Searching for Wisdom

Many years ago, when I got really serious about studying political and economic issues from a Christian perspective, I started in the New Testament. I found some good stuff, but there was just not enough material there to do the job. The criteria and principles from which a political or economic theory could be developed were missing. Jesus made lots of comments with political implications and his comments about paying taxes are interesting.

He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Luke 20:25).

This response was very clever, because it silenced his critics at the time, but it less clear what it means in terms of political theory.

Paul and Peter made some interesting comments about submission to political authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). However, they did not say which authorities are legitimate and which are not. It is uncertain whether they were giving universal principles or just acknowledging the reality of their current situation. These passages do not provide the basis for a political theory without the support of deeper analysis and reinforcing principles. The New Testament simply does not provide sufficient guidance for those attempting to develop a Christian approach to economics and political theory

I then went Back to the Old Testament Prophets. They were great at pointing out what was wrong with their own societies. However, when it came to understanding what should be, there was just not enough there. None of the prophets describe an ideal political and economic system.

I actually had to go Back to Exodus and Deuteronomy to find a complete political and economic system. Even in these books, it is hidden, but a complete system is there. It just takes some digging out.

Law and Judges

God's system of government and justice is straightforward, but effective. It consists of wise judges applying God's law. Understanding how judges are raised and how they operate is relatively easy. The challenge is to identify the universal laws that judges must apply. The problem is that God's judicial laws are mixed up with a lot of other material and scattered throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The universal judicial laws are hidden among instructions about the tabernacle sacrifices that were fulfilled in Jesus and rules that were only relevant while children of Israel were living in Canaan. Therefore, before attempting to apply God's system of law and judges, we must identify the laws that God intends for every human society.

Our challenge is to identify the instructions that applied only to Israel and distinguish them from permanent laws that allow any human society to function peaceably. Searching through the stuff that is no longer relevant will not be easy, but we should be wise enough to handle the challenge.

Most Christians give up before they get this far. They acknowledge the need for law, but just assume that God's law is irrelevant. His law is ignored, despite Jesus statement that it still stands and Paul saying that it is perfect. Rejecting God's law and replacing it with human law is foolish. We cannot say that God's law is unusable, if we have not attempted to discern which of his laws are relevant to the operation of civil society in the modern world.

Which Law

The choice is never between law and no law. The real choice is always "whose law?" Actually, there are only two options: God's law or man's law. Plenty of human lawmakers are putting up their hands, but if God is our Lawgiver (Is 33:22) his law will be better. In a choice between God's law and man's law, Christians should prefer God's law to human law.

Deciding that God's law is better than human law is easy. Defining the judicial laws that he wants applied in every human society is a more challenging task. This is my goal for this article. I am encouraged by the promise of Psalm 119:97-100.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.

Book of the Law

The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Torah. This Hebrew word is often translated as law, but a better translation would be "instruction" or "teaching". The Torah contains God's instruction to the children of Israel about the way they should live.

A common Old Testament expression is the "Words of the Law" (Dabar, Torah). Moses was told to write the Words of the Law.

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: "Take this book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you (Deut 31:24).

He read from this book to the people.

Assemble the people-men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law (Deut 31:12)

Joshua also read from the Words of the Law

Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law-the blessings and the curses-just as it is written in the book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly (Joshua 8:34-35).

Moses and Joshua taught the children of Israel from the Words of the Law.

Sometimes the Torah is called the "Book of the Covenant".

Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey" (Ex 24:7).

Another title is the "Book of the Law".

Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left (Jos 23:6).

The Torah contains instructions for life.

The Big Box

The five books of the Torah cover a variety of topics. It includes:

  • creation
  • history
  • exodus
  • civil laws
  • sacrifices
  • tabernacle design
  • covenants
  • infection control and hygiene
  • genealogies
  • blessings and curses
  • rules for priesthood
  • land distribution

The Torah is a big box. A lot of different stuff is all mixed up together and sometimes repeated. We need to be clear about which parts have been fulfilled, and which parts remain in force.

Unworkable Principles

We need a principle of interpretation to help us decide which parts of the law still apply. Several of the principles that have been considered do not work in practice.

i) Confirmation in the New Testament

One common approach is to say that only those parts of the Torah that are confirmed in the New Testament are still applicable in this age. This appears sensible at first glance, but it does not really resolve the problem. Some issues covered by the Torah are not dealt with in the New Testament. That does not mean they are irrelevant. Often they are not mentioned in the New Testament, because they are already fully covered in the Old Testament.

ii) Exalting the Ten Commandments

A common principle of interpretation is to raise the Ten Commandments above other laws. They are very well known, but they are not very helpful for deciding what is relevant to our world. We have no problem seeing murder and theft as crimes, but now that Jesus has fulfilled the sabbath requirements and created a better rest (Heb 4:1-11), sabbath-breaking cannot be a crime. Coveting cannot be a crime, because the state cannot see into a person's heart. That means at least two of the Ten Commandments cannot be enforced in a modern society.

The Ten Commandments cannot be applied directly in the modern world. They hang on many courthouse walls, but they are mostly ignored. Very few Christians could list all ten, and fewer still would want them applied. They are not the key that we need.

iii) Land Laws

Some commentators have suggested that laws connected to land were nullified when Israel lost the land in AD 70. This criterion does not really work, because "connection to the land" is impossible to define.

iv) No Law

The most common approach is to treat all biblical law as irrelevant. This view is based on the idea that we live under grace and not under law. This is appropriate in our personal lives, but is not relevant to the working of society. All societies need laws to function effectively. As long as a society includes some sinful people, laws will be needed to restrain the worst of their behaviour. Even with the grace of God, no Christian wants to live in a society without laws.

Useful Principles

Several principles help us to interpret the Torah.

i) History has a Place

The creation account in Genesis is really important for understanding the origins of the world. The history of God's dealing with the patriarchs and the children of Israel are important for our warning and encouragement (1 Cor 10:6,11). These parts of the Torah have not been set aside, but are all still relevant for our understanding of who we are.

The genealogies are a special type of history. They help us understand the ministry of Jesus. However, the genealogies are less important in the modern world, because, ethnicity is irrelevant for those in Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:28-29).

Through Jesus, all Christians are heirs of Abraham, regardless of their genealogy.

Modern Jews have a problem with their geologies anyway. The links with these genealogies have been broken by the events of history, so they are unable to trace their lineage Back to biblical genealogies.

ii) Israel-only Stuff

Significant parts of the Torah were specifically for Israel. Many of these were fulfilled by Jesus, so they are not binding on Christians. The complete set of sacrifices described in Leviticus were fulfilled by the cross, so they are no longer relevant. The animal sacrifices never did provide salvation from sin, but pointed ahead to Jesus. They had to be accompanied by faith to be effective (Rom 4).

The tabernacle was replaced when the body of Christ became the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Aaronic priesthood has been replaced by the priesthood of all believers. Now all Christians are all priests and kings through Jesus. The passages about the priesthood might give some insights into following Jesus, but they no longer need to be implemented directly.

These laws were specifically for Israel, so they do not apply this side of the cross.

iii) Leviticus for Israel

Leviticus is not universal. The book was specifically directed to the nation of Israel. It begins with God directing Moses to speak to the Israelites.

The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. He said, "Speak to the Israelites..." (Lev 1:1-2).

The phrase "Speak to the children of Israel" is used in over half of the chapters of the book (1:2, 4:1, 7:28, 11:1, 12:1, 15:2, 18:1, 20:1, 23:2, 25:1, 27:1). In several other chapters, Moses was told to "Speak to the children of Aaron" (a reference to the priests). This indicates that the book of Leviticus was specifically for the people of Israel

The purpose of Leviticus is confirmed in the final chapters.

These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the LORD established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses (Lev 26:46).

The instructions and requirements outlined in the book govern the relationship between God and Israel. They are not universal.

The book of Leviticus was given to the people of Israel to make them distinctive in the time before Jesus came and changed things forever. It contains a set of rules and regulations that would give Israel a unique identity and keep them distinct from the nations. The regulations do not apply to Christians in the modern world, because the thing that makes us distinct now is our love for one another.

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).

Love is a much better distinctive, but this was not possible before the coming of Jesus. The Holy Spirit had not been poured on all people, so Israel had to rely on external differences to mark themselves off from other nations.

The view that Leviticus is only for Israel is confirmed in the final verse.

These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites (Lev 27:34).

Sorting the Law

God is our lawgiver. His law is found in the Bible. However, while some of the laws in the Bible have a universal application, others are just for Israel. The principles outlined above are helpful, but they do not allow us to sort out the judicial laws that apply to all people in every age. We need a key to identify the laws that are still relevant now.

I searched many years for a key to identifying the universal, judicial laws in the Torah. I have learned to love the book of Moses. I obtained many wonderful insights into the ways of God. I identified much that was only applicable to Israel before the ministry of Jesus. I discovered that Leviticus is exclusively for Israel. Exodus and Deuteronomy are harder to handle, because they seem to be a mixture of laws for Israel and universal laws. A key is needed to separate these two types of law.

Laws for Everyman

Recently I found the key I have been looking for. That key is a phrase in the book of Exodus. Whereas most laws in Exodus are addressed to Israel, I noticed that a section of laws in the middle of the book seem to be addressed to a universal man. They all begin with the expression, "If a man" (kiy ish). These laws are not addressed to Israel, but to all men. This set of universal laws begins at Exodus 21:12 and ends at Exodus 22:17.

This section of law also stands out as being different, because it is expressed in the third person. Most of the other laws in Exodus are expressed in the second person, ie you shall not steal, you shall not murder. Moses used "you" because he was addressing Israel and announcing laws for his listeners and their descendants. The Ten Commandments are all written in the second person, as they were spoken to Israel.

The laws beginning at Exodus 21:12 are written in the third person, ie if he does something, he shall receive this penalty. This mode of speech is used when referring to someone who is not part of the conversation. It points to a third person, who is not the speaker (I) and not the listener (you). Moses used the third person here, because this section of laws are for all people and not just for those who participate in the covenant made on Mount Sinai.

In Exodus 22:18-19 Moses switches back to the second person and stops using the expression "if a man", which indicates that he changed Back to speaking just to Israel. Therefore, the commands about witchcraft and bestiality in these verses are only applicable to Israel. They are not part of the universal judicial laws.

The third factor that distinguishes the section of laws between Exodus 21:12 and Exodus 22:17 is that the subject of the verb is always "a man" or "men". There is no definite article, so the reference is not to a particular man, but to any man. These seem to be laws for all men or "everyman".

The use of the third person and "man" or "men" as the subject of the command marks off a set of laws that apply to all people in all societies everywhere. These laws are not just for Israel. The penalties for failure to comply with these laws are specified in a timeless way. I will refer to them as the Judicial Laws, as God intends them to be applied by judges in every society and culture.

The Judicial Laws of Moses cover two areas of life.

Judicial Laws of Moses

Protection of Property

Exodus 22:1-16 deals with protection of property. These laws define the nature of theft and specify appropriate remedies. These laws are all expressed in the same way.

If a man steals an ox or a sheep (v.1).

If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man's field (v.5).

If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man's house (v.7)

If a man gives to his neighbor a donkey or an ox or a sheep or any beast to keep safe, and it dies or is injured (v.10).

If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it (v.14).

The structure of these laws is quite different from the "You shall not steal" in the Ten Commandments. The latter is limited to a particular group of people represented by the word "you". The statements above are not limited and apply to any person who undertakes the action specified. These laws against harming property are universal and not limited to the children of Israel.

Taking something that belongs to another person is forbidden. The scope is not limited to theft, but includes any careless action that harms another person's property. Breach of contract is also prohibited.


Restitution is specified as the remedy in all situations where personal property is damaged or stolen. The Hebrew word translated as restitution is "shalam". It is used 18 times in these verses about property, although this is sometimes lost in the translation. Twice the word is doubled for emphasis. Its basic meaning is "be safe" or "be made complete". By implication it can mean "reciprocate, make amends, end, finish, full, make good, repay, recompense, requite, make restitution, restore".

The person stealing or damaging the property of another must "make good" the harm done. They must "restore" the situation to the way it was before they committed their crime. The well-known Hebrew word for peace (shalom) comes from Shalam, so it has a strong sense of restoring peace to a situation that has been disrupted. Everything harmed must be put right.

The seduction of a young woman is also a form of theft.

If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her (22:16).

He has stolen the most precious thing that she has. Loss of virginity might prevent her from finding a good husband. The man who has robbed her of this potential must compensate here financially for what she has lost. He must also compensate her for any physical or emotional harm as well. He must pay the full cost of restoring her to the position that she was in before he intervened in her life.

Personal Injury

The second half of Exodus 21 deals with protection from personal injury. The modern terms are assault and murder. Murder is the most serious form of assault. These laws are expressed in the same way as those that deal with protection of property.

If a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning (v.14).

If men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist (v.18).

If a man hits his manservant or maidservant with a rod (v.21).

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely (v.22).

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it (v.26).

If a bull gores a man or a woman to death (v.28).

If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it (v.33)

If a man's ox butts another's (v.35).

These laws define the scope of assault. The most serious assault is murder. The more common assault is one person striking another with his fist or a weapon. The definition of assault includes a careless action that causes another person to come to harm. It extends to harm done to animals.

These laws against assault are universal in application. They are not directed to a particular people, but to all people everywhere.

Justice and Mercy

The remedy for a personal injury involves two principles:

  • Justice
  • Mercy.

The justice principle specifies that the person committing the assault should have done to him what he has done to his victim. This would be perfect justice, but would produce a lot of violence.

The mercy principle allows the person assaulted to make a payment sufficient to compensate the victim for the injury to his body. The principle is defined here with reference to a person whose actions have taken the life of another.

If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him (Ex 21:30).

The Hebrew word for ransom is "kopher", which means cover or shelter. The figurative meaning is ransom, price or satisfaction. The ransom is a money payment that provides shelter from the justice principle. The person who has caused another die should really pay with his life, but the payment of a ransom protects him from the full consequences of his actions. The offender does not have physical harm done to his body, but will still have to pay a heavy penalty.

The family of the victim are better off, because they receive financial compensation for their loss. The money paid will improve their lives, whereas harming the other person would only produce emotional satisfaction. Justice is still achieved, but everyone still living is better off.

Compensation for Injury

The meeting of the principle of justice with the principle of mercy is very clear in the case of fighting men striking a pregnant woman by mistake.

If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Ex 21:22-25).

The justice principle in the second part of this passage describes what the offender deserves. If the woman or her baby is injured, justice demands the affliction of a similar injury on the offender. This is expressed in the commonly used, but misunderstood, expression: "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." The person who harms another deserves the same thing done to them.

The mercy principle is specified in the first part of the passage. The offender does not receive physical punishment, but must pay full financial compensation instead. If no harm comes to the baby, he shall pay what the woman's husband demands. If the woman or the baby is injured, the compensation will be proportional to the injuries received. In each case, the financial compensation must be approved by judges after listening to witnesses to the crime.

The financial compensation must be proportional to the loss. "An eye for an eye" is not a justification for personal revenge, but is the standard of justice to be applied by the judges when deciding compensation. They will decide the compensation for an injury to the eye by assessing the economic value of the eye. This involves estimating the loss of the income and enjoyment resulting from the lack of sight, just like the lump-sum compensation provided by some accident insurance companies. Loss of an eye could be worth $200,000 and loss of a hand might be worth $170,000, whereas a bruise might only be worth $1,000.

God could not define just compensation in terms of shekels, because inflation changes the value of a currency over time. By linking compensation Back to the value of the specific limb or organ, God has provided a principle of compensation that is relevant in every culture, regardless of the currency in circulation at the time.

Exodus provides a humane way of making compensation to the victims of violence. Modern human justice makes offenders pay fines to the state, but very rarely provides financial compensation to the victims of violence. This is a good example of God's standard of justice being better than human law.

Limited Justice

The judicial laws of Exodus 22:12-22:16 have just two objectives.

  • Protection of Property
  • Protection of Human Life

God has specified only two types of sin for which remedy or punishment can be imposed by a human court. In a biblical system of justice, judges are limited to dealing with two types of activity.

  • Theft or damage to property
  • Physical injury to a human person.

The first type of sin is actions that harm the property of other people. This ranges from theft to careless actions that harm to another person's property. The following are specifically mentioned in the judicial laws.

The second type of sin consists of actions that injure the body of another person. This covers the range from an accidental assault to murder. The following are specifically mentioned in the judicial laws.

The Bible has no distinction between criminal law where crimes are enforced by the state in criminal courts and civil law where breaches are pursued by individuals in civil courts. The concept of an offence or crime against the state simply does not exist in the scripture. The only distinction is between sins that affect property and those that harm the person. God is offended by both types of sin and his judges are responsible for dealing with both types of offence.

That's All

Biblical justice is limited to:

  • Theft or damage to property
  • Physical injury to a human person.

These two types of offence are the only ones specified in the Judicial Laws of Moses. There is nothing else. This makes God's Judicial Law very simple and easy for everyone to understand. It means that we do not need a Congress or Parliament turn out hundreds of new laws every year. We do not need laws books with hundreds of pages of detailed legislation. All we need is wise judges, who can decide in any situation, whether a victim was harmed by assault, or if their property was harmed or stolen.

We do not need hundreds of legislators to pass laws specifying the penalty for every conceivable crime. All we need is wise judges who can work out in any situation what would be necessary to fully restore the victim to the situation in which they were in before the crime occurred.

The simplicity of these Judicial Laws demonstrates the brilliant wisdom of God. In twenty-five verses, he gives a set of laws that will function in any culture at any time. The laws give provide a standard that allows judges to decide when a crime has occurred. They are just as applicable in a modern industrialised culture as in a simple agrarian culture. They also give principles that allow judges to decide the appropriate restitution that should be made to compensate for the crime in any culture or type of economy.

Human lawmakers have worked for hundreds of years and produced numerous statutes, but they have not been able to produce a system of judicial law that works well. What human lawmakers have failed to do, God did three thousand years ago using just a thousand words.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
Righteous are you, O LORD,
and your laws are right.
The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
they are fully trustworthy (Psalm 119:97-100,137-138).

See Two Universal Laws.