Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Moses Gives The Law

Posted by foryourfaith on April 29, 2012


Moses gave his people hundreds of laws preserved in the first five books of the Bible. He said these laws came directly from God – and the Israelites had good reason to believe it.

Before Moses presented his people with the first and most famous of these laws – the ten commandments engraved in stone – God personally delivered those same laws in a spectacular speech before the entire nation. It was dawn, and as instructed by Moses, the people assembled at the base of Mount Sinai to meet God. Thunder and lightning filled the sky as a dense cloud lowered itself on the mountain. God appeared as a fire, cloaked in billowing smoke. The long blast of a ram’s horn announced his arrival, and the mountain shook with a violent earthquake. The people trembled in terror.

When God spoke, with a voice that filled the plain, he delivered the ten commandments for all to hear. The experience was so frightening that the people pleaded with Moses to serve as intermediary between them and God. “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Moses agreed and delivered the remaining laws on God’s behalf.

Those ten laws that Moses later carried down the mountain on stone tablets became the fundamental laws of Judaism, on which all other Jewish laws are based. Many of the more than 600 subsequent laws probably came to Moses during the months the Israelites camped at Mount Sinai. Some of these laws are distinctive enough that they actually define the nation. People could tell a person was an Israelite by the way the Israelite looked and behaved. As the law required, Israelite males were circumcised. Israelites did not eat certain common foods, such as pork and rabbit. Israelites did not work form sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

Other law codes in the ancient Middle East covered only secular matters, such as penalties for stealing and procedures for getting a divorce. But Jewish law covered both secular and religious matters, showing that God ruled both domains. Other law codes also operated on the basis of class distinction, with the upper classes drawing milder penalties than commoners. Under Jewish law, aristocrats and commoners were treated alike. Even slaves had some rights. Jewish law was also unique in ordering people to protect the helpless, especially widows and orphans.

There are two types of Jewish law. The first and most common are laws that apply to specific cases. “When someone steals an ox . . . the thief shall pay five oxen” (Exodus 22:1). The second are broad principles designed to help people live in harmony with one another and remain faithful to God. These laws are not related to any specific cases and they do not have any stated punishment. The best-known examples are the ten commandments, which serve as the core of moral teaching for both Jews and Christians, and are today reflected in the laws of many nations.

Behind the Jewish law was the people’s conviction that they served a holy God who lived among them, first in the tabernacle (a tent worship center), and later in the temple. “Sanctify yourselves therefore,” God said, “and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). By carefully observing god’s rules and rituals, the Israelites maintained their holiness, and found forgiveness when they failed. The high standards and unique laws of Moses set Israel apart as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Like priests, their purpose was to serve God. In return, God promised to bless them.

Jewish tradition says that many of the laws and explanations that God gave Moses were not written, but were passed along by word of mouth. The oral law, as it became known, included supplemental laws and guidance that reinforced the written law. For instance, the written law said to honor the Sabbath by not working. The oral law defined what was and was not work. As times changed, religious leaders adapted and expanded these oral laws. For instance, when Rome destroyed the temple in AD 70, Jews could no longer obey laws about offering sacrifices of prayer – in keeping with a prophet’s direction, “we will offer the fruit of our lips” (Hosea 14:2).

By about AD 200, the collection of oral laws had grown so large that Jewish scholars realized they needed to write it down. The result was the Mishnah, the first authoritative collection of Jewish legal traditions, and the most revered Jewish document after the Bible.

The book of Exodus says little about what the ten commandments looked like, except that they were two stone tablets written on both sides (Exodus 32:15). They probably were not as large as those shown in paintings and movies, otherwise Moses would have had a hard time carrying them down Mount Sinai.

Some Bible scholars suggest the tablets may have been slabs of limestone, a relatively light rock common in the region. Somewhat like shale, limestone can be broken into thin, flat slabs. People throughout the ancient Middle East often used small pieces of limestone as we use paper, recording words or pictures with ink or inscriptions.

The stone tablets containing Israel’s most basic laws were to be kept in a gold-plated box called the ark of the covenant. This chest, which became Israel’s most sacred relic, measured about one and a third meters (four feet) long and two-thirds of a meter (two feet) wide and high.

The ark, with the ten commandments inside, was put in the Holy of Holies – the most sacred room in the tabernacle tent, and later in the temple. Babylonian invaders apparently stole the ark when they captured Jerusalem in 586 BC. But a Jewish book, written perhaps in the first century BC, said the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave on the mountain where Moses died, in what is now Jordan (2 Maccabees 2:4-8).


Other Laws in Stone

The ten Commandments were not the first laws etched in stone. Hundreds of years before Moses, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi had 282 laws inscribed onto a black stone pillar more than two meters (seven feet) high. Some laws are similar to those in the Bible. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) echoes law 196 in Hammurabi’s Code: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”



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