19. Animal Injuries

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.

18. Injuries Inflicted

Lessons from the Law: No.18 : Injuries Inflicted

Ex 21:18,19 If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed.

From capital crimes the Law moves to minor injuries and four situations are envisaged in verses 18 to 27, two involving fights and two involving slaves or servants. First, the first of the two fight situations: the Law recognises that sinful men will have upsets and disagreements and in the heat of the moment it will turn violent. Murder and manslaughter have already been covered, so now we consider lesser injuries incurred during such upsets. In our verses above there is an argument which turns violent and one man sustains injuries that confine him to bed. Very well, says the Law, that happens and it is no big issue, but there are two things to be considered.

The first is the fact that the man confined to his bed to recover from his injuries will not be able to work and so he should be compensated for his loss of work by the other man who caused the injury. Second, and this is quite delightful, the man who caused the injury is to go to the injured man and “see that he is completely healed.” In other words, he is to care for him, and that means have contact which, by its very nature, gives an opportunity for rebuilding a relationship after the upset. The picture of the one caring for the one he has injured could well be included in our own modern laws. It is part of the reconciliation work that is sometimes being done today in the legal system. Perhaps we are slowly catching up with God’s law.

The second ‘fight situation’ occurs a few verses later:  If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Ex 21:22-25) i.e. should the pregnant wife of one of the men (for that is the likely scenario) seek to intervene and stop the fight and be injured and give birth prematurely but there is no other injury, then a fine shall be imposed on the other man for having caused it, assessed as a compromise of what the husband demands and the court agrees. For more serious injuries caused, the penalty is to match the injury.  This is a ‘limiting law’, given to limit there being revenge.  The idea is that the punishment should equal the harm caused and no more. It thus stops worse happening through revenge.

Next we move on to the situations involving servants or slaves: If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property. (Ex 21:20,21) i.e. if a slave is killed by a master the laws of murder and manslaughter will apply. If it is a temporary injury there is to be no penalty. To us today, parts of this appear quite unfair and I think it is right to say that it is unfair. It is, of course a law legislating for a situation that we would not want to happen today but which would continue on for thousands of years.

Slavery is an outworking of a sinful Fallen World. In a redeemed world it would not happen. As I have commented a number of times in other places, I believe the Lord tolerated slavery (never commending it) simply because to abolish it would mean the complete changing of the mindset of a particular nation or series of nations and it would be many years before that could come about. The Lord never forces us to change our thinking and so slavery was an unpleasant face of humanity all over the world for a long time. Thus this law is inhibiting the behaviour of slave masters for they would be fearful of killing a slave because of the repercussions. Striking a slave in the heat of anger, presumably because of disobedience, was not what God wants to happen, but is tolerable in as much as slavery was tolerable until ‘civilised mankind’ could eventually see otherwise.

Finally the second of the servant laws here: If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.” (Ex 21:26,27) If a servant is injured, the penalty to compensate for that injury is that the servant is to be released. As one commentator has said, slavery in Israel was ‘rural, domestic and small scale’, yet the Law made sure it still was concerned for the welfare of such workers. In the Jewish community, the slave was not without rights as was the case with slavery elsewhere in the world. Yes, slavery may have existed, but the Israelite master who had slaves had to care for them and where his own sinful nature resulted in them being injured, the Law was there to speak up for them. This is not a comfortable area of law but it is law that seeks to work within the failures of a Fallen World and do what it can to protect those without power.