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Understanding Law

"Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments,
just as the LORD my God commanded me,
that you should act according to them
in the land which you go to possess.
Therefore be careful to observe them;
for this is your wisdom and your understanding
in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes
and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'
For what great nation is there that has God so near to it,
as the LORD our God is to us,
for whatever reason we may call upon Him?
And what great nation is there
that has such statutes and righteous judgments

as are in all this law which I set before you this day?"
Deut. 4:5-8

Law is an orderly system of rules and regulations by which a society is governed. This is to protect and preserve the people and their properties from lawless acts of crimes and damages. The lawful will view the laws as righteous and wise, and the lawless will always view the same laws as cruel and legalistic.

Israel was not the only nation to have a law code. Law codes were common among all the countries of the ancient world. They generally began with an explanation that the gods had given the king the power to reign, along with a pronouncement about how good and capable the king was. Following thereafter were the king's laws. These laws were then grouped by their subject matter. The law codes often closed with a series of curses and blessings from the gods.

In the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, a unique law code was established by direct revelation from God to lead and guide His people in their worship and relationship to Him, and in their social relationships with one another. Those who kept His laws are lawful, and those who did not are lawless. According to Deut. 4:5-8, the nations surrounding Israel regarded Israel as a wise and understanding people because of their awesome God giving them laws that were righteous and great. The statutes and ordinances were the terms and conditions of living in the Promised Land so that all could live in peace, loving one another.

The Biblical law code was different from other ancient law codes in several ways. First of all, it differed in its origin. Throughout the ancient world, the laws of most nations were believed to originate with their gods. Subjected to all kinds of interpretations, rationalizations and manipulations, they were intensely personal and complicated. Many of these laws were not even written down. Even the gods were under the laws. They could suffer punishment if they violated the laws themselves -- unless, of course, they were powerful enough to overcome their law enforcers. A lot of Eastern myths and folktales described interesting stories of heroes and heroines executing the "laws of heaven" against lawless gods and goddesses.

The earthly king ruled under the god whose temple and property he was overseeing. As he had a personal relationship to the god, he did not live under a written law code. Therefore, law was decided on a case by case basis at the king's discretion. For most of a king's lifetime, his laws were kept secret. He did what was deemed right in his own eyes. The laws were administrated to his advantage.

By contrast, the Biblical laws came from God. They are issued from His nature and character. They are holy, righteous and good. God, the great King of the whole universe, gave His laws to a group of people called the Israelites. His laws were universal. These laws were binding on His people, and He upheld them with His own hands.

God depicted His laws as an expression of His love for His people (Exo. 19:5-6). But this motivation of love was not so with the non-Biblical law codes. Ancient kings and rulers set law codes to outdo their predecessors in their struggles for fame, economic power and political influence. Their motivation was the lust for money and power. It was not the love of the people.

As every man is created in God's image, God's laws view all human life as valuable. Thus, the Biblical laws are more humane and compassionate. It avoids the use of mutilations and other savage punishments. Victims cannot inflict more injuries than they have received. Neither can criminals restore less than what they have taken or stolen simply because of a class distinction. Everyone is equal before God's eyes according to His divine laws.

The "eye for eye" requirement of the Mosaic Law was not a harsh sentence or cruel punishment. Instead, it was a mandate for equality before God (Exo. 21:24). Each criminal had to pay for his own crimes (Num. 35:31). Under the law codes of some pagan nations, the rich could often buy their way out of punishment through bribery and corruption. God's laws especially protected the defenseless orphans, widows, slaves and strangers from injustice (Exo. 21:2, 20-21; 22:21-23).

Some Biblical scholars referred to chapter 17 through 26 of the Book of Leviticus as the holiness code. Although it did not contain all of God's directions for ceremonial holiness, it did set forth much of what God required. These chapters contained the moral and spiritual specifications regarding the tabernacle and public worship as well as the commandment to love one's neighbors as oneself (Lev. 19:18).

The nation of Israel was characterized by her separation from other nations. Several of these laws prohibited pagan worship. Because God is holy (Lev. 21:8), Israel is to be holy, and set apart for Him (Lev. 20:26).

Biblical laws are more than a record of human laws. They are an expression of what God requires of man. It rests on His eternal and moral principles that are consistent with the very nature of God Himself. The Ten Commandments are the summary of all His moral laws. As such, they set forth the fundamental and universal standard of all moral principles. People who are not obeying the Ten Commandments are also those who do not love God and their neighbours. Their commandment is selfishly "love me and myself."

In Israel all crimes were wrongdoings against God (1 Samuel 12:9-10). Consequently, He expected all His people to love and serve Him (Amos 5:21-24). As their King and Judge, He disciplined those who violated His laws (Exo. 22:21-24; Deut. 10:18). The community was responsible for upholding His laws, ensuring that justice were done and were being properly carried out (Deut. 13:6-10; 17:7; Num. 15:32-36).

Civil laws were included in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. They regulated the civil and social behaviors. Since God is the Lawgiver and Ruler over everything, all His laws are fundamentally holy and just.

There are eight distinct categories of civil laws in the Old Testament:

  1. laws regulating leaders
  2. laws regulating the army
  3. laws about criminals
  4. laws dealing with crimes against property
  5. laws relating to humane treatment
  6. laws about personal and family rights
  7. laws about property rights
  8. laws regulating other social behaviors.

1. Laws Regulating Leaders.

Several different types of laws in this category of civil laws were designed to keep Israel's leadership strong and free of graft and corruption.

a. Exclusion Laws
God commanded that several categories of people were not allowed to vote or serve in office. These included the physically handicapped, sexually maimed, those of illegitimate birth, and those of mixed race, such as Moabites or Ammonites (Deut. 23:1-3). These laws were the repeated attempts by God to teach Israel in a strict manner so that they were to be spiritually clean and faultless before Him.

b. Laws About The King
Long before Israel had a king, God already specified that if a king were to be appointed, he should follow all the laws that God had given. Other specifications were that he should be a true Israelite, that he should not trust in a large army for protection, and that he should not be a polygamist or a greedy person (Deut. 17:14-20).

The king must know God's Word. He must copy himself the book of God's laws and teachings. He would maintain an army, a governmental network and a royal court. All of these were supported by means of taxation.

c. Laws About Judges
There were two classes of judges, namely priestly and non-priestly. The priestly judges presided over spiritual law suits, and the non-priestly judges
presided over civil law suits (Deut. 17:8-13; 2 Chr. 19:8,11). Judges, also called elders, were to be elected from among heads of households (Exo. 18:13-26).

d. Laws About The Judicial System
God commanded Israel to organize its ruling system into layers of courts (Exo. 18:21-22; Deut. 1:15), with lesser matters decided by lesser courts and greater matters decided by greater courts (Deut. 16:18). Matters that involved foundational principles or that were too hard for the lower courts were brought to the highest courts or the chief judge (2 Chr. 19:10-11). The highest court was God Himself (Exo. 22:21-24; Deut. 10:18).

Judges were charged to be impartial. They were not to favor the rich against the poor, widows, foreigners or others who were helpless (Exo. 23:6-9; Deut. 16:18-20; 27:19). Consequently, they were to hear the witnesses carefully, examine the evidence, and make their decisions on the basis of what God had revealed in His written laws. They also presided over making or nullifying legal contracts.

e. Laws About Witnesses
Witnesses were charged by God to tell the truth (Lev. 19:16). If they did not do so, they were judged by Him. If their deception was discovered, they were to bear the penalty involved in the case (Exo. 23:1-3; Deut. 19:15-19).

Conviction of serious crimes required two or more witnesses (Num. 35:30). Indeed, no one could be convicted on the testimony of just one witness. Written documents and other testimonies could be used as evidence against the accused (Deut. 17:6; 19:18).

f. Laws About Law Enforcement
Refusal to comply with what the court had decided was a contempt against the court. This brought a sentence of death (Deut. 17:12-13). The citizens of ancient Israel were also the policemen (Deut. 16:18). Executions were usually in the hands of the citizens (Deut. 13:9-10). Later, the king's private army enforced his will, while the Levites also served as the spiritual policemen (2 Chr. 19:11).

g. Laws About Refuge Cities
Judges controlled the entrance into the refuge cities. These were the cities where those who had committed accidental manslaughter could flee
for safety. When the high priest of the nation died, these refugees were free to go home without penalty (Exo. 21:12-14; Deut. 19:1-13).

Israel was responsible for keeping the roads to such cities as safe as possible so that the fugitive could outrun the avenger, who was usually a relative responsible for the fugitive's execution to repay his kinsman's death.

h. Laws About Prophets
God's laws strictly prohibited idolatry
and witchcraft. The death penalty was for those who would lead Israel into idolatry. The test of a true prophet was not his ability to work miracles but his faithfulness to God and His revelation (Deut. 13:1-5). On the other hand, Israel was to obey the words of true prophets. If they did not do so, God Himself would punish the people.

2. Laws Regulating The Army
All the land of Israel belonged to God. Within its borders, His people were commanded to wage war to gain and maintain their territories

To this end, all Israelite males, 20 years of age and older, formed a militia (Num. 1:21-43), with 50 being the exemption age (Num. 4:3,23).

If a small scale war was being fought, the selection of the army was done by the casting of lots (Num. 31:3-6). Kings were to maintain only small standing armies. Their first defense from outside attacks was to be the Lord Himself (Deut. 17:16; 23:9-14).

Certain citizens were exempt from the military:

  • priests and Levites (Num. 1:48-49)
  • the man who had not yet dedicated his newly built home (Deut. 20:5)
  • anyone who had not gathered the first harvest from a field or vineyard (Deut. 20:6)
  • a bridegroom who had not yet consummated his recent marriage (Deut. 20:7), or
  • any man who was within a year of his marriage (Deut. 24:5).

All war was holy war. It was fought under the Lordship of God. Therefore, God promised to protect and fight for His army (Deut. 20:1-4). He kept them from harm by marshalling the forces of nature against the enemies (Josh. 10:11; 24:7). But God's protection required holy separation from sins, dedication to God, and obedience in following His directions about the battle (Deut. 23:9-14). God was the Commander-In-Chief and the One to Whom thanksgiving was due for the victory (Num. 10:9-10).

Within Israel, all the enemies in the land were to be killed and all their possessions and goods offered to God (Deut. 20:16-18; 2:34; 3:6). They were to purify their territories and guard themselves from pagan practices and idolatry. When the Israelites were fighting outside Israel, the city being attacked was first offered peace before the attack. Refusal to do so would trigger the war. All the citizens and goods of that city would then become the rightful slaves and possessions of the Israelites (Deut. 20:10-15).

3. Laws About Criminals
In His laws, God defined what a criminal
offence was and what the proper punishment for each offence was to be. All crimes were sins or offences against God's laws. Since there were various degrees of crimes, there were also various degrees of punishments under the laws. God prohibited the Israelites from punishing criminals excessively (Deut. 25:1-3).

a. Crimes Against God
Under God's law
s, all of life was precious and holy before God. Therefore when people swayed away from the true worship which God had established, they had committed a serious crime in His sight. Conviction in these cases would result in death as such crimes were against God Himself and life itself.

These crimes against God included:

  • worshipping other gods alongside God (Exo. 22:20; 34:14);
  • turning from God to worship other gods (Deut. 13:1-18);
  • seeking to control other people and future events by magic or sorcery (Exo. 22:18; Deut. 18:9-14);
  • sacrificing children to false gods (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5);
  • blasphemy (Lev. 24:16);
  • false prophecy (Deut. 18:18-20); and
  • working on Sabbath other than that permitted by God (Exo. 35:2,3; Matt. 12:1-8).

b. Crimes Against Society
Certain crimes were committed against the community as a whole. Among these were the perversion of justice through bribery, torture of witnesses, false testimony or perjury (Exo. 23:1-7; Deut. 19:16-21). Judges were commanded to treat all people equally.

c. Crimes Against Sexual Immorality
The Biblical laws protected
, preserved and sanctified the family. The sexual union of two persons made them one flesh, and this holy matrimony was blessed by God. Violations against this sacred union were forbidden:

1. Fornication
In Israel
, the sexual union was most sacred. A newly married woman charged with premarital sex with a man other than her husband was to be put to death if the charge was proven. If the charge was not proven, her husband had to pay a large fine and keep her as his wife. He could never divorce her (Deut. 22:13-21).

2. Adultery
Under God's laws, adultery was a serious crime. Tearing two people apart could amount to murder. Those convicted of adultery were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10-12; Deut. 22:22). A betrothed woman (virgin) was protected by the laws. She was considered to be married in some cases. If she and some man other than her betrothed had sexual union, both of them were to be put to death (Deut. 22:23-24).

3. Homosexuality
Sodomy or male homosexuality was
condemned and prohibited. It brought the penalty of death under God's laws (Lev. 20:13). By implication, the same punishment was also meted out for female homosexuality or lesbianism.

4. Prostitution
Prostitutes of every guise (male or female, cultic or non-cultic) were wickedness in God's eyes (Lev. 19:29). The daughter of any priest, if she profaned herself by playing the whore, she profaned her father: she would be burnt with fire (Lev. 21:9).

5. Incest
Sexual union with one's own offspring or near relative would result in death (Lev. 20:11-14).

6. Bestiality
Having sex with a beast
, a common feature of Canaanite worship, was an offence punishable by death (Exo. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; Deut. 27:21).

7. Transvestite
The distinction between the sexes was to be retained
including their outward appearance. Hence, transvestite and the wearing of clothings of the opposite sex were forbidden.

d. Crimes Against An Individual's Person
Crimes of violence against others were serious criminal offence
s. The following crimes are cited in Biblical law.

1. Murder
The willful and premeditated taking of a human life was punishable by death. Accidental killing,
such as killing as an act of war and lawful executions, were not considered murder (Exo. 21:12-14; Num. 35:14-34). The sixth commandment is, "You shall not murder" and not "You shall not kill." Jesus pointed to the spirit of this commandment when He expanded it to forbid hatred, anger, bitter insults and cursing (Matt. 5:21-22).

2. Assault And Battery
God's law
s expected people to live at peace with one another. But realizing that human offences might occur, God provided some ordinances and statutes against assault and battery.

If injuring a person caused the victim to lose his time without any further harm done, the offender had to pay his victim for the time lost. Presumably the courts established the fine in such cases (Exo. 21:18-19). If someone maimed his foe in a struggle, he would pay for the lost time and also suffer the same disfigurement at the hands of the court (Lev. 24:19). Some important exceptions to this punishment were included.

If the victim were a slave, his disfigurement would result in his freedom. This would be a very heavy financial loss to the guilty party. If the slave died, the offender would be put to death. If the slave survived and was not disfigured, there was no penalty on the master, except that exacted for the loss of time (Exo. 21:20-21, 26-27).

If a son or daughter attacked either parent, the attacker was to be put to death (Exo. 21:15).

One law called for the severing of the hand of a woman who attacked a man's genitals, when she was trying to protect her husband (Deut. 25:11-12).

3. Miscarriage
Miscarriage, or the death of the mother resulting from a blow by someone in a fight, brought death upon the attacker. Premature birth caused by this offence required a money fine to be determined by the husband as governed by the courts (Exo. 21:22).

4. Rape And Seduction
A man who raped a betrothed woman was to be put to death (Deut. 22:25-27). However, if he raped or seduced an unattached woman, he was to pay a large fine and propose marriage. A girl's father could refuse the marriage and keep the money; but if he approved, the rapist had to marry the girl and could never divorce her (Exo. 22:16-17).

If the seduced girl was a betrothed slave, she was considered unattached for she had not yet been released from slavery. Consequently, the attacker was not put to death. But the man had to bring a guilt offering before God to make restitution for his sin.

5. Oppression
In Israel
, the defenseless were to be defended. Those without rights or power to defend their rights were protected by God. These included the foreigner passing through the area and the foreigner who was a temporary or permanent resident.

The widows, orphans, deaf, blind, slaves, hired hands, and poor were to be given just wages. They were to be paid immediately, given interest free loans (except foreigners) in emergencies, gifts of food at festivals, and the privilege of gleaning, etc. (Exo. 22:21-24; Lev. 19:14,33; Deut. 24:14; 27:18-19).

6. Kidnapping
Capturing a person to sell or use him as a slave was a capital offence (Deut. 24:7). This prohibition extended to foreigners (Ex 22:21-24), the blind and deaf (Lev. 19:14), and all people (Deut. 27:19). The only exception was the prisoners of war.

7. Slander
, making malicious statements about another person, was strictly forbidden. It was punished if the crime was committed during a trial (Exo. 23:1). This was viewed as a mortal attack on a person (Lev. 19:16).

4. Laws Dealing with Crimes Against Property
Biblical laws, unlike other ancient law
codes, placed a higher value on human life than on possessions. But it also allowed people to have private possessions by protecting them from theft and fraud.

The following crimes against property were dealt with in the Bible.

a. Stealing
God prohibited anyone from stealing from another. Heavy financial penalties were levied upon the thief. If he could not pay, he was required to serve as an indentured servant to pay the restitution price in labor (Exo. 22:1-3).

b. Blackmail And Loan Fraud
God's laws counted these crimes as a kind of theft, mandating heavy penalties and possible indentured service as penalties (Exo. 22:1-3; Lev. 6:1-7).

c. Weights And Measures
Ancient Israel did not use
paper money. Transactions were made in measured or weighed precious metals. God prohibited anyone from juggling weights so that the goods or metals would be measured out to favor the thief. Such a thief had to repay his victims (Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 25:13-16).

d. Lost Animals
The rule of "Finders, keepers" did not hold in ancient Israel. Straying animals were to be returned to the owner or cared for until claimed (Exo. 23:4-5; Deut. 22:1-4).

e. Boundaries
The land was marked into sections by ancient landmarks, according to the allotments made shortly after it was conquered. To move these landmarks would result in God's wrath. This act was considered stealing from one's neighbor as well as rebellion against God the Great Landowner (Deut. 19:14; 27:17).

5. Laws Relating To Humane Treatment
God's laws regulated treatment of defenseless animals and people:.

a. Protection of animals
Some of these laws were also environmental laws. For example, Israel was commanded not to work the land on the seventh year. Whatever grains or fruits that grew up were to be left for the animals and the poor. This resulted in a crop rotation system on the Hebrew people so that they would have some harvest every year (Exo. 23:11-12; Lev. 25:5-7).

They were allowed to eat certain wild beasts and birds but were forbidden to kill their mothers. They could take the young or the eggs, but they were required to let the mothers go (Deut. 22:6-7). Oxen or any working beasts or human beings were to be fed adequately to give them strength for doing the work (Deut. 25:4). Animals were not to be cruelly beaten or overloaded. They were given rest on the Sabbath (Exo. 20:8-11; 23:12; Deut. 22:1-4).

b. Protection Of Human Beings
The poor, widows, orphans, foreigners, sojourners, blind, deaf, etc. were to receive humane treatment from God's people (Exo. 22:21-25). To preserve their self-respect, they were given opportunities to earn a living by gleaning and working for wages. They were also to be paid properly and promptly
(Deut. 24:14-15,19-22).

The respectable and responsible poor were to be extended interest free loans (Lev. 25:35-37). Their cloaks, which they used at night as blankets, could not be taken as collateral. Neither could a creditor forcibly enter a man's house to collect the debt (Deut. 24:10-13).

The elderly were to be respected, cared for and protected (Lev. 19:32). Travellers could enter fields to harvest a meal for themselves, but they were forbidden to take more than they could eat (Deut. 23:24-25). If these provisions did not satisfy the needs of the poor, they could sell themselves into indentured service or temporary servitude. In cases like this, the law demanded that they be treated humanely (Lev. 25:39-43). In general, treatment of others was to be governed by the law of love (Lev. 19:18) or the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12).

6. Laws About Personal and Family Rights
The following situations were covered by these statutes and principles:

a. Parents And Children
The laws of God assumed that parents would act responsibly. They should feed and clothe their children even as God fed and clothed them. Parents also were to discipline and teach their children (Deut. 6:6-7). A father was responsible for circumcising his sons (Gen. 17:12-13), redeeming his firstborn from God (Num. 18:15-16), and finding his children proper marriage partners (Gen. 24:4).

Children were commanded to respect and obey their parents (Exo. 20:12). Disrespect in the form of striking or cursing a parent and delinquency, such as stubbornness and disobedience often expressed in gluttony and drunkenness, were punishable by death (Exo. 21:15,17; Deut. 21:18-21).

Minor children were under their parents' authority and could not make binding vows. Unmarried girls were not allowed to make binding vows without their fathers' or their male guardians' agreement (Num. 30:3-5).

b. Marriage
God prohibited the Israelites from marrying near relatives and members of their own immediate family (Lev. 18:6-18; Deut. 27:20-23). He also forbade intermarriage
s with the Canaanites because these pagans would lead their mates into idolatry (Deut. 7:1-4). But if Canaanites were converted and became members of God's covenantal community, no legal and religious bar should prevent marriage with them.

A man would marry a woman prisoner of war after she mourned her parents' deaths for a month. This did not necessarily mean her parents were actually dead, but now this woman had become an Israelite. If her husband divorced her, she had to be set free. Her marriage had made her a full citizen under the laws-- an Israelite.

Special laws also regulated the marriage of priests. A priest was not allowed to marry a former harlot, a woman who had been previously married, or one who had previously had sexual relations. His bride had to be a virgin Israelite (Lev. 21:7,13-15).

Within the marriage bond, women were protected from undue male harshness by the laws relating to the dowry, the large sum of money given to the girl and held in part by her father in case of their divorce or the husband's death.

Laws also called for severe penalties for violent domestic crimes, usually perpetrated by men, as well as severe penalties for the beating and maiming of household members. God also admonished the man to love the woman as his own body and to treat her accordingly (Deut. 21:10-14). The mother was to be honored by the children (Exo. 20:12).

Sexual relations were forbidden during a woman's menstrual period for sanitary reasons. This was to emphasize the sanctity of life and the life-giving process (Lev. 18:19; 20:18). A woman of child-bearing age, left childless at the death of her husband, was to be married to one of his surviving near relatives so that she could bear children to carry on the family name (Deut. 25:5-10). This also provided her with an advocate and protector in the civil court (Deut. 22:13-19) and a representative before God's altar.

Husbands were given primary authority in the family. His wife was under his authority in all matters. Obviously, this did not reduce her to a slave status or to an inferior position, since the two had become one. It did, however, establish a clear structure of authority that would minimize internal family struggles. This allowed the family to function socially, economically and spiritually (Num. 30:6-15).

lnfidelity was punishable by death. Divorce was granted on breaking the one-flesh relationship through sexual union with man or beast and the willful abandonment of the marriage (Deut. 24:1-4). When a man wrongfully accused his wife of infidelity (Deut. 22:17-19), he could not divorce her.

c. Hired servants
God protected the poor from the ravages of the rich. One such measure was the law requiring employees to pay their hire
lings just and fair wages, and to do so at the end of each working day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14). This law was illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the same wages for all the hired workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

d. Slaves
Slaves were of two classes, indentured and permanent. Hebrews
, who were unable to pay debts, were indentured or committed to temporary servitude. The indenture lasted only six years or until the year of Jubilee. He might be given a wife while in this state, but the wife and children resulting from the union were bound to the master. Such a man could bind himself permanently to the master either for the master's sake or for that of his family (Exo. 21:2-6).

An Israelite indentured because of poverty was not to be thought of or treated as a slave. He could not be treated with the rigor of slavery. He was to be treated as a hired servant. He was to be paid (Deut. 15:12-14). He could be bought out of the situation by his relatives, or by himself, presumably by savings resulting from his wages while indentured (Lev. 25:39-43, 47-55).

A girl sold to a man as a wife was especially protected. She could be redeemed by her family if the master was not satisfied with her. She could not be sold as a slave to foreign people. She was to be treated as a daughter and provided for in the same way as other wives. If these laws were disobeyed, her freedom was granted (Exo. 21:7-11).

Permanent slaves could be acquired by purchase or as prisoners of war. They were only to be taken from the nations and peoples outside Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). Fugitive slaves were not to be returned to their owners or treated as slaves. This provision worked to enforce masters to treat their slaves humanely (Deut. 23:15-16). This was illustrated in the Epistle to Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy Christian in Colossae. He was converted under the Apostle Paul. His runaway slave was Onesimus. After damaging or stealing his master's property, Onesimus made his way to Rome, where he was converted under Paul's ministry. In the letter, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus, not as a slave but as a beloved brother.

Slaves were considered permanent members of their master's household. They were circumcised, and permitted to partake the Passover meal (Exo. 12:43-44) and all the special meals eaten before the Lord, except the guilt offering (Deut. 12:17-18; 16:10-11).

A slave could be forced to work; but if beaten severely, he was to be freed (Exo. 21:20-32). If a slave was killed, the master was to be put to death (Exo. 21:20). The life of a slave was as precious as the life of his or her master.

e. Foreigners
Foreigners could convert to Judaism, be circumcised and become full members of the covenant (Num. 9:14; 15:12-15). Foreigners,
temporarily or permanently living in Israel, were free people. Even if they did not convert, they were also given full privileges under the civil laws (Num. 15:29-30). Unlike Jews, foreigners ate foods which were declared unclean by God. Such foods could only be sold or given to them (Deut. 14:21). That's why there were pigs in Israel (Matthew 8:30).

Israelites were forbidden to take advantage of the poor Israelites by charging them interest for the loan of food, clothings, money or anything else (Exo. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37). But they could charge interest from lending to the foreigners (Deut. 23:20).

7. Laws About Property Rights
The following situations were covered by these laws:

a. Lost Property
Under Mosaic laws
, all lost property was to be returned to its owner if the owner was known or held until claimed by him (Deut. 22:1-4).

b. Damaged Property
Property held in trust was protected under the laws. A person caught stealing had to restore to the owner double the value of the goods stolen. If the goods were stolen through carelessness by a trustee of the property, the trustee had to repay the full amount missing.

If the loss was accidental or not due to the trustee's carelessness, that trustee was not liable for the loss, provided he was willing to swear before God that the loss was not his fault (Exo. 22:7-13). Borrowed goods had to be returned. If they were damaged or lost while being borrowed, they had to be replaced by the borrower (Exo. 22:14-15).

c. Unsafe Property
Owners were held responsible for unsafe property. Thus, if someone was hurt because of an owner's property, the owner had to pay a penalty. In the case of death, the owner of the property would be served the death penalty (Exo. 21:28-36; Deut. 22:8). This law prohibited the people of God from endangering the lives of others through careless and inconsiderable acts.

d. Land Ownership
God owned all the land (Lev. 25:23). He demanded that His tenants rested the land every seventh year by not planting a crop (Lev. 25:1-7). During this seventh year, all the travellers and poor were allowed to eat of the produce of the land without paying for it.

All parcels of land were assigned permanently to certain families. They were reverted back to their original owners or heirs every 50th year (Lev. 25:8-24). The land could also be purchased by those owners at its original selling price (Lev. 25:29-31) in the interim.

It was a serious matter to move the ancient landmarks that designated the boundaries of the property. Within the walled cities, only the Levites owned permanent properties (Lev. 25:32-34).

e. Inheritance laws
Normally only legitimate sons were to inherit all the family's property. The firstborn son received twice as much as the others (Deut. 21:15-17; 25:6). He was responsible for caring for elderly family members and providing a respectable burial for them.

A wicked son could be disinherited. If no sons were born to a family, legitimate daughters were to inherit the property (Num. 27:7-8). Such heiresses had to marry within their own tribe or lose the inheritance (Num. 36:1-12).

8. Laws Regulating Other Social Behaviors
God commanded the Hebrew people to keep themselves from pagan religious and cultic practices (Exo. 20:3-5; Lev. 19:27). Among these practices were:

  • boiling a kid in its mother's milk (Deut. 14:21)
  • shaving one's head in a particular way (Lev. 13:33; 21:5)
  • worshipping idols (Deut. 7:5,25; 12:2-3)
  • sacrificing children (Lev. 20:2)
  • participating in homosexuality and temple prostitution (Lev. 19:29)
  • slashing or tattooing one's body (Lev. 19:28) and
  • practicing magic, sorcery or divination (Lev. 19:26,31).


In Psalm 19:7-11, the psalmist wrote:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Do we esteem the laws of God as gold or do we treat them as dust? Are we converted, enlightened, true and righteous altogether? Are we rejoicing and delighting in His law? Like the psalmist in Psalm 1:2-3, our delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law we meditate day and night. Then we shall be like trees planted by the rivers of water, that bring forth their fruit in their season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever we do shall prosper.

All of God's people are to preserve and study the laws of the Lord (Deut. 4:2; 6:6-7), revere His name (Deut. 8:6; 10:12), be grateful and thankful (Deut. 8:10), and obey, love, and serve their Redeemer God (Deut. 10:14-16; 6:4-5; 11:1,13-14). In doing so, we will be loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Written on:
6 July 2004