The Development of the Earlier Old Testament Laws
[Sidenote: First the principle, and then the detailed laws]

If the canon of the New Testament had remained open as long as did that of the Old, there is little doubt that it also would have contained many laws, legal precedents, and ecclesiastical histories. From the writings of the Church Fathers and the records of the Catholic Church it is possible to conjecture what these in general would have been. The early history of Christianity illustrates the universal fact that the broad principles are first enunciated by a great prophetic leader or leaders, and that in succeeding centuries these new principles are gradually embodied in detailed laws and ceremonials. Also the principles must be accepted, partially at least, by the majority of the people before the enactments based upon them can be enforced. This important fact, stated in Old Testament terms, is that the prophet must and always does precede the lawgiver.

[Sidenote: Meaning of the Hebrew word for law]

Torah, the common Hebrew word for law, comes from a Hebrew word meaning to point out or direct. It is probably also connected with the older root signifying, to cast the sacred lot. The torah, therefore, was originally the decision, rendered in connection with specific questions of dispute, and referred to Jehovah by means of the sacred lot. Thus the early priests were also judges because they were the custodians of the divine oracle.

[Sidenote: Origin of this Hebrew belief in the divine origin of law]

Here we are able to trace, in its earliest Hebrew form, the universal belief in the divine origin of the law. In the primitive laws of Exodus xxi.-xxiii., in connection with a case of disputed responsibility for injury to property, the command is given: the cause of both parties shall come before God; he whom God shall condemn shall pay double to his neighbor (xxii.8, 9). In ancient times all cases of dispute were thus laid before God and decided by the lot or by God's representatives, usually the priests. When, in time, customs and oral laws grew up on the basis of these decisions, a similar divine origin and authority were naturally attributed to them. Individually and collectively they were designated by the same suggestive term, torah. When they were ultimately committed to writing, the legal literature bore this title. In the Hebrew text it still remains as the designation of the first group of Old Testament books which contain the bulk of Israel's laws.

[Sidenote: Its ultimate basis in fact]

A belief in the divine origin of law was held by most ancient peoples. In connection with the tablet which records the laws of Hammurabi, we have a picture of Shamash the sun-god giving the laws to the king. In the epilogue to these laws he states that by the command of Shamash, the judge supreme of heaven and earth, he has set them up that judgment may shine in the land. The statements in the Old Testament that Jehovah talked face to face with Moses or wrote the ten words with his finger on tablets of stone reflect the primitive belief which pictured God as a man with hands and voice and physical body; still they are the early concrete statement of a vital, eternal truth. Not on perishable stone, but in the minds of the ancient judges, and in the developing ethical consciousness of the Israelitish race, he inscribed the principles of which the laws are the practical expression. If he had not revealed them, there would have been no progress in the knowledge of justice and mercy. The thesis of the Old Testament, and of Hammurabi also, is fundamentally true. The vivid forms in which both expressed that thesis were admirably fitted to impress it upon the mind of early man.

[Sidenote: Method in which Hebrew law grew]

The early Israelitish theory of the origin, of law provided fully for expansion and development to meet the new and changed conditions of later periods. Whenever a new question presented itself, it could be referred to Jehovah's representatives, the priests and prophets; and their torah, or response, would forthwith become the basis for the new law. Malachi ii.6,7 clearly defines this significant element in the growth, of Israel's legal codes: the torah of truth was in the mouth of the priest... and the people should seek the torah at his mouth. Similarly Haggai commands the people to ask a torah from the priests in regard to a certain question of ceremonial cleanliness (ii, 11). Until a very late period in Israelitish history, the belief was universal that Jehovah was ever giving new decisions and laws through his priests and prophets, and therefore that the law itself was constantly being expanded and developed. This belief is in perfect accord with all historical analogies and with the testimony of the Old Testament histories and laws themselves. Not until the days of the latest editors did the tendency to project the Old Testament laws back to the beginning of Israel's history gain the ascendency and leave its impression upon the Pentateuch. Even then there was no thought of attributing the literary authorship of all of these laws to Moses. This was the work of still later Jewish tradition.

[Sidenote: Moses' relation to Israelitish law]

The earliest Old Testament narratives indicate clearly the real historical basis of the familiar later tradition, and vindicate and help us in the effort to define the title, Law of Moses. The early Ephraimite narratives describe Moses as a prophet rather than as a mere lawgiver. In Exodus xviii. they give us a vivid picture of his activity as judge. To him the people came in crowds, with their cases, to inquire of God (15). In 16, to his father-in-law Jethro, he states: whenever they have a matter of dispute they come to me, that I may decide which of the two is right, and make known the statutes of God and his decisions (toroth). Jethro then advises him to appoint reliable men, gifted with a high sense of justice, to decide minor cases, while he reserves for himself the difficult questions involving new principles. The origin and theory of Israel's early laws are vividly presented in Jethro's words to Moses in verses 19, 20: You be the people's advocate with God, and bring the cases to God, and you make known to them the statutes and the decisions, and show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.

[Sidenote: Historical basis of the tradition of Mosaic authorship]

It appears from these and other passages that Moses' traditional title as the father of Israelitish legislation is well established. As a prophet, he proclaimed certain fundamental principles that became the basis of all later codes. As a judge, he rendered decisions that soon grew into customary laws. As a leader and organizer, he laid the foundations of the later political and institutional growth of the nation. Furthermore, it is probable that he taught the people certain simple commands which became the nucleus of all later legislation. Naturally and properly, as oral laws subsequently grew up and were finally committed to writing, they were attributed to him. Later, when these laws were collected and codified, they were still designated as Mosaic, even, though the authors of these codes added many contemporary enactments to the earlier laws. Thus the traditions, as well as the theory, of Israelitish law fortunately raised no barrier against its normal growth. It was not until the late Jewish period, when the tradition became rigid and unnatural, that the rabbis, in order to establish the authority of contemporary laws, were forced to resort to the grotesque legal fictions which appear in the Talmud.

[Sidenote: Evidences that the earliest laws were oral]

The earliest Hebrew laws, like the traditions, were apparently long transmitted in oral form. The simple life of the desert and early Canaan required no written records. Custom and memory preserved all the laws that were needed. Also, as we have seen, before the Hebrews came into contact with the Canaanites and Phoenicians, they do not seem to have developed the literary art. Instead, they cast their important commands and laws into the form of pentads and decalogues. The practical aim seems to have been to aid the memory by associating a brief law with each finger of the two hands. The system was both simple and effective. It also points clearly to a period of oral rather than written transmission.

[Sidenote: The earliest Hebrew laws]

The nucleus of all Israelitish law appears to have been a simple decalogue, which gave the terms of the original covenant between Jehovah and his people, and definitely stated the obligations they must discharge if they would retain his favor. The oldest version of this decalogue is now embedded in the early Judean narrative of Exodus xxxiv. There is considerable evidence, however, that it once stood immediately after the Judean account of Jehovah's revelation of himself at Sinai, and was transposed to its present position in order to give place for the later and nobler prophetic decalogue of Exodus xx.1-17. Its antiquity and importance are also evidenced by the fact that it has received many later introductory, explanatory, and hortatory notes. Exodus xxxiy.28 preserves the memory that it originally consisted of simply ten words. The slightly variant version of these original ten words Is also found in Exodus xx.23, xxiii.12, 15, 16, 18, 29, 30. Furthermore, it probably once occupied a central position in the corresponding Northern Israelltish account of the covenant at Sinai.

[Sidenote: The oldest decalogue]

With the aid of these two different versions, that of the North and that of the South, it is possible to restore approximately the common original:

I. Thou shalt worship no other God.

II. Thou shalt make no molten gods,

III. Thou shalt observe the feast of unleaven bread.

IV. Every first-born is mine.

V. Six days shalt thou toil, but on the seventh thou shalt rest.

VI. Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks and ingathering at the end of the year,

VII. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven. VIII. The fat of my feast shall not be left until morning.

IX. The best of the first-fruits of thy land shalt thou bring to the house of Jehovah.

X. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.

[Sidenote: Its date]

These laws bear on their face the evidence of their primitive date and origin. They define religion not in the terms of life, as does the familiar prophetic decalogue of Exodus xx., but, like the old Babylonian religion, in the terms of the ritual. Loyalty to Jehovah, as the God of the nation, and fidelity to the demands of the cult is their watchword. Their antiquity and the central position they occupy in Old Testament legislation are shown further by the fact that all of them are again quoted in other codes, and most of them four or five times in the Old Testament. Three of them apply to agricultural life; but agriculture is not entirely unknown to the nomadic life of the wilderness. Possibly in their present form certain of these commands have been adapted to conditions in Canaan, but the majority reflect the earliest stages in Hebrew history. In all probability the decalogue in its original form came from Moses, as the earliest traditions assert, although comparative Semitic religion demonstrates that many of the institutions here reflected long antedated the days of the great leader.

[Sidenote: The Judgements of Exodus xxi., xxii]

Although in part contemporary, the next stage in the development of Israelitish law is represented by the civil, social, and humane decalogues in Exodus xx.28 to xxiii.19. The best preserved group is found in xxi.1 to xxii.20, and bears the title Judgments, which recalls Hammurabi's title to his code, The Judgments of Righteousness. Like this great Babylonian code, the Hebrew Judgments deal with civil and social cases, and are usually introduced by the formula, If so and so, followed by the penalty or decision to be rendered. They are evidently intended primarily for the guidance of judges. The parallels with the code of Hammurabi are many, both in theme, form, and penalty, although there is no conclusive evidence that the Hebrew borrowed directly from the older Babylonian. Undoubtedly many of the striking points of resemblance are due simply to common Semitic ideas and institutions and to the recurrence of similar questions. But on the whole, the Hebrew laws place a higher estimate on life and less on property. They reflect also a simpler type of civilization than the Babylonian.

[Sidenote: Their arrangement and contents]

When three or four obviously later additions have been removed, the Judgments are found to consist of five decalogues, each divided into two pentads which deal with different phases of the same general subject. They are as follows:

First Decalogue: The Rights of Slaves.

First Pentad: Males, Ex. xxi.2,3a, 3b, 4,5-6. Second Pentad: Females, xxi.7, 8, 9,10, 11.

Second Decalogue: Assaults.

First Pentad: Capital Offences, xxi.12, 13,14, 15, 16.

Second Pentad: Minor Offences, xxi.18-19, 20, 21, 26, 27.

Third Decalogue: Laws regarding Domestic Animals.

First Pentad: Injuries by Animals, xxi.28, 29, 30, 31, 32.

Second Pentad: Injuries to Animals, xxi.33-34, 35, 36; xxii.1,4.

Fourth Decalogue: Responsibility for Property.

First Pentad: In General, xxii.5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Second Pentad: In Cattle, xxii.10-11, 13, 14, l5a, I5b.

Fifth Decalogue: Social Purity.

First Pentad: Adultery, Deut. xxii.13-19, 20-21, 22, 23-24, 25-27.

Second Pentad: Fornication and Apostasy, Ex. xxii.16, 17, 18, 19, 20.

[Sidenote: Their date]

Many of these laws anticipate the settled agricultural conditions of Palestine. Society, however, is very simple. The decalogue and peatad form also points clearly to an early period, when the laws were transmitted orally. Many of the laws probably came from the days of the wilderness wandering, and therefore go back to the age of Moses, in some cases much earlier, as is shown by close analogies with the code of Hammurabi. Although in their present written form these oral Judgments bear the marks of the Northern Israelitish prophetic writers who have preserved them, the majority, if not all, may with confidence be assigned to the days of David and Solomon.

[Sidenote: The early humane and ceremonial laws]

The remaining verses of Exodus xx.23 to xxiii.19, contain, groups of humane and ceremonial laws. In the process of transmission they have been somewhat disarranged, but, with the aid of the fuller duplicate versions in Deuteronomy, four complete decalogues can be restored and part of a fifth. The following analysis will suggest their general character and contents:


First Decalogue: Kindness.

First Pentad: Towards Men, Ex. xxii.2la, 22-23, 25a, 25b, 26-27.

Second Pentad; Towards Animals, Ex, xxiii.4 [Deut. xxii.1], Deut. xxii.2, 3; Ex. xxiii.5

[Deut. xxii.4], Deut. xxii.6-7.

Second Decalogue: Justice.

First Pentad: Among Equals, Ex. xxiii.1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3.

Second Pentad: On the Part of those in Authority, xxiii, 6, 7a, 7b, 7c, 8.

Third Decalogue: Duties to God.

First Pentad: Worship, Ex. xx.23a, 23b, 24, 25, 26.

Second Pentad: Loyalty, Ex. xxii.28, 29a, 29b, 30, 31.

Fourth Decalogue: Sacred Seasons.

First Pentad: Command to Observe them, xxiii.10-11, 12, l5a, 16a, 16b.

Second Pentad: Method of Observing them, xxiii, 17, 18a, 18b, 19a, 19b.

[Sidenote: Period represented by the primitive codes]

Here the primitive ceremonial decalogue has been expanded into the third and fourth group given above. Like the Judgments, these decalogues bear testimony to their northern origin, and probably they also have had much the same history, although their relation to the primitive decalogue and the fact that they are prefixed and added to the solid group of Judgments, would seem to indicate that they were somewhat later. These two collections, together with their older prototype, the ancient decalogue, represent the growth of Israel's laws during the four centuries beginning with Moses and extending to about 800 B. C. To distinguish them from later collections they may be designated as the Primitive Codes.

[Sidenote: The need for new laws]

The eighth and seventh centuries before Christ which brought to the Hebrews great crises and revolutionary changes in both their political and religious life, witnessed the epoch-making work of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. This remarkable group of prophets proclaimed so many new principles that a fundamental revision and expansion of Israel's primitive codes became necessary in order to adapt the latter to the new needs of the age. The reactionary reign of Manasseh had also brought out plainly the contrast between the older heathen cults, still cherished by the people, and the exalted ideals of the true prophets. If the prophetic teachings were to become operative in the life of the nation, it was also seen that they must be expressed in concrete legal enactments, which could be universally understood and definitely enforced.

[Sidenote: Application of prophetic principles in the life of the people]

Accordingly, a group of prophets, disciples of the older masters, and inspired by the spirit of reform, devoted themselves to this all-important task. The results of their work are represented by the prophetic law-book of Deuteronomy. Through its pages glow the new ethical teachings of the prophets of the Assyrian period. The elements of Hosea's doctrine, love to God and love to men and kindness to the needy and oppressed, in their new setting and application, make it one of the evangels of the Old Testament. Its lofty standards of justice and social responsibility reflect the impassioned addresses of Amos and Hosea. Since the new laws, as a whole, represented the practical application of the messages of the prophets to life, they were justly and appropriately placed in the mouth of Moses, the real and traditional head of the nation and of the prophetic order.

[Sidenote: Relation to the older laws]

A comparison of this prophetic law-book with the older primitive laws shows that the latter were made the basis of the new codes, since most of them, in revised form, are also found in Deuteronomy. The prophetic lawmakers, however, in the same spirit that actuated Jesus in his attitude toward the ancient law, freely modified, supplemented, and in some cases substituted for the primitive enactments, laws that more perfectly embodied the later revelation.

[Sidenote: Promulgation and date of the prophetic codes]

The nature of the reforms instituted by Josiah, according to II Kings xxii., clearly prove that the laws which inspired them were those of Deuteronomy, and that this was the law-book discovered in the temple by Hilkiah the priest and publicly read and promulgated by the king in 621 B.C. Originally it was probably prepared by the prophetic reformers as a basis for their work; but it incorporates not only most of the primitive codes, but also many other ancient laws and groups of laws, some doubtless coming from the earliest periods of Israel's history. It also appears to have been further supplemented after the reformation of Josiah. In general it represents the second great stage in Old Testament law, as it rapidly developed between 800 and 600 B.C. under the inspiring preaching of the remarkable prophets of the Assyrian period.

[Sidenote: Their historical and permanent value]

These laws represent, in many ways, the high-water mark of Old Testament legislation. Every effort is made to eliminate that which experience had proved to be imperfect in the older laws and customs. The chief aim is to protect the rights of the wronged and dependent. The appeal throughout is not to the fear of punishment -- in a large number of laws no penalty is suggested -- but to the individual conscience. Not merely formal worship is demanded, but a love to God so personal that it dominates the individual heart and soul and finds expression through energies completely devoted to his service. These laws required strict justice, but more than that, mercy and practical charity toward the weak and needy and afflicted. Even the toiling ox and the helpless mother-bird and her young are not beyond the kin of these wonderful laws. Under their benign influence the divine principles of the prophets began to mould directly the character and life of the Israelitish race. The man who lives in accord with their spirit and injunctions to-day finds himself on the straight and narrow way, hallowed by the feet of the Master.

vii the history of the
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