How would one describe hell? Dante does a nice job in his Inferno, depicting levels of escalating unpleasantness corresponding to the earthly misdeeds of the unfortunate sufferers. It is important to note that Dante’s descriptions, however grotesque, are not without a certain order. In other words, hell is not complete chaos. There is an organization, a hierarchy, and a supreme authority that keeps it functioning. If there were no order then hell would splinter into a million pieces and never cause harm to another soul. And thus Dante reflects something that Yeshua explained about the infernal realm:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? (Matthew 12:25-26 NASB; see also Mark 3:23-27 and Luke 11:17-22)
This principle of diabolical organization is something C.S. Lewis explains as the rationale for his masterful work, The Screwtape Letters:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
If Yeshua and these literary masters are correct, our conclusion is that hell must be organized and lawful, to some extent at least. But why is that so? One would think that Satan, the enemy of the Most High God, would do everything opposite what God does. That would mean he would preside over a completely lawless, chaotic realm. Yet that cannot be so for a fundamental reason that Satan knows only too well: without Law, nothing can function.
By the time we get to Exodus 21 people begin to lose interest in the story. Up to that point we have enjoyed stirring accounts of Creation, the Flood, Abraham’s call, the careers of the Patriarchs, God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the Ten Commandments. Then we get to Exodus 21 where God begins to explain the details of His standards for organizing Hebrew society. In other words, we have the Law. Exodus 21:1-24:18 is the starting point of a seemingly endless series of instructions that carries us through to the end of the Torah at the conclusion of Deuteronomy. There are narratives about golden calves and various other misbehaviors and adventures, but for the most part we have God’s detailed instructions about every aspect of life. It can get boring, and no wonder people have trouble reading it – if they even bother to try.
There is even less motivation to read God’s commandments if one approaches the subject with the perception that they have no application to modern life. Here is an outline of the Mishpatim, or Ordinances, with subject headings as they appear in the New American Standard Bible:
Ordinances for the People
- Buying and releasing slaves
- Selling a daughter as a slave
- Marriage rights (food, clothing, conjugal rights)
- Murder and manslaughter
- Striking father or mother
- Cursing father or mother
- Injury to slaves
- Killing an unborn child
- Unruly ox (goring)
- Liability for livestock and personal injury
- Restitution from a thief
- Death of a thief caught in the act
- Allowing livestock to graze in a neighbor’s field
- Accidental fire in a neighbor’s field
- Liability for theft, damage, or death of borrowed or hired goods, tools, and livestock
- Seduction of a virgin (the seducer must marry her)
- Death penalty for witches
- Death penalty for bestiality
- Penalty for those who sacrifice to other gods
- Do not oppress strangers, widows, or the fatherless
- Do not lend money at interest; laws of fair lending to protect the poor
- Do not curse God or rulers of the people
- Be prompt in making offerings to God from the harvest and vintage
- The firstborn of man and beast belong to God
- Be holy to the Lord
- Do not eat flesh of animals torn by beasts in the field
- Do not bear false witness or run with the crowd to pervert justice in any way
- Help your enemy when he is in need
- Do not pervert justice to the poor
- Avoid false accusation; protect the life of the innocent and righteous
- Do not take a bribe
- Do not oppress a stranger
The Sabbath and Land
- Sow land for six years, but let it rest in the seventh (Shemitah)
- Work for six days, but rest on the seventh (Shabbat)
Three National Feasts
- Appear before the Lord at Unleavened Bread, Feast of Harvest (Shavuot), Feast of Ingathering (Sukkot)
- Do not offer the blood of God’s sacrifice with leaven, nor let the fat remain overnight
- Bring the choice of first fruits to the Lord
- Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk
Conquest of the Land
- Obey the Angel of the Lord
- The Angel of the Lord will ensure the gradual, but complete, conquest of the land and removal of the inhabitants thereof
People Affirm Their Covenant with God
A sophisticated 21st century person would look at that list and think, “Why would I ever need to learn this? How does it apply to me?” In particular, those items about slavery and selling one’s daughter are offensive to modern ears. And then there the things at the end about conquering Canaan, which already happened thousands of years ago and which the casual Christian would not expect needs to happen again. Why would a Christian need to study these laws?
Actually, we have several good reasons, not the least being because God said so. As we have seen before, Yeshua Himself referred to Moses when He reminded Satan that man lives not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4, Luke 4:4). There are many more exhortations along these lines throughout Scripture, not the least being the Shema, the Greatest Commandment of all:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 NASB)
When we study the Lord’s commandments, we should keep a few things in mind. First of all, this body of laws applies to the Nation which Messiah Son of David will rule. Those of us who have pledged allegiance to Yeshua of Nazareth as Messiah are part of that nation by virtue of His work of grace and our act of faith. Consequently, this is our national law, and it is a good thing to start learning it.
Second, the Law is consistent and indivisible, just as Yeshua and His brother the Apostle James have explained (see John 10:34-38 and James 2:8-12). We cannot break it apart and obey only those things that we think are good. When we come upon something that we do not understand, or that seems unreasonable, then our responsibility is to ask God what it means. Thus when we read things like laws of slavery, and selling one’s daughter as a slave, we should try to find out the context and see if there is any application for us today.
When it comes to slavery, for example, the most prevalent model in the consciousness of Americans is race-based perpetual servitude as practiced in the United States until the Civil War brought an end to it. The model of slavery presented in Exodus 21 certainly seems preferable to that: a Hebrew could serve only seven years, and then would go free from the master unless he or she chose to remain. But what if the concept of slavery was something different? What if Moses was actually referring to something like indentured servitude, or perhaps something akin to our modern practice of wage-based employment? And what if the reference to selling one’s daughter as a slave actually meant something like putting her in the employment of someone, with the possibility that he might one day marry her? What if that master entered into a contract with the girl’s father and paid her the wages up front for her service as a milk maid, a seamstress, a domestic servant, or any other form of honorable employment? If that is the case, then these laws about slavery do not seem so barbaric.
The third thing to understand about God’s Law is that there is due process involved. It is not an arbitrary set of rules that requires rigid adherence without exception. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Hebrews 10:28 NASB) Note the due process here: the testimony of two or three witnesses. This is no arbitrary standard. Duly constituted authorities must investigate a matter thoroughly, there must be sufficient evidence and testimony, and then the accused must have opportunity to provide a defense. The Law specifies the maximum penalties, but at the same time the accused can repent if he or she has indeed done wrong, leaving open the possibility of mercy and a reduced sentence. It is only if the offender refuses the extended mercy and continues in unrepentant hardness of heart that the Law requires the maximum penalty without further mercy.
Finally, we must understand that there are provisions in God’s Law that are at present unenforceable and which we cannot obey. This body of Law is for the Kingdom of Israel when it is reconstituted in the Promised Land under the reign of Messiah, and only then can it be observed in its entirety. Until then, we study the Law so we can obey the provisions that are still applicable to us as Israelites in the dispersion among the nations. As we study, we learn that specific provisions do not apply to every single person in every instance. Some commandments are for men, some for women, some for priests and Levites, and some for people in various occupations. Some commandments apply only to those living in the Land, and some are applicable everywhere and at all times. Our task is to study the Law so we understand the proper applications. In so doing we can avoid the excesses of misapplying God’s commandments and we can help each other learn to obey and achieve the blessings He has promised to those who follow His instructions. As the Apostle Paul says,
Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (II Corinthians 3:4-6 NASB)
And here we get to something that is often misunderstood: the provisions of the New (or Renewed) Covenant. Often the New Covenant is presented as having removed believers in Yeshua from any obligation to keep God’s Law. But what does the New Covenant actually say? Take a look:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34 NASB, emphasis added; see also Hebrews 8:8-12)
This New Covenant does not remove our responsibility to keep the Law, but rather involves God’s renewal of our hearts and spirits so that we become able to obey His commandments and apply them correctly. Note that this is not some automatic thing that happens by osmosis. It requires action on our part. We have to study and act on what we learn, and as we do the Holy Spirit renews our spirits, creates a clean heart within us, renews our mind, increases our understanding, and matures us in the ways of the Lord. How else are we to do our part of this Covenant? And where else but in Torah do we find the provisions of the Covenant? Nowhere else in Scripture do we find the systematic presentation of God’s standards of righteousness, justice, and mercy. These standards are eternal, and that is a very good thing. If they were not eternal, then we would have nothing on which to base this Covenant with our God. But then, that is what He Himself said:
Thus says the Lord, “If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6 NASB, emphasis added)
It is no coincidence that the Lord referred to His covenant with day and night, and His fixed patterns of heaven and earth. Those are the most durable things we humans know. And thus it is no coincidence either that Yeshua referred to them as well in His remarks about the Law:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill [teach correctly]. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB, emphasis added; see also Matthew 25:35 and Luke 16:17)
Yeshua and Jeremiah walked this earth many centuries after our ancestors heard Moses speak the words of the Lord. Apparently they did not think God’s conditions were unreasonable. For that matter, neither did our fathers and mothers who stood at the base of Mount Sinai. As the Scripture says:
Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:3-8 NASB, emphasis added)
When our ancestors accepted the Lord’s terms, they entered into an irrevocable national contract of marriage with our Creator. The glory of God is that He kept the Covenant, and then made arrangements so that we could keep it as well. And He did all of that within the context of the Law by which He established the universe. Thus when we get to the heart of the matter, if there is no Law there is no Covenant, and if there is no Covenant, we have no hope. Since there is Law, and since there is an eternal Lawmaker Who loves His creation, those who believe on Him and walk according to His ways are the most blessed of all people.
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