Lesson 5: Sin in the Mosaic Law

The Mosaic Law found in the Torah, the first five books our Bible, spells out in some detail what it is to live as God wills. The First Commandment, “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul (Exodus 20: 2-6, Deuteronomy 5:6-11) is constantly cited in the ordinances (D. 6: 4-9, 10: 12). Sin is idolatry, putting something, anything, before God and his Word. The Golden Calf made of our own jewelry remains a superb example.

The Torah emphasizes cultic purity, dedicating 60 chapters to orthodox diet and dress, altars and worship, practices and custom. Jesus gave us permission to ignore these, so we’ll concentrate on the 13 chapters covering moral action (E. 20-23:13, D. 5, 15, 19-25).

The first thing you notice is how these ordinances differ from modern law. Our law is based on everyone’s freedom to pursue their own version of happiness. Sin, if it can be called “sin”, is to run into conflict with another person’s pursuit. The standard for resolving these conflicts is impartial, blind fairness. The Torah also counsels fairness advocating “a life for a life, an eye for an eye” (E. 21: 23) and at least two witnesses before coming to a verdict (D. 19:21).

However, fairness is always augmented, even superseded, by compassion. Just about every law gives special consideration to protecting the vulnerable: widows, orphans, women, children, the poor, aliens, strangers, wild and domestic animals, and even the land. The purpose of God’s justice is to protect the weak. The foundation is remembering we were once poor slaves whom God rescued (D. 6:20-25); therefore there shall be no poor or needy among us (D. 15:4).

Ponder these representative examples:
1. Give the poor what they need without charging interest. If you take a coat as a pawn, return it before sunset, so they have cover. Forgive a loan every 7th year. Don’t even consider that there is only a year to go, if it is requested in the 6th. (D.15: 1-11, 24: 10-13, E. 22: 25-27).
2. Treat slaves fairly and release them after 7 years (D.15: 12-18, E. 21 1-11).
3. Offer special protection for the widow and orphan (E. 22: 22-24), even providing a husband for the former (D 25: 5-10).
4. Love strangers (D. 10:19), include aliens (E. 22:21) even in the Sabbath rest (E. 23:12)
5.Care for animals, such as not muzzling the ox grinding your wheat so he can eat while he works (D.. 25: 4) and allowing even wild beasts to graze (E. 23: 10-13).
6. Look after the land, giving it a Sabbath (E 23: 10-13). The Law counsels good ecology, such as leaving the mother behind when taking young birds for food. (D. 22: 6, 7).

It is easy to see God’s justice goes beyond fairness to redistributing the wealth and restoring the needy. At the same time it is delightfully realistic, realizing there will always be some need (D 15:11). This means we need to control 1) the violence of war by insisting on offering peace terms before attacking and excusing newly-weds from service (D. 20: 1-20, 24: 5), 2) the greed of businessmen by demanding one set of balances (D. 25:13-16), paying wages on the same day earned (D. 24: 14,15), and harvesting sloppily, so the poor can glean the fields (D. 24: 19-22), and 3) the lust of men by protecting women in sex (D. 22: 13-30, 24:1-4).

Like Capitalism it believes respect for a person includes respect for her property. D. 19:14 prohibits moving property boundaries, E. 23:4 calls for returning even your enemies’ ox if it strays, and 2 of the 10 Commandments protect the neighbor’s property. However, its similarity does not go much further when it comes to caring for the poor.

So what is sin here? We can begin with placing anything before God and his Word. Obviously, we have to include failure to care for the poor and vulnerable. The curses in Deuteronomy 27: 15-26 speak of making idols, dishonoring parents, moving property markers, misleading the blind, depriving the alien, orphan and widows of justice, and having sex outside of marriage. I think we have reason to include the modern rape of land’s resources and the extinction of many species. The Torah truly does judge its society by how it treats its weakest members.

The Mosaic Law provides standards for a community with a common story and a common vision. Our democratic society does not do well by its standards, because we have neither. We can, however, strive as individuals to promote these values. That means we have to consider what form modern idolatry takes and realistic ways we can care for the poor and protect the vulnerable. Any ideas?

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