Of the various words connoting the idea of “ordinance” mišpāṭ is an unusually rich term and merits more detailed analysis. According to KB the semantic development of the word was: umpire’s [or judge’s] decision>decision, judgment > case presented for judgment > (legal) right, claim, due > proper, fitting. BDB classifies its main usages as follows: 1. judgment; 2. attribute: justice; 3. ordinance; 4. decision (of a judge in a case of law); 5. right, due; 6. miscellaneous: custom, manner, fitness, plan, etc. There is an interesting use of the same root in Ugaritic: “He judges the case of the ‘widow,’ he adjudicates the cause of the ‘orphan’” (2 Aqhat V:7, 8; cf. Deut 10:18; Isa 1:17, 23; Jer 5:28).

In the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22-23:33) the term “judgments” or “ordinances” denotes civil, as contrasted with ritual, enactments. Again, mišpāṭîm is the word used to introduce these ordinances (Exod 21:1); thus, here it refers to “the fundamental commands of the civil law” (W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, I, 77). Actually, Israel’s laws are of two general types, casuistic (case) and apodictic. In the OT the former is characterized by the stereotyped formula, kî...’im (“If...then”), as in the Code of Hammurabi. Examples of this type are the civil laws in the Book of the Covenant. Apodictic law, which is wholly religious and moral in character is best illustrated in the Decalogue and in Deuteronomy 27:15-26. See Deuteronomy.

Numbers 15:15, 16 indicates that the same “ordinance” (mišpāṭ) is to apply to both an Israelite and a resident alien. It is likewise noteworthy that mišmeret, ḥuqqâ, miṩwâ, mišpāṭ, ’ēdût, and tôrâ all occur together in 1 Kings 2:3.

All of the above terms and references confront us with the fact that “to the men of the Old Testament God was a God of law, and a very great deal in their religion cannot be understood if this is lost sight of” (L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 253). “Among the heathen the deity was thought of as above all law, with nothing but his own desires to limit him. Accordingly his behavior was completely unpredictable, and while he made demands on his worshipers for obedience and service, there were few if any ethical implications of this service and none of a logically necessary kind. Far otherwise was it with the God of the Hebrews...Yahweh was thought of as essentially righteous in His nature, as incorporating the law of righteousness within His essential Being. Accordingly He works by a method which may be called law—He inevitably punishes evil-doing and rewards righteousness” (ibid., p. 258). The ordinances are included in the detailed particularization of that law.


BDB (1907); J. M. P. Smith, The Origin and History of Hebrew Law (1931); ISBE (1939); W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1940); W. F. Albright, “The Old Testament and Archaeology,” Old Testament Commentary (1948), 134-170; J. M. Myers, “Law in the Old Testament,” Old Testament Commentary (1948), 43-52; T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1950); L. Köhler, Old Testament Theology (1953); KB (1953); N. H. Snaith, The Distinctive of the Old Testament (1953); M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament (1954); G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (1955); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (1961); IDB (1962); C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Old Testament Use:

2. New Testament Use:

In the New Testament, "ordinance" renders different Greek words, namely,

(1) dikaioma, in Lu 1:6 and Heb 9:1,10. The word means literally, "anything declared right"; but in these passages ceremonial and religious regulation;

(2) dogma, in Eph 2:15; Col 2:14. In the New Testament this word always means a decree or edict (Ac 17:7);

(3) paradosis, in 1Co 11:2 the King James Version, the Revised Version (British and American) substitutes "traditions";

(4) ktisis, "setting up," "institution" in 1Pe 2:13. The term is used exclusively of the action of God. Peter implies that institutions, apparently human, such as the family and the state, are of divine origin. The same doctrine is found in Ro 13:1.