The Nature of Law, Part 1
By Roy B. Blizzard, Ph.D.

In The Nature of Law, Part 1, I wrote, as a matter of definition, a brief article on the nature of Law.  In it. I stated that there was no Greek word that could adequately convey the meaning inherent in the Hebrew word Torah, תוֹרה, translated into English as "law."

The English word "law" is closely related to the Greek word nomos, νομος, used to translate Torah,-1- but falls woefully short of conveying the meaning of the Hebrew word, Torah, תוֹרה.

It is a problem not just confined to the subject of law.  Many biblical concepts have been misunderstood because the translation is incapable of conveying the meaning of the Hebrew original.  I am reminded of a statement made by Charles Augustus Briggs in his book, Biblical Study, published in 1883: "… no translation can ever take the place of the original Scripture; for a translation is, at the best, the work of uninspired men who, though holy and faithful, and guided by the Spirit of God, are yet unable to do more than give us their own interpretation of the sacred oracles...  A mere external, grammatical, and lexigraphical translation is worthless.  Unless the spirit of the original has been not only apprehended, but conveyed, it is no real translation."

Professor Briggs continues:
Over one hundreds years ago, Professor Briggs (the Briggs of Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon) realized the importance of a thorough knowledge of the original languages for correct biblical understanding.

In this article, I would like to demonstrate once again the importance of a knowledge of the original languages, as well as to continue our discussion on the subject of law, by analyzing from the Hebrew the moral aspect of law, i.e., the decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.  Although not unlike other law codes, it must be emphasized again that, in the form in which it appears in the biblical text, it is a law code to and for the Hebrew people.

That we can know of a certainty that this is a true statement is indicated by the fourth commandment, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."  (Exodus 20:8)  We will discuss that particular commandment in a moment, but let us look at each one of them now in their biblical order.

The first of the ten commandments is translated in English, "You shall have no other gods before me."  (Lo yihyeh lechah elohim acherim al panai. לא יהיה לכ אלהים אחרים על-פּני)  Translated literally from the Hebrew, it would read something like, "There will not be to you other gods above my face."  This commandment establishes the foundation principle of biblical faith, i.e., monotheism, which acknowledges that it is possible for people to worship other gods, yet fails to acknowledge these "gods" as either co-equal or real, as will be established in the next commandment.

Before we continue, I would like to note what is a common misnomer and misunderstanding.  Nowhere in the Hebrew text is the word "commandment" used in reference to these injunctions.  In chapter 20, verse 1, "God spoke these things (or words) saying…"  Here, again, we know that the Greek word nomos, νομος, or the English word law, or "commandment," does not adequately translate these sayings.

Again, this is Torah, תוֹרה, instructions.  God is teaching His people how He wants them to live, before Him and their fellow man.  In verse 4, the English continues, "You shall not make unto yourself a graven image or any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth.  You shalt not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of generations of them that love and keep my commandments."-2-

Here the word mitzvah, מצוה, is used, but in a general sense, relating not just to the Hebrew people, nor just to the Ten Commandments, but to all those that love Him and observe or regard all His commandments.  The Hebrew verb pasal (pah-SAHL),  פּסל, means to hew and to shape.  Therefore, a pesel (PEH-sel), פּסל, is something that has been hewn into the form, shape, or likeness of a man or an animal and used as an idol or image for worship.  Also included was a likeness or representation (Hebrew temunah, תּמוּנה, the feminine noun meaning form or likeness, from the Hebrew root, min, מין, of any heavenly body, any earthly object, anything beneath the waters of the earth that could possibly be used as an object of worship.  The instruction is explicit: "You shall not bow down to them nor shall you worship them."

Of late, many people have indicated a concern about all different kinds of curio objects, pictures, etc., and some have gone so far as to say that nothing of this sort should be in one's home, that all such objects open one's home to demons and satanic activity.  Some have gone so far as to take down all pictures from their walls and to forbid their children to play with dolls.  Notice, however, that the injunction is specific in that you shall not make these things in order to bow down to them or to worship or serve them as a god.

The third injunction reads in English, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."  From this injunction, people have gotten the mistaken idea that it is a sin to cuss, to use profanity or vulgarity.  Because the Hebrew language is considered to be the holy language, it really does not contain the kinds of words we would classify, in other languages, as profanity or vulgarity.  I suppose there are words that by some stretch of the imagination could be used in a manner considered to be vulgar, but that conception of vulgarity would be assumed by non-native speakers of the language or those not acquainted with proper usage.

It has been stated currently that profanity is nothing more than the verbal attempt on the part of the uneducated mind to express oneself forcefully.  The implication in this injunction is much deeper than what we think of as profanity.  In Hebrew, it says Lo tisa' et shem YHWH Elohecha lashava    לא תּשׂא אתשׁם יהוה אלהיך לשׁוא.   Nasa', נשׂא, means to lift, to carry, to take, specifically to lift up or to take up, as in uttering.   Shavah, שׁוה, means emptiness, nothingness.  You shall not lift up, use, or utter the name of the Lord your God in an empty manner, or use it to no good purpose, or in such a way as to indicate that God is nothing, or means nothing.  Using it in such an empty or idle way would be tantamount to declaring that one believes there is no God.

It is for that reason that the Hebrew people do not utter the Tetragrammaton, the Yud hey vav hey, יהוה, the name of God.  It was uttered by the high priest on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies only after he had gone through a long process of spiritual cleansing for both himself and the people of Israel.  The rest of the time, the people devised all kinds of euphemisms to use instead of calling God by name.

Some of the more popular euphemisms were simply HaShem השׁמ (The Name) or HaKodesh  הקוֹדשׁ (The Holy) or HaMakom המקוֹם (The Place).  Until today, the more orthodox of the Jews refuse even to correctly pronounce the word for God, Elohim, אלהים; rather, they will slightly corrupt it to Elokim, אלקים.  The reason for such action is reverence, a reverential awe for God, for His holiness, for His righteousness, for His nature that is basically lost in the western world.  It is a mentality that views God as being so high, so lofty, so grand and glorious, so exalted above mankind that it ill behooves one to speak His name for fear of using it in an empty manner, as if He were nothing.

The fourth injunction reads in English, "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy."  The Hebrew root, shavat, שׁבת , means to cease or to rest.  The feminine noun, Shabbat, שׁבּת, is a Semitic word that has its roots in antiquity.  In its most primitive form, it was observed simply by abstinence from labor.  In some Assyrian documents, Shabbattum is referred to as "a day of rest for one's heart."

Shabbat is the seventh day and corresponds to Saturday on the Christian calendar.  The Sabbath is Saturday, the seventh day, and only Saturday.  When Christians gather together on Sunday and someone stands up and prays, "Lord, bless this Sabbath," it indicates just how little one knows about the Sabbath.  In Exodus 20, observance of the Sabbath is attributed to God for His having rested on the seventh day of creation and, therefore, blessed the Sabbath and sanctified it.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, Moses enjoined observance of the Sabbath as a day in which Israel could remember that they were once slaves in the land of Egypt and God has brought them out by a mighty hand; hence, it is consecrated in Deuteronomy 5:12ff.  The two principal words that are used in conjunction are zachor זכוֹר (Exodus 20:8) and shamor, שׁמוֹר, (Deuteronomy 5:12).  Zachor means to remember, recall, call to mind, as in remembering past experiences.  It means to remember in the sense of observing or commemorating a special day or event, and in this sense, zachor is parallel to shamor of Deuteronomy 5:12.  Shamar, שׁמר, the verb, means to keep, watch, or preserve.  It means to observe or celebrate, as a festival.  As such, the Sabbath is observed in Judaism until today.

One must note that this injunction is missing in the seven laws of Noah, in Jesus' statement to the young man who asked "What must I do to inherit eternal life?", and from the injunctions imposed on the non-Jewish community in Acts 15.  In biblical days, as it is until today in Israel, Sabbath began at sundown on Friday night and ended at sundown on Saturday night.

The fifth injunction is interesting in that it is the only one linked to a promise.  The injunction reads, "Honor your father and your mother…"  The traditional promise linked to the injunction is "…that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God has given you."  The word "honor" is the Hebrew root kaved.  The piel (the intensive active form of the verb) as used in this passage, Exodus 10:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16, means to make honorable, to honor, to glorify.

In Hebrew society, the family was everything.  It was the foundation of society and the place where all activity, both the secular and the sacred, took place.  There was no division of life or activity into the secular on the one hand and the sacred on the other.  In Hebrew society, the child had a responsibility to his parents for as long as they lived to ensure their dignity and position in society.  The concept of the responsibility of the child to the parents was woven into the whole fabric of Hebrew social structure.  We know from the Nuzi Tablets that a childless couple was looked down upon by society.

The Nuzi Tablets illuminated our understanding relative to certain events about which we read in the biblical text.  For example, one wonders why, in Genesis 15, when God spoke to Abraham and told him that his reward would be exceedingly great, Abraham responded, "What will you give as I go childless and the one who will inherit my possessions is Eliezer of Damascus?"

This is perplexing in view of the fact that Lot, his nephew, was a blood relative and would seem to be the logical inheritor, while Eliezer is mentioned only in the context of a household steward.  From the Nuzi Tablets, we learn that it was a custom for the childless couple to adopt a son who would be designated as the household steward.  He was charged with caring for the family, seeing to their health and comfort and, finally, ensuring them a proper and dignified burial at their death.  He would then, in turn, inherit all of his adoptive parents' possessions.  Once the child had been adopted, he could never be disinherited unless the couple had a child of their own, in which case their natural son would take precedence over the adoptive son in matters of inheritance.

In Jesus' day, the custom of honoring one's parents persisted, and on several occasions, Jesus upbraided the hypocritical religious leaders who had been negligent in honoring their parents, or who had attempted to circumvent their responsibility to their parents.  In the Mishnah, much is said about the rebellious son, and Order Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 7, Mishnah 4 lists the rebellious and disobedient son among those who are to be stoned to death.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 declares, "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son that will not hearken to the voice of his father or to the voice of his mother, though they chasten him, and will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of his city, 'This, our son, is stubborn and rebellious.  He does not hearken unto our voice.  He is worthless and a drunkard,' and all of the men of his city shall stone him with stones until he die: so you shall put away the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear and fear."

The next injunction reads in English, "You shall not kill."  An incorrect translation and misunderstanding of this passage has led to the development of numerous erroneous concepts and theologies, such as the Theology of Pacifism.  The injunction in Hebrew is very brief but quite clear.  Lo tirtzach, לא תּרצח.  The root, ratzach רצח, basically means to murder or to slay with premeditation.  Although it is used in the sense of manslaughter without intent, in the intensive active form of the verb it means to assassinate.  It has nothing to do with justifiable homicide or with one fulfilling the national obligation or responsibility by serving in the armed forces.

According to Jewish law, a man was responsible for his own self-preservation, as well as for the protection of his wife and family.  In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a states, "If one comes to kill you, anticipate it and kill him first."  The reason for such an injunction should be obvious, but for some reason it has escaped us.  Man was created in the image and likeness of God to be the representative of the totality of what God is here on this earth.  If he allows himself to be killed, he has allowed just that much God-likeness to be cut off from the face of the earth.

The seventh injunction is probably the most difficult one to treat in the list of ten.  It reads in English simply, "You shall not commit adultery."  The problem lies in the complicated definition of adultery according to Jewish law.  To adequately treat the subject would take far more than the limited space I am allowed here.  Basically, adultery, in a physical sense, was voluntary sexual intercourse between a married woman, or one engaged through payment of the bridal price, with a man other than her husband.

Simply stated, in view of customs regarding marriage and the husband and wife relationship in biblical days, adultery was the violation of another man's personal property.  Although, in Judaism, the woman was viewed as an equal with man in the partnership of matrimony, nonetheless a bridal price had been paid to her father or guardian for her hand.  In that sense, she was considered as the property of her husband.

The Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume Two, page 313, points this out, "The extra-marital intercourse of a married man is not, per se, a crime, either in biblical or later Jewish law.  This distinction stems from the economic aspect of Israelite marriage; the wife was the husband's possession, of a special sort, and adultery constituted a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife, as the husband's possession, had no such right to him."

The subject was further complicated by both polygamy and concubinage, which were commonly practiced in the biblical period.  Many passages in the biblical text, in speaking of adultery, are used figuratively of idolatrous worship or spiritual adultery.  Again, the subject is so complicated that it deserves a much more exhaustive treatment.  I would like to deal specifically, and in some detail, just with this particular injunction in the next issue of Yavo Digest.

The eighth injunction states in English, "You shall not steal," or simply, in Hebrew, Lo tignov  ‏לֹא תִּגְנֹב‎.  The Hebrew, ganav, ‏גָּנַב‎, means to take by stealth.  A gannav, ‏גַּנָּב‎, is a thief, one who breaks in and steals.  There are other words in Hebrew that are used in a similar context, i.e., gazal גּזל, means to seize, to rob, to tear away, to plunder, to take violent possession of.  A shoded,  שׁוֹדד, is one who despoils, who devastates and, although used basically for one who brings something to ruin, is, at times, used parallel with the ganav.

Stealing has to do with deception, and at this point I want to emphasize that there is very little difference between the one who steals or takes that which does not belong to him, whatever that might be, and the one who deceives, one who is very closely akin to the liar.  Both have deception as their motive, with the intent to do someone harm.  You can take it as a general rule of thumb that, if a person will lie to you with the intent to do you harm, he will also steal from you.  Notice that intent is everything.

The ninth injunction is translated into English, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."  In Hebrew, Lo ta'ane bereacha ed shaker (shah-KEHR) לא תּענה ברעך עד שׁקר.  An ed sheker (SHEH-kehr) is one who bears or gives false testimony in a court of law to his neighbor's detriment, or perhaps even death.  Sheker is deception, falsehood, that which betrays.  It also means fraud, wrong, and in the context of Exodus 20:16, an injurious falsehood and given in a court of law.  The testimony is given with full knowledge of its falsity and of the deception involved with the intent to do injury or damage.

The old jibe, "one lie is just as bad as the other," or, "A white lie is just as bad as a black lie," or that "A lie is a lie is a lie" is, as you can see, not necessarily true.  Again, motive and intent are at the heart of this injunction.  What is one's intent?  What is one's motive?  Is it possible, upon occasion, to not tell the whole truth for the purpose of doing someone good rather than harm?  Or that not telling the whole truth would be the kindest thing that one could do?

With our words, our comments, one must consider relationships.  One must be sensitive to feelings.  What is the kindest thing that I can do?  What is going to be beneficial and uplifting, rather than injurious and damaging?  The thief and the liar are both out to do you harm, to their own personal gain.

The last injunction is translated into English, "You shall not covet…"  Lo tachmod לא תחמד.  This is an interesting passage and an interesting word, the word chamad, חמד.  The word chamad is used by Jesus in Matthew 5:28 when He says, "If you look upon a woman to lust her…"  Chamad, in a negative sense, means an inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire of idolatrous tendency.  In other words, the individual is so consumed by his desire that the object of his desire becomes like a thing of worship, like an idol or a god, that he must possess at any cost.

In this context, the coveting of his neighbor's house or wife or servants or whatever the possessions might be implies that he has become so consumed with possessions that he will go to any lengths to possess them, including the violation of the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth injunctions.

FOOTNOTES (by Beit HaDerekh)
-1- See Gal. 3:10 quoting Deut. 27:26. Return.
-2- The comments on the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible rationalize away this command, disobeying the Torah (Deut. 4:2; 12:32) thereby "making the Word of God of no effect" (Mark 7:13) ("allowing" them to have crucifixes and statues of Mary and saints in their homes and church buildings), and divides the tenth into two. Return.

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. 2, 1993

The Nature of Law, Part 1

(Beit HaDerekh does not necessarily agree with all statements made herein.)

To Beit HaDerekh

Beit HaDerekh Site Index

Last update 21 February 2020