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Mosaic Legislation

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The body of juridical, moral, and ceremonial institutions, laws and decisions comprised in the last four books of the Pentateuch, and ascribed by Christian and Hebrew tradition to Moses.


As early as the Davidic era, the name torah was popularly used to designate this compilation, which, however, might not then have embraced all the enactments it now contains. After the captivity, the term became synonymous with the Pentateuch, and this usage has obtained ever since. Side by side with these meanings are others less comprehensive and more ancient. If, as is generally admitted, yarah (to cast) be the root, there would be a peculiar historic interest attaching to the word, because of the implication that the first toroth , or decisions, of whatever kind, were arrived at chiefly, or at least in important cases, by the casting of lots. The diety would then be regarded as the author of them. More developed than these are the first available historic toroth , such as were pronounced in cases of private litigation at Raphidim ( Exodus 17:13 sq. ) by Moses, relying for his direction on the analogies of precedent or custom. On the lips of the priests and prophets torah was sometimes referred to the moral and religious prescriptions of the Law alone, or again, to the ceremonial part of it, whether in theory or practice; in short, to any direction written or oral, given in Yahweh's name by one enjoying an official capacity.

Quite naturally, when the period of formal codification set in, each new code was styled a torah , and these separate toroth were the stepping-stones to, and afterwards the constituent parts of, the "Torah" or Corpus, which has always been identified with the name of Moses.

More restricted in their signification are the following Biblical terms: piqqudim , precepts ; micwah , commandment; ed(w)oth , testimonies, i.e. expressions of God's will to man, chiefly in moral and religious matters; mishpat , a judgment, usually though not exclusively relating to civil or criminal law, and, eventually, implying an obligatory force arising from the nature of moral rectitude, which is enhanced, not obscured, by the notion of theocratic economy ; and hoq, huqqah (root, to engrave), statute, or thing engraved (e.g. on stone), thereby becoming fixed, so to speak, as an ordinance. From this varied terminology, however indiscriminate the use made of it may have been as time went on, it seems right to conclude that its originators had more than a faint perception of the distinction between the different classes of law, and of their respective binding force. If in given cases, equal penalties were meted out for delinquencies from the moral and ceremonial laws it was because the nearness of the latter to the national God by reason of their universal character, seemed to give offences against them a peculiar heinoussness, not found in other crimes. The legislators understood well that when monotheistic ceremonies declined, polytheistic institutions would supplant them, and then there would be no morality left to guard.


The Torah, as a whole, was neither miraculously communicated from heaven, nor was it laboriously thought out and put together by Moses independently of external influences. It is sometimes hazardously asserted that it antedated Moses by a thousand years or more, since much that is in the Torah is found also in the Code of Hammurabi. Indeed, certain decrees in the Babylonian code are more excellent than their Mosaic parallels; in more important ones, however, the Torah takes precedence. It was the primitive condition of Hebrew society that dictated Israel's first laws by leading to the establishment of family and tribal customs. Yet it would be wrong to maintain with too much assurance that the same or a similar collection of laws would have resulted spontaneously and independently from the same natural conditions in any other period or clime. There had been precedents of just such customs and practices as Israel adopted, among other races with which the founders of Israel's laws had come in contact, and it seems an irresistible conclusion that, since Israel borrowed its language from its neighbours and could be so easily won over to heathen rites as to defy the vigilance of judges, priests, and prophets, it could not but be influenced by the social and political life of the neighbouring peoples.

The possibilities then, are the following: the migration of Abraham from Chaldea would be responsible for the nucleus of Mosaic Legislation, which is peculiarly Semetic. The sojourn of the patriarchs among the Canaanites, coupled with their relations with the Pharaohs, would impart a foreign coloring, with a slight strengthening of the original stock during Jacob's retreat to Mesopotamia. The Egyptian oppression would certainly elicit some well-defined views regarding justice and right. The education of Moses by Pharaoh's daughter would prepare a master-mind for tribal unification, while his experiences among the Semitic Midianites would teach him the necessity of certain institutions peculiar to desert life, with a due respect for established usages, such as must be taken into account even today in dealing with the Sinaitic tribes. Any real influence from the Code of Hammurabi would have to operate, as it likely did, through one or other of these channels. The direct result of these antecedents would be a transmission of principles through the knowledge of concrete examples illustrating them, the primitive mind not being capable of grasping or forming bare abstractions. What these traditionary laws were, and how they were reduced to practice in domestic and political life, is set forth at large in the article on BIBLICAL ANTIQUITIES.

No matter how much, or how little can be explained in this way, room must always be left for direct, external, and Divine intervention, that is for an historic revelation made by God of Himself to the chosen people, in such a way as to guarantee them a special xxyyyk.htm">Providence and direction in working out their high destiny. Since such direction could be secured to future generations only through the Law by which they would be governed, the Sinaitic manifestations must be explained as placing a Divine seal upon existing laws which they did not abrogate, and upon any normal development of them in the future which would be calculated to carry out the designs of Yahweh more efficiently. Then, too, there must have been something settled and fixed on the spot, as a norm to which subsequent prophets might appeal in their judgments of future laws and contingencies. It would be strange if some such remote preparation had not been made for a stupendous event like the Incarnation. Hence it is that the more reflecting among Christian critics, whatever be their views as to the literary composition of the Pentateuch, are at one in asserting that the Pentateuchal laws even those of a ceremonial character, are traceable back to Moses as their founder; hence, too, the peculiar psychological phenomenon all through Israel's history, that observance of the law or any of its parts was superior to (non-compulsory) sacrifice, because it was a homage of obedience paid directly to the nation's God.


In its present form the Mosaic Legislation appears without logical order, and interspersed with historical reminiscences. It is largely casuistic, as might be expected from the manner of its early transmission. (1) The Decalogue, with its two versions ( Exodus 20:2-17 ; Deuteronomy 5:6-21 ) is basic, setting forth, as it does, the sovereignty and spirituality of God, together with the sacredness of His and the neighbour's rights. (2) The "Book of the Covenant", so called in Ex., xxiv, 7, embraces Ex., xxi-xxiii, 19 (or xx, 20-xxiii,33), and contains judicial, moral, and religious regulations for people living in primitive agricultural conditions. It is remarkable for its humanitarian character. (3) The Deuteronomic code amplifies the preceding and adapts it to new conditions. (4) The "Law of Holiness" as contained in Lev., xvii-xxvi has reference chiefly to holiness of a moral and ceremonial nature. It forms a small part of what is now critically styled the (5) "Priest's Code". This last group abounds in ceremonial enactments, and comprises nearly all Leviticus and Numbers, with a few chapters of Exodus. In the light of criticism there is no need of abandoning the traditional belief that Moses compiled, under the influence of inspiration, any or all of these codes as they stood originally, or in that stage of development they had attained in his time. The literary peculiarities of the Pentateuch merely entitle us to assert that these various divisions were by later writers revised, enlarged, and brought up to date, while the changes in Israel's life, from a nomadic to a sedentary state, from a dispersed to a king-ruled nation, explain full well the appearance, as time went on, of a limited amount of new legislation quite consonant with the soul and spirit of the old. Common Law, as it were, grew and developed, but the statutory enactments remained inviolable.


Abstracting from the distinction of codes, the Torah exhibits a dogmatic system that is rigorously monotheistic. A moral standard issues from this, having as its peculiar feature the identification of civil, social, and religious observance, with service performed directly and immeditely for Yahweh, and at His bidding. A ceremonial characterized by its picturesqueness and wealth of detail follows, the evident purpose of which was to keep the people constantly in mind of the Covenant into which they or their ancestors had entered, and to assure them of God's fidelity to His promises, if only they would do their part. The civil and criminal enactments are sufficiently well explained elsewhere. The article on BIBLICAL ANTIQUITIES dispenses us from treating in detail any of these topics save the ceremonial. Even that is largely dealt with in the paragraph on Sacred Antiquities (loc. cit.) and the articles ATONEMENT, DEDICATION, JUBILEES, PASCH, PENTECOST, PURIM, SABBATH, TABERNACLES, TRUMPETS.

The Tabernacle was the centre of public worship. This was a portable tent measuring fifty-two by seventeen feet, and divided by a veil into two unequal parts, the Holy Place and the smaller Holy of Holies. The latter contained only the Ark of the Covenant, and might be entered by no one but Moses and the high priests. Any priest might enter the Holy Place. This was furnished with a table for the Loaves of Proposition , a seven-branched golden candlestick, and the Altar of Incense. Outside, in the surrounding court, were the Altar of Holocausts and the brazen laver for priestly ablutions. The tribe of Levi furnished the priests, and the remaining majority, Levites properly so called. The priests were consecrated, wore special vestments, offered sacrifice, attended to the Holy Place, and acted as judges and teachers. For the peculiar distinction of highpriesthood, see the article AARON (section II). The Levites were the priests' assistants. They carried the Tabernacle whenever it was moved. Bloody and unbloody sacrifices were prescribed. The former class embraced the Holocaust, in which the entire victim was consumed on the altar by fire and the Expiatory and Pacific sacrifices, when only the fat was burned on the altar. The rest was either burned elsewhere or given to the priest as in the first instance, but divided between priest and offerer as in the second. And followed by a sacrificial meal. The Unbloody sacrifices included first-fruits, tithes, meat and drink offerings, and incense. Both oblations and sacrifices were seasoned with salt.

The most striking feature of the ceremonial legislation is the distinction between legal cleanness and uncleanness, with its concomitant provision for numerous external purifications. The faithful Hebrew had always to abstain from blood. He might not use for food any quadruped that did not divide the hoof and chew the cud, nor any fish that did not have both fins and scales, nor birds of prey, nor water fowl, nor reptiles, nor insects, the locust excepted. To do so would make him unclean. The use of marriage, childbirth, and leprosy also induced uncleanness. It is true that this legislation is largely hygienic, but the Hebrews did not commonly conceive of it in that light. As diseases were regarded as direct from Yahweh, precautions against them were designed primarily to avert them by appeasing the sender. Those, therefore, who failed to take such precautions, either necessarily or otherwise, were displeasing to Yahweh, and legal defilement was the result. How effectually the Torah prepared the Hebrews for the acceptance of the New Law is attested by the work of Christ, who came not to destroy but to perfect it. It was only those who, while sitting in the chair of Moses preferred for their personal guidance the traditions of men, who proved inimical to our Saviour's work.

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