ORIGINS OF THE LAW
In this section we’ll be going over some of the statutes that Moses came up with to keep his merry band of wanderers in line. These statutes are the nitty gritty of how to implement the Ten Commandments.
Technically, the Law of God is the Ten Commandments as written on the stone tablets. These are stored in the Ark of the Covenant, which we’ll get to later. The statutes are the actual mandates and corresponding punishments that cover a myriad of situations.
Many people argue these statutes were dictated directly to Moses by God and were on the tablets Moses broke during the golden calf fiasco. If you take a look at any Bible and consider how many stone tablets it would take to write all this down, it’s pretty obvious two tablets wouldn’t cut it.
Even Jesus refers specifically to the ‘Law of God’ and ‘Statutes of Moses’ as two distinctly separate things. I figure if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.
Also, it’s important to note that all these laws and statutes were meant only for the Israelites – to keep them separate from the other people who occupied the land. So technically, if you’re not a Jew, none of this applies to you. You’re off the hook.
Most people, when they cite these laws, act like they were written for everybody, everywhere, for all time. That’s just not the case. They were written for the children of Israel, period. If you’re not a Jew but would like to abide by them, fine. If not, that’s fine too. You’re under no obligation.
And, as it turns out, these were not entirely original laws. Moses borrowed liberally from the many codes and statues of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Summarians and others that had been governing the peoples of the near and middle east for centuries.1
LEVITICUS AND DEUTERONOMY
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are two books full of instructions on how to perform various sacrifices and rules about what’s okay to eat, how to treat people, who you can have sex with, what to do about leprosy and much more. It’s pretty tedious.
There’s a lot of repetition in the two books so I’m going to be mixing and matching a lot of it, taking a little something from Leviticus and then a little something from Deuteronomy hoping you don’t get bored. I’m going to be skimming the basic content and highlighting some of the passages I found to be more questionable or downright outrageous.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are very much like a lot of the Bible narratives; the same story told from differing perspectives.2
Sacrificing to various Gods was a practice common to many civilizations long before Moses came along. Apparently sacrifice was the only way to appease God, no matter whose God it was. And these Gods needed plenty of appeasing. Pretty much everything you did, good or bad, required some sort of sacrifice. Besides that, there were numerous festivals literally built around ritual sacrifice. I won’t go into all the details but if you really want to know about it I recommend you read these two books.
For the record, sacrifice requires you give up something prized or of value in order to get something of higher value. What they gave up were things like sheep, cattle, oxen and, in some cultures, the first born child. What they got back was a happy God.
In a way it makes perfect sense from an ancient man’s point of view. These people were accustomed to having a powerful ruler over them. If you wanted something from him, of course you’d have to pay for it, and likewise, if you did something wrong you’d have to pay for that too. It’s only natural that if you wanted something from God, the biggest ruler of them all, you’d have to pay for it. The concept of a loving God who wants nothing more than to bestow all the fruits of the kingdom on you would have to wait until Jesus came along.3
Moses wanted to make sure his people did their sacrifices in the right way and with plenty of respect since, after all, their God was the best God, right? So he laid out very strict rules about how and what to sacrifice.
Regardless of what the sacrifice was for, there was one thing you could count on; lots of killing and plenty of blood. Depending on how wealthy you were, oxen, cattle, lambs, and doves were all fair game. And you couldn’t offer up just any cow or lamb in the field either; it had to be a spotless male without blemish. In other words, you had to give up your best to God.
They didn’t just kill it either. They’d cut it up, gut it, drain the blood and wave the various parts around the altar. Very often, burning the various parts was part of the ritual because God liked the smell. I guess God likes a good barbecue as much as anyone. He loved the smell of burning flesh.
It’s hard to imagine how messy this would be when they really got going. When you consider how many people there were and all the things that required sacrifice it would have had to have been a non-stop operation.
I mention this not to gross you out, but to show how established the notion of sacrifice, killing and blood were ingrained in the mindset of the people of the time. Particularly the Hebrews. Fifteen hundred years down the road this premise would become the cornerstone of the Christian religion.
This notion of not being good enough and needing to sacrifice in one way or another to become worthy is still in the mindset of a huge number of people today. It would be nice if we could change that.
Later in the narrative Moses makes a big deal about not eating the flesh with the blood in it. When you kill anything to eat it you’ve got to drain the blood out completely and eat the flesh within three days.
On the one hand it makes perfect sense since blood goes bad very quickly and will make you sick . And, with no refrigeration or preservatives, meat will definitely spoil within three days, even quicker if the blood hasn’t been completely drained.
But is that the only reason Moses was so adamant about draining the blood? He made continual reference to how the life is in the blood. What is it about blood that makes Moses need to address it again and again? Is it just about sacrifice or were people eating animals that were still alive? The flesh of a living animal stays fresher longer than on a dead one. Sounds gross, but when you realize the conditions they were living under it’s not a stretch. Cut off an arm here, part of a leg there, it would take a goat a long time to die that way. The longer the heart beats, the fresher the meat stays. I’ll leave you to your own research.
ANOINTING AND THE LEVITES
One of the first things Moses did was anoint his brother Aaron as the High Priest. Anointing is a symbolic thing where they pour oil on your head and declare you to be whatever it is they’re declaring you to be. In this case it was the High Priest. Later it would be mostly about declaring someone king.
Anointing was a really big deal. You needed to be ‘anointed’ into your position for it to be valid. The Hebrew word for someone who is anointed is “messiah”. When you hear the word ‘messiah’ it literally means ‘anointed one’. Keep this in your back pocket for a while. We’ll get back to it later when we talk about Jesus. But for now it meant only the descendants of Aaron could be priests.
The next thing Moses did was assign the Levites to be keepers of the tabernacle, and later, by extension, the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant. It was a huge responsibility. Remember, the Levites stood up with Moses during the whole golden calf thing so this could very well be their reward.
So now, not only had Moses cemented his place as leader but he’d also surrounded himself with a loyal guard and established he and his brother as the sole authority when it comes to God.
One of the Ten Commandments that really was a stroke of genius was the Sabbath. From the very beginning God had made a big deal about him taking a day off after he created the heavens and earth. With the Sabbath, he mandates that the Hebrews take one day off every week. No work at all. None. Period. Basically sit on the couch and watch the world go by. Why would he do that?
In this case, it turns out God had a pretty good handle on human psychology. He knew man would work himself to death if given the chance. And not only himself, but everyone who worked for him.
But God (or was it Moses?) had seen enough of this and commanded that his people work no more than six days before taking one day off. This included the husband, his whole family, his slaves, everybody who worked for him, even his animals.
I’m sure we all know someone that, if given the chance, would work until he dropped. This Sabbath thing was a brilliant way to make sure that didn’t happen. You must take one day off a week. Non-negotiable.
We seem to have gotten away from that idea in today’s day and age but it was, and still is, a great idea.
ALTARS AND THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
One of the first things God told Moses was to make sure he didn’t make big ornate altars. He was to make them out of unhewn stone, raw rocks. When I first read this I thought God didn’t want a lot of glitz and glimmer and wanted his people to be more grounded and humble. But later on, when we get to Solomon and the temple, we’ll see God likes his bling just as much as anybody.
God gave detailed instructions on how to build the Ark of the Covenant, which is a gold covered box that holds the Ten Commandment tablets. Equally detailed are instructions about the Tabernacle, which is a big tent that held the Ark of the Covenant; and the priests and others who were to take care of it all.4
CLEAN AND UNCLEAN ANIMALS
This is where we first hear the distinction between ‘clean’ animals and ‘unclean’ animals. What it comes down to is you can eat clean animals but unclean animals are off limits. You might remember I brought this up when we visited Noah and his ark.
At first glance you might wonder what’s the point. But when you look at it a bit closer it all makes sense. When it all washes out, the animals that are okay to eat are the herd animals, flocking birds and schooling fish, along with a few bugs. What you can’t eat are predators or animals that are proven to be highly unhealthy if not prepared exactly right, like pigs, scavengers, rodents, bottom feeders and shellfish.
It shows that Moses had a pretty good grasp of the ebb and flow of his ecosystem and how to maintain it. Herd animals and schooling fish are good food and multiply quickly. Predators are essential to the balance of any ecosystem and they’re generally not the best food anyway. Bottom feeders, scavengers, shellfish, rodents and swine, even today, are pretty sketchy eating.
Even primitive people learned these culinary lessons early on. But you know how people get. Sometimes, without rules, they’ll do what’s not good for them anyway. Moses knew that and he got really specific and employed his favorite tactic; the fear of God.
This next section is where Moses really shows a forward thinking social agenda. It’s also an area where modern day fundamentalists are particularly adept at cherry picking.
First Moses said you couldn’t harvest your field right up to the edges nor glean the gatherings of your harvest or strip your vineyard bare. You had to leave these leftovers for the poor, homeless, widows and orphans, Moses’ early version of social welfare.
He said you can’t steal, deal falsely or lie. You can’t rob or oppress your neighbor and you’ve got to pay the people that work for you what you said you’d pay them when you said you’d pay them.
If you find something of your neighbor’s, you have to give it back. And if you don’t know whose it is, you have to make an honest effort to find out. No ‘finders keepers’.
You can’t be partial to the poor or defer to the rich. You’ve got to be honest in your dealings and can’t go around slandering people.
You also need to respect the sojourner (a foreigner working in your country) as you would a citizen of your land and you shall love him as yourself. At the very least, treat the immigrant just the same as you would a natural born citizen.
Moses specifically said if your brother becomes poor you will support him as though he was a stranger or sojourner. You shall not sell him food for profit or charge him interest and he shall welcome him to live beside you. You shall provide for his welfare. Welfare being the operative word.
You can’t hate your neighbor in your heart and you shall reason frankly with him. You can’t take vengeance nor bear a grudge. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
When you lend your brother money, you can’t charge him interest.
You can’t sell one of your brothers into slavery.
If these laws would have been around in Jacob’s day then none of his sons except Joseph and Benjamin would have lived and this whole twelve tribes of Israel would have never seen the light of day.
There’s a section that talks about not sacrificing a child. In more than one instance God talks about redeeming the first born son by sacrificing a lamb instead. Apparently it was a common practice among certain folks back then to kill the firstborn in the name of their God. And you’ll remember Abraham was ready to sacrifice Issac no questions asked. Moses put a stop to that.
Moses again showed his knowledge of the land when he commanded his people to observe the Sabbath of the land, which means you can plant a field for six years but every seventh year you’ve got to let it rest. No tilling, no harvesting what grows by itself, nothing. Even then he knew the soil needed to replenish itself or it would eventually wear out.
And when you plant a tree, you can’t eat its fruit for five years. Moses was quite the horticulturist.
You can’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. A deeper meaning might suggest this means you can’t mess with people when they don’t know you’re doing it. Without being overly Kabala-esque, hidden meanings abound in these laws if you’re willing to look for them.
A prime example would be when Moses lays down a couple of interesting laws. One being you can’t sow two kinds of seeds in the same field, the other being you can’t yoke an ox and a donkey together to plow your field.
Sure, oxen and donkeys are nowhere near the same size nor do their temperaments allow them to work well together. And sowing two crops in the same field is just asking for a nightmare at harvest time. But any capable farmer would already know this and, since they were wandering around the desert, they weren’t planting any crops anyway.
So why did Moses feel it necessary to write something like this into law?
This is a particularly glaring example where we see Moses hiding a deeper metaphysical message beneath the surface of what, at first glance, looks like an innocuous mandate. Moses is pointing out that you should not yoke yourself to another of incompatible abilities or temperament. We could even take this further to include intelligence, world view, spiritual development and much more. Be careful where you choose to plant your seeds.
The point is, it behooves us to examine these laws on a deeper level. There is much more here than meets the eye.
TATTOOS, TASSELS AND A REBELLIOUS SON
Also, tattoos were a no-no, as was cutting yourself or shaving your beard. Many people think these rules are about keeping themselves separate from the Egyptians but it seems more likely that it’s more of a health issue.
If you think about where these people were – wandering the desert – and what the age was – the early Bronze Age – basic hygiene was not even an issue. Chances are they were using a sharpened flint to shave with. A tattoo would be done with an unsterilized piece of metal or even a stick, with ink made from some plant extract or crushed stone. The chances of infection were astronomical. This was a time when a simple cut could easily become infected, causing permanent damage or death. Moses recognized this early on and put a stop to it.
For good measure you were supposed to have tassels on the four corners of your garments and not wear a garment made of two types of fabric. Why? Who knows? Deeper meaning? Undoubtedly.
There is a very specific law concerning a son who is rebellious and won’t obey his father and mother – he shall be stoned.5 I say this just for you literalists who cherry pick your laws. Don’t forget to stone your rebellious sons.
MEDIUMS, DIVINERS & PRIESTS
There’s a whole section about not going to a medium, wizards or diviners. You’re supposed to go only to God, via Moses, or else you’ll be stoned or burned. It’s obvious Moses didn’t want his people going to every psychic or palm reader for advice.
But when we read deeper into the Bible these mediums, prophets and oracles pop up all over the place and are given great credence. Even the story of Jesus’ birth rests on three wise men and the divination and astrology they used to figure out where he would be born.
The sad part is a lot of people throughout the ages have used this to justify countless atrocities, Joan of Arc and the Salem witch trials to name just two.
Moses goes into great detail about who can have sex with whom, or ‘uncovering their nakedness’ as he liked to put it.
He seemed to be very concerned with banishing incest and any sex within families. Up until now, this was very common, even with the Hebrews. If you remember Abraham, Issac and Jacob you’ll recall they all married relatives. Moses even prohibited a man from marrying two sisters. Good thing this law wasn’t around when Jacob married Rachel and Leah.
It seems like Moses was trying to purge his people of some of the things that had gotten them in trouble in the past. Also, being of the house of Pharaoh, maybe he’d seen how incest degraded the gene pool. He made specific reference that his people should keep themselves separate and not do as the Egyptians or Cannanites6 had done.
There’s also a reference about a man lying with another man as with a woman that has been a bane on many a life. I’m going to leave that for now and cover it extensively in a chapter dedicated exclusively to homosexuality.
RAPE AND OTHER WAYS WOMEN GOT SCREWED
If a man finds out his wife wasn’t a virgin when they married, all the men in town get to stone her. If a man is found having sex with another man’s wife they both get stoned.
There is a really strange, and I do have to say, superstitious way to find out if a woman has cheated on her husband. I’m not going to go into it but if you want to see some of the stuff they were doing back then that the fundamentalists have seemed to neglect, follow the footnote to check it out.7
If a man rapes a woman in the city they both must be stoned. Why her, you ask? Since she was in the city she should have cried out for help and she would have been rescued. That always works, right? So obviously, if she didn’t scream, she wanted it. But if she was in open country, she’s off the hook because no one could have heard her anyway. But the guy still gets stoned, right? Well, not necessarily.
Both these circumstances are only in effect if the woman was betrothed to another man. She is his property and the rapist defiled the man’s property.
If the woman was virgin but not betrothed then the rapist has to pay her father and marry her. You might recall I mentioned this before and how times have changed. Remember Dinah and her brothers?
Incidentally, nothing is said about what happens if a man raped a woman who wasn’t a virgin. Apparently that was okay.
Also, a woman can’t wear men’s clothing and vice versa. Sorry, it’s an abomination. Check your wardrobe you cross dressers.
If someone is beating up a guy and his wife goes to help her husband and grabs the attacker’s private parts, you have to cut off her hand. Talk about harsh. She must have wanted that too.
There’s also some stuff about divorce and inheritance. It always is up to the man. This was back in the day when a woman was just property for the man to do with as he pleased.
THE YEAR OF THE JUBILEE
The Year of the Jubilee is another of Moses’ brilliant ideas that has fallen by the wayside. A Jubilee year comes every fifty years and in that year everybody gets back whatever land they’ve sold off in the previous 49 years.
This was a big deal because when the children of Israel finally conquered the ‘Promised Land’, each tribe got a portion of the land which they divided up among each family in the tribe. Possession of the land was a finite thing since each tribe only got so much which meant each family only got so much.
So, whenever you sold some land you set the price according to how long it was until the next Jubilee year. If it was many years, the price was higher and if it was a few years, the price was lower because, no matter what, you were going to get your land back in the year of the Jubilee. It really was more like a lease.
You know how people are, if given the chance, it wouldn’t be long before a few rich families owned all the land. Even today, we see it all over the world. Moses recognized this and put the Jubilee in place to keep that from happening.
This idea of a Refuge city is an interesting concept. Moses designated six cities as Refuge cities.
The point was simple; If you killed somebody, but not on purpose8, you could run to one of these cities and have refuge from the ‘avenger of blood’. This avenger of blood was usually the oldest male in the family of the guy you killed. It was his duty to kill you to make things right. An eye for an eye kind of thing. But if you made it to the City of Refuge this avenger couldn’t touch you until you got a fair trial. If he got you beforehand, you were toast.
It seems Moses understood the power and need for vengeance one might feel when a family member is killed. He knew how the avenger could easily be acting irrationally out of blind anger and he was cutting them a bit of slack. But only a bit. It gave the ‘avenger of blood’ a little time to act impulsively if he had the mind to but it also insured the manslayer, if he could get to the City of Refuge in time, would have the opportunity to let justice take its course.
Was Moses was thinking back to when he first murdered that Egyptian and the avenger of blood was hot on his tail?
I’ve only scratched the surface here but what I noticed when I first read this was we, as a people, have found it very convenient to cherry pick the statutes we resonate with and seem perfectly willing to ignore the ones that don’t serve us. Literalists have made up some very convoluted theological reasons why that’s okay. In one breath they’ll say it’s okay to shave your beard but in the next breath they’ll say something like, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s that.”
For most of western history we’ve had no problem persecuting gays, burning witches, regaling social welfare or demonizing immigrants while being perfectly content to get tattoos, shave our beards and wear clothes with no tassels and made of cotton and polyester.
I encourage9 you to read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and see for yourself what hypocrites we are.
THE FINAL WORD
Moses finishes off with a whole tirade about how everything will go well with you if you obey these statues and how things will go horribly wrong if you don’t. That’s pretty much the whole message of the Bible; be good and you’ll get good; don’t do good and it won’t go well.10
1The Code of Hammurabi being one of the main ones.
2More evidence to support the Documentary Hypothesis.
3The Good News.
6There’s the poor Cannanites getting dragged down again.
10Law of Attraction 101