The Law Before Christ
“How I do love your law! All day long it is my concern.”—PSALM 119:97.
1. What governs the movements of the heavenly bodies?
SINCE childhood, Job had likely gazed up at the stars in wonder. Probably, his parents had taught him names for the great constellations and what they knew about the laws that governed the movement of the constellations through the sky. After all, people in ancient times used the steady motions of these vast, elegant star-patterns to mark the changing seasons. But for all the times he gazed at them in awe, Job did not know what mighty forces held these star formations together. Thus, he could scarcely begin to answer when Jehovah God asked him: “Have you grasped the celestial laws?” (Job 38:31-33, The New Jerusalem Bible) Yes, the stars are governed by laws—laws so precise and complex that today’s scientists do not fully comprehend them.
2. Why may it be said that all creation is governed by law?
2 Jehovah is the Supreme Lawgiver in the universe. All his works are governed by law. His beloved Son, “the firstborn of all creation,” was faithfully obeying his Father’s law before the physical universe existed! (Colossians 1:15) The angels too are directed by law. (Psalm 103:20) Even animals are governed by law as they obey the instinctive commands that their Creator has programmed into them.—Proverbs 30:24-28; Jeremiah 8:7.
3. (a) Why does mankind need laws? (b) By what means did Jehovah govern the nation of Israel?
3 What about mankind? Although we are blessed with such gifts as intelligence, morality, and spirituality, we still need a measure of divine law to guide us in using these faculties. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were perfect, so that only a few laws were needed to guide them. Love for their heavenly Father should have given them ample reason to obey gladly. But they disobeyed. (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15-17; 3:6-19) As a result, their offspring were sinful creatures who needed many more laws to provide direction. Over time, Jehovah lovingly filled this need. He gave Noah specific laws that he was to pass on to his family. (Genesis 9:1-7) Centuries later, through Moses, God gave the new nation of Israel a detailed, written Law code. This was the first time that Jehovah governed an entire nation by divine law. Examining that Law will help us to understand the vital role that divine law plays in the lives of Christians today.
The Mosaic Law—Its Purpose
4. Why would it be a challenge for the chosen descendants of Abraham to produce the promised Seed?
4 The apostle Paul, a deep student of the Law, asked: “Why, then, the Law?” (Galatians 3:19) To answer, we need to recall that Jehovah promised his friend Abraham that his family line would produce a Seed who would bring great blessings to all nations. (Genesis 22:18) But herein lay a challenge: Abraham’s chosen descendants, the Israelites, were not all individuals who loved Jehovah. As time went on, most proved to be stiff-necked, rebellious—some were all but ungovernable! (Exodus 32:9; Deuteronomy 9:7) For such ones, being among God’s people was simply a matter of birth, not of choice.
5. (a) What did Jehovah teach the Israelites by means of the Mosaic Law? (b) How was the Law designed to affect the conduct of its adherents?
5 How could such a people produce and be benefited by the promised Seed? Rather than controlling them like robots, Jehovah taught them by means of law. (Psalm 119:33-35; Isaiah 48:17) In fact, the Hebrew word for “law,” toh·rahʹ, means “instruction.” What did it teach? Primarily it taught the Israelites of their need for the Messiah, who would redeem them from their sinful state. (Galatians 3:24) The Law also taught godly fear and obedience. In harmony with the Abrahamic promise, the Israelites were to serve as witnesses of Jehovah to all other nations. So the Law had to teach them a lofty, noble code of conduct that would reflect well on Jehovah; it would help Israel to keep separate from the corrupt practices of the surrounding nations.—Leviticus 18:24, 25; Isaiah 43:10-12.
6. (a) About how many statutes does the Mosaic Law contain, and why should that not be considered excessive? (See footnote.) (b) What insight may we gain through a study of the Mosaic Law?
6 Little wonder, then, that the Mosaic Law contains many statutes—over 600 of them.* This written code regulated the realms of worship, government, morals, justice, even diet and hygiene. Does that mean, though, that the Law was merely a mass of cold regulations and terse commands? Far from it! A study of this Law code offers a wealth of insight into Jehovah’s loving personality. Consider some examples.
A Law That Breathed Mercy and Compassion
7, 8. (a) How did the Law emphasize mercy and compassion? (b) How did Jehovah enforce the Law mercifully in the case of David?
7 The Law emphasized mercy and compassion, especially for the lowly or the helpless. Widows and orphans were singled out for protection. (Exodus 22:22-24) Work animals were protected from cruelty. Basic property rights were respected. (Deuteronomy 24:10; 25:4) While the Law demanded the death penalty for murder, it made mercy available in cases of accidental killing. (Numbers 35:11) Evidently, Israelite judges had leeway to decide on the penalty imposed for some offenses, depending on the attitude of the wrongdoer.—Compare Exodus 22:7 and Leviticus 6:1-7.
8 Jehovah set the example for judges by applying the Law with firmness where necessary but with mercy wherever possible. King David, who had committed adultery and murder, was shown mercy. Not that he went unpunished, for Jehovah did not shield him from the terrible consequences stemming from his sin. Yet, because of the Kingdom covenant and because David was a merciful man by nature and had a deeply repentant heart attitude, he was not put to death.—1 Samuel 24:4-7; 2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 51:1-4; James 2:13.
9. What role did love play in the Mosaic Law?
9 In addition, the Mosaic Law emphasized love. Imagine one of today’s nations having a law code that actually required love! Thus, not only did the Mosaic Law prohibit murder; it commanded: “You must love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) Not only did it forbid the unjust treatment of the alien resident; it commanded: “You must love him as yourself, for you became alien residents in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) Not only did it outlaw adultery; it commanded the husband to make his own wife rejoice! (Deuteronomy 24:5) In the book of Deuteronomy alone, Hebrew words signifying the quality of love are used some 20 times. Jehovah assured the Israelites of his own love—past, present, and future. (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:12-14) Really, the greatest command of the Mosaic Law was: “You must love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your vital force.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) Jesus said that the whole Law hangs upon this command, along with the command to love one’s neighbor. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:37-40) No wonder the psalmist wrote: “How I do love your law! All day long it is my concern.”—Psalm 119:97.
The Misuse of the Law
10. How did the Jews, for the most part, treat the Mosaic Law?
10 How tragic, then, that Israel largely lacked appreciation for the Mosaic Law! The people disobeyed the Law, ignored it, or forgot about it. They polluted pure worship with the disgusting religious practices of other nations. (2 Kings 17:16, 17; Psalm 106:13, 35-38) And they betrayed the Law in other ways as well.
11, 12. (a) How did groups of religious leaders do damage after the days of Ezra? (See box.) (b) Why did the ancient rabbis feel it necessary to “make a fence around the Law”?
11 Some of the worst damage to the Law was done by the very ones who claimed to be teaching and preserving it. This happened after the days of the faithful scribe Ezra of the fifth century B.C.E. Ezra fought hard against the corrupting influences of other nations and stressed the reading and teaching of the Law. (Ezra 7:10; Nehemiah 8:5-8) Some teachers of the Law claimed to follow in Ezra’s footsteps and formed what came to be termed the “Great Synagogue.” Among its sayings was the directive: “Make a fence around the Law.” These teachers reasoned that the Law was like a precious garden. In order that no one should trespass in this garden by transgressing its laws, they created further laws, the “Oral Law,” to prevent the people from coming close to such error.
12 Some might argue that Jewish leaders were justified in feeling this way. After Ezra’s day the Jews were dominated by foreign powers, especially Greece. To combat the influence of Greek philosophy and culture, groups of religious leaders arose among the Jews. (See box, page 10.) In time some of these groups came to rival and even surpass the Levitical priesthood as teachers of the Law. (Compare Malachi 2:7.) By 200 B.C.E., the oral law was making its way into Jewish life. At first these laws were not to be written, lest they be taken as equal to the written Law. But gradually, human thinking was put ahead of the divine, so that eventually this “fence” actually damaged the very “garden” it was supposed to protect.
The Pollution of Pharisaism
13. How did some Jewish religious leaders justify the making of many rules?
13 The rabbis reasoned that since the Torah, or Mosaic Law, was perfect, it must contain an answer to every question that might arise. This notion was not truly reverent. In reality, it gave the rabbis license to use clever human reasoning, making it appear that God’s Word was the basis for rules on all manner of issues—some personal, others simply trivial.
14. (a) How did the Jewish religious leaders stretch the Scriptural precept of separateness from the nations to an unscriptural extreme? (b) What shows that rabbinic rules failed to protect the Jewish people from pagan influences?
14 Again and again the religious leaders took Scriptural precepts and stretched them to extremes. For instance, the Mosaic Law promoted separateness from the nations, but the rabbis preached a form of unreasoning contempt for everything non-Jewish. They taught that a Jew must not leave his cattle at a Gentile inn, for Gentiles “are suspected of bestiality.” A Jewish woman was not allowed to aid a Gentile woman in labor because she would thereby “be assisting to bring to birth a child for idolatry.” Since they were properly suspicious of Greek gymnasiums, the rabbis forbade all athletic exercises. History proves that all of this did little to protect the Jews from Gentile beliefs. In fact, the Pharisees themselves came to teach the pagan Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul!—Ezekiel 18:4.
15. How did the Jewish religious leaders distort the laws on purification and incest?
15 The Pharisees also distorted the laws of purification. It was said that the Pharisees would purify the sun itself if given the chance. Their law held that a delay in “answering nature’s call” would defile a man! Hand-washing became a complex ritual, with rules as to which hand should be washed first and how. Women were considered particularly impure. On the basis of the Scriptural command not to “come near” any fleshly relation (in reality a law against incest), the rabbis ruled that a husband was not to walk behind his wife; nor should he converse with her in the marketplace.—Leviticus 18:6.
16, 17. How did the oral law expand on the command to observe a weekly Sabbath, and with what result?
16 Especially notorious is the spiritual travesty that the oral law made of the Sabbath law. God gave Israel a simple command: Do not do any work on the seventh day of the week. (Exodus 20:8-11) However, the oral law went on to define some 39 different types of forbidden work, including tying or loosening a knot, sewing two stitches, writing down two Hebrew letters, and so on. Then each of these types required endless further rules. Which knots were forbidden and which allowed? The oral law answered with arbitrary regulations. Healing came to be seen as a forbidden work. For example, it was forbidden to set a broken limb on the Sabbath. A man with a toothache could use vinegar to season his food, but he must not suck the vinegar through his teeth. That might heal his tooth!
17 Thus buried under hundreds of man-made rules, the Sabbath law lost its spiritual meaning as far as most Jews were concerned. When Jesus Christ, the “Lord of the sabbath,” performed spectacular, heartwarming miracles on the Sabbath, the scribes and the Pharisees were unmoved. They cared only that he seemed to ignore their regulations.—Matthew 12:8, 10-14.
Learning From the Folly of the Pharisees
18. What was the effect of adding oral laws and traditions to the Mosaic Law? Illustrate.
18 In sum, we might say that these added laws and traditions became affixed to the Mosaic Law much as barnacles become attached to the hull of a ship. A shipowner goes to great lengths to scrape these pesky creatures from his ship because they slow the vessel and destroy its rustproof paint. Likewise, the oral laws and traditions encumbered the Law and exposed it to corrosive misuse. However, instead of scraping such extraneous laws away, the rabbis kept adding more. By the time the Messiah came to fulfill the Law, the “ship” was so encrusted with “barnacles” that it was barely afloat! (Compare Proverbs 16:25.) Rather than protecting the Law covenant, these religious leaders committed the folly of betraying it. Why, though, did their “fence” of rules fail?
19. (a) Why did the “fence around the Law” fail? (b) What shows that the Jewish religious leaders lacked genuine faith?
19 The leaders of Judaism failed to understand that the battle against corruption is fought in the heart and not on the pages of lawbooks. (Jeremiah 4:14) The key to victory is love—love for Jehovah, his law, and his righteous principles. Such love produces a corresponding hatred of what Jehovah hates. (Psalm 97:10; 119:104) Those whose hearts are thus filled with love remain faithful to Jehovah’s laws in this corrupt world. The Jewish religious leaders had the great privilege of teaching the people so as to promote and inspire such love. Why did they fail to do so? Evidently they lacked faith. (Matthew 23:23, footnote) If they had had faith in the power of Jehovah’s spirit to work in the hearts of faithful humans, they would not have felt a need to take rigid control of the lives of others. (Isaiah 59:1; Ezekiel 34:4) Lacking faith, they did not impart faith; they burdened the people with man-made commandments.—Matthew 15:3, 9; 23:4.
20, 21. (a) What overall effect did a tradition-oriented frame of mind have on Judaism? (b) What lesson do we learn from what happened to Judaism?
20 Those Jewish leaders did not promote love. Their traditions produced a religion obsessed with externals, with mechanical obedience for the sake of appearances—a fertile breeding ground for hypocrisy. (Matthew 23:25-28) Their regulations produced countless reasons for judging others. Thus the proud, authoritarian Pharisees felt justified in criticizing Jesus Christ himself. They lost sight of the main purpose of the Law and rejected the one true Messiah. In turn, he had to tell the Jewish nation: “Look! Your house is abandoned to you.”—Matthew 23:38; Galatians 3:23, 24.
21 What is the lesson for us? Clearly, a rigid, tradition-oriented frame of mind does not promote the pure worship of Jehovah! But does this mean that worshipers of Jehovah today are not to have any rules at all unless these are specifically spelled out in Holy Scripture? No. For a complete answer, let us next consider how Jesus Christ replaced the Mosaic Law with a new and better law.
Of course, that is still a very small number in comparison with the legal systems of modern nations. For example, by the early 1990’s, the federal laws of the United States filled over 125,000 pages, with thousands of new laws being added each year.
Can You Explain?
◻ How is all creation governed by divine law?
◻ What was the main purpose of the Mosaic Law?
◻ What shows that the Mosaic Law emphasized mercy and compassion?
◻ Why did the Jewish religious leaders add countless rules to the Mosaic Law, and with what result?
[Box on page 10]
The Jewish Religious Leaders
Scribes: They saw themselves as Ezra’s successors and as the explainers of the Law. According to the book A History of the Jews, “the scribes were not all lofty spirits, and their attempts to draw hidden meanings from the law often degenerated into meaningless formulas and stupid restrictions. These hardened into custom, which soon became an unrelenting tyrant.”
Hasidim: The name means “pious ones” or “saints.” First mentioned as a class around 200 B.C.E., they were politically powerful, fanatic defenders of the purity of the Law against the tyranny of Greek influence. The Hasidim split into three groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
Pharisees: Some scholars believe the name is derived from the words for “Separated Ones,” or “Separatists.” They were indeed fanatic in their drive to be separate from Gentiles, but they also saw their fraternity as separate from—and superior to—the common Jewish people, who were ignorant of the complexities of the oral law. One historian said of the Pharisees: “Viewed as a whole, they treated men like children, formalizing and defining the minutest particulars of ritual observances.” Said another scholar: “Pharisaism produced a mass of legal rules covering all situations, with the inevitable consequence that they magnified trifles and in doing so trifled with magnitudes (Mt. 23:23).”
Sadducees: A group that was closely tied to the aristocracy and the priesthood. They vigorously opposed the scribes and the Pharisees, saying that the oral law did not have the validity of the written Law. That they lost this battle is demonstrated by the Mishnah itself: “Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] Law.” The Talmud, which included much commentary on the oral law, later went so far as to say: “The words of the scribes are . . . more dear than the words of Torah.”
Essenes: A group of ascetics who isolated themselves in separated communities. According to The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the Essenes were even more exclusive than the Pharisees and “at times could out-Pharisee the Pharisees themselves.”
[Picture on page 8]
Job’s parents probably taught him about the laws governing the constellations