The Law In Its Form And Substance—Its More Essential Characteristics—And The Relation Of One Part Of Its Contents To Another.
IN this particular part of our inquiry, there is much that might be taken for granted as familiarly known and generally admitted, were it not that much also is often ignored, or grievously misrepresented; and that, for a correct view of the whole, not a little depends on a proper understanding of the spirit as well as formal contents of the law, of its historical setting, and the right adjustment of its several parts. If, in these respects, we can here present little more than an outline, it must still be such as shall embrace the more distinctive features of the subject, and clear the ground for future statements and discussions.
I. We naturally look first to the DECALOGUE—the ten words, as they are usually termed in the Pentateuch, which stand most prominently out in the Mosaic legislation, as being not only the first in order, and in themselves a regularly constructed whole, but the part which is represented as having been spoken directly from Heaven in the audience of all the people, amid the most striking indications of the Divine presence and glory—the part, moreover, which was engraven by God on the mount, on two tablets of stone the only part so engraven—and, in this enduring form, the sole contents of that sacred chest or ark which became the centre of the whole of the religious institutions of Judaism—the symbolical basis of God’s throne in Israel. Such varied marks of distinction, there can be no reasonable doubt, were intended to secure for this portion of the Sinaitic revelation the place of pre-eminent importance, to render it emphatically THE LAW, to which subsequent enactments stood in a dependent or auxiliary relation.
1. And in considering it, there is first to be noted the aspect in which the great Lawgiver here presents Himself to His people: ‘I am Jehovah thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ The words are merely a resumption of what had been shortly before, and somewhat more fully, declared in the first message delivered from Sinai; they give, in a compendious form, the Gospel of the covenant of promise. Jehovah, the unchangeable and eternal, the great I AM; this alone, had it been all, was a lofty idea for men who had been so long enveloped in the murky atmosphere of idolatry; and if deeply impressed upon their hearts, and made a pervading element in their religion and polity, would have nobly elevated the seed of Israel above all the nations then existing on the earth. But there is more a great deal than this in the personal announcement which introduces the ten fundamental precepts; it is that same glorious and unchangeable Being coming near to Israel in the character of their redeeming God, and by the very title, with the incontestable fact on which it rested, pledging His faithful love and sufficiency for all future time, to protect them from evil or bring them salvation. (Exo_15:26.) So that, in coming forth in such a character to declare the law that was henceforth to bind their consciences and regulate their procedure alike toward Himself and toward one another, there was embodied the all-important and salutary principle, that redemption carries in its bosom a conformity to the Divine order, and that only when the soul responds to the righteousness of Heaven is the work of deliverance complete.
The view now given received important confirmation in the course of the historical transactions which immediately ensued. The people who had heard with solemn awe the voice which spake to them from Sinai, and undertook to observe and do what was commanded, soon shewed how far they were from having imbibed the spirit of the revelation made to them, how far especially from having attained to right thoughts of God, by turning back in their hearts to Egypt, and during the temporary absence of Moses on the mount, prevailing upon Aaron to make a golden calf as the object of their worship. The sensual orgies of this false worship were suddenly arrested by the re-appearance of Moses upon the scene; while Moses himself, in the grief and indignation of the moment, cast from him the two tables of the law, and broke them at the foot of the mount (Exo_32:19.)—an expressive emblem of that moral breach which the sin of the people had made between them and God. The breach, however, was again healed, and the covenant re-established; but before the fundamental words of the covenant were written afresh on tables of stone, the Lord gave to Moses, and through him to the people, a further revelation of His name, that the broken relationship might be renewed under clearer convictions of the gracious and loving-nature of Him whose yoke of service it called them to bear. Even Moses betrayed his need of some additional insight in this respect, by requesting that God would shew him His glory; though, as may seem from the response made to it, he appears to have had too much in his eye some external form of manifestation. Waiving, however, what may have been partial or defective in the request at least, no farther meeting it than by presenting to the view of Moses what, perhaps, we may call a glimpse of the incarnation in a cleft of the rock—the Lord did reveal His more essential glory—revealed it by such a proclamation of His name as disclosed all His goodness. (Exo_33:19; Exo_34:6-7.) ‘The Lord,’ it is said, ‘passed by before Moses, and proclaimed, Jehovah, Jehovah God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.’ This emphatic proclamation of the Divine name, or description of the character in which God wished to be known by His people, is in principle the same with that which heads the ten words; but it is of greater compass, and remarkable chiefly for the copious and prominent exhibition it gives of the gracious, tender, and benignant character of God, as the Redeemer of Israel, that they might know how thoroughly they could trust in His goodness, and what ample encouragement they had to serve Him. It intimates, indeed, that justice could not forego its claims, that obstinate transgressors should meet their desert, but gives this only the subordinate and secondary place, while grace occupies the foreground. Was this, we ask, to act like One, who was more anxious to inspire terror, than win affection from men? Did it seem as if He would have His revelation of law associated in their minds with the demands of a rigid service, such as only an imperious sense of duty, or a dread of consequences, might constrain them to render? Assuredly not; and we know that the words of the memorial-name, which He so closely linked with the restored tables of the law, did take an abiding hold of the more earnest and thoughtful spirits of the nation, and ever and anon, amid the seasons of greatest darkness and despondency, came up with a joyous and re-assuring effect into their hearts. (Psa_86:5; Psa_86:15; Psa_103:8; Psa_145:8; Joe_2:13; Jon_4:2; Neh_9:17.) So that, whatever of awful grandeur and majesty attended the revelation of the law from Sinai, as uttered amid thrilling sounds and sights that flashed amazement on the eyes of the beholders, it still had its foundation in love, and came from God expressly in the character of their most gracious and faithful Redeemer, as well as their righteous Lord.
2. Yet—and here is a second point to be noted—it did not the less on that account assume—being a revelation of law in form as well as substance, it could not but assume a predominantly stringent and imperative character. The humane and loving spirit in which it opens, is not, indeed, absent from the body of its enactments, though, for the most part, formally disguised; but even in form it reappears more than once—especially in the assurance of mercy to the thousands who should love God and keep His commandments, and the promise of long continuance on the land of rest and blessing, associated respectively with the second and the fifth precepts of the law. But these are only, as it were, the relieving clauses of the code—reminiscences of the grace and loving-kindness which had been pledged by the Lawgiver, and might be surely counted on by those who were willing to yield themselves to His service: the law itself, in every one of the obligations it imposes, takes (as we have said) the imperative form—‘Thou shalt do this,’ ‘Thou shalt not do that;’ and this just because it is law, and must leave no doubt that the course it prescribes is the one that ought to be taken, and must be taken, by every one who is in a sound moral condition. This is the case equally whether the precepts run in the positive or the negative form. For, as justly stated by a moralist formerly quoted, (Wuttke, ‘Handbuch. tier Christlichen Sittenlehre,’ I. p. 385.) ‘Since morality rests upon freedom of choice, and this again consists in the fact, that under several modes of action that are possible, a particular one is chosen through one’s own independent exercise of will, every moral act is at the same time also a refraining from a contrary mode of action that might have been taken. The moral law is hence always double-sided; it is at once command and prohibition; nor can it make any essential difference, whether the law comes forth in the one or the other form; and as the moral life of man is a continuous one, he must every moment be fulfilling a Divine law; a mere abstaining would be a disowning of the moral.’ No peculiar learning or profound reach of thought is required to understand this; it must commend itself to every intelligent and serious mind; for if, in respect to those precepts which take the negative form of prohibitions, the mere omitting to do the thing forbidden were all that is enjoined, there would be nothing properly moral in the matter—the command might be fulfilled by the simple absence of moral action, by mere inactivity, which in the moral sphere is but another name for death. Hence it has ever been the maxim of all judicious and thoughtful commentators on the law of the two tables, that when evil is forbidden, the opposite good is to be understood as enjoined; just as, on the other side, when a duty is commanded, everything contrary to it is virtually forbidden. Thus Calvin, after substantially affirming the principle now stated, referring to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ repudiates the idea that it is to be regarded merely as an injunction to abstain from all injury, or wish to inflict it. (‘Institutes,’ B. II. c. 8, sec. 9.) ‘I hold (he says) that it means besides, that we are to aid our neighbour’s life by every means in our power.’ And he proves it thus: ‘God forbids us to injure or hurt a brother, because He would have his life to be dear and precious to us; and therefore when He so forbids, He at the same time demands all the offices of charity which can contribute to his preservation.’ So also Luther, who, under the same precept, considers all indeed forbidden that might lead to murder, but holds this also to be included, that ‘we must help our neighbour and assist him in all his bodily troubles.’ Higher than both, our Lord Himself brings out the principle strongly in His exposition of that and of other precepts of the Decalogue in His sermon on the mount; as again also in reference to the prohibition regarding work on the Sabbath, when taken as an excuse for refusing to administer help to a brother’s necessities, by asking, ‘Is it lawful on the sabbath-days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?’ (Luk_6:9.)—which plainly involves the principle, that mere negatives in matters of moral obligation have the force of positives; that to reject virtue is to choose vice; that not to do the good we can is to consent to the evil we allow; to let a life we might have saved perish, is to be guilty of another’s death.
On this ground, which has its justification in the very nature of things, there can manifestly be no adequate knowledge of this revelation of law, or proper exhibition of its real nature and place in the Divine economy, without perceiving its relation, as well in those who received as in Him who gave it, to the great principle of love. Apart from this, it had been a body without a soul, a call to obedience without the slightest chance of a response; for aiming, as the law did, at securing a conformity in moral purpose and character between a redeeming God and a redeemed people, not one of its precepts could reach the desired fulfilment, unless the love which had exhibited itself as the governing principle in the one should find in the other a corresponding love, which might be roused and guided into proper action. Hence, as if to make this unmistakeably plain, no sooner had Moses given a rehearsal of the Decalogue in the book of Deuteronomy, than he proclaimed aloud the memorable words: ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might:’ (Deu_6:4-5.)—which our Lord declared to be the first and great commandment, (Mat_22:40.) and He added another, which He pronounced the second and like to it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’—the same also which centuries before had issued from the lips of Moses. (Lev_19:18.) ‘On these two commandments,’ He further declared, ‘hang all the law and the prophets.’ The apostles also freely interchange the precept of love with the commands of the Decalogue, as mutually explanatory of each other. (Rom_13:9-10; Jas_2:8-11.) And thus, in part at least, may be explained the negative form of the ten commandments. They assume throughout the known existence of a positive; and that, primarily, in the moral nature of man, as the image (though marred) of the Divine—without which, latent but living in the bosom, they had been incapable of awakening any response, or creating the slightest sense of obligation. Yet not in that alone does the law assume the existence of a positive, but also in the revealed character of God, as recognised and exhibited in the law itself. There Israel, as the redeemed of Jehovah, had ever before them the perfection of excellence, which they were bound to aim at, and for the sake of which—lest they should lose sight of it, or think little of the obligation—they had their path fenced and guarded by those prohibitions of law, on the right hand and the left. Still, the negative is doubtless in itself the lower form of command; and when so largely employed as it is in the Decalogue, it must be regarded as contemplating and striving to meet the strong current of evil that runs in the human heart. This may not improperly be deemed the main reason—only not the exclusive one, since even in paradise a negative form was given to the command which served as the peculiar test of love.
3. Viewing the law thus, as essentially the law of love, which it seeks to guard and protect, as well as to evoke and direct, let us glance briefly at the details, that we may see how entirely these accord, alike in their nature and their orderly arrangement, with the general idea, and provide for its proper exemplification. As love has unspeakably its grandest object in God, so precedence is justly given to what directly concerns Him—implying also that religion is the basis of morality, that the right adjustment of men’s relation to God tends to ensure the proper maintenance of their relations one to another. God, therefore, must hold the supreme place in their regard, must receive the homage of their love and obedience:—and this in regard to His being, His worship, His name, and His day. He is the one living God—therefore no others must be set up in His presence; He alone must have the place of Deity (the first). Spiritual in His own nature, His worship also must be spiritual—therefore no idol-forms are to appear in His service, for none such can adequately represent Him; they would but degrade men’s notions concerning Him, virtually change His truth into a lie (second). His name is the expression of whatever is pure, holy, and good—therefore it must be lifted up to nothing that is vain, associated with nothing false, corrupt, wicked, or profane, but only with words and deeds which breathe its spirit and reflect its glory (third). The day, too, which He has specially consecrated for Himself, being the signature of His holiness on time and labour—the check He lays upon human activity as naturally tending to work only for self, His ever-recurring call in providence on men to work so as to be again perpetually entering into His rest—this day, therefore, must be kept apart from servile labour, withdrawn from the interests of the flesh, and hallowed to God (fourth).
The next command may also be taken in the same connection a step further in the same line, since earthly parents are in a peculiar sense God’s representatives among men, those whom He invests with a measure of His own authority, as standing for a time in His stead to those whom instrumentally they have brought into being, and whom they should train for His service and glory—these, therefore, must be honoured with all dutiful and ready obedience, that the hearts of the fathers may in turn become the hearts of the children. This, however, touches on the second division of moral duty, that which concerns men’s relation to each other; and according to the particular aspect in which it is contemplated, the fifth command may be assigned to the first or to the second table of the law. Scripture itself makes no formal division. Though it speaks frequently enough of two tables, it nowhere indicates where the one terminates and the other begins—purposely, perhaps, to teach us that the distinction is not to be very sharply drawn, and that the contents of the one gradually approximate and at last pass over into the other. Already, in the fourth commandment, distinct reference is made to persons in the humbler ranks of life, and a kind consideration is required to be had of them—though still the primary aim and aspect of the command bore upon interests in which all were alike concerned. In like manner with the fifth: what it directly enjoins is certainly such love and regard as is due from one human being to another; and yet the relation involved is not that exactly of neighbour to neighbour, but rather of wards under persons bearing Heaven’s delegated trust and authority; so that in the honouring of these God Himself receives somewhat of the homage due to Him, and they who render it, as the apostle says, ‘shew piety at home.’ (1:Tim. 5:4.) With the sixth command, however—the first of the second five—we are brought to what most distinctly relates to the human sphere, and to the exercise of that love, which may in the strictest sense be called love to one’s neighbours. These the law enjoins us not to injure, but to protect and cherish, in regard to their life; then, to what next to life should be dearest to them, the chastity and honour of wife or daughter, to their property, to their character and position in life. In respect to one and all of these, the imperative obligation imposed is, that we do our neighbour no harm by the false testimony of our tongues, or the violence of our hands, or any course of procedure that is fitted to tell injuriously upon what he has and loves. And, finally, to shew that neither tongue, nor hands, nor any other member of our body, or any means and opportunities at our command—that not these alone are laid under contribution to this principle of love, but the seat also and fountain of all desire, all purpose and action—the Decalogue closes with the precept which forbids us to lust after or covet wife, house, possessions, anything whatever that is our neighbour’s—a precept which reaches to the inmost thoughts and intents of the heart, and requires that all even there should be under the control of a love which thinketh no evil, which abhors the very thought of adding to one’s own heritage of good by wrongfully infringing on what is another’s.
Viewed thus as enshrining the great principle of love, and in a series of commands chalking out the courses of righteous action it was to follow, of unrighteous action it was to shun, the law of the two tables may justly be pronounced unique—so compact in form, so orderly in arrangement, so comprehensive in range, so free from everything narrow and punctilious—altogether the fitting reflex of the character of the Supremely Pure and Good in His relation to the members of His earthly kingdom. It is emphatically a revelation of God—of God generally, indeed, as the moral Governor of the world, but more peculiarly as the Redeemer of Israel; and to lower it to the position of a kind of semi-political and religious code, were to deprive it of all that is most distinctive in its spirit and bearing, and render utterly inexplicable the singular prominence assigned it, not alone in the legislation of the old covenant, but in the Scriptures generally alike of the Old and the New. (Those who will calmly reflect on the statements advanced in the preceding pages will not, I think, be much moved by the extraordinary assertions in the following passage: ‘What is termed the moral law is certainly in no way to be peculiarly identified with the Decalogue, as some have strangely imagined [some indeed!] Though moral duties are specially enjoined in many places of the Law, yet the Decalogue most assuredly does not contain all moral duties, even by remote implication, and on the widest construction. It totally omits many such, as, e.g., beneficence, truth, justice, temperance, control of temper, and others; and some moral precepts omitted here are introduced in other places. But many moral duties are hardly recognised, e.g., it is difficult to find any positive prohibition of drunkenness in the Law. In one passage only an indirect censure seems to be implied (Deu_29:19).’* As if God’s grand summary of moral law might be expected to run in the style of an act of Parliament, and go into endless specifications of the precise kinds and forms of wickedness which would constitute breaches of its enactments! Such cumbrous details would have been unsuited to its design, and marred rather than aided its practical effect. What was needed was a brief but comprehensive series of precepts, which for thoughtful and considerate minds would be found to embrace the wide range of duty, and, if honestly complied with, would render acts of ungodliness and crime practically unknown. And this is what the Decalogue really contains. That any one who sincerely opens his heart to the reception of its great principles of truth and duty, and lives in the loving connection it implies with God and his fellow-men, should deem himself otherwise than bound to practise justice, temperance, beneficence, and truth, it is impossible to conceive. And the same substantially may be said of another alleged omission—the moral obligation of missions. For, how could any one entering into the spirit of the revelation of law, and believing the practical acknowledgment of its great principles of truth and righteousness to be the essential condition of all true peace and well-being, fail to recognise it as his duty to do what he could to bring others acquainted with them? The very position and calling of Israel partook of a missionary character: it had for its grand aim the communication of the peculiar blessing of the covenant to all nations; and the missionary spirit breathed in such passages as Psalms 67, 72, 98; Isaiah , 2, 49, 60, etc., is but an expression of the love, in its higher exercise, which, as members alike of the covenant of law and the covenant of promise, the people of God were bound, as they had opportunity, to manifest.—For some points of a formal kind connected with the Decalogue, see Supplementary Dissertation, No. I. * Baden Powell’s ‘Christianity without Judaism,’ p. 104. )
II. Subordinate to this grand revelation of moral law, yet closely related to it, is what has usually been called the judicial law of the Theocracy though this is too limited a term for what must be comprised under it. A more fitting designation would be, Statutory directions and enactments for the practical ordering of affairs amid the complicated relations and often untoward events of life.
The law, strictly so called, being the absolute expression of the Divine will toward a people redeemed for the Divine service and glory, was necessarily oblivious of difficulties and defects; it peremptorily required conformity with its own perfect ideal of rectitude, and made no account of any deviation from this, except to warn against and condemn it. But in the circumstances in which mankind generally, and the Israelites in particular, actually stood, such conformity could never be more than partially realized; transactions, interests, would be sure to come up, which might render it doubtful even to sincere men how to apply, or how far to carry out, the precepts of the Decalogue; and, what was likely to be of much more frequent occurrence, wayward and selfish men would take occasion to traverse the pure and comely order, which it was the design of those precepts to establish among the covenant people. In the event of such things arising, how was the external polity to be regulated and maintained? What modes of procedure in definite circumstances should be held in accordance with its spirit? What, as between one member of the community and another, might be tolerated, though falling somewhat below the Divine code of requirements? What, again, calling for excision, as too flagrantly opposed to it to consist with the very being of the commonwealth?
It was to provide some sort of answer to these questions that the statutory directions and enactments now under consideration were introduced. They are called, in the first mention that is made of them, the mishpatim, (Exo_21:1.) the statutes or judgments, because bearing that character in relation to the ten commandments going immediately before. A series of particular cases is supposed—by way of example and illustration, of course, not as if exhausting the entire category of possible occurrences—and, in connection with them, instructions are given as to what may or should be done, so as to preserve the spirit of the constitution, and to restrain and regulate, without unduly cramping, the liberty of the people. Indeed, the range which is allowed through the whole class of provisions now in question, for the exercise of individual liberty in official and even social arrangements, is one of the most noticeable points connected with them. In civil and economical respects, the people were left in great measure to shape their domestic institutions, and model their administrative polity as they thought fit. There were to be judges to determine in matters of dispute between man and man, and to maintain the fundamental laws of the kingdom; but how these judges were to be appointed, or what their relative places and spheres of jurisdiction, nothing is prescribed. A regular gradation of officers was introduced by Moses shortly before the giving of the law; (Exo_18:2.) but this was done at the suggestion of Jethro, as a merely prudential arrangement, and, for any thing that appears, was in that specific form confined to the wilderness-sojourn. Neither the time, nor the mode of its introduction, brings it properly within the circle of legal appointments. Even when, at a later period, the supposition is made of the general government assuming a kingly form, it is spoken of as a thing to be left to the people’s own choice, restricted only by such rules and limitations regarding the mode of election, and the future conduct of the king, as would render the appointment compatible with the Theocratic constitution. (Deu_17:14-20.) And a similar reserve was maintained in respect to whatever did not come distinctly within the province of religion and morals; the people stood, in regard to it, much on the same platform as the other nations of the earth. And these, we know, were still in a comparatively imperfect state of order and civilization: education and learning in the modern sense were unknown, the arts and conveniences of life in their infancy, the civil rights of the different classes of society little understood, and usages of various kinds prevailing which partook of the rudeness of the times. It was in such a state of things that the kingdom of God, with its formal revelation of law, was set up in Israel; and while that revelation, in so far as it met with due consideration and was honestly applied, could not fail to operate with effect in elevating the tone and habits of society even in the strictly temporal and earthly sphere, yet, we must remember, it only indirectly bore upon this, and had to make its way amid much that was out of course, and that could only admit of a gradual amelioration. Here, too, unless violence were to be done to the natural course of development, and a mechanical order made to supersede the free action of mind, the principle of progression must have had scope given it to work, and consequently, in the actual administration of the affairs of the kingdom, not always what was absolutely the best, but only the best practicable in the circumstances, was to be authoritatively enjoined. If only contemplated thus from a right point of view, the things sometimes excepted against in this part of the Mosaic legislation would be seen to admit of a just defence or reasonable explanation.
1. But to take the points connected with it in order. A considerable portion of the statutes and judgments are, as we have said, a simple application of the great principles of the Decalogue to particular cases, intended at once to explain and confirm them. That in its general spirit and tenor the Decalogue is an embodiment of love —in its second part of brotherly love, extending through the entire circle of one’s thoughts, words, and deeds—might be conceded. But must it be exercised in every case? even toward one from whom injury has been received? If we think he has. acted to us unjustly, may not we in turn take our revenge? No; the judicial reply is a neighbour, though an enemy, in trouble, as when his ass or his ox strays, or his ass has fallen helplessly under a burden, ought to receive our help. (Exo_23:4-5.) So that the action of love enjoined in the command must not be thought to depend on the mere accidents of one’s position; and in the most untoward circumstances, in respect even to an enemy, must shew itself in the positive as well as the negative form. Revenge is strictly excluded, and love to every brother or neighbour enforced; (Lev_19:18.) nor in words merely, but also in giving to him in his time of need without usury, and imitating toward him the Divine beneficence. (Exo_22:25-27.) Other statutes in the same line cut off the excuse, which some might be ready to offer, that the injury sustained by their neighbour had been done by a mere act of inadvertence or rashness on their part (as by kindling a fire, which spread into another’s vineyard, or by keeping open a pit into which his ox fell); (Exo_22:5; Exo_21:33.) done, perhaps, in a sudden outburst of passion, (Exo_21:22-27.) or through the vicious propensities of their cattle; (Exo_21:28-36.) for such things also men were held responsible, because failing to do within their proper domain the kind and considerate part of love to those around them. But then it was possible some might be disposed occasionally to press the matter too far, and hold a man equally responsible for any violence done by him to the life or property of another, whether done from sheer carelessness, from heedless impetuosity, or from deliberate malice. Here, again, the statutory enactments come in with their wise and discriminating judgments—distinguishing, for example, between death inflicted unwittingly, or in self-defence, or in the attempt to arrest a burglary, and murder perpetrated in cool blood. (Exo_21:12-14; Exo_22:2.) Thus there is delivered to us, for a principle of interpretation and personal guidance, that the law under any particular head is violated or fulfilled, not by the bare act anyhow performed, but by the act taken in connection with the circumstances, especially the feeling and intent of the heart, under which it has been done. Once more, the question might be stirred by some in a perverse, by others in a partial or prejudiced spirit, whether the law should be understood as applying to all with absolute equality? whether an exemption more or less might not be allowed, at least to persons in what might be called the extremes of social position? Here, also, the decision is given with sufficient plainness, when it is ordained that the poor man was neither to have his judgment wrested, nor be unduly countenanced in his cause, from respect to his poverty; that even the friend less stranger was to be treated with kindness and equity; and that the rich and powerful were not to be allowed to use their resources for the purpose of gaining an advantage to which they were not entitled. (Exo_23:2-3; Exo_23:6; Exo_23:9; Deu_1:17; Deu_19:7-19.)
2. It thus appears that the class of enactments referred to have an abiding value, as they serve materially to throw light on the import and bearing of the Decalogue, confirming the views already given of its spiritual and comprehensive character. Another class, which, like the preceding, involve no difficulty of interpretation, also reflect, in a somewhat different way, a measure of light on the Decalogue, viz., by the judicial treatment they award to the more flagrant violation of its precepts. The deeds which were of this description had all the penalty of death attached to them—shewing that the precepts they violated were of a fundamental character, and entered as essential principles into the constitution of the Theocracy. Such was the doom suspended over the introduction of false gods, in violation of the first command, (Exo_22:20; Deu_13:9-10.) to which also belong all the statutes about witchcraft, divination, and necromancing, which involved the paying of homage to another object of worship than Jehovah; over the worshipping of God by idols, in violation of the second command; (Exodus 32; Deu_4:25-28.) over the profanation of God’s name, in violation of the third; (Exo_20:7; Lev_24:16.) over the deliberate profanation of the Sabbath, in violation of the fourth; (Exo_31:14-15; Num_15:35.) over shameful dishonour and violence done to parents, in violation of the fifth; (Exo_21:15-17.) over murder, adultery, bestiality, men-stealing, and the more extreme cases of oppression, violence, and false witness-bearing, in violation of the successive commands of the second table. (Exo_21:12; Lev_24:17; Lev_20:10; Exo_22:19; Exo_22:22-24; Deu_19:21.) Why the breaches of these great precepts of the Decalogue should have been met so uniformly with the severity of capital punishment, is to be accounted for by the nature of the kingdom set up in Israel, which was a theocracy, having God for its supreme Lawgiver and Head, and for its subjects a people bearing His name and occupying His land. How completely would the great end of such an institution have been frustrated, if the holiness to which the people were called had been outraged, and the sins which ran counter to it openly practised? To act thus had been to traverse the fundamental laws of the kingdom, nay, to manifest an unmistakeable hatred to its Divine Head, and could no more be tolerated there than overt treason in an earthly government. The law, therefore, righteously laid the sin of deliberate transgression on the head of the sinner as guilt, which could only be taken away by the punishment of him who committed it. (See Weber, ‘Von Zorne Gottes,’ p. 142.) If this should be deemed excessive severity, it can only be because the right is virtually denied on the part of God to establish a Theocracy among men in conformity with His own revealed character, and for the manifestation of His name. That right, however, is assumed as the ground on which the whole legislation of Sinai proceeds; and if the penal enactments of the Theocracy are to be rightly interpreted, they must be placed in immediate connection with the authority and honour of God. In respect to all judicial action, when properly administered, the judgment, though administered by man, was held to be the Lord’s. (Deu_1:17.) To bring a matter up for judgment was represented as bringing it to God (so the rendering should be in Exo_22:8-9, not ‘the judges,’ as in the English version); and persons standing before the priests and the judges to have sentence pronounced upon them, were said to stand before the Lord. (Deu_19:17.) If the judges and the judged realized this to be their position, would there have been any just ground to complain of undue severity? Would there not rather have been diffused throughout the community a deep sense of the Divine righteousness, and an earnest striving to have its claims and penalties enforced, as the indispensable pre-requisite of peace and blessing? (Human theories of jurisprudence often entirely repudiate the relation here implied of sin or crime to punishment. The maxim of Seneca (nemo prudens punit, quia peccatum est, sed ne peccetur; revocari enim praeterrita non possunt, futura prohibentur), which abjures the thought of inflicting punishment, except as a check or means of prevention against its future commission, has found not a few defenders in recent times, though more in Germany than here. Yet there also some of the profoundest thinkers have given it their decided opposition. Hegel, for instance, taught that ‘punishment is certainly to be regarded as the necessary abolition of crime which would otherwise predominate, and as the re-establishment of right.’ More fully and distinctly Stahl, ‘To man is given, along with the power, the authority also of performing a deed, but this he can only have with God, not against Him. If, therefore, he acts amiss, he comes to have a glory in the world antagonistic to God. Not, however, to undo the deed itself, and its consequence, can be demanded by the Divine righteousness, but only to destroy this glory of the deed; and if this can be destroyed, the antagonism is brought to an end.’—(See in Baumgarten’s Comm. on Pent., II., pp. 29, 30.) But the relation of capital punishment to moral transgressions of the first table, and to some extent also of the second, which was proper to a Theocracy, cannot be justly transferred to an ordinary civil commonwealth; and, in this respect, Christian states have often grievously erred in assimilating their penal statutes too closely to those of the Mosaic legislation.) Besides, it was not they alone who were to be considered; for in planting them in Canaan, ‘in the midst of the nations,’ and furnishing them with such a polity, God’s design was to use them as a great teaching institute—a light placed aloft on the moral heights of the world amid surrounding darkness. What incalculable blessings might have accrued to ancient heathendom had that high calling been fulfilled! But to this end the stern proscription of open ungodliness and flagrant immoralities was indispensable. (See the remarks in my ‘Commentary on Ezekiel,’ pp. 68-70.)
3. Another class of the statutes and judgments under consideration is one which more directly bore on the imperfect state of order and civilization then everywhere existing, and which has often been misunderstood and objected to. The law of compensation—frequently, though improperly, termed the law of retaliation—does not strictly belong to the class, but may be included in it, on account of the assaults to which it has been subjected. It is, indeed, so far of the class in question, as it comes first directly into view in connection with a very rude and barbarous state of manners. The supposition is made of two men striving together, and a woman with child (whether by chance or from well-meant interference on her part) happening to receive some corporeal injury in the fray; and it was ordained, that her husband was entitled to claim compensation from the offender, according to the extent of the injury; proceeding further, the statute provides generally for all like cases, that there should be ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’ (Exo_21:22-25.) Stript of its concrete form, this is simply a rule for the proper administration of justice between man and man, requiring that when a particular wrong was done to any one, and through him to society, an adequate compensation should be rendered. So far from being peculiar to the Mosaic code, no legislation that is not capricious and arbitrary can dispense with such a rule, nor could society exist in peace and comfort without its faithful application. ‘In fact,’ to use the words of Kalisch in his commentary on the passage, ‘our own Christian legislation could not dispense with similar principles: life is punished with life, and intentional injuries are visited with more than equivalent penalties. Not even the most sentimental and romantic legislator has ever had the fancy to pardon all criminals out of Christian love. For, in reality, every simple law in our criminal code is based on the jus talionis (the law of compensation), with the limitation that bodily mutilation is converted into an adequate pecuniary fine, or incarceration; but the same modification (he adds) has been universally adopted by traditional Judaism.’ Such a limitation was in perfect accordance with the general spirit of the Mosaic code, and must have been from the first intended. The literal application of the rule, as in the case of burning for burning, or wound for wound, would often have been impracticable, for who could have undertaken to make a second that should always be precisely equivalent to the first? or unjust, for the severity of a bodily infliction may, in particular circumstances, be a widely different thing to one person from what it is to another. To insist on the exact counterpart of such corporeal injuries, even when it could have been secured, in preference to a reasonable compensation, would plainly have been to gratify a spirit of revenge; and this, as already stated, was expressly disallowed. There was one thing, and only one, in regard to which compensation was formally interdicted: the life of a deliberate murderer must be given for the life of the murdered, without satisfaction, without pity; (Num_35:31; Deu_19:13.) and the emphatic exclusion of compensation here, was justly regarded by the Jewish doctors as virtually sanctioning its admission in cases of a lighter kind, where no such exclusion was mentioned. The real bearing of this law, then, when rightly understood and applied as it was meant, in judicial decisions, was in perfect accordance with the principles of equity; it was merely a practical embodiment of these; and the reference made to it by our Lord in His sermon on the mount, where it forms a kind of contrast to the injunction laid on His followers not to resist evil, but when smitten on the one cheek to turn the other also, and so on, (Mat_5:38.) can imply no disparagement of the old rule in its proper intention. In so far as it breathed a tone of censure, or assumed a position of antagonism, it was only in regard to those who, in their personal endeavours after the pure and good, had not known to rise above the level of a formal and rigid justice. Not questioning the claims of justice in the public administration of affairs, our Lord still made it to be known that He sought a people who would be ready to forego these, whenever by doing so they could promote the good of their fellow-men. But the law of brotherly love, when requiring the suppression of revenge, and the exercise of forbearance and kindness even to an enemy, in reality did the same, as was perfectly understood by the better spirits of the old covenant. (Psa_7:4; Pro_25:21-22; 1 Sam 24:26.) So that nothing properly different, but only a greater fulness and prominence in the exhibition or enforcement of such love, can be claimed for the Gospel dispensation. (The same view is given of the Mosaic statute by the leading authorities; for example, by Michaelis, Salvador ‘His. des Institutions de Moise’ (who says, ‘The jus talionis is a principle rather than a law; as a law it cannot, nor does it actually come in general to be executed’); Saalschütz ‘Des Mosaische Recht;’ Kalisch gives some specimens of the Rabbinical discussions on the subject, from Bab. Talmud; and Maimonides. For the compensations by which the Arabs and Egyptians carry out the principle, see Kitto’s ‘Pictorial Bible,’ on Exodus 21, and Lane’s ‘Modern Egyptians,’ ch. III.)
4. More distinctly than the statutes just noticed may some of those connected with the punishment of murder be ranked in the class now under consideration. In this branch of the Mosaic legislation there is generally apparent a spirit of humanity and moderation. First of all, murder in the proper sense is carefully discriminated from death brought about in some casual manner. In every case of real murder it was necessary to prove preceding malice or hatred, a lying in wait or taking deliberate measures to compass the death of its victim, and an assault with some violent weapon accomplishing the end in view. (Deu_19:2.) But if, on the other hand, while a man had proved the cause of a neighbour’s death, the act inflicting it was merely the throwing of a stone or other weight, which incidentally lighted upon some one, and took away his Life—or if by some sort of sudden thrust, in a freak or fury, without aught of preconceived malice or deliberate intent, a neighbour’s life was sacrificed, the instrument of doing it could not be arraigned for murder; but neither could he be deemed altogether innocent. There must usually have been, in such cases, at least a culpable degree of heedlessness, which would always call for careful investigation, and might justly subject the individual to a limited amount of trouble, or even of punishment. It does so still in the civilized communities of modern times, with their regulated forms of judicial procedure and vigilant police: the man-slayer, however unwittingly he may have been the occasion of taking another’s life, must lay his account to the solemn inquest, often also the personal arrest, and it may be, ultimately, the severe reprimand, pecuniary fine, or temporary imprisonment, which may be thought due as a correction to his improper heedlessness or haste. But at the period of Israel’s settlement in Canaan there were not the opportunities for calm inquiry, and patient, satisfactory adjustment of such cases as exist now; and there were, besides, feelings deeply rooted in Asiatic society, and usages growing out of them, which tended very considerably to embarrass the matter, and yet could not be arbitrarily set aside. These arose out of the relation of Goel, according to which the nearest of kin had the wrongs, in particular circumstances, as well as the rights of the deceased, devolved upon him; especially the obligation to avenge his blood in the event of its having been unrighteously shed. On this account the term Goel is very commonly reckoned synonymous with ‘avenger’ (Goel haddam, avenger of blood), and in the passages bearing on this subject they are invariably so rendered in our English Bible. (Num_35:12; Deu_19:6; Deu_19:12; Jos_20:5; Jos_20:9, etc.) To the mere English reader, however, in modern times, this is apt to convey a somewhat wrong idea; for in its proper import Goel means not avenger, but redeemer (as in Job_19:25, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’), and Goel haddam is strictly ‘redeemer of blood,’ one to whom belonged the right and duty of recovering the blood of the murdered kinsman, of vindicating in the only way practicable its wronged cause, and obtaining for it justice. In him the blood of the dead, as it were, rose to life again and claimed its due. In other cases, it fell to the Goel to redeem the property of his relative, which had become alienated and lost by debt; (Lev_25:25.) a to redeem his person from bondage, if through poverty he had been necessitated to go into servitude; (Lev_25:48-50.) even to redeem his family, when by dying childless it was like to become extinct in Israel, by marrying his widow and raising up a seed to him. (Deu_25:5-10.) It thus appears that a humane and brotherly feeling lay at the root of this Goel-relationship; and in regard to the matter more immediately before us, it did not necessarily involve anything revengeful or capricious in its mode of operation. In ordinary cases, all its demands might have been satisfied by the Goel appearing before the judges as the prosecutor of the man-slayer, and calling upon them to examine the case and give judgment in behalf of the deceased. But there can be no doubt that it might also quite readily run to evil, that it might degenerate—if not very carefully guarded and checked into what, from time immemorial, it has been among the Arab races—a kind of wild and vengeful spirit of justice, which would take the law into its own hands, and, in defiance alike of personal danger and of the forms of legal procedure, would pursue the shedder of blood till his blood in turn had been shed. This was the vicious extreme of the system; yet one, it ought to be remembered, which operated as a powerful check—perhaps, in the circumstances of the place and times, the only valid check that could be devised against another and still more pernicious extreme, for which peculiar facilities were afforded by the vast deserts of Arabia and the regions lying around Palestine. How easy might it have been for the daring and successful murderer, by making his escape into these, to get beyond the reach of the regular tribunals and officers of justice! Only the dread of being tracked out and having his own measure summarily meted back to him, by one on whom the charge to avenge the wrong lay as a primary and life-long obligation, might be sufficient to deter him from trusting in such a refuge from evil. We have it on the testimony of those who have been most thoroughly conversant with the regions in question, and the races inhabiting them, that nothing has contributed so much as this institution (even in its most objectionable Arab form) to prevent the warlike tribes of the East from exterminating one another. (See in Layard’s ‘Nineveh and Babylon,’ p. 305, for his own and Burckhardt’s testimony.)
In these circumstances, Moses, legislating for a people already familiar with the Goel-relationship, and going to occupy a region which presented to the more lawless spirits of the community, tempting opportunities for escaping from judicial treatment of a more orderly kind, took the wise course of grounding his statutes in respect to manslaughter and murder on the hereditary rights and duties of the Goel. But he so restrained and regulated them, that, if faithfully carried out, the checks he introduced could scarcely fail to arrest the worst tendencies of the system, and indeed reduce the position of the Goel to that of the recognised and rightful prosecutor of the shedder of blood. To prevent any sudden assault upon the latter, and afford time for the due investigation of his deed, a temporary asylum was provided for him in the cities of refuge, which were appointed for this purpose at convenient distances—three on the one side and three on the other of the Jordan. (Num_35:2.) When actually appointed, the cities were most wisely distributed, and belonged also to the class of Levitical cities (Golan in Bashan, Eamoth in Gilead, and Bezer on the east side; Kadesh in Galilee, Shechem and Hebron on the west), (Jos_20:7-8.) and as such were sure to contain persons skilled in the knowledge of the law and capable of giving intelligent judgment. Arrived within the gates of one of these cities, the man-slayer was safe from the premature action of the Goel; but only that the judges and elders of the place might take up the case and pronounce impartial judgment upon it. If they found reason to acquit him of actual murder, then he remained under their protection, but was obliged to submit to a kind of partial imprisonment, because not allowed to go beyond the borders of the city till the death of the existing high-priest after which, if he still lived, he was at liberty to return to his own possession. Were not these conditions, however, somewhat arbitrary? If not really guilty of blood in the proper sense, why should he not have been placed at once under the protection of the law, and restored to his property and home? And why should the period of his release have been made to hang on the uncertain and variable moment of the high-priest’s death? Perhaps there may have been grounds for these limitations at the time they were imposed, which cannot now be ascertained; but a little consideration is sufficient to shew that they could not be deemed unreasonable. In the great majority of cases, the death of the person slain must have been owing to the want of due circumspection, fore thought, or restraint on the part of him who had occasioned it; and it could not, to thoughtful minds, appear otherwise than a salutary discipline, that he should be adjudged to a temporary abridgment of his liberty. Arbitrarily to break through this restraint after it had been judicially imposed, would clearly have argued a self-willed, impetuous, and troublesome humour, which refused correction, and might readily enough repeat in the future the rashness or misdeed of the past; so that it was but dealing with him according to his folly to leave him in such a case at the mercy of the Goel. (Lev_25:26-27.) Nor could the connection of the period of release with the death of the existing high-priest carry much of a strange or capricious aspect to the members of the Theocracy. For the high-priest was, in everything pertaining to sin and forgiveness, the most prominent person in the community; in such things, he was the representative of the people, making perpetual intercession for them before God; and though there was nothing expiatory in his death, yet being the death of one in whom the expiatory ritual of the old covenant had so long found its centre and culmination, it was natural—more than natural, it was every way proper and becoming—that when he disappeared from among men, the cause of the blood that had been incidentally shed in his life-time, and from its nature could admit of no very definite reckoning, should be held to have passed with him into oblivion—its cry was to be no more heard. (This appears to me the natural explanation of the rule, and sufficient for the purpose intended. The older evangelical divines (some also still, as Keil) think that in the death of the high-priest there was a shadow of the death of Christ; consequently something that might be regarded as having a sort of atoning value for the sins of the people. This I cannot but consider arbitrary in interpretation, and involving a dangerous element in respect to the work of atonement. For if the death of a sinful man, because he was anointed with oil, the symbol of the Spirit’s grace, had such a value then, why should not the death of martyrs and other saints, richly endowed with the Spirit, have something of the same now?) It was made very clear, however, by other statutes on this subject, that when actual murder had been committed, no advantage was to accrue to the perpetrator from the cities of refuge; though he might have fled thither, he was, on the proof of his guilt, to be delivered up to the Goel for summary execution. (Deu_19:11-16.) Nor was the altar of God—a still more sacred place than the cities of refuge, and in ancient times almost universally regarded as an asylum for criminals—to be permitted in such cases to afford protection; from this also the murderer was to be dragged to his deserved doom. (Exo_21:14.) In short, deliberate murder was to admit of no compromise and no palliation: the original law, ‘whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed,’ (Gen_9:6.) must be rigorously enforced; and, doubtless, mainly also on the original ground, ‘because in the image of God made He him.’ To disregard the sanctity of human life, and tread it vilely in the dust, was like aiming a thrust at God Himself, disparaging His noblest work in creation, and the one that stood in peculiar relationship to His own spiritual being. Therefore, the violation of the sixth command by deliberate murder involved also a kind of secondary violation of the first; and to suffer the blood of the innocent to lie unavenged, was, in the highest sense, to pollute the land; (Num_35:34.) it was to render it unworthy of the name of God’s inheritance. So great was the horror entertained of this unnatural crime, and so anxious was the Lawgiver to impress men with the feeling of its contrariety to the whole spirit and object of the law, that, even in the case of an uncertain murder, there was a cry of blood which could not be disregarded; and when every effort had failed to discover the author of the deed, the elders of the city which lay nearest to the corpse were to regard themselves as in a manner implicated; they had to come publicly forward, and not only protest their innocence of the crime, and their ignorance of the manner in which it had been committed, but also to go through a process of purification by blood and water, that the charge of blood-guiltiness might not rest upon them and their land. (Deu_21:1-9.)
5. We pass on now to the statutes on slavery and the treatment of those subject to it, which have in various respects been deemed inconsistent with the spirit of the Decalogue, as embodying the law of brotherly love. Here, again, it is especially necessary to bear in mind the state of the world at the time the law was given, and the relation in which it stood to manners and usages, which bespoke a very imperfect development both of economical science and of civil rights. It was necessary that the law should take things as it found them, and, while setting before the covenant people the correct ideal of all that was morally right and good, should still regulate what pertained to the enforcement of discipline with a due regard to circumstances more or less anomalous and perplexing. By constitutional right, all the members of the covenant were free; they were the Lord’s redeemed ones, whom He vindicated to Himself from the house of bondage, that they might be in a condition to serve and honour Him; (Exo_20:2; Deu_15:15.) they were not again to be sold as bond men; (Lev_25:42.) and that they might remain in this freedom from human servitude, every one had an inheritance assigned sufficient for the maintenance of himself and his family. The precautions, too, which were taken to secure the perpetuity of these family possessions, were admirably devised; if properly guarded and carried out, nothing had been wanting to provide, so far as external arrangements could effect it, the means of a comfortable livelihood and independence for the families of Israel. But much must still depend on the individual character of the people, and the current of events in their history. If, through adverse circumstances, desolation fell on any portion of the territory—or if, from slothful neglect, particular inheritances were not duly cultivated, or the resources they furnished were again improvidently squandered—above all, if the people in whole or in part should become involved in the reverses or triumphs of war—such in equalities might readily spring up as, in the existing state of civic life and political arrangements, would most naturally lead to the introduction of a certain kind of slavery. It is even possible that, as matters then stood, the humanest, if not the only practicable thing, that could be done by legislative enactment, was to bound and regulate, rather than absolutely interdict, some modified form of this in itself unhappy relationship. Such, at least, appears to have been the view countenanced by the Divine Head of the Theocracy; for the statutes bearing on the subject of slavery are entirely of the kind just indicated, and, when temperately considered, will be found to involve a wise adaptation to the circumstances of the time. Even a brief outline may be enough to establish this.
(1.) The language alone is of importance here, as indicative of the spirit of the Hebrew Theocracy: it had no term to designate one class as slaves (in the stricter sense) and another who did hired service. The term for both alike is Ebed (òÆáÆã), properly, a labourer or worker, and hence very naturally one whose calling in life is emphatically of this description, a servant. And, as justly noted by Saalschütz, (‘Mosaische Recht,’ c. 101, sec. 1.) ‘among a people who were engaged in agricultural employments, whose lawgiver Moses, and whose kings Saul and David, were taken straight from the flock and the plough to their high calling, there could not seem to be anything degrading in a designation derived from work; and the name of honour applied to Moses and other righteous men was that of “servant of God.”’ The only ground for concern could be, lest occasion might be taken to render work galling and oppressive, or incidentally subversive of the great principles of the constitution.
(2.) As a check upon this, at the outset a brand was set upon man-stealing; he who should be found to have kidnapped a soul (meaning thereby man or woman) of the children of Israel, for the purpose of using or selling that soul as a slave, incurred the penalty of death, as a violator of the fundamental laws of the kingdom. (Lev_21:17; Deu_24:7.)
(3.) But a man might, under the constraint of circumstances, to save himself and his family from the extremities of want, become fain to part with his freedom, and bind himself in servitude to another. In such cases, which should never have been but of an exceptional kind, a whole series of prescriptions were given to set bounds to the evil, and secure, during its continuance, the essentials of a brotherly relationship. The service required was in no case to be that of an absolute bondman—or, as the expression literally is, service of a servant (òÇáÉøÇú òÈáÆã)—rigorous service, such as might be expected of one into whose condition no higher element entered. (Lev_25:39-43.) His relation to Jehovah as the Redeemer of Israel must not be allowed to fall into abeyance. Hence, his general rights and privileges as a member of the covenant remained untouched: he could inherit property if it accrued to him, could be redeemed by a kinsman at a fair ransom, was entitled to the rest of the weekly Sabbaths, and to the joy and consolation of the stated festivals. (Lev_25:42-52.) Besides, the period of service was limited; it could not extend beyond six years, after which, in the seventh, came the year of release; and even then the master was not to let him go empty, but was to furnish him with supplies to help him toward an independent position (Exo_21:2; Deu_15:12-14). (In respect to the period of release, there is an apparent discrepance in the passages relating to it; in Exo_21:2, also Deu_15:12, the seventh year is fixed definitely as the time of release; while in Lev_25:40, the year of Jubilee is named as the terminating point. In the latter passage, and throughout the chapter, the chief subject of discourse is the Jubilee, and it is only as connected with it that the other subject comes into consideration. The natural explanation, therefore, as given by many of our recent writers, is, that in ordinary circumstances the servitude terminated with the commencement of the seventh year, but when a Jubilee intervened, the bond of servitude, like all other bonds, ceased as a matter of course. This simple explanation renders quite unnecessary Ewald’s resort to his theory of earlier and later documents. The seventh year, however, was not the Sabbatical year, but the seventh from the entrance of the servitude—the principle of the arrangement being, that, as after seven days work there came the day of rest, and after seven years husbandry a year of repose, so after seven years servitude a return to freedom.) So that the relation of a Hebrew bondman to his master did not materially