- There are laws here for a king, even though they were not to have a king for centuries.
- God is their king – kingship is a concession, not part of his plan.
- When a king comes to the throne he has to write out the laws of Moses in his own handwriting and read them regularly.
- The king is instructed not to have many wives, many horses, or much money.
- Rules for conducting law courts are given, including provision for a court of appeal. Interestingly, the penalty for contempt of court given here is death.
- There are also rules for justice: no bribes and no favoritism. An alien, an orphan and a widow must get exactly the same treatment as the richest businessman.
- There must be at least two or three witnesses who agree totally on what they have seen or heard. If they bear false witness they must suffer exactly what the person would have suffered if they were found guilty. If my false testimony in court gets someone fined $1,000, then when I am discovered to be a false witness I am fined $1,000. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’
- There are regulations covering the administration of punishments. Floggings are to be a maximum of 40 strokes (they usually made it 39 to make quite sure they did not break the law). Excessive flogging is dehumanizing – the criminal is treated like a lump of meat. When a person is executed, the body must not be left hanging on the tree after sunset. (The apostle Paul applies that to Jesus on the cross in Galatians.) There is no imprisonment.
3. Special crimes
- Murder always carries the death penalty, unless it was manslaughter and unintended. Six cities of refuge, three either side of the Jordan, are to be set up where a man who has killed accidentally can run to escape the death penalty.
- Kidnapping also carries the death penalty.
- Death is the penalty for rapists if the attack took place in the country, but both parties are to be put to death if the attack took place in the town, because the victim could have cried out.
- There are laws against theft and the removing of boundary markers around land.
4. Personal rights and responsibilities
- Injuries and damages.
- Masters and servants: slaves have rights; workers should be paid on time.
- Credit, interest and collateral. Debts are to be cancelled after seven years by every creditor cancelling loans made to fellow Israelites. Interest must not be charged.
- Weights and measures. Properly weighted scales are to be used at all times.
- Inheritance. It is the responsibility of the next of kin to continue the family line.
5. Sexual relations
- Marriage. Strict instructions concerning the marriage bond, for those married, those pledged to be married, and those raped.
- Divorce. Divorce on the grounds of the husband ‘disliking’ his wife is prohibited. Remarriage to the original husband following a divorce is forbidden to protect the innocent woman.
- Adultery. Both parties should be put to death.
- Transvestism. Cross-dressing is detestable to God.
- For leprosy there is a careful procedure to follow if anyone suspects they may have the disease, involving examination by the priest.
- There are laws against eating animals that are found dead.
- Strict rules govern ‘clean and unclean food’. Camels, rabbits, pigs and certain birds must not appear on the menu.
- Meat and milk are not to be cooked together.
This last point is a law which has been misunderstood by almost every Jew: ‘You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’ On the basis of this one verse the Jews have erected a ‘kosher’ system of diet whereby they have (effectively) two kitchens with two completely different sets of pots and pans and sinks to wash them in – in order that dairy products are kept separate from meat products, which Abraham never did, offering veal and butter to his visitors. They have totally misunderstood the purpose of the law, which once again was connected to a rite of the pagan fertility cult. The Canaanites believed that cooking a kid in its mother’s milk caused it to have incest with its mother, which then promoted fertility.
- Benevolence is not just encouraged, it is commanded. Sheaves of corn are to be left in the corner of the field for the poor to pick up.
- Parents should expect respect and support from their children: a stubborn, rebellious son is to be put to death.
- Neighbors whose animals have strayed are to be assisted.
- Animals are to be treated well: no one should muzzle an ox when it is treading out grain; it is permitted to take birds’ eggs from the nest, but the mother should not be removed – she is to be left so that she can lay some more eggs.
- Preparation is vital. War is not for the faint-hearted. Those afraid can go home.
- During a siege the soldiers must not cut down the trees around a city.
- A toilet area should be set up outside the camp and all waste covered up.
- A soldier who has recently been married can stay at home for a year before he has to go to war again. No one should go to war at the expense of a marriage at home.
What are we to make of all this?
God is interested in the whole of our lives. Living right is not just what you do in church on Sunday but concerns the whole of life. There is a right way to do everything. God wants people to be right in every area of their lives.
These laws show an amazing integration. We move, say, from a law about not eating camels to a law about observing a feast day. This is not pleasing to the modern western mind. We feel we must somehow classify all these laws. But God is saying that there is no division in life – there is no sacred/secular divide; all of life is for God.
There is a clear purpose for all these laws. It was not to spoil the people’s fun, or to hedge them about with restrictions. A recurrent phrase throughout the book is ‘that it may be well with you and that you may live a long life in the land’. God wants us healthy and happy, so he gave us laws. Some people picture God sitting in heaven saying ‘don’t’ and ‘thou shalt not’. But his purpose for prohibition is always for our good. He is concerned for our ‘welfare’.