Slicing and Dicing the Law
by Milton Hook
by Milton Hook, May 3, 2014
Our Sabbath school lesson studies recently sliced and diced the Mosaic Law into the “Moral Law,” the “Ceremonial Law” and the “Civic Law.” That the Mosaic Law can be partitioned that way is a hoary claim that bears investigation.
The Moral Law or Decalogue
There is no dissent about the moral tag given to the Decalogue except that it is simplistic because at its center is something that is also ceremonial. The core of the Decalogue contains the admonition to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
The Sabbath is listed as one of the appointed feasts or sacred assemblies in Leviticus 23. The salient point is that the Sabbath is cast as an equal among the other ceremonies. With the passing of time the actual elements of the ceremony probably varied in the details without changing the intent of the celebration.
The Sabbath ceremony is usually explained as one beginning each Friday afternoon with the blowing of trumpets to herald the oncoming celebration. Each family put aside an offering to give at the worship assembly the following day. Everyone bathed and put on festive garments. The incoming roster of priests went to the sanctuary in readiness to swap on Saturday with the incumbent roster. Two candles were lit in each home, prayers were recited and a festive meal was served.
On Saturday morning the retiring roster of priests conducted the morning sacrifice, which was followed by the offering of two lambs (Numbers 28:9,10). The Levites sang Psalm 92 and Deuteronomy 32, interspersed with trumpet blasts as the assembly worshipped. The Bread of the Presence was swapped with a fresh batch brought by the incoming roster. The older bread removed from the table was eaten within the precincts by both rosters of priests. The assembly returned home for a second festive meal, an afternoon of informal reading of the Torah, socialising between families, and a Sabbath stroll or nap.
Late afternoon the evening sacrifice took place while some priests sang Exodus 15. In the homes a third festive meal was taken (Luke 14 is an example). The Sabbath finished when three stars or planets were visible in the sky.
In the sanctuary itself the Sabbath ceremony was simpler than Yom Kippur or the Feast of Tabernacles but a cherished ceremony nevertheless.
The Ceremonial Law
This section is generally cut to fit the animal sacrifices, both in and away from the sanctuary, in addition to the thank offerings and food and drink offerings. Integral to these ceremonies were moral concepts of the forgiveness of sins, atonement, God’s imputed righteousness, renewal of the covenant promises and thanks to God. These ceremonies were prompted by the reality of humanity’s immorality and were designed to symbolise a renewal of morality with the covenant vows. It is impossible to cut and slice morality from these ceremonies.
The Civic Law
The so-called Civic Law contained numerous ethical taboos. Many of these laws were clearly a sub-set of the so-called Moral Law; e.g., much of Leviticus 18 is an elaboration of “You shall not commit adultery.”
The violation of many of these laws was atoned for by a simple ceremony. For example, anyone who ate the meat from a lamb killed by a wild animal became ceremonially unclean until he washed his body and clothes (Leviticus 17:15). Civic Law and ceremony were therefore a unity.
“Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Leviticus 19:28). Such laws do not seem to have any direct link to the Decalogue. They are more likely ones outlining a deliberate cultural distinctiveness between Hebrew and Gentile, between worshippers of Jehovah and idolaters. But these laws grew to be part of the infrastructure of Hebrew morality or ethics. They were taught and policed by the priests. It is wrong to think of these laws as belonging to a civic or secular government. Individuals who practised these laws were considered morally upright. Morality was something attributed to the so-called Civic Law.
On one occasion when Jesus summarised the Law of Moses and the Prophets (Matt. 22:37-40) He extracted from the context of the so-called Moral Law (Deuteronomy 6:5) and joined it with a phrase from the so-called Civic Law (Leviticus 19:18). Paul, too, highlights a moral principle from the same corpus (1 Corinthians 9:8,9; Deuteronomy 25:4).
The chief point of this piece is to demonstrate that the Mosaic Law is not to be sliced and diced. That would be far too simplistic. A little analysis shows that Hebrew morality under-girded all of it. There are only a couple of hints in the Sabbath school study pamphlet that the three elements are inter-woven and that the Mosaic Law stands as a unity but even these hints are smothered by a separate treatment of the elements. Cutting the Mosaic Law into segments only results in artificial divisions and, in the opinion of this writer, may lead to poor interpretations of Law within the context of the New Testament.
Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, chapter 9: “Sabbath in the Temple”
Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practices
Dr. Milton Hook is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Avondale College, Australia