posted on Apr, 4 2014 @ 05:03 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Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.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 God’s law says about quarrels and fights.
It’s in the nature of things that neighbours will have disputes.
One solution is to bring them before the community, for arbitration.
Even then it’s desirable that a man should have a good stock of sons to back him up, so that “he shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his
enemies in the gate [the town meeting-place]”- Psalm 127 v5
(“You can’t talk to my dad like that!”
“Who says he can’t?”)
When the dispute comes to court, it may be found that one of the parties has behaved so badly that he needs to be punished;
“If there is a dispute between men and they come into court, and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty,
then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in
proportion to his offence”- Deuteronomy ch25 vv1-2
But since men don’t have patience, quarrels may become fights.
The likely outcome is that people will get injured, and that’s where the law comes in.
The law gives penalties according to the extent of the injury.
“When men quarrel and one strikes another with a stone or with his fist, and the man does not die but keeps his bed, then if the man rises again and
walks abroad with his staff, he that struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay him for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly
healed” Exodus ch21 vv18-19
If the injury is more permanent, then a more serious penalty is required;
“When a man causes a disfigurement to his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him. Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as
he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured” Leviticus ch24 vv19-20
Of course a fight might involve accidental injury to a third party, who happens to get in the way.
Presumably the same rules of compensation would apply.
But what if the third party is a pregnant woman, who loses her child in consequence?
“When men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows [to the woman], the one who hurt her
shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound,
stripe for stripe.” Exodus ch21 vv22-25.
Another danger of fighting in the presence of women is that the women themselves will get involved;
“When men fight with one another, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her
hands and seizes [the other man] by the private parts…”
The effects of that fighting tactic could be appalling, and so the penalty is severe;
“…then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity”. Deuteronomy ch26 vv11-12
Perhaps we should blame the loose clothing of the time for the fact that this was happening often enough to attract legal attention.
In the most severe cases, quarrelling ends in the death of one of the parties.
But that’s a big enough topic to need separate treatment.
Yet there’s one instruction in the laws which could have cut off all this quarrelling at the source;
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take
vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord” Leviticus ch19
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
Their purpose is to limit the injuries which people suffer from the violence of others, and to find ways of settling disputes, so that they do not
They speak of a God who wants neighbours to live in peace with one another.
In fact that last quoted passage is the same command which Jesus names as the second most important commandment found in the laws, the most important
of the commands dealing with human relations.
In other words, the instruction “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, the implied foundation of the Sermon on the Mount, and central to
the New Testament, is based upon the laws of the Old Testament.
Which points to the continuity between the two sets of teaching.
Admittedly, the provision of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the classic example of contrast between the Old Testament and the
teaching of Jesus, because he makes a point of challenging the dictum and offering a different view.
We should remember, though, that the gospel message and the legal code have different purposes.
The gospel message is addressed to individuals, touching their relation with God and other people.
But the law is addressing the practical problem of the way the community treats misbehaviour, so that people can live together.
Individuals can try to govern their lives by love, as Jesus demands, rooting out vengeful feelings and following the injunctions of the Sermon on the
But a community which gave instant forgiveness to every act of theft, instant forgiveness to every act of violence, and made no attempt to protect
itself against invading armies, would not long survive as a community, in the present imperfect world.
It would quickly degenerate into anarchy, the ultimate social evil.
That is why it becomes necessary to have restrictive laws, as a compromise with human “hardness of heart”.
This willingness to compromise shows God bringing change to the world in a gradual way.
To the extent that these laws resemble the laws of other societies of the time, they show 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.