And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven.
The emphasis appears to be to both on the fact that God spoke, and that He spoke through Moses. Thus, we shouldn’t accept other intermediaries:
Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold.
Conversely, He tells us how we should approach Him:
An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.
And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.
Perhaps the significance is that an altar built this way reflects the providence of what God provides in the way of rocks, rather than human imagination and ingenuity.
Next follows a series of judgments (mishpat):
Now these [are] the judgments which thou shalt set before them.
The first set have to do with servitude (`ebed ), or slavery:
If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
These passages are more than a little disturbing, especially those dealing with permanent slavery:
Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
And what appears to be concubinage:
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
Yet, these make perfect sense from the perspective of “contextual optimality” — God doing the best He can for His people given their fallen environment.
God’s goal, as revealed earlier, is to bring people to Himself. The Law, as wonderful as it is, is but an Image of the character of God. Like the untooled building-blocks for the altar, we have to make do with what we have on hand, but should never mistake the mechanism for the goal.
Similarly for the laws on vengeance:
He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
I take this more as a description for how things naturally are,than an ideal situation. After all, in an ideal world nobody would smite (nakah ) a man unto death (muwth ). Moreover, this appears to be asserted as a premise, not a conclusion, with the focus of the passage being exceptions to this rule:
And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver [him] into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
Though also exceptions to those exceptions:
But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.
For example, even slaves have rights:
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
Yet, so do masters:
Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he [is] his money.
Again, this seems perverse, but its hard to imaging anything else making sense. If you have slavery, then there is a right of discipline, even if its abused. Gross injustice must be checked, but at some point people must be allowed to make their own mistakes. Its not ideal, but the Law can never force us to be ideal. Rather, it merely creates boundaries to make it obvious to us (and others) when we fall short.
Of course, there is more to it than just that. Interestingly, the context is injury to unborn children:
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart [from her], and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges [determine].
This leads to a general discussion of consequences:
And if [any] mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
This is the starting point of justice: reciprocity (what I call rho). Justice doesn’t end there, but if we don’t have that as a baseline we can never get anywhere. One could argue that the purpose of the law is to both a) establish that baseline, and b) illustrate how and when to move beyond its naive application. For example, onsider the ox (showr ):
If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox [shall be] quit.
But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.
There’s several interesting subtexts here. One is a strong concept of responsibility: people are responsible for their actions, as well as of those of things under their control. Underlying that, though, is the implicit assumption that Moses (to whom God is telling this) has a right to hold people accountable for that responsibility.
Which brings us back full circle. Presumably the reason these issues appear here, and so soon, is because these were common, life-and-death issues faced by the children of Israel. God appears to be saying a) He’s interested, and b) there’s a right way to handle them, and c) Moses is My agent to enforce that.
It’s funny. The further I get in my spiritual walk, the more bipolar I become with respect to the law. On the one hand, my appreciation, respect, and even fear of the Law increases as I realize how much wisdom is contained therein, and the incredible harm we do ourselves by disobeying it. Yet, at the same time I realize how impotent and insufficient the Law is for bringing about change, except by humbling us to seek the Grace of God.
Father, reveal your Word to me, through your true servants. Save me from constructing false idols (addictions) out of my own dysfunction and distortion, rather than building altars to you with the materials you give. Call me to right relationship with men, women, and the things you place under my domain. Help me to be just in my actions, yet never lose sight of my need for mercy. Most of all, this Thanksgiving Day, I thank you for the perfect gift of your Son, the living sacrifice that freed me from the Law, that I might fulfill it — and know You. For it is in His name I pray, Amen.