Food in the Bible: Exodus 23:4-5

Exodus 23:4-5 When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help set it free.

Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no grace in the Old Testament. There’s plenty of violence, but you also have passages like this that echo Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies.” This fleshes out Jesus’ abstract statement to love our enemies. This tells us what it actually looks like to love our enemies. For many of us, loving our enemies is an internal thing dealing with our own feelings and thoughts. Exodus clearly tells us that loving our enemies looks more like action than thought or feelings. Loving our enemies is something concrete and difficult. It is easy to love my enemies in my head, without having to deal with them in real life.

It is interesting in this passage that nothing is stated about loving the enemy directly. The writer acknowledges that there is a tendency to hurt people indirectly, through their possessions, reputation, livelihood, etc. I’ve known some very passive aggressive people who do everything to maintain appearances in public, but do everything they can to sabotage other people behind the scenes. This is the situation here. You come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey. No one is around. No one is looking. You could break a leg and pretend you found it that way. Get back at your enemy and pay no consequences. This isn’t how the people of God are called to live with others, including enemies.

Think about this in terms of modern day protests against corporations that are destroying habitats, or agribusiness companies that are devastating the fertility of our land. These protests sometimes look like this passage. What if you “found” the pesticide implement or fertilizer spreader of a large farmer in the middle of the night with no one looking? Should you sabotage it? Isn’t it for the greater good? You’ve no doubt heard many stories of environmentalists protesting something by sabotaging equipment or “spiking trees.” These are dangerous and unbiblical methods for bringing about the kingdom. The kingdom looks like enemy love, not sabotage.

The biblical model, exemplified most in the life and death of Jesus, is that our means should always be congruent with our ends. You cannot achieve change through the kinds of methods that undermine your ultimate goal. There are certainly gray areas that are difficult to navigate. Nonetheless we must pursue sustainability with integrity. We should do what we can to help conventional farmers, not hurt them. We should speak out against corruption and abuses of power, but we should be careful that we don’t become like them as we stand against injustice.

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4 thoughts on “Food in the Bible: Exodus 23:4-5

  1. Phil Ruge-Jones

    I wonder if the tactics you mention are a direct parallel. Although I agree with the non-violence approach you mention, the enemies donkey may not be used directly in the exploitation your enemy causes, but the machinery is. Isn’t it more like don’t kill your enemy’s dog?

    I appreciate the notion that treatment of the enemy is something concrete we do. I’ve been learning the story from 2 Kings 6 where Elisha brings the Aramean army, blind, into the garrison of Israel’s king. When the king wants to kill them, Elisha tells him to feed them! He throws a banquet that the story says breaks the cycle of violence: And the Arameans came raiding into the land of Israel…no more!

    Reply
  2. lucas Post author

    oh no. if real theologians start reading this i could be in trouble. just kidding. glad to have the feedback.

    i’m not sure if the pesticide sprayer is exactly the machinery of exploitation. it certainly is essential to the modern conventional farmer’s livelihood. perhaps the bulldozer or chainsaw would not fit as well. if we want to deal with the machinery of exploitation in agriculture, i think, we need to go to the companies and policies forcing farmers into these practices. farmers can and are also part of this fight, but they shouldn’t be the target.

    can’t wait to hear you do the story in 2 Kings 6!

    Reply

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