Few biblical phrases have been as thoroughly parodied as the “goring ox.” In fact, the entire ox-thing that the Bible has going is, for many, an ongoing source of amusement and puzzlement. Why does such a great, lofty, and divine text spend so much time talking about oxen and other barnyard animals? Most everywhere you turn in the Bible, when they are not being slaughtered, these animals are wandering about, falling into pits, digging up your neighbor’s garden, or trampling to death unsuspecting pedestrians.
One such passage deals with the latter case. According to Exodus 21:28-30 (NRSV translation):
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and the owner also shall be put to death. If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life.
This is a relatively common-sense approach to the case of a goring ox. If the owner took proper precautionary measures, the goring ox is killed but the owner has no further liability for the damage (i.e., death) caused by the ox. If the owner did have reason to think that the ox would gore, though, and did not take proper precautions, then he is liable for any damage that it causes.
The rule seems relatively clear and is cited, basically verbatim, in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q251, fr. 8). And yet, this issue is at the center of one of the Mishnah’s list of key issues that divided Pharisees and Sadducees:
The Sadducees say: We accuse you, Pharisees! An ox or donkey that causes damage – [the owner] is liable [to pay damages]. But a slave or female slave [causes damage] – [the owner] is exempt [from paying damages]. (Mishnah Yadaim 4:7, my translation).
The Pharisee position here seems peculiar; it seems to directly contradict biblical law. Some commentators explain that the Pharisees are here relying on a slightly later biblical passage, Exodus 21:35-36, that speaks of an ox that hurts the neighbor’s ox. This is not impossible, but this latter biblical passage does not use this language of liability, as one might expect.
I was wondering if it might be possible that the reason that the Pharisaic position here seems to contradict the Bible is that it actually does. Either these Pharisees knew the rule and rejected it, or they did not know that this biblical rule existed. The Sadducees, and the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the other hand, gave more legal or normative authority to texts that they thought were divine. Hence both the disagreement between the Sadducees and Pharisees and the citation of the verse in Dead Sea Scroll collection of laws.