The Origin and Permanent Value of the Old Testament Part 7

The three distinct groups of writings found in the New, namely, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse, correspond exactly to the three types of prophetic literature found in the Old: the historico-prophetical writings, direct written prophecies, and apocalypses. If the final canon of the Old Testament had been completed before the days of Josiah, there is every reason to believe that it also would have contained little beside prophetic writings. In divine providence it was not closed until seven centuries later, so that, as it has come to us, it is a comprehensive library, representing every stage and every side of Israel's development. It is, however, in perfect keeping with the spirit of the Master that the New Testament should contain significant facts and broad principles rather than detailed laws or even the songs of worship. He whose ideals, teachings, and methods were in closest harmony with those of the Hebrew prophets, naturally begat, through his immediate followers, a group of distinctively prophetic writings.



[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._

Chapter end

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