Bible Law

By S. BURGESS, m.a.


At the very outset of any treatment of so delicate a subject as that indicated by the title of this chapter, we are met by no small difficulty. This consists in the danger of committing unintentional errors of irreverence, and thus offending the prejudices of those who are more or less pledged to their belief in the verbal inspiration of every Bible chapter and verse. With this risk before us, we can only trust to our own sense of a rational view of a subject so full of capabilities of misconstruction. Those of us who can remember the outburst of righteous indignation at the publication of the “Essays and Reviews” and of “Ecce Homo,” feel surprise at the quiet indifference with which views expressed in them are now received. This does not at all, or necessarily, mean that men’s faith is colder, or that the spirit of reverent religious feelings has died away. The advance of accurate scientific investigation may have upset the faith of some, and given a subject for outbursts of intolerant pulpit denunciations, but we must think that there are signs plainly discernible of a quiet acceptation of modern discovery by the majority of thoughtful and devout believers in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. These remarks will be found not unneedful as we pursue the examination of this particular branch of Biblical study, namely, the Law as it is found in the Bible, and this will be seen at once when it is laid down as an absolutely necessary condition of our investigation that this same Law can plainly be divided into two distinct portions—that which is of Divine, and that which is of human origin. The bare statement of this fact will offend certain prejudices. The Divine “Fiat” stamps with as marvellous and undoubted clearness, certain portions, as other parts are marked by the progress of human intelligence, the needs of human society, and the force of the human will.

The very fact of the existence of Law entails the necessity of Penalty, and this may be spiritual or corporal. The former depends on the acknowledgment of the rule over us of a Superior Being. The latter is a necessary accompaniment of all and every human life, believing or unbelieving. So in the Bible Law we can easily distinguish between the penalty affixed to the breaking of the first of the Ten Commandments, and that which followed on the breaking of the sixth. On the authority of Hebrew scholars, we are told that the use of the Hebrew Article shows that The Law refers to the expressed will of God. If this rule be invariable, it would be of great value, and especially so in the use of the Greek Article.

The writers of the Psalms gave forth an intense reflection of the old Law; always presuming, as they of course did, that it emanated from the Deity.

Now let us be allowed to start with the assumption that the Mosaic is the earliest form of tabulated Law. A most excellent book has just been published, “The History of Babylonia,” by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. It is a cheap little book, but full of information upon which one feels able to rely. We find there that the Moral Law of Babylonia represents the spirit of Bible Law so accurately that it would be absurd to set up any theory of an independent basis.

We must make a date somewhere, and therefore we cannot do better than choose a date that can be fairly tested, and safely on this side of mythical eras,—and that is about 1500 B.C. This must appear a very safe and modest date to fall back upon. The Babylonians want us to go back 432,000 years, but to accept this assertion requires more faith than most of us possess.

For our present purpose there is nothing gained by comparing the Mosaic Law with that discovered with such infinite care and learning in the Babylonian records. The utmost that can be said is that we have startling coincidences, and an intensely interesting subject opened out. But there is no single grain of information, and that is what we are just now in search of. We feel quite distrustful of documents, especially stone ones, which give the lifetime of Alorus as extending to 36,000 years. That was before the Deluge. The Wandering Jew sinks into insignificance, and is a mere puling infant by the side of such figures as these, because the son of Alorus reigned for 46,800 years. However short the “year” was, the period of life was quite lengthy. If a year was our week, the last named patriarch was about 1,000 years old.

This is a departure somewhat from the Law as it is in our Bibles. But it will be an interesting study for some kind student to compare that Law with the echoes thereof found in Asiatic literature, even far away on the eastern shores of China. The mystery still unsolved is, “How did it get there?

With the greatest diffidence we make the statement that the first notion of Law was in connection with sacrifice. The time may come when this can be refuted. But at present, leaving out of the question natural and unwritten Law, we find no bond but this. Sacrifice comes to us as a Law from a Superior Being. Heathen nations have recognized the efficacy of sacrifice and offerings.

Man without Law was an impossibility. No living thing can exist without some Law. Thus we look back to the first records of created living things for some Law. Science sheds a great, broad, and even scaring, light on the Law prevailing over inanimate nature. The seas and the fields obey it. But for us to make a record of Law as it made its beginning, is a task too great, and it is indeed then we feel that “fools may rush in” where better souls have had to languish in doubt.

Let us take the Law in the Bible as we can read it, and how few care to read it! There was a man once who had read the whole of the first five books through twice. Thinking there might be something to gain from such abnormal study, we propounded a few questions on this very subject. The result was a senseless repetition of verses from Leviticus. And yet, to tell the honest truth, there is very little left us to do but to quote. There is a little assistance we can give, and most thankful we are to have it in our power to do so. Let us all the time remember that the Bible Law is the sole foundation of every Law, Human and Divine, as far as we can discover. If it can be proved that the Babylonian record with its 40,000 year old kings is to be relied on, then by all means let us accept it.

We start with the sacrifice as the “companion” of the Law. No one can feel hurt by this. It is no good to any of us to ask whether Abel’s sacrifice was according to revealed Law or anterior to it. It is plain that sacrifice came to be the great medium of the Law between man and the great prevailing Law. With this allowed, all the rest is easier to grasp. The early Law among the first people seemed to have no force but in its connection with some higher Power. This Power has been now deputed to earthly sources.

The writers of the Psalms represent to us a perfect intercourse with the Deity. The question then arises, “On what grounds was this intercourse conducted?” The answer seems clearly to be on the conditions of the Laws of sacrifice. Now, by comparing the elaborate list of these contained in Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible” with a very careful one in “Notes on the Hebrew Psalms,” by W. R. Burgess (1879), we can make out a clear and very useful resumé. Leaving out the great sin offerings for the whole people and for the priests, we have the following sin offerings:—

1. For any sin of ignorance. Lev. iv. A most elaborate ceremonial of sacrifice and blood sprinkling. We should like to know when the “plea of ignorance” was done away with altogether, as we believe it has no force at all in modern Law.

2. For refusal to bear witness on oath. Lev. v. This is of very great interest in the light of recent legislation as to affirmation. We have come across many people, it is needless to add grossly ignorant, who have entirely lost sight of the obvious emphasis on the word “False” in the 9th Commandment, placing the whole force on the fact of “Witness.”

3. The Laws as to defilement. These, we presume, have left no trace on modern Law.

4. The breach of a rash oath, the keeping of which would involve sin. Lev. v., 4. This opens a most interesting subject, but we have not space to enter upon it. From the days of Jephthah and his oath with regard to his daughter until this day, the question has been full of difficulties, and is divided amongst, perhaps, equal advocates for the two opposed views of it.

5. Sacrilege in ignorance, fraud, suppressio veri, and perjury, were punished by enforced compensation, and the addition of a fifth part of the value concerned in the matter to the priest, or to the person wronged.

6. Illtreatment of betrothed slaves. Lev. xix., 20. This is only curious, but at the same time has a connection with late enactments in criminal Law.

7. The Law as to the powers of a father is extraordinary. When one considers the relation now existing and defined by our Law, the revolution is beyond all measure out of reasonable proportion. For a curse, a blow, or even wilful disobedience, the penalty was death!

8. The Law of usury is difficult, but the chief points are well known. The main principle of the Law prevails to this day. Let us only notice the striking fact that usury could not be exacted upon the Jews themselves. Does this not offer a fine comment on the grievous usury so cruelly enforced in after years by these people upon the Gentile races?

9. Debt. All debts were released at the seventh year. So there was a year of limitation.

10. Tithe. This Law has been so frequently and ably set forth, that it is entirely one’s own fault if it needs any comment.

11. Poor Laws. These are conspicuous by their absence. There was a legal right of gleanings, a second tithe to be given in charity, and wages were to be paid day by day. (Deut. xxiv.)

A few rather important forms of legislation must be placed here as addenda. We notice the entirely despotic power of the husband over the wife, and all belonging to her. Compare our useful but very late enactment as to married women’s property, apart from her almost complete irresponsibility.

The slander against a wife’s virginity is punished by a fine only, but the fact of its truth, and therefore no longer a slander, is punished by the death of the woman. This is a most striking proof of the lower room in social judgment awarded to the female Israelite. We notice also that the power of the master over his servant was absolute, but that the master suffered a penalty if his servant or slave died under castigation! Ex. xxi. If he was maimed, he was by this fact allowed his freedom. The rule as to Hebrew slaves is very interesting. It is too long to be quoted here, but it can be easily mastered by a reference to Ex. xxi., Deut. xv., Lev. xxv.

We notice that there is no protection legally allowed to strangers, and so we find kindness and protection enjoined as a sacred duty.

We believe that the old list of “Prohibited Degrees,” which we saw placed in churches in our infancy, and is still to be seen, is in all respects enforced by our present Law. But we are not quite sure of this. We can only remember the vague sense of mystery underlying the clause, which was always put in the largest type:—


Another most interesting Law must be carefully noticed, and if possible, more deeply studied. In cases of accidental homicide, there was mostly an “avenger of blood” to be looked for. To escape this untoward follower, cities of refuge or sanctuaries were named, and in these the poor wretch was safe until the death of the high priest.

As to the legal penalty of adultery, are we quite sure that, according to results, we have greatly improved upon the old Bible Law? Under this the punishment was death of both offenders. Was it the fear lest the population of the world should be so very seriously lessened that gradually brought this Law to less than a penal one, so that at this day a Royal “Commission” is placed on the offence in the shape of the absolute freedom of the offenders to seek for another opportunity?

Just a few words more as to those who interpreted the Law. These were the Priests and the Levites. The “Judges,” as we read of them in the book of that name, had, with the exception of Samuel, mostly to do with the settlement of political disputes, and the leading out of the people to victory or defeat, as the case might be. But in later times the power of the Sanhedrim was undoubtedly great.

The king’s power was legally limited. But so it is, and has been, in all ages and in all dominions in theory! Yet we find Rehoboam expelled by Jereboam, and the latter as despotic as the former, just as we find a firm will in Cromwell after the despotism of Charles, in what had been then for centuries the most “Constitutionally” governed country in the world!