2.2.3 Just government: (1) The Torah

Back to 2.2.2

Unit 2 Contents


You will recall, I hope, that at the end of Unit 1 (1.4.2), I distinguished three normative questions that can be asked about government.  These were: 

    • What should government do?
    • Why should people accept government’s claim to authority at all? 
    • How should government be constituted?


I said that these would give us the structure for this part of this unit, as we study the ‘just government strand’ in Scripture.  First, we shall look at what we find in the Bible about what government should do.  This will take up the next four screens, two on the Hebrew Scriptures and two on the New Testament. 

On this screen, we focus on Israel’s law, the Torah.  On the next, we shall look at passages that present a vision of an ideal ruler. 

As you know (from the last screen), according to the Book of Exodus, the Israelite people were liberated from servitude in Egypt.  After forty years living in the desert, God made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, through Moses.  In this they were given the instruction by which they were to live in future, called the Torah.

A covenant is a solemn bond or agreement to which both parties commit for the long term.  God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai can be seen as a renewal of God’s original covenant with Abraham.  This renewed covenant, often called the Mosaic covenant, is not only with one family but is with a people who have been freed from slavery.  God is now their saviour.  What God gives in the covenant at Sinai is a law for living as a liberated people, for living justly, when they finally enter the land.  This is what it will mean for the people to be faithful to the covenant. 

The pivotal events portrayed in Exodus, then, are the liberation – the exodus itself – and the giving of the Torah.  The twin VPlater module, Module A, focuses on the exodus (see A 1.3.2).  In this module, we look at the Torah.  Clearly, for a full picture it is necessary to appreciate both.  If someone were to read Scripture in a way that focused only on the ‘freeing from’ of liberation, they would fail to look at what the freedom was for.   Likewise, if someone focused only on the instruction of the Torah, they might miss the great deliverance which made the independent life of the people a possibility.  One leading scholar of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann, puts it like this: 

The Exodus narrative… is the tale of Yahweh wresting Israel from enslavement to the commands of pharaoh and bringing Israel under the command of Yahweh…  It is important not to stress the command structure of Sinai without appreciating the emancipatory impulse of Yahweh.  Conversely, it is impossible to appreciate the emancipatory impulse of Yahweh… without paying close attention to the command structure of Sinai.1


It makes sense to give attention to the positive provisions of the Torah here because we are addressing how Scripture answers the constructive question: ‘What should government do?’  How does the Torah answer this?  Once Israel was liberated and living in the Promised Land, what were its leaders actually supposed to do? 

To introduce this, let us look at the Hebrew word torah.  One main way the word is used is to refer to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  These are the Torah.  They include both long passages of legal provisions (in all the books except Genesis) and a great deal of narrative history. 

As this already implies, the word means more than just ‘law’ in the sense this usually has in English now.  As I say, those five books contain much narrative – and this is part of the Torah.  It is certainly true that we all can learn as much about how we should live from reading narratives or stories, especially if these are of our own history, as we can from legal provisions.  This helps to explain the word’s broader meaning, which is ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’.  The Torah is to instruct Israel, and through this to form its common life, guiding the leaders and the whole people.2 

Here, however, we shall focus on some of the legal provisions – in order to see what the Torah implies about what Israel’s rulers should do.  

The range of different kinds of commandment and legal provision in the books of the Torah is very great.  Such texts begin at Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments, with which you are probably familiar.  Spend about 15 minutes looking through the law texts from Exodus 20 onwards and in the next book, Leviticus.  


Skim-reading (15 mins)

Exodus 20-40 

Leviticus 1-27 (whole book)


It might be easier to do this in a printed Bible than online.  If you don’t have one to hand, the links above will take you to the first chapter in each of those readings, in the NAB translation. 



As you will see, these texts include: 

  • very general religious and moral commands (such as some of the Ten Commandments)
  • provisions for social and economic life (such as in Exodus 21-22)
  • specifications for ritual cleanliness (e.g. Leviticus 11, about food and animals)
  • instructions about worship, such as for making the Tabernacle (which preceded the Jerusalem Temple as the focus of the Israelites’ worship) (e.g. in Exodus 36). 


This variety can be bewildering. 

It is obvious that many of these texts address a cultural context that is vastly different from that of anyone reading this today.  For example, the passage about slaves and family members, complete with ritual ear-piercing, at the start of Exod. 21, shows this.  It speaks to a society that’s almost unimaginably different from ours. 

Traditionally, Christian teaching has interpreted the Torah’s legal texts by using a threefold distinction: 

  • Some passages can be seen as relating primarily to Israel’s worship of God, and these may be labelled ‘ceremonial’.
  • Others can be seen as mainly to do with how matters of property ownership, business, crime against the person and punishment of wrongdoers were dealt with in ancient Israel, and these may be called ‘judicial’ provisions.
  • Thirdly, some texts express general ‘moral’ precepts or principles that can be argued to be true for people in all societies, ancient and modern, not just in Israelite society.3


This threefold distinction is not found in the texts themselves, and these certainly do not line up easily under those headings.  The distinction is a tool the reader brings to the text.  (We need to be careful about misusing such a tool because it could provoke us to think we see differences that aren’t really there.)  Yet it can be helpful for thinking about the scope of many of the specific texts in the law books.  

In order to look at what the Torah implies about the role of political rulers, it is the provisions that can be seen as ‘judicial’ that matter most.  

You are now asked to read a few of these.  As you do, think about the question: what does this text imply about the responsibilities of the political leaders in ancient Israel?



Reading (4pp)

Exodus 22:1-30, 23:1-13 

Leviticus 25:1-24 

Numbers 35:9-34 






What positive and negative reactions do you have as you read these ancient Israelite law texts? 



I shall quote two shorter passages on screen (from the NAB).  The first is Deuteronomy 16:18-20. 


18 In all the communities which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes to administer true justice for the people. 

19 You must not distort justice: you shall not show partiality; you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes even of the wise and twists the words even of the just. 

20 Justice, justice alone shall you pursue, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD, your God, is giving you.


The second is Deuteronomy 17:8-11. 


8  If there is a case for judgment which proves too baffling for you to decide, in a matter of bloodshed or of law or of injury, matters of dispute within your gates, you shall then go up to the place which the LORD, your God, will choose,

9  to the levitical priests or to the judge who is in office at that time. They shall investigate the case and then announce to you the decision. 

10  You shall act according to the decision they announce to you in the place which the LORD will choose, carefully observing everything as they instruct you. 

11  You shall carry out the instruction they give you and the judgment they pronounce, without turning aside either to the right or left from the decision they announce to you.





If you were asked to explain what the texts you have read put across about what those who ruled in ancient Israel were to do in practice, what two or three points would you make? 



One thing that is very striking about the Torah, from many specific texts, is that the Israelites’ covenant with God at Mount Sinai meant that they were never to forget their deliverance from Egypt.  The start of Exodus 20, at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, sets the tone: 

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” 

As a people who had to remember this always, they were not to make others suffer in the same way: “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20, NAB4;. cf. e.g. Lev. 25:38, 42, 55; Lev. 26:45). 

On the basis of the readings above, here are three main things we can say about the role of those who governed God’s covenant people in ancient Israel.


1.  The Torah provides to an astonishing extent for those who are poor, such as widows and orphans – people whose circumstances meant they could not make a living, so who would be destitute without some provision for them.  Not only is that explicit at a number of places, such as Exod. 22:21-27, but it is also implicit in, for example, the provisions for restitution earlier in Exod. 22.  In an economy in which almost all were directly dependent on agriculture, the absence of proper restitution after theft (or similar) could easily leave people with no means of living. 

It is clear that those who ruled in accordance with the Torah were to make sure that the needs of the poor were met. 

In Unit 1 you looked at the ‘preferential option for the poor’, one of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (1.3.6).  As the readings we have done suggest, the Torah is one inspiration for this principle. 


2.  But more than that, the Torah provides for structured ways of preventing the suffering that poverty causes.  Exod. 22:25-26, which you have read, is really interesting here.  It says: 

If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this is his only covering; it is the cloak for his body. What will he sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will listen; for I am compassionate.  (NAB) 

If I desperately need to borrow something (money or tools, say) and I ask you to lend to me, you might say, “Yes, but give me something as a guarantee, a pledge, that you’ll return to me what I’m lending you.  Give me that warm coat you have – you won’t need it today”.  

What this text says is: even if the poverty-stricken borrower can’t repay by sunset, you must return his cloak to him because he needs it overnight.  In climates where hot days are followed by cold nights, poor people desperately need what keeps them warm at night. 

Here the Torah structures into the life of the Israelites protection for the poorest people. 

This is even more obvious from the provisions for a jubilee year.  Leviticus 25 outlines the astonishing requirement that, every 50th year, property must revert to its original owners, thereby overcoming inequalities that have built up among the people.  At the same time, debts owed must be cancelled.  

Historians doubt whether the jubilee provisions were ever fully implemented in ancient Israel.  But what these plainly put across is the need for those in authority to find structured or systematic ways of ensuring there is not excessive inequality and oppressive debt among the people. 

Such provisions in the Torah are one inspiration for the insistence in Catholic Social Teaching that there must be ‘structural justice’, as well as justice in particular transactions between people.  We shall look in some detail at what ‘structural justice’ means later in this module.

3.  It is very striking that these texts insist strongly that that there should be due process in court.  People who have been wronged or who face accusations of crime must be able to appeal to an impartial court and get justice.  

This is especially obvious from Exod. 23:1-8 and the two short texts from Deuteronomy quoted on this screen above.  Lawsuits must be pursued without bias, whether to the rich or the poor (Exod. 23:3).  Bribery is condemned (v. 8).  The same concern is evident from the laws for restitution in Exod. 22:1-14, because a court would be necessary to enforce these provisions.  

It is clear too in the laws about murder and manslaughter in Num. 35, including the establishment of ‘cities of asylum’ or ‘cities of refuge’.  “These cities will serve you as places of asylum from the avenger of blood, so that a homicide [a person who has killed someone inadvertently – see v. 11] will not be put to death until tried before the community” (Num. 35:12). 

This expresses rejection of private vengeance by, for instance, the family of the victim.  Instead there must be a public trial leading to a judgment on behalf of the whole community. 

Clearly, one of the prime responsibilities of those who ruled was to ensure that there is an impartial system of judgment in court.  

Today, such concern for due legal process is expressed in the principle of ‘the rule of law’.  This means that all, including the rulers, are subject to the law of the land – and whoever breaks the law should be brought before a court to face judgment, however powerful or wealthy they might be.  The principle of the ‘rule of law’ is strongly endorsed in modern CST, even though it is not a topic which the documents of CST discuss at length. 

Again, we find in the Torah a source of a principle that CST endorses today. 




I have made connections here between what we find in the Torah and some of the principles of CST.  In light of the passages we have looked at, can you think of any other such connections?   



Beyond those three points, one thing that is obvious in the Torah is the severity of punishments for some crimes, at least as it appears to us in our vastly different time and place.  See, e.g. Exod. 22:17-18 for examples of punishments that would widely be regarded today as grossly excessive.   In fact, the penalties specified in the Torah are not uniformly severe; for example, no property offences attract capital punishment.  I am mentioning this topic of criminal punishment just to flag it up; we shall give it more attention in Unit 3.   


This brings to an end our direct study of the Torah in this unit.  But this will remain in the background as we now turn to other texts in the Old Testament that are directly about the role of the Israelite king.



End of 2.2.3

Go to 2.2.4 Just government: (2) The role of Israel’s king

Module B outline

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  1. W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 182-83.  Similarly, John Donahue says, “While liberation from oppression is a fundamental aspect of the exodus narrative, it is not simply freedom from that is important but freedom for the formation of a community that lives under the covenant.  As Michael Walzer says, the journey of Israel is to a ‘bonded freedom’”, John R. Donohue, ‘The Bible and Catholic Social Teaching: Will this Engagement Lead to Marriage?’, in Kenneth R. Himes, Lisa Sowle Cahill, et al. (eds),  Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Georgetown University Press, 2005), 18, quoting Walzer (a leading Jewish scholar), Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic, 1985), 53, 73-90. 

  2. With this wider meaning, the Torah came to refer, not just to the Pentateuch, but also to later Jewish commentaries on it.  In Judaism, the term is understood to include the ‘Oral Torah’, which comprises interpretations of and commentary on it that now form the huge set of texts called the Talmud. 

  3. For this threefold distinction, see e.g. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, Q. 99, Art. 2 (accessible at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2099.htm#article3, 29 Apr. 2013). 

  4. V. 20 in the NAB is v. 21 in the NRSV.