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The Laws of Liability--Part 1

Feb 19, 2008

In one sense the entire law is about liability, for the moment God gives a command, all are liable to submit to it and obey it, whether or not they agree with that law. However, as we will see, some are more liable than others, depending upon their knowledge or ignorance of the law. The actual judgments (penalties) of the law also serve to show us the seriousness of the infraction.

Exodus 21:28-36 is a good place to start in our study of the laws of liability. On the surface, this is the law dealing with an ox that gores people. It is all well and good to apply this law to literal oxen with bad tempers, but insofar as it reveals the mind and will of God, it has great implications for all of us as well.

An ox is a great biblical symbol of a servant, and for this reason it is one of the four beasts around the throne of God (Rev. 4:7). These four beasts (or "living creatures") are also represented by the four Gospels and the four leading tribes of Israel whose banners were positioned on the four sides of the Tabernacle.

Matthew's theme is: BEHOLD, YOUR KING (the Lion of Judah). Zech. 9:9

Mark's theme is: BEHOLD, MY SERVANT (the Ox of Joseph). Isaiah 42:1

Luke's theme is: BEHOLD, THE MAN (the Man of Reuben) Zech. 6:12

John's theme is: BEHOLD, YOUR GOD (the Eagle of Dan) Isaiah 40:9

This puts the ox into context as one of the four major revelations of the character of Christ. Mark presents Christ as the perfect Servant, depicted by the ox. The ox, when paired with the donkey, depicts two different kinds of servants--one strong, and the other stiff-necked. For this reason, those in Pentecost are depicted in Scripture as donkeys whose stubborn character is being broken in order that they might learn to be oxen in the feast of Tabernacles.

In the laws of liability, both the ox and its owner could be held liable for the actions of the ox, depending on the situation. Exodus 21:28 says,

"And if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished."

The owner of the ox is not held liable the first time that the ox shows its tendency to hurt others. In such a case, only the ox itself is held liable for attempted murder. Because it was to be stoned and not butchered properly, "its flesh shall not be eaten." Lev. 17:10-15 shows clearly that man was not to consume blood. That, of course, has to do with laws against being "blood thirsty."

When an ox was stoned, it rendered its flesh unclean by reason of the blood that remained in it. A true servant of God is not bloodthirsty. He does not ask, "Which enemies of God can I kill for Jesus today?" Instead, he asks, "How can I serve others and lay down my life for Jesus?"

Exodus 21:29 and 30 continues,

(29) If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring, and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. (30) If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him."

The liability of the owner is based upon two things: ownership and the level of ignorance. Essentially, ownership establishes the basic fact of liability, while ignorance adds the mercy factor when determining the judgment or level of liability.

Keep in mind that God Himself is the Creator of all things, as established in Genesis 1:1. For this reason, God claims ownership of all things, including all nations. Thus, Jer. 27:5 and 6 says,

" (5) I have made the earth, the men and the beasts which are on the face of the earth by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and I will give it to the one who is pleasing in My sight. (6) And now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and I have given him also the wild animals of the field to serve him."

The fact that even the King of Babylon was God's servant (ox) shows that God created and owned him. It is no different today with the rulers of Mystery Babylon. They are all God's servants, and therefore God takes responsibility for their actions. In fact, God raised them up for the same reason that He raised up Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Jeremiah. It was to judge the people for their sin.

God owns many "oxen" that have a tendency to gore others. In fact, it would seem that Jesus Christ was the only "Ox" in the herd that did NOT have this tendency. Israel was God's servant nation as well, but they had a tendency to oppress ("gore") others. For this reason, God "confined" them by judgments and captivities. If He had not done so, He would have been liable for their actions.

Yet on some level, we find that God did not totally confine them either. God loved His ox so much that He decided to train it not to gore other nations, rather than to put it to death. This was an act of love and mercy, but by law it also made Him liable for the actions of his ox. His grace to the ox was in taking the liability for its actions upon Himself. This, in part, is what made the cross mandatory according to the law. In Ex. 21:30 (above), He paid that which the law demanded of Him, and it cost Him His life.

There is an interplay in this law between the ox and its owner. In rightly dividing the word of truth, one has to see the application of the law in both ways. Christ is the perfect Ox, but Christ also may represent the Owner of the ox when the ox represents mankind. It all depends upon how the the spirit of the law is to be applied in any given situation.

Exodus 21:33, 34 says,

" (33) And if a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, (34) the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his."

He who digs the pit is the creator/owner of that pit. As owner, he is liable for it. Since an open pit is an obvious danger, the owner has a responsibility to cover it as a preventative measure to ensure public safety. If he does not do so, he is liable for damages if a neighbor's ox or donkey falls into the pit.

The same is true with lighting a fire, as we see in Ex. 22:6,

"If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution."

We see the same type of liability law in Deut. 22:8,

"When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [railing] for your roof, that you may not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it."

In those days they had no air conditioning. In the evening as the day cooled, the people often went up the steps to the roof, where it was cooler than in the house. If there was no railing on the roof, there was danger that someone might fall and be injured or killed. These laws of liability are practical in everyday life, because they have to do with public safety. As such, they express concern and love for our neighbors.

But these laws also have tremendous theological implications that go back to the beginning when Adam and Eve first sinned. God put the tree of knowledge in the Garden, providing the temptation to fall. He put no fence around it. Neither did He confine the serpent (tempter). And Adam fell. So who is liable? To be continued.

This is the first part of a series titled "The Laws of Liability." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Laws of Liability

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Category: God's Law
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones