The Law of Moses is the law delivered from God through Moses to the Israelites as they camped at Mt. Sinai during their Exodus from Egypt. The law emphasizes obedience and sacrifice, which are the foundational principles of the gospel. The Law of Moses, then, was a preparatory gospel, a schoolmaster law intended to bring the Children of Israel to a knowledge of the Messiah, who would be Jesus Christ: "Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him (2 Nephi 11:4). If one pictures the gospel as a temple, the Law of Moses is the floor, the foundation. The overriding aspect of the Law of Moses is love.
From Slavery to Nationhood
The goal of the Lord in relation to the Children of Israel was to redeem them from slavery and create of them a nation of priests. Therefore, the law delivered on Sinai had a religious and moral basis, but also provided a legal system for the protection of civil rights. The Law of Moses, which is comprised of 613 commandments, contains the following categories of laws:
- The Ten Commandments
- Laws of worship
- Idolatry and paganism
- Sacrifices, offerings, tithes, and vows
- Priestly duties and privileges
- Patterns of worship for festivals and feast days
- Special religious objects (their construction and use)
- Miscellaneous religious duties
- Laws of physical purity
- Dietary laws ("kosher" or "kashrut")
- Normal human processes
- Laws concerning business dealings and politics
- Land ownership
- The treatment of slaves and hired servants
- Lending laws
- Fair business practices
- Civil justice
- Protection of the poor, and protection for widows
- Laws against cruelty
- Military rules
- Liability for accidents
- Rules for inheritances
- Laws of morality
- Sexual crimes
- Laws governing marriage, divorce, and remarriage
- Violent crimes and their punishments
- Sanctuary for criminals
- Capital crimes
- Other offenses
An Eye for an Eye
This phrase in the Law of Moses has caused a great misunderstanding of the Law by Christians throughout time. They have supposed that the Law of Moses was a law of vengeance thrown out and replaced by Christ's law of love. Latter-day Saints know that Christ was the Great Jehovah, God of the Old Testament, and that it was He who gave the law to the Children of Israel. Would Christ have delivered a law of vengeance to the children He was trying so hard to save? A scripture from Leviticus shows the law was not vengeful. In Leviticus 19:18 it says, "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord."
This short scripture sounds like the the "Golden Rule" given by the Savior during His ministry. Why then, an eye for an eye? The Law of Moses very carefully outlined the process of repentance for the Israelites. (See First Principles of the Gospel.) The steps of repentance are regret, confession, restitution, and turning away from sin. The Law of Moses is detailed in its requirements for restitution and usually required four-fold restitution for injury or stolen goods. Therefore, if a person killed his neighbor's ox, he was responsible to restore it four-fold, or at least to plow, sow, and harvest his neighbor's field until he could come up with the oxen. Therefore, an "eye for an eye" does not mean that a blinded person is allowed to blind his attacker in a act of vengeance. It means that if you take a person's eyesight, you must literally be his eyes. A thorough understanding of the law reveals that it is a law of love meant to protect the victim and help the sinner on his way through the repentance process. Because the Law of Moses was the foundation of the gospel, it was not "done away with" by Christ. Rather, its promises and types were fulfilled in Christ:
- Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
- For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
- Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19).
Criminal and Court Law
Under the Law of Moses, everything possible was done to protect human rights. The law was a shining light in the ancient world, and has become the basis for court law of advanced, modern civilizations. The governing body of the Jews and the central court was the Sanhedrin, which consisted of 71 judges, one being the High Priest. The high priest was Moses at the beginning, but by the time of Christ, the position could be purchased from the ruling Romans. By the time of Christ, the Sanhedrin sat in Jerusalem, and there were regional, lesser courts which tried lesser or local offenses and lawsuits. The following are a few of the rules which were dictated by the Law of Moses for criminal and court law:
- Lawsuits were to be brought before the Sanhedrin when regional courts couldn't handle the cases.
- Majority decisions within the Sanhedrin were binding.
- Judges and court officers were to be chosen from every tribe of Israel.
- All people (rich or poor) were equal before the law.
- Witnesses who testified falsely were to receive the punishment of the accused.
- Three to six cities were to be established as sanctuary cities for accidental murderers.
- Purposeful murders were punishable by death.
- Items taken through robbery must be restored to the victim.
- Whippings must not exceed 40 lashes, and the whip must not inflict undue injury.
- Judges must be proven righteous.
- Judges may not accept gifts from litigants.
- Judges may not show favoritism in court.
- Judges must not hear one litigant in the absence of the other.
- Court may not convict in a capital case by a majority of one.
- The court must not receive a wicked man's testimony.
- Judges may not receive testimony from a litigant's family members.
- Capital cases must have multiple eye-witnesses.
- No capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence.
- The accused may only witness on his own behalf.
- A unanimous vote of guilty results in an acquittal—the accused must have a friend in court.
- A death sentence demanded a retrial the following day; the second trial could only result in a change from guilty to not-guilty.
The Law of Moses in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon begins with the journey of Lehi's family from Jerusalem to the Americas just before the Babylonian captivity of 585 B.C. Once they obtained the "land of promise" in the Americas, the Nephites (as they were then called) were commanded to live the Law of Moses, looking forward to the coming of the Savior. Once the atonement was complete, the Law of Moses was fulfilled. The righteous then lived the higher law, or law of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Some references to the Law of Moses being practiced by the Book of Mormon peoples follow:
- Nephi, Enos, and Jarom(Book of Mormon prophets) were appalled by the behavior of the dissenting tribes collectively called the Lamanites. These prophets commented on Lamanite behaviors which flew in the face of the Law of Moses, especially commenting on their abandonment of the dietary laws, such as to only eat clean animals, and to never eat the animal with its blood—
- “...they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey" (2 Nephi 5: 24).
- "...they became wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; …And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat" (Enos 1:20).
- "...and the Lamanites also. And they were exceedingly more numerous than were they of the Nephites; and they loved murder and would drink the blood of beasts” (Jarom 1:6)
The Book of Mormon mentions the crime of robbery, which was always armed robbery, and which was a capital crime much more heinous than mere theft:
- “And it came to pass that Helaman did send forth to take this band of robbers and secret murderers, that they might be executed according to the law” (Helaman 2:10)
The Book of Mormon makes other references to the Law of Moses:
- "Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them" (Alma 25:15).
- "And now ye have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but I say unto you, that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses.
- "And moreover, I say unto you, that salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.
- "And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God" (Mosiah 13:27-29).
- "Yea, and the people did observe to keep the commandments of the Lord; and they were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses; for they were taught to keep the law of Moses until it should be fulfilled" (Alma 30:3).
- "Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come" (Alma 25:16).