We can best observe these laws against a background of contrasts. What was so different, so special, about the law of Moses compared to other societies in the region?
1. STANDARDS IN THE PROMISED LAND
We have already seen how the laws in Deuteronomy are a mirror image of what was taking place in the land at that time. Some of the more puzzling laws relate to the practices of those already occupying the land.
2. STANDARDS IN NEIGHBORING LANDS
There is also an interesting comparison to be made between the law of Moses and another law which has been discovered from the ancient world, the code of Hammurabi, an ancient Amorite King of Babylon (or Babel). These laws were written 300 years before Moses. They include prohibitions on killing, adultery, stealing and false witness. Furthermore, the famous law of lex talionis, or the law of revenge (‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’), is also included. All this should not surprise us. In Romans the apostle Paul says that God ‘has written his law on the hearts’ of pagans. He did not just write it on stone – he has written it into the hearts of people so that everyone knows that certain things are wrong. For example, every society in the world has always thought incest was wrong.
There are, however, some big differences between Hammurabi’s law and the law of Moses. There was just one punishment for any wrong done, and that was death. In the law of Moses the death penalty is quite rare. There are only 15 things in the law of Moses that deserve the death penalty. By comparison to Hammurabi’s law, the law of Moses is not nearly so harsh.
Another huge difference is that in the law of Moses slaves and women are treated as people, whereas in the law of Hammurabi they are treated as property. Women have none of the rights and respect in the law of Hammurabi that they possess in the law of Moses.
The law of Hammurabi also includes class distinctions. There are nobles and common people, and a different law applies depending on the class. In the law of Moses there is no such thing as class. The same law applies to everybody.
A final point to note is that the laws of Hammurabi are casuistic laws – they are presented in the form of conditions. ‘If you do this, then you must die.’ The laws of Moses are presented in what is called an apodeictic manner – not as conditions, but as commands. ‘You must not do this.’ The laws of Moses reflect God’s right as king to say what should be. He makes commands because he sets the standard.
The commands and legislation fall into a number of different categories, detailed in the following sections.
- Israel is forbidden to follow other gods, or erect graven images. We are told that the Lord is a jealous God. Jealousy is an appropriate emotion for God, even if we might not think so at first. We are jealous when we want what is ours. Envy is when we want what is not ours. So just as it would be appropriate for a man to be jealous if another man took his wife, it is right that God should be jealous for his people when they follow other gods.
- As a consequence of the First Commandment, asherah poles are specifically forbidden.
- There are laws about cutting flesh and shaving heads when mourning.
- If a relative seeks to entice their family away from the worship of God, they must be put to death – there should be no mercy.
- When attacking idolatrous cities the Israelites are told to kill all the people and burn the city so that it could never be rebuilt.
- Idolaters are to be stoned on the word of two or three witnesses, one of whom should be responsible for casting the first stone.
- There is to be one place of worship. All ‘high places’ where the Canaanites worship are to be destroyed.
- The Israelites are not to enquire about or get interested in other religions. They must shun child sacrifice, which is detestable.
- All false prophets, dreamers, and those who ‘follow other gods’ are to be put to death.
- All forms of spiritualism are punishable by death: consulting the dead, witchcraft, omens, spells, mediums.
- We are told that a true prophet like Moses will be raised up (a reference to Jesus).
- When false prophets speak in the name of other gods, or when they speak but the prophecy does not come true, they are to be put to death.
- If the name of God is misused, the miscreant must be put to death.
- All first-born animals must be dedicated to the Lord.
- A tenth of all produce is to be set aside. Every three years produce would be passed on for the Levites, aliens, fatherless and widows.
- Baskets of firstfruits are to be offered from any land the Israelites conquer.
- They are to declare their history when they arrive in the land, recounting their rescue from Egypt.
- Prayers of thanksgiving are also to be made.
- Up until the time of Moses, nobody had a Sabbath. It is a new provision for slaves who have previously worked seven days a week, but who are now given one day a week free from work.
FEASTS (ALL PILGRIM EVENTS)
- Weeks (Pentecost).
SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS
- If there is a murder, and the perpetrator cannot be found, a heifer is to be sacrificed to declare the innocence of the community.
EXCLUSIONS FROM THE ASSEMBLY
- Those with mutilated or castrated genitals are excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
- Children of forbidden unions (up to the tenth generation) are also forbidden to enter.
- Ammonites and Moabites are explicitly forbidden.
- Edomites (from the third generation) are permitted to enter.
- Whatever we vow we must do. Vows are freely made, so should be followed through. If you make a vow to God you must keep it.
- No mixing of seeds is allowed.
- A donkey and an ox should not be yoked together.
- Clothes of wool and linen may not be mixed.
These laws of separation may seem very strange, but they were connected to the old fertility cult which was widespread in the land. The pagans believed that by mixing such things they were producing fertility. God was emphasizing that he gives fertility: they did not need to practise such superstition.