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Law in the Old Testament

LAW IN THE OLD TESTAMENT (תּוֹרָה, H9368, Aram. דָּת, H10186, LXX νόμος, G3795).


Meaning of the word Torah

Etymology of the word.

This is not an easy subject to discuss for many reasons. First, the legal terminology of Sem. is very different from that of the familiar Indo-European languages. This in itself raises problems of interpretation and communication; but more serious is the fact that this difference in terminology corresponds to a basic difference in concept. Even Lat. “lex” is not the same as Gr. nomos (though perhaps Lat. ius or fas would come closer): but both words are totally different from Heb. tōrāh. There are several other words used for “law” in the OT, some of which will be discussed; but whether used of part or of the whole, torah is the most frequent and the most characteristic.

Etymology is always a dangerous guide to the meaning of a word, esp. if used as the only method (as James Barr has most recently pointed out). Ultimately the meaning of a word is not determined by its etymology (of which most of its users are unaware) nor by the meaning in cognate languages, but by contemporary usage. Nevertheless, it may be significant that most scholars are now agreed that torah originally meant “direction” or “guidance” from the verb יָרָה, H3723, which does not itself occur in the Qal form. A cognate root yārā' exists and in its various forms means to “throw,” “to shoot” (arrows). Whether this once had reference to shooting of arrows, or “shaking” them out of a quiver, or the “casting” of lots as methods of obtaining divine guidance, is quite uncertain: the Babylonians certainly used all these methods (Ezek 21:21) and Israel had the sacred lot (1 Sam 14:41), though this verb yārāh is not actually used in Heb. in connection with drawing lots. There are cognate Sem. roots meaning “to guide, show the way” but older ideas of direct borrowing of the word from Babylonian tertu, “oracle,” are now generally rejected, although the rhythmic form of many of Israel’s laws does suggest a priestly oracle. Other forms from the same root are common in Heb.: מוֹרֶה is “teacher” (Isa 30:20), and הוֹרֶה (the Hiphil) is “to teach,” “to instruct” (Exod 24:12). The etymological meaning at least seems clear in broad outline as “teaching, guidance instruction.” (See Bentzen, pages 213, 214 for further discussion.) Next, this must be tested from actual usage in the OT.

Usage in the OT.

Here Ludwig Koehler’s divisions (in his Lexicon) seem sound. He sees Torah as initially being direction or advice in a given situation, asked from God and mediated through the priests or perhaps also “prophets.” Haggai 2:10-13 is an example of this custom. It does not appear that in historical days the priest necessarily gave such direction by the sacred lot, Urim and Thummin, or by the ephod, although such methods were certainly used at times (1 Sam 28:6; 30:7). Rather the priest seems to have acted as a prophet did later, in giving a spoken utterance (Hag 2:12).

Second, torah may be advice or instruction given by one human to another (e.g. Prov 1:8, a mother to a son). This is a useful corrective, for it shows that the noun was by no means restricted to the religious or legal sphere; indeed, such specialization of reference is foreign to the thought world of the OT. Third, it means a single law or instruction (not apparently an enactment or a legal decision, however). Leviticus 6:8 is an instance of this, where torah clearly means “instructions about” a particular offering. In this sense the word approaches “regulation” in meaning. Fourth, it is used (esp. with the definite article, or with the addition of a proper name to make it definite) to mean the totality of all such “instruction” in Israel. It may be in the sing., or in the pl. (the latter is also true of many synonyms); in either case, in a collective sense. The pl. noun may possibly denote a greater stress on separate laws, or separate codes of law.

The proper name, qualifying torah and thus making it both definite and collective, is either Yahweh (Exod 13:9), or the more general אֱלֹהִים, H466, “God” (Josh 24:26) or else Moses (Josh 8:31). In this last case, Moses is regarded as mediator, not source, of the law. At first, to judge from these contexts, the word is used as referring to the injunctions and commands in the law; then it is extended to cover narrative and all other parts of the Pentateuch. This is part of a general broadening of concept; by NT days, either “the law and the prophets” or just “the law” is a general term embracing the whole OT (Matt 22:40 and John 12:34).

Other terms for law.

There are several other words used in the OT to describe individual laws, rather than a complete corpus; nevertheless, when such a word is used in the pl., often with a second word also in the pl. as parallel, it does approach the collective meaning of תוֹרֹ֣ות, “laws” meaning the totality of God’s revelation in this field. Unfortunately there is no agreement among scholars as to the exact correspondence of these other terms to Eng. words. This may be simply because of the different Sem. understanding of the nature of the law; or, as many have suggested, particularly because of the frequent use of different terms in close parallelism in the Psalter, it may be that old distinctions of meaning had been blurred, and that the varied terms are really synonyms in many cases.

Nevertheless, there is at least one which is both clear and theologically important, in that the Ten Commandments are called by the Jews the “Ten Words” (דְּבָרִ֑ים, Deut 4:13). This certainly corresponds to a basic difference in attitude: the Eng. term “commandment” concentrates on the authoritarian nature, while the Heb. “word” concentrates on the revelational nature. Authority is in the Ten Words, but it is not the primary thought, and the “words” only gain this authenticity because they are the revelation of Yahweh’s will and purpose for the Israel whom He has redeemed by a revelation of His power. Weiser well points out that this combination of law and saving acts, Exodus and Sinai, with both equally regarded as the revelation of God, is typically Israelite. This attitude to the Ten Commandments, as shown by the use of the name děbārīm, is thus not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed it also corresponds to the way in which all legal matter is seen as tōrāh, “instruction,” as much as any of Israel’s history of salvation, Dābār is not the name for a particular type of law; it is an expression of an attitude to law as a whole, a part of an Israelite philosophy of revelation. Some scholars have tried to distinguish between sacred debārīm and secular mishpātīm. Even if meanings had corresponded, this would have been an impossible distinction for Israel to make, seeing that all process of judgment was to them a sacred task (Deut 1:17).

For this meaning of dābār, cf. the common OT usage דְבַר־יְהוָ֤ה (“Yahweh, Yahweh’s word”), to describe an oracle or a revelation (Judg 3:20). Such revelation came with authority, and could not be ignored. חֹק, H2976, traditionally tr. “statute,” is another word of a general nature. By etymology it would seem to mean something “engraved” (or perhaps “fixed”) from the root חקק. This could perhaps refer to something “engraved” on tablets, like the Ten Words (Exod 32:16), but Psalm 2:7 shows a much wider use of the hōq in the sense of “decree” or “divine oracle,” so that Koehler considers it as a mere parallel to Torah. Others, however, have regarded the word as referring to Israel’s fixed annual festivals, perhaps once marked by notches on a stick, but this seems farfetched. Yet others have seen it as referring to the “categoric” sections of Israel’s law. the absolute commands of God (as in the Ten Words or the Twelve Curses) rather than the case-law, arising from judicial decisions. This is possible but cannot be proved. In any case, in later days such linguistic distinctions were blurred, if they had ever existed, esp. when the word is used in the pl.

מִצְוָה, H5184. “command,” may, like hōq, correspond to the categoric framework of Israel’s law, rather than its largely “casuistic” content. To put it in another way, miṩwāh would be a definite order issued by Yahweh, rather than the case-law based upon, and interpretation of such principles. The etymology of the word would support this interpretation. It corresponds in association most to the Eng. “command,” though not, perhaps, to “law.” However, like all the other terms, it frequently is used in the pl. in a collective sense to describe Yahweh’s law as a whole; in such cases, all distinctiveness of meaning has long since disappeared. In modern Heb. usage, בַּר מִצְוָה, “son of law,” means “under obligation to keep the law,” and is used of the Jewish boy when, at puberty, he accepts the “yoke of the law” as his own responsibility. Here miṩwāh has become, even in the sing., a full equivalent of tōrāh “law.”

Two forms of Israel’s law.

Whatever the reason, there are two distinct forms clearly discernible in Israel’s law, even when broken into the smallest possible units. The two are not always as clearly marked now as they may have been initially, partly because of explanatory editorial additions, which blur the original clarity of the outline, and partly owing to the existence of “mixed forms” combining in one whole, features drawn from both forms.

The first form is that usually called categoric or apodictic, and is best illustrated in the format of the first part of each of the Ten Commandments. It is characterized by its terseness and abruptness, and is an absolute command, apparently admitting no exceptions, usually making use of the second person sing. of the future (either in the positive or negative form). Sometimes the second person pl. is used, and sometimes the imperative is substituted for the future. The style is heavy and impressive; the structure is rhythmic, assonant, parallel and poetic. Presumably this was for ease of memory (cf. the NT beatitudes) and perhaps for ease of recitation, if laws, or collections of laws, were indeed liturgical texts, read at the great religious folk-meetings of Israel, as many modern scholars believe, and as the law itself enjoins “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing” (Deut 31:11). Another early form, using the participial form instead of the second person sing. is the pattern “whoever strikes a man....shall be put to death” (Exod 21:12 and following vv.). In this type there is deliberate rhythm and assonance. Genesis 9:6 is an instance from a very early period. Bentzen reckons this type of law as belonging to the second or casuistic form, but it contains so many early features that it is best treated with the categoric commands of the type found in the Ten Words.

Both of these, from their rhythmic nature, have been associated by some scholars with the concept of the divine oracle or Torah, given originally by a prophet or priest of Yahweh. Whether this is so or not, it is quite clear that in Israel, like all law, they are regarded as a divine revelation. Moses by tradition was both prophet and priest as well as law-giver.

This apodictic law used to be described as “desert law,” somber and authoritarian, with no concessions to the complexities of urban or even agrarian life in highly developed Canaan. Its Puritan austerity was therefore held to be typically Israelite, and it was considered to be the only original law of Israel. By contrast, all law belonging to the second or “casuistic” type was held to be a borrowing from the Canaanites after the Israelite entry into the land. Neither of these theses can now be sustained at least as far as the argument is based on the format of the laws. In the second instance, as far as the “casuistic” law is concerned, direct borrowing from Canaan is not now held to be nearly as likely as inheritance from the “common law” of Western Sem. folk, in which Israel shared as much as did the Canaanites, and which Moses must have known. Regarding the uniqueness of the apodictic form, de Vaux has shown that, while it is not characteristic of Sem. law as known largely from heavily settled Mesopotamia (naturally, no written laws from the desert survive), it is characteristic of some Hitt. treaties (R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel [1961], p. 147). In view of the known fact that the Israelite theory and practice of covenant has many similarities with Hitt. “suzerainty treaties” made by an imperial overlord with subject peoples, this is interesting as perhaps showing further Hitt. links. It can, therefore, no longer be claimed that this form is either “desert” or “pure Israelite”; thus, any judgments as to the originality of the material, if based only on the form, would be erroneous. A safer position to take is to regard all Israel’s laws, whether categoric or apodictic, as permeated with the light of the new revelation of Yahweh.

The second type of law to be found in the Torah is casuistic, or case-law. This normally introduces an instance, ending with a “then...,” as in the Mesopotamian case-law codes. Such laws should not be regarded as hypothetical instances, but as actual precedents or case judgments, whether earlier or Sinaitic or later. It is in these areas that Israel’s case-law approaches most closely that of her immediate Sem. neighbors. This is natural enough, since, given roughly similar levels of civilization and circumstances of life similar problems were liable to arise, and broadly similar solutions to be found (although Israel’s law is always more humane). Semitic law is most familiar to modern scholars in its later codifications, like that of Hammurabi of Babylon, or the Middle Assyrian law code, or the neo-Babylonian laws. None of these were in any sense innovations. They were merely codifications and systematizations of far earlier laws, as can be seen from comparison with the Lipit-Ishtar Code and the Eshnunna Code. How many of these precedents rested ultimately on early Sem. “common law” and how many on Sumer. codes, it would be hard to say; perhaps it would be wrong to consider these as ultimately distinct. In view of the proven widespread knowledge of these later codifications among the W Sem. peoples (annotated copies of Hammurabi’s laws have been found in Egypt) one may safely assume a widespread knowledge of the earlier “customary law” that underlay them. There is no need to assume any direct or conscious borrowing by Israel of Canaanite case law at a comparatively late date (the Conquest), the more so as there is no reason to assume that Canaanite law was any different from the general Sem. pattern. Naturally, where it is a matter of the content, Israel’s laws throughout are dominated by the revelation of God received at Mount Sinai. There is a humaneness, an avoidance of mutilations and other sava ge punishments, and an awareness of the value of human personality and the individual, for which we would search in vain in other codes. This, and not any outward form, is the distinctiveness of Israel’s law. One example will suffice: the small space given in Israel’s code to property laws, and the large space to personal relations between man and man. Even in the case of the land laws, the motivation for every law is strongly personal and religious.

Contents of the law.

It comes as a surprise that, in the so-called law of Moses, strictly legal matter takes quite a minor place. Even if the area is enlarged to cover all matter of religious or ceremonial interest, it is still not dominant. If the basic meaning of Torah as “instruction” is kept in mind, this will no longer surprise. Israel’s ancestral traditions—the salvation story of Exodus—the bittersweet experiences of the desert wandering—teach about God and His ways as surely as the Ten Commandments, or as the distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” which occupy esp. Leviticus chs. 11-15. History is not law, but history seen through God’s eyes is indeed Torah (instruction)—just as later Israelite history was reckoned as “prophecy,” and included the books of the prophets in the “second canon” of the OT. This also explains another aspect—the evident love of Israel for the Torah, expressed, for instance, in Psalm 119. Few men except lawyers could love a legal system (although the Pharisees of NT days seem to have done so); but all men could love the Torah, with its combination of poem and history, law and exhortation, for this was the very lifeblood of early Israel, cast in a literary form.

At first sight, this looks like a coherent whole; and it is, in point of fact, a coherent historical arrangement of much diverse material. Even a cursory glance at the analysis above will show that of “law” in the narrower sense, only half of Exodus and all of Leviticus are constituted. Both Numbers and Deuteronomy contain sections of laws, but in the first, legal matter is subordinate to narrative, and in the second, to exhortation. Therefore the Torah has at least as good a claim to be called a history book as a lawbook; and considered from either angle, it is still uniquely God’s “instruction.”

Codes of the law.

Form criticism has brought a new freshness to Biblical studies, by its isolation and study of the different “forms” within the books of the Bible instead of the endless documentary analysis. Where form criticism restricts itself to descriptive study, it can be a valuable analysis of Biblical matter along entirely new lines; when some of its advocates push it further and base unwarranted value-judgments on its conclusions there is no need to follow them. Therefore, in isolating various “codes of law” within the Pentateuch for study, there is no necessity for postulating different sources or different dates. Indeed, all might well have originated in the Mosaic age, for all we know. Many of the codes cannot in any case have had an independent existence at any time in Israel’s history. With this proviso, some seven or more separate codes may be cataloged as follows. They are mainly taken from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, with small sections from other books.

The Ten Commandments

(to the Jews, the “ten words”) stand at the very heart of the law and are fundamental to the whole. They appear twice, with minor differences in the explanatory additions (which may well themselves be early) in the second half of each verse. (See Exod 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21.) It is these laws, prob. in the shorter form consisting of the first half of each v., without the explanation, which according to the Bible were engraved on the tablets in the Ark (Exod 24:12). Violent controversy has raged over the date of the Commandments (see Rowley, “Men of God”). Scholars like R. H. Pfeiffer reject any possibility of Mosaic mention of Sabbath or non-iconic worship, and are even doubtful as to the forbidding of the worship of other gods as early as Mosaic times. Scholars of the Albright school, on the other hand, point to the literary form of the Commandments, as well as their contents, as indicating “an original date of the Decalogue no later than the thirteenth century b.c.” (W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan [1968]). With this, the basically aniconic nature of Israel’s worship (as witnessed archeologically for the days of the Judges) agrees; there is no valid reason to doubt a Mosaic origin. It often has been argued that what is taught in the Ten Words is properly monolatry, not monotheism—the exclusive worship of one God, rather than the denial of the existence of all others, as presented in the second half of Isaiah. But this view usually assigns such passages as Genesis 1 to the postexilic period and fails to reckon with statements like Exodus 12:12, or misinterprets Exodus 15:11 and other such passages.

The Ten Commandments can be seen only, like the rest of the law, against the background of the Covenant; this in turn rests on the salvation-history of the Exodus. Other codes within the law are basically an expansion and application of these principles to various facets of life, rather as the NT epistles apply the truth of the Gospel. Thus the Commandments became the root of all subsequent Israelite morality as well as of religion.

It is possible that much of this Code (as no doubt parts of the Ten Commandments, cf. Gen 26:12) antedates Moses. Whatever the duration of the Israelite stay in Egypt, they were certainly settled, not nomadic, in Goshen. Even in the earliest days of the migration, Israel’s ancestors had been ass-nomads, not camel-nomads, which implies certain contacts with settled life. The branch of the clan settled at Haran seems to have progressed in this direction even more rapidly than Abraham’s group. It is therefore inconceivable that Moses should have been ignorant of all these legal traditions of his people. If it contains many of the customary laws of Israel’s forefathers (no doubt now transformed by the fuller revelation given to Moses at Sinai), it is not surprising that the Covenant Code bears many similarities to other codes preserved by Israel’s Sem. neighbors (likewise no doubt crystallizations of Sem. traditional law). Nor is it surprising that in part Deuteronomy repeats the provisions of the Covenant Code, in part supplements them, presumably by including other areas of the same ancestral law, purified by the clear light of “Yahwism.” Whether or not Moses’ stay in Midian had any influence on the law as a whole and the Covenant Code in particular is a question that cannot be answered with present limited knowledge. The Biblical tradition is clear that Moses spent a generation in Midian, that he married a Midianite girl, and that her father was a priest of Midian (Exod 2:17-21). Midian was at least half-settled at the time; Jethro was associated with Moses in judicial activity (18:13-22). It is thus unthinkable that Moses should have been ignorant of Midianite law and custom; it is highly likely that this was only another form of ancestral Sem. law.

The Deuteronomic Code,

found in Deuteronomy 12-26, is another coherent code about whose separate existence there can be no doubt. Even the most extreme critics usually recognize the Book of Deuteronomy as an independent literary unit. While in some ways, it is a summing up of the whole of the law and history of early Israel (a sort of “multum in parvo”) in other ways it is only a “supplement” of earlier codes, esp. the Covenant Code, by covering areas initially omitted, as well as re-interpreting the old. That is why its position may be compared to that of John’s gospel in the NT. Much of it is cast in discourse style, a sort of “reminiscences of Moses,” with which the speeches in Acts may be compared. The new understanding of the historicity of the material of John (see Dodd and Albright) is not without significance in such a parallel. Deuteronomy is infused throughout with a warmth of love that continually introduces new motives for keeping the law (Deut 25:3) and humanitarian application of the law, even extending to wild animals (22:6). “Covenant love” so dominates the code that it has a right to be called a “Covenant Code” (Exod 20-23), which it so closely resembles.

The Code of Holiness

is contained in Leviticus 17-26, which again seems a cohesive “whole within a whole.” It is dominated by the same lofty thought of the holiness and transcendence of God as is found in Ezekiel. The code is full of elaborate instructions as to how to maintain, even in the physical realm, this holiness that comes from being the people of God. Leviticus, as a whole, makes less appeal to modern man than, say, Deuteronomy; partly because all of Leviticus is virtually a “Priest’s Handbook” on technical matters of religion, and partly because such rules of cleanliness and worship have ceased to be directly applicable or practical in modern life. With no Temple, no sacrifice, no distinction between clean and unclean food (Mark 7:19), much of the direct relevance has gone for the Christian today. If Deuteronomy 6:5 contained the first part of the Lord’s summary of the law (Thou shalt love the Lord thy God...), Leviticus 19:18 contained the second (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself). No code that contains such a statement can be considered barren, and this v. is by no means an isolated instance of what might be called a “Deuteronomic attitude.”

Further, the Code of Holiness contains the same sort of motivation as the Ten Commandments, by which ethics are deduced directly from theology (in the proper sense of that word, as being the known and revealed nature and will of God). A keynote of the Holiness Code is Leviticus 19:1, “You shall be holy, for I (Yahweh) your God am holy.” Put more succinctly, the keynote becomes the simple phrase, “I am (Yahweh)” (Lev 19:4 and many other places) placed at the end of a v. as the reason for the command that has gone before. No code can be called barren that contains such motivation, and the sonorous rhythm of the phrase sounds early. The Code of Holiness usually is associated closely with the teaching of the prophet Ezekiel; as he was a priest himself, this is not surprising. The minor differences between Ezekiel and the code may perhaps be explained by the possibility that Ezekiel recognized in the captivity the judgment of God, and was concerned to recall his people to the ancient law. Minor differences need not disturb, for in time some laws become inapplicable and disused. Ezekiel quotes from the Code of Holiness (Ezek 20:11, 13, 21). The literary style may not be due only to a late date. Certain aspects may be typical of the clipped conservatism of religious and liturgical language.

The Priestly Code

may be a useful name to apply to the material of the rest of Leviticus, which has no such one compelling motive as the Code of Holiness, and perhaps to certain other parts of the Pentateuch. To describe it as a code, as though it had existed in isolation, seems a misnomer; it is only a convenient term for the vast body of traditional material which every sacrificing priest in Israel must know. As he was not only priest, but also doctor, and health inspector, as well as custodian of public and private morals, the Priestly Code covers a wide area of life.

The archeological discoveries at Ras Shamra and elsewhere in the Middle E have shown by the existence of parallels, the probable age of the material contained therein, whatever the date of the transcription. Perhaps therefore in the ritual area, too, Moses adopted and purified many of the sacrificial practices of Israel’s ancestors. Although there appears to have been no specialized priesthood in Israel until Mosaic days (Exod 32:29) it is hard to believe that the patriarchs had no customary rules governing their offerings and sacrifices.

f. So far, the codes isolated have had at least some claim to individual identity. Whether the so-called Ritual Decalogue (Exod 34:10-26) ever existed independently of its context, or whether it is a creation of Biblical scholars, is most uncertain. It is undoubted that various ritual prescriptions existed; it is even possible that they were combined into lists or catalogs and read at festival times at one or other of the great early meeting places (Gilgal, Shechem or Shiloh). There is no reason to isolate ten or twelve arbitrarily to make either a Decalogue (corresponding to the Ten Commandments) or a Dodecalogue (corresponding to the Twelve Tribes). Indeed, the first of these names is prob. influenced by the false idea that there must be a set of “ritual” rules corresponding to the “ethical” rules of the Ten Words. This, however, ignores the fact that no such distinction was felt in early days; even the Ten Words contain two provisions that might be described as ritual (that prescribing aniconic worship, and that enjoining observance of every seventh day). With this proviso, it may be admitted freely that there is a concentration of “ritual laws” governing Israel’s worship found in Exodus 34:10-26. R. H. Pfeiffer finds traces in various other parts of the Covenant Code and the Deuteronomic Code. Certainly this Exodus passage is couched in typically abrupt early Israelite style, with the use of the second person sing. (“you shall...you shall not...”). The chief items are the destruction of Canaanite altars and images, and the observance of Sabbath and the three great annual festivals of Yahweh.

In the Biblical account, these laws are prefixed by a revelation of Yahweh’s name and nature, accompanied by the re-carving of the tablets of the law, and introduced by the words, “Behold, I make a covenant” (Exod 34:10). Perhaps therefore “Second Book of the Covenant” would be a better name for this material. Verse 27 is particularly clear; “In accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you.”

Blessings and curses

(cf. the NT “Beatitudes” and “Woes”). The modern fashion is to see these as liturgical forms, pronounced solemnly and in public at great religious ceremonies, and believed to be effective in themselves as producing the result described. While many will dissent from the latter part of such a definition, there is evidence in Scripture that the first part is true, at least on certain historic occasions, if not as part of the regular worship of Israel. Deuteronomy 27:15-26 is a good example, where twelve solemn curses are to be pronounced by the Levites at an assembly on the hills above Shechem (cf. Josh 8:34). Two things, however, should be noted: the liturgical curses pronounced are not on a set of new offenses, but on offenses condemned elsewhere in other Israelite “codes.” The list of curses is only a summary of the negative aspect of Israel’s law, and their direction and rhythm is that of the early Israelite Torah. Second, the curses are not pronounced in isolation. This is no magical ceremony, but a proclamation of the consequences of either obeying or disregarding the revealed mind of God. Six tribes are to stand on Mt. Gerizim to bless, while the other six tribes stand on Mt. Ebal to curse. Presumably the “blessings” are substantially those contained in Deuteronomy 28, perhaps originally expressed in a more succinct form, corresponding to the form of the curses in the previous ch. For examples of similar blessings see the poetic Blessings of Jacob in Genesis 49 (which also contain curses in the case of Reuben, Simeon and Levi: see vv. 3-7) and the Blessing of Moses (Deut 33), with the other smaller fragments. Numbers 23 and 24 also contain some very oracular poems (the Oracles of Balaam), which combine blessings with curses; nevertheless, it is hard to think that such found any regular place in public worship.

Moses and the law codes.

Apart from these seven codes, others have been isolated from time to time with varying degrees of plausibility by different scholars, but none has commanded general acceptance. Even these seven are mainly of interest as showing the possible raw material that underlay the law of Moses.

Surely the background, training, and education of Moses was God’s preparation for the writing of his great lifework. By birth an Israelite, and also a member of the wider Heb. group, and thus an inheritor of the common law of all Sem. people; by training an Egyp. noble, and thus familiar with Hammurabis law and Egyp. juristic comment on it; by force of circumstance, a great man in Midian, and both a spectator and participant in the legal processes of the semi-desert. Who was better trained and equipped than he to become under God the great lawgiver of Israel, and codifier of his people’s law? No doubt in the Torah of Moses’ day, there was much that was new, in the shape of the fresh and deeper revelation of Yahweh. No doubt, since Yahweh was also expressly the “God of the Fathers,” even if His name was not known to them (Exod 6:3) there was also much that was old and familiar although now purified and transformed by the new revelation. Both parts alike are God’s self-revelation and the Torah.

Land laws in the OT.

As Israel was basically an agricultural people from the conquest of Canaan until the Babylonian captivity (with a brief essay to the world of commerce and manufacturing, under Solomon) a study of their land laws may be of some interest. First, it is well to notice that no complete system of land laws can be built up from the Pentateuch alone; and yet no other codification of early Israelite laws is known, except for the Mishnah, which seems to preserve additional laws in force at the time of the destruction of Herod’s Temple. Obviously, Israel had more land laws than these two works contain; therefore it is only reasonable to assume that in this area (as doubtless in that of commerce and elsewhere) she simply used the common Sem. law, supplementing it by specifically Israelite regulations where such were necessitated by Israel’s revelation of Yahweh. Only some such practice can account for the otherwise inexplicable “gaps” in the Torah, here and elsewhere.

In pursuance of the same principle, land might not be permanently alienated by its owner. Numbers 36:4 refers to the peculiarly Israelite custom of the “jubilee year” when all lands reverted to their original owners. While it appears that this law actually became a dead letter in Israel, in principle it corresponded to the modern practice of “leasing” land for a period of years, after which the land would revert to the State or the original landlord. Seven sevens of years was a doubly sacred number, and for the Israelite corresponded to the “ninety-nine years” or “nine hundred and ninety-nine years” of British leases. There is nothing inherently improbable in such a regulation, the more so as it is linked with the agrarian system by which fields were to be left fallow every seventh year—a wise provision in a marginal country with inadequate use of fertilizers. Leviticus 25:1-12 deals in detail with both Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Verse 23 enunciates the great principle upon which all is based: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine.” Naturally this custom, if observed, would govern the buying and selling prices of land. Leviticus 25:25 also introduces the “redeemer kinsman,” and his duty to buy back temporarily alienated land, and thus keep it in the clan. Leviticus 27:16-25 shows that such “reversion” in the Jubilee year was even intended to be true of land dedicated to God, so strongly was this legal principle felt. This provision prevented the accumulation of large landed estates to the detriment of the poor.

Attitude to law in the OT

In early days.

The prophetic period.

The pendulum has swung completely to the other extreme. With the view that prophets in Israel were “cultic prophets,” usually organized in bands at Israelite sanctuaries, and possibly identified with the Levites, and that they had a definite place in the liturgical life and worship of Israel, such opposition to the priesthood as that postulated above becomes unreal. While this is certainly over-emphasized, it is a useful corrective to the older view. It is true that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were priests, and that Isaiah received his call in the Temple (Isa 6:1); but all three reserved their prophetic freedom to criticize sharply any leaning on outward observances to the exclusion of the spirit of the law. This was thoroughly Mosaic.

In later days.

The great change in Israel’s attitude to the Torah is marked not so much by a date as by an event, the Babylonian Exile. In a foreign land, the law took on a new importance, by which Israel was distinguished from the countless other small racial groups of a polyglot empire. The Exile was realized as the final result of failure to keep and obey the law, a lesson brought home by all the pre-exilic prophets. The law was certainly read in the returned community at Jerusalem (Neh 8). As far as could be, it had become the state law of this tiny group; religious leaders like Ezra and political leaders like Nehemiah enforced it wherever they could. This was possible not only because of the preference of the imperial Pers. government to rule subject peoples according to their own laws; it corresponded to a new will and purpose in Israel herself. The number of references to “law” in Ezra and Nehemiah is remarkable, and it is undoubtedly no accident. Not since the old wilderness days had Torah held such a central place in Israel’s life; its prestige was enhanced by the dying of the voice of prophecy (Zech 13:3, 4), and the fact that priests could apparently no longer give guidance by the use of Urim and Thummim (Neh 7:65). Even such prophetic voice as still existed was raised in defense of the law; for Malachi 4:4 closes the OT with the words, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel,” followed by the promise of the “second Elijah.”

It must have seemed to many as if the great promise of the New Covenant (Jer 31:33) had been fulfilled already, as though God had already written His law on human hearts. The bitter experiences of the returned community give the lie to this; both Ezra and Nehemiah found, as Moses no doubt had, that man’s heart is still the same (Ezra 9:3 and Neh 5:6). The returned exiles paid service to the law, but it was only lip service. For the fulfillment of the promise through Jeremiah, men must wait until Pentecost and NT times. The hand of the law was not only an iron hand on Israel; it soon became a dead hand, stifling with its legalism the inner spiritual life. What it became for the Pharisees can be seen from the NT; but even then Paul insists that it is not the Torah that is at fault, but only fallen men (Rom 7:7-12).


H. Danby, The Mishnah (1933); R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the OT (1941); M. Buber, Moses (1946); C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Literature (1949); H. H. Rowley, From Joseph to Joshua (1950); E. Robertson, The OT Problem (1950); M. Noth, Exodus (1951); L. Koehler, Lexicon in VT Libros (1953); W. F. Albright, Archeology and the Religion of Israel (1953); J. B. Pritchard, ANET (1955); W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1957); A. Bentzen, Introduction to the OT, 5th ed. (1959); J. A. Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name (1959); J. Bright, History of Israel (1960); A. Weiser, Introduction to the OT (1961); R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961); W. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis (1961); Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1961); J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1962); C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (1963); H. H. Rowley, Men of God (1963); M. G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King (1963); E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (1964); G. A. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (1964); O. Eissfeldt, The OT (1965); W. F. Albright, New Horizons in Biblical Research (1966); K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (1966); J. L’Hour, Die Ethik der Bundestradition im AT (1967).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Torah ("Law")

2. Synonyms of Torah

(1) Mitswah ("Command")

(2) `Edhah ("Witness," "Testimony")

(3) MishpaTim ("Judgments")

(4) Chuqqim ("Statutes")

(5) Piqqudhim ("Precepts")


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


1. The Civil Law

(1) Servants and the Poor

(2) Punishments

(3) Marriage

(4) Sabbaths and Feasts

2. The Ceremonial Law

(1) Origin of Sacrifice

(2) The Levitical Ritual

(3) The Law Truly a Torah



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.

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 Pr 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 (Lu 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 Ge 18:19; De 32:4; sometimes the act of judging, as in De 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 (Le 18:4; De 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 (Joh 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; De 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 20-23, 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 20-23 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 20-23 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 De 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 2Ki 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 De 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 De 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 25-31; Le 1-7; 11-15; Nu 1-4, 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 Le 23:34,39 a,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 Le 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 De 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 20-23. 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 21:1-22:17; 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 Ge 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.

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.


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" (De 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 De 5-26 and 28. Whether the whole or any parts of the remaining contents of De 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 De 5-26 and 28 (with or without parts of other chapters) as the "book" of De 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 (De 4:3-21) as to things which might not be eaten as unclean; it also gives directions as to the disposal of tithes (De 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 (De 16); it lays down a law (expressed conditionally) restricting to one sanctuary the offering of at least the more solemn sacrifices (De 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 (De 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 5-26, 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 De 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 25-40; Le 1-16, and throughout Numbers, we have in Le 17-26 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; Le 26; De 28). Like them it deals much with moral duties: Le 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 Le 11-15. 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, Le 17-26) we find an intermediate conception. We find that whereas in Le 11-15 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 (Le 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 (Le 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 Le 11-15 (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.

(1) Exodus.

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.

(2) Leviticus.

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 Le 1-7) we have the law of sacrifice, including what was so especially peculiar to the covenant-worship, the law of the sin offering. Then in Le 8-10 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 Le 11-15 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 Le 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.

(3) Numbers.

The purpose of Numbers is supplementary. Nu 1-6, 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 7-10 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.

(4) Deuteronomy.

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.

(2) Punishments.

The rule of Ex 21:22-25 ("eye for eye," etc.; compare Le 24:19,20; De 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 (De 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; De 19:1-13).

(3) Marriage.

(4) Sabbaths and Feasts.

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 (Le 4:1-5:13; 12-15; 16). Similarly the rules as to guilt offerings (Le 5:14-6:7) 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 Le 3:11,16 (compare Le 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 Le 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 1Ki 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.

(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.

(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