The Unique Torah – Mishpatim 5780

D'var Torah | Exodus

Sometimes the structure of the Biblical text is just as important as the content. Consider the description of revelation prior to the Decalogue (Exodus 19) followed by the Decalogue itself (Exodus 20:1-14), which is followed by a description of the revelation (Exodus 20:15-18) followed by a series of laws (Exodus 20:19- 23:33), which is followed by a final description of revelation (Chapter 24). The resultant structure looks like what Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler (How to Read the Bible, pp. 61f) calls “a double-decker sandwich:” two layers of laws in between three layers of descriptions of revelation.


The structure seems to be emphasizing, on Brettler’s view, the divine origin of the laws. The importance of this point cannot be overstated. The Torah was unique in comparison of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. In Mesopotamia, for example, it was not the gods but the king who promulgated the laws. The prologue of the Code of Hammurabi concludes: “When the god Marduk commanded me to provide just ways for the people of the land…I established truth and justice…” The god Marduk may have been the impetus, but the author and propagator of the laws is none other than the king. Indeed, the Torah itself gives a very limited role to the king even in the administration of justice.


That God is the lawgiver helps explain why ritual laws and civil laws are mixed together within the same portions. The Torah admits to no differentiation between secular and religious law because all laws come from God and thus carry the same weight. All laws are divine laws. That God is the lawgiver also helps explain the unusual number and diversity of sources that seek to explain revelation and why revelation is depicted in so much detail.


Biblical critics have long ago noted that many of the civil laws that appear in the Bible find an earlier expression in other codes like Hammurabi and the Laws of Eshnuna. Some have cited the similarities as grounds for dismissing the Torah as largely imitative. But what critics sometimes fail to appreciate is that the novelty of the Torah lies less in the originality of its laws and more in the source of law altogether. Divinely revealed law comes with greater authority and higher expectations. Because the idea of divinely revealed law was unique to ancient Israel, the linkage of the law with the extraordinary nature of the revelatory events is frequent.


What may appear to the novice as repetitive and necessary is to the learned an expression of exceptionality.  It is that exceptionality that makes the Torah great.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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