1, 2. Why do many people have little regard for law, yet how may we come to feel about God’s laws?
“LAW is a bottomless pit, it . . . devours everything.” That statement appeared in a book published back in 1712. Its author decried a legal system in which lawsuits sometimes dragged through the courts for years, bankrupting those seeking justice. In many lands, legal and judicial systems are so complex, so rife with injustice, prejudice, and inconsistencies, that contempt for law has become widespread.
2 By way of contrast, consider these words written some 2,700 years ago: “How I do love your law!” (Psalm 119:97) Why did the psalmist feel so strongly? Because the law he praised originated, not with any secular government, but with Jehovah God. As you study Jehovah’s laws, you may come to feel more and more as the psalmist did. Such a study will give you insight into the greatest judicial mind in the universe.
The Supreme Lawgiver
3, 4. In what ways has Jehovah proved to be Lawgiver?
3 “There is only one who is Lawgiver and Judge,” the Bible tells us. (James 4:12) Indeed, Jehovah is the only true Lawgiver. Even the movements of the heavenly bodies are governed by his “celestial laws.” (Job 38:33, The New Jerusalem Bible) Jehovah’s myriads of holy angels are likewise governed by divine law, for they are organized into definite ranks and serve under Jehovah’s command as his ministers.—Psalm 104:4; Hebrews 1:7, 14.
4 Jehovah has given laws to mankind as well. Each of us has a conscience, a reflection of Jehovah’s sense of justice. A kind of internal law, the conscience can help us to distinguish right from wrong. (Romans 2:14) Our first parents were blessed with a perfect conscience, so they needed but a few laws. (Genesis 2:15-17) Imperfect man, however, needs more laws to guide him in the doing of God’s will. Such patriarchs as Noah, Abraham, and Jacob received laws from Jehovah God and transmitted these to their families. (Genesis 6:22; 9:3-6; 18:19; 26:4, 5) Jehovah became a Lawgiver in an unprecedented way when he gave the nation of Israel a Law code by means of Moses. This legal code offers us extensive insight into Jehovah’s sense of justice.
The Mosaic Law—An Overview
5. Was the Mosaic Law an unwieldy, complex set of laws, and why do you so answer?
5 Many seem to think that the Mosaic Law was an unwieldy, complex set of laws. Such a notion is far from the truth. There are over 600 laws in the entire code. That may sound like a lot, but just think: By the end of the 20th century, the federal laws of the United States filled over 150,000 pages of legal books. Every two years some 600 more laws are added! So in terms of sheer volume, the mountain of human laws dwarfs the Mosaic Law. Yet, God’s Law governed the Israelites in areas of life that modern laws do not even begin to touch. Consider an overview.
6, 7. (a) What differentiates the Mosaic Law from any other law code, and what is that Law’s greatest commandment? (b) How could the Israelites show their acceptance of Jehovah’s sovereignty?
6 The Law exalted Jehovah’s sovereignty. Thus, the Mosaic Law is beyond comparison with any other law code. The greatest of its laws was this: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah. You must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” How were God’s people to express love for him? They were to serve him, submitting to his sovereignty.—Deuteronomy 6:4, 5; 11:13.
7 Each Israelite showed his acceptance of Jehovah’s sovereignty by submitting to those placed in authority over him. Parents, chieftains, judges, priests and, eventually, the king all represented divine authority. Jehovah viewed any rebellion against those in authority as rebellion against him. On the other hand, those in authority risked Jehovah’s wrath if they dealt unjustly or arrogantly with his people. (Exodus 20:12; 22:28; Deuteronomy 1:16, 17; 17:8-20; 19:16, 17) Both sides were thus responsible for upholding God’s sovereignty.
8. How did the Law uphold Jehovah’s standard of holiness?
8 The Law upheld Jehovah’s standard of holiness. The words “holy” and “holiness” occur over 280 times in the Mosaic Law. The Law helped God’s people to distinguish between what was clean and unclean, pure and impure, citing about 70 different things that could render an Israelite ceremonially unclean. These laws touched on physical hygiene, diet, and even waste disposal. Such laws provided remarkable health benefits.* But they had a higher purpose—that of keeping the people in Jehovah’s favor, separate from the sinful practices of the debased nations surrounding them. Consider an example.
9, 10. The Law covenant included what statutes regarding sexual relations and childbirth, and what benefits did such laws provide?
9 Statutes of the Law covenant stated that sexual relations—even among married people—and childbirth brought on a period of uncleanness. (Leviticus 12:2-4; 15:16-18) Such statutes did not denigrate these clean gifts from God. (Genesis 1:28; 2:18-25) Rather, those laws upheld Jehovah’s holiness, keeping his worshippers free from contamination. It is noteworthy that the nations surrounding Israel tended to mix worship with sex and fertility rites. Canaanite religion included male and female prostitution. Degradation of the worst sort resulted and spread. In contrast, the Law made the worship of Jehovah entirely separate from sexual matters.* There were other benefits too.
10 Those laws served to teach a vital truth.* How, after all, is the stain of Adam’s sin transmitted from one generation to the next? Is it not through sexual relations and childbirth? (Romans 5:12) Yes, God’s Law reminded his people of the ever-present reality of sin. All of us, in fact, are born in sin. (Psalm 51:5) We need forgiveness and redemption in order to draw close to our holy God.
11, 12. (a) The Law advocated what vital principle of justice? (b) What safeguards against the perversion of justice did the Law include?
11 The Law upheld Jehovah’s perfect justice. The Mosaic Law advocated the principle of equivalence, or balance, in matters of justice. Thus, the Law stated: “Life will be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21) In criminal cases, then, the punishment had to fit the crime. This aspect of divine justice permeated the Law and to this day is essential to understanding the ransom sacrifice of Christ Jesus, as Chapter 14 will show.—1 Timothy 2:5, 6.
12 The Law also included safeguards against the perversion of justice. For instance, at least two witnesses were required in order to establish the validity of an accusation. The penalty for perjury was severe. (Deuteronomy 19:15, 18, 19) Corruption and bribery were also strictly forbidden. (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 27:25) Even in their business practices, God’s people had to uphold Jehovah’s lofty standard of justice. (Leviticus 19:35, 36; Deuteronomy 23:19, 20) That noble and just legal code was a great blessing to Israel!
Laws That Highlight Judicial Mercy and Fair Treatment
13, 14. How did the Law promote the fair and just treatment of a thief and his victim?
13 Was the Mosaic Law a rigid, unmerciful body of rules? Far from it! King David was inspired to write: “The law of Jehovah is perfect.” (Psalm 19:7) As he well knew, the Law promoted mercy and fair treatment. How did it do so?
14 In some lands today, the law seems to show more leniency and favor to the criminals than it does concern for the victims. For instance, thieves may spend time in prison. Meanwhile, the victims may still be without their goods, yet they have to pay the taxes that house and feed such criminals. In ancient Israel, there were no prisons as we know them today. There were strict limits regarding the severity of punishments. (Deuteronomy 25:1-3) A thief had to compensate the victim for what had been stolen. In addition, the thief had to make further payment. How much? It varied. Evidently, the judges were given latitude to weigh a number of factors, such as the sinner’s repentance. That would explain why the compensation required from a thief according to Leviticus 6:1-7 is far less than that specified at Exodus 22:7.
15. How did the Law ensure both mercy and justice in the case of one who killed a person by accident?
15 The Law mercifully acknowledged that not all wrongs are deliberate. For example, when a man killed someone by accident, he did not have to pay life for life if he took the right action by fleeing to one of the cities of refuge scattered throughout Israel. After qualified judges examined his case, he had to reside in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. Then he would be free to live wherever he chose. Thus he benefited from divine mercy. At the same time, this law emphasized the great value of human life.—Numbers 15:30, 31; 35:12-25.
16. How did the Law safeguard certain personal rights?
16 The Law safeguarded personal rights. Consider the ways in which it protected those in debt. The Law forbade entry into a debtor’s home to seize property as security for a loan. Rather, a creditor had to remain outside and allow the debtor to bring the security to him. Thus a man’s home was held inviolate. If the creditor took the debtor’s outer garment as a pledge, he had to return it by nightfall, for the debtor likely needed it to keep warm at night.—Deuteronomy 24:10-14.
17, 18. In matters involving warfare, how were the Israelites different from other nations, and why?
17 Even warfare was regulated under the Law. God’s people were to wage war, not to satisfy a mere lust for power or conquest, but to act as God’s agents in “Wars of Jehovah.” (Numbers 21:14) In many cases, the Israelites had to offer terms of surrender first. If a city rejected the offer, then Israel could besiege it—but according to God’s rules. Unlike many soldiers throughout history, men in Israel’s army were not allowed to rape women or engage in wanton slaughter. They were even to respect the environment, not felling the enemy’s fruit trees.* Other armies had no such restrictions.—Deuteronomy 20:10-15, 19, 20; 21:10-13.
18 Do you shudder to hear that in some lands mere children are being trained as soldiers? In ancient Israel, no man under 20 years of age was inducted into the army. (Numbers 1:2, 3) Even an adult male was exempt if he suffered from undue fear. A newly married man was exempt for a full year so that before embarking upon such hazardous service, he might see an heir born. In this way, the Law explained, the young husband would be able to “stay at home and bring joy to his wife.”—Deuteronomy 20:5, 6, 8; 24:5.
19. What provisions did the Law include for the protection of women, children, families, widows, and orphans?
19 The Law also protected women, children, and families, providing for them. It commanded parents to give their children constant attention and instruction in spiritual things. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) It forbade all forms of incest, under penalty of death. (Leviticus, chapter 18) It likewise forbade adultery, which so often breaks up families and destroys their security and dignity. The Law provided for widows and orphans and in the strongest possible terms forbade the mistreatment of them.—Exodus 20:14; 22:22-24.
20, 21. (a) Why did the Mosaic Law allow for polygamy among the Israelites? (b) In the matter of divorce, why did the Law differ from the standard that Jesus later restored?
20 In this connection, however, some might wonder, ‘Why did the Law allow for polygamy?’ (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) We need to consider such laws within the context of the times. Those who judge the Mosaic Law from the perspective of modern times and cultures are bound to misunderstand it. (Proverbs 18:13) Jehovah’s standard, set way back in Eden, made marriage a lasting union between one husband and one wife. (Genesis 2:18, 20-24) By the time Jehovah gave the Law to Israel, however, such practices as polygamy had been entrenched for centuries. Jehovah well knew that his “obstinate people” would frequently fail to obey even the most basic commands, such as those forbidding idolatry. (Exodus 32:9) Wisely, then, he did not choose that era as the time to reform all of their marital practices. Keep in mind, though, that Jehovah did not institute polygamy. He did, however, use the Mosaic Law to regulate polygamy among his people and to prevent abuses of the practice.
21 Similarly, the Mosaic Law allowed a man to divorce his wife on a relatively broad range of serious grounds. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) Jesus called this a concession that God had made to the Jewish people “out of regard for [their] hard-heartedness.” However, such concessions were temporary. For his followers, Jesus restored Jehovah’s original standard for marriage.—Matthew 19:8.
The Law Promoted Love
22. In what ways did the Mosaic Law encourage love, and toward whom?
22 Can you imagine a modern-day legal system that encourages love? The Mosaic Law promoted love above all else. Why, in the book of Deuteronomy alone, the word for “love” occurs in various forms over 20 times. “You must love your fellow man as yourself” was the second-greatest commandment in all the Law. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37-40) God’s people were to show such love not only to one another but also to the foreign residents in their midst, remembering that the Israelites too had once been foreign residents. They were to show love to the poor and afflicted, helping them out materially and refraining from taking advantage of their weaknesses. They were even directed to treat beasts of burden with kindness and consideration.—Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 19:14, 33, 34; Deuteronomy 22:4, 10; 24:17, 18.
23. What was the writer of Psalm 119 moved to do, and what might we resolve to do?
23 What other nation has been blessed with such a legal code? No wonder the psalmist wrote: “How I do love your law!” His love, however, was not merely a feeling. It moved him to action, for he strove to obey that law and to live by it. Further, he continued: “I ponder over it all day long.” (Psalm 119:11, 97) Yes, he regularly spent time studying Jehovah’s laws. There can be no doubt that as he did, his love for them increased. At the same time, his love for the Lawgiver, Jehovah God, grew as well. As you continue to study divine law, may you too grow ever closer to Jehovah, the Great Lawgiver and God of justice.
For instance, laws requiring the burying of human waste, the quarantining of the sick, and the washing of anyone who touched a dead body were many centuries ahead of the times.—Leviticus 13:4-8; Numbers 19:11-13, 17-19; Deuteronomy 23:13, 14.
Whereas Canaanite temples featured rooms set aside for sexual activity, the Mosaic Law stated that those in an unclean state could not even enter the temple. Thus, since sexual relations brought on a period of uncleanness, no one could lawfully make sex a part of worship at Jehovah’s house.
Teaching was a primary purpose of the Law. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Judaica notes that the Hebrew word for “law,” toh·rahʹ, means “instruction.”
The Law pointedly asked: “Should you besiege a tree of the field as you would a man?” (Deuteronomy 20:19) Philo, a Jewish scholar of the first century, cited this law, explaining that God thinks it “unjust that the anger which is excited against men should wreak itself on things which are innocent of all evil.”