posted on Mar, 14 2014 @ 06:02 PM
The social laws of the Pentateuch were not designed for the modern world,
They were clearly designed for a different kind of world, a mainly agricultural society.
But since they were published in the name of the Biblical God, they can still throw light on his nature and intentions.
Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.
Let’s take, for example, what his law says about the the family’s land.
The story in Joshua tells how the land was divided between the tribes.
In theory the various tracts of land within the tribes remain with the families who first received them.
The main threats to this intention are the possibility that male heirs might fail and the possibility of sale.
There are laws which deal with securing the inheritance for the family.
The sons of the family have the first right of inheritance (as discussed in a previous thread).
Failing sons, a man’s land will be inherited by his daughters.
But supposing they marry outsiders and take the land outside the family?
Numbers describes how the families of “the sons of Gilead” come to Moses for a ruling concerning the daughters of Zelophehad ,because they’re
concerned about this possibility.
His decision becomes a legal precedent;
“Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, so
that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers”.
In the event, all five daughters married the sons of their father’s brothers, which was probably a common outcome- Numbers ch36 vv1-12
Failing children, a man’s lands will be inherited by his widow,
This leads on to the custom known as “levirate marriage”.
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her
husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife…and the first son she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother that is dead,
that his name may not be blotted out in Israel”.
If the living brother refuses to marry the widow, then she has the right to complain to the elders of the city, and he will be put to shame-
Deuteronomy ch25 vv5-10
This was the sin of Onan, for which the Lord punished him, that he only pretended to carry out this duty; in effect, he was killing his brother’s
chance of a kind of immortality- Genesis ch38 vv7-10
So the official explanation of the custom is that it perpetuates the memory of the dead man in a line of notional descendants.
It’s easy to see, though, that it also has the effect of keeping his property within the bounds of the family.
If there’s an inheritance on offer, the “obligation” would naturally evolve into a jealously guarded right, as we see from the story of Ruth.
Other laws are designed to control the sale of land.
A man might want to sell part of his land, or he might be obliged to sell part of his land because of his debts.
But this would really be a lease, because Leviticus insists that the sale cannot be permanent.
A Jubilee is to be proclaimed, every fiftieth year (or forty-ninth year, depending on your commentator).
“In this year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to your property.”
All the land-holdings return to their previous owners, or at least to their families.
So the market value of the property is controlled by the number of years that remain before the next Jubilee, and the value of the crops that can be
grown in that time.
If the man was obliged to sell because of his debts, the land may be “redeemed” by his next of kin, the price being reduced by the number of years
that have elapsed since the sale. This would bring it back to the family more quickly.
Or the man might redeem it himself, if his fortunes recover.
Otherwise, he must wait for the Jubilee.
This is really an agricultural law, so the terms are modified for urban property- “dwelling houses within walled cities”.
In the case of city properties (apart from the cities of the Levites), the right of redemption lasts for one year only, and then the sale becomes
The cities of the Levites are central to their inheritance within Israel, so their property returns at the Jubilee in the usual way- Leviticus ch25
A later passage outlines the terms of another special case, namely the land which the owner has decided to dedicate to the Lord.
If it was part of his ancestral inheritance , he can redeem it later, but the redemption price is increased by one fifth.
And if the land is not redeemed by the time of the Jubilee, it remains with the Lord.
On the other hand, if he bought the land from someone else, he has no right to dispose of it permanently, and it returns to the original owners once
the Jubilee arrives- Leviticus ch27 vv16-25
The story of Ruth draws in both sets of laws at the same time.
Ruth herself is the widow of a childless Israelite, which brings her into the scope of the law of levirate marriage.
But the land she should have inherited from her husband and father-in-law has probably been sold because of debts, which brings it under the law of
When Ruth offers herself as wife to Boaz, he draws attention to the existence of a “nearer kinsman”, who is entitled to “first refusal” on
In the business meeting between them (Ruth ch4 vv1-6) the sage Boaz shows his understanding of psychology by explaining the situation in two
First the good news; he tells the other man that the widow Naomi is selling or has sold the lands of her husband, which gives him the opportunity to
redeem the land by re-purchase.
Then the bad news; he points out that this right of redemption goes with an obligation to marry the Moabite widow Ruth.
The other man balks at this prospect, so Boaz is allowed to marry Ruth and become an ancestor of the house of David.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
For one thing, they’re expressing his concern for the stability of the family, because they secure the land which earns the family a living, gives
them something to eat.
The law of redemption also introduces us to the concept of the “next-of-kin”, the redeemer, who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
This then prompts the reflection that the same description might be applied to God himself.
The society which generated these laws is clearly male-dominated, and in that respect it resembles other societies of the time.
So this shows us a God who deals with people as he finds them, starting with the customs they’ve got already and allowing time to improve them.
He is prepared to deal with people in ways that they can understand, before trying to lead them further.