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From Faith to Faith -- Essays on Old Testament Literature by B. Davie Napier


B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1955. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: Law. Hear, 0 Israel (The Legal Codes)


Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deut. 6:4 f.

By whatever means, through whatever channels, and to whatever degree, Israel clearly borrowed laws from other Near Eastern cultures. That some of her laws were taken over from the Canaanites cannot be denied. But that Old Testament law was, judged by moral and religious standards, prevailingly on a higher level than that of contemporary and neighboring peoples is also beyond dispute. Bentzen defines the distinction as due to a qualitative difference in religion.1 Eichrodt puts it more sharply when he speaks of the sincerity and energy with which Israel referred all of her laws to God, in distinction to the shallow formality of the same trait in the laws of other nations.2 Indeed, the divine reference, explicit or implicit, is so direct and so profound as virtually to erase any real distinction between the sacred and the profane in the Old Testament legal apparatus. Law in the Old Testament is regarded in very fact as the articulation of divine will for the community under covenant.

This is to say, of course, that we deal in the Old Testament with theological law. But can we distinguish more specifically the particular theological presuppositions that give rise to and shape the law? To this end we must first survey, necessarily briefly, the major codes of law in the Old Testament, their superficial characteristics, the general qualities which they hold in common particularly as against other extrabiblical codes, points of difference among the three major earlier codes, the ethical qualities and content of these three, and finally the central theological motivation of all Old Testament law. We may then attempt, from this assessment of the law, to distinguish its primary theological presuppositions.

A. Characteristics of the Major Codes

The first code of laws in the Old Testament appears in the block of chapters, Exod. 20-23. The first part of 20 (1-17) contains the Ten Commandments, given also in Deut. 5:6-21; and what follows through 23 is generally termed the Covenant Code.3 Several verses in 22 and 23 having to do with ritual requirements 4 constitute a single code and are closely paralleled in Exod. 34. Both codes are referred to as the Ritual Decalogue.5 Besides these there are three other major codes: the Deuteronomic Code in Deut. 12-26; the Holiness Code, Lev. 17-26; and the Priestly Code in the rest of Leviticus and in parts of Exodus and Numbers.6

Several superficial phenomena are commonly observed. It is interesting to note that according to the multiple-source hypothesis the later documents give increasingly more space to law.7 J has only the ritual Decalogue in Exod. 34.8 The E document has only the four chapters in Exodus. D and H, presumably from the seventh and sixth centuries respectively, have a very considerable section; and of course it is law which is the dominant interest of P. Yet such a scheme, regardless of the merits of the now traditional source theories, can be and sometimes has been badly misinterpreted. It does not follow that law and the importance of law in Israel is of relatively late origin. It is increasingly clear that Deuteronomy and the Priestly writings contain at least some material much older than is indicated by the usual dating of the documents.9 Increasingly, too, it would appear that scholars are disposed to accept the substantial reliability of the persistent tradition which sees Moses as a lawgiver.10 That law was an early and significant aspect of Israelite culture is further attested not only by ancient Near Eastern parallels but even more strikingly in the life, the work and the character of the first three great names in Israel’s national history: Moses, Samuel and Elijah. In all three the types of prophet and priest are combined.

In this connection we may add here briefly a note to which we shall return. The prophetic and the legal are not, as is sometimes alleged, consistently and inimically opposed in the Old Testament. There is, to be sure, a great difference between classical Hebrew prophecy and the ultimate development of legalistic Judaism; but for centuries and beginning with Israel’s beginnings prophecy and law developed in close parallel and affinity.

A second obvious phenomenon is that all these major law codes of the Pentateuch are attributed to Moses. To be sure, the priestly point of view sees at least two laws antedating Moses: Sabbath and circumcision; and in later Judaism this tendency grew stronger under the demands of apologetics. Law had been given to all men (as witness the covenant with Noah and the neutral location of Sinai) but only the Jews had observed it.11 But for the greater span of Old Testament history, Moses was seen as the author, or better, the mediator of law; and as many have pointed out, this unquestionably contributed to the conservative tendency in the handling of the whole legal corpus. Even more significantly, this persistent Mosaic tradition in law also would appear as partially responsible for the high ethical presuppositions which, by and large, pervade the legal framework.

A third characteristic -- not unique since it is shared at least superficially by other ancient law codes -- is, of course, that all the law is seen as, in very fact, the law of God. God, not Moses, is the author of the law. These are the requirements, not of man, but of God.12

Finally, we may note the inseparable relationship of law and covenant. Since virtually all Pentateuchal law is attributed to Moses, it is all seen as stemming originally from the great confederacy bound together under divine covenant at Sinai. If the identification of D with the reform of Josiah is correct, this code represents in the Old Testament a fresh beginning in and a reaffirmation of the Mosaic covenant. And again if tradition is correct, the same is true, much later, in the postexilic community, of the law of Ezra. Examples, early and late, of this inseparable relationship of law and covenant may be cited; such as, the covenant with Abraham in circumcision or, significantly, the prophet Jeremiah and the New Covenant:

This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts. [31:33]

While there are inconsistencies in the contents of the various codes of law and while, as we shall see, one code may differ from another in emphasis and in the degree of ethical, social and moral consciousness, there are certain generalities which may be affirmed.

As compared with non-Israelite codes of law, and particularly the Code of Hammurabi, the death penalty is less frequently exacted. There is one notable exception in a series of laws now scattered through Exod. 21 (12, 15-17) , 22 (19 f.) , and 31 (15b) but thought to be an original and ancient unit, in which series the death penalty is assigned when comparable offenses in other codes are less drastically punished.13 But the death penalty in these cases serves generally to underline the moral and religious seriousness of the covenant community, and in the Israelite scale it in no wise conflicts with the pattern of law which places human life above all other values save two: the sacredness of family and the integrity of Yahweh.

Israel retained the Lex Talionis (Exod. 21:22-25) ; but while it is harshly in conflict with the measure of mercy evident in much of the later legislation, it clearly represented in an early stage an ethical advance in placing a limit upon damages. And again generally speaking, as compared with other ancient Near Eastern codes of law, brutality in punishment is strikingly absent. Torture is not a weapon of Old Testament law.14

Further, the law of Israel knows no class distinctions. Power, whether religious or civil or economic, has no privilege under the law. The slave, of course, remains a slave; but the same judicial principles apply. Indeed, if the law knows any partiality it is toward the weak, the powerless and the dispossessed.

Some have argued for Israelite superiority in laws regulating the relationship of the sexes. This, it seems, is debatable unless one accept in toto the circumscribed position of the female in the Hebrew family. But in any case, such laws again reflect the stern moral nature of the Israelite against what appears in contrast as the extreme laxity of the Babylonian or the Canaanite.

If now we compare the Covenant, Deuteronomic and Holiness Codes, accepting them in this conventional chronological order,15 it is apparent that they reflect in general an increasingly sensitive social and moral conscience and at the same time an increasing interest in cult. The central code of law, largely civil law, in Deut. 12-26 and 28 gives in a considerably expanded and sometimes significantly modified form virtually the full contents of the Book of the Covenant, and in addition a number of laws not paralleled at all in Exod. 20-23. One cannot well escape the conviction that the fundamental difference between the Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes is in very fact the more developed and consistent prophetic note in the later code. Repeatedly and pointedly the older laws of the Covenant Code are restated in Deuteronomy in terms which inescapably suggest the influence of Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. The difference between the two codes may be summarized as follows: (1) Justice is further tempered in behalf of the offender. (2) A still more merciful view is especially pronounced with respect to the weak. The law of Deuteronomy seems methodically to provide legal compensation for those who are victimized by the inequities and brutalities that inhere in the social system. (3) Unmistakably, Deuteronomy reflects in comparison with the Book of the Covenant a deeper and more spiritual religious foundation.

The code of Lev. 17-26 is termed "Holiness" because of its peculiar stress, unparalleled elsewhere in Hebrew law, upon the holiness of Yahweh. As a code, it is even more heterogeneous than the Book of Covenant or Deuteronomy; and much more than either of the other two, it of course strongly emphasizes ritual law. Most strikingly, however, it prescribes with the ritual requirements for meeting the restrictions created by Yahweh’s holiness an even higher moral, social and ethical demand than is found in either of the other codes. Yahweh’s holiness makes exacting demands in cult and ritual; it also requires a sweeping righteousness in his people. The notable chapter, Lev. 19, often referred to as the highest development of ethics in the Old Testament, begins: "You shall be holy, for I, Yahweh your God am holy"; and for the most part throughout the chapter the terms of holiness are moral and ethical.

There is one other point of interesting distinction among the three codes. After an appropriate introduction relating all laws to God, the Book of the Covenant proceeds to state its laws and regulations for the most part without further reference to the deity, and omitting any clause as to why the law shall be observed or what will result from its infraction (other than the legal penalty) or its observance. Such statements, however, occur frequently in Deuteronomy: "That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days"; or "that you do not defile your land ; or so that you put away the evil. . . ." In Lev. 19 (and less frequently elsewhere in the Holiness Code) the law is concluded with two or three Hebrew words, as a rule: ’ani YHWH, "I (am) Yahweh," or ’aniYHWH elohekem "I (am) Yahweh your God."

On the other hand, too much ought not be made of the distinction. In very truth, the fact of divine being is the raison d’être of all Old Testament law, whether so stated or not. And it is, in fact, so stated although not in the sharply punctuated fashion of Lev. 19. The Book of the Covenant is in its present form introduced with the Ten Commandments which begin, "I am Yahweh, your God" (Exod. 20:2) And the laws of Deuteronomy are appropriately introduced with the Shema’ (Deut. 6:4) , "Hear, 0 Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone." 16

To point up the nature and disposition of the laws as suggested in what has preceded, we may now briefly summarize their emphatic ethical and social content. To begin with the elemental ethical level, the words of Amos denouncing those who would "make the ephah small and the shekel great, and dealing falsely with balances of deceit" (8:5) are set in formal legal language in both D and H.17 All three codes under discussion have general laws against the perversion of justice.18 The principle of sympathy and consideration for the weak is expressed with astonishing variety. There are numerous duplicate and some triplicate laws which buttress the rights of all dependent classes -- servants, slaves,19 captives, the defenseless, the maimed and the handicapped, and of course the poor. Widows, orphans and sojourners, all deprived of the crucial support of intimate male kin, are regarded in the law with full appreciation of this handicap. This is best illustrated in one of the most remarkable single features of the law -- its prescribed treatment of the alien. The term in Hebrew, ger, certainly does not apply exclusively to the resident alien, the foreigner in permanent residence, although to be sure this is the sense of Exod. 23:9 (quoted below) Possibly, as Herbert G. May has recently reminded us, the term applies in postexilic times primarily to the resident alien or the proselyte.20 But that even then this was by no means exclusively the sense is attested by the parallelism of Job. 3 1:32: "The ger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the wayfarer." The ger may be a foreigner in permanent or semipermanent residence; but he is also any stranger who happens into the community on a peaceful, friendly and legitimate errand.21

This feature of the law is illustrated in Exod. 22:21 and 23:9. Deuteronomy puts it with great vigor as one of the twelve curses in 27: 19. In more gentle tones, with a reach of inspired compassion rarely matched in the Old Testament, it occurs again in the Holiness Code, Lev. 19:33 f., and in Deut. 10:18b f. And the Priestly Code, having apparently in mind primarily the resident alien and potential proselyte, nevertheless specifically defends the equality of the ger before the Lord in Num. 15:14 ff., 29 and 9:14. Perhaps it should be added here that contradictions apparently failed to disturb the Old Testament editorial mind. Like the narrative and prophetic literature, the law has its stated or sharply implied contradictions. For example, and in this connection, Deut. 23:3 declares that neither an Ammonite nor a Moabite shall be permitted to come ceremonially before the Lord. And a foreigner (from a root nakar meaning "strange’ or unknown") is sharply distinguished in the law from the ger whose association with the people of the law whether for a longer or shorter time is seen as cordial and constructive. Even where the law distinguished between the home-born and the ger, as it sometimes inconsistently does, this friendly alien fares better than the foreigner, the ben nekar. Recall, for example, the statement of Deut. 14:21:

You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to the ger. . . or you may sell it to a foreigner.

For all of this, if one accept the limitations of Israelite law, it is characterized on the whole by a rather phenomenal gentleness spirit. The well-known and repeated law on gleaning is a case in point, where, incidentally, the ger is especially cited.22 Indeed, the tenderness of the law reaches even to the lower creatures. Here one recalls the law prohibiting the muzzling of the ox as it treads the grain (Deut. 25:4) ; the fact that compassion for the work animal is one of the reasons listed for Sabbath observance (Exod. 23:12) ; the regulation respecting the mother bird and her young (Deut. 22:6 f.) ; and of course that familiar ancient cult law prohibiting the seething of a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23: 19)23 The principle of compassion is expounded in the law with remarkable variety and flexibility. We have not yet begun to exhaust the sources in which it is directly or indirectly implied, as witness, for example, the law against keeping overnight the garment taken as security (Deut. 24:12 f.) ; or that against accepting a millstone as a pledge ("for he would be taking a life in pledge" [Deut. 24:6]) ; or even the law prescribing the roof parapet (Deut. 22:8) This last, and many other laws, can easily be grist for the cynic’s mill. There is enough of the purely or even shrewdly practical in the law to invite a rebuttal. The ger and the ben nekar obviously did provide, in practice, an ambiguity highly convenient for the cruel and the merciless. And, one may repeat, Old Testament laws in their totality are not consistently upon a single high moral, ethical and social plane. But on the other hand, one can evaluate and assess the various codes only upon what is clearly the predominant motivation, the usual attitude, the prevailing spirit.

Nowhere does the law of Israel reach such heights as in those laws which attempt to prescribe what one shall be inwardly. The implications for the inward man were hardly lost on the legal mind even in some laws ostensibly regulating only overt conduct; as, for example, the law of Exod. 23:4 f. respecting one’s obligation when confronted with one’s enemy’s straying ox or overburdened ass. Inward motivation is more pronounced in one of the laws cited above:

A ger shall you not oppress; for as for you [plural, emphatic], you know the heart [nephesh] of a ger because you were gerim [plural] in the land of Egypt. [Exod. 23:9, literally translated]

To love as one loves oneself is of course implicit in this commandment with respect to the ger. It is explicitly formulated, again with the ger as the object, in Lev. 19:34, also cited above: "You shall love him as yourself." And earlier in the same chapter in Leviticus, v. 18, the word "neighbor" is substituted for ger in a context which in penetrating moral sensitivity is quite unsurpassed in the Old Testament:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh. [Lev. 19:17 f.]

So much, in brief survey, of the ethical quality of three of the major codes -- the Covenant Code, the Deuteronomic Code, and the Holiness Code. It is certainly in some measure true that the fire of the free prophetic word is lost in the very attempt to legislate the intrinsically unlegislatable. This is precisely what Jeremiah recognized when lie promulgated a new covenant in law written upon the individual heart. There is some evidence that the editors and codifiers of the law themselves were also aware of this. Nevertheless, law though it be, it is in its present form law constructed upon the foundation of prophetic religion.

Now, as the prophets were not primarily motivated, so the law is not primarily motivated by the urge to build the good society, or to construct the social vehicle for the proper and appropriate presentation and defense of the dignity of man; not primarily to defend the weak. These are, to be sure, worthy ideals both of the law and of the prophets; but they are in the nature of by-products. This is for the most part law conceived out of the experienced reality of a merciful God, who himself took a victimized nation from among the society of nations and treated it with unparalleled and undeserved gentleness and mercy. It is law that is created and has its being in these words: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. This is the essence of the law, an essence eloquently articulated in Deut. 10:12 ff.:

And now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart. . . . to Yahweh your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. . . . For Yahweh your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribes. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the ger. . . . You shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God. . . .

B. Law and the Faith Of Israel

Having surveyed thus briefly the nature of Old Testament law, and particularly those portions of the law having to do with ethics and morality, we may now ask: What appear to be the central theological presuppositions of the law in its dominant emphases and in the form in which it finally entered the canon? In underlining the fact that Yahweh is both the source and the motivation of the law, the survey above implicitly affirms the general theological unity of law and prophecy; and in distinguishing now three primary presuppositions underlying the law, we submit that, obvious exceptions notwithstanding, the Old Testament literature attains therein a general and significant unity.

Israelite law, in its present total impression, has its deepest roots in the creation faith. We recognize, of course, the relatively late emergence in the Old Testament of a positively and precisely articulated belief in Yahweh’s universal creation, and that it is not, indeed, until the time of Second Isaiah that such a belief is taken for granted.24 On the other hand, the J story of creation in Gen. 2 reflects an early if imprecise creation faith25 while the eighth-century prophets clearly stand upon a thoroughly practical though untheoretical belief in Yahweh’s creative function. In any case, we are concerned here with the presuppositions of Old Testament law in its developed, codified form; and by creation faith we mean not merely the explanation of ultimate origins. We mean rather to suggest by the term three inseparable functions of deity as deity is biblically understood creation, conservation and transformation;26 or, in other terms, creation, maintenance and redemption. In the Old Testament, God is known as Creator only because he is first known as Sustainer-Redeemer.27 The creation faith of the Old Testament nowhere gives the impression that its Primary interest is in origins as origins; rather is it a faith that speaks from, and back to, historical human existence and in its articulation is concerned to say what man is and what in that faith his existence means. The thrust, so to speak, of the creation faith is never toward the past, but directly to the present and, with profound significance, the future.

It is in this sense that we understand the creation faith as it is expressed in Ps. 24, for example:

The earth is Yahweh’s and the fullness thereof
the world and those who dwell therein.

The profane and the sacred, the civil and the religious, are by and large distinctions which we read into the Old Testament. Land, people and property -- territory, life and possessions -- these are Yahweh’s through the indisputable, incontestable right of ownership through creation and conservation.

A second fundamental theological presupposition is in reality parent of the first. The creation faith is not chronologically primary but is itself derived from the conviction that God acts in history;28 and this faith in Yahweh’s presence and activity in the movement of time and history lends to Israelite law a unique compulsion. The codes insist upon mercy, certainly not for mercy’s sake, nor alone because God is by nature merciful; but much more because he has been merciful to us. Mercy it must be because we know his mercy. Love the ger, not because you ought to love the ger, or because it makes for peace all around, nor yet alone even because you were once a ger; but much more because you were once a ger befriended and redeemed by Yahweh. As you know God to be out of your own experience in history, so shall you be. And preexilic law, at least, never lost the sense of Yahweh’s contemporaneousness, his immediacy in history. This is remarkably illustrated, for example, in the law on defecation (Deut. 23:12 ff.) , where the reason for cleanliness is simply stated: "Yahweh your God walks in the camp."

In its matured theology, the Old Testament betrays little consciousness of the order in which it attained its affirmations of faith in history and in creation. Being and event, substance and time, creation and history are equally his. In this faith-full interpretation of existence, Yahweh’s claim to ownership through creation and conservation of land, life and substance is never an old claim, but a claim incessantly renewed in historical and timely event. So, consistently, Mosaic law is represented as having a divine validity enhanced by the immediately preceding and freshly experienced encounter with Yahweh in the events of the Exodus. Hence, too, the historical summary in the beginning of Deuteronomy.

Faith in creation and history are joined, in the third basic theological presupposition, by the covenant faith. For the law itself at its own legal level, this is the dominant and most characteristic trait, although obviously it rests upon the interpretation of history in terms of divine activity. If the creation faith has a single primary reference, God; and faith in history a double reference and relationship, God-man; the third, the faith in covenant, is the three-pointed relationship, God-man-man.

Law and covenant are inseparable. The keeping of the law is man’s covenant obligation; and while the records pointedly represent Israel’s acceptance of covenant as voluntary, they make it equally clear that the nation’s redemption -- Yahweh’s covenant duty -- is to be gained in no other way. In the Old Testament faith in creation and history, there can be no other way.29 From the human side, then, law is the covenant, representing Yahweh’s requirements for the covenant community respecting both the relationship of man to man and man to God. The covenant, the law, is God’s will for the covenant community in its totality. All members of the community are covenant persons, and no part of their activity -- none whatsoever -- is exempt from covenant obligation. The command, "Love your neighbor as yourself," appears then as an inescapable development of the covenant scheme. Covenant law is law in Yahweh’s perspective; and in Yahweh’s sight you and your neighbor are essentially the same -- both covenant men. So the commandment also to love the ger as oneself. The sojourner too is a covenant man for the length of his sojourn.

It is then, the covenant concept which explains the so-called, one might almost say the mis-called, democratic ideals of the Old Testament. The essence of human being is an essence derived from the covenant. The essential quality of life within the covenant community, far outweighing all others, is the covenant quality. The law, then, cannot be partial to power; this is a nonessential and irrevelant distinction. Those whose status is relatively unhappy or unfortunate through no circumstance of their own creation are to receive compensation from the law and the community: they are covenant persons. And in the final word, of course no one is exempt from covenant definition, not even the king.30 The influence of the covenant concept upon the ideal structure of the community is illustrated in the Decalogue, which rests upon and is unified by the covenant principle: its negatives are an effort to guarantee with a minimum a community in which the man-man relationship and the man-God relationship conform to Yahweh’s will. Man will find the fulfillment of his life, and participation in true community, when his only object of worship is God, and when he and his fellows hold in mutual inviolable respect the totality of the neighbors’ life.31

C. The Priestly Legislation And Yahweh’s Mercy

While postexilic priestly law appears to be increasingly concerned with ritual -- a concern perhaps inescapably induced by general environmental and ideological changes -- it is essential to remember that all of the major codes of law in the Old Testament were preserved, transmitted, and of course edited, by the postexilic priests who, in the very act of incorporating so-called prophetic law in the total legal corpus, place their approval upon it.

In a more austere and formalized concept, the creation faith was retained and given magnificent expression in the first chapter of Genesis. With undiminished significance, the faith in creation also underlies the later priestly legislation. With respect to the second theological presupposition of the earlier codes, faith in the Yahweh of history, there can be no doubt that much of the vigor and vividness of the concept is lost. God’s historical activity tends increasingly to be seen as a kind of past dispensation; and the presence of God in the congregation both past and contemporary is represented with an increasingly numinous aspect. It is the covenant faith that appears to be most seriously modified, although again one must bear in mind the fact that the Holiness Code, for example, was incorporated with editorial additions in an otherwise consistently legalistic priestly writing. But in cult-centered law, the relationship is no longer the God-man-man pattern of prophetic law, but must now be put in the pattern God-man-God. And yet, concern for the faithful community, for the persons in its devoted membership, is undiminished. Postexilic law just as ardently sought the well-being, the fulfillment, the salvation of the community as did the earlier law. But the dual emphasis has given way to a single primary stress: fulfillment lies in consuming devotion to cult and ritual. Yet we are justified in assuming that to the priestly mind the righteous relationship of man and neighbor was already sufficiently stressed in legal tradition and would inevitably follow (insofar as it could) the keeping of the ritual law.

If the later legislation thus modifies and narrows the covenant faith, at the same time and for the same reasons it adds to the concept a new dimension and suggests again that legalism’s silence on social issues is by no means indifference but rather a sober and deeply concerned pessimism. Malachi, probably to be dated in the first half of the fifth century B.C., is written by a man who stands between the era of legalism and the older epoch dominated by the prophet. Mal. 2:10 asks the question which introduces the new dimension; and it is interesting to note that the question is itself preceded by two rhetorical questions which at once are addressed to and define the covenant community: "Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?" Then -- and this is the question thrown out in anguish my then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?" Postexilic priestly symbolism sharply underlines the sense of the centrality of sin, and certainly it cannot be exclusively cult sins. In the priestly writings, the holiest symbol, above all other holy, is the mercy seat. It is the footstool of God, the most sacred symbol within the veil, within the Holy-of-Holies. At the center of the center, the nucleus of the nucleus -- the seat of God’s mercy.

Lev. 16 describes the appropriate rites to be observed on the Day of Atonement. Details of the postexilic observance wanting here may be filled in from the tractate "Yoma" in the Mishnah, where the prayer of the priest, pronounced with his two hands upon the scapegoat, is given as follows:

O God, thy people, the House of Israel, have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before thee. 0 God, forgive, I pray, the iniquities and transgressions and sins which thy people, the House of Israel, have committed and transgressed and sinned before thee. . . .32

At various points throughout the ceremony the people gave a response: "Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever." The goat was then taken to a place called Zok, about twelve miles from Jerusalem. The people followed in sober procession; and arriving there, the goat was pushed backward off the edge of a cliff so, too, in Lev. 16 (whatever the interpretation of Azazel) the symbolism is at least in part that of the complete penitence for sin and God’s equally complete removal of sin.

As far as the East is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.34

Guilt is gone. This is transformation. This is redemption. It is in a sense redemption achieved through the grace of God, a mediated grace, grace -- if the term may be used -- that is given through the efficacious cult, the effective and appropriate ceremony and ritual. Purification, justification, redemption this is the gift of God claimed in the priestly prescriptions

Old Testament law in its totality results from the influence both of prophecy and priesthood, and the two are hardly so disparate as is sometimes alleged. Underlying both schemes are the presuppositions that the God who is present and acts in history is also the God of creation. And for both, albeit with differing interpretation and emphasis on covenant obligation, the believing community is in process of purification and redemption, for the ultimate fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenant purpose.

 

Footnotes:

1 Op. cit., p. 219.

2 W. Eichrodt, Theologie des Alten Testaments (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, Vol. I, 1938) , p. 28. Cf. the following statement by Gunnar Ostborn, in Tora in the Old Testament (Lund: H. Ohlssons, 1945) , p. 149: "If we now ask . . . what is the particular characteristic of Israelite religion in this respect [ethics], the answer would appear to be that it is precisely the energy and consistency with which the moral issue is harped upon in the religions of the OT which constitutes its distinguishing factor, as against the analogous utterances to be found in other oriental religions,"

3 the section 23:20-33 is commonly regarded as an appendix,

4 22:29b-30 and 23:12, 14, 19.

5 The form in Exod, 22-23 is generally regarded as earlier, in part on the grounds that 22:29b still requires human sacrifice.

6 This totals six codes. Pfeiifer, op. cit., p. 210, adds a seventh, the Twelve Curses of Deut. 27:14-26; and one might of course include Ezek. 40-48 as being somewhat in the category of law.

7 Since for our purposes here the question is not of crucial moment, we shall accept in general, as we have in the preceding essays, the now conventional view of the entity and relative dating of the documents in the order J, E, D, H, P. recognizing with Bentzen, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 23, that "the present situation concerning the question of the Pentateuch . . . is rather in suspense. Especially among scholars of the younger generation there exists a definite skepticism towards the Documentary Hypothesis."

8 Its inclusion in the J document is questioned by some scholars.

9 See, e.g., Bentzen, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 62 ff.

10 Bentzen, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 218.

11 See G. F. Moore, Judaism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927) , Vol. I, pp. 274 ff.

12 Daube, op. cit., apparently doubts the accuracy of this general interpretation. "Why we should infer. . . that law sprang from religion rather than that religion sprang from law, it is hard to see" (p. 3) Daube does agree, however, that in its present form the Old Testament represents all law as of divine origin; so pp. f.

13 And in Deuteronomy adultery, 22:22-27, man-stealing, 24:7, and obstinate disobedience of parents, 21:18-21, all receive the death penalty with, of course, murder, 19:11ff. For Deuteronomy, the most heinous offense, always punishable by death, is idolatry, the worship of other gods.

14 With overtones remarkably revealing of the concept of community, this is illustrated in the law, Deut. 25:2 f., limiting stripes to forty in number and stipulating that they be applied in the presence of the judge. No more than forty, because the punished man will lose his rightful status of dignity and respect in the community.

15 See above, note 7 in this Chapter. Precise dating of the major documents in their present form is impossible. All incorporate older material and in varying degree all have suffered later intrusion and revision. Conventionally, they have been dated in the order Covenant (ninth century) , Deuteronomic (seventh) , Holiness (sixth) , and Priestly (fifth) See the Introductions

16 Or, as the English versions, "Yahweh our God is one Yahweh"

17 Deut. 25:13 ff. and Lev. 19:35 ff.

18 Exod. 23:1 ff., Deut. 16:19 ff., and Lev. 19:15.

19 See, for example, the increasingly sensitive and generous legal provisions for the Hebrew slave, Exod. 21:2, Deut. 15:12 ff. and Lev. 25:39.

20 Journal of Biblical Literature, xvi, no. 2, pp. l00 f.

21 See J. Pedersen, Israel, Vol. I-II (London: Oxford University Press, 1926) , p. 40.

22 See Deut. 24:19 ff. and Lev. 19:9 f.

23 Cf. Lev. 22:28. But many would question any element of compassion in this old taboo.

24 Isa. 40:26 and 44:24. Cf. H. Wheeler Robinson, op.cit., p. 22.

25 O. Procksch, Die Genesis (Leipzig: Deichert, 1924) , p. 19; and on the antiquity of the faith in creation, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 47.

26 The terms are Robinson’s, op. cit., pp. 17 ff.

27 See Eichrodt, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 49 ff. Cf. also my discussion in Chap. I, above.

28 Eichrodt, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 48 ff.

29 See Deut. 30:15 ff.

30 So Deut. 17:18 ff.

31 Cf. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 354.

32 "Yoma" vi 2, tr. by H. Danby, The Mishnah (New Haven: University Press. 1933) , p. 169.

33 Ibid.

34 Ps. 103:12

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