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Law of Moses


Law of Moses. It will be the object of this article to give a brief analysis of the substance of this law, to point out its main principles, and to explain the position which it occupies in the progress of divine revelation. In order to do this the more clearly, it seems best to speak of the law, 1st. In relation to the past; 2nd. In its own intrinsic character. 1.(a) In reference to the past, it is all-important, for the proper understanding of the law, to remember its entire dependence on the Abrahamic covenant. See Gal. 3:17-24. That covenant had a twofold character. It contained the “spiritual promise” of the Messiah; but it contained also the temporal promises subsidiary to the former. (b) The nature of this relation of the law to the promise is clearly pointed out. The belief in God as the Redeemer of man, and the hope of his manifestation as such in the person of the Messiah, involved the belief that the Spiritual Power must be superior to all carnal obstructions, and that there was in man a spiritual element which could rule his life by communion with a spirit from above. But it involved also the idea of an antagonistic power of evil, from which man was to be redeemed, existing in each individual, and existing also in the world at large. (c) Nor is it less essential to remark the period of the history at which it was given. It marked and determined the transition of Israel from the condition of a tribe to that of a nation, and its definite assumption of a distinct position and office in the history of the world. (d) Yet, though new in its general conception, it was probably not wholly new in its materials. There must necessarily have been, before the law, commandments and revelations of a fragmentary character, under which Israel had hitherto grown up. So far therefore as they were consistent with the objects of the Jewish law, the customs of Palestine and the laws of Egypt would doubtless be traceable in the Mosaic system. (e) In close connection with, and almost in consequence of, this reference to antiquity, we find an accommodation of the law to the temper and circumstances of the Israelites, to which our Lord refers in the case of divorce, Matt. 19:7, 8, as necessarily interfering with its absolute perfection. In many cases it rather should be said to guide and modify existing usages than actually to sanction them; and the ignorance of their existence may lead to a conception of its ordinances not only erroneous, but actually the reverse of the truth. (f) In close connection with this subject we observe also the gradual process by which the law was revealed to the Israelites. In Ex. 19–23, in direct connection with the revelation from Mount Sinai, that which may be called the rough outline of the Mosaic law is given by God, solemnly recorded by Moses, and accepted by the people. In Ex. 25–31 there is a similar outline of the Mosaic ceremonial. On the basis of these it may be conceived that the fabric of the Mosaic system gradually grew up under the requirements of the time. The first revelation of the law in anything like a perfect form is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Yet even then the revelation was not final; it was the duty of the prophets to amend and explain it in special points, Ezek. 18, and to bring out more clearly its great principles.

2. In giving an analysis of the substance of the law, it will probably be better to treat it, as any other system of laws is usually treated, by dividing it into—I. Laws Civil; II. Laws Criminal; III. Laws Judicial and Constitutional; IV. Laws Ecclesiastical and Ceremonial.

I. LAWS CIVIL.

1. Laws of Persons.

(a) Father and Son.—The power of a father to be held sacred; cursing or smiting, Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9, and stubborn and willful disobedience, to be considered capital crimes. But uncontrolled power of life and death was apparently refused to the father, and vested only in the congregation. Deut. 21:18-21. Right of the first-born to a double portion of the inheritance not to be set aside by partiality. Deut. 21:15-17. Inheritance by daughters to be allowed in default of sons, provided, Num. 27:6-8, comp. 36, that heiresses married in their own tribe. Daughters unmarried to be entirely dependent on their father. Num. 30:3-5.

(b) Husband and Wife.—The power of a husband to be so great that a wife could never be sui juris, or enter independently into any engagement, even before God. Num. 30:6-15. A widow or a divorced wife became independent, and did not again fall under her father’s power. ver. 9 Divorce (for uncleanness) allowed, but to be formal and irrevocable. Deut. 24:1-4. Marriage within certain degrees forbidden. Lev. 18, etc. A slave wife, whether bought or captive, not to be actual property, nor to be sold; if ill-treated, to be ipso facto free. Ex. 21:7-9; Deut. 21:10-14. Slander against a wife’s virginity to be punished by fine, and by deprival of power of divorce; on the other hand, ante-connubial uncleanness in her to be punished by death. Deut. 22:13-21. The raising up of seed (Levirate law) a formal right to be claimed by the widow, under pain of infamy, with a view to preservation of families. Deut. 25:5-10.

(c) Master and Slave.—Power of master so far limited that death under actual chastisement was punishable, Ex. 21:20; and maiming was to give liberty ipso facto. vs. 26, 27. The Hebrew slave to be freed at the sabbatical year,‌ 1‌ and provided with necessaries (his wife and children to go with only if they came to his master with him), unless by his own formal act he consented to be a perpetual slave. Ex. 21:1-6; Deut. 15:12-18. In any case, it would seem, to be freed at the jubilee, Lev. 25:10, with his children. If sold to a resident alien, to be always redeemable, at a price proportioned to the distance of the jubilee. Lev. 25:47-54. Foreign slaves to be held and inherited as property forever, Lev. 25:45, 46; and fugitive slaves from foreign nations not to be given up. Deut. 23:15.

(d) Strangers.—These seem never to have been sui juris, or able to protect themselves, and accordingly protection and kindness toward them are enjoined as a sacred duty. Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33, 34.

2. Law of Things.

(a) Laws of Land (and Property).—(1) All land to be the property of God alone, and its holders to be deemed his tenants. Lev. 25:23. (2) All sold land therefore to return to its original owners at the jubilee, and the price of sale to be calculated accordingly; and redemption on equitable terms to be allowed at all times. Lev. 25:25-27. A house sold to be redeemable within a year; and if not redeemed, to pass away altogether. ch. 25:29, 30. But the houses of the Levites, or those in unwalled villages, to be redeemable at all times, in the same way as land; and the Levitical suburbs to be inalienable. ch. 25:31-34. (3) Land or houses sanctified, or tithes, or unclean firstlings, to be capable of being redeemed, at six-fifths value (calculated according to the distance from the jubilee year by the priest); if devoted by the owner and unredeemed, to be hallowed at the jubilee forever, and given to the priests; if only by a possessor, to return to the owner at the jubilee. Lev. 27:14-34. (4) Inheritance.

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(b) Laws of Debt.—(1) All debts (to an Israelite) to be released at the seventh (sabbatical) year; a blessing promised to obedience, and a curse on refusal to lend. Deut. 15:1-11. (2) Usury (from Israelites) not to be taken. Ex. 22:25-27; Deut. 23:19, 20. (3) Pledges not to be insolently or ruinously exacted. Deut. 24:6, 10-13, 17, 18.

(c) Taxation.—(1) Census-money, a poll-tax (of a half shekel), to be paid for the service of the tabernacle. Ex. 30:12-16. All spoil in war to be halved; of the combatants’ half, one five-hundredth, of the people’s, one fiftieth, to be paid for a “heave offering” to Jehovah. (2) Tithes.—(α) Tithes of all produce to be given for maintenance of the Levites. Num. 18:20-24. (Of this one tenth to be paid as a heave offering for maintenance of the priests. vs. 24-32.) (β) Second tithe to be bestowed in religious feasting and charity, either at the holy place or (every third year) at home. Deut. 14:22-28. (γ) First-fruits of corn, wine, and oil (at least one sixtieth, generally one fortieth, for the priests) to be offered at Jerusalem, with a solemn declaration of dependence on God the King of Israel. Num. 18:12, 13; Deut. 26:1-15. Firstlings of clean beasts; the redemption money (five shekels) of man and (half shekel, or one shekel) of unclean beasts to be given to the priests after sacrifice. Num. 18:15-18. (3) Poor laws.—(α) Gleanings (in field or vineyard) to be a legal right of the poor. Lev. 19:9, 10; Deut. 24:19-22. (β) Slight trespass (eating on the spot) to be allowed as legal. Deut. 23:24, 25. (γ) Second tithe (see 2 β) to be given in charity. (δ) Wages to be paid day by day. Deut. 24:15. (4) Maintenance of priests. Num. 18:8-32. (α) Tenth of Levites’ tithe. (See 2 α.) (β) The heave and wave offerings (breast and right shoulder of all peace offerings). (γ) The meat and sin offerings, to be eaten solemnly and only in the holy place. (δ) First-fruits and redemption money. (See 2 γ.) (ε) Price of all devoted things, unless specially given for a sacred service. A man’s service, or that of his household, to be redeemed at 50 shekels for man, 30 for woman, 20 for boy, and 10 for girl.

II. LAWS CRIMINAL.

1. Offences against God (of the nature of treason.)

1st Command. Acknowledgment of false gods, Ex. 22:20, as e.g., Molech Lev. 20:1-5, and generally all idolatry Deut. 13; 17:2-5.

2nd Command. Witchcraft and false prophecy. Ex. 22:18; Deut. 18:9-22; Lev. 19:31.

3rd Command. Blasphemy. Lev. 24:15, 16.

4th Command. Sabbath-breaking. Num. 15:32, 36.

Punishment in all cases, death by stoning. Idolatrous cities to be utterly destroyed.

2. Offences against Man.

5th Command. Disobedience to or cursing or smiting of parents, Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21, to be punished by death by stoning, publicly adjudged and inflicted; so also of disobedience to the priests (as judges) or the Supreme Judge. Comp. 1 Kings 21:10-14 (Naboth); 2 Chron. 24:21 (Zechariah).

6th Command. (1) Murder to be punished by death without sanctuary or reprieve, or satisfaction. Ex. 21:12, 14; Deut. 19:11-13. Death of a slave, actually under the rod, to be punished. Ex. 21:20, 21. (2) Death by negligence to be punished by death. Ex. 21:28-30. (3) Accidental homicide: the avenger of blood to seek safety by flight to a city of refuge, there to remain till the death of the high priest. Num. 35:9-28; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:4-10. (4) Uncertain murder to be expiated by formal disavowal and sacrifice by the elders of the nearest city. Deut. 21:1-9. (5) Assault to be punished by lex talionis, or damages. Ex. 21:18, 19, 22-25; Lev. 24:19, 20.

7th Command. (1) Adultery to be punished by death of both offenders; the rape of a married or betrothed woman, by death of the offender. Deut. 22:13-27. (2) Rape or seduction of an unbetrothed virgin to be compensated by marriage, with dowry (50 shekels), and without power of divorce; or, if she be refused, by payment of full dowry. Ex. 22:16, 17; Deut. 22:28, 29. (3) Unlawful marriages (incestuous, etc.) to be punished, some by death, some by childlessness. Lev. 20.

8th Command. (1) Theft to be punished by fourfold or double restitution; a nocturnal robber might be slain as an outlaw. Ex. 22:1-4. (2) Trespass and injury of things lent to be compensated. Ex. 23:5-15. (3) Perversion of justice (by bribes, threats, etc.), and especially oppression of strangers, strictly forbidden. Ex. 22:9, etc. (4) Kidnapping to be punished by death. Deut. 24:7.

9th Command. False witness to be punished by lex talionis. Ex. 23:1-3; Deut. 19:16-21. Slander of a wife’s chastity, by fine and loss of power of divorce. Deut. 22:18, 19.

A fuller consideration of the tables of the Ten Commandments is given elsewhere. [Ten Commandments.]

III. LAWS JUDICIAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL.

1. Jurisdiction.

(a) Local judges (generally Levites, as more skilled in the law) appointed, for ordinary matters, probably by the people with approbation of the supreme authority (as of Moses in the wilderness), Ex. 18:25; Deut. 1:15-18, through all the land. Deut. 16:18. (b) Appeal to the priests (at the holy place), or to the judge; their sentence final, and to be accepted under pain of death. See Deut. 17:8-13; comp. appeal to Moses, Ex. 18:26. (c) Two witnesses (at least) required in capital matters. Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6, 7. (d) Punishment, except by special command, to be personal, and not to extend to the family. Deut. 24:16. Stripes allowed and limited, Deut. 25:1-3, so as to avoid outrage on the human frame. All this would be to a great extent set aside—1st. By the summary jurisdiction of the king, see 1 Sam. 22:11-19 (Saul); 2 Sam. 12:1-5; 14:4-11; 1 Kings 3:16-28, which extended even to the deposition of the high priest. 1 Sam. 22:17, 18; 1 Kings 2:26, 27. The practical difficulty of its being carried out is seen in 2 Sam. 15:2-6, and would lead of course to a certain delegation of his power. 2nd. By the appointment of the Seventy, Num. 11:24-30, with a solemn religious sanction. In later times there was a local sanhedrin of twenty-three in each city, and two such in Jerusalem, as well as the Great Sanhedrin, consisting of seventy members, besides the president, who was to be the high priest if duly qualified, and controlling even the king and high priest. The members were priest, scribes (Levites), and elders (of other tribes). A court of exactly this nature is noticed as appointed to supreme power by Jehoshaphat. See 2 Chron. 19:8-11.

2. Royal Power.

The king’s power limited by the law, as written and formally accepted by the king; and directly forbidden to be despotic.‌ 1‌ Deut. 17:14-20; comp. 1 Sam. 10:25. Yet he had power of taxation (to one tenth) and of compulsory service, 1 Sam. 8:10-18, the declaration of war, 1 Sam. 11, etc. There are distinct traces of a “mutual contract,” 2 Sam. 5:3; a “league,” 2 Kings 11:17; the remonstrance with Rehoboam being clearly not extraordinary. 1 Kings 13:1-6.

The princes of the congregation.—The heads of the tribes, see Josh. 9:15, seem to have had authority under Joshua to act for the people, comp. 1 Chron. 27:16-22; and in the later times “the princes of Judah” seem to have had power to control both the king and the priests. See Jer. 26:10-24; 38:4, 5, etc.

3. Royal Revenue.

(1) Tenth of produce. (2) Domain land. 1 Chron. 27:26-29. Note confiscation of criminal’s land. 1 Kings 21:15. (3) Bond service, 1 Kings 5:17, 18, chiefly on foreigners. 1 Kings 9:20-22; 2 Chron. 2:16, 17. (4) Flocks and herds. 1 Chron. 27:29-31. (5) Tributes (gifts) from foreign kings. (6) Commerce; especially in Solomon’s time. 1 Kings 10:22, 29, etc.

IV. ECCLESIASTICAL AND CEREMONIAL LAW.

1 . Law of Sacrifice (considered as the sign and the appointed means of the union with God, on which the holiness of the people depended).

a. ordinary sacrifices.

(α) The whole burnt offering, Lev. 1, of the herd or the flock; to be offered continually, Ex. 29:38-42; and the fire on the altar never to be extinguished. Lev. 6:8-13.

(β) The meat offering, Lev. 2; 6:14-23, of flour, oil, and frankincense, unleavened and seasoned with salt.

(γ) The peace offering, Lev. 3; 7:11-21, of the herd or the flock; either a thank offering or a vow or free-will offering.

(δ) The sin offering or trespass offering. Lev. 4, 5, 6.

(a) For sins committed in ignorance. Lev. 4.

(b) For vows unwittingly made and broken, or uncleanness unwittingly contracted. Lev. 5.

(c) For sins wittingly committed. Lev. 6:1-7.

b. extraordinary sacrifices.

(α) At the consecration of priests. Lev. 8, 9.

(β) At the purification of women. Lev. 12.

(γ) At the cleansing of lepers. Lev. 13, 14.

(δ) On the great day of atonement. Lev. 16.

(ε) On the great festivals. Lev. 23.

2 . Law of Holiness (arising from the union with God through sacrifice).

a. holiness of persons.

(α) Holiness of the whole people as “children of God,” Ex. 19:5, 6; Lev. 11-15, 17, 18; Deut. 14:1-21, shown in

(a) The dedication of the first-born, Ex. 13:2, 12, 13; 22:29, 30, etc.; and the offering of all firstlings and first-fruits. Deut. 26, etc.

(b) Distinction of clean and unclean food. Lev. 11; Deut. 14.

(c) Provision for purification. Lev. 12, 13, 14, 15; Deut. 23:1-14.

(d) Laws against disfigurement. Lev. 19:27; Deut. 14:1; comp. Deut. 25:3, against excessive scourging.

(e) Laws against unnatural marriages and lusts. Lev. 18, 20.

(β) Holiness of the priests (and Levites).

(a) Their consecration. Lev. 8, 9; Ex. 29.

(b) Their special qualifications and restrictions. Lev. 21, 22:1-9.

(c) Their rights, Deut. 18:1-6; Num. 18, and authority. Deut. 17:8-13.

b. holiness of places and things.

(α) The tabernacle with the ark, the vail, the altars, the laver, the priestly robes, etc. Ex. 25-28, 30.

(β) The holy place chosen for the permanent erection of the tabernacle, Deut. 12, 14:22-29, where only all sacrifices were to be offered and all tithes, first-fruits, vows, etc., to be given or eaten.

c. holiness of times.

(α) The Sabbath. Ex. 20:9-11; 23:12, etc.

(β) The sabbatical year. Ex. 23:10, 11; Lev. 25:1-7, etc.

(γ) The year of jubilee. Lev. 25:8-16, etc.

(δ) The passover. Ex. 12:3-27; Lev. 23:4, 5.

(ε) The feast of weeks (pentecost). Lev. 23:15, etc.

(ζ) The feast of tabernacles. Lev. 23:33-43.

(η) The feast of trumpets. Lev. 23:23-25.

(θ) The day of atonement. Lev. 23:26-32, etc.

Such is the substance of the Mosaic law. The leading principle of the whole is its theocratic character, its reference, that is, of all action and thoughts of men directly and immediately to the will of God. It follows from this that it is to be regarded not merely as a law, that is, a rule of conduct based on known truth and acknowledged authority, but also as a revelation of God’s nature and his dispensations. But this theocratic character of the law depends necessarily on the belief in God, as not only the creator and sustainer of the world, but as, by special covenant, the head of the Jewish nation. This immediate reference to God as their king is clearly seen as the groundwork of their whole polity. From this theocratic nature of the law follow important deductions with regard to (a) the view which it takes of political society; (b) the extent of the scope of the law; (c) the penalties by which it is enforced; and (d) the character which it seeks to impress on the people. (a) The Mosaic law seeks the basis of its polity, first, in the absolute sovereignty of God; next, in the relationship of each individual to God, and through God to his countrymen. It is clear that such a doctrine, while it contracts none of the common theories, yet lies beneath them all. (b) The law, as proceeding directly from God and referring directly to him, is necessarily absolute in its supremacy and unlimited in its scope. It is supreme over the governors, as being only the delegates of the Lord, and therefore it is incompatible with any despotic authority in them. On the other hand, it is supreme over the governed, recognizing no inherent rights in the individual as prevailing against or limited the law. It regulated the whole life of an Israelite. His actions were rewarded and punished with great minuteness and strictness—and that according to the standard, not of their consequences but of their intrinsic morality. (c) The penalties and rewards by which the law is enforced are such as depend on the direct theocracy. With regard to individual actions, it may be noticed that, as generally some penalties are inflicted by the subordinate and some only by the supreme authority, so among the Israelites some penalties came from the hand of man, some directly from the providence of God. (d) But perhaps the most important consequence of the theocratic nature of the law was the peculiar character of goodness which it sought to impress on the people. The Mosaic law, beginning with piety as its first object, enforces most emphatically the purity essential to those who, by their union with God, have recovered the hope of intrinsic goodness, while it views righteousness and love rather as deductions from these than as independent objects. The appeal is not to any dignity of human nature, but to the obligations of communion with a holy God. The subordination, therefore, of this idea also to the religious idea is enforced; and so long as the due supremacy of the latter was preserved, all other duties would find their places in proper harmony.