Oh how I love your—law?

Moses / Michelangelo

Moses / Michelangelo

We Christians love God. We sing of our love for God in hundreds of hymns and praise choruses. But have you ever thought about what it is about him you love?

Somehow, I suspect many Christians would come up with a long list before they ever echoed the psalmist:

Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandments have made me wiser than my enemies,
for they are continually with me. – Psalm 119:97-98 ( all references from MEV)

I have no idea how many times I read past that verse before I noticed a problem: It’s easy to love promises and attributes. But how do we really love commandments?

Jesus boiled all the commandments in the Old Testament down to two: Love God, and love all other people. We easily look past the others.

We needn’t think the psalmist loved God’s law because he thought he obeyed it perfectly. Already in verse 5 he prays, ” Oh, that my ways were established to keep Your statutes!”

Let’s look at it from another angle. I have the privilege of being American, and I love my country. I am very glad I don’t have to meditate on American law. But I know that a lot of other places in the world have oppressive legal systems.

That thought does not lead me to write rapturous poetry about my love for the law. But it does provide a way to understand how the psalmist could love Leviticus. Living under Mosaic law gave benefits other law codes didn’t offer.

As we look at them, let’s keep one important question in mind: How can we obey the commandment to love God unless we love his law?

God’s law and other law in the ancient Near East

hammurabi code vs mosaic law

Figures at top of stele “fingernail” above Hammurabi’s code of laws

Numerous law codes roughly contemporaneous with the law of Moses have come down to us. The longest and best known is the Code of Hammurabi, an early king of Babylon.

According to his preface, he wanted to destroy wickedness. He desired that the strong should not harm the weak and that he could rule in a way that would enlighten the world and advance human well-being.

Of 282 laws, only one places any limitation on any government official. The code regards rulers and land owners as privileged classes. It prescribes often dire consequences for violators, but does not set forth any moral guidance.

Determining guilt

The second law prescribes a strange way to determine the accused’s guilt or innocence

If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

It looks like a strong swimmer could beat a rap and an innocent person could drown. Mosaic law demands witnesses.

A single witness must not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin that he sins. At the testimony of two witnesses or at the testimony of three witnesses shall the matter be established. – Deuteronomy 19:15

Capital crimes

Hammurabi’s Code imposed the death penalty for various kinds of stealing, for hiring a mercenary and not paying him, receiving a runaway slave, and tavern owners who allowed meetings of conspirators.

If a house collapsed and killed a man, the builder was put to death. If the collapse killed a man’s son, the builder’s son was put to death. If a man hit a pregnant woman and she died, the man’s daughter was put to death.

Imagine: a young person or child executed for a deed he or she had nothing to do with! Mosaic law forbid such injustice: “Fathers may not be put to death for the sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers. Every man shall be put to death for his own sin” Deuteronomy 24:16.

Cutting off body parts

Ziggurat of Ur

Ziggurat of Babylonian city of Ur

Hammurabi prescribed cutting off certain body parts for crimes deemed not serious enough to warrant death.

92. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

93. If the son of a paramour or a prostitute desire his father’s house, and desert his adoptive father and adoptive mother, and goes to his fat

her’s house, then shall his eye be put out.

94. If a man give his child to a nurse and the child die in her hands, but the nurse unbeknown to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother and her breasts shall be cut off.

95. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

And people today recoil at the Biblical formula “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”! That punishment is actually a limitation. In some societies, strong people could avenge an injury by slaughtering an entire family. See Genesis 34, for a good example of gross overreaction to a rape.

Under Mosaic law, punishments didn’t inflict bodily injury at all except when someone intentionally injured someone else.

Punishment vs restitution

Torah. law of Moses vs Hammurabi code

Torah–Law of Moses

The Hammurabi code metes out severe punishments, usually more severe than allowed under Mosaic law. But it stops there.

Mosaic law takes the side of the victim of a crime and provides for restitution. So instead of executing a thief, as stipulated in the Hammurabi code,

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, then he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.

If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, then there will be no blood guilt for him. If the sun has risen on him, then there is blood guilt for him.

He must make full restitution. If he has nothing, then he will be sold for his theft. If the stolen item is in fact found alive in his possession, whether it be an ox, or donkey, or sheep, then he shall repay double.

If a man causes a field or vineyard to be eaten and puts out his beast so that it feeds in another man’s field, he must make restitution of the best of his own field and of the best of his own vineyard. – Exodus 22:1-4

Mosaic law always sides with the oppressed against an oppressor. Under the Hammurabi Code, a man had to return a runaway slave to his master or face the death penalty. Deuteronomy 23:15 forbids returning a runaway. Mosaic law imposed death on a rapist (Deuteronomy 22:25). The Hammurabi Code doesn’t mention rape at all, so it must not have been considered a crime.

The dietary restrictions, although imposed to set the Hebrew people apart from everyone else, resulted in a healthier diet than other societies had. Most of what the law forbids turns out to be unhealthy in some way on closer inspection. Obedience to it really did enhance quality of life. Mosaic law also looks after the welfare of animals.

Do we love Jesus’ commandments?

Christ enthroned mosaic

Mosaic of Christ enthroned surrounded by angels in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, c.500

We sing of our love for Jesus in numerous hymns and praise songs. Let’s remember that Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:5).

Loving Jesus and loving his commandments are part of the same package.

But we don’t often think of Jesus issuing commandments, do we? Here are some:

  • But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you (Matthew 6:33)
  • Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you (Matthew 7:7).
  • Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
  • A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another (John 13:34).
  • Be perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
  • Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).
  • Sin no more (John 5:15; 8:11).
  • Judge not, that you be not judged (Matthew 7:1).

“Repent” and “sin no more” used to be the core of Christian preaching. I don’t know if every preacher preached that message every week, but no one could go to church with any regularity and not hear it.

Nowadays, what happens if someone suggests that anyone needs to repent and stop sinning? Depend on it; someone will quote the command not to judge. Very judgmentally.

Jesus addressed John 8:11 to the woman taken in adultery. Sexual sin mattered to him then. It matters to him now. But sin encompasses much more than whom someone sleeps with or what someone drinks.

John 5:15 addresses a healed cripple whose sin was most likely bitterness and unforgiveness. Whatever we do that is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Jesus’ commandments, like Mosaic law, are intended to set God’s people apart from the rest of the world. In other words, so God’s people will be holy. Like Mosaic law, obedience is a healthier lifestyle than disobedience—emotionally as well as physically.

Let’s repent and sin no more and encourage others to keep those commandments. Regardless of the outrage it will cause.

Photo credits:
Moses statue. Some rights reserved by ideacreamanuelaPps.
Hammurabi code. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Ziggurat. Some rights reserved by Russell Petcoff.
Christ enthroned mosaic. Public domain


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