Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Two Kinds of Judicial Laws in the Old Testament

Regarding the judicial laws, Reformed theologians have distinguished between laws peculiarly fitted to Israel and laws on things common to all nations. They taught that the first category, while instructive in various ways, is not binding on the nations, but that the second category, resting on general equity, does bind them. I wrote about this earlier in The Judicial Laws, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession and have taught in more detail on this subject in The Judicial Laws of the Old Testament. While there is some room for debate on what was peculiarly fitted to the commonwealth of Israel, as well as more details as to how the binding judicial laws should be interpreted and applied (see my lesson), here I want to give you an idea of how 16th-17th century Reformed theologians described this distinction.

Johannes Piscator, Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses (2015 [1605]).
“Things common to all nations (that is, which befall all) and are immutable with respect to their own nature and merits are moral offenses, that is, against the Decalogue, such as murder, adultery, theft, seduction from the true God, blasphemy, and smiting of parents.

“Those laws which are mutable and which were peculiar to the Jews for that time are things such as the emancipation of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, Levirate marriage, releasing of debts in the appointed year, marriage with a woman from one’s own tribe, and if there were any other of the same sort.” 
Henrici Alting, Scriptorum theologicorum Heidelbergensium (1646)
“For whatever was a particular proper right, such as peculiarly concerned the Jews, of which sort was the law concerning the office of the Levites, as another concerning inheritances not being transferred from one tribe to another, all of this kind have ceased. But insofar as it concerned common right, enacted according to the law of nature for all men together, of which sort are the laws concerning the punishments for crimes, these same judicial laws all remain.” 
William Gouge, A commentary on the whole Epistle to the Hebrews (1655):
“Many branches of that law appertained to the Jewish priesthood; as, the particular laws about the cities of refuge, whither such as slew any unawares fled, and there abode till the death of the high priest. Num. xxxv. 25. And laws about lepers, which the priest was to judge. Lev. xiv. 3. And sundry other cases which the priest was to judge of, Deut. xvii. 9. So also the laws of distinguishing tribes. Num. xxxvi. 7 ; of reserving inheritances to special tribes and families, of selling them to the next of kin, Ruth iv. 4 ; of raising seed to a brother that died without issue. Gen. xxxviii. 8, 9 ; of all manner of freedoms at the year of jubilee, Lev. XXV. 13, &c.

“There were other branches of the judicial law which rested upon common equity and were means of keeping the moral law: as putting to death idolaters and such as enticed others thereunto ; and witches, and wilful murderers, and other notorious malefactors. So likewise laws against incest and incestuous marriages ; laws of reverencing and obeying superiors and governors ; and of dealing justly in borrowing, restoring, buying, selling, and all manner of contracts, Exod. xxii. 20 ; Deut. xiii. 9; Exod. xx. 18 ; Num. xxxv. 30; Lev. xx. 11, &c., xix. 32, 35.”

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