Lessons from the Law: No.19 : Injuries by Animals
Ex 21:28,29 If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death.
From injuries caused by humans, the law now moves on to injuries caused by animals. In an agricultural society this is a very real issue to be dealt with. Bulls are notoriously dangerous and the possibility of a person being gored to death by a bull is very real. If that should happen, possibly in recognition of the seriousness of a human life being taken, the bull shall be killed but not eaten. Presumably it would just be burnt to get rid of it. As towards responsibility for the bull, the starting place is that the owner of the bull will not be liable for what it has done.
However, as with most of these laws, there is a caveat, which is that if the owner knew of the tendency of this bull to injure people who got near it, then he would be held liable and both he and the bull are put to death for causing the death of another when the owner had known of the likelihood.
The law of “Strict Liability” in our land says that if you bring something onto your land known to be dangerous if it escapes off the land, and it does escape, you are liable for the damage caused if you do allow it to escape. This is the same sort of law behind these verses here. They deal with, first of all, a bull killing a human being, and then a bull killing another bull.
But the laws continue on from our verses above to cover another possibility in a case when the owner has been shown to be liable: “However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.” (v.30) We have seen already that the owner’s life is thus forfeit but the family of the dead person may take compensation instead if they wish and the owner thus keep his life. This was no doubt the more preferable option. It continues, “This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter.” (v.31) in other words, the law is no different if the person killed by the bull is a child. This point is made in the light of what then follows: “If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull must be stoned.” (v.32) i.e. if a slave was killed the compensation goes to the owner for his loss. Because a foreign slave (see earlier meditations) was considered to be less important than a Hebrew, the death penalty for the owner does not apply and he just has to pay compensation to the owner of the slave.
(Note: in the two verses above, death was not mentioned but the assumption is that that is what followed being gored by the bull, as they follow on from our initial verses above. It is also assumed, because of the natural flow of the verses, that they refer to a situation where the owner was aware of the bull’s propensity to harm.)
The law then moves on to cover the loss of animals by the carelessness of others: “If a man uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit must pay for the loss; he must pay its owner, and the dead animal will be his.” (v.33,34). This is simply a case where compensation must be paid for the loss of an animal by his carelessness, but the dead animal remains his for him to do whatever he will with it.
Where the carelessness comes in the form of allowing one bull to kill another, then both dead and live bull values are divided between the two owners: “If a man’s bull injures the bull of another and it dies, they are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally.” (v.35) This assumes that the first owner was not aware that his bull had a propensity to be vicious: “However, if it was known that the bull had the habit of goring, yet the owner did not keep it penned up, the owner must pay, animal for animal, and the dead animal will be his.” (v.36) i.e. if he was aware of its propensity, then he simply has to pay the full price of the dead bull to its owner and the carcass becomes his for him to do whatever he wants with it.
When we read these laws we may have a tendency to think they are completely irrelevant to us today but we would be completely wrong. As we have pointed out, these laws are exactly the same as what is called the law of Strict Liability today. Whether it be an animal or dangerous substances, if we knew or should have known the danger if the animal or substance ‘got lose’ then we are liable for injuries or damage caused by it when it does ‘get lose’. There is, in other words, nothing strange or out of date in these laws we have just considered. It took English law until 1868 to catch up on God’s wisdom in the case, that any Law student will know, of Rylands versus Fletcher which was all about the escape of reservoir water. Water, animals or explosives etc., the law is just the same – you are liable if you know or should know of its danger.