Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Word of Caution Regarding Construction Projects -- Exodus 21:33-34

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“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, the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his."
 
A few years back my family took on a building project. We were replacing my parents’ home built in 1953 with a new one that we moved into in 2009.  I learned a lot during that process.  Getting permits for various aspects of the job was a monumental exercise in patience and determination.  As I now study this passage, I realize it may well have been the origin of all of today’s rules, regulations, by-laws, and restrictions that are in place when someone tries to build anything that alters or involves the earth we dwell on.
So whether we are doing new construction, or repairing an old structure, or adding on to an existing structure, this verse and today’s laws apply.  If we are negligent in the way we do so and that negligence causes harm to others, we are liable for legal consequences.
Our Exodus verse talks about an ox or a donkey falling into uncovered pit.  Many of us do not use oxen or donkeys these days, but the principle is the same.  In the days of Exodus, an ox or a donkey could well mean the difference between having a living and starving.  These animals were the means to a livelihood for many.  Injure or kill their animals and they have no means of income.  And then the owner of the pit or the “construction site” needs to make financial amends to the owner of the animal for any loss in terms of the ability of the animal to do its job.  And so it is with today’s laws and lawsuits involving injury where someone has been negligent in the process of the construction they are carrying out.
Of course, in current day situations, this gets a little more complex.  Who is the actual owner of the “pit” at the time – is it the owner of the property or is it the owner of the construction company?  Is it the worker or workers operating the backhoe or the excavator?  Well, it does not matter – an injured party, trying to play it safe, sues everyone involved and the courts have to determine who was really to blame and what portion of the payments due would be assigned to each.
The later portion of verse 34 does require some closer examination.  Why would God give the “dead animal” to the owner of the pit after he pays the original owner of the animal for the harm caused?  The reason is that there is value in the carcass of a dead animal – either for their skin value, or possibly as fodder for other animals.  The original owner cannot have full compensation for his loss as well as maintain the residual assets of the animal.  David Guzik suggests that this is original “you break it, you bought it” principle that we find in many stores today.
Matthew Henry sums it all up nicely when he suggests that this passage alerts us to the fact that it is not enough “not to do mischief” or wrong.  He suggests that we are also to “contrive to prevent mischief, else we become accessory to our neighbors' damage. Mischief done in malice is the great transgression; but mischief done through negligence, and for want of due care and consideration, is not without fault, but ought to be reflected upon with great regret, according as the degree of the mischief is: especially we must be careful that we do nothing to make ourselves accessory to the sins of others, by laying an occasion of offence in our brother's way.”  But we’ll save that last point of Henry’s for when we study Romans 14:13.
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