The Real Treasure On Mt Sinai
If we were sitting in a room together and we found out we were going to begin a study of the book of Leviticus, we’d probably hear a collective groan ripple around the room and the reason would be because Leviticus is a pretty tough-to-read book let alone understand.
It’s a book loaded with restrictions, consequences and detail after detail about sacrifices that, let’s be honest, are pretty repellent to us in our day and culture. It’s true to say that most modern teachers use Leviticus as an example of how tough life used to be and therefore we should be thrilled and appreciative that we live under the New Covenant that saw all the Mosaic Law fulfilled in Messiah and is now no longer active as it used to be. Leviticus is a tough going read for Christians today.
However, if we were living in the days of the ancient Hebrews and were standing beside Mt Sinai, how would we have understood the Laws communicated by Moses? Would we have considered them ridiculous, irrational and unreasonable?
Many of the rules detailed in Leviticus sound weird and even repellent to us but to the ancient ears of the Israelites, they weren’t a surprise at all. All ancient cultures – and even modern cultures – had rules concerning food, rituals concerning relationships, festivals and celebrations, standards concerning purity and immorality and of course a criminal code for those who broke the laws. All cultures throughout the world had and continue to have them.
The real shocker with regard to the Law that God gave to Moses on Mt Sinai however, was found in the ethics of the Torah that God demanded His people live by. Today, we simply don’t understand or appreciate how revolutionary the Torah was in comparison to all other cultures and civil codes at that time in human history, or how absolutely fundamental the precepts of the Torah are to our own laws.
All throughout the Torah, it demands fairness and concern for all humanity and that was revolutionary in the ancient world. Other cultural or national codes had no ethic of equal treatment in regard to rich and poor and that meant that if a crime was committed against a person of high class, the punishment was far greater than if the crime had been committed against someone of lower class. Cheating an average person got you into trouble but cheating a nobleman carried the death penalty in some cultures. Murdering a peasant incurred a fine but murdering someone of standing or wealth would also result in a death sentence.
This was not the case in Israel under the law of Torah, all citizens be they rich or poor, of high standing or low, all were treated the same under Torah. This is a standard that continued into the teaching of the New Covenant as well, which is not separate from the Torah, but simply the completion of it.
James 2:2-3, ‘If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives.’
Yeshua Himself taught those who listened to Him to treat all people with respect and dignity too.
Luke 14:12-14, ‘He (Yeshua) also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”‘
When it came to criminal acts in ancient Israel, if someone was accused of committing a crime, guilt could only be established with two or more witnesses and it mattered not who the accused was or who the witnesses were; they were all treated as equals under the law. (Deut 17:6, 19:15)
In dealing with criminal acts, the Torah was far more humane and fair when compared with other codes. In other countries, punishments for even minor offenses could be brutal and way out of proportion and they included floggings, amputations and even torture. In the Torah, fines were common but physical punishments were actually very rare which many would find surprising. In fact, physical punishments were reserved for only the most severe and serious offenses against the nation or against God Himself.
But you might respond by saying, “What about God’s command of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’?” Well, that particular statement has been greatly misunderstood.
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was more of an idiom than a literal command. Exodus 21 lists a string of crimes and the corresponding punishments; when you get to verses 24 & 25 it says, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.’
This leaves you thinking that if someone pokes another person’s eye out, the poker should have his own eye poked out to match the pokee, but that’s not the case at all. Verses 26 & 27 explain more clearly. ‘If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.’
This was revolutionary and shocking in the ancient world and reveals something about God and how He views all people. Firstly, a slave according to the Torah had rights and was to be treated respectfully and with dignity, they were not to be harmed or abused and if a man blinded a slave – male OR female – that slave was to be granted their freedom. Notice that the law didn’t say that the slave owner had to be blinded in one of his eyes. No, the punishment had to be righteous and commensurate with the offense – in other words…eye for an eye, not a harsh rebuke for an eye…the consequence had to be of ‘equal value.’
You blind your slave, the slave goes free. You knock out a slaves tooth, the slave goes free. You commit a capital crime you incur a capital punishment. The intention of the idiom was to ensure that a punishment for any particular crime would not be more that the injury itself and neither would it be a slap on the wrist for something serious. We would say that the punishment had to fit the crime and it prevented vigilante justice by family and friends of the injured person and so prevented feuds between families and tribes. In fact, most scholars believe that in ancient Israel, monetary fines were required for injuries instead of physical retribution.
As for protecting and defending citizens, especially the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised and the foreigner, the Torah was completely different to other codes who mainly focused on protecting the assets and well-being of the wealthy by threatening lower classes with severe punishments for theft or destruction of property. But the Torah is uniquely focused on protection for the most vulnerable in society, vulnerable widows, orphans, the poor, foreigners and the disenfranchised. (Deut 18:29, Lev 23:22) In fact, the Torah commanded Israel to love the vulnerable members of their society as they loved themselves. (Lev 19:34) A very large amount of the Torah is specifically focused on protecting the weakest members of society.
Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
There are a great many people around the world who condemn the Bible as being a book that endorses slavery; mostly this view comes from a lack of true understanding of God’s Word, God’s character and the historic culture and context.
Firstly, slavery was a standard practice in all the ancient world. Many people were enslaved by conquering nations who enslaved those they conquered. In Israel however, this wasn’t the case.
In the ancient world, and in many nations of the world today, there was no such thing as social security. If a person became impoverished, he couldn’t pop down to the local Israeli Centre Link and register for benefits, housing, food vouchers and a tax payer funded vehicle. Rather, an impoverished person or family might live in abject beggary living on the good will of others, doing odd jobs here and there for a few shekels or food as well as eating according to the Hebrew law of gleaning that God instituted to allow the poor to make their way through the crop fields after the first harvest to collect what was missed. This was a kind of ‘social security’ with regard to food but it wasn’t via a government department, it was a standard of provision enacted by every citizen of the nation as a way of assisting the vulnerable and needy according to God’s requirement of them.
For those who didn’t want to live that way, an impoverished person could indenture himself and or his family to the service of another person or family for an agreed upon period of time in order to earn money or pay off a debt. The ‘owner’ was required to pay for every single need of his slave and his family (if he had one). The ‘owner’ was not allowed to abuse or mistreat his ‘slaves’ and he had to pay his ‘slave’ his proper wages.
In other cultures, not only did slaves have no rights, their lives were literally in their master’s hands, hanging on the whims of their owners and they never received a day off for rest or for their own personal time, unless their owners allowed it, but certainly no law required it. According to Torah however, everyone – including slaves – were to enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. As mentioned above, if a slave was permanently injured by his owner, he was to be immediately granted his freedom. (Ex 21:27) Hebrew slaves had to be freed in six years and given a substantial gift, (Deut 15:14) and if a slave ran away he was not to be returned, but was to be allowed to live free anywhere in Israel. (Deut 23:15-16) In all other codes – even that of pre-Civil War America and also in England – the penalty for a runaway slave was death.
In fact, in Israel, God repeatedly reminded His people to treat slaves and foreigners well, who lived among them and to never forget that they too were once slaves and foreigners in Egypt where they were treated appallingly. (Deut 5:14-15; 15:7-15; 16:10-12; 24:14-22)
Yes, God instituted a penal code that seems to us to be quite extreme but that penal code – the Law – was given so that we would understand just how high and holy our God is. His ways and the expectations He had of His people is not only high, but it’s beyond our ability to keep it. Does that seem unfair? It’s not. If we didn’t have the Law, we would never know just how far short we’ve fallen from attaining God’s standard and we’d never realise that we were constantly offending and insulting Him. We’d never realise why we so desperately need a Saviour because we wouldn’t realise how wicked we are.
Romans 7:7-12, ‘What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet”…So then the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.’
God expects us to not only obey Him but also to treat others well. Human beings, regardless of their class, social standing, lineage, position, wealth, skin colour, creed or nationality are all created in the image and likeness of God and we are to treat them as such. Unfortunately, because we’re all law breakers, there will always be those who will take advantage of the vulnerable, who will wrought the system, who will be corrupt and abuse their position and their fellow citizens. This is why the world is in the mess it’s in today, not because God gave too harsh a Law. The Law reveals our sinful nature and that without God’s help, we’ll never meet His standards.
Galatians 3:23-24, ‘But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the Law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith.’
The Torah reveals some unique things about God that are completely absent in other so-called gods; He is fair and just and He expects His people to also be fair and just at all levels and strata of society; He is extremely compassionate and demands that all people, especially the weak and vulnerable, be treated with grace, care and mercy and He deems human life to be sacred.
As faith in the God of the Bible spread throughout the world, the cultures that embraced His Word were transformed by these same basic principles and ethics. We can see within the cultures of the West which have a Judeo-Christian heritage, that when leaders and citizens reject God and His word, the culture and society disintegrates and the most adversely affected within our societies are the weak and vulnerable.
The more you learn and understand the Old Covenant and books like Leviticus in their ancient Hebrew context and culture, the more you’ll understand the full scope of the New Covenant. People see Yeshua as a ‘different’ kind of God to the God of the Old Covenant, but Yeshua was simply returning the focus and attention of His people back to the original standards, ethics and expectations that God revealed through Moses to them on Mt Sinai, because they’d moved so far away from it. As Yeshua said to His own disciples, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
Those who follow Yeshua don’t just follow the example He set, but also the example the Father set for His people after He delivered them from slavery in Egypt so that when they entered the Promised Land, they would reflect His nature and character to the rest of the world. They were to be a light to the nations and so are we. (Isa 42:6, 49:6, 60:3; Matt 5:14)
Based on the writings of Lois Tverberg