Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Returning Goods Damaged -- Exodus 22:10-13:

“If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them, that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property; and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution.  But if it is actually stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner.  If it is all torn to pieces, let him bring it as evidence; he shall not make restitution for what has been torn to pieces.”

This passage is also about the case of asking people to safeguard something for you and then the item is lost, damaged, or stolen from them.  It then becomes your word versus their word.  So God calls for an oath to be made before Him by each of you – both the person under whose care the item was when lost, stolen, or damaged and the owner.  The former would be required to swear before God that he/she had nothing to do with the loss or damage.  The owner would then accept that as sufficient proof if the item was only lost or damaged and not demand to be repaid for the item.  However, if it were stolen from the person who was supposedly guarding it, he would have to pay for it.  God seems to be placing a high emphasis here on our human responsibility to safeguard the property of others, at least from being stolen.  We need to have taken the proper precautions to prevent theft.
One may ask why this is not the case if the property was simply lost or stolen?  The only thing that comes to mind is that in the passage before us, God was dealing with the turning over of animals to someone else’s care.  If we stick with that context, it becomes next to impossible for a person to prevent all the trouble that an animal could get into on its own and thus some grace is given to the one who was charged with safeguarding it.  The only condition where he/she would be responsible for an animal getting lost or damaged is if he/she willfully arranged for that to happen.
In today’s world, at least in North America, we tend to live our adult lives more self-sufficiently, seldom asking others to take care of our things.  As an example, even when going away, those who own dogs or cats often take them to a cat- or dog-sitting establishment rather than ask their neighbors or relatives to feed them or check in on them daily.   Secondly, it is not always the case when we do ask others to take care of our possessions that they are people who would make an oath before God.
In its context, one area this may apply today is when a farmer sends his/her cattle or other animals to market or to the stockyards.  These animals would be entrusted to the care of the transporter.  But again, today these lawful outfits would be well insured for the goods they transport.
In the days of Exodus, one could rely more on this oath from the other person.  But even then, the onus was on the owner to accept the oath made by the person under whose care the item was lost or damaged.  The owner had to trust in God that this was right and to accept the outcome.  Much more so today when sometimes we have to act alone in so many things, because the other person is not a believer – it becomes a personal matter of our own trust in God.
Finally, the passage speaks of the animal being “torn to pieces” in which case if the torn carcass can be presented to the owner, no restitution needs to be made or paid.  One would assume that this has nothing to do with the animal being stolen, but rather with the animal being killed by another animal, again without any willful intent of the person who was to safeguard it.  The fact that the remains are presented should be sufficient to free him/her of any guilt.
Here are Matthew Henry’s comments with respect to the “oath of the Lord”:
It is called an oath for the Lord (v. 11), because to him the appeal is made, not only as to a witness of truth, but as to an avenger of wrong and falsehood. Those that had offered injury to their neighbor by doing any unjust thing, yet, it might be hoped, had not so far debauched their consciences as to profane an oath of the Lord, and call the God of truth to be witness to a lie: perjury is a sin which natural conscience startles at as much as any other. The religion of an oath is very ancient, and a plain indication of the universal belief of a God, and a providence, and a judgment to come . . .. That there is no reason why a man should suffer for that which he could not help: masters should consider this, in dealing with their servants, and not rebuke that as a fault which was a mischance, and which they themselves, had they been in their servants' places, could not have prevented.
Two interesting points that Henry’s writing brings out.  First of all, the lesson here today may well be for employers with respect to their employees.  We cannot hold employees responsible for something that they could not have prevented.  And that includes the things that we had not properly instructed or trained them in.
Secondly, his writing about “the religion of an oath” as he calls it, causes us to consider that such religion, especially with its direct dependence on God, does not exist for many today.  One only needs to look at the oaths taken by many politicians, and their subsequent practices.
All to say, “entrusters beware”.

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