A Law Like No Other


Exodus 20:22-26


Today we begin a series on Biblical law. We’re going to take a trip back in time to take a look at a fascinating legal document whose contents date back ultimately to the 13th century BC, 3200 years ago, to the time of Moses. It’s the section of laws right after the 10 Commandments in Exodus. I would call it Israel’s equivalent to our US Constitution. It is one of several collections of laws from Moses preserved for us in the Bible. This collection is known by scholars as either the Book of the Covenant or the Covenant Code. It is a code that is both incredibly ancient and amazingly modern, as it deals with issues such as debt slavery, liability, personal injury, deception (economic, legal, and political), human rights, and how to care for society’s most vulnerable parties, including the poor, aliens, animals, and even the earth itself.

As we read this collection of laws, in some ways, the Law of Moses sounds a lot like the other ancient law codes around him, such as the Law of Hammurabi from Babylon (1700 BC). All of these codes have laws about ox-goring – what to do if an ox gores a person or another ox. Almost all of them have laws about what to do if men in a fistfight accidently cause a woman to miscarry. Because he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses would have known about these laws. Could it be that God inspired Moses to rewrite these laws for the new Hebrew nation? Could be, but if so, Moses transformed these laws into a word from God that Hammurabi never would have written.

In the Law of Hammurabi, King Hammurabi may give credit to the sun god for teaching him what justice means, but he is the one who writes these laws. It is the king’s word, the king’s law. In the Law of Moses, unlike any of these other law codes, God takes center stage. God is the one who is speaking, not Moses, and disobedience to this law is treated, not as an offense against fellow humans or an offense against the king, but an offense against God.

Other law codes treat murder as an offense against the victim and the victim’s relatives. While there is usually a death penalty for murder, usually the murderer can pay a steep ransom for his life. Not so in God’s word through Moses! In another part of the Law of Moses, God makes it clear that no ransom may be taken for the life of a murderer, because murder is an offense, not against fellow humans, but against God.

You know what that means? It means that classic line we always hear, “Nothing is wrong as long as nobody gets hurt,” goes right out the window. The term “victimless crime” becomes irrelevant and meaningless. To give God the Italian salute is a “victimless crime,” as long as you don’t mind becoming the victim. It doesn’t matter whether any of us gets hurt, because the offenses in God’s law are offenses not against fellow humans, but against God.

In the Law of Hammurabi, the sun god commands the king to build a shrine where he can set up a monument with a copy of his laws for people to come and read them. Here at the beginning of the Book of the Covenant, God begins by giving Israel directions on how to build a proper shrine, how to properly worship God. God begins by pointing out what they saw when they heard God speak from Mt Sinai: nothing! No human-like form or image of any kind. Therefore, don’t make any images to worship: no sidekick deities, not even an image of the real God. No images, not even of silver or gold. Images are central to every other nation’s worship back then – in Israel, images are conspicuous by their absence!

All I want you to make, says God, is an altar of entirely natural materials – nothing artificial. Even if you make an altar of stones, don’t chisel them – if you use any tools on the stones of your altar, you profane it. God wants the focus to be on God, not on human craftwork or artistic skill, which can easily become an object of worship itself. God wants altars that anybody can build. Any time that chisels get busy on an altar, we usually end up worshipping what we make.

So how come when God commands Israel to build their portable sanctuary in the desert, God commands them to build 2 altars out of wood and overlay them with bronze? Part of the reason may be that they need an altar they can carry, which would be more convenient than to carry a stone altar or to build one at every place they stop. Another possible reason is that the wooden altars would belong to the sanctuary and would be under control of the priests, while laypeople are only allowed to build altars that are too plain and too unadorned to be used for idolatry.

God wants to make sure that Israel doesn’t fall into the motions of Canaanite idolatry. God even forbids the Canaanite practice of building altars that require steps to reach the top, “so that your nakedness will not be exposed” on them (verse 26).

God’s law for Israel is also totally unlike the other laws of its day because only in Israel is it a capital crime to worship other gods. Exodus 22:20 – “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord shall be utterly destroyed.” Also, Exodus 22:18 – “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” Now in this case, Israel’s law is not unique. Although other nations worshipped multiple gods, these nations also believed that some gods were evil. To call on these underworld gods via witchcraft was also a capital crime elsewhere, not just in Israel. But Israel is the only nation that insists that there is only one God, and will not allow the worship of other gods on its soil.

So what about non-Israelites? How much of God’s law do they have to obey? Several times the Law of Moses says that you shall have “one law” for both the citizen and the foreigner. Both Jews and Gentiles were forbidden to blaspheme God, and the penalties are the same; neither group gets off easy, neither group gets treated more harshly. Foreigners were not allowed to sacrifice to any other god, but if they wanted to sacrifice to Israel’s God, they had to follow the same rules as Israel did.

But some of these laws were only for Israel. The Passover was only for Israel – foreigners were not allowed to celebrate it unless they went thru a surgical procedure and became part of Israel. Only capital crimes such as idolatry, murder, and similar offenses were laws that were not just for Israel, but for all people and all times.

One God means one law, not a multiple universe of moral codes. The 1st commandment requires us to recognize no other power as true and legitimate, not even government. The 1st commandment rules out a pantheon, a divine assembly, and any divine mate or spouse. Israel’s God works alone, and gives no power to others. Scholars have debated whether Israel believed in only one God, or just “one God for us – other nations have their gods, we have ours.” But if God does not share authority or jurisdiction, then that leaves other gods powerless, unworthy of worship, unworthy to be called gods. We call that “backdoor monotheism.” Yeah, you can claim there are other gods, but none of the others fit the right definition.

To worship or follow other gods is to believe that there are laws other than God’s, which means that we can pick and choose whose laws we’re going to live by. Sounds an awful lot like today! It’s called relativism. People today think we have the power to write our own rules, to say “What’s wrong for you may be right for me.” Where God has not spoken, that is true. Where God has not spoken, we have permission to do what we think is best. But where God has spoken, we are foolish to think that we have the power to veto, overrule, or rewrite what God has said. To write our own law is to set up a new rival for God. It is “Bob-ism,” where Bob writes the rules, where we counter God’s command “Thou shalt not” with the response “I’ve got a god who says I can.” We know where that road leads: to a place where the sun don’t shine.

Friends, we’ve all traveled that road. We’ve all tried to make up our own rules. We’ve all lived for me, as though we were the center of the universe, as if life was all about us. It may not look like idol-worship, but we’ve chiseled it all out of the same block of wood. What did Jesus say is the Greatest Command? “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.” We have all flunked the Greatest Command.

That’s why Jesus came. Jesus came to save us from our insanity, to save us from our collision course with death, to save us from our sin. He came to put us right with God. He came to give us the assurance of everlasting life and peace with God, a peace we can never earn or achieve by our own goodness. Once we have that peace with God, once we have that assurance, the next logical move we make in response to God’s undeserved mercy is to ask, “How can I live a better life, a life more in harmony with God’s prescriptions for what is good for me?”

New Year’s Day is a day when lots of folks make resolutions. They want to take a step forward toward living a better life. Again, I remind you: we can’t reach God thru any program of do’s and don’ts. But once we have been put right with God thru the unearned mercy of Jesus Christ, God doesn’t leave us flying blind. God gives us his Word. Here in God’s word to Moses, we find timeless truth embedded in an ancient legal code. This New Year is a good time to discover that truth and put into practice. As we hear God speak thru Moses 3,200 years ago, let’s listen closely to hear God speak to us in the age in which we live, and see how we can put God’s word into practice.