The Law of MosesIntroduction
The Law of Moses, as detailed in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, is central to the Old Testament. This Law serves a number of functions:
i] the Law is a pattern of ethics (advice or instruction on how to live). It serves as a guide to the child of God seeking to live in harmony with the social and natural environment. Given that God created both the human environment and humanity itself, following the "handbook" of life will tend to produce the best results. Happiness comes when we follow the Creator's design rules.
ii] The Law provides a set of guidelines as a response to God for all He has done. God acted in a special way toward His people Israel, and in return they were bound to behave in a certain way... "I am the Lord your God" (a statement defining the relationship bond between God and the people of Israel) "who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (a reminder of the salvation event which established this relationship), "therefore you shall..." (the consequential law). In the Old Testament, as in the whole Bible, right action is viewed as a consequence of a right relationship with a saving God, but certainly not as a means of gaining salvation. The Law of Moses therefore provides a response to a loving God who has demonstrated His love in the salvation of His people of Israel. This response is summarized in two imperatives: love God and love neighbour.
iii] The Law serves a particular function in that it exposes sin. It is not until we come to the New Testament that we find Paul the apostle spelling out this function in detail. The failure of Israel to honour God is exposed by the Law. Sin is the underlying problem, and God's curse is the consequence. The Law serves to identify the problem of sin and its inevitable consequence, the curse of God. The Law, having identified the problem, sought to drive Israel to the only possible solution, the mercy of God. Ultimately the cross of Christ is God's answer to the problem of sin. cf. Rom.4:15, 5:20, Gal.3:19, 24.
The sources of Old Testament Law
i] The Law of Moses. The law is detailed in the historic narratives of the Old Testament, and is presented without comment.
ii] The prophetic interpretation. In the prophetic books the prophets apply the principles of the Law of Moses to their own day.
iii] The reflective writings. The Wisdom books (Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs) reflect on the relationship between the Law and daily life.
The Law giver
The Law of Moses is a reflection of the very character of God. He is the God of love who loves us and looks to us to return that love. The law displays God's person.
In the Old Testament the most intimate way of describing God is to evoke His name. To refer to the name of God is to display, in an intimate way, his very person, his character. So when the Name is disclosed there usually follows a list of His characteristics, Ex. 33:18-20, 34:6-7. Such is the character of God that His person (Name) cannot be treated lightly, taken is vain, Ex.20:7, ie. claiming an intimate association with God's person while living inconsistently, disgracing God (this particular Law includes evoking God's person wrongly, eg. in an oath). The Law displays God's character, and thus disobedience is a personal affront to God's own person.
The key word to describe God's character, and thus in turn His Law, is "holy", Hosea 11:9. Holiness is the absolute ground of His being. In simple terms it means:
i] Infinite. He is almighty, powerful, mysterious. He is the frightening one. Isaiah 6:1-5.
ii] Righteous. He does the right, He acts rightly, He judges rightly, He is just and He is moral. His law reflects this truth.
iii] Personal. He is loving, faithful and true, Psalm 25:10, 40:10-11, 57:3. He is the God of mercy and truth, Psalm 89:34. He is a God who "covenants" with His people, Ex.6:2-8. His Law reflects this truth.
The moral code
The Law of Moses is like a pyramid of laws. At the pinnacle is the summary of the law outlined by the prophets and later by Jesus, Micah 6:8 - Love God, Love neighbour. Further down the pyramid is the more detailed outline of the Law as set out in the Ten Commandments, Ex.20:1-17, Deut.5:6-21. The Ten Commandments outline our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbour. Finally, at the base of the pyramid, are the myriad detailed specifics of the Law as they apply to the Israelites in Canaan, eg. the love of God is detailed in the holiness code, Lev.17-26, the love of neighbour is detailed in the covenant law, Ex.21-22.
Although the Law is viewed as a uniform whole, not all areas are of equal importance. At the centre of Mosaic law stands the Ten Commandments. Much of this law is unchanging moral law. When it comes to the more detailed specifics of the Law, there is a willingness, even within the Old Testament itself, to set aside ritual/cultic laws, as well as laws which, because of changes in location or social custom, are no longer capable of fulfillment.
1. The Ten Commandments
i] Love to God will tolerate no rival.
ii] Love to God will worship in spirit and truth.
iii] Love to God will delight to reverence His person.
iv] Love to God will rest in His blessed creation.
v] Love to neighbour will honour parents.
vi Love to neighbour will respect life.
vii Love to neighbour will respect sexual purity.
ix] Love to neighbour will speak in truth and kindness.
x] Love to neighbour will seek to give, not to steal.
2. Detailed regulations
i] Cultic Law. Ritual law was intended to drive home to the Israelite people:
a) The infinite, unapproachable, pure character of God. "He dwells in unapproachable light";
b) The special and separate character of the Israelite nation. They were to be a holy people set apart for God.
Regulations concerning the Tabernacle, sacrifices, etc. drove these truths home. Later ritual observance, as mere formality, was denounced by the prophets.
ii] Health Laws. Food and cleanliness regulations (Sanitary Code) resulted in freedom from disease and longevity for the people of Israel (a sign of God's blessing). The regulations contained in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) deal with public hygiene, water supply, sewage disposal, inspection and selection of food, and control of infectious disease. The people may well not have survived the wilderness wanderings without these regulations.
iii] Social Laws. Regulations concerning the administration of the Israelite society and family, and the maintenance of a proper relationship with ones fellow Jew, traveller or stranger (inc. Gentiles), was detailed in the books of Moses, especially Deuteronomy. Many of these laws apply only to an agrarian society, and in some cases a nomadic society. Although, some of these regulations became redundant, they still enshrined the principles of the Ten Commandments, and as such remained a true guide to the practical application of the Ten Commandments in everyday life.
The specific detailed regulations in the Law of Moses do not cover every possible eventuality, but they can be used as a guide to right behaviour. eg. Exodus 21:33-34, "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." A situation involving personal injury and compensation may not be covered by a specific regulation in the Law of Moses, but the above regulation would serve as a guide to the proper application of the 8th Commandment, or more generally the Commandment to Love ones neighbour.
The specific detailed regulations in the Law of Moses are not to be legalistically applied when circumstances would render their obedience contrary to the law of love, e.g. it would be right to tell a violent person, intent on harming another, a lie concerning their intended victims whereabouts.
The Death Sentence
All sin deserves punishment, and the punishment for sin is death. The Law of Moses defined 5 classes of offence punishable by death. The seriousness of these offences is therefore clearly identified.
i] Adultery, Deut.22, Lev.20.
ii] Blasphemy and incitement to apostasy, Lev. 24:16, Deut. 13.
iii] Murder, Gen.9:6, Num.35.
iv] Kidnapping for the slave trade, Deut.24:37.
v] Defiance of parental authority, Deut.21:18-21.
The severe nature of this punishment indicates a social need within ancient society, but also reflects the mercy of God. The law specifically limits punishment by death and details both the prosecution (there must be at least two eye witnesses to a crime deserving of death) and the execution itself (personal vengeance is prohibited).
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