Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Civil Laws

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Answering Hebrew Roots
Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Christian Ethic – Part 3: The Law of Moses – Section 4: Civil Laws

One of the most fascinating things to think about, when reflecting on the Law of God, especially with an ear to whether laws should apply today, is how the civil law functioned in the nation of Israel. Theologians call it the civil law, the judicial law, the regulations, and many other things, but this part of the Law of Moses is those commands given for how to deal with the actions and status of people in Israel. They range from how to deal with a dead body, and subsequently how to deal with the person who has dealt with a dead body, to what to do when someone commits different kinds of sin, and whether that sin was intentional or not. These laws typically begin with “if”. They are laws regarding how to respond to things. Sometimes, they are directed at individuals, as they are with cleanliness laws. Other times, at the civil authorities, which is to say, the judges, or priests, or kings.

Before I get too deep into the study, I want to make one preliminary observation. As I’ve studied Hebrew Roots beliefs, I’ve found very little everyone agrees on, and civil law is no exception in some respects. However, what I have found to be universal, so far, is that, while many in the Hebrew Roots movement talk about how the division between moral law and ceremonial or religious law is “man-made”, they all seem to have no problem with dividing out civil law. As we have seen and will continue to see, this is because it is completely impossible to treat civil law exactly as you would the other kinds of commands. There’s a simple reason that they do this. The civil law commands stoning. It commands the stoning of witches, homosexuals, rebellious adult children, kidnappers, rapists, and murderers.

Unless they want to start stoning people, Torah observers have to look at this law differently than they do other laws, regardless of what they say when defending those laws as applying today. The way they deal with the stoning issue is reasonable enough. They point to the fact that those things were done by the civil authority in Israel, based on due process. And this is true. Since that civil authority does not exist, we cannot actually keep these laws in our society today.

An Actual Theology of Civil Law

Here’s the problem. The civil law is not restricted to stoning or even activities that require a civil authority to carry out. When we dig into the specifics, we find that there is much variety to this area of law. Execution is certainly the most severe consequence you will find, but there are others. As I examine this kind of law, I generally see three levels of severity in the civil law, starting with most severe, we have:

  1. Execution, confirmed by the civil authorities (judges, priests, kings)
  2. Restitution and sacrifice, confirmed by civil authorities
  3. Cleansing/destruction, sometimes with sacrifice, often determined and carried out by the individual, but sometimes confirmed by civil authorities

Often, when a law is introduced in the text, it is introduced alongside its civil component. In Exodus 21, for example, we have this passage.

Exodus 21:12-15

12 “‘Whoever strikes someone and he dies will surely be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait and it was an accident, I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man schemes against his neighbor to kill him by treachery, you will take him from my altar to die. 15 And whoever strikes his father or his mother will surely be put to death.

16 “‘And whoever kidnaps someone and sells him, or he is found in his possession,he will surely be put to death.

Before this, there was no mention of kidnapping. Murder was mentioned once in the Ten Commandments, but here, we have how to handle intentional vs unintentional killing. The chapter goes on this way. Situations are listed, often involving some sin, and consequences are right there alongside them.


Also, it cannot be ignored, that civil law is shot through with sacrificial law. While it is true that there are types of sacrifices that do not attach to atonement for sins, there are many situations where the correct response to sin is, partially, to offer a sacrifice. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has studied these things, but it must be pointed out, since, when people try to distinguish between moral, ceremonial, and civil law, sacrifice often gets mistakenly lumped into ceremonial law. While it fits there as well, it overlaps into Civil, quite clearly. Consider the following :

Leviticus 4:2-5

Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘If a person sins by an unintentional wrong from any of Yahweh’s commands that should not be violated, and he violates any of them— if the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, then, concerning the sin that he has committed, he shall bring a young bull without defect for Yahweh as a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the tent of assembly’s entrance before Yahweh, place his hand on the bull’s head, and slaughter the bull before Yahweh. The anointed priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and shall bring it to the tent of assembly

This sort of if-then law is precisely the sort of thing needed in a real, functioning nation. It isn’t just a simple list of moral standards. It is a set of guidelines for how to handle when those standards are violated. It is designed to maintain justice. And as we see from the sacrificial and cleanliness portions, there is a spiritual aspect of the law as it lays out how to relate to God, which may or may not relate specifically to considerations of justice.

What I will do in this article is to discuss, briefly, how these laws fit together, and why, when considered as a whole, they are not suited for any other time and place but ancient Israel, while at the same time, their standards of justice are wholly sufficient for all places and times. God’s civil law is indeed a masterpiece.

The Three Levels of Law Considered

As previously mentioned, there are basically three levels of severity at which we can consider the Civil Law.

  1. Execution, confirmed by the civil authorities (judges, priests, kings)
  2. Restitution and sacrifice, confirmed by civil authorities
  3. Cleansing/destruction, sometimes with sacrifice, often determined and carried out by the individual, but sometimes confirmed by civil authorities

The first two levels listed concern sins, while the last has only to do with ritual uncleanness. As they deal with sin, they also deal with justice. We find in these laws God’s standards of justice, something that goes hand in hand with identifying what is sin and how to handle it.

However, while sin overlaps the first two categories, the sacrificial system overlaps the second and third levels, since the first and highest level of severity of sin is so serious that there is no sacrifice that can deal with the sin, and only execution of the guilty will suffice.

One thing I believe this teaches us, that is confirmed by Jesus’ own sacrifice, is that, the fact that there are sin offerings and that atonement attaches to sins, but that not all sin can be atoned for in the law points us prophetically to a then future sacrifice that would deal with sin once and for all. A man-made or permanent sacrificial system, it seems, would deal with all kinds of sin. The fact that there is a middle level at which sins can be dealt with through the sacrificial system, but that the system stops short of the top level, is a purposeful deficiency in the system, designed to point outside itself.

What Sacrifice Did

Space does not permit a complete treatment of sacrifice and atonement here, so let me simply outline and point out some Scriptures to give a general picture.

First, all of the different types of sacrifices, having different purposes, combine to do one major thing, which is to cleanse sacred space. God uses this means to make a space in the tabernacle in which His glory can dwell with people. This is pointed to in many, many ways, but consider that the blood of sacrifices is sprinkled on the alter, and on the day of atonement, on the mercy seat. It is not sprinkled on the people in these cases.

Leviticus 16:29-34

29 “And this shall be a lasting statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you must deny yourselves and you must not do any work, whether the native or the alien who is dwelling in your midst, 30 because on this day he shall make atonement for you to cleanse you; you must be clean from all your sins before Yahweh. 31 It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall deny yourselves—it is a lasting statute32 And the priest who is anointed and who is ordained to serve as a priest in place of his father shall make atonement; thus he shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and he shall make atonement for the sanctuary’s holy place, and he shall make atonement for the tent of assembly and the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all of the assembly’s people. 34 And this shall be a lasting statute for you to make atonement for the Israelites one time in a year from all their sins.”

Notice that the high priest makes atonement for the tent, and the priest, and the people. God dwells here, and all that is here must be fit for Him or it will not survive His presence.

Second, and more relevant to our discussion here, we see, over and over, that atonement is meant to remove God’s judgment in a physical sense. The sacrifices are never said to make a person eternally right with God. Rather, they are meant to cleanse the person so as to prevent God’s judgment here and now. We see this many ways, but consider the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28

Deuteronomy 28:1-6

“And it will happen that if you indeed listen to the voice of Yahweh your God, to diligently observe all his commandments that I am commanding you today, then Yahweh your God will set you above all the nations of the earth. And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and they shall have an effect on you if you listen to the voice of Yahweh your God:

“You will be blessed in the city, and you will be blessed in the field.

“Blessed will be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your livestock, the calf of your cattle and the lambs of your flock.

“Blessed will be your basket and your kneading trough.

“Blessed will you be when you come in and blessed will you be when you go out.

And of the curses, we see the same kind of language:

Deuteronomy 28:15-19

15 And then if you do not listen to the voice of Yahweh your God by diligently observing all of his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today, then all of these curses shall come upon you, and they shall overtake you:

16 “You shall be cursed in the city, and you shall be cursed in the field.

17 “Your basket shall be cursed and your kneading trough.

18 “The fruit of your womb shall be cursed and the fruit of you ground, the calves of your cattle and the lambs of your flock.

19 “You shall be cursed when you come in, and you shall be cursed when you go out.

This is how sin and obedience are viewed in the Torah. And atonement is similar. We have a very interesting example of atonement in action in Numbers.

Numbers 16:41-50

41 The next day all the community of the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of Yahweh!” 42 Then, when the community had gathered against Moses and Aaron, they turned to the tent of assembly, and behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of Yahweh appeared. 43 And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of assembly, 44 and Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from the midst of this community, and I will finish them in an instant,” but they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses and Aaron said, “Take the censer, and put fire on it from the altar. Place incense on it, and bring it quickly to the community, and make atonement for them, because wrath went out from the presence of Yahweh, and a plague has begun.” 47 And so Aaron took it just as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people; so he gave the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 He stood between the dead and between the living, and the plague was stopped. 49 Those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died on account of Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of assembly, and the plague was stopped.

Do you see, in this narrative, what the atonement does? It stops a plague. It doesn’t make the people not guilty before God in any ultimate sense, but it does what it was meant to do.

This is how atonement can be spoken of in the Torah as if it is more than a symbol of something else. It is real and really atones. However, the sphere in which it does anything is this world and only deals with temporal punishments. That is the sense in which it is a type and shadow of the real atonement of Christ. His atonement was done, not in a tabernacle or temple made with hands, but in the real holy place in heaven. His does what the Torah sacrifices only pointed to.

God’s Justice

However, the civil law does not only talk about sacrifice, of course. When it comes to actual sins, it says more. The murderer and kidnapper are to be executed (Ex. 21:12, 16). Blasphemy (Lev. 24:11-14) and working on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36) also brought the death penalty.

However, not all sins did. Theft required recompense, but not death (Ex. 22:1). Unintentional killing required hiding out in a city of refuge (Num. 35:25), but nothing more. Damage done to a neighbor’s land by your livestock was akin to stealing, and so required monetary compensation (Ex. 22:5).

Wrongful accusation of sin brought the same punishment on the accuser that would have happened to the wrongfully accused (Deut. 19:16-21).

Many of these things, as we said, also required sacrifices, since, when one sins against a person made in God’s image, one also sins against God. But let’s just consider the non-sacrificial portions of this law.

These are standards of justice in God’s Law. But when we consider them on their own, what do they look like? We have seen this kind of thing before. This is moral law. This is what it looks like for civil authority to judge righteously, to act morally. It is moral law for those in legal authority. As such, we see that this part of the civil law is reflective of the moral character of God, and is not limited in application to Israel, as sacrificial law must be, with its inextricable ties to the Levitical priesthood and the tabernacle or temple.

Once we see this, we begin to see that the civil law really has these two components: justice and ritual. Commit a sin, and two things must happen. Justice must be done, which is every bit as much a part of the moral law as the law broken by the sin. And also, some kind of sacrifice must be made, assuming it isn’t severe enough that maintaining justice brings death.


And so, while much more could be said about civil laws, we see that, on the one hand, there is no question that this is a legitimate category of law to discuss. In addition to simple commands, God also gave law of this if-then nature, that is intended to be followed, whether it is to impose the most severe punishment possible, or to just make ritually clean someone who didn’t even sin, but just did something that made them unclean.

On the other hand, all of the civil law, by means of its two components of justice and ritual, can be said to fall within either moral law or religious/ceremonial law, a topic that will be addressed in a later article. It isn’t different from moral and ceremonial law the way that they are different from each other. It actually sits in both categories, depending on the command.

Series Navigation<< Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Moral LawAnswering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Religious, or Israel-Only Laws, Part 1 >>