life than what we find elsewhere in the Near East. Even an animal can be held accountable for such a crime. One commentator has said, If a dumb ox can be held responsible like this, so can a dumb human.

If the owner was warned and did nothing, the owner becomes guilty of murder and must either die or must pay an unlimited ransom (the only homicide case where God’s law ever allows ransom). Even ransom here is based on the idea that the owner is condemned to die, while other nations treat the issue economically. As for paying 30 shekels for the goring of a slave, don’t get the mistaken impression that a slave is worth less than other humans. 30 shekels is more than a family gets for the death of a free person. The family of a free person gets nothing in such a case. The slave is both a human life and a financial asset to be compensated. Notice that a slave was worth as much in Israel as most other cultures paid for the homicide of a free person.

If a bull gores another bull, the whole situation changes. Here, the issue becomes purely financial. The ox is not punished. If there was no advance warning, the 2 owners divide the accidental loss. If the owner of the live ox failed to take reasonable precautions, he loses his live ox, and gets a dead ox in exchange, which he can’t eat (since it hasn’t been kosher butchered), but at least he call sell it to a foreigner, or use it for leather and for dog food.

Two of the laws in this section have to do with injuries during fights. The first case involves no bystanders. As long as the wounded party does not die, the person who wounded him is responsible to pay for the injured party’s loss of time (literally “his lying-down”) and to pay the costs necessary to have the victim completely healed. Although the 2 parties may be mad at each other, it’s treated like an unintentional injury. It is unclear what happens if the victim dies or remains bedridden for life. The law merely states that the slugger is responsible for lost earnings and for medical care.

The second case is about accidental miscarriage liability. It’s amazing that just about every Near Eastern law code had a law similar to this one, but we practically never find an actual case like this in ancient court records. In Hammurabi’s law in Babylon, if the pregnant woman is from the noble class, the attacker shall pay 10 shekels for the death of the fetus, and his own daughter shall be executed if the mother dies. If the woman is a commoner, the attacker shall pay 5 shekels for the fetus and 30 shekels if the mother dies. In the Middle Assyrian Law, the attacker is executed if he causes the death of a fetus, and if a woman aborts her own fetus, she shall be impaled on a stake and left unburied. In the Hittite Law, if someone causes a woman to miscarry, the penalty is 10 shekels for a full-term fetus and 5 shekels for a fetus in its fifth month.

In the biblical passage, the husband can demand any amount the judges will allow for the miscarriage, if there is no “harm.” The question is whether “harm” refers to the death of the fetus or of the mother. The Greek translation reads this to mean the death of the fetus, like the Middle Assyrian Law does, which indicates that taking the life of the fetus was considered an act of homicide, to be treated as a capital crime. It looks like the slugger gets off with a fine if both mother and child survive.

For some reason, it is here that the famous “eye for an eye” law gets inserted into the text. Later on in Leviticus 24:19, it gets squeezed in again in the middle of the court verdict where a boy blasphemes the name of God. Was this “eye for an eye” practiced literally? The later rabbis said no. Scholars used to think that such injuries were punished by retaliatory injury at first, and only later did the laws get rewritten more humanely to allow for monetary fines. However, as evidence from the earliest laws codes has been dug up, we find the evidence points to the opposite: they started out with monetary fines. One early law reads that if you rip a guy’s nose off, you pay 60 shekels of silver, 60 shekels for an eye, 30 shekels for a tooth, 30 shekels for an ear, and 10 shekels for a slap on the cheek. It’s all monetary.

By the time of Hammurabi, the language changes to eye for eye, bone for bone, and tooth for tooth. But that’s just when someone from the gentleman class injures an equal. If a gentleman blinds or breaks the bone of a commoner, he simply pays 60 shekels of silver, and if he does so to a slave, he simply pays half the slave’s value.

The Bible’s “eye for an eye” law may not have been practiced literally, but it rules out different penalties for different social classes. Rather than being a primitive law, “an eye for an eye” actually means equal justice for all. The rich would suffer the same loss as the poor. The law also puts a limit on liability: no excessive punishment. Also, note that “an eye for an eye” does not apply to accidents.

These cases are the legal models in the Law of Moses for how liability issues should be handled. What can we learn from God’s law here? God’s law says that if you broke it, you fix it. Some losses or injuries are literally “acts of God”. Humans cannot be held liable for events that are beyond human power to anticipate or prevent. If an injury or loss was unintentional but preventable, the party who caused it is still guilty. In cases of non-fatal preventable but unintentional injury, God commands compensation for loss of earnings and for medical care. God gets tough on cases of negligence (failing to take reasonable preventative measures) or willful injury. And God gets toughest on cases that involve loss of human life. The God of Israel sees human life as sacred.

God does not command us to adopt Moses’ law as our civil law, but we can apply its principles to the 21st century. We may not have oxen running loose on our streets, but we have pit bulls. In an age where the issue of limits on courtroom damage awards is up for debate, the infamous “eye for an eye” law puts a cap on damage awards. And while we may not see pregnant women losing their pregnancies during barroom brawls, we see cases of it in auto accidents all the time, and courts are divided on whether to treat the unborn child as a human life. cares about the practical issues of human life.

God holds us accountable for repairing the damage we do in this world. What is sobering is the fact that God holds us accountable for all sin, whether it’s damage we can calculate in dollars, or whether it’s damage we do by unkind words or actions, whether it’s mistakes we make, or whether our actions are intentional. We’ve all done our share of damage in this world. All of us are sinners who need a Savior.

That’s why Jesus came. Jesus took upon himself the penalty of eternal death for all of our sin. He was charged with our guilt. He took the blame. He suffered the unimaginable pain, for us. God in the flesh took away our sin in history’s uttermost act of self-sacrificial love. He did it, so that he could make us holy and pure and faultless. All we can do is say yes to his tremendous act of mercy, to receive it as an act of faith. Once we receive that forgiveness, we can let a heart of gratitude change the course of our lives. We can let the Spirit of God take control of our hearts and empower us to live lives of renewed responsibility. Instead of running away from God and running away from our problems, we can face them squarely, and let God have his way in our lives. Wherever you’re at in your life, if you’ve never done so before, let God take over the management of your life. Let God take away your sin, both on the books, and in the life you live each day.