It is a common belief of Christians that the Law of Moses was a law of revenge and retribution, and that Jesus Christ did away with the Law of Moses in order to fully replace it with a law of love and civility. This idea is false.
It is worthwhile to remember that Christ is God, and was the God of the Old Testament. Christ, as Jehovah, gave the Law of Moses to testify of Himself and to prepare the Israelites to receive Him when He should come into the world:
Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him (2 Nephi 11:4) .
The Law of Moses is not a law of retribution. Many Christians see retribution in the following phrase: “…and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24, 26). But the key is restitution, and that is an entirely different thing. Unlike our own legal systems which punish the transgressor of the law and give little help to the victim, the Law of Moses was organized to compensate the victim and move the transgressor on to repentance. There was always a real tie between the transgression and the restitution. For instance, instead of being cast into prison for stealing another man’s ox, the transgressor was expected to restore fivefold (5 oxen), plus provide the labor the ox would have provided. He might be required to plow the field, for instance. Restitution must calculate not only the present and future value of a thing stolen, but also the specialized skills involved in its replacement. The steps of repentance are recognition, confession, restitution, and returning to good behavior.
Leviticus 24:17-22 has come to be regarded by many as the substance and summary of the Mosaic law: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” ( v. 20 ). This misunderstanding is unfortunate because it makes the law appear cold, unbending, and revengeful. This misconception has resulted from a failure to distinguish between the social law and the criminal law. The social law was based on love and concern for one’s neighbor (see Leviticus 19:18 ). The criminal law was not outside that love, but was made to stress absolute justice. Even then, however, three things must be noted about this eye-for-an-eye application:
“First, it was intended to be a law of exact justice, not of revenge. Secondly, it was not private vengeance, but public justice. Thirdly, by excluding murder from the crimes for which ransom is permissible ( Nu. 35:31f .) it makes it probable that compensation for injuries was often or usually allowed to take the form of a fine.” (Guthrie and Motyer, Bible Commentary: Revised, p. 164.)
The same law that required just retribution and payment also required a farmer to leave portions of his field unharvested so the poor could glean therein (see Leviticus 19:9–10 ; 23:22 ), demanded that the employer pay his hired labor at nightfall rather than wait even until the next day (see 19:13 ), commanded men, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart” ( 19:17 ), and summarized the ideal by saying, “Be ye holy” ( 20:7 ).
The Law of Moses included many requirements for defense in court, all of which were ignored or broken in the case of the trial of Jesus Christ by the Sanhedrin. These laws provided protections for the accused that were unheard of in the pagan societies of the day.
The Law of Moses provided for the fair treatment of servants, the protection and eventual freeing of slaves, the protection of widows and children, the protection of property, the nurturing of the poor, and the protection of the morality of society. Some transgressions with harsh penalties were so dangerous for the holiness of Israelite society, that they warranted harsh measures (sexual sins, murder, robbery, sins against the Sabbath, witchcraft). Very serious transgressions are partially serious because it is so hard to make restitution. Murder robs a person of life, and it is impossible to make restitution once someone’s life has been taken.
Christ’s law echoes through the Old Testament:
Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).
Added to these laws of kindness and care were many laborious patterns of behavior governing the everyday movements of life and detailed patterns of sacrifice for the temple rituals. Observing these laws necessitated the utmost concentration of the people on every little thing they did. They woke unto the Lord, worked unto the Lord, ate unto the Lord, and retired with His Name on their lips. That it was a schoolmaster law is a given; that it was harsh, is a false idea.
What Other Scriptures Say about the Law of Moses
The law of Moses was a “preparatory gospel” that included the principles of repentance, baptism, remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments.
It was a “very strict law” of “performances and ordinances” designed to keep the Israelites “in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.”
The law of Moses was highly symbolic, being filled with types and shadows, all of which pointed toward Christ and His future Atonement.
The law of Moses was added to the gospel, not given as a substitute for it.
The law of Moses was given as a schoolmaster or tutor to bring Israel to Christ.
The law of Moses is understood through the “spirit of prophecy” or “a testimony of Jesus.”
In summary, when you study the law of Moses you can expect to find (1) a witness of Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice and (2) gospel principles illustrated in the laws given. Many of the laws may no longer be required of the Saints, but the principles taught are eternal and will never be set aside. For example, the practice of blood sacrifice was fulfilled when Jesus came and the tokens of the sacrament were given in place of the old law. But the principle was as true when the tokens were animals offered on the altar as it is now when the tokens are bread and water blessed by the priesthood. The eternal principle is that only in the partaking of the Lamb’s atoning sacrifice are we able to overcome and receive a forgiveness for our sins.
Two other characteristics of the Mosaic law are important for your understanding before you begin to study the actual laws. First, much of the Mosaic code is case law. One scholar explained that the law does two things:
“In order to understand Biblical law, it is necessary to understand also certain basic characteristics of that law. First, certain broad premises or principles are declared. These are declarations of basic law. The Ten Commandments give us such declarations. The Ten Commandments are not therefore laws among laws, but are the basic laws, of which the various laws are specific examples. An example of such a basic law is Exodus 20:15 ( Deut. 5:19 ), ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ . . .
“With this in mind, that the law, first, lays down broad and basic principles, let us examine a second characteristic of Biblical law, namely, that the major portion of the law is case law, i.e., the illustration of the basic principle in terms of specific cases. These specific cases are often illustrations of the extent of the application of the law; that is, by citing a minimal type of case, the necessary jurisdictions of the law are revealed. . . .
“The law, then, first asserts principles, second, it cites cases to develop the implications of those principles, and, third, the law has as its purpose and direction the restitution of God’s order.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 10–12.)
We shall see numerous examples of case law as we study the Mosaic code.
Second, the law is primarily negative. Eight of the Ten Commandments and many of the other laws deal with what ought not to be done rather than with what should be done. Many today view negative laws with distaste. They feel they are very restrictive, and they often prefer positive laws which, by assuring our rights, appear to grant freedom. The appearance, however, is false. God gave the laws to Israel not to shackle them but to guarantee the greatest individual freedom. Explaining how this is so, one scholar stated:
“A negative concept of law confers a double benefit: first, it is practical, in that a negative concept of law deals realistically with a particular evil. It states, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ or, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’ A negative statement thus deals with a particular evil directly and plainly: it prohibits it, makes it illegal. The law thus has a modest function; the law is limited, and therefore the state is limited. The state, as the enforcing agency, is limited to dealing with evil, not controlling all men.
“ Second, and directly related to this first point, a negative concept of law insures liberty: except for the prohibited areas, all of man’s life is beyond the law, and the law is of necessity indifferent to it. If the commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ it means that the law can only govern theft: it cannot govern or control honestly acquired property. When the law prohibits blasphemy and false witness, it guarantees that all other forms of speech have their liberty. The negativity of the law is the preservation of the positive life and freedom of man.” (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 101–2.)
Remember that in God’s preface to the Ten Commandments He said, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” ( Exodus 20:2 ; emphasis added). In saying this, Jehovah reminded Israel that the very purpose of the law was to make them free and keep them free.
*Adapted in part from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.