posted on Jan, 17 2014 @ 04:32 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Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.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 settling disputes and dealing with crimes.
The local court is “the elders at the gate”.
That’s where the widow goes to claim her rights- Deuteronomy ch25 vv7-10
The town gate is the normal place for any kind of legal business, for obvious reasons.
In the absence of a market-place or a temple, it’s the nearest open space.
Every man in the town will pass through it or stop to socialise; you can find your man and gather witnesses at a moment’s notice (Ruth ch4
But some cases will be beyond the skill of the elders.
So the land also needs a well-managed judicial system, to deal with problem cases and appeals.
This was neglected in the time of David, and his discontented son Absolom made political capital out of the fact;
“Absolom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate; and when any man had a suit to come before the king for judgement…Absolom would
say to him “See, your claims are good and right; but there is no man deputed by the king to hear you…Oh, that I were a judge in the land! Then
every man with a suit or a cause would come to me and I would give him justice”…So Absolom stole the hearts of the men of Israel”- 2 Samuel ch15
This was one of the prime functions of kingship; repelling invaders and responding to appeals for justice were the two ways of bringing peace to the
They are still the two most important tasks of government.
But David was a warrior, and sitting in judgement was probably not his strong point.
If he was trying to do the job without help, the work would have overwhelmed him.
Solomon is better known for his judgements, but he probably (as a really wise king) also took the advice Jethro gave to Moses;
“Choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people as rulers
of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times; every great matter they shall bring to you, but any
small matter they shall decide themselves.”- Exodus ch18 vv21-22
That’s exactly what Deuteronomy prescribes;
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns…according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement”-
Deuteronomy ch16 v18
These laws also involve the priestly class, as keepers of legal knowledge, in adjudicating the more difficult cases;
“If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right or another, or one kind of assault or
another, any case within your towns which is too difficult for you, then you shall arise… and coming to the Levitical priests, and to the judge who
is in office in those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.”
Once the decision has been given, that should settle the matter, and the dispute should be allowed to come to an end;
“You shall not turn aside from the verdict which they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left”-- Deuteronomy ch17 vv8-11
(This implies that the king has dropped out of the task of hearing appeals in person).
Once the judges are in place, the next requirement is that they should be honest;
“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts
the cause of the righteous”- Deuteronomy ch16 v19
The effect of bribery is that it favours the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor, which is why the law says;
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit”-Exodus ch23 v6
And also “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour”- Leviticus ch19 v15
The story of Naboth’s vineyard is an extreme case of this kind of corruption.
They need to judge each case, instead, in accordance with the evidence;
“A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the
evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained” Deuteronomy ch19 v15
This provision takes for granted the principle of “innocent until proved guilty”. The “burden of proof” is clearly laid upon the accuser.
So the law keeps coming back to address the problem of false testimony.
The basic principle is expressed in the ten commandments;
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”- Exodus ch20 v16
A false accusation might stem from the simple malice of personal feuds;
“You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbour; I am the Lord”
Leviticus ch19 v16
Or it might reflect a lynch-mob atmosphere, directed against an unpopular individual.
“Nor shall you bear witness in in a suit, turning aside after a multitude, so as to pervert justice”- Exodus ch23 v2.
Whatever the reason for the false testimony, it is to be punished;
“If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before
the priests and judges who are in office in those days;
The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness, and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he meant
to do to his brother”- Deuteronomy ch19 vv16-19
In other words, the false accuser will receive the same penalty that the accused person would have received, if he had been guilty as charged.
A law like that in the modern world would stop quite a few malicious claims in their tracks.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
In the first place, the point of any arbitration system is to be an alternative to settling disputes by violence.
So that speaks of a God who wants his people to live at peace among themselves.
He wants the process to be organised with some efficiency, for “justice delayed is justice denied”, as the maxim says.
What little we know of procedure suggests a care to protect the innocent, with many attempts to discourage false accusation.
So that speaks of a God who wants people to be treated justly, with proceedings based upon truth.
This is already moving towards the teaching of “love”.
If these are procedures which would have grown up naturally, or if they resemble the laws of other societies of the time, that’s instructive in
It 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.