by Thandazani Mhlanga  |  5 April 2022  |

In my birth country of Zimbabwe, back in colonial times when it was still called Southern Rhodesia, a respected and highly esteemed colonial dairy farmer imported a prize-winning bull from Scotland. The bull’s arrival was no small affair: farmers from far and wide came down to see and celebrate this magnificent beast. The acquisition of such an expensive bull was considered a mark of outstanding success for the community, a symbol of colonial genius. Word spread that this bull would shortly be the father of many calves.

The farmer insisted that this colossal bull was surprisingly docile, as mild-tempered as a lamb: “He thrives and enjoys human interaction,” he claimed. Farmers would drive out just to spend an afternoon viewing the magnificent creature (though despite the rumors of the animal’s purported meekness, it was noticed that they observed it behind the fence!).

Because this animal held a high social status among the colonial minority, a native black boy of about 12 was assigned to be what could be described as the bull’s full-time butler. 

And then, tragedy: the supposedly docile beast attacked his young keeper, brutally mauling him and killing him. An informal court of justice was convened, at which it was decided that the boy’s family deserved compensation, which the farmer happily paid.

I find what happened afterwards the most intriguing part of the story. The farmer decided that the bull had committed a crime, and had to be executed. It has been surmised that the farmer was following Exodus 21:28:

If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. 

When word got out, some of the colonial farmer’s peers pleaded for the bull’s life. “It may have been the boy’s negligence that led to the terrible accident,” they argued. “But anyway, why punish the bull? We will pay you and take the bull off your hands, if that would assuage your guilt.” 

But the farmer was determined. The bull had murdered, and the bull had to be punished. 

The story says that the bull was executed in front of a firing squad.

Legal Justice

You probably haven’t heard this story. It happened in an obscure corner of the world, in the colonial period in Africa’s history. But this event was remembered by the community, both black and colonial, and continues to challenge us on the matter of religious jurisprudence. I grew up with this story, and I have often revisited it and looked at it from different perspectives: from the young boy’s perspective, the farmer’s, the boy’s family, the colonized community’s, the cow’s, and now the Bible’s. 

This farmer wasn’t an uneducated and ignorant man. He was a member of the ruling white minority who had committed to bringing Christianity and western civilization to the ignorant, unsophisticated Africans (or at least that’s how the colonialists saw it). But beyond his colonial worldview, was his hermeneutical understanding of Exodus 21:28 correct? 

The unnamed farmer was of the understanding that the casuistic laws (“if-then” laws) recorded in the Bible were to be judicially enforced. The problem is that significant biblical and historical records of the judicial ruling of such cases should be accompanied by stories illustrating the good or bad application of said laws. But there aren’t any examples of legal cases of this kind in the Bible, or other writings of the ancient world. 

Thus it seems likely that the ancients had a different use for those laws than his literal application, and knowing this might have altered the bull’s fate. 

Alternative Outcomes

While acknowledging that the death of the young keeper was a tragedy, it seems to me there could have been other outcomes. 

  • The farmer could have given the bull to whoever was willing to take it with a written legal acknowledgment of the bull’s history, thereby preserving an asset of value to the community. 
  • The bull could have received a decent butcher’s death, and his meat graced the dinner tables of many hungry families. 
  • The farmer could have sold the bull and added the funds to the compensation given to the black boy’s family. 
  • The bull could have been shipped back to Scotland and sold at auction. People might have paid a great deal for the novelty of a bull that had traveled to Africa and back! 
  • The bull was an investment for breeding that would have continued to be profitable, which profits the farmer could have given to the deceased’s family for the duration of the bull’s life.

Any of these, in my view, would have been, in my view, more just than what he did to both bull and the culture he lived in. 

Oh, and there’s one more interesting possibility in biblical jurisprudence. Given the likelihood that this huge beast was in fact never as gentle as a kitten, the farmer could have applied Exodus 21:29:

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 is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death.

In this case the farmer would have paid with his own life.

Armed with your knowledge of Biblical legal jurisprudence, if you were in the farmer’s shoes, would you have killed the bull?

Another Case Study

Religious laws often govern the behavior of religious people. But our interpretation of these laws must be correct, and should result in a just and rational application of said laws. 

Let us consider the law prohibiting adultery as an example of how understanding the law can catalyze a legal paradigm shift within the church. 

The Bible’s legal definition of adultery is when an engaged or married woman has consensual intercourse with a man who is not her husband, if her husband is not estranged (Leviticus 20:10 & Deuteronomy 22:22). 

First and foremost, let us recognize that this definition has what I consider to be an unfairly anti-feminist slant. This shouldn’t surprise us because it is the usual cultural slant in the ancient Near East, so it is not surprising to find it in the Old Testament. In that world, adultery was defined by the woman’s marital status, thus placing the weight of legal consequence on her. 

You can see, of course, these clear cultural biases within the adultery laws—my spelling them out would be preaching to the choir. 

Furthermore, the biblical law says that those caught in adultery were to be stoned to death. But should we use this law and punishment within our modern world view—as the dairy farmer tried to do with his “criminal” bull?

Biblical Judicial Rulings

Again, let’s look for examples of this ruling applied in the text. We remember that the biblical definition differentiates between cases of sexual assault and adultery: cases of adultery will always involve consent, the woman has to be married or betrothed, and her husband should not be estranged for the case to qualify.

There are five that come to mind. 

  • David & Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), 
  • Sarai & Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20), 
  • Gomer & Hosea (Hosea),
  • Judah & Tamar (Genesis 38:1-26), and 
  • Unnamed woman & the religious establishment (John 8:1-11). 

Without going into it too deeply, let’s note that in each of these stories there is adultery. Yet in none of them did anyone get stoned to death! 

This implies that the rulings of cases on adultery were influenced by concrete factors in the particular case, as evaluated on an ethical, emotional, and political basis, rather than sticking to the letter of the law. 

Now, it could be that someone was stoned for adultery at some point. It is impossible to argue against it from an absence of recorded examples, but neither can we argue for it. Overall, the record seems to show that generally the legal approach took many factors of the case into consideration. 

Which suggests that among us, too, that in matters of biblical jurisprudence, cases should always be assessed and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Correct interpretation of biblical legal law codes is important because the codes also help expose our cultural biases, and aid us in shifting our perspectives and worldviews. In this case, understanding the laws in terms of what they intended and how they were implemented will show that our religious ideas on premarital sex are for the most part of our own cultural design, since the ancients clearly didn’t include our notions of sexual sin in their laws about adultery, nor enforce it as some Christians have.

I am not arguing about whether they are correct or not, but pointing out that they are predominantly of modern human invention, not matters of Old Testament jurisprudence, as they are sometimes thought to be.

Religious life and religious laws have coexisted for as long as both have been known to humankind. The challenges we have faced with regard to them have been primarily due to a misunderstanding and misapplication of them, as I have shown in these two examples: of the executed bull, and of adultery. Understanding the limitations on these laws will help clarify the relationship between religious life and religious law, and guide church policy.

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Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.

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