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Law of Moses

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As A Rule of National and Individual Life
By Robert Roberts
Chapter 10 - Dealings of Man With Man

Theft and Thieves

In the last chapter, attention was called to the close interweaving of God with Israel's daily life in all its details and functions. The climax was inadvertently omitted, namely, the insertion in their ordinary apparel of a ribband, or border, or fringe, with no other use or purpose than to recall to their recollection the obligation under which they lay to obey all the commandments of the Lord. Thus, we read: "Bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue... that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: that ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God" (Num. 15:38).

What nation under heaven can show a feature of civilization like this? Talk of the fashions for the month. Here is a fashion for ever! whose sole object was to keep before the mind the one thing most odious of all others to the taste of the followers of Parisian models. It shows more eloquently than anything else the place which God should have in human life, according to God's view of the matter, and His view alone is the one which will prevail with the children of wisdom. All other views are bound to become as extinct as the vegetation of the carboniferous era.

The law of Moses had not only to do with individual and national life, and with the foreshadowing of divine principles and purposes, but it had to do with the relations of man to fellow man. It laid down rules for the regulation and adjustment of temporal dealings. It defined a policy of what is called civil law. And in this department it as much excelled the jurisprudence of Gentile nations as we should expect the divine would exceed the human. The contrast at the present moment is not so great as it would have been if Gentile law had not imitated some of the features of the Mosaic original. It is not at first obvious that this imitation has taken place. A study of historic development and the characteristics of human nature brings the fact to the clearness of a self-evident truth.

The Mosaic is particularly distinguished from all Gentile systems in the responsibility it scrupulously fosters with regard to the bearing of individual action upon one's neighbour and one's self -- a feature largely incorporate in British law, though not so universally and consistently carried out as in the Mosaic original. Individual action was so strictly guarded by the principle of responsibility as to make Israelites particular at every turn as to how their actions bore upon others. A man was liable for any suffering or loss caused either by what he did or what he failed to do (Exod. 21).

If he injured a man, so as to cause him to keep his bed, he had to pay for the loss of time, and cause him to be thoroughly healed. If he caused death he was himself to die, unless in the case of an accident, and even then he could only escape by getting into one of six cities of refuge appointed in all the land.

The only exception was the death of a bondservant under chastisement. If the servant continued to live a day or two after the injury, it showed it was not a murderous onslaught, and the loss of the servant in that case was considered a sufficient punishment. In the case of a limited injury, the servant was to go free for the loss of tooth or eye or other member. In the case of death outright, blood was to be shed for the servant, as well as for any member of the community.

The principle of responsibility for action was further shown in the enactment: If a man, in building a house, omitted to add a battlement or parapet to the roof (which was flat), he was to make good any injury that might result from people falling off.

If he allowed an ox to go at large that was known to have a habit of "butting" or goring, he was to lose the ox if it gored an ox, or suffer death if it slew a man, unless allowed to ransom his life by a heavy payment.

A man opening a pit and leaving it uncovered, was to make good any loss caused by anybody's beast stumbling into it.

A man causing his beast to feed in another man's field was afterwards to make restitution from the best of his own field or vineyard. Fire breaking out in standing corn through someone having set fire to thorns, the damage was to be compensated by the person kindling the fire. In all manner of loss, whether of ass, ox, sheep, raiment, or lost thing, the cause of the parties was to come before the judges, and the responsible party was to pay double (we don't read of "costs": the judges were to investigate as a matter of duty, and the parties to plead their own cause). Justice was quick and cheap, and anyone refusing to submit to the award was to be put to death.

A man borrowing anything of his neighbour and injuring it in the use, was to make it good, whether beast or implement; but if the injury took place when the owner of the article came with the article on hire -- such as a man coming to reap with a reaping-hook -- the owner of the article was to bear the loss, as the article came for its hire and all the chances of use.

If one man injured another man's wife he was to be punished according as the woman's husband should lay upon him, and according as the judges should determine -- life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Even if a man were found slain in the open country, the inhabitants of the nearest place had to give a solemn pledge of their innocence through their leading men, and sacrifice had then to be offered.

Theft and Thieves

In the treatment of theft, how much more excellent was the Mosaic than the British law. In Britain, thieves are maintained at the expense of the State for a certain number of years, while the persons they have robbed are perhaps reduced to beggary by the robbery and the costs of prosecution. True, the thief's maintenance is not of a liberal character, and personal liberty is abridged; but still, as a fact, the thief is maintained and waited on by guardians, while the victim of the theft may suffer loss and heartbreak, for which there is no compensation. The criminal law of England benefits the thief more than anyone else. The community benefits by the thief's restraint for a time, for which, however, the community has to pay. The only sufferer is the hapless victim of the crime. Carlyle bewailed the tendency of such a system to breed a class of professional law breakers, whose business it is to prey upon other people, either in prison or out of it.

Under the law of Moses, the thief had to make good his theft to the person from whom he had stolen. If he stole an ox, he had to pay to him five oxen; if a sheep, four sheep (the difference between four sheep and five oxen probably representing the different degrees of injury inflicted upon the community -- the ox being used in the cultivation of the fields, while a sheep was only so much wool and mutton). "Very good", says the modern legislator, "very good" with a smile of superiority; "but suppose the thief has neither ox, nor sheep, nor money, how is such a law to be carried out?" The law says in that case, "he shall be sold for his theft", and the loser of the stolen ox or sheep would be compensated out of the proceeds of the sale. Think what a punishment this would be. The thief would be taken away by the person buying him, and used as a bondservant for the most menial work. He would be known on the farm as a sold thief, which would ensure a quite sufficient stigma on the criminal, while at the same time being made to pay for his own keep by labour, and turning his wretched existence to better advantage than by cooping him up in a jail.

It will be seen at a glance that more than one good purpose would be served by such a mode of dealing with him. His sale would compensate the parties injured by the theft; the community would not be burdened by his maintenance; the development of professional thieves would be prevented; while as regards the thief himself, judgment with mercy would temper his lot, for as the member of another man's establishment he would find his punishment in his want of liberty, and the hard service belonging to his position as a bond-servant, and at the same time the fullest opportunity of retrieving his character by faithful service among those by whom he was surrounded. There would be none of the hopeless ruin, while all the punishment of prison life.

"Ah, very good, very good", again remarks our modern philosopher; "but suppose the fellow should refuse to work; suppose he should prove an incorrigible thief and vagabond?" Well, the law had a remedy for that -- simple, but effectual. Though shocking to mere modern scruples, incorrigibles were to be brought before the judges and stoned.

Carlyle was in raptures over this method of dealing with the criminal classes. The more it is thought over, the more it will be found a perfect solution -- delivering the community from the plague of professional spoilers, and the burden of their costly maintenance, the individual sufferers from loss, and the thief from the incurable taint of criminality attaching to him under the British institutions.

But, then "how dreadful to sell a man !" It depends. Antislavery sentiment has clouded judgment here. It is no more dreadful to sell a thief than to sell a man to military bondage for a shilling a day. The difference is in form and sentiment merely. It may be said the soldier chooses his avocation, while the thief under Moses was sold against his will. True, but is an offender against the law entitled to choice? If a man who has done no wrong may voluntarily sell himself to the Crown, there is nothing very monstrous in an evil-doer being sold against his will. A murderer is hanged without compunction or consultation. Why should it be more dreadful for an evil-doer to make some reparation for his crimes by a profitable sale to some cultivator of the land? -- especially bearing in mind that all forms of service were governed by the septennial year of release, and no decent human being doomed to hopeless slavery.

There is a wide discrepancy between modern sentiments and the spirit of the Mosaic Law, due doubtless, in a measure, to the difference between the immortal soul theory of modern philosophy, and the view promulgated in the writings of Moses, concerning the constitution of man as a mortal creature of the dust. There is no place in the Mosaic system for the brutal traffic in flesh and blood, characteristic of modern slavery. Man-stealing was a crime under Moses, punishable with death (Exod. 21:16); at the same time, subject to prescriptions of justice and humanity, it was lawful under Moses to possess and control human service (Exod. 21:2). Man might possess anything, provided he used it, in mercy and truth, as other parts of the law required.

Those other requirements of the law were of an exquisite beauty which this age is slow to recognize on account of the prevalence in Gentile moralities of much that has been insensibly copied from the law of Moses. Their beauty and superiority are seen when contrasted with the practices and principles of the Egyptians, Assyrians, and other races that flourished in the same age of the world's history. The law of Moses was an entirely new departure from the customs of the heathen. It was careful to deprecate conformity with these :--"After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 18:3-4).

It will be advantageous briefly to glance at the excellent features of the new ordinances delivered to Israel.

They were not to oppress or to take advantage of any man. While this applied peculiarly to their Hebrew brethren, they were expressly enjoined to treat the stranger kindly in all their transactions. Even an enemy's interests they were to consider. If they saw an enemy's ox or ass going astray, they were to take it back to its owner. If they saw their enemy's beast lying helplessly under a burden, they were not to refrain from helping him. (There is nothing of this sort in British law. Feelings of kindness are excluded from law as a sentimental weakness.) They were to take no gift in judgment. They were not to administer justice with any bias. They were not to be carried away by a majority in a wrong matter, nor were they to take up a poor man's cause in any partisan spirit. They were not to befriend him because he was poor, but because he was in the right, if it was so.

They were to do no unrighteousness of any kind. They were to be slow to mention an evil matter. Tale-bearing was to be frowned down. They were to nurse no hatred and practice no revenge. They were not to take advantage of weakness, or indulge in cruel sport. They were not to curse the deaf, or lay stumbling-blocks before the blind. They were to be prompt in the payment of wages, and they were to be liberal in the relief of poverty, and ready to lend to their brothers in distress, not taking usury, or even acting up to their legal rights in the matter of security. A man, for example, giving his garment in pledge for a loan, was to have it restored to him at sundown to sleep in (according to the custom of the East). It might be fetched again in the morning, but it was to be done in a considerate and gentlemanly manner. The lender was not to go rudely into a man's house and fetch the article, but was to "stand abroad" and let the borrower bring it.

In reaping the fields or vineyards, no parsimonious spirit was to be shown. There was to be no going over them a second time to pick up or gather what had been overlooked. Field and vineyard were to be left ungleaned to give the poor a chance. Moderns would think this wasteful, improvident, and unbusinesslike; but there is a better business spirit than the modern one, though we cannot see it practised till the establishment of new heavens and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.

They were to honour grey hairs, and rise up before the aged. Reverence to seniors was to be carried to a high degree. Not only were father and mother to be honoured, but any man lifting his hand against, or even cursing them, was to be held guilty of a capital offence and put to death.

Sexual license was shown no mercy. It is common to think that woman was unprotected under the law of Moses. In point of fact, it is under the Gentile law that she is defenceless. It is one of the foulest blots on European civilization that man may make sport of female honour -- not only with impunity, but acquire a certain prestige by his exploits. Woman had a lower position in some points under Moses than ladies occupy in modern educated circles; but she was thoroughly protected. If a man robbed her of her chastity, he was to be put to death without remorse, or compelled to make the woman his wife. As for the adultery of married people, no satisfaction was accepted; the penalty was death.

A system of national life based upon such principles of individual action was certain to be pure and noble and holy. But, alas! the basis proved only theoretical. The law was all that could be desired -- holy, just, and good. But Israel were forgetful and so disobedient. The law fell into disuse, and Israel became worse than the surrounding nations. God expostulated with them for a long time by the prophets: "Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries, . . . But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would have none of me", "Therefore was the wrath of the Lord kindled against his people, insomuch that he abhorred his own inheritance. And he gave them into the hand of the heathen; and they that hated them ruled over them." We are permitted to look forward to the time spoken of by Moses (Deut. 30:2), when "Thou (Israel) shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; that then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee".

 

 

Ch 11

 

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