Why did David, a man full of the holy spirit and the future king of Israel, make this claim? What law was he talking about? Should each one of us make the same claim today?
The title of this article was taken from Psalm 119:97. The next four verses give us more insight into what David was thinking:
Oh how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word.
David saw great wisdom and understanding by studying and doing the ways of the Eternal. What law was he talking about? The ten commandments? Or more?
David spoke, read, and wrote Hebrew, the language of most of the Old Testament scriptures. The only complete books of scriptures that existed were the first five books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, and probably the book of Job. The books of Samuel and Psalms were written during his life. The word David used for “law” in his Psalm was torah, meaning “teaching” or “instruction,” though it is usually translated as “law.” Proverbs 1:8 provides an example: “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law [torah] of your mother.” The RSV and other translations use “teaching” instead of “law.”
Torah is first found in Genesis 26:5 “because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statues and My laws [torah].” Before the writings of Moses, Abraham must have known the teachings of the Eternal and obeyed them. We do not know if Abraham had a written law of some type or if he simply had oral teaching.
Several times in the book of Joshua we find the expression “book of the law [torah],” an obvious reference to the five books of Moses (Josh 1:8, 8:31, 23:6, 24:26). There are numerous other Old Testament references to the written “law [torah] of Moses.” From these scriptures, the unmodified word torah signifies the first five books of Moses. These were certainly the major written record of the Eternal’s law available to David.
If we look back at Psalm 119:98 we see that David gained great wisdom from the “commandments.” Were these the “ten commandments?” Actually, the phase “ten commandments” never occurs in a literal translation of the scriptures. The expression appears three times in most English translations (Ex34:28, Deut 4:13,10:4), but the Hebrew word is dabar, meaning “word” or “saying.” The Moffatt translation accurately renders the phrase “ten sayings” in Deuteronomy. David wrote the Hebrew mitzvah for commandment. Mitzvah is the word most commonly translated “commandment” and describes the hundreds of different commandments that the Eternal gave to His people. The “ten sayings”are a very important part of these commandments.
David did not meditate only on “10 commandments,” but on the entirety of the Scripture that was available to him. David continues on in Psalm 119 to refer to the Eternal’s “testimonies,” “precepts” and “word”—each word reflects a different aspect of His instruction to us. David would have followed the instructions for a king:“Also it shall be, when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes” (Deut 17:18-19).
What can we conclude from this? Are we to offer animal sacrifices and carry out the death sentences prescribed in the books of Moses? No! We have an Eternal Sacrifice in the form of our Savior, the Messiah. Also, we are not in charge of the civil government at this time. Yet there is a great number of the laws given by the Eternal that we can put into practice, and we can learn important lessons from the rest. There are essentially three categories of laws:
(1) Principles governing how we should love the Eternal and our neighbor. These principles are timeless and represent the Eternal’s love in action (John 14:15, 1Jn 5:3). We can use most of them directly in our lives.
(2) National laws and punishments for disobedience. We should learn these principles as we will be responsible for administering them in the Millennium (Isa 2:3). We can use the laws now when brethren have difficulties with each other and submit to other brethren for judgement rather than going to this world’s systems (1Cor 6:1-6).
(3) Ceremonial laws. Many of the laws of the temple service, sacrifices, ceremonial uncleanliness, etc. have no direct application today. Nevertheless, they are well worth our study time as they teach us the about the Eternal’s nature, the evil of sin, etc.
Most of us understand our purpose to be Kings and Priests in the Millennium (Rev 1:6, 5:10). Most of us understand that “for out of Zion shall go forth the law [Hebrew torah]” (Isa 2:3). Indeed the scripture indicates the legal system in the Millennium will be very similar to the system under the judges “Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards....I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning...” (Isa 1:23,26).
Why, then, is there so little study of the laws that we will be administering in the Millennium, the laws that define righteousness? (Psalm 119:172.) Many of our readers may not be aware that Ambassador College never taught a class in the “law of God.” An Old Testament Survey course, and a couple of courses in the prophets were the closest things available. Rather than speculate about the reasons for this lack of study, let us begin our study now.
The words that the Eternal spoke directly to the millions of Israelites are recorded in Exodus 20. Here we find the “10 sayings,” commonly known as the “10 commandments.” The people asked the Eternal to stop speaking to them (v 19) so Moses delivered the rest of that covenant to them. The covenant was not ratified until Exodus 24:7-8. These three intervening chapters of Exodus (21, 22 & 23) contain a wealth of useful, practical laws.
We will cover these chapters verse by verse. Some of these laws seem strange compared with modern day laws. They should! Our modern day laws have made a large contribution to the destruction of our societies. The Eternal’s laws were designed to be simple enough that all could learn them, but complex enough to handle a wide variety of human situations. They were designed to maximize justice, and minimize the misuse of the law.
Many laws contain a specific penalty or restitution (restoring money or other goods to a person that was wronged) that was to be administered by other humans. There are five principles that appear to be followed in nearly all of these laws—principles ignored by many man-made laws. Understanding these principles before we begin our study will help us understand the design of many laws. The five principles are:
#1 A just punishment must be given to the offender, stiff enough that he does not want to repeat the offense, yet not so hard that it needlessly destroys him as a useful citizen. Many Western countries do not follow this principle at all. A person that pretends to be armed and steals a few hundred dollars can easily be sentenced to 10 years in jail. A white-collar criminal can steal millions of dollars from people, restore none of it, and receive a sentence of a year or two. Worse yet, some white-collar crimes are controlled by antiquated laws with low maximum fines: the convicted criminal may have to pay a fine that is a fraction of the amount stolen!
#2 The offended must receive a just restitution. Victims should be compensated by the offender. Again, most Western-nation law specifies fines paid to the government, not restitution to victims. Civil law does compensate its victims, sometimes hundreds of times more than their actual losses.
#3 Laws must make it difficult to obtain restitution falsely. There are numerous scams in the United States where individuals routinely walk on to the property of others and pretend to be injured—then collect multiple thousands of dollars.
#4 Laws must be designed to greatly reduce the chance of administering a wrongful punishment—especially a death penalty. Most Western nations do a reasonable job in this area. Most human laws require a reasonable amount of proof before a conviction can be obtained. There are some notable exceptions, however: a person can easily spend ten years in jail if someone “plants” a significant quantity of drugs in his coat, luggage or vehicle. Also, children can go through the terrifying experience of being taken away from their parents by the state—all based on unconfirmed reports of “child abuse.”
#5 Laws must not produce a harmful effect on society. The purpose of law is to give each family a chance to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor. The law is to prevent people from interfering with the rights of others and to provide for punishment or restitution when that happens. The law was never intended to protect families from their own mismanagement—they were to reap the consequences of their own mistakes and to learn from them.
A classic case of ignoring this principle is the United States “Aid to Dependent Children” program. The well-meaning people that set up the program wanted to give the most help to families in the most need. So, they set up formulas to increase benefits for each additional child present and decrease benefits if an able-bodied but unemployed father was present. The long term effect of this program? America now has millions of poor families with lots of children and no fathers. Laws should provide relief to people in difficult situations, but should not make the difficult situations so desirable that people get into them on purpose. Another classic case of ignoring this principle is welfare systems that put more money in a person’s pocket than they would have if they worked at minimum wage.
We will see these six principles in action as we go through many of the laws in the Bible. We will start in Exodus 21 and go through other related chapters.
Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: (Ex 21:1).
Moses was commanded to give these judgments to everyone, there were no secret laws.
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing (Ex 21:2).
Many people will look back on the system of servants or slaves in the Bible and say it was cruel and restrictive. However, if you would compare that system with the prison systems found in today’s societies, you would find the prisons far more evil. As we see in the above verse, a servant could serve a maximum of six years. How many years do some people spend in prison? A servant was living with a family—in society—not isolated. He was continually doing productive work, and learning to work to earn his living; not learning about how to commit crimes from a group of hardened criminals.
Were servants sometimes mistreated by their masters? probably no more so than prisoners are treated today. Investigations into prison life have revealed a great many prisoners abused by their guards and fellow prisoners. In most cases their is nothing the prisoner can do. The Eternal instructed his people not to automatically return a slave that had escaped his master, but to keep the slave with him (Deut 23:15-16). If the slave was being kept illegally (longer than six years, in spite of an offer for his redemption, etc.), then the slave would have a chance to tell his story to the people he escaped to and to obtain justice. (On the other hand, if the slave ran away unjustly, his master would certainly be able to pursue him, show that he was rightfully his, and take him back and punish him.)
Further, we find in Deuteronomy 15:12-15 that a slave should be given enough possessions when he is let go so that he can earn his own living. Today, when prisoners are released, they are not usually given enough money to pay a month’s rent in a cheap apartment and they usually have no job. Returning to a life of crime is often the only apparent alternative.
If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,” then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever (Ex 21:3-6).
At first reading, this law may sound terrible: Separating a man from his family and children? Why would the Eternal do this? This is an example of law principle #5 in action. It would be best if a man not marry while he is a servant. He should obtain his freedom, get his means of income in order, then plan for a wife and children. If a servant is so emotionally or sexually desirous of a wife that he cannot wait, then he can marry, knowing that he may not be able to take his wife and children with him (though he could possibly purchase them in the future). This law protects the wife and children—they live with the master, a man that is a known provider.
If the man is willing to give up his freedom forever, to be a servant forever rather than the head of his own household, then he may have a permanent mark made on him and live with his master forever. This was indeed a sign of disgrace—the man has chosen the comforts of a good master rather than be the master of his own house. Rather than choosing to serve the Eternal directly, he has chosen to serve another man. Nevertheless, there have always been people that would rather others do their thinking for them, so the Eternal made this provision: the man could elect to live with his family forever, but as servants. This is far better than today’s systems where such families are encouraged to break up by welfare laws or where parents and children may be forcibly separated by jail sentences or government social workers.
And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money (Ex 21:7-11).
A man selling his daughter? Why would he do that? Again, this was a consequence of someone who had mismanaged his resources and had few options left—if the man had to sell himself as a servant, his daughter would probably become a servant anyway. By selling his daughter, the man had a chance to continue working and to redeem her (buy her back).
The rest of the law provides protection for a young woman who’s father put him in such a situation. She should not have to do the hard work that the men do. Also, there are certain conditions specified if the master “betrothed her to himself.” If the man betrothed her for a while, but changed his mind before the marriage, he “owes her something” as he has kept other potential husbands from seeking to marry her. The final sentences deal with fairness in multi-wife situations. A discussion of the reasons for polygamy in the Bible exceeds the scope of this article, but it is clear that the Eternal insisted on fairness even in these situations.
We will pose a question more relevant to today’s readers: Why did the Eternal start this section of law with laws governing servants? Probably because that was the most common result when people transgressed against their neighbor. Most punishments were economic in nature and if a person did not have the money, he became a servant (Ex 22:3).
He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand [killed by accident] then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die (Ex 21:12-14).
The Bible continues the law with the method for handling murder cases. Thousands of books and movies are produced about cases where a person is found dead and there are no witnesses: Who did it? Was it accidental or planned? Does the evidence point to the real murderer or was someone else “set up?” The Eternal brilliantly prescribes a system to eliminate most of these problems, yet almost no nation uses it!
Numbers 35:11-29 and Deuteronomy 19:2-13 give the rest of the details about this verse. Anyone who killed someone by accident was to flee to one of several “cities of refuge” and remain there until the death of the high priest. While this was a hardship to the people that accidentally caused another’s death, it encouraged people to observe safety precautions. The person was not “in jail,” they could have a job in the city of refuge; their family could visit them or even arrange to move there.
To see how well this law works, let us look at it from the point of view of a potential murderer plotting a crime. He must decide whether he is going to flee to the city of refuge or not. If he tries to make the murder look like an accident and flees, then he is going to be stuck in the city of refuge for an unknown number of years. This would be completely unacceptable to a “professional killer”—he would be out of a job. Furthermore, the act of fleeing admits he did the killing and there would certainly be an investigation. He will have to answer hard questions. If he is known to hate the man or if some witnesses saw the killing, he will certainly be condemned to death.
If the murderer decides not to flee—to pretend like he did not do it, he is taking a big risk. If he is ever suspected of the crime, he is in big legal trouble. All that witnesses will have to establish to convict him is that he was at the scene during the crime. He will not be able to claim that the murder was an accident or that it was done in the heat of anger—if those things were true, he should have fled. If he claims to have been there but did not do it, then he should have reported it to the judges. If a man does not flee (openly admitting that he killed the person), there will be no court arguments about whether it was intentional or not; if you are found guilty and you did not flee, you will receive the death penalty.
And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. (Ex 21:15,17).
This is the Eternal’s statement on elder-abuse. It is simple and straight-forward.
He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death (Ex 21:16).
In the cases above, there is no question as to the guilt. Kidnappings are almost always premeditated. The Eternal commands swift justice in these situations.
If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed (Ex 21:18-19).
Again we see the strong economic basis in the Eternal’s law. The man who injures another must pay for the loss of the injured’s time (value of his day’s away from his work), and pay the expenses of his healing. He does not go to jail with other criminals, he stays in his job and pays. If he cannot pay, he becomes a servant.
And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property (Ex 21:20-21).
The master was expected to understand his purpose to teach the servant to work and make him into a productive citizen. Killing him or causing him permanent injury was not an option (see verses 26-27). Yet, if a servant was extremely difficult, the master had to punish him. Supposing the servant became a servant because he had a terrible temper and injured others. If he continued injuring others while a servant, he has already sold himself and has no way to pay for the injury. The master must pay the debt, and punish the servant so severely that he does not repeat the problem. “Judgments are prepared for scoffers, and beatings for the backs of fools” (Prov 19:29).
If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine (Ex 21:22).
Some issues are complex enough that methods similar to those used in today’s courts are necessary: The offended party asks for an award and the judges determine if it is reasonable. In the above case, there are many variables: Did the woman intentionally join the fight? How near due was she? Did she have a tendency to miscarry anyway?
But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth. (Ex 21:23-27).
Do these verses (and parallel ones in Lev 24:20 and Deut 19:21) require the same injury to be inflicted upon a person that inflicted the original injury? The first thing we must understand is that this is also a limitation of liability as much as a punishment. The many-fold avenging often required by powerful carnal people (for example, “he cut off my finger, I will take his hand”) was not allowed. A just recompense for each injury must be made based on the injury, not based on the community standing of the injured.
Most maimings were unintentional, but the law does not distinguish between someone who deliberately attacked or someone that was foolishly brandishing a weapon. Why is the penalty the same? An eye is no easier to live without whether caused by an attacker or a joker. These scriptures show that the person causing the maiming deserves to have the same thing done to them. This greatly discourages carelessness! Nevertheless, the injured person is usually interested in compensation for his loss, not in infliction of the same injury to another. In the verses above, the master inflicting the injury on the servant did not receive a similar injury, he let the servant go free.
The principle of compensation instead of corporal punishment is found elsewhere in scripture. (See Exodus 21:30 in the next few paragraphs.) Some penalties, such as those for killing a person, specifically could not be ransomed (Num 35:31-32), giving the understanding that most other punishments could be.
If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death (Ex 21:28-29).
While these verses are talking about oxen, the principles apply to many things we have today, such as automobiles, power tools, etc. If an animal or a machine kills a person, you get rid of it so it cannot happen again. (In the case of a machine, it may be possible simply to replace the failing part—if the brakes fail on a truck and it hits and kills someone, the failing part(s) of the braek system would be replaced, not the entire truck.) If the owner already knew about the unsafe condition and did nothing, then he is responsible for the death and can be put to death himself!
If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him. Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him (Ex 21:30-31).
The mercy of the family that lost the member was important here. Was the owner planning to slaughter the ox the next day? Did one of his children let the ox out by accident? Or did the owner routinely scorn others that told him about the dangers of his ox?
It may seem unfair that a wealthy man may make such a mistake and live because he can pay a ransom where a poor man that makes the same error may have to die because he cannot pay a ransom. The scriptures says: “The ransom of a man’s life is his riches...” (Prov 13:8). There are situations where a man’s riches will preserve his life. (But greed for riches often cause a man’s death—Prov 1:19).
If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned (Ex 21:32).
Thirty shekels of silver was a typical price for a slave of the time. Why could a family demand any price for the death of one of their children, but only a certain amount for the death of a servant? Law principles #3 and #5 are working here: If a master could demand a much larger amount for the death of a servant, then servants would be worth more dead than alive. Evil masters would be tempted to send servants to places where they knew there were dangerous situations and “warned” owners. The Eternal wisely designed his law so that a servant would be most valuable to his owner when he is alive, well, and healthy.
And if a man opens a pit, or if a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money to their owner, but the dead animal shall be his (Ex 21:33-34).
The example is an ox, but the principle applies to many kinds of property. If a man creates an unsafe condition that injures another’s property, he is responsible for restoring the property, but no more. He is allowed to keep the salvage value of the other’s damaged property (the ox, above, could be used to make leather, soap, chicken-food, etc.) If the offended party were allowed to receive replacement property and salvage the damaged property, they might find it profitable to deliberately look for such unsafe conditions and send their property into them (see law principles #3 and #4).
If one man's ox hurts another's, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it; and the dead ox they shall also divide. Or if it was known that the ox tended to thrust in time past, and its owner has not kept it confined, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall be his own (Ex 21:35-36).
Again, this can be applied to many types of property. In the first example, we cannot tell who is “at fault” (we do not know which ox started the fight or why), so the owners simply split the cost of the loss and split the salvage value of the house and tree. Similarly, if one man’s rotten tree falls into another man’s house, neither having ever warned the other of the danger, They should split the cost of the house repairs.
If someone is aware of a dangerous situation and fails to take action, then they are responsible to restore damage done, but no more. If the house owner warned the tree owner that the tree was rotten and soon ready to fall, then the tree owner would be responsible to pay the entire house repair, but he would get to keep any salvage from the operation.
This concludes Exodus 21. There are many more interesting chapters in our study of the Eternal’s law—the law that we hope to have a part in teaching during the Millennium.
—Norman S. Edwards