Israel’s Old Testament Judicial Laws Can Help America

Israel's Old Testament Judicial Laws Can Help America

We need God’s law now more than ever. Our society has gone off the rails. Little girls dance nearly unclothed on Netflix, encouraged by those who monetize them. Meanwhile, legitimate sources of revenue, like running a restaurant or hair salon, have been unjustly prohibited or restricted by government. Our civil laws have become so arbitrary that Nancy Pelosi cannot figure out whether she is breaking one or not—or she just does not care. On the other hand, John MacArthur has lost in court, his church suffering under Gavin Newsom’s tyranny.

America ignores the King of Kings. Everyone does what is right in his own eyes. But without the King, things fall apart. The order is lost. You end up with things like Kamala Harris, potentially the first female vice-president, joining the ticket of a man she once believed to have sexually assaulted women.

If you think Portland’s CHAZ was bad, you are what the ancients in the classical tradition would call, right. But CHAZ was merely the balsamic reduction of the general principles of a good portion of these United States. The whole lot of us will be there soon. All of the ingredients are in the pot—just add heat. And given all of the fiery riots, that unsavory reduction could occur in a New York minute.

So things are bad, but Christians are in no position to point the finger. “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). The restraints are almost gone. We got here because there has been little prophetic vision from our pulpits. How are Americans to obey all Jesus commands when we have not told them all Jesus commands? We are in a Jonah-goes-to-Nineveh situation. America does not know her right hand from her left.

The gospel of Jesus is in no conflict whatsoever with God’s law. We need both. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. He lived, died, and rose again. Those who call upon His name will be saved. That gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It frees men from sin’s slavery so they can obey God’s law. So, yes, preach the crucified and risen Christ unceasingly. And as you do, preach God’s law.

Besides the eternal moral law, God gave Israel both ceremonial laws and judicial laws. The ceremonial laws prefigured Christ. These ceremonial laws are no longer binding, having been taken away by Christ Himself. The judicial laws governed Israel as a body politic. These judicial laws, too, have expired with the expiration of the Old Covenant. But, there is a general equity of those judicial laws which remains the obligation of both individuals and modern states.

We need to recover the truth, goodness, and beauty of Israel’s judicial laws. While the covenant-specific civil codes that God gave to Israel are different from the moral law written on hearts and tablets of stone, they are, nevertheless, full of wisdom and relevance for the United States of America. Why do I press the relevance of these divinely established judicial laws which God gave to Israel? Why not just focus on His moral law? Well, we certainly need both. The moral law, summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments, is sadly neglected by believers and unbelievers alike. We need to meditate on that law and teach it to the nations. John MacArthur recently said it well, “Nations are obligated to worship the true God… That is not an option. It is a divine command.” As we teach God’s moral law, we must also meditate on God’s judicial laws to Israel found in the Old Testament.[1] Here, as Sam Waldron states, we have “an inspired application of the moral law to the civil circumstances of Israel [which] reveals many timeless principles of general equity, justice, goodness and righteousness. As such it remains relevant not only to modern states, but also to modern churches and Christians (emphasis mine).”[2]

So if you were to ask, “Are you telling me that the judicial laws God gave to Israel—with their stoning of sabbath breakers, instructions on leprosy, and statutes concerning the giving of a daughter in marriage—are ‘relevant’ to the modern Supreme Court of the United States?” the answer would be a robust and cheerful, yes. Had our civil leadership, at every level and in every branch, been meditating in faith on that law, as king David did, the pit in which we find ourselves would not be so deep.

I agree with the confession when it states, “To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.”[3] So what we need is not to copy and paste the abrogated judicial laws of Israel into our modern states. Rather we need to be rid of the secular humanism that has essentially ignored the Old Testament, disregarded the general equity of Israel’s civil standards, and left us thinking that a prophetic call for our magistrates to heed God’s law will result in government oppression. Meanwhile, John MacArthur was told he could go to jail for up to six months for assembling his church for worship.

Anyone who has one eye open can see that the present error is not a rigid application of the Old Testament civil code, but an autonomy that leaves many magistrates unwilling to obey Jesus, and many Christians unwilling to teach them how to.

A number of questions present themselves before the American mind at the moment. These questions concern the limits of state authority and legislation, the function of our prison system, the operation of law enforcement, slavery reparations, women in military combat, Covid quarantine, and the proper adjudication of crimes. To investigate answers to these pressing questions without reference to God’s judicial standards to Israel would be like going to play a baseball game with one arm tied behind your back. It can be done, but why go to war without the whole counsel of God?

Do Israel’s restitution laws have any relevance for our modern conversation about reparations? Does God’s instruction to Israel about who needs to go to battle informs us about God’s will for women in combat? Does the penal code for Israel signal anything to us about modern prisons? Can Israel’s principle of lex talionis guide us concerning judicial sentencing? And what of Israel’s quarantine statutes? Do they assist modern magistrates in understanding their Master’s will about an appropriate Covid response? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, yes.

I suspect many Christians would agree. Even so, they may not see our need for the wisdom in Israel’s civil statutes as terribly pressing. They claim God’s law is written on all men’s hearts so they basically already know what to do. Or, they maintain that these “general principles of justice” are indeed general, which means they can be grasped by human reason without reference to Israel’s specific case laws.

The problem with such a train of thought is America has a seared conscience. Our collective conscience needs to be educated by God’s law. We are well down the road of doing what is contrary to nature. And while the sin of the Americanites is not yet complete, we are filling up the cup at a rapid clip. We think we can get through all of this without God’s revealed wisdom.

More specifically, the law on the heart is the moral law, but not the application of that moral law in society. Yet, the civil realm is the very place in which the magistrate rules. So a mayor knowing, by way of conscience, that he should not steal or murder does not leave him thoroughly equipped to govern justly in the various circumstances of civil life.

Civil magistrates must make particular applications of general principles of justice. They will be the wiser for knowing Israel’s judicial laws, which are divinely prescribed applications of the general principles of justice. While Israel’s judicial laws have expired, there is immense wisdom to be gleaned from them for both individuals and civil authorities.

Every magistrate is a minister of God, “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:6). If God has provided examples of how He Himself applied His moral law to a particular body politic, then His ministers ought to take note. Nearly every day we taste more of the bitter fruit of autonomous legislation, government, and judicial decisions. If we do not like the flavor, then let us drink deeply from a different source.

[1] It is not as if God’s judicial laws to Israel are the only civil laws of which He approves. But, those Israelite civil statutes were indeed His in a special way. The reason that the judicial law of Moses is still a guide as to its equity is because God Himself was dictating the application of his own law (i.e. writing human law). So God’s judicial laws to Israel are no longer authoritative in the particulars because, like any human law, the circumstances have changed. The immutable parts, however, remain. Israel’s judicial standards are a divinely provided guide for legislating, governing, and judging. They ought not be exactly replicated, but should be meditated on thoroughly.

[2] Sam Waldron, Exposition of the Second London Confession, 284.

[3] Second London Confession, 19:4. By “general equity” the confession does not refer to the present and increasingly popular notion of equality of outcome. To put it roughly, it does not refer to the principle that everyone should end up with the same stuff. General equity, rather, refers to the eternal and immutable principles of justice.

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Jared served in pastoral ministry since 2007, he has earned MDiv and PhD degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife Heather have seven children.
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