If Israel begins to oppress the vulnerable members of its society, it will face the same destiny as the Egyptians.
God's hearing is not sentimental empathy. God's compassion is not divine indulgence. Rather, it has social ramifications. It restructures hierarchies. It defeats exploitation. The poor are not dependent on the largesse of the wealthy. The hope of the poor does not reside in waiting for the self-transformation of the wealthy. This text is not a call for charity. The wealthy should fear their own exploiting behavior because God stands against it for the sake of the poor. In fact, in this text God not only stands against it in principle but actively works against it. To defend the widow and orphan God threatens to kill those who exploit, thus producing more widows and orphans! Is it fair that the children of the exploiters should become orphans because of the deeds of their fathers? That question will inevitably need to be considered by interpreters, but the question should not be used to mute the aggressiveness of the divine"No!" to exploitation of the vulnerable.
Here we find early in the canon what will be of deep prophetic concern. The prophets repeatedly indict Israel and Judah for its exploitation of widows and orphans (for example, Isaiah 1:23; Jeremiah 5:28). The command is repeated throughout the prophetic witness. The threat that God will act against those who exploit extends into postexilic preaching where idolatry and exploitation are seen as working together in defiance of God (Malachi 3:5). Even here in Exodus the prohibition is preceded by a command against sacrificing to other gods (22:20) and followed by a command not revile God (22:28).
Finally, up to this point in Exodus, God has been working for Israel. Israel is understood as the exploited one, but in this section the possibility that Israel could be the exploiter is clearly envisaged. Israel has within itself a capacity to fill the role of Pharaoh. An echo of Exodus 2:23-25 can be heard here. God hearkens to the cry of the oppressed and moves against the oppressor. If the chosen people become Pharaoh, God will operate against them. God has fought for Israel (14:14), but God can fight against Israel as well (compare Jeremiah 21:5). God's grace cannot be used as a cover for exploitation.
21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26If you take your neighbours cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27for it may be your neighbours only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011