The Law of Moses

ALTOGETHER, Moses was away for six weeks in Mount Sinai. The people last saw him climbing up into the dense cloud that covered the mountain. They began to wonder why he was gone so long. In fact he was remarkably busy. He was writing down hundreds of major and minor laws from God. There are whole chapters of these commandments in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. As chief judge and administrator, he was entrusted with setting up a system for teaching them, and for courts of justice to deal with offenders.

Wise Laws

Some of the laws were concerned with ceremonial matters, such as the rules of sacrifice, the great religious festivals, and the organisation of the priesthood. This area of Bible research is fascinating, because in many subtle ways the ceremonial laws spotlighted the ugliness of sin, and pointed forward to the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ. However, it is also instructive to look at the more practical aspects of the Law of Moses, to see the way it dealt with theft, murder, duty to parents, care for the aged and all the other social interactions that cause so much trouble today. Take, for example, the subject of theft. We are perhaps used to the depressing statistics of muggings, break-ins and shoplifting in society. In some countries the authorities react ruthlessly; in others it seems the courts think more of the offender than the victim. How did the Law of Moses deal with such offences?

The treatment of this crime perfectly illustrates the wisdom of God. Firstly, if a thief was caught with the goods in his possession, he was brought before the judges, and when found guilty, obliged to restore to the owner exactly twice what he had taken from him. If he had disposed of the goods before he was apprehended, he had to pay ‘five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep’ (Exodus 22:1). The principle was restitution. ‘He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft’ (verse 3). The victim had his loss restored, with damages to compensate him for the inconvenience. Note how the Law of Moses dealt with the possibility that the thief might not be able to pay. In that case, he was to be ‘sold’. In other words, he was to enter service as a bondservant to an employer in return for his food and accommodation, but with all his wages stopped and diverted to the victim until the fine had been paid. If exact replacement was not practicable the value of the animals or property lost could be converted into money terms by the judge. Interestingly prison sentences do not feature in the Law of Moses.

One cannot help admiring the simplicity and justice of this procedure. In a small and close community, where escape from the sentence would be difficult, it was a strong deterrent for the offender and provided reassurance of recompense for the victim.

However, this was not the only section of the Law of Moses dealing with theft. In the book of Leviticus, where the rules of sacrifice are explained, provision was made for a conscience- stricken thief to put things right with his victim voluntarily. If he repented, he could go to the priest and confess his deed. Arrangements were then made for two separate events. Firstly, he had to restore the goods to the victim, plus a 20% fine, representing compensation for damages. Secondly, he had to offer a ram out of the flock to God Himself, as a sacrifice. ‘And the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven’ (Leviticus 6:7).

This point is quite fascinating. It implies that theft was not just a social matter, an injustice to the victim. It was also an offence before God Himself, which had to be put right. It was a sin, as well as a crime. To the Israelites, God was an ever- present fact of life, watching their actions and weighing their motives. They were continually exhorted that to respect their neighbour was to please God, the God of love.

A law with a ‘conscience’ section such as this could only exist in a nation trained to know and love God. The Law itself required this respect. In practice, much of the Law was taken up, not with ‘thou shalt not’, but with positive exhortations to show love, toleration and respect for others.

We might imagine that protection of racial minorities is a recent innovation. But here is what the Law of Moses decreed, over 3,000 years ago: ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ (Leviticus 19:34). The same love God had shown to Israel when they were an oppressed minority in the land of Egypt, they must show in turn to the minorities amongst them, by law!

Look at this beautiful example from the book of Exodus: ‘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 help him to Iift it up’ (Exodus 23:4–5). The same principle lay behind this decree. The Israelites themselves frequently became the enemies of God through their sins. Yet he had mercy on them.

Jesus and the Law

The first and greatest of all the commandments, the very cornerstone of the Law, was this, by Jesus’ own decree: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). That was every Israelite’s foremost duty. And Jesus added alongside it a second, which he said was like it. It is a tiny commandment from an obscure passage in Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). Whether facing a foreigner sojourning in their cities, or the man next door, or even an enemy, nothing less than the love that God Himself shows would do.

As we leave this subject, we must go to the New Testament to summarise the teaching of Jesus about the Law of Moses. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets’, he said: ‘I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). He insisted that the requirements of the Law of Moses were important for his followers. But they were not enough. He looked for an even higher standard. He gave an illustration. The Law allowed a person compensation for an injury caused by violence: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:24). It prevented the aggrieved person from taking action until the case had been examined with proper witnesses in a court of law. Compensation was Iimited to the extent of the injury that had been suffered. The victim could not, for example, kill a man in revenge for a wounding. In this way the Law prevented family feuds that could escalate and run on for decades. But Jesus insisted on a much higher standard than that. ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,’ he said, ‘turn to him the other also’ (Matthew 5:39).

The Law of Moses controlled the grosser forms of crime, and maintained peace in the nation. But in its ‘exhortation’ sections it already contained the higher standards of morality which Jesus laid upon his followers. The Law was a ‘guardian’, to use the words of the Apostle Paul (Galatians 3:24), to bring Israel to Christ. Now, in his own self-sacrifice, he was showing people that the Law had to be left behind as they progressed even higher, to the likeness of God Himself. ‘You shall not kill’ and ‘you shalt not steal’ were not to be abolished, but to be made obsolete by the love that God shows to us (Matthew 5:21-22).

David M Pearce