posted on Jan, 31 2014 @ 05:01 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Which gives us a new reason for reading the collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.
Let’s take, for example, what God’s law says about your neighbour’s fields.
We get the impression, from these laws, that the fields are not marked off by clear physical boundaries.
In different parts of the world, famers have used fences, hedges, stone walls, and even ditches (in the Fens, we called them “dykes”).
Presumably the Israelites are on the kind of ground which makes all these options difficult, because people and animals are moving freely from one
property to another.
Most of the possible disputes can be traced back to that problem..
Obviously, in that situation, the first priority is to protect what boundary markers you’ve got.
If digging is difficult, and wood is in short supply, and building a dry-stone wall is too much like hard work, you can at least deposit a large stone
at the corner of your field (or allow the boundaries to be defined by a stone that’s already there).
Therefore it will be an important legal principle that boundary stones must not be moved.
“In the inheritance which you will hold in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, you shall not move your neighbour’s landmark”-
Deuteronomy ch19 v14
The principle is important enough to be included among the curses, which were to be pronounced when the people stood on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal.
The curse against “he who removes his neighbour’s landmark” is third on the list- Deuteronomy ch27 v17.
This curse is preceded only by the curses on the maker of a graven image(undermining the worship of God) and the man who dishonours his father and
mother (undermining authority and cultural tradition).
These are the offences which most seriously endanger the stability of Israelite society.
If you don’t have any physical boundaries, you can’t easily stop people moving over your property.
In fact the Pentateuch doesn’t even offer a law against “trespass”, in that sense of the word.
No Israelite farmer could put up a sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.
This was probably because, in the absence of lanes and public footpaths, a man would be obliged to cross another man’s property in order to reach
A similar situation, in the Middle Ages, gave rise to “public rights of way” all over the English countryside.
Modern campaigners have turned them into a recreational network, but they would originally have been intended for local people going about their
So they can cross your property to get access to their own, or to travel through to other places, but what happens if they start nibbling the crops
along the way?
The Law not only fails to forbid this, but even offers explicit permission.
“When you go into your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of the grapes, as many as you wish... When you go into your neighbour’s
standing corn, you may pluck the ears with your hand.”
But the Law does concern itself with keeping the practice within reasonable bounds and preventing abuse.
Therefore it adds restraints- “You may eat your fill of the grapes, but you shall not put any in your vessel…You may pluck the ears with your
hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing corn”- Deuteronomy ch23 vv24-5
When you think it over, this looks like good, practical common sense.
If people are crossing the fields at liberty, there is no practical possibility of policing the “nibbling” habit. If it can’t be prevented, it
may as well be permitted.
(The same policy is operated by modern “pick your own fruit” farms, for exactly the same reason)
Hopefully the effects would even out, in the long term, because everybody would be crossing everyone else’s field.
So when the disciples of Jesus picked ears in the cornfield (Matthew ch12 v1), they were acting perfectly legally in terms of the civil law, though
the Pharisees wanted to pull them up on the question of Sabbath observance.
But the crops might also be damaged by fire, spreading from another property, or by wandering domestic beasts.
It is simple to make provision for the first case;
“When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain on the field is consumed, he that kindled the fire
shall make full restitution” –Exodus ch22 v6
The law about wandering beasts is more complicated, because there are more things that can go wrong.
Obviously crop damage is one of the possibilities.
“When a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution
from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard”- Exodus ch22 v5
The wording implies that these are not just cases of inadequate tethering. The suggestion is that owners are letting their animals loose
deliberately, as a cheaper way of feeding them.
But the wandering beast may itself suffer injury. It might find its way onto a field where a pit has been dug, and fall into the pit. Where, then,
lies the liability?
“When a man leaves a pit open, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make it
good; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his”- Exodus ch21 v33
At first glance, there seems to be a legal inconsistency here.
The law about damaged crops lays the onus on the owner of the beast, to keep his animal secure, whereas this law ignores that assumption and lays
responsibility on the man who owns the pit.
But it’s possible to see a principle common to both laws; whichever party suffers the serious damage, from the side-effects of another man’s
action, the damage is to be mitigated, and some compensation found.
This has the effect of evening out the impact of unfortunate accidents, and helps to ensure that no-one suffers too greatly.
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
Once again, the principle that runs through them is respect for the property of others.
People should not suffer loss, by malice or neglect.
And the law seeks to promote peace, by providing solutions to contentious problems.
So that speaks of a God who wants his people to live at peace with one another.
At a later time, this can be made more explicit in the teaching of “love”.
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.