by Timothy S. Wilkinson
The Torah was essentially a legislative document outlining the governmental systems that Israelites were to live by; in fact, unlike most nations, the citizens subjected themselves to the laws voluntarily. Its precepts were not only very advanced for their time, but they formed the basis for all of western law since—including the Constitution of the United States.
The Ten Commandments (the “Ten Words” in the original Hebrew) were fairly standard laws shared by most cultures—with one key exception. The tenth commandment forbade covetousness. Not only was this difficult to enforce, but its violation could be known only by God and the violator.
Jehovah was the Supreme Sovereign, and human kings (who first appeared hundreds of years after the Law was instituted) were said to ‘sit on Jehovah’s throne,’ representing him. Below the king, the nation was organized into tribal elders, princes or chieftains and, under them, chiefs of thousands, hundreds and fifties. These were selected by the elders on the basis of their fear of God, their trustworthiness, and their incorruptibility. Respect for all of these government officials was mandatory, and disrespect was punishable, in extreme cases, by death.
All members of the nation were required to love Jehovah and worship Him alone, and to do so with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. ‘Taking up God’s name in a worthless way’ was a serious offense. Engaging in the worship rituals of other nations was also a crime: making or worshipping idols, cutting or tattooing the body, spiritism, or sorcery.The tribe of Levi was responsible to take the lead in worship. Since this took precedence over their secular work, they were supported through a tithe paid by the other twelve tribes. The Levites, in turn, gave a tenth of what they received to the Priests, made up of one family or clan in the tribe.
Priests served as teachers, lawyers and judges. Elders made up the lower courts; difficult cases were submitted to under-priests or to the Supreme Court made up of the High Priest and his sons. Two witnesses to a given crime were required in order to file charges. If the accused was found guilty, these witnesses were the first participants in executing punishments (which helped prevent false testimony).
Civil infractions were typically punished by fine. Criminal infractions could result in public beating (no more than 40 strokes), a corresponding retaliatory punishment (an “eye for an eye”), payment of damages, or death by stoning.
While Hebrew people were born into their position as members of the “congregation of Israel,” people of other nations could freely join by being circumcised and abiding by the terms of the Law. Such proselytes were limited, though, in their access to certain holy locations and participation in certain rituals.
The seventh day of the week was a Sabbath, reserved for worship; no “work” (the word carries the idea of “secular activities” in Hebrew) was to be done on that day. Any individual with so little appreciation for spiritual things that he rejected the opportunity to relax and worship with family and friends and (alone, while the rest of his people were engaged in worship), sacrificed an opportunity to serve God for the sake of making money was considered an idolater: he had placed profit ahead of his obligations to God. As an idolater, he was executed. If this punishment seems harsh, it is good to keep in mind that any Israelite who ignored the Sabbath did so deliberately against tremendous family, social, cultural, and religious pressure; he was, in effect, rejecting the basic moral, political, legal, and religious precepts of the nation to which he belonged.
All males were required to gather three times a year at the Tabernacle or Temple for religious holidays. It appears from ancient records that most men brought their families with them. The celebrations were the Passover (commemorating the nation’s freedom from Egypt), the Festival of Weeks (a harvest celebration), and the Festival of Booths (commemorating God’s protection and aid during the nation’s forty year sojourn in the wilderness). In time, other holidays were added.
Worshippers presented animal, drink, grain, and other offerings at the Tabernacle or Temple on a variety of occasions. Some of these were consumed in the fires of the altar, some cooked and then eaten by the officiate and the supplicant, and some waved in the air in symbol of their dedication to God.
Marriage was a sacred institution. Husbands had legal ownership of their wives. Polygamy was tolerated but regulated. If a man died without having children, his brother was expected to marry the widow and ‘raise up children for’ the dead man. Israelites could not marry foreign women, unless the women were captured during military activities. Husbands could divorce their wives for any sexual sin, unless he had seduced her before they were married. Adulterers were executed by stoning. Indecent assault was punished by amputation of the limb involved.
Israelites could loan money to their countrymen, but could not charge interest or take the borrower’s outer garment or their millstone overnight as collateral. The loaner could not enter the borrower’s home to collect the debt (or collateral); he had to wait for the borrower to bring it out to him. Every seven years all debts were forgiven and any land that had been sold was returned to its original owner.
Dietary laws listed “clean” and “unclean” foods. Eating blood or fat was strictly forbidden.
Ceremonial uncleanness required an individual to quarantine his or herself for a period of time, wash and/or sterilize him or herself and any items that might have been affected, and be inspected by a priest before being pronounced clean. In addition to symptoms of various diseases (like plague or leprosy), an individual could be pronounced “unclean” after childbirth, menstruation, sexual intercourse, seminal emissions, touching a corpse or grave, or going into battle.
Unlike any other Bronze Age cultures of the Middle East, Israelite Law established an effective welfare system to address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. Landowners left some crops in their fields during harvest, which the poor (including widows and orphans) could collect—requiring them to work for their sustenance and granting them the dignity of doing so. Alien residents were granted the same legal protections as all other citizens.
Slavery was a major part of the culture, but in practice it had more in common with modern employment than the slavery of the 19th century. It was almost always a way for an individual to work off an otherwise unpayable debt. Masters could flog their slaves, but if the slave was maimed, he was freed; if he was killed, the master could be executed. All slaves were freed on the Jubilee, which came every seven years. When they were granted their freedom (whether by Jubilee, fulfillment of their contract, or any other reason), the Law required the master to present them with severance—the amount to be determined by the master’s financial standing.
There were no other cultures that provided protection for animals in the way the Torah did. When bulls were turning a mill wheel, they could not be muzzled, but were allowed to eat of the fallen grains. Failing to help an animal in distress—no matter whom the animal belonged to—was a criminal act, as was overworking or mistreating beasts of burden. A person was not allowed to wipe out a family of birds by collecting both the mother and her eggs. Apparently to foster a sense of the value of life, an animal and its young could not be slaughtered on the same day, and a kid could not be cooked using its mother’s milk.
While there are many more statutes in the Law (a little more than 600 of them), it was miniscule in comparison with modern legal systems—in the early 1990’s, there were roughly 125,000 pages of laws in the federal law books of the United States. But for almost 1600 years the Torah served the needs of the people of Israel.
For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.