Did You Know There Are Different Hebrew Words for "Law"?
What if I told you that God gave Moses the constitution? Yep. That’s right! I’m perfectly serious about this. Around 3000 years ago God gave Moses the constitution.
Oh. You thought I was talking about the Constitution of the United States? No. But that might make for a fun storyline in some kid’s adventure book. The constitution about which I am talking is the one written for the kingdom of Israel. The one God gave to Moses to give a newly formed kingdom nation.
Before you dismiss this as whacked out weirdness, hear me out. It all goes back to the time when God’s people who were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were settled in Egypt. Initially, what was once a small tribe, led by Jacob and his sons ended up in Egypt due to famine in their homeland. You can read about it in Genesis chapters 46-50.
The Exodus Story
Flip over to the book of Exodus and you will read how this tribal group grew to quite a sizable nation. Some say with a population of at least one million. Because they were not Egyptian, in fact, they were descendants of the Semites from ancient Babylon, the Egyptian leaders decided to force them into slave labor. They were enslaved some time during the four hundred years they resided in that region. Things got really bad for Israel. And like we all tend to do when things get really bad, they cried out to God. God heard them. However, God did not answer the way they wanted. Lesson: beware of what you pray.
Exodus also tells us God raised up a man who was the adopted son of the grand leader, called a Pharaoh. Moses was his name, a version of an Egyptian name. Moses had a concern for his blood relatives. One day he saw an Egyptian severely abusing one of his kinfolks, so he became furious with the Egyptian, killed the guy, got scared and ran away. In a distant land, he found seven women being harassed by a bunch of bully shepherds, chased off the bullies, met the women’s father who was a priest in the land of Midian, who invited Moses to live among them. The priest, Reuel (not related to Kalel, aka Clark Kent the Superman) liked Moses so much that he gave Moses one of his daughters to marry. Zipporah was her name, not to be confused with Zippo the name of a lighter company. Mo and Zip lived happily ever after.
Well, if you can call living in the middle of some desert as a nomadic shepherd a happy life, then that’s what he had. He and his wife had a son. And sheep. They were living the life, minding their own business for quite a while.
Moses on a Mountain
Then, Moses decides to take a hike up a mountain. It was there he comes to a bush that seems to be on fire. Yet the bush is not burning up, and the bush talks to him. Turns out, this was God speaking through the burning bush. Not just any god, and not one of the Midianite gods, or anything like one of the Egyptian gods. God told Moses that he was going to use Moses to set his home folks free. You never know what your day may bring, especially if you hike up a mountain. Can you imagine how Zipporah handled it when Moses came home from work that night? Okay, so ends happily ever after, right?
Moses Goes Back to Egypt with a Stick
You probably know the rest of the story? After arguing with God, Moses does what is told and heads back to Egypt to lead God’s people out of there. Moses, with his degree from the University of Egypt, experience as a shepherd, and a big stick, went to Egypt. Moses and his stick went to take on a major leader considered to be a god, with a world-class army. Isn’t it odd how God does that? Moses had a stick, Samson had his hair, and David had a slingshot. They all confronted powerful armies but did so with all that they needed: the Almighty God.
God does some stunningly remarkable miracles. Destruction, bloodshed, and terror were repeatedly poured out upon Egypt until Israel was free to leave. And leave they did.
Moses Leaves Egypt with a Nation
Once they got out into the desert, a major challenge confronted them – what kind of leadership and government would they have? The Egyptians believed their king was possessed by one of the gods, and for the most part, the religious priests ran the government. No separation of church and state there. The people of Israel were influenced by Egyptian culture.
Israel knew very little about their God. They had the oral traditions passed down for four hundred years. Now, all of a sudden their God spoke directly to Moses. Moses was no man-god. The true and living God did not speak through wood or stone idols. They had no priests to run a government, though they did have elders. Later on, their familiar Egyptian traditions influenced them to make a statue through which this invisible God was expected to speak. God and Moses rejected the golden calf they made. This was all uncharted territory. What would they do?
God always communicates to people in ways people can grasp. He uses familiar customs, traditions, and languages but in ways that do not compromise who he is. To resolve Israel’s challenge of a new government God used an Ancient Near Eastern system various people groups of that region used. What was that system?
God the King and His Covenant Treaty
There was the king. For smaller tribes, this would be someone like a sheik. Large cities or city-states would have kings. Successful kings gained more power and control over other clans, tribes, cities, and states. These kings would typically claim to be man-gods. When a powerful king conquered lesser kings or leaders he would draft a covenant treaty.
The king’s covenant treaty was typically organized in this way:
- It began with a preamble. This introduction was the bragging rights of the great and powerful king. He would boast about how wise, strong, virile, and handsome he was.
- This was followed by a history of his accomplishments such as whom he conquered and how he did it.
- Then came the stipulations. This outlined what the great king will do, which was usually a promise to send troops to help fight off the enemies. It listed what the conquered people and lesser kings had to do, such as adopt the great king’s god as their main god, pay taxes, obey the kingdom rules, and not rebel.
- The covenant made it clear that the conquered people belonged to the king and he could do with them whatever he wanted.
- The treaty had a clause that said the original document would be put in a treasure box that was located at the foot, called the footstool, of the main god. A second main copy would be given to the lesser kings where they had to store it in their god’s footstool box. The big god was supposed to watch over and protect the treaty. It also said that the treaty had to be read to the people during religious feast days, so other copies would be made and given to the elders, civic authorities, and judges of the conquered people.
- The treaty invoked other gods as witnesses to the covenant treaty. In other words, these lesser gods were there to back up the treaty.
- Finally, the covenant was unilateral. That meant it was imposed on the people whether they liked it or not. If the people listened and obeyed then they would be blessed. If they rebelled and broke covenant they would be cursed and pay the consequences.
In essence, these covenant treaties became the constitution for the kingdom.
God used this very familiar government arrangement for his newly formed kingdom nation, but with a significant twist. The invisible God is the mighty sovereign king. No man could claim that spot. This Sovereign King was the powerful ruler who rescued a people, not conquered a people (Exodus 19). The preamble in Exodus 19 is God’s self-declaration and legitimate bragging rights. It also declared what kind of God-King he was.
Whenever a king gained victory over other groups he had a parade and a major celebration. In that celebration, the priests would use fire and loud drums and horns to make frightening noises to show how powerful the god-king was. When the Lord gave his covenant to Moses, the people’s representative, he did so with his own show of power. Displays of thunder, lightening, thick clouds, darkness, trumpet-like noises, smoke, fire, earthquakes and then his voice. Why? To show the power and might of this Sovereign King. He is a consuming fire like no other (Heb. 12:29). God put on his own display to elicit fear in his presence, to confirm the mediator of the covenant, threaten all false god-kings, and to back up this kingdom constitution.
The Day of Dependence
It was on the Day of Assembly (Deut. 9:10; 10:4; 18:16) when this Sovereign King issued his unilateral treaty. The covenant treaty would spell out how God's people were dependent on God as King. This constitution established his people as a new kingdom-state. This treaty was written by God’s finger, not by the scribes of the court (Ex. 31:18 cp. Deut. 9:10). And he wrote it in the familiar form of an ancient near eastern covenant suzerain treaty:
- There was the preamble (Deut. 1:1-5). Unlike worldly kings, God didn’t take volumes to brag. He did not need to.
- The historical background of the Sovereign Lord is given (Ex. 20; Deut 1:6; 4:1)
- God presents a simple list of stipulations. These are the Ten Words (Deut. 5:26). This was unlike the long lists human kings wrote. These ten words were unlike the harsh words of the typical egotistical human kings: they summarized that the relationship between God and his people and how his people would relate would be from love. They would love their God-King as he loves them (Commandments 1-3). God's people would love one another in the same way that they love themselves (Commandments 5-10). They would take a special day each week to worship and celebrate their God-King, enjoy his presence, be thankful for his blessings and protection, and then reorient their lives and time so that they could properly relate to others (Commandment #4).
- God made two copies. One for himself as King and one for the main representative of the people. Handwritten copies circulated among the leaders. Moses was unique in many different ways. He was the mediator between God and God’s kingdom people, but he was not a lesser king. He never tried to be. In the Ancient Near East, the expectation would have been to make a leader like him into a king or for him to claim kingship. Also, Moses was not a high priest, though he did priestly things. He was the voice for God. Normally, statue-idols were the mouthpieces for those gods and goddesses. Moses was a human, but he spoke for God as a prophet.
- In God’s covenant constitution was a special clause that told where the covenant would be placed: in the footstool box of the only living God. In God’s own handwriting the Ten Words were written on stone and a second copy made on another stone tablet. Both were placed in the box. This Ark (box) of the Covenant sat in the holiest of all places at the symbolic feet of this invisible, but very real God King (1 Chron. 28:2; Psa. 99:5; Psa. 132:7).
- The covenant constitution was read often, especially on feast days.
- It invoked heavens and earth as witnesses since there are no other gods who could be witnesses.
- And finally, the constitution declared the sanctions of curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience.
Why this history lesson?
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Bear with me a little longer. Here are important things you need to know if you wish to get a grip on the whole point of God’s Law.
- This lesson provides some of the behind-the-scenes perspective on why the Ten Commandments came about. The Ten Words that we call the Ten Commandments was originally given to Israel when God formed them into a different kind of national kingdom. It was their national constitution.
- The Ten Words are the foundation and the bare bones for how to live with God as Lord and how to live with others in the kingdom whose God is their Lord. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy build upon the foundation and add meat to the bones. Therefore, the first reason for the Old Covenant Law was to serve as the civil-religious constitution for the Kingdom of Israel.
- The core of God's covenant constitution was love. This is very important to understand. This invisible but only true and living God was unlike all other gods. He is real. They were not. He is just and righteous. They were selfish and sometimes had just laws. He is gracious and merciful. They rarely were. The kings ruled out of selfish might with the backing of his army. The basis of their relationship with their people was terror. Contrary to common complaints about the “God of the Old Testament,” he was not a cruel and mean God who gave his law to abuse people or to taunt them with failure. Yes, the Lord ruled with the force of creation to back him up. While the Lord was to be greatly feared, the basis of his relationship with his people was out of love.
So, the second main reason for the Old Covenant Law was to show that the moral basis for all relationships is God’s love (Deut. 7:6-11; Zech. 14:9). Failure to love God and to love others breaks relationships, even destroys them through contempt, divorce, murder, theft, and greed. The ultimate expressions lead to self-destruction, wars and the like.
God's Constitution was a System to Teach what God's Kingdom Was Like
Overall, God’s kingdom constitution was a system to show what life would be like if everyone had a great relationship with this One True God (Deut. 6:24-25), and lived together through hearts of love that show authentic compassion, mercy, and grace. If only God’s kingdom people took it to heart and not merely practiced it as a mechanical system.
The covenant was the big blueprint, the overall picture and description of life in God ’s kingdom (Deut. 10:12-21). How could they live this way? By real faith that came from the heart, soul, mind, and might that was lived out through love (Deut. 6:1-6; Deut. 8:2; Deut. 11:13-14). The natural consequences that God set up for a life of faith and love would be a blessing (Deut. 7:12-15).
The Lord told them how to live and they were to respond out of a faith-filled obedience. He said they had to live this way. He gave promises for blessing and warnings of cursing (Deut. 28). He also predicted that they would fail miserably and warned them of the horrible, devastating consequences. However, the God-King said time and again (Deut. 8) that without faith-filled obedience they could not enter or retain the real estate God was giving for the Kingdom. At the same time, there was no divine enablement and guarantee by grace for them to trust and obey. As it turned out, the first kingdom generation did not move into the real estate God promised because they did not obey and they did not obey because they did not believe (Deut. 9:1-7; Rom. 11:20; Rom. 11:31; Heb. 3:1-4:2). The later generations would also end up lacking faith and love, even though several generations tried to work the outward system without the inward soul.
What is in it for me?
The description for what it is like to live in God’s kingdom is the same today as way back then. The requirement to have faith in the One True God-King is the same. The expectations and need for living a life of heartfelt and expressed love for God and for others is the same. The warnings against merely having outward performance and standards are the same. The failure rate is about the same.
Yet, other things are different now. How? Take a break, rest your eyes, and think about what you’ve just read. I’ll be back with more later on.