Years ago, my brother-in-law was walking between two parked cars in a parking lot. A dog lurched at him from one of the cars and tore up his forearm. The dog’s owner, thankfully unsuccessfully, tried to accuse him of taunting the dog. Apparently this was not the first time the dog used a human as a chew toy. And if community is to work, who is responsible for unruly animals? I was walking in a park in Lubbock, Texas when I witnessed a young man taking his tiger for a walk. He had a friend running interference, making sure no one approached the animal. I’m not an expert, but I’m thinking if that tiger wanted a snack, his owner, nor his owner’s friend, could have stopped him. I wondered if I looked like a walking steak to him. Maybe I watched too many cartoons as a child. I don’t know. But, really, who is responsible for any gnawing or tearing that tiger might be driven by its nature to do? You know, if community is to work?
Exodus 21:28-36 is God’s guiding principles concerning ownership responsibility. If a bull or an ox, the word can mean either one, gores a person to death, the animal is to be killed. I know! Poor animal. It is probably merely responding to being mistreated, or to its nature, or to the cycle of the moon. I believe animals should be treated well, but in order for this ancient community to work, an animal that has killed should be killed. How else are the humans, you know the humans who have lost a loved one, going to stay in community? It is important to understand that they viewed animals differently. We are not talking about a pet. We are talking about a tool; a farm implement. And for some farmers, their one ox was their entire livelihood. And yet, God still commanded that the animal be stoned to death and the meat to be wasted. This is setting a standard in the community. Human life is more important than animal life. I believe that it still is. Okay, now let’s say that the animal is a known gorer and the owner had been warned and had taken no precautions and the result was a dead human. What makes community work here? Well, God’s guiding principle is that the ox and the owner are executed. However, the owner can pay a ransom to save his own life. The amount was to be determined by the family of the gored individual. The rules are the same for children, boys and girls, which is revolutionary in this culture. One could argue that the son represents the coveted continuation of the name. But the daughter? But for God the daughter was to be given as much value as her brother and as the adults. The most difficult part of these guiding principles is the rule concerning a slave being gored by an animal. If a slave is killed by an ox, the ox is executed and the owner of the slave is to be paid thirty shekels of silver. In some ways this seems demeaning, reducing this human to mere property to be restituted. But in other ways, the slave is given more value than anyone else.
What if the damage is done by something other than an animal. Let’s say some guy digs a pit and is completely irresponsible in that he doesn’t cover the pit, you know to protect wandering animals from being injured or killed. And lo and behold an ox or donkey comes trotting along and falls into the pit. Community works if the digger of and owner of the pit makes restitution. No arguments about the animal being where it does not belong. There were no fences. The digger had a responsibility that he neglected and an animal, a farm implement, was destroyed. The owner of the pit does get to keep the dead animal.
What if an animal is killed by another animal? This seems to happen with people’s pets often these days. The live ox is sold and the price is divided between the two parties involved. The dead animal is also divided between the two families. Money and meat divided equally. However, if the offending ox was in the habit of goring and the owner took no steps to restrain it, his live ox becomes the property of owner of the dead ox and the dead ox becomes his.
At the heart of this passage is making community work. It deals mostly, not with malevolence, but with negligence. In order for community to work there must be an acceptance of responsibility. If you bring a dog to church and it bites one of your community mates, don’t try to shift blame. You are responsible for the animals you own. Years ago, someone in the church that meets at a youth correction center, left a sharp knife laying around. Fortunately, I was the one who found it. But no one claimed responsibility. What if one of the youth pocketed and stabbed one of the staff or another youth? The knife wasn’t left there on purpose. It was not an attempt to aid a youth in a violent escape. It was, however, incredibly negligent. Simply put. Own responsibility for your animals or your stuff. Community works better if you do. Peace.