The land-law of the Mosaic system was a perfect contrivance to keep all the land in the possession of all the people, as the true source of sustenance. At the same time, it was designed to prevent the growth of chronic poverty, and to secure the powerful development of family life by striking its roots into the soil by inalienable family inheritance. But it required something more than this to keep life in its true shape. Mere agriculture and family interest might have fostered health and domesticity at the expense of intelligence and high character. A land of peaceful homesteads and prosperous peasants, without appropriate stimulants thrown in, might have become a land of stolid dullards, like many a countryside at home and abroad.

This was prevented by other appointments of the law, which interwove the God of Israel with every phase of private life as well as public, and gave a quickening stimulus to all the higher faculties. There was, first of all, the care they were to observe as to what they ate, a regulation affecting every day of the year. They were not to eat everything. Some things were declared unclean, and forbidden to be touched, such as the flesh of the pig, the camel, the hare, etc., among beasts; the flesh of the eagle, the vulture, the raven, the owl, etc., among birds, and every kind of fish that was destitute of fins and scales. The law was peremptory: all these were to be held in abomination (Lev. 11:4–8; 10–20). They were not only to be avoided at the meal table, but anyone touching the carcases of any of them was to be considered “unclean” and unfit for intercourse till next day (verse 8 and 27). Even any domestic utensil coming in contact with interdicted flesh was to be immersed in water and reckoned unclean till next day. And any earthen vessel so defiled was to be broken (verses 32, 33). Even an oven or pot range in a similar case was to be esteemed unfit for use and broken down. The law was so stringent that even water in which a defiled article was steeped for purification was to be considered as defiling everything it touched, with certain exceptions (verses 34, 38).

The reason given to them for these scrupulosities was this: “For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy: for I am holy… I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy; for I am holy” (44–45). It would not have been possible to devise an arrangement more calculated to keep Israel in the attitude of continual care and continual recognition of God. It had its spiritual meaning, but we are looking just now at the bearing of the law on the life of the nation.

Next, there was the observance of every seventh day as a sabbath of rest. This was not to be merely a day of inaction and lounge, as Sunday is in multitudes of British homes, but a day of mental exercise in things pertaining to God; a day on which they were to abstain from private occupations and pleasures, and devote themselves to the contemplation and honour of God. “Not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” (Isa. 58:13). How wholesome and ennobling an institution this was, we in some degree experience in these chaotic times, when we merely suspend business and change the channel of our thoughts once in seven days in accommodation to a public custom of Mosaic origin. How good it must have been when the day of rest was blended with a true and intelligent direction of the mind towards the Highest and Holiest as revealed.

Then there was the rite of circumcision to be performed on every male child when it was eight days old. Here was a direct challenge of family attention to the divine relationship of the nation. There is no evidence that they understood, or were called upon to understand, the spiritual import of this ceremony, marking the appearance of every little brother in the family circle. This much they certainly knew, that it was “the token of the covenant betwixt God and Abraham” under which God had chosen them for His people, and assigned them the land in possession, and a thing to be observed by them in their generations (Gen. 17:9–11). Therefore, it was an impressing of God on their notice every time it occurred.
Then the mother on every such occasion, as well as on the birth of a daughter (with a variation in the latter case as to time). was to consider herself unclean for seven days, and be ineligible to touch any hallowed thing or to come into the sanctuary for thirty-three days; at the end of which she was required to bring a lamb for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon or turtle dove for a sin-offering, to the priest for offering to the Lord—the offering of which should be accepted as an atonement—after which she should be clean. Here was quite an elaborate ritual which laid hold of family life in every house at all seasons, and was calculated to keep God before the whole population, and themselves in continual memory of the holiness which He required at their hands.

So every firstborn son was to be presented before the Lord and redeemed by sacrifice for the purpose of preserving a family memory of the nation’s origin in God’s interposition, as is evident from this addition to the redemption law: “And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this ? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt from the house of bondage; and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast; therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem” (Exod. 13:14–15). Indeed, the memorial aim of almost the whole Mosaic institution is well defined in the words of Psalm 78:5–7: “He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.”

The law touched them at almost every point in their daily life —not only at what we might call the epochal incidents already noticed, but in the hourly bearings of things. If a man touched a dead creature—even though one that was clean and that might be eaten—he was to be considered unclean for the whole day (Lev. 11:39). If he had a swelling or breaking in any part of his body, he was to hurry off to the priest for consultation and treatment (13:2). If he ate or slept in a house that was legally unclean, he had to wash his clothes (14:47); so also, if he touched an unclean man or a bed on which the man had lain or clothes on which he had sat, or if the unclean man should spit on him, he was to be unclean for the day and wash his clothes (15:4–8). The same result followed from all natural defilements in man or woman (16–27).

The inevitable tendency of enactments affecting so many phases of common life was to bring God continually home to the consciences of faithful men. They were not allowed to forget Him for a single day. And what would be the effect of all these exercises but the one contemplated in the statement with which their enumeration concludes: “Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them” (Lev. 15:31). And the fact declared by Moses: “Thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself. above all the nations that are upon the earth” (Deut. 14:2).

It is customary to think of these appointments as mere ceremonials that have no life in them; but it is evident that they were intended to have, and calculated to have, and did in fact in many cases have, a powerful and spiritual effect on the mind. That they failed of this effect in the vast majority was due to the intractable nature of the people, which Moses repeatedly bemoaned (Deut. 9:6; 29:4; 31:27). Why God chose a people so intractable we shall probably understand to a nicety if we are permitted to see the glorious climax of the plan. It has been said by some that if He had chosen the Greeks instead of the Hebrews, it would have been more of a success; but this is a shallow-minded criticism. Human nature everywhere is an evil thing, and we may be quite sure that the plan that God has made in choosing the seed of Abraham His friend is the very best adapted for the ultimate realization of His glory upon earth.

The uncleanness involved in the various laws referred to in the foregoing was what is called “ceremonial”: that is, such as is not uncleannness itself, in the physical sense, but such as was merely constituted by the law of the case. Such an uncleanness has otherwise been expressed as fictitious uncleanness as distinguished from physical defilement. We can all understand the reality of a physical defilement requiring to be cleansed away, but this was a defilement recognized merely, that is, not subsisting physically in itself, e.g., where a man touched the dead body of a prohibited animal, there was nothing in this physically to defile the man; we have all touched dead hares and been none the worse. There has been some attempt to claim a scientific basis for the uncleanness of the Mosaic law, that is, to connect it with some physical influence of an inherently defiling or corrupting character, such as polluted gas, or microbe infected air, etc. But this is evidently a mistake. All the uncleannesses of the law were what might be called imputative or artificial.

But they were none the less powerful on this account as an actually felt or recognized uncleannness. We all know the power of a current recognition in any matter,—losing caste, for example, which is nothing more or less than a prevalent view that one is not up to a certain standard of recognition. Or the law of taboo in savage races; a tabooed person is avoided and even detested by those around him, while the subject of that state is a misery to himself on account of the taboo. The experience is actual, though artificial in its source; so indeed we may say with all games. A person in a certain unfavourable state by the standard of some rule, feels himself in that state, and others recognize it; although it is all a matter of mere convention.

If this be so with human distinctions, we may easily understand how powerful the states constituted by the Mosaic law would come to be amongst those in Israel by whom the law was faithfully obeyed. The objects in such artificial distinctions would be very pleasant to contemplate in the light of divine explanation. Some of them we can recognize; nothing could have more powerfully contributed to the conception of the idea of holiness than this constant carefulness as to contracting ceremonial defilement, and nothing, as already observed, could have been more calculated to keep God continually before the minds of the people. There were also concealed significances unknown to them which have been hinted at in apostolic exposition, some of which may engage our attention afterwards.

The laws referred to had all to do with the details of private life, but it was not enough that God should be privately regarded, or that the people should be exercised as individuals in matters of wisdom and holiness. Israel was intended to be a holy nation. National life is a part of the true life of men. The insulated mum-miffed life of individuals is one of the abortions of the present evil state. It was therefore needful that there should be institutions to give them a collective life of the right development. It was good that privately they should be prosperous and godly, but this did not complete the circle of what was needful for their well-being. There were therefore public institutions which supplied the means of developing the beautiful symmetry of human life that should exist in a perfect nation, a nation of divinely regulated life, private and public. These institutions come into view in the feasts of the law, one of the most picturesque and charming features of the national life constituted by the Law of Moses. Three times in the year every male had to appear at an appointed time, to keep a certain feast, according to the law (Lev. 23).

There was first the feast of the passover; second, the feast of weeks or firstfruits; and third, the feast of tabernacles, which divided off the year into convenient sections that redeemed it from monotony, besides rousing the nation periodically into purifying and noble and healthful activity (Deut. 16:16). These feasts were something of which the world has no experience in Gentile life, and of which it is very difficult for us to form an adequate idea. The mere fact of coming together at a common centre was a circumstance involving much that was good; it took the people away from their own houses and neighbourhoods for about a fortnight at least each time, and we all know the good effects a holiday such as this would involve. Then the people of one neighbourhood would journey together, which would be a pleasant stimulus of the social element, and appears to be partly what is referred to in the Psalm, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go up to the house of the Lord”. “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.” There is also a panegyric of Jerusalem, in which one of the features of excellence is thus extolled: “Whither the tribes of the Lord go up to give thanks unto the name of the Lord”. And then it was not a coming together to hold a meeting in the formal sense of modern notions, but a coming together to enjoy a good time. “Thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the Lord thy God hath chosen to place his name there” (Deut. 16:11). “Thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God from year to year in the place which the Lord shall choose, thou and thy household.”

The picture presented to the mind by such directions is that of a whole nation breaking up at a given date, and leaving the homesteads of common life, and swarming joyously together at a common place of assembly to spend a fortnight’s thorough enjoyment together. It would be a different form and class of enjoyment from that we are acquainted with in Gentile holidays. There would not be the rude and objectless hilarity of inebriated crowds jostling together in mere friskiness without any central idea or purpose. Israel came together not only to rejoice but to worship God and to hear the law expounded. There was also provision that if the things were too heavy to carry, they could turn them into money, and spend the money at the place when they got there. This is what we read: “Thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always … . if the place be too far from thee, which the Lord thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the Lord thy God hath blessed thee: then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose: and thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household”(Deut. 14:23–26).

“When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read the law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, women, and children, and the stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law: and that their children, which have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deut. 31:11–13).

This formal reading of the whole law was only to be once in seven years, “In the solemnity of the year of release”, but in some form or other, every feast of the year brought God before the nation. Take the feast of the Passover. This was in express commemoration of their deliverance from Egypt, Each family, or cluster of families, was to roast a lamb taken from the sheep or a kid from the goats; they were to eat it in the evening with unleavened bread. No leaven was to be found in their houses from the first day of the feast till its close. In the first day there was to be solemn assembly and cessation from work, and also the seventh day. This was to be observed the first month of every year, and was in fact to be a beginning of the year to them because of the importance of the event it signalized. “For in this self same day have I brought your armies out of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations for an ordinance forever And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What mean ye by this service ? that ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” Thus the deliverance of Israel from Egypt was kept perpetually before the mind of the nation, and indeed it is so to this day. The Jews keep the feast of the Passover, although it has shrunken as much from its significance in their eyes as the lamb which is reduced to a bare bone on the plates.

We reserve for another occasion, if God permit, the spiritual significance of the Passover. We are considering at present the character of all these institutions as modes of national life, when they were in force in the land, and the effect of their contemplation is to generate those rapturous sentiments of admiration with which the Psalms of David abound. What a joyous, subdued, ennobling occasion it would be for all Israel to come together, released from their daily toils for a season, and in full enjoyment of each other’s society, opening their minds in gratitude in the historic contemplations involved in the feast. We must also remember that all these public occasions would be tinctured with the spirit of those private commandments which enjoined kindness to the unfortunate and justice to all. A feast sweetened with mercy and truth, and enjoyed with the opulent plenty of every barn-floor and vineyard, and adorned with all the picturesque accessories of a beautiful land and a beautiful situation, intermingled with song and feasting and prayer, exhibits even at this distant date a definite idea of what human life ought to be, and cheers the heart with some prospect of a day to come when that idea will be realized over the wide world, when the kingdom is restored to Israel and all nations made subject to the sway of their king. Oh, happy day, when many people shall go and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob’ for he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” The second feast was only seven weeks after the beginning of harvest, which was early in the Holy Land. They were to begin to count seven weeks from the time the first sickle was put to the corn, and they were then to come together and hold a feast. The connection of the feast was not so distinctly historical as the Passover; it was as truly national, but had more to do with the manifested goodness of God in the abundant supplies of the pastures and the cornfields. It was called the “feast of weeks”, and was characterized by a tribute of a free will offering at the hand of every family brought to God according to the measure with which they had been blessed in the harvest. It was distinctly spiritual in its object and character. The Israelite presenting his offering was to say to the priest, “I profess this day unto the Lord thy God that I am come unto the country which the Lord sware unto our fathers to give us … . A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: and the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: and when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: and the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: and he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me” (Deut. 26:3–10).

This presentation of the firstfruits through the priests was not like the presentations that take place in Roman Catholic countries where the priests take and use the good things offered; the offerer making these acknowledgments was himself with his family to use the things brought to the feast, as it is immediately added: “Thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord hath given unto thee, and unto thine house; thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you”. The offerer was to close the presentation by saying, “I have hearkened to the voice of the Lord my God, and have done according to all that thou hast commanded me. Look down from thine holy habitation from heaven, and bless thy people Israel and the land which thou hast given us, as thou swarest unto our fathers, a land that floweth with milk and honey”.

The third feast, called the feast of tabernacles or booths, because of the peculiar feature that the Israelites were to live in booths during its progress, would be two or three months after the feast of weeks. It was fixed by the completion of the harvest, namely, “After that thou hast gathered in thy corn and thy wine”. It was to commence on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when they had gathered in the fruit of the land (Lev. 23:39). This would be six months after the Passover. All the feasts were joyous occasions, but it would seem as if the feast of tabernacles would exceed the others in some respects. It was a direction to every family that on the first day of the feast they were to take “the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook”, and construct temporary dwellings for their habitations during the feast. We all know the delightful aroma of fresh-plucked branches of resinous trees: we can therefore imagine the charming stimulus that this odour would impart to the whole performance, and how delightful to the children to get into a light, new, airy house of that sort. It would not be cold, because it would be at the top of the summer season, when it would be a luxury to camp out in the open air. And then the well-filled hampers of all sorts to be stored in the sweet-smelling booths would give a zest of peculiar delightsomeness to the most joyous of all the feasts. They were to dwell in these booths seven days.

There was an historic meaning connected with this. “All that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42). They were to” keep a solemn feast to the Lord… because the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands”. They were also enjoined to appear full-handed, that is, with plenty of provisions. “They shall not appear before the Lord empty: every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee” (Deut. 16:16).

It is not possible to over-estimate the beneficence of these institutions. It was not only that the whole nation was thus kept in continual sympathy with divine views of their existence as a nation, but these feasts provided these occasions of purposeful and enlightened activity that were calculated to redeem life from the stagnation and monotony of a life unregulated by law. Consider also the recuperation with which it would bless the whole community; they would all go back from these feasts refreshed and renewed in health, and ready to address themselves with renewed pleasure to the daily avocations of their farm lives. The feasts were sufficiently frequent to prevent the intervals having that depressing and vulgarizing effect which comes from long continuance in one rut of labour. Such variety of activity as the law provided kept every human exercise efficient; even the hearing of the law at the feasts would be attended with a delight that is unknown to the jaded faculties of poor modem times, when every man is a mere unit, and has to shift for himself in the diversification of his private life as best he may.

The whole tendency of the Mosaic institution is well expressed in the 144th Psalm, “That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as comer stones, polished after the similitude of a palace: that our garners may be full, affording all manner of store: that our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our streets: that our oxen may be strong to labour; that there be no breaking in, nor going out; that there be no complaining in our streets … . He showeth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation.” “Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord.”