THE NATURE OF LAW – Part 1
By Roy B. Blizzard, Ph.D.
The subject of law is probably one of the most misunderstood in Christendom. For most
Christians, law conjures up all kinds of negative mental images. Law is viewed as something
harsh, bad, transient, and superseded by something better; namely, grace. Passages such as
John 1:16-17 seem to indicate this: "And of His fullness, we all have received, and grace
upon grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus the
Such thinking does a grave injustice to God's revelation of Himself to mankind. The
English word law is used to translate the Hebrew word Torah. Torah is the feminine
noun from the root yarah. The root, ירה, means to throw or to
shoot or to cast, as in the casting of lots or the shooting of arrows. It means to point
out, to show. It means to direct, to teach, to instruct.
A moreh, מורה, is direction or instruction. It sets
forth the way man is to live. It instructs man as to how he is to live in an ethical and
moral way among his fellow man and before God.
Although law is a commonly used translation of the Hebrew Torah, it gives a
mistaken impression as to what Torah is. This misunderstanding derives from the Greek
translation of Torah as nomos, νομος, and later into
Latin as lex. However, nomos means anything established, anything received by
usage, a custom, law. It is used frequently in the Septuagint to translate not only Torah,
but also chukah, חקה, and dat, דת.
Chukah, although frequently used interchangeably with Torah, is closer to
nomos in meaning than is Torah.
The underlying idea of Torah is that of teaching, instruction. Torah is God instructing
His people that they may know how to live in a moral and ethical world in a way pleasing to
Him and at peace with their fellow man.
The idea of law in Hebrew is not something that, if transgressed, is going to get you
"zapped." Torah is instruction that, if followed, will enrich one's life; if ignored, will
diminish it. Law is frequently viewed as that which God has commanded, as the commandments,
or the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew word translated as commandment is mitzvah,
מצוה. It means to lay charge upon or to give charge to. A
mitzvah is a charge or a commandment. Commandments, when performed, designate the
individual as moral and ethical. Moral and ethical acts, when performed, set the individual
apart from the irresponsible, the unethical, the immoral. Acts, when performed, benefit
both the performer and the recipient—acts that please God.
I think we can safely say that all law given by God was for the purpose of instructing
man as to how he was to live here in this world. To that end, the Hebrews developed a very
sophisticated legal system, courts of laws, and courts of justice.
The earliest court of law recorded in the Bible was that instituted by Moses on the
advice of his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses delegated the judicial power to appointed chiefs
of one thousands, one hundreds, fifties, and tens (Exodus 18:21; Deuteronomy 1:15). He
retained jurisdiction in the most difficult disputes (Exodus 18:22-26; Deuteronomy 1:17).
It appears that in the time of Moses, judicature preceded law, which only originated as
a result of judicial precedent on legal rulings. As the Israelites settled in the land,
judges were to be appointed in every town. In towns with fewer than 120 inhabitants, there
was a court of only three judges. In towns of 120 or more, a court known as the Small
Sanhedrin, Sanhedrin Ketanah, consisting of 23 judges, was to be established. The
highest court was the Sanhedrin Gedolah, or the Great Sanhedrin, consisting of 71
judges. The Great Sanhedrin sat in the Temple in Jerusalem and had unlimited legislative,
administrative, and judicial powers.
Certain crimes were reserved for jurisdiction by the Great Sanhedrin and could be judged
by it alone. The uttering of a false prophecy or the teaching by an elder, zaken, of
rebellion and subversion, were crimes so heinous they could be judged only by the Great
Sanhedrin. In certain cases where capital punishment was meted out, the death penalty had
to be confirmed by the Great Sanhedrin before it could be carried out. The rebellious son,
one who enticed another to idolatry, and one who gave false witness in a court of law are
Certain administrative functions, such as the appointment of courts of 23, the election
of kings and high priests, declarations of war, and the offering of certain sacrifices could
only be done by the Great Sanhedrin.
Legislatively, the Great Sanhedrin was the essential source of all oral law. Law set
forth by the Great Sanhedrin was binding on everybody, and anyone who attempted to repudiate
it was subject to the death penalty.
In addition to these regular courts, there was a special court of priests that sat in
the Temple who supervised the functions of ritual and ceremony and, by the Talmudic Period,
it appears that, at times, just a single judge could judge in civil cases.
In order to be appointed as a judge, one had to meet certain qualifications. The seven
fundamental qualifications a judge must possess were wisdom, humility, fear of God, disdain
of money, love of truth, love of people, and a good reputation. He must have a "good eye"
(be generous), a humble soul, must be pleasant in company, speak kindly, be strict with
himself, conquer lustful impulses, have a courageous heart to save the oppressed from hate,
cruelty and persecution, and shun wrong and injustice.
Maimonides, also known as Rambam, stated that judges must be wise and sensible, learned
in the law, full of knowledge and acquainted with subjects such as medicine, mathematics,
and astronomy, as well as astrology and the ways of sorcerers and magicians and the
absurdities of such matters so as to know how to judge them. The judge must not be too old,
nor a eunuch. He may not be childless and must be free from bodily defects. He should have
an imposing appearance and be fluent in many languages.
While sitting in judgment, a judge must be patient, hearing both sides of the case with
impartiality. He must judge deliberately and with care, and not delay justice. His
judgment must be without undue pressure or influence through either words or threat or
bribery. Additionally, before sitting in judgment, the judge must be sure that any other
judges sitting with him in judgment were properly qualified and not sit together with
another judge he hates or despises.
Although the rabbis ascribed the origin of the bet din (literally "house judgment") to biblical characters such as Moses, Gideon, Samuel, David, and Solomon, the bet din belongs principally to the Second Temple Period. According to Baba Kamma 82a, the establishment of the bet din is attributed to Ezra. According to tradition, he decreed that the bet din was to convene on Mondays and Thursdays in all populated centers.
During the Second Temple Period, Judaism boasted a very highly developed legal system with its courts and laws. In the Mishnah, Order Nezikin, there is a chapter, Sanhedrin, that deals with courts, laws, and punishment for those condemned for a capital crime. The chapter, or tractate, is not only interesting but important for the understanding of the whole subject of law, as well as crime, trial, and punishment, as it probably was in the first century of the Common Era.
We are told, for example, that the Great Sanhedrin met in a place called the Hall of Hewn Stone, in Hebrew the Lishkat Hagazit¸ (לשכּת הגזית), situated in the southeast corner of the Inner Court of the Temple. The president, nasi (נשׂיא), and the vice president, who is called av bet din (אב בּית דּין), sat next to one another, and the remaining 69 sat in a semi-circle facing them.
The tractate Sanhedrin is an interesting tractate divided into 11 chapters. The reading of the tractate gives us an indication of the level of sophistication of the legal system in the first century. Cases judged before a court of three, those judged before a court of 23, and those judged by the 71 are set forth in Chapter 1.
Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the various means or methods of dealing with one condemned for a capital crime. According to Chapter 7, Mishnah 1, four kinds of death penalty were vested in the court: stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling. The descending order of severity was burning, stoning strangling, and beheading.
The one to be burned was buried in manure up to the armpits. A rope was then wound around the neck with one witness on one end and the other witness on the other end, and the rope was then pulled until the condemned opened his mouth; then a ladle of molten lead was poured down the throat.
The person to be stoned was taken to the place of stoning, and one of the witnesses pulled him into a pit six cubits deep. If he died from the fall, that was sufficient. If not, the second witness dropped a large stone on his heart. If that did not suffice, then his stoning had to be carried out by the people of Israel. Those that were stoned were then hung from a post protruding from the ground. The hands were tied together and the body was suspended from the post which was then leaned against a wall. The body must be buried before sunset, and the stone and the gallows were buried with the corpse.
Those to be beheaded had their heads cut off with a sword or an ax. The one to be strangled was put in manure up to his armpits with a rope wrapped around the neck, one witness on one side, the other witness on the other, and the rope pulled by the witnesses until the condemned was dead.
In each case, the crimes are set forth for each method of capital punishment. For example, the blasphemer, the idolater, the soothsayer, the rebellious and disobedient son, the son who cursed his father or his mother, the one who profaned the Sabbath, and the one who led others into idolatry were all to be stoned.
Those to be burned were largely guilty of sexual sins. The murderer and the people of an apostate city were to be beheaded. Of course, there were transgressions that did not merit capital punishment but for which punishment was due. In such cases, scourging was the punishment rendered, the meting out of stripes up to a maximum number of forty, depending on the transgression. Another tractate in Order Nezikin relates to the meting out of such punishment. The tractate is called Makkot, which means blows.
There are 59 offenses listed in Chapter 3 that merit punishment by flagellation. According to Rabbi Judah, the transgressor receives 13 stripes on the body, 13 across one shoulder, and 13 across the other shoulder. The additional stripe, the 40th one, was to be administered between the shoulders.
Makkot 3:12-13 reads, "In what manner do they scourge him? They tie his two hands to a post on either side, and the Hazzan (חזן) of the synagogue takes hold of his garments at the neck and lays bare his body. If the garments are torn, they are torn. If the seams are torn, they are torn, so that the chest is exposed. A stone is placed behind him on which the Hazzan of the synagogue stands and a strap of calf hide is in his hand, first folded into two and the two folded into four, and attached thereto are two strips of ass hide which rises and falls. Its handpiece is a handbreadth in length, and its width is one handbreadth, and its end must reach up to his navel, and he lays one third of the lashes in front of him on the chest and two thirds behind him, and he must not scourge him when the victim is standing or sitting but only when he is bending over, as it is said that the judge shall cause him to lie down [Deuteronomy 25:2], and he who smites must smite with his one hand and with all his might."
When one considers the subject of law, one must differentiate between the various kinds of law. In our discussion of courts, crime and punishment, we have been dealing with only one aspect of law, the civil. However, one must also note the moral aspect of law; that is, the Ten Commandments and the ceremonial aspect of law with its feasts, festivals, ritual, and so forth.
The moral aspect of the law, the Ten Commandments, is without doubt the best known of the various aspects of law. It has been frequently stated by Christians that the Ten Commandments serve as the foundation upon which all law of the Western world is based.
Such, however, is not really the case. The Ten Commandments, as we see them presented in Exodus 20, were given by God to Moses and the Hebrew people. There had been early law codes, much older than the time of Moses, containing laws similar to those found in both the Ten Commandments and, later, in Jewish civil law.
Many are acquainted with, or have at least heard of, the law code of Hammurabi, circa 1792-1750 B.C. His famous law code was discovered in 1901-2 at Susa, one-time capital of the Elamites. It is in the form of a boundary stone and stands about eight feet high. This law code was written in Akkadian and touches on many matters which are dealt with in the legal portions of the Torah.
An early law code, predating that of Hammurabi by at least 100 years, was from the town of Eshunna and of the king Lipit Ishtar. Other documents give us insight into the laws and customs of peoples from the time of the patriarchs down to the fifteenth century B.C.
The most dramatic of these written records are those from the ancient Hurrian town of Nuzi. Some twenty thousand documents were found in the excavations, reflecting very close parallels between the laws and customs of Nuzi and those found in the Torah. That the Ten Commandments, or the moral aspect of Torah, were exclusively Hebrew can be demonstrated from the injunctions to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Although we can find parallels for other customs and laws in extra-biblical sources, we can find no parallel for the fourth Commandment.
A law code less familiar to non-Jews is more universal in scope and extends to all mankind. It is the law code of the Hebrews but not for the Hebrews. To Gentiles who were not prepared to become Hebrews, or Jews, a law code knows as the Seven Laws of Noah applied. Those, traditionally enumerated, are prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual sins, theft, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish a legal system. They are derived exegetically from Torah; specifically, commandments God gave to Adam and, later on, to Noah. By righteous conduct based upon these fundamental laws, they would earn divine approval. With the Seven Laws of Noah, we can see God's grace extended far beyond the Hebrew people to all mankind.
The ceremonial aspect of the law dealt with feasts, festivals, holy days, and religious observances. The cycle of the Jewish year centered around these special days. Unlike Christianity that compartmentalizes life into the secular and the sacred, in Judaism there is no such compartmentalization. All of life is sacred.
The cycle of the Jewish year, with its feasts, festivals, and sacred days, was designed to make the people God conscious, their daily life and activity God centered. Injunctions concerning these observances assumed the form of Torah, Torah as instruction.
It is difficult for the average Christian to project himself back some 2000 years in history into a cultural condition and mentality totally foreign to that of the Western world today. That is exactly, however, what we must do to gain proper perspective on the law.
First, we must understand that the context is Jewish. The language is Hebrew. Jesus and Paul were both Jewish, and their perspective on law is deeply rooted in the Judaism of their day. According to Jewish thought in their day, there were two Torahs, the written and the oral. The written was, of course, the five books of Moses. The oral consisted of those traditions given to Moses at Sinai and handed down, or communicated orally, from one generation to the next.
Torah, therefore, is all-encompassing. It encompasses daily life, the totality of what a person is in his relationship with both God and his fellow man. The purpose of Torah is to instruct man in his relationships. The teachings of Jesus are full of grace when one interprets His teachings from the proper Hebrew perspective, as Dr. Brad Young has correctly pointed out in his excellent book, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Paulist Press, 1989).
Jesus emphasizes grace in His teaching as much as Paul. Our problem in understanding the words of Paul and Jesus on the subject of law is our failure to consider their audiences. Jesus' audience is almost entirely Jewish. His words are directed to those of the household of Israel. Paul, on the other hand, addresses a non-Jewish, or Gentile audience.
The English word law is a very poor translation of the Greek word nomos, used by Paul in his epistles. The meaning and scope of nomos is far greater than our English concept of law. Paul is Jewish, a "Hebrew of the Hebrews." When he says "law," he is thinking Torah. Torah is Paul's way of life. Torah is what Paul is. Torah had molded him from the beginning and made him what he was.
In Romans 7:12, Paul declares, "The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good." Paul viewed God with a Hebrew mind. The Greek mind had to reason everything out. The Greek mind was idealistic. They saw the world as it was, then tried to fashion it into what they thought it ought to be.
The Hebrew mind was realistic. Theirs was a God not thought out. They simply took Him for what He was and neither tried to explain nor understand. For them much was a mystery, but that posed no problems. Questions could remain unanswered, things unknown. Only one thing they needed to know—God is and He is one. So great, so wonderful, so powerful, so all-encompassing is He that one is left in wonder and awe.
Torah assists one in understanding something of the nature of God and His love for His people. Torah is a magnificent demonstration of God's grace. Jesus, in speaking to the household of Israel, declares, "I did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it." (Matthew 5:17)
How does one destroy the law? By misinterpreting it. How does one fulfill the law? By correctly interpreting it. From the Hebrew, the passage would be translated, "Think not that I am come to misinterpret, or to misapply, the law. Rather, I have come to correctly interpret and, thereby, cause the law to stand upright on a firm foundation.
According to that law that Jesus came to correctly interpret, non-Jews would have their part in the world to come through the observance of the Seven Laws of Noah. In some sources, these are reduced to four, i.e., "pollutions of idols, fornication, things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20, at the Jerusalem Council), or as few as three-idolatry, murder, and sexual impurity.
According to Paul, Jesus opened the flood gates of the kingdom to non-Jews that they might gain access to a greater understanding of, and a deeper relationship with, God, as well as entering into a right relationship with their fellow man. That was accomplished through God's grace. Man did not deserve it. Man could not earn it. God, in His unmerited favor, bestowed the gift upon mankind, a gift that was appropriated by faith.
Here again, we must be careful in that the biblical meaning of faith is not belief but faithfulness. For Paul, the Hebrew, the Jew, he would be faithful to the law of Moses, and that he was; but that law was not a legal system. Torah was all-encompassing, full of God's mercy and grace. But that law of Moses, so rich, so spiritual, so full of meaning for those of the household of Israel, had little meaning for those who lacked the 2000 years of moral and spiritual tradition the Hebrews enjoyed. Their access to the kingdom was dependent entirely upon God's grace.
In Romans 5, 6, and 7, Paul speaks eloquently of God's grace, "Where sin abounded, grace would much more abound. What shall I say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid (Romans 6:1-2). Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? God forbid (Romans 6:15). Is the law sin? God forbid (Romans 7:7). Wherefore, the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good (Romans 7:12). The law is spiritual (Romans 7:14). I delight in the law of God." (Romans 7:22)
The problem with law is not that it is not good, or spiritual, or holy. The problem is that we have problems with keeping it. The law is not weak; the law is not imperfect. We are weak. We are imperfect. But thanks be to God, we are declared to be righteous—in a right relationship with God—based not upon what we are but upon what He is.
Paul says in Romans 3 that the righteousness of God is by the faith of Jesus unto all and upon all that believe. Galatians 2:16, "knowing that a man is not justified," that is, declared to be righteous, "by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus," not faith in.
Many translations have incorrectly translated the Greek genitive. Translated in, this passage makes no sense whatever. When correctly translated, we have a marvelous declaration of Paul's theology regarding the Gentiles' justification as Paul continues, "...even we have believed in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."
Although the law is spiritual, the law is holy, righteousness does not come by the law. Righteousness comes through faithfulness. Faithfulness justifies righteousness. Righteousness justifies reward. Unfortunately, it has been very difficult for both the Christian and the Jew to understand Paul because of what others have said about him, just as it has been difficult for Christians to understand the law because of what theologians have said about it. Many Jewish theologians write negatively about Paul and his teachings based not upon careful examination of Paul but, rather, based upon what some Christian theologian said about Paul.
Marcion, the heretic, circa 144 C.E., had a negative impact on Christians and Christianity relative to the law and Judaism that remains until this day. Marcion was a rabid anti-Semite. He hated Judaism and the Jews. He believed that not only the law but the whole Old Testament was bad, had passed away, and had been superseded by the New. Marcion loved Paul because he misunderstood Paul's position on the law and grace. Marcion believed that Paul rejected the law and emphasized grace.
Martin Luther also had a negative impact on Christian theology by misunderstanding Paul and developing the theology of justification by faith. According to Luther, faith negated Torah. Law was bad, imperfect, and transient. Judaism, as a religious system, was bad, and all Jews would burn in Hell unless they accepted Jesus as their personal savior. Luther was as rabid an anti-Semite as was Marcion, and his anti-Semitism is clearly reflected in his theology.
Unfortunately, the influence of Marcion, Luther, and others of their ilk and kin remain with us until today, but they were wrong. They misunderstood. They did not understand Jesus' view of Torah. They did not understand that Jesus saw the Torah as good, as holy, as God' revelation of Himself to mankind. They failed to understand that Jesus' purpose in coming was not to destroy, cancel, or annul the law, but to correctly interpret it and thus cause it to stand upright.
Paul says essentially the same thing, as previously mentioned. Paul's message sets forth the true meaning and purpose of Torah, the divine plan of God for man. It was the purpose of both Jesus and Paul to correctly interpret Torah. It was the focus of their teaching, the heart and center of their lives.
Jesus' purpose was to establish God's Torah among the Jews. Paul's purpose was to extend forth God's Torah to embrace the non-Jews. For both Jesus and Paul, Torah was grace.
Dr. Roy B. Blizzard, Jr., is president of Yavo, Inc., a non-profit corporation dedicated to biblical research and education. Dr. Blizzard attended Oklahoma Military academy and has a B.A. degree from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. He has an M.A. degree from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, New Mexico, an M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Ph.D. in Hebrew studies from the University of Texas at Austin. From 1969 to June 1974, he was an instructor in Hebrew, biblical history, and biblical archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Blizzard has hosted over 500 television programs about Israel and Judaism for various television networks, and is a frequent television and radio guest. He is the author of Let Judah Go Up First, co-author of Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, and has additionally authored over twenty-five lecture series on subjects as diverse as "Science and the Bible" and "Marriage, the Family, and Human Sexuality."
Yavo Digest, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
The Nature of Law, Part 2
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