It seems necessary to stop here and find out what this scorned Law is that Paul wanted to efface and replace. The Five Books of Moses do not only, or primarily, consist of laws. They constitute a history of the Hebrews in which are recounted episodes in the early and formative development of the nation. Among other things, Jews look upon the Pentateuch as a history book. Interwoven among the historical narratives are laws or commandments. These are called in Hebrew mitzvot which means good deeds, for, in the Hebrew mind, to obey the laws is to perform good deeds. The people of Israel, known today as Jews, are obligated to observe and practice these deeds to the best of their ability. The same can be said for the non-Jews who, like the Jews, find themselves under Covenant with God and this Covenant has stipulations in the forms of Laws which reflect man's responsibility to live in Covenant with his Creator. The only difference is that the Jews have a more progressive Covenant containing more Covenant stipulations and privileges. The word Torah actually means teaching, not Law or law (with the lower case 1) as it is translated in the New Testament. It is teaching people how to live moral and decent lives in order to achieve a high ethical standard of behavior.
The Torah contains 613 laws, most of which begin with the Ten Commandments in Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus. However, there are some injunctions and laws in Genesis and in the Second Book of the Torah before the Decalogue.
The laws are not organized according to subject matter as in modem law books. They are not even separated from the narrative. Nor are they divided according to civil or criminal codes. Many of the laws are an appeal or a demand for kindness or helpfulness to others, regardless of whether they are Hebrews or "the stranger within your gates." Although the laws are not categorized and many would overlap categories, it seems easier to discuss them within four broad classifications: laws dealing with basic morality, with social welfare and interpersonal relations, with ceremonies and rituals, and with health.
The first group of laws--those concerned with basic morality--are general fundamental rules of conduct. The principles stated in the Ten Commandments are examples of these laws. They have been accepted, at least in theory, by most people in the world, such as honoring one's parents or providing workers with one day of rest a week. Among other rules, found in the Decalogue and elsewhere in the Torah, are prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, perjury, and bribery--laws which most nations have incorporated into their legal codes. Still other ethical injunctions in this category range from such diverse rules as requiring humane treatment of animals to the establishment of courts of law accessible to all people. The principle that everyone, regardless of status, is accountable to the law was first articulated in the Torah; king and commoner were both answerable for their actions. This is quite different from other ancient law codes which distinguished between social classes in their demands and penalties. The rights of an accused are protected by the requirement of two credible witnesses to his crime. The laws in this classification set a basic standard of ethics for people to live by and on which to develop other legislation.
Perhaps most numerous and far-reaching have been those laws dealing with social welfare and interpersonal relations. They show concern for the weak and vulnerable in society-- widows and orphans, the poor, foreigners or "strangers," and servants or bondsmen. The rules, which mandate certain behavior or actions, reveal great compassion, sensitivity, and psychological insight. A few examples will illustrate these qualities:
The treatment of workers is dealt with in several statutes. One of them requires an employer to pay a day- worker immediately and not withhold or delay his remuneration overnight, for he may need it to feed his family.
A wealthy landowner was enjoined from harvesting the corners of his fields or gathering up any produce which had fallen from the hands of his workers. This was to enable the poor to gather crops by their own labor and thus have the dignity of earning their own keep. The added purpose and advantage of the law was to preclude begging and hunger.
The behavior incumbent on victorious Israelite warriors toward captive female prisoners of war was a tribute to the humanity and understanding of these laws. The conquering soldier who desired a captive woman might not possess her or treat her like a slave. If he wanted to marry her, he had to allow her a month to mourn the loss of her family and to accustom herself to her new surroundings. This gave her time to grieve and to adjust to her new circumstances. After marriage the woman was entitled to the full rights of a wife which were clearly defined in the Torah. This law prevented and forbade the wanton abuse and rape to which captive women have been subject throughout history in most parts of the world after the military defeat of their countries.
Much of the legislation in the Torah deals with the underdogs in society. The problem of the impoverished person who sold himself a bondsman (or bondswomen) is the subject of Dt. 15:12- 18. An Israelite who could not support himself or meet his obligations indentured himself and, through his work, earned food and shelter and paid off his debts. This status lasted for a limited time--six years. In the seventh year the bondsman went free. The master not only benefitted from the servant's labor, he also incurred obligations to him. He had to treat the bondsman well. He also had to provide the bondsman with the means to support himself after his period of service ended so that he would not lapse into dependency again. Although the word, eyed, which has been translated as slave, is used in the Hebrew Bible, the concept of slavery was unlike that in ancient Greece and Rome or the United States before the Civil War. Slavery was for life; a bondsman served no more than six years. If the Jubilee intervened, all bondsmen were freed. The Jubilee occurred every fifty years.
A slave owner had power of life and death, as well as the freedom to mutilate or otherwise abuse his slave. A master who mistreated his Hebrew bondsman forfeited his rights to the latter's labor for he immediately went free. An escaped slave had to be returned to his owner. A bondsman who fled from his master was not to be surrendered to him. Laws governing servitude in the Pentateuch were far more enlightened and humane than those in effect elsewhere in the world for centuries afterward.
In this section on laws relating to social welfare, those requiring the establishment of cities of refuge for accidental killers deserve mention. These statutes accomplished a double purpose. They protected the unintentional slayer from revenge by the family of the victim and prevented the development of blood feuds which could then entail the loss of many more innocent lives. Cities of refuge were designated on both sides of the Jordan (since the territory allotted for the Promised Land was on both sides of the river). The killer could live in one of the cities with his family. He did not escape punishment entirely inasmuch as he had to leave his city and home but he was not subject to execution and could avoid being killed.
Perhaps the laws in this category relating to interpersonal relations are best exemplified and summarized by the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18).
Another set of laws in the Torah deals with ceremonies and rituals. Some are associated with the celebration of holidays, festivals, and the Sabbath. These laws prescribe how and when certain events should be commemorated and the rites connected with them. For example, at Passover the family is to recall the Exodus from Egypt and to refrain from eating leaven as a reminder of the unleavened bread their ancestors ate. The injunction to keep the Sabbath as the day of rest is found in the Fourth Commandment, where it is stated that the
Lord rested on the seventh day after completing His creation. Other I laws concerned with ritual practice include circumcision and dietary restrictions. These laws may also rightfully be considered in the category of health statutes.
There are regulations about ceremonies and rites that have largely fallen into disuse. They deal with construction of the Temple, responsibilities of priests and Levites, sacrifices and offerings, support of the Temple and its personnel, and specific formalities in the Temple. Most of these laws are no longer applicable. At the time of Jesus and
Paul, when the Temple stood, these laws had relevance. After the destruction of the Temple, prayers replaced sacrifices and worship services, and Jews were encouraged to contribute to the maintenance of synagogues instead of the Temple.
Many diverse laws can fall under the heading of health regulations. Among them are those calling for periodic bathing, hand-washing before eating, quarantine of the sick, regular examinations by priests to determine when the sick had recovered, and purification after contact with a corpse. Cleanliness and hygiene are of utmost importance. The kind and preparation of food that is consumed are also related to health and several laws are devoted to the subject.
In its criticism of the Torah the New Testament focuses on three sets of laws, those relating to circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath observance. We discussed the first elsewhere in our other websites.. We might note here that a non-Jew who had himself circumcised usually did this in conjunction with conversion and therefore, made a commitment to accepting the Torah as his way of life. Let us consider now the other two requirements.
The dietary statutes forbidding the food of certain animals, fish, and fowl are found in Lev. 11 and Dt. 14. Stated simply, prohibited foods comprise shellfish, all beasts and birds of prey, and the flesh of such domestic animals as pigs, horses, and camels. The Torah describes as "unclean," animals which are "not cloven-footed and do not part the hoof and chew the cud." Israel was to be a holy nation and was, therefore, supposed to practice laws of purity. Food plays an important role in this concept. Jews who observe these laws believe that they may not arbitrarily decide which commandments to set aside and which ones to obey since they all came from the same holy source. One more observation is in order. Besides Jews, Moslems and Christian Seventh Day Adventists also keep the dietary laws and would deny that they constitute an undue hardship or are harsh laws, as asserted in the New Testament.
To enjoy the Sabbath and refrain from work on it are mitzvot prescribed in the Fourth Commandment. This does not mean that necessary work may not be performed on the seventh day. A farmer must milk his cows on Saturday. A physician is duty-bound to treat an acutely ill person. But in a case of a chronic condition, a Sabbath observing doctor would not schedule a particular procedure on Saturday, just as hospitals in the western world do not schedule operations, laboratory tests, X-rays, or treatments on Sunday. Only in case of emergencies are such arrangements made. Sabbath observance, so ridiculed by Paul and the evangelists, was taken over as Sunday practice. Many Christian denominations have instituted similar limitations on Sunday activities as those proscribed in the Torah for the Sabbath. Jews saw no reason to change what the Torah had unequivocally commanded as the day of rest and have consequently, kept the seventh day as holy.
This cursory glance at the laws in the Torah is meant to give readers, otherwise unfamiliar with them, an idea of their general nature and spirit. Obviously, it is not a thorough or all-inclusive study of the commandments; that is not the purpose of this article. However, even a superficial "spot check" of the laws displays a set of rules and practices exhibiting a lot of common sense and compassion. They are not harsh and vengeful as Paul and his disciples portrayed them in order to prove that the new covenant was superior to and superseded the "old one." Alan Davies, in Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind, pp. 55-61, quotes many tirades against Judaism and its Law by the Church Fathers. Their attacks on the religion were stated in the vilest language. The Unitarian theologian, R. Travers Herford, said, "if Judaism had really been at all what Paul described, it would have become extinct long before Christianity appeared. No people could ever have survived with such an intolerable religion...as the misshapen phantom conjured up by Paul" (R. Travers Herford, The Pharisees, pp. 219-220). The picture became so distorted that Christians often wondered in horror at a people so perverse as to cling to such a vile body of laws.
The less they Gentile believer knew about the Jewish Faith and the Jewish Jesus, the more easily the Gentile Christian could accept Paul's caricature of the Torah. Innumerable Christians remained ignorant of the Torah by not reading the original document and relying instead on its depiction by Paul and his successors. Under those circumstances they could not know the ethics and morality which the Torah demanded and evoked in its adherents, much less the beauty they found in it.