Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
LAW IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
|| I. TERMS USED
1. Torah ("Law")
2. Synonyms of Torah
(1) Mitswah ("Command")
(2) `Edhah ("Witness," "Testimony")
(3) MishpaTim ("Judgments")
(4) Chuqqim ("Statutes")
(5) Piqqudhim ("Precepts")
II. THE WRITTEN RECORD OF THE LAW
1. The Critical Dating of the Laws
2. Groups of Laws in P (the Priestly Code)
3. The Book of the Covenant
(1) Judgments. Compared with Code of Hammurabi
(2) Basis of Law of Covenant. Earlier Customs
4. The Book of the Law of Deuteronomy 31
5. The Law of Holiness
6. The Final Compilation
III. THE GENERAL CHARACTER AND DESIGN OF THE LAW
1. The Civil Law
(1) Servants and the Poor
(4) Sabbaths and Feasts
2. The Ceremonial Law
(1) Origin of Sacrifice
(2) The Levitical Ritual
(3) The Law Truly a Torah
IV. THE PASSING AWAY OF THE LAW
Law, at least as custom, certainly existed among the Hebrews in the times before Moses, as appears from numerous allusions to it, both in matters civil and ceremonial, in the earlier Scriptures. But we have no distinct account of such law, either as to its full contents or its enactment. Law in the Old Testament practically means the Law promulgated by Moses (having its roots no doubt in this earlier law or custom), with sundry later modifications or additions, rules as to which have been inserted in the record of the Mosaic law.
The following are matters of pre-Mosaic law or custom to which allusion is made in Genesis and Exodus: the offering of sacrifice and the use of altars (Genesis, passim); the religious use of pillars (Gen 28:18); purification for sacrifice (Gen 35:2); tithes (Gen 14:20; 28:22); circumcision (Gen 17:10; Ex 4:25 f); inquiry at a sanctuary (Gen 25:22); sacred feasts (Ex 5:1, etc.); priests (Ex 19:22); sacred oaths (Gen 14:22); marriage customs (Gen 16; 24; 25:6; 29:16-30); birthright (Gen 25:31-34); elders (Gen 24:2; 50:7; Ex 3:16); homicide (Gen 9:6), etc. We proceed at once to the Law of Moses.
I. Terms Used.
The Hebrew word rendered "law" in our Bibles is torah. Other synonymous words either denote (as indeed does torah itself) aspects under which the Law may be regarded, or different classes of law.
1. Torah ("Law"):
Torah is from horah, the Hiphil of yarah. The root meaning is "to throw"; hence, in Hiphil the word means "to point out" (as by throwing out the hand), and so "to direct"; and torah is "direction." Torah may be simply "human direction," as the "law of thy mother" in Prov 1:8; but most often in the Old Testament it is the Divine law. In the singular it often means a law, the plural being used in the same sense; but more frequently torah in the singular is the general body of Divinely given law. The word tells nothing as to the way in which the Law, or any part of it, was first given; it simply points out the general purpose of the Law, namely, that it was for the guidance of God's people in the various matters to which it relates. This shows that the end of the Law lay beyond the mere obedience to such and such rules, that end being instruction in the knowledge of God and of men's relation to Him, and guidance in living as the children of such a God as He revealed Himself to be. This is dwelt upon in the later Scriptures, notably in Ps 19 and Ps 119.
In the completed Canon of the Old Testament, torah technically denotes the Pentateuch (Lk 24:44) as being that division of the Old Testament Scriptures which contains the text of the Law, and its history down to the death of Moses, the great lawgiver.
2. Synonyms of Torah:
(1) Mitswah ("Command")
Mitswah, "command" (or, in the plural, "commands"), is a term applied to the Law as indicating that it is a charge laid upon men as the expression of God's will, and therefore that it must be obeyed.
(2) `Edhah ("Witness," "Testimony")
`Edhah, "witness" or "testimony" (in plural "testimonies"), is a designation of God's law as testifying the principles of His dealings with His people. So the ark of the covenant is called the "ark of the testimony" (Ex 25:22), as containing "the testimony" (Ex 25:16), i.e. the tables of the Law upon which the covenant was based. The above terms are general, applying to the torah at large; the two next following are of more restricted application.
(3) MishpaTim ("Judgments")
MishpaTim, "judgments": MishpaT in the singular sometimes means judgment in an abstract sense, as in Gen 18:19; Dt 32:4; sometimes the act of judging, as in Dt 16:18,19; 17:9; 24:17. But "judgments" (in the plural) is a term constantly used in connection with, and distinction from, statutes, to indicate laws of a particular kind, namely, laws which, though forming part of the torah by virtue of Divine sanction, originated in decisions of judges upon cases brought before them for judgment. See further below.
(4) Chuqqim ("Statutes")
Chuqqim, "statutes" (literally, "laws engraven"), are laws immediately enacted by a lawgiver. "Judgments and statutes" together comprise the whole law (Lev 18:4; Dt 4:1,8 the King James Version). So also we now distinguish between consuetudinary and statute law.
(5) Piqqudhim ("Precepts")
Piqqudhim, "precepts": This term is found only in the Psalms. It seems to mean rules or counsels provided to suit the various circumstances in which men may be placed. The term may perhaps be meant to apply both to the rules of the actual torah, and to others found, e.g. in the writings of prophets and "wise men."
II. The Written Record of the Law.
The enactment of the Law and its committal to writing must be distinguished. With regard to the former, it is distinctly stated (Jn 1:17) that "the law was given through Moses"; and though this does not necessarily imply that every regulation found in the Pentateuch is his, a large number of the laws are expressly ascribed to him. As regards the latter, we are distinctly told that Moses wrote certain laws or collections of laws (Ex 17:14; 24:4,7; Dt 31:9). These, however, form only a portion of the whole legislation; and therefore, whether the remaining portions were written by Moses, or--if not by him--when and by whom, is a legitimate matter of inquiry.
It is not necessary here to discuss the large question of the literary history of the Pentateuch, but it must briefly be touched upon. The Pentateuch certainly appears to have reached its present form by the gradual piecing together of diverse materials. Deuteronomy (D) being a separate composition, a distinction would seem to have been clearly established by critical examination between a number of paragraphs in the remaining books which apparently must once have formed a narrative by themselves, and other paragraphs, partly narrative but chiefly legislative and statistical, which appear to have been subsequently added. Without endorsing any of the critical theories as to the relation of these, one to the other, or as to the dates of their composition, we may, in a general way, accept the analysis, and adopt the well-known symbol JE (Jahwist-Elohim) to distinguish the former, and P (Priestly Code) the latter. Confining ourselves to their legislative contents, we find in JE a short but very important body of law, the Law of the Covenant, stated in full in Ex 20 through 23, and repeated as to a portion of it in Ex 34:10-28. All the rest of the legislation is contained in P and Deuteronomy.
1. The Critical Dating of the Laws:
We are distinctly told in Ex that the law contained in Ex 20 through 23 was given through Moses. Rejecting this statement, critics of the school of Wellhausen affirm that its true date must be placed considerably later than the time of Joshua. They maintain that previous to their conquest of Canaan the Israelites were mere nomads, ignorant of agriculture, the practice of which, as well as their culture in general, they first learned from the conquered Canaanites. Therefore (so they argue), as the law of Ex 20 through 23 presupposes the practice of agriculture, it cannot have been promulgated until some time in the period of the Judges at the earliest; they place it indeed in the early period of the monarchy. All this, however, is mere assumption, support for which is claimed in some passages in which a shepherd life is spoken of, but with utter disregard of others which show that both in the patriarchal period and in Egypt the Israelites also cultivated land. See B.D. Eerdmans, "Have the Hebrews Been Nomads?" The Expositor, August and October, 1908. It can indeed be shown that this law was throughout in harmony with what must have been the customs and conceptions of the Israelites at the age of the exodus (Rule, Old Testament Institutions). Professor Eerdmans in his Alttestamentliche Studien, Part III (1910), vigorously defends the Mosaic origin of the Book of the Covenant.
The same critics bring down the date of the legislation of Dt to the time of Josiah, or at most a few years earlier. They affirm (wrongly) that the chief object of Josiah's reformation narrated in 2 Ki 23 was the centralization of worship at the temple in Jerusalem. They rightly attribute the zeal which carried the reform through to the discovery of the "Book of the Law" (22:8). Then arguing that the frequent previous practice of worship at high places implied the non-existence of any law to the contrary, they conclude that the rule of Dt 12 was a rule recently laid down by the temple priesthood, and written in a book in Moses' name, this new book being what was "found in the house of Yahweh." But this argument is altogether unsound: its grave difficulties are well set out in Moller's Are the Critics Right? And here again careful study vindicates the Mosaic character of the law of Deuteronomy as a whole and of Dt 12 in particular. M. Edouard Naville in La decouverte de la loi sous le roi Josias propounds a theory which he supports by a most interesting argument: that the book found was a foundation deposit, which must therefore have been built over by masonry at the erection of the temple by Solomon.
Equally unsound, however plausible, are the arguments which would make the framing of the Levitical ritual the work of the age of Ezra. The difficulties created by this theory are far greater than those which it is intended to remove. On this also see Moller, Are the Critics Right?
Rejecting these theories, it will be assumed in the present article that the various laws are of the dates ascribed to them in the Pentateuch; that whatever may be said as to the date of some "of the laws," all which are therein ascribed to Moses are truly so ascribed.
2. Groups of Laws in P (the Priestly Code):
The laws in P are arranged for the most part in groups, with which narrative is sometimes intermingled. These e.g. are some of the groups: Ex 25 through 31; Lev 1 through 7; 11 through 15; Nu 1 through 4, etc. The structure and probable history of these groups are very interesting. That many of them must have undergone interpolation appears certain from the following considerations. Each of the groups, and often one or more paragraphs within a group, is headed by a recurring formula, "Yahweh spake unto Moses (or unto Aaron, or unto Moses and Aaron), saying." We might at first expect that the contents of each group or paragraph so headed would consist solely of what Yahweh had said unto Moses or Aaron, but this is not always so. Not infrequently some direction is found within such a paragraph which cannot have been spoken to Moses, but must have come into force at some later date. Unless then we reject the statement of the formula, unless we are prepared to say that Yahweh did not speak unto Moses, we can only conclude that these later directions were at some time inserted by an editor into paragraphs which originally contained Mosaic laws only. That this should have been done would be perfectly natural, when we consider that the purpose of such an editor would be not only to preserve (as has been done) the record of the original Law, but to present a manual of law complete for the use of his age, a manual (to use a modern phrase) made complete to date.
That the passages in question were indeed interpolations appears not only from the fact that their removal rids the text of what otherwise would be grave discrepancies, but because the passages in question sometimes disturb the sequence of the context. Moreover, by thus distinguishing between laws promulgated (as stated) by Moses, and laws to which the formula of statement was not intended to apply, we arrive at the following important result. It is that the former laws can all be shown to be in harmony one with another and with the historical data of the Mosaic age; while the introduction of the later rules is also seen to be what would naturally follow by way of adaptation to the circumstances of later times, and the gradual unfolding of Divine purpose.
It would be much too long a task here to work this out in detail: it has been attempted by the writer of this article in Old Testament Institutions, Their Origin and Development. Two instances, however, may be mentioned.
Instances of interpolation--In Ex 12:43 ff (English Revised Version) we read, "This is the ordinance of the passover: there shall no alien eat thereof; but every man's servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat thereof." This was the original Mosaic rule introduced by the formula in 12:43. But in 12:48,49 it is said that sojourners (when circumcised) may eat of the passover. This was plainly a relaxation of later date, made in accordance with the principle which is enlarged upon in Isa 56:3-8.
According to Lev 23:34,39a,40-42, the Feast of Tabernacles was a feast of seven days only. This was the Mosaic rule as appears from the formula in 23:33, and in certain other passages. But as a development in the feast's observance, an eighth day was subsequently added, and therefore insertions to that effect were made here at 23:36 and 39b. The introduction of this additional day would be in keeping with that elaboration in the observance of the "set feasts" which we find in Nu 28 and 29, as compared with the simpler observance of the same days ordered in Lev 23. Here again the formula in Nu 28:1 plainly covered a few verses immediately following, but not the whole content of the two chapters.
Premising then the existence in writing from an early age of numerous groups of Mosaic laws and their subsequent interpolation, the ultimate compilation of these groups together with other matter and their arrangement in the order in which we now find them must have been the work, perhaps indeed of the interpolator, but in any case of some late editor. These numerous groups do not, however, make up the whole legislative contents of the Pentateuch; for a very large portion of these contents consists of three distinct books of law, which we must now examine. These were the "Book of the Covenant," the "Book of the Law" of Dt 31:26, and the so-called "Law of Holiness."
3. The Book of the Covenant:
This book, expressly so named (Ex 24:7), is stated to have been written by Moses (24:3,1). It must have comprised the contents of Ex 20 through 23. The making of the covenant at Sinai, led up to by the revealing words of Ex 3:12-17; 6:2-8; 19:3-6, was a transaction of the very first importance in the religious history of Israel. God's revelation of Himself to Israel being very largely, indeed chiefly, a revelation of His moral attributes (Ex 34:6,7), could only be effectively apprehended by a people who were morally fitted to receive it. Hence, it was that Israel as a nation was now placed by God in a stated relation to Himself by means of a covenant, the condition upon which the covenant was based being, on His people's part, their obedience to a given law. This was the law contained in the "Book of the Covenant."
It consisted of "words of Yahweh" and "Judgments" (Ex 24:3 the King James Version). The latter are contained in Ex 21:1 through 22:17; the former in Exodus 20, in the remaining portion of Exodus 22, and Exodus 23. The "judgments" (the American Standard Revised Version "ordinances") relate entirely to matters of right between man and man; the "words of Yahweh" relate partly to these and partly to duties distinctively religious.
(1) Judgments. Compared with Code of Hammurabi.
The "judgments" appear to be taken from older consuetudinary law; not necessarily comprising the whole of that law, but so much of it as it pleased God now to stamp with His express sanction and to embody in this Covenant Law. They may well be compared with those contained in the so-called Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, who is thought to have been the Amraphel of Gen 14. These are called "the judgments of righteousness which Hammurabi the mighty king confirmed." The resemblances in form and in subject between the two sets of "judgments" are very striking. All alike have the same structure, beginning with a hypothetical clause, "if so and so," and then giving the rule applicable in the third person. All alike relate entirely to civil, as distinguished from religious, matters, to rights and duties between man and man. All seem to have had a similar origin in judgments passed in the first place on causes brought before judges for decision: both sets therefore represent consuetudinary law.
(2) Basis of Law of Covenant. Earlier Customs.
It is remarkable that, alike in matters of right between man and man, and in matters relating directly to the service of God, the Law of the Covenant did little (if anything) more than give a new and Divinely attested sanction to requirements which, being already familiar, appealed to the general conscience of the community. If, indeed, in the "words of Yahweh" there was any tightening of accustomed moral or (more particularly) religious requirements, e.g. in the first and second commandments of the Decalogue, it would seem to have been by way of enforcing convictions which must have been already gaining hold upon the minds of at least the more thoughtful of the people, and that in large measure through the lessons impressed upon them by the events of their recent history. In no other Way could the Law of the Covenant have appealed to their conscience, and so formed a foundation on which the covenant could be securely based.
As in the "judgments" we have a ratification of old consuetudinary law; as again in the second table of the Decalogue we have moral rules in accordance with a standard of moral right--no doubt already acknowledged--very similar indeed to that of the "negative confession" in the Egyptian Book of the Dead; so in the more especially religious rules of the Law of the Covenant we find, not new rules or an establishment of new institutions, but a new sanction of what was already old. These "words of Yahweh" assume the rendering of service to Yahweh: they do not enjoin it as if it were a new thing, but they enjoin that the Israelites shall not add to His service also the service of other gods (Ex 20:3; 23:24). They assume the observance of the three "feasts," they enjoin that these shall be kept to Yahweh--"unto me," i.e. "unto me only" (Ex 23:14,17). They assume the making of certain offerings to Yahweh, they enjoin that these shall be made liberally--"of the first," i.e. of the best--and without delay (Ex 22:29 f). They assume the rendering of worship by sacrifice, and the existence of an accustomed ritual, and therefore they do not lay down any scheme of ritual, but they give a few directions designed to guard against idolatry, or any practices tending either to irreverence or to low and false conceptions of God (Ex 20:4-6,23-26; 22:31; 23:18 f). While insisting upon the observance of the three "feasts," spoken of as already accustomed, it is remarkable that they contain no command to keep the Passover, which as an annual observance was not yet an accustomed thing.
This absence of ritual directions is indeed very noticeable. It was in the counsel of God that He would in the near future establish a reconstituted ritual, based upon what was already traditional, but containing certain new elements, and so framed as more and more to foster spiritual conceptions of God and a higher ideal of holiness. This however was as yet a thing of the future. No mention therefore was made of it in the Law of the Covenant; that law was so restricted as that it should at once appeal to the general conscience of the people, and so be a true test of their desire to do what was right. This would be the firm basis on which to build yet higher things. It is impossible to estimate the true character of the subsequent legislation, i.e. of what in bulk is by far the larger part of the torah--except by first grasping the true character and motive of the Covenant, and the Covenant Law.
See also COVENANT, BOOK OF THE; PENTATEUCH.
4. The Book of the Law of Deuteronomy 31:
Immediately after the making of the Covenant, Moses was called up into the mount, and there received instructions for the erection of the tabernacle, these being followed in due course by the rules of the reconstituted ceremonial of which the tabernacle was to be the home. All these for the present we must pass over.
Having arrived on the East of the Jordan, Moses, now at the close of his career, addressed discourses to the people, in which he earnestly exhorted them to live up to the high calling with which God had called them, in the land of which they were about to take possession. To this end he embodied in his discourse a statement of the Law by which they were to live. And then, as almost his last public act, he wrote "the words of this law in a book," and directed that the book should be placed "by the side of the ark of the covenant" (Dt 31:24-26). What now was this book? Was it Deuteronomy, in whole or in part? The most reasonable answer to this question is that the book actually written by Moses comprised at least the contents of Dt 5 through 26 and 28. Whether the whole or any parts of the remaining contents of Dt also formed part of this book, or were subsequently added to it, the whole being brought by a process of editing to our present Deuteronomy, is again a legitimate matter of inquiry.
Characteristics of Deuteronomy.
Regarding Dt 5 through 26 and 28 (with or without parts of other chapters) as the "book" of Dt 31:24-26, we find that it is a manual of instruction for the people at large--it is not a priest's manual. It deals with matters of morals, and of religion in its general principles, but only subordinately with matters of ritual: it warns against perils of idolatry and superstitious corruptions, common in the service of other gods, but which might by no means be mixed up with Yahweh's seryice: it insists upon righteous conduct between man and man, and very strongly inculcates humanity toward the poor and the dependent: it enjoins upon those in authority the impartial maintenance of right, as also fairness, moderation and mercy, in the administration of law and the infliction of punishment: it sets forth the fear of God as the guide of His people's actions, and the love of God in response to His mercy toward them. It does not lay down any scheme of ritual, though it gives rules (Dt 4:3-21) as to things which might not be eaten as unclean; it also gives directions as to the disposal of tithes (Dt 14:22-29; 26:12); it enlarges upon the direction in the Law of the Covenant for the observance of the three "feasts," adding to this the observance of the Passover (Dt 16); it lays down a law (expressed conditionally) restricting to one sanctuary the offering of at least the more solemn sacrifices (Dt 12); and it frequently inculcates liberality toward the Levites, both on account of the sacred services rendered by them, their dispersal among the tribes, and the precarious character of their livelihood. Like the Law of the Covenant it assumes the existence of an accustomed ceremonial, and it is remarkable that when there is occasion to do so it makes use of phraseology (Dt 12) similar to that of the ritual laws of Moses in Leviticus and Numbers.
It is quite possible that some interpolations may have been made in the text of Deuteronomy 5 through 26, but not on any sufficient scale to affect the general character of the original book. This "Book of the Law" then was an expansion of the Law of the Covenant, enforcing its principles, giving directions in greater detail for carrying them out, and setting them in a framework of exhortation, warning and encouragement. Thus, its relation to the covenant is indicated by Dt 26:16-19; 29:1. This is that "book of the Law of Moses" of which frequent mention is made in the books of Kings, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.
5. The Law of Holiness:
In marked contrast to the numerous rules, sometimes intermingled with narrative, which we find in Ex 25 through 40; Lev 1 through 16, and throughout Numbers, we have in Lev 17 through 26 a collection of laws which evidently was once a book by itself. This, from its constant insistence upon holiness as a motive of conduct, has been called "the Law of Holiness." Though it contains many laws stated to have been spoken by Yahweh to Moses, we are not told by whom it was written, and therefore its authorship and date are a fair subject of inquiry. In its general design it bears much resemblance to the Law of the Covenant, and the Book of the Law contained in Deuteronomy. As in them, and especially in the latter, the laws are set up in a parenetic framework, the whole closing with promise of reward for obedience and a threat of punishment for disobedience (compare Ex 23:20-33; Lev 26; Dt 28). Like them it deals much with moral duties: Lev 19 and 20 are practically an expansion of the Decalogue; but it deals also more than they do with ceremonial. With regard to both it sets forth as the motive of obedience the rule, "Be ye holy, for I am holy."
A Clue as to Date
A clue to its date is to be found in its conception of cleanness. The idea found in the Prophets and the New Testament that moral wrongdoing renders unclean must be based upon some earlier conception, namely, upon the Old Testament conception of ritual uncleanness. Now ritual uncleanness was originally physical uncleanness only; the idea of moral right or wrong did not enter into it at all: this is perfectly clear from the whole contents of Lev 11 through 15. On the other hand we find the idea of moral cleanness and uncleanness fully formed in the Psalms, Proverbs, and in the Prophets, including the earlier prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. In H (the Law of Holiness, Lev 17 through 26) we find an intermediate conception. We find that whereas in Lev 11 through 15 sexual acts which were lawful rendered unclean equally with those which were unlawful, in H, adultery and incest are denounced as rendering specially unclean, the idea being that their technical uncleanness became more intensely unclean through their immorality (Lev 18:24-30). Similarly, converse with familiar spirits and wizards, which probably involved physical defilement (perhaps through the ingredients used in charms), is mentioned as specially causing defilement, probably as such technical defilement would be intensified by the unlawfulness of dealing with familiar spirits and wizards at all (Lev 19:31). Sins, however, which did not in themselves entail physical uncleanness, such e.g. as injustice, are not mentioned in H as rendering unclean, though they are so regarded in the Prophets. First, then, we have ritual uncleanness, which is physical only in the rules of Lev 11 through 15 (Mosaic rules undoubtedly embodying a pre-Mosaic conception); lastly, we have moral wrong in itself rendering unclean, in the Psalms and the Prophets; intermediately we have the transitional conception in H. The date therefore of the Law of Holiness may be Mosaic, but must be considerably earlier than the earliest of the writing prophets.
6. The Final Compilation:
The remaining groups of Mosaic laws would appear to have been extant in their original form (i.e. without interpolation), no doubt in the custody of the priesthood for probably a very considerable time, it may have been for centuries, before their final compilation in their present form. The arrangement of these groups as they now stand, before and after H and with narrative intermingled, is by no means haphazard, as it might at first appear.
As the directions for the erection of the tabernacle with the purpose of its several parts were given to Moses immediately after the making of the covenant, they follow the account of it immediately. Thus Exodus contains the history of the covenant-making, of what led up to it, and of what immediately followed it, namely, the provision of the home for the covenant-worship.
This book follows with the rules of that worship; not indeed with all its details, but with an account of all that was essential to it. First (in Lev 1 through 7) we have the law of sacrifice, including what was so especially peculiar to the covenant-worship, the law of the sin offering. Then in Lev 8 through 10 we have the consecration of the tabernacle and its contents, the consecration of its priests and the inauguration of the newly prescribed system of worship. Then in Lev 11 through 15 we have the rules for purification from ritual uncleanness, without which it would have been impossible for this system of covenant-worship to be carried on. Then there follows in Lev 16 the account of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, the crown and completion of the whole. Thus in these 16 chapters we have an account of the essentials of the newly instituted covenant-worship. And then immediately we have in the Law of Holiness the great motive that underlay both this ceremonial law and the preceding moral and religious law of the Book of the Covenant, namely, the principle that God's people must be holy, because He is holy. The emphasizing of this principle in H thus closes this whole statement of law, as its first enunciation had introduced it in Ex 19:6.
The purpose of Numbers is supplementary. Nu 1 through 6, containing the numbering and ordering of the tribes and rules as to the representative Levitical ministry, sets forth the corporate character of Israel's service of God. The Israelites were not to be a mere aggregation of tribes, but a single nation, the bond of their union being the covenant with God. The camp itself, ordered and carefully guarded against pollution, was to be a symbol of this holy unity. Num 7 through 10 narrate the remaining occurrences at Sinai, including (9:1-14) the important account of the first commemorative Passover. The remaining chapters contain, alternately, a narrative of events following the departure from Sinai and groups of laws usually in some way connected with the events narrated, but all of them supplementary to the more essential laws already recorded.
As a separate work and based upon sayings and doings at the very close of the 40 years, Deuteronomy naturally follows last.
III. The General Character and Design of the Law.
Both in civil matters and in ceremonial the Law had to deal with men who lived in a comparatively early age of human history. Its rules were necessarily adapted in both departments to the standards of the age. At the same time they inculcated principles, the working out of which would by degrees bring about a great advance in men's conceptions both of what is true and of what is right.
1. The Civil Law:
As J.B. Mozley says (Lectures on the Old Testament), "The morality of a progressive revelation is not the morality with which it starts but that with which it concludes"; yet the excellence of the Old Testament Law is evident, not only in its great underlying principles, but in the suitability of its individual rules to promote moral advance.
(1) Servants and the Poor.
We have already noted the similarity between the "judgments" of Ex 20 and 21 and the "judgments" of Hammurabi, in respect to form and subject. Notwithstanding the practical wisdom found in many of the latter, there is in one matter a marked contrast in spirit between them and the former, for while both the Law of the Covenant and its enlargement in Dt guarded the interest of and secured justice, and mercy too, to slaves and the poor, the laws of Hammurabi were framed rather in the interests of the well-to-do. Compare (e.g.) with the rule as to a runaway slave in Dt 23:15 f, the following (Code of Hammurabi, section symbol 16): "If a man has harbored in his house a manservant or a maidservant fugitive from the palace, or a poor man, and has not produced them at the demand of the commandant, the owner of that house shall be put to death." The Law indeed permitted slavery, an institution universal in the ancient world, but it made provisions which must very greatly have mitigated its hardship. It was enjoined, both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, that after six years' service a Hebrew manservant should "go out free for nothing," unless he himself preferred to remain in servitude (Ex 21:2-6; Dt 15:12-18). The rule in Ex 21:7-11 as to women servants was not exactly the same, but it nevertheless guarded their interests, while Hebrew women servants were afterward included in the rule of Dt 15:12. A still greater amelioration was brought in by a later rule connected with the law of the Jubilee as set out in Lev 25:39-55. Again, though servitude was permitted on account of debt, or as a rescue from poverty (Ex 21:2,7; Dt 15:12), manstealing was a capital offense (Ex 21:16).
The rule of Ex 21:22-25 ("eye for eye," etc.; compare Lev 24:19,20; Dt 19:16-19) sounds harsh to us, but while the justice it sanctioned was rough and ready according to the age, it put a restraint on vindictiveness. The punishment might be so much, but no more: and the same spirit of restraint in punishment is seen in the rule as to flogging (Dt 25:2 f). Similarly the rule that murder was to be avenged by "the avenger of blood," a rule under the circumstances of the age both necessary and salutary, was protected from abuse by the appointment of places of refuge, the rule with respect to which was designed to prepare the way for a better system (see Ex 21:12-14; Nu 35:9-24; Dt 19:1-13).
The marriage customs of the Mosaic age permitted polygamy and concubinage, marriage by purchase or by capture in war, slave-marriage, and divorce. The Law allowed the continuance of these customs, but did not originate them; on the contrary, its provisions were designed to restrict the old license, giving protection to the weaker party, the woman, limiting as far as possible the evils of the traditional system, a system which could not suddenly be changed, and preparing the way for a better. Consider the effect of the following rules: as to slave-wives (Ex 21:7-11); captives of war (Dt 21:10-14); plurality of wives (Dt 21:15-17); adultery (Ex 20:14,17; Dt 22:22); fornication (Dt 22:23-29; 23:17,18; Lev 21:19); divorce (Dt 24:1-4); Levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-10); incest (Lev 18:6-18); marriage of priests (Lev 21:7,10-15); royal polygamy (Dt 17:17).
(4) Sabbaths and Feasts.
The law as to these, though partly ceremonial, yet served social ends. The Sabbath day gave to all, and particularly to servants and the poor, and domestic cattle too, a needful respite from daily toil; it also served men's spiritual welfare, and did honor to God (Ex 23:12; Dt 5:14,15; Ex 31:12-17). The seventh year's rest to the land--it also "a sabbath of solemn rest, a sabbath unto Yahweh"--was for the land's recuperation, but it served also to safeguard common rights at perhaps a time of transition as to customs of land tenure: connected with it also there were rules as to release of slaves and relief of debtors (Ex 23:9-11; Lev 25:2-7; Dt 15:1-18). The observance of the Sabbath year as a rest to the land seems to have fallen into disuse, perhaps as early as some 500 years before the Babylonian captivity (2 Ch 36:21), and it is probable that the Jubilee (the design of which seems to have been to adjust conflicting rights under new customs of land tenure and in the relation of employer to employed) was instituted to take its place (Lev 25). The law as to the annual feasts insured both the social advantages of festive gatherings of the people, and their sanctification by the worship of God, and the public recognition of His hand in matters agricultural and political, which were either the occasion of, or connected with, these gatherings. Considerate liberality to the poor and dependent was, on these occasions, especially enjoined (Ex 23:14-17; Dt 16:1-17; 12:12,18,19).
2. The Ceremonial Law:
We have already noted that the conception of sin as uncleanness, rendering the sinner therefore unfit for the presence of God, must have been an outgrowth from the earlier conception of purely ritual (physical) uncleanness. This development, and an accompanying sense of the heinousness of sin and of its need of atonement by sacrifice, were undoubtedly brought about by the gradual working of the law of the sin offering (Lev 4:1 through 5:13; 12 through 15; 16). Similarly the rules as to guilt offerings (Lev 5:14 through 6:7) must by degrees have led to a true conception of repentance, as including both the seeking of atonement through sacrifice and restitution for wrong committed. The sin offering was, however, a peculiarly Mosaic institution, marking a development in the sacrificial system. The only sacrifices of which we have any trace in pre-Mosaic times were meal and drink offerings, whole burnt offerings and sacrifices (or, to use the Levitical term, peace offerings).
(1) Origin of Sacrifice.
We read of the offering of sacrifice all through the patriarchal history, and farther back even than Noah in the story of Cain and Abel; and there can be no doubt that the Levitical scheme of sacrifice was based upon, and a development (under Divine ordering) of, the sacrificial system already traditional among the Hebrews. Sacrifice was undoubtedly of Divine origin; yet we have no account, or even hint, of any formal institution of sacrifice. The sacrifices of Cain and Abel are spoken of in a way that leaves the impression that they were offered spontaneously, and the most probable assumption would seem to be that the very first offering of sacrifice was the outcome of a spontaneous desire (Divinely implanted, we may be sure) in early men to render service to the higher Being of whose relation to themselves they were, if ever so dimly, conscious.
Prehistoric research has not yet been able to present to us a distinct picture of primitive men; and even if the results of anthropology were more certain than they can yet claim to be, what in this connection we are concerned in is the conceptions, not of early men everywhere, but of the early ancestors of the Hob race. However infantile their ideas may have been and probably were, there may well have been far more of elementary truth in them--in simple ideas Divinely implanted--than students of anthropology have any knowledge of. Sooner or later early men did make offerings to God; and as the Mosaic sacrificial system was certainly based upon the patriarchal, so we may fairly assume that the ideas underlying the latter were an outgrowth from those which underlay the sacrifice of the patriarch's own still earlier ancestors.
It is well observed by Dr. A.B. Davidson (Old Testament Theology, p. 315) that the sacrifices of Cain and Abel are called a minchah or present; and this idea of sacrifice as a gift to God most easily accounts for the facts with which we have to deal in the history of Old Testament sacrifice. When early men first made offerings to God, they probably did so in the spirit of young children who give gifts to older persons without knowing whether, or in what way, the gifts will be of any use to them. They simply give in affection what is of value in their own eyes. The one only thing of prime value to the earliest men must have been food; hence, offerings to God were everywhere in the first place offerings of food. But here a difficulty must soon have arisen, for men must have become convinced very soon that the Divine Being did not feed upon the food offered, at least in men's way of feeding. Ultimately, among the Israelites, the idea of His actual feeding became eliminated altogether (Ps 50:13,14), but in the meantime the difficulty seems to have been met by the assumption that the Divine Being consumed an inner essence of food; and this being supposed to be set free by fire, food offered in sacrifice came to be burnt in order to fit it to become the food of God. This certainly appears from Lev 3:11,16 (compare Lev 21:6,8,17,21).
Coming, however, to animal as distinguished from vegetable sacrifice, we do not find that its origin can be accounted for as at the first being an offering of food. We learn from Lev 17:10-14 that the essential part of animal sacrifice was the offering of the blood, and that blood was offered because blood was life. The idea that life can be given by giving blood lay at the root of a custom which must have been well-nigh universal in primitive times, that of blood covenanting (see H. Clay Trumbull, Blood Covenant). In this, two persons would give each to the other of his own blood, drawn from the living vein. Persons united in blood covenant were supposed, by the commingling of their blood, to become actual sharers of one life. To give to another of one's own blood was to give one's own life, i.e. one's own self, with all the dedication of love and service which that would imply. Now a similar idea would seem to have lain at the root of the primitive offering of blood to God: it was the offering of the life of the offerer.
In the very first blood offerings it is probable that the blood offered was the blood of the offerer, and that there was no infliction of death--only in this way the dedication of life. The dedicatory rite of circumcision may have been a survival of sacrifice in this its earliest form; so also what is narrated in 1 Ki 18:28. When, however, the blood offered had come to be the blood of a substitute, and that a substitute animal, the sacrifice would come (no doubt soon) to include the slaughter of the animal and further the consumption, in whole or in part, of its carcass by fire as an offering of food.
(2) The Levitical Ritual.
Whether the above theory be accepted or not, in so far as animal sacrifice became an offering of food, it would stand in line with vegetable sacrifice; but in both the excellence of the Levitical ritual stood in this, that while it was framed for a people whose conceptions were in a stage of transition, it was yet adaptable to higher conceptions, and fitted to become at length symbolical of purely spiritual truth. It was through the teaching, not only of prophets but of the Lcvitical ritual itself, and while it was still in full force, that the words of Ps 50:13,14 were uttered: "Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer unto God the sacrifice of thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the Most High." The Levitical ritual, as respects animal sacrifice in particular, was so framed as, on the one hand, to keep alive the idea of sacrifice as the offering of life, not of death, of life's dedication, not its destruction, and therefore to make it a true type of Christ's living sacrifice. On the other hand, the rules of sacrifice guarded against abuses which, as a matter of fact, sprang up widely among the heathen. The rule, e.g. in Lev 1:2 and elsewhere, that "ye shall offer your oblation of the cattle, even of the herd and of the flock," excluded human sacrifice. The rule that the first act in every sacrifice must be to slay the creature offered excluded the infliction of unnecessary suffering. The detailed rules as to the offering and disposal of the blood, and the varying modes of disposal of the carcass, kept alive the essential idea of all such sacrifice, and saved it from degenerating into a mere heaping up, as in Egypt, of altars with mere loads of food. The rules of the peace offering, clothing it always with a spiritual motive (see Lev 7:12,16), raised it to a level far above the sacrifice of that class among the surrounding heathen, guarding it against their licentious festivity (compare Hos 2:11-13; 4:13,14; Am 2:8; 5:21-23) and gross ideas as to the part of God in the feasting.
(3) The Law Truly a Torah.
In every one of its departments the Law proved itself to be indeed a torah directing God's people in the upward way; leading them on from the state of advancement, such as it was, to which they had already attained by Moses' time, to higher and higher standards, both of faith and of duty, till they were prepared for the gospel of Christ, who Himself said of the old Law, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled" (Mt 5:18 the King James Version). Meanwhile we have, in the teaching of the prophets, not a counter influence, not a system rivaling the Law, but its unfolding, both inspired of God, both instruments in His progressive revelation. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" were the words of Samuel, a faithful servant of the Law, and himself a frequent offerer of sacrifice. What the Law was to the heart of devout Israelites in the prophetic age is seen in the fervent words of Ps 119.
IV. The Passing Away of the Law.
The great general principles of the Law were not transitory but abiding, and reappear under the gospel dispensation. Otherwise, however, i.e. in those particulars, whether ceremonial or civil, in which it was adapted to merely passing needs, the Law passed away when Christ came. It is not always realized that already before Christ came it had begun to pass away. The following are illustrations:
(1) The whole rationale of the Levitical worship consisted in its being based upon the covenant made at Sinai, and the symbol of the Covenant was the ark containing the tables of the Law and surmounted by the mercy-seat. Therefore one of its most significant acts was the sprinkling of the blood of sin offering within the veil upon the mercy-seat, or without the veil, but yet before the mercy-seat. But this most significant act could no longer be performed when, after the Babylonian captivity, there was no longer either ark or mercy-seat.
(2) The law that tithe should be paid to the Levites, a tithe only of it being paid by them to "Aaron the priest" (Nu 18), was practicable so long as the priests were a small portion only of the whole Levitical body, as they appear in the history down to the middle period of the monarchy. But by the time of the exile they disappeared from history except as actual temple ministrants, and, after the return from the exile, even these were in number a mere handful compared with the priests (Ezr 2:36-42; 8:15-20,24-30; Neh 11:10-19). The attempt to revive the old law (Neh 10:38,39) was well-intentioned but impracticable: it was evidently soon abandoned (Neh 13:10-13; Mal 3:8-10). We learn from Josephus that tithes were regarded later as due to the priests, not to the Levites (Josephus, Ant, XX, viii, 8; ix, 2).
(3) That the Mosaic law as to divorce was to give place to one more stringent appears not only from our Lord's words in Mt 19:7-9, but from Mal 2:16.
(4) It is probable that some of the supplementary rules in Nu may have been designed for temporary use only, and may have passed away before the close of the Old Testament. It may have been so, e.g., with the law of Nu 5:11-31, a law probably most useful in the circumstances of the Mosaic age, and perhaps itself an endorsement of a pre-Mosaic custom.
Driver, Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, with which should be read Moller, Are the Critics Right? and Orr, Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament; A.B. Davidson, Theology of the Old Testament; J.B. Mozley, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages; Rule, Old Testament Institutions, Their Origin and Development; Kurtz, Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament; Hoonacker, Le sacerdoce levitique; Edouard Naville,
La decouverte de la loi sous le roi Josias; H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant; Milligan, Resurrection of our Lord (274 ff, on "blood-offering").
Ulric Z. Rule
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'law in the old testament'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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