Moses Brought a Covenant
J. Dan Gill
After the death of Abraham, his descendants settled in Egypt. There they grew into a numerous people. While Egypt was a favorable location, over time circumstances changed and they became forced laborers for the Egyptians. Because of God’s care and love for the children of Abraham, and because of his promises to their fathers, he visited the people and delivered them from Egypt (Ex. 2:23–25). He sent them Moses who led them out and through whom he made a unique covenant with them. That covenant was a law: The Law of Moses.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with all their heart (Ps. 119:1, 2).
They sang of his law — his Torah!¹ The words cited above are the opening refrains of the 119th Psalm. It is the longest of the Psalms and all of its 176 verses celebrate God’s word, his wisdom, his law. If we turn through the pages of human history, this is a rare thing: A nation singing songs about the law of their land. In ancient Israel they rejoiced and gave thanks to YHWH for the law he had given them. Moses said to the people:
And what great nation is there that has statutes and decrees as righteous as this body of laws that I am setting before you today? (Deut. 4:8).
They were the people of YHWH, the one true God of heaven and earth. In this covenant, they would serve only him as God and keep the law that he gave them. As they did, he would wonderfully bless them (Deut. 30:16).
It was because of his love that he gave them this law. A nation cannot do well and prosper without order.² This nation had an order which was designed for them by God himself. And would we not expect that a law given by YHWH would be extraordinary? It was! This law excelled those of other lands. In it, his people learned to love the God who made them and at the same time love their fellow human beings.
Goodness and kindness were found in this law. The people were taught to care for one another. They learned not to hate their brothers and sisters in their hearts (Lev. 19:17). And they were to regard not only their kinsmen but their neighbors as well; for instance, one should not desire another’s husband or wife. Neither should a person steal a neighbor’s goods (Ex. 20:17). The thief would repay two-fold what had been stolen (Ex. 22:7). If a person came across another’s animal, it was to be safely delivered back to its rightful owner (Deut. 22:1). If it was not known who the owner was, it was to be cared for until he or she was found (v. 2).
Kindness was to be shown to the poor and the foreigner. At harvest time, the people were to leave the gleanings of their crops for the needy. The corners of their fields were to be left unharvested. The poor and the wayfarer could always eat freely of the grain there (Lev. 23:22). People were to treat fairly those whom they hired (Lev. 19:13). The entire nation would rest on the seventh day of each week. Their servants and even their work animals rested on that day (Ex. 23:12).
Justice leapt in advances under this law. Here it was found that true justice was to be blind. They began to learn the great importance of impartiality. The wealth of a person was not to be considered in weighing legal responsibility (Lev. 19:15). The people were not to oppress the foreigner who dwelled among them (Ex. 22:21). Justice was to be even between the citizen and the non-citizen alike (Lev. 24:22). They were to never take advantage of widows or orphans (Ex. 22:22).
In this law, there was no human sacrifice. In the cultures of neighboring peoples was sometimes found the sacrificing of even children to their gods (Deut. 12:31). For Israel, the incident of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac — but with God preventing him from doing so — had already made clear that human sacrifice would not be a part of the offerings made by this people (Gen. 22:1–13). Even the sacrifice of animals was not gratuitous. Those sacrifices served as necessary food for the families of Levites (Deut. 18:1) and for people who provided sacrifices (Lev. 7:11–16).
A Hard Law
It is no wonder that Moses said, “And what great nation is there that has statutes and decrees as righteous as this body of laws?” Yet while the Law of Moses was good, it was also harsh. Because of the hardness of people’s hearts — because of the tendency to disregard God and to harm one’s neighbor — the law had many provisions which existed solely as a response to evil. It sometimes provided for severe penalties. The penalty for certain crimes was death. Philip Yancey grasps the hardness of the times and helps us see Moses’ Law in its historical context:
The Hebrews lived in wild, barbaric times. Their laws, which may seem harsh to us, represent a great softening compared to their neighbors’ laws. … God had to work with people’s moral condition at its given stage.³
The reality is that the law YHWH gave Moses, even with its harsh provisions, represented God’s patience and love towards the people. Without that patience and love, all would have been destroyed because of evil doings. In this law, God met people where they were in order to lead them in the direction they needed to go. And who will sit in judgment of God? Some provisions of the law were hard. However, the people most affected by it — those who actually lived under its provisions — gave testimony to its benefits. Every time that the people sang the 119th Psalm, they sang these words:
Oh, how I love your law! Those who love your law have abundant peace, and nothing can make them stumble (Ps. 119:97, 165).
(1) The word “torah” means essentially “instruction” or “doctrine.” It is used variously in the Bible to indicate any law or commandment. It is specifically used to refer to the Law of Moses as given to him by God at Sinai (Ex. 24:12). The word has also been applied to the five books of Moses as a whole (the Pentateuch). “Torah” is used to reference the Law of Messiah in Isaiah 42:4. The word is typically translated as nomos in the LXX, and the Greek New Testament uses that term when referring to the Law of Moses (Acts 13:39) and also when referring to the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21).
(2) While the children of Israel were in Egypt, they were under the dominion of the Pharaohs. When they became independent, they had no law. The law given to them by Moses served as an indivisible civil and religious code.
(3) Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 12.