posted on Jan, 24 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Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.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 your neighbour’s goods and animals.
Of course the fundamental principle is declared in the ten commandments- “You shall not steal”.
You shall not even covet.
The practical application of the principle, as part of the legal code, comes In the following chapters.
Things of value would not be carried around much, so most laws are about theft from the home or stolen livestock
A man who breaks into another man’s house, in the middle of the night, will not be protected from the consequences.
If he is killed in the course of events, “there shall be no blood-guilt for him”.
This law recognises the fact that a man whose house is attacked in the hours of darkness has no practical option but to strike out blindly.
This is an emergency, and his life may be at stake.
The case is different in the hours of daylight, when the householder can see what he’s doing.
In those circumstances, when he can restrain the intruder without killing him, the intruder’s death will not be free from “bloodguilt”. Exodus
When theft has been carried out, the goods must be restored, if possible, and further compensation must be paid.
In the case of a stolen animal, the penalty is very heavy.
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep”.
(Zacchaeus, in the gospel story, was offering compensation for his frauds on the “oxen” level of the scale)
Even if the animal is recovered alive, “he shall pay double”, as compensation for the trouble caused.
I take this to mean “the original animal and one more”.
And if he cannot give restitution to these levels, because he doesn’t own enough in his own right, “then he shall be sold for his theft”. Exodus
The severity of the penalties reflects the fact that these animals are the farmer’s food-source or livelihood.
If you take away a poor man’s animal, then you undermine his means of existence.
Other laws deal with goods which are being kept in safe custody in a neighbour’s house (perhaps because the other man’s house is more secure).
If the goods go missing, there are two obvious possibilities.
The householder himself is responsible, or a third party.
If there’s a thief who can be identified, then he pays the standard penalty of “double” restitution.
Otherwise the other possibility must be tested.
“The owner of the house shall come near to God”, and if God shall “condemn” him, by showing some sign that he is the guilty party, then he
pays the double restitution himself. Exodus ch21 vv7-9
There are many examples, in the histories, of God giving answers to “Yes or no?” questions, so this would probably be by the same method.
If the property is an animal, and suffers a misadventure of some kind, then the householder need not be liable.
That is, if the animal dies or is hurt.
Or if the animal “is driven away without anyone seeing it”- in other words, it is “stolen or strayed”, but nobody knows which.
These things happen.
It will be sufficient if the householder gives his oath that he was not responsible, and the oath will be accepted.
Similarly if the animal is killed by a wild beast.
These things happen, and the householder need only prove it by producing the mangled corpse.
But if the animal is positively known to be stolen, then the householder, again, must make restitution. Exodus ch21 vv10-13
That may be because it is very difficult to escape observation while taking away a living ox or sheep.
You can’t exactly hide it under your robe.
So a stolen animal implies, at the very least, that the keepers have not been vigilant.
If you borrow an animal, to help in your ploughing, and the animal dies or is injured in the course of the work, a different set of laws applies.
Who pays for the loss?
That depends. Did you just hire the animal by itself, or the animal together with its owner?
If the owner was not present, and the animal was in your keeping, you must pay him compensation.
But if the owner himself was on the scene, the safety of the animal was his own responsibility;
“If the owner was with it, [the borrower] shall not make restitution; if it was hired, it came for its hire”- Exodus ch22 vv14-15
Apart from not stealing your neighbour’s animals, you have an obligation to help him look after them-
“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and withhold your help from them; you shall take them back to your brother.
And if he is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it;
then you shall restore it to him”.
Similarly, if your brother’s ass or ox is “fallen down by the way”, you will help to lift it up again- Deuteronomy ch22 vv1-4
What really sets this apart from the laws of other nations is the fact that the same command is given about the animals which belong to an
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him.
If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up”-
Exodus ch23 vv4-5
This shows how the “love your enemy” teaching of the gospels was truly recognising the spirit of the Old Testament.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
The principle that runs through them is respect for the property of others.
People should not suffer loss, by malice or neglect.
At the same time, the innocent man should not be punished for thefts which he did not commit or for events which were not under his control.
These are both aspects of the need for justice.
And these laws provide ways of dealing with disputes as they arise.
So they speak of a God who wants his people to live at peace with one another.
¬¬¬In fact he wants them to be actively helpful towards one another, treating strangers and even their personal enemies as their brethren.
This is already moving towards the teaching of “love”.
We should also note how the concept of “blood-guilt” shows the higher value that is attached to human life, in comparison with the value of
Wherever these laws resemble the laws of other societies of the time, that’s instructive in itself.
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.