Lecture 5: The Law | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 5: The Law

Course: Old Testament Survey

Lecture: The Law

Will you join me in prayer please? Father, we ask again for your help. We know that our minds are often corrupted by any number of influences including the great power of our culture which teaches us that other kinds of things are important and that your word is something largely irrelevant or strange or paid attention to by people on the fringe right. We pray that you will help us to be so grateful for your word that we not merely keep it to ourselves but have great joy in passing on its truth to others using its guidance as we serve others and using its powerful, saving content that we might lead people to Christ by its employment and we thank you for a chance to come closer to those goals tonight during this time together. In Jesus name, Amen.

We are going to talk about the book of Exodus and especially about law. In describing what we have going on in the law, I want to be sure that one of the most basic features that will be helpful to you always in explaining Israelite law to others is clear now to you.

I. Two Types of Law

That is that there are two types of laws. These have fancy names. We call them Apodictic and Casuistic. This is the standard terminology for these categories. That is because if we called them simply unconditional demand and conditional example then people would say, “You don’t need a PhD for that.” We do need PhD’s to have confidence in ourselves and prestige so we use these big terms, that is all there is to it. No, in fact, these terms have become rather standard and it is good for you to learn them.

A. Apodictic law is the kind of law that we have in the Ten Commandments for example. It is not conditioned on anything. When it says, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” that is it. It does not say, “If you are between the ages of 20 and 65, have no other Gods before me,” or “If you are not otherwise worshiping,” No, it just says, “Have no other Gods before me.” It is unconditional, it is general, it is unlimited, it may be expressed in the positive or the negative but the “you shall not laws” are among the things that keep people out of trouble. If you know that people have a certain natural tendency to do the wrong thing, and if that is true as it sure is, then it makes lots of sense to give quite a number of laws in the form of prohibitions, “Don’t do that,” which might well be your natural tendency; “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” People are liberated by such things. They are protected by such things. It is not some kind of negative thing that prevents you from having fun; it is a lot like telling a child, “Don’t run into the street without looking to see if cars are coming.” You are protecting the child. It is a loving prohibition.

B. The Casuistic laws, on the other hand, are what might be called case law where an instance of something is cited. In effect, an example or sample is cited so these are conditional. These do not usually apply absolutely to everyone. They apply only when the conditions described in the law are met. They are very specific as guidelines rather than being universal. So you have a law that says, “If you knock out the tooth of a servant who works for you, that servant goes free from his seven year contract and you lose all the money you paid.” That is the way it works. If you do not have a servant that law actually does not apply to you. It applies to those people who have servants and it applies when, and only when, they knock out the tooth of one of their servants. If you do not knock out the tooth or do something comparable, similar, related to it then that is not a law that applies to you.

C. Both kinds of laws are found among the laws that we call the laws of the Pentateuch starting with Exodus 20 and going all the way through the end of Deuteronomy or nearly the end of Deuteronomy. A lot of laws are in the apodictic form. It is useful to have general, all-purpose prohibitions and general, all-purpose statements like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That covers an awful lot, it is always applicable, everybody has to do it. It is also useful for people to have particular instances laid before them. If an ox gores another ox here is how to handle the situation. You have both apodictic and casuistic and both kinds of laws give guidance to the people. Whether it is apodictic or casuistic, the instruction helps the nation as a whole know what to do. It helps the individual know what to do but also do not forget the Israelites had judges.

II. Israelite Judges

A. You can read about that in one of the important stories of the book of Exodus. If you were reading along in Exodus heading for today’s material you noticed that there was a story that really is quite an important one from the point of view of law in Exodus 18. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, visited him and he found that he was not having too much chance to have nice conversations with Moses because Moses was spending day after day judging cases for people who would come to him.

B. Moses was the legal system in ancient Israel. He was it. So, among those thousands and thousands of people when somebody said, “Hey, so and so drove his wagon over my goat kid and he refuses to compensate me,” they went to Moses and Moses would rule. Whatever the issue was. If somebody committed a crime among the Israelites, the case was brought before Moses. Moses would pronounce judgment. He was going from morning to evening and Jethro said to him, “This can’t be right.” In effect he says, “God can’t want this, this just can’t be what God wants.” So he says, “You need to take it to God and see if God approves but it seems kind of obvious to me that what you need to have is a legal system that puts you, Moses, as the Supreme Court taking all the difficult decisions, but you need to have lower courts.”

C. You need to have what we call trial courts and appellate courts and then you will be the final arbiter, the court of last resort. This God blessed and once it was undertaken it became a model ever after. You are not going to see outside of Exodus 18 any reference to that legal system. This is considered to be two chapters before the Ten Commandments something you just ought to realize that the Israelites, even before they got their whole law in terms of law code, in terms of their constitution and civil, religious, and criminal laws, they already had in place a court system, various levels of judges, to be able to enforce those laws. You are supposed to catch that and not miss it. Plenty of time was taken in the narrative to make that point. Therefore, the laws are also informative for the judge or if it is several judges, several judges. A lot of these laws as we will see give broad guidance but they do not give specific guidance. We will talk about how that works and why. If you have a legal system with judges there is not really a problem accordingly.

III. Paradigmatic Laws

The reason for that mainly is the way that law is what we call “paradigmatic”. That is a term that possibly is not known to everyone. You have to have several syllables in these words or people will not think you are a scholar. A paradigm is a sample that gives guidance.

A. In language study you learn a paradigm maybe the way a certain verb works in the first person, second person, third person and that allows you to reason by extrapolation from that particular verb to how other verbs of the same conjugation might also work. We think paradigmatically, we extrapolate all the time. This is a natural way that human beings operate. Israelite law clearly was paradigmatic. The idea was this, whether it be an apodictic law or whether it be a casuistic law it was appropriate to figure out from what is particularly said to what generally needed to happen in any particular instance.

B. Look with me at an example of a law.

1. We will turn to Exodus 21 and we will just look at a couple of examples that will give a feel for how to interpret it. In Exodus 21 you have laws that protect people. Then in Exodus 22, laws that protect property. Look at Exodus 21:33. “If somebody uncovers a pit or digs one and fails to cover it and an ox or donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit has got to pay for the loss. He must pay its owner but then dead animal becomes his.” It is as if you bought it. You have to, in effect, buy that dead animal because the person who did own it has to get a fair price for his animal. This law is paradigmatic. It gives an example of how to handle a general kind of situation. You will not find a law that describes what happens if a person digs a pit and a goat falls into it. Does that mean that if goats fell in pits people just said, “We don’t know what to do?” No, they did not have the slightest problem. The judge or the elders of a village, if they were functioning as judges, simply said, “Look, we have the general guideline. It uses ox or donkey; it does not have to use any other animal. I do not care if it is a hamster. I do not care if it is somebody’s pet beetle. I do not care if it is a camel. I do not care if it is two oxen and one chicken, does not matter. I can reason from this law that whatever it is, you just figure out what a fair price would be for an animal in that condition and age and so on and you require that guy who made a dangerous thing, that is a pit, to pay for it. Once he has paid for it he does get to keep the animals, that is only fair. It is as if he had bought them at a fair market price. That means that the person who did own them can buy another one just like it. It also is the case that nobody in ancient Israel would say, “What do we do? It was not the case of digging a pit; it was a case of building a road that went off a cliff. There is nothing in the law about that.” The judge would simply say, “We have the law about the pit and the principle of the thing, the abstract concept is that a dangerous situation was created, of any kind, whatever it is. It could be a badly designed elevator. It does not matter. This pit law is the one from which I will extrapolate.” What is interesting about this is that in many ways it is superior to modern law. Ancient law, all of them, all the ones we know about were paradigmatic like the Old Testament law. Old Testament law has a total of 613 commandments. That is it. You must reason from those 613 to the millions and millions of actual situations that might come up. In modern times we do not normally use paradigmatic law. Some societies may but, certainly, most western societies do not. So what happens? Unless there is a law against it, specifically and precisely on the books the defense attorney says my client is not guilty. Indeed the prosecutors will not even make the charge. In other words you can get off on technicalities. People do it all the time. In American law almost every state has a law about what is called burglary. Burglary is defined as breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony. That is burglary. You have to break in, you cannot walk in. If the door was already open it is not burglary. Your lawyer, first thing, will force the prosecution to prove that you broke into that building. If he could prove that you simply jumped in through the window or walked in through an open door that is not breaking and entering, and they will throw the case out because it is not burglary. If you did not enter the building but somebody threw stuff out to you, you can be a receiver of stolen goods but you cannot be convicted of burglary. You will get off. If it was not in the nighttime you will get off. The first thing the defense attorney does is to say, “Woe, when was sundown?” He goes to an almanac. “When did this happen? When did you get arrested?” It has to be with the intent to commit a felony. It cannot be with the intent just to look around the building. They have to prove that you wanted to do something that was a felony, not a misdemeanor but a felony. It has to be a serious theft of some kind. Lots of people who get charged with burglary get off every year because of a “technicality”. This could not happen in Old Testament times. Simply would not happen. The judge says, “What do you mean technicality?” in Old Testament times. “There are no technicalities here. I’m reasoning from what the law says. So if it was not quite nighttime I will reduce your penalty somewhat but you are not getting off. If it was not a felony but only a misdemeanor that you intended to commit, I will reduce the penalty somewhat but you are not getting off.” So the judges used their judgment in extrapolating from what was stated to what needed to happen. This is basically the principle of all biblical law and, as well, all biblical ethics. In the New Testament do we have every case covered? Does Jesus talk about what to do if your roommate keeps borrowing your toothpaste? Does he need to? Do you say, “Jesus doesn’t help me? My problem is that my roommate borrows my toothpaste. What do I do, it is not in the Bible? I can’t find it anywhere. The closest I can come is a verse about Beelzebub in Revelation but that is the closest.” No, with ethics, with everything, extrapolation from the paradigm is the way you operate. It is a great system. It is actually good. You have to have people who are willing to be careful and you have to have people who pray for guidance and you want to use your mind wisely to extrapolate carefully and you want to know the laws as well as you can know them in order to reason from what is stated to what needs to happen but that is the system. You did not have people being dismissed because nobody could prove a “governing legal authority, controlling legal authority” language like that. It did not happen. It really had many superior features to it. It did put a lot of power in the hands of judges. There is no question about that. It put a lot of power in the hands of the village elders if they were functioning as the judges in that local village area. It expected a lot of careful knowledge of the 613 commandments that were stated so that people could reason wisely from them.

2. Another example, this time using an apodictic law, Exodus 22:18. “Do not allow a sorceress to live.” In modern times somebody would say, “I’m not a sorceress, I’m a warlock.” Bible times, no problem because sorceress is an example, it is a paradigm and you can reason from that anybody doing the same level of severe, deceptive garbage is supposed to be put to death. Why, because you want to get mean to sorceresses? No, because the problem is sorceresses keep people from being saved. That is the problem. That is why God hates idols so much. Is he jealous? Is he petty? Does it make him feel bad? No. God is an evangelist and idols will keep you from being saved. If you believe in idols you will not trust in God and get saved. The same with sorceresses, they prevent people from keeping God’s covenant. The system of sorcery was a system of getting your information, your guidance, your standards, even to some degree your ethics from people who should not have been giving them to you so that level of deception is worth the death penalty. If the same level of deception is coming from somebody else in some other way and it is not a sorceress but a warlock or, for that matter, a rhabdomancer. A rhabdomancer is someone who takes a stick and holds it up and drops it in certain patterns and sees how it falls and judges from that how the future is to be predicted. Just as dangerous if somebody places full faith in rhabdomancy. It does not have to be a sorceress. That is how it worked in ancient Israel. As you read the law, as you teach it to others, as you deal with this in classes or Bible studies, or sermons, explain to people the paradigmatic nature of it because that will help them. We have grown up in a culture, most of us, in which there is an attempt to have exhaustive codification of law and you have thousands and thousands and thousands of laws and they are supposed to apply; huge law books and you work off of those law books constantly. In Bible times, people could really memorize the laws; it is not impossible to memorize 613 commandments, and could work from those by memory and could establish real justice. It is based upon the understanding that among the apodictic and casuistic laws, among the 613, there are a sufficient number of paradigms that a wise, honest and prayerful judge could, in fact, establish a decent level of justice among the people of Israel. That is a good thing. That is just the way it was. It is efficient, it is slim and trim, better than the newest, thinnest laptop computers, nice and thin, take it with you anywhere, you can memorize it and if properly followed was a good legal system.

From there I want to talk about what much of the book of Exodus contains and what much of it leads up to. Many people have noticed that the book of Exodus has a series of stories about the rescue of the people of Israel up to chapter 19; how the Israelites are in trouble; God shows his mighty hand by the plagues; he gets pharaoh finally to let the Israelites go; he protects the Israelites against the army of the Egyptians even after the pharaoh has second thoughts; he allows the Israelites to have miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians and to come into this place that is called Sinai and to gather there and to begin to receive His law. We have a couple of parts to Exodus. If you want to, you can think of Exodus in the same way that many, many Old and New Testament books can be thought of—that is as bifid. Let me explain that term. Some of you know it from biology; it describes plants and plant structures that have two equal parts or two complimentary parts. In biblical studies when we talk about a book being bifid, we do not mean that it has two exactly equal parts, we just mean that it is divided, it is a piece of literature that really has two major parts. Exodus is one of those. It has nineteen chapters of stories, narratives, about how the Israelites were made by God to have freedom and to come together as a people and to arrive at Mount Sinai to receive his covenant. Then it has the remaining, roughly half, it is not exactly but its remaining roughly half from chapter 20 on, devoted to receiving that covenant. Exodus is kind of two parts. Once you hit chapter 20 there are not any more stories, they are all laws of various kinds including the very extensive laws about building the tabernacle and all of the worship implements and even priests’ garments and so on, all the things related to worship. You have various laws including worship laws. In the first half of the book, “half” being roughly, you have stories of how it all happened. Many people have said that in its structure, Genesis in a kind of macro way, sort of duplicates what the covenant structure in general does. They would say that the first half of the book is mainly preamble and prologue, and the second half of the book is stipulation, sanction, witnesses, and documentation. That is just to fit the whole thing into Exodus, whether or not that is of interest to you, although I think it is very useful for preaching and teaching.