Old Testament Law

Course: Essentials of the Old Testament

Lecture: Old Testament Law


In this second part of our quick survey of the Old Testament, our overview, we are going to look at Israel’s law and order. In other words, the materials that start with Exodus chapter 20 and The Ten Commandments and move through the end of the book of Deuteronomy. We will not be nearly as systematic or detailed as we are in the coverage of the same information in the longer full course, but we think we can give you a pretty good introduction to things and be helpful thereby.

1. Covenant

It is important to appreciate the fact that Israel’s law is given in the form of a covenant. What do we mean by this? 

A. A covenant is a formal, legal contract between two parties.

B. Types

1. There were in the ancient world what are called parity covenants in which an individual might make a formal, legal contract with another individual in business or commerce of some kind.

2. But the kind of contract that the Bible presents to us, which we refer to as “covenant” is a contract that God makes with His people, Israel, in the form that is described as a suzerainty covenant. It is a covenant that we know by example from the ancient world.

C. God chose to deliver his law to Israel in a format that they would be familiar with. They would not find it mysterious or strange or novel or odd; it was something they knew that existed in the ancient world. He was in the position of the Great Sovereign, the Suzerain, and they were in the position of his subordinates or vassals. He had delivered them from Egypt; He had rescued them from 430 years of abject slavery. He had protected them miraculously. He had benefited them while they were oppressed so that they grew and had a greater growth rate than that of the Egyptians and did not have to experience the plagues even though the Egyptians had to experience all of them. Were spared from the death of the firstborn in the family which the Egyptians so agonizingly had to endure and so on. This meant that He was the one who had given them really everything. He was the Suzerain, they were the vassal. They were dependent upon Him. If He did not protect them, they were almost entirely vulnerable. That is illustrated by the times that they went to war and could not win against other forces except as God supernaturally aided them. So they were dependent upon them. He said, “I will bless you, protect you, I’ve done it so far, I’ll continue to do it and you, in return, are obligated to me to do certain things.” Now, we understand contracts. We understand that if you make a contract with a bank to borrow money, you make certain promises to the bank. That you will make a payment periodically and that eventually you will pay back the whole amount plus interest. That if you default on those payments, there will be penalties of various kinds. If you try to cheat the bank there will be penalties of various kinds and so on. The bank in turn promises you that they will give you a lot of money that you do not have, that they have that you need, and that is what the loan is. And moreover, they promise that they will let you pay it back gradually, etc. once it is paid off they will not have any further claim against you. So the bank makes certain promises; you make certain promises and that is the way a covenant works.

1. In the covenant that starts at Exodus 20 and goes all the way through the Book of Deuteronomy God promises to be to the people of Israel a protector, a deliver, a savior, a benefactor, one who will give them blessing after blessing and advantage after advantage.

2. They promise in turn that to get this wonderful situation they are to do what He says in His covenant. And that is what the law is all about. It is His stipulations for them as to what they are to do. But just the rules are not all there is to a covenant.

D. A covenant actually has six basic elements to it.

1. First there is the preamble and we find that just in the opening words of Exodus chapter 20, the preamble simply identifies the parties to the covenant, “I am the Lord your God.” So it identifies Yahweh, the Lord, as His name is usually rendered in English as the God of Israel and then Israel as His people.

2. Then is the prologue. The prologue gives a little background as to how it is they came to be related. In the case of the Israelite covenant that is in what we call the Pentateuch or The Law of Moses, the prologue is very simple. “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt. I rescued you, saved you from that oppression and made you a people.”

3. Then come the stipulations; and most of the law is stipulations. These are the individual laws or rules or statutes that characterize the behavior that the Israelites are supposed to have manifest.

4. Then come the sanctions. The sanctions are blessings and curses. They are a lot like the carrot and the stick. If you think of enticing an animal to do something, you use a carrot to cause an animal to come your way because you keep holding that carrot in front of its nose and it wants to eat the carrot so it keeps coming. But the stick is what you may use to cause a little pain to that animal so that it will stop doing something it should not be doing. the combination of the carrot and the stick is like the blessing and the curse of the Old Testament Covenant. The blessings are there to invite people to enjoy a rich and abundant life that God has for them. The curses, that is predictions of miseries that will come if people disobey the covenant, are there to invite them to remember what a mistake it would be to violate God’s covenant stipulations.

5. There are two other elements in the covenant structure; there are also the witnesses. And from time to time in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy these witnesses are named. God Himself is the ultimate witness but most frequently He will say something like, “If you disobey my law I call ‘Heaven and Earth as witness against you.” Now that is another merism, an expression of totality by polarity. It is a way of saying, “All creation will be against you because I’m, of course, the Creator and the Sustainer of creation. I’ll turn it against you if you don’t obey My covenant.” Sometimes He says, “You are witnesses against yourself today that you have agreed to this covenant.” So there are a number of ways in which the witness idea is expressed.

6. Finally, there is the documentation clause. This is simply a brief statement that it is important to keep copies of the commandments that God has given.  In the case of The Ten Commandments you may remember the story that when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he is carrying two tablets. Does this mean that Commandments one through five are written on one tablet and Commandments six through ten on the other? No, not at all. Rather, he has got two complete copies of all Ten Commandments. Why? Because in ancient covenants a provision was made for each party to have a copy; the suzerain has a copy and the vassal has a copy. Or if it is a parity covenant, each party has a copy. So what Moses brings down from Mount Sinai, and eventually places in the Arch of the Covenant—that beautiful gold-surfaced box that symbolized God’s throne and therefore His presence among His people—what Moses put there in the two tablets was God’s copy and Israel’s copy, right together, showing that both of them met together in terms of keeping His commandments. You know how Jesus says, “If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.” Doing the will of somebody you care about, especially someone who is superior to you as God obviously is to us, is the way that you show that you love Him. You do not show it by healings primarily. You do not show it by words primarily. You show it primarily by doing His will. So that is what God teaches in the Covenant structure. He teaches that His people are to demonstrate that they love Him by doing His will and the documentation clause is really just a provision that the law will regularly be read and that everybody will use it as a basis for understanding how God is to be loved. You show that love by being aware of what His law says and by doing your very best, with his help, to fulfill it. So again the six characteristic elements are: preamble, prologue, stipulations, sanctions, witnesses, documentation and by far the most frequent of these are the stipulations. The bulk of the law are the rules themselves for what God wants our behavior to be.

II. There is a hierarchy of Old Testament Law. 

A. The two greatest laws which Jesus identifies and which, in fact, Jewish tradition had identified long before New Testament times are:

1. The law from Deuteronomy 6:5 to love God with your whole heart and,

2. The law from Leviticus 19:18 to love you neighbor as yourself. Those two laws, as Jesus says, are so comprehensive that on them “hang the law and the prophets”. They really summarize what God’s will is all about. They summarize the behavior that is part of God’s plan of redemption for us. To love God thoroughly, to love the neighbor; love God and love neighbor. If one would do those two things, one will really fulfill the law. All the laws fall into that category.

B. Now the Ten Commandments can be understood very nicely and very neatly as subcategories of those two great laws.

1. The first four of the Ten Commandments relate to loving God. Remember that loving God is doing His will not feeling certain ways about Him. So He says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” in Exodus 20:3. That is the first commandment that relates to making Him special, doing His will only. He says in verses 4 to 6 of Exodus 20, “Don’t make for yourself any idol.” Again, that is God having exclusive worship from us. Do not bow down or worship them. He says in verse 7, “Don’t misuse the name of Yahweh your God, the Lord your God.” That is a command that relates to any invoking of God’s name in a worthless or improper way. It can be lying under oath. It can be making a promise, “I promise, by God, I will do so and so,” It can be claiming just as you know your faith in God is such and such, here is what you claim to be the case and it is not true. Anything that is a misuse of the name of God is prohibited. Invoking Him, pretending that you have a relationship to Him that would keep you from being dishonest when in fact you are dishonest; anything along those lines. Then finally the fourth commandment that relates to loving God is to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. And in that process, one keeps the Sabbath day just as God symbolically kept it when he created the heavens and the earth and saves it for worship and for holy purposes. Those are the first four laws. They are the laws in which one shows, by keeping them, love of God.

2. Then there are six laws that relate to love of neighbor. So with commandment number five comes a relationship to humans, not God, particularly, and thus says, “Honor your father and mother,” and then in sequence, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony,” which can include any kind of lying, “and you shall not covet anything that belongs to somebody else.” In these laws the word “neighbor” does not mean someone who lives nearby. That is not at all the meaning. It is just an old English word that was borrowed and has traditionally been used to translate a certain Hebrew word that means “somebody else.” So when you see the word neighbor, just substitute in your mind “somebody else” and you have got it because that is all it means. It does not have anything to do with somebody who lives close to where your house is located.

C. Another fact about these laws. After the ten there are then another 601. A total of 613 commandments, the so called two great commandments then to Ten Commandments then another 601. Some of them are about loving God; some of them are about loving neighbor as self, they are all subcategories in one way or another of one or more of the Ten Commandments. So we have the two great commandments, the Ten Commandments, then the remaining 601 in that order. All of them have in mind that by obeying those laws one shows that one wants to be part of God’s people. That one loves God and that one will carry out the responsibilities as God’s people that He gives which can be summed up in loving Him and loving other people as well.

III. The OT is Paradigmatic

A very important fact to keep in mind about Old Testament Law is that it is Paradigmatic. Old Testament law has a bunch of paradigms in it. A paradigm is a model, a sample, an example of the way certain things should be patterned. The Old Testament laws, the 601 specific laws that back up the Ten Commandments that back up in turn the two great commandments do not cover every circumstance. ==

A. For example, consider this law from Exodus 21. This is a law about how you cannot mistreat a servant that works for you. “If a person hits a manservant or a maidservant in the eye and destroys the eye, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye.” That would be even after a contract to work in which you have paid the person up front to work for you for six years and the first day you hit him in the eye, too bad, they go free, you lose all your money. “And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.” That is Exodus 21:26 and 27. notice that it does not mention kneecaps, it does not mention ears, it does not mention losing hair, it does not mention breaking a servants nose, it does not mention causing the servant to lose a finger, it does not mention all kinds of things. in modern law we try to be comprehensive, exhaustive. We try to word our laws to cover every circumstance. Therefore there are loopholes in modern law. If you can be accused of doing something that is not precisely described in a modern law, you can get off by getting off by a “technicality” or “loophole”. Not so in bible times. God gave to Israel several hundred examples, paradigms, of the kind of behavior that He wanted His people to be characterized by. So in this law about the fact that you cannot every hurt a servant that works for you and cause any kind of damage, real damage to that servants body or the servant goes free, God gives only two examples—the eye and the tooth. Ancient people could perfectly well reason from that. If somebody broke the leg of a servant, the servant could go to court and say, “My master broke my leg and I’m entitled to go free.” The court would say, “You bet you are.” If someone caused a serious, permanent injury to even the skin of someone, maybe made them do something that took some skin off and caused a big scar and left a permanent mark, they could go to court and could say, “My master did this to me.” And they would say, “Well, you go free too.” They extrapolated from the paradigm. They reasoned by analogy from the paradigm. They extended the sense of the paradigm to any related circumstance. Now that is what you are going to find all throughout the Old Testament laws. You are going to find that the law may not mention a specific situation that would apply directly to you, but it does mention a variety of situations that are somehow related and from them you can extrapolate. In the case of this law, employers simply do not have the right to harm their employees just because they have got them under contract for a long period of time. They cannot do it. You only have to mention the sample, the paradigm, of the eye and the tooth to apply to any other type of harm that one could say, “Well, what about if the harm were not physical, what if it were financial?” Same thing. Ancient people would say, “Look, it talks about harming, doing substantial harm, here is case where an employer ripped off an employee financially. In our opinion that is just as serious as if he had knocked out a tooth; therefore, we are going to let the employee go free and insist on compensation, etc.” It might be a matter of some kind of psychological damage that was done. Same thing. They would have no trouble extrapolating from a law like this to anything that was regarded by common sense as being a comparable sort of offense against an employee.

B. Or consider along the same lines of paradigmatic law this statement that occurs actually three times in the Pentateuch, the law of these first five books of Moses. This is from Exodus 23:19. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Well, you might say, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with that? Can’t you have some kind of a stew with milk in it or a chowder and put goat meat in there and cook it?” That is not the issue at all. The Canaanites had a great variety of ritual magic practices that were part of their religion. The Canaanites, among whom the Israelites were preparing to live, had various means of what are called fertility rituals. They thought, for example, that if they would take a goat kid and prepare it for cooking and then cook it in its mother’s milk, this would stimulate the gods to produce in nature fertility for all the goat herds and that then you would have many, many goats born and larger and larger herds and more and more productivity on the farms. And so they believed that this magical practice might work—it might produce some kind of prosperity for them by going through this ritual. That is what is prohibited. You might say, “But it doesn’t mention doing that to a sheep. We could do that to a sheep. We could take a little lamb and boil it in its mother’s milk and then it would be legal.” No, they understood that you could not do that either. They understood that you could not do any kind of pagan religious stuff. Any kind of pagan religious rituals, any kind of pagan religious, magical practices, any kind of incantations, any kind of things designed to represent the occult, the magical whatever. They knew that they were all forbidden by extrapolation from the paradigm. All that was necessary for thinking people to ask the question, “Since this forbids a well-known Canaanite pagan religious practice, does it not in effect say, all such practices are forbidden?” And the answer would be yes, of course. That is how you have to read law.

C. Another case would be if we take something from further along in the Pentateuch. Let’s say we take the statement that says in Numbers 18:12, “I give to the priests the finest olive oil and all the finest new wine and grain.” Well, what is that? That is a statement about part of the tithe that people brought in when they harvested their crops, and so on, would go to the priests for their usage. Could a person say, “Okay, if I grew olives, if I had olive trees, I could give that finest olive oil that is mentioned there in Numbers 18:12. And if I had great vineyards I could give the finest new wine that it mentions. And if I had grain fields I could give that grain that it mentions. But I don’t have any of those, I raise sheep so I’m off the hook. I don’t have to give anything to any priests or Levites.” But in fact, of course, no ancient person could say that. They knew that those were samples. They were mentioned as a paradigm for all other things that one brought in. So, whatever your job was, whatever your occupation, whatever your produce, you gave the best ten percent right off the top. And if it was not something that was needed for the priests or Levites, you transferred it over to money, you sold it, and you gave the money to them so that they could buy what they needed. Remember that principle, it is going to apply all over the place in these hundreds of laws. The laws of the Old Testament are not exhaustive, they are not comprehensive, they do not even try, they just give you a sample about this or that topic; an instance here, a general statement there and from these you are expected to extrapolate. So the law is paradigmatic not exhaustive.

IV. There really are only two kinds of laws. 

A. One we call Apodictic. It is a very fancy name but it has been around for a long time and is the standard name. The meaning of apodictic is all-purpose. These are the general laws like “Love your neighbor as yourself”. They are not qualified, they are not limited to any given circumstance, they are the general, overall laws that a person is supposed to obey. There are many, many of those in the Old Testament legal system.

B. But there are also laws that deal with specific circumstances. These apply only if the circumstance happens to come up and we call these Casuistic laws. These apply to particular circumstances. Here is one, for example, from the cities of refuge laws of Deuteronomy 19. If a man hates his neighbor, that means somebody else, and lies in wait for him, assaults and kills him, then flees to one of these cities of refuge that I am setting up for you; then the elders of his town shall send for him, bring him back from the city, hand him over for trial and so on, show no pity, etc. Now that law does not apply to everybody. It applies only to people who actually commit premeditated murder and it is described in connection with the cities of refuge law because cities of refuge were set up for people to flee to who committed accidental homicide, not murder, and who were really innocent and should not have been subject to somebody’s vengeance against them. But these are not all purpose; some people would not have to worry about a law like that, but it is there if you need it. And again, it is to be extrapolated from paradigmatically if the circumstances were somewhat different but analogous, the ancient Israelite judges would know what to do. We have the story in Exodus 18 of Moses appointing various levels of gurus prudence; there were local court judges, there were appeal court judges, there were supreme court judges; Israel had an elaborate court system.  We do understand that that was part of the way God operated among His people.

V. Deuteronomy

Let me finally say in connection with law this—sometimes there is the question, “How can it be that you have Deuteronomy the second the law seeming to restate most of, but also add some things to, Exodus through Leviticus and Numbers the first law. The answer is really very simple. Starting with Exodus 20 and going through the end of Numbers is the first Mosaic Law, the law that starts those people who came out of Egypt on the road to being God’s people and living as His covenant people. But there was a forty-year-period during which God caused the first generation to die off in the wilderness; that was as a result of their disobedience. He applied those “sanctions” to His first-generation people because they did not trust Him and refused with confidence and faith to enter the Promised Land. So He allowed them to wander around for forty years while they died off in the wilderness and substituted for them their children as a new generation. That new generation needed to hear that law once again, and so they did. They heard that original law in many ways complimented, in some ways even expanded in the final statement of the law in the Book of Deuteronomy. It is not a better statement; it is not a worse statement; it is a final statement. It is a way, again, of just packaging in paradigmatic fashion the will of God for His people. What is important to appreciate is this—every generation must make its own commitment to God’s will. Children will not automatically do what the parents did. So God’s purpose is to say to the new generation, “Now you guys have got to be My covenant people. You can’t go in on the pretensions or the practices of your parents. Each separate individual, each new generation has to make its own commitment to Me, so here is My law. If you love Me you will keep My commandments.”