Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them.
The "rights" or "judgments" contained in this and the two following chapters show the manner in which the spirit and principles of the preceding moral legislation were intended to be applied to the regulation of the outward life of the Jewish state.
(1) As respects their origin, not a few of these laws have obviously their root in old customs, while others may have been derived from the decisions of Moses in the wilderness (Exodus 18:16). The code, therefore, in its present shape, cannot be supposed to have been verbally dictated by Jehovah to Moses; yet God may have instructed Moses as to the particular laws which were to be embraced in it, and may have revealed his will on special points which were as yet undetermined. The "judgments" were, in any case, given to Israel under express Divine sanction (ver. 1).
(2) As respects their nature, the laws relate to the determination of legal rights, and to the ordering of the course of justice; in part, also, to the behaviour of the members of the community to each other in various out ward relations, and to fundamental religious ordinances. The spirit of the code is throughout that of the moral law; the principles embodied in it are those of the commandments. The point of view from which its statutes are to be regarded is, however, a different one from that which was occupied in considering the moral law as such. Moral law speaks with the voice of "the categorical imperative." It sets up the perfect ethical standard. What falls short of this is wrong, involves sin, and is condemned. It knows nothing of a morality which is merely relative. The practical legislator, on the other hand - much as he might wish to do so - cannot so mould external institutions as to make them all at once, and at every point, correspond with the requirements of ideal morality. He must, to a large extent, take things as they are - must start with existing conditions and usages, and try to make the best of them. Absolute morality, e.g., would refuse to recgonise such a state as that of war; yet, so long as wars exist - and to this hour they are of frequent occurrence - some code must be devised, representing such application of ethical maxims as is possible to military life, and to that extent stamping a moral character on the profession of the soldier. The cases of deviation from ideal morality in the laws of Moses are, however, remarkably few, relating chiefly to war, slavery, and marriage. In regard to these subjects, the legislation necessarily partakes of the backward character of the times. The statutes given are not the absolutely best, but the best which the people, at that stage of their moral and social development, could receive; that is, the relatively best - the best for them. This leads to a third point -
(3) The incompleteness of the law. The statutes here given, so far as they partook of the imperfection of the time, were not intended to be final. Within the law itself, as will be readily perceived, there was large room for development; but even the letter of the law was not so fixed, but that, in course of time, large parts of it might, and did, become obsolete; new institutions, adapted to new needs, and introduced, by proper authority, taking the place of the old ones. Mr. Robertson Smith is therefore not fair in his representation of what he calls the "traditional view," when he affirms - "The Divine laws given beyond Jordan were to remain unmodified through all the long centuries of development in Canaan, an absolute and immutable code" ("Old Testament," p. 333). On such a theory, if anyone held it, his criticism would be quite just - "I say, with all reverence, that this is impossible. God, no doubt, could have given by Moses' mouth a law fit for the age of Solomon or Hezekiah, but such a law could not be fit for immediate application in the days of Moses and Joshua God can do all things, but he cannot contradict himself; and he who shaped the eventful development of Israel''s history must have framed this law to correspond with it." The reply to this is, that the most conservative defenders of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch do not deny the necessity for, and admissibility of, great developments of the principles of the law. It may suffice to quote Hengstenberg:" First, it is a gross error, though often repeated, that the Pentateuch embraces the whole civil law of the Israelites. In that portion of the Scriptures there is shown the greatest aversion from all untimely interference with the course of historical development. Only those points are determined which must be so, add in no other way, according to the fundamental maxims of the theocracy," etc. ("Authenticity," vol. it. p. 498, Eng. trans.). - J.O.
Parallel VersesKJV: Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.