Deuteronomy is structured in the form of the suzerain-vassal treaty of the ancient Biblical world (cf. Woods 2011: 41-47). Such a treaty is a type of covenant, one that obligates the vassal (weaker party) to be loyal to the suzerain (stronger party) by fulfilling a set of stipulations. The suzerain on his part is obligated to fulfill his promises. The Mosaic Covenant can be considered as a suzerain-vassal treaty between God and Israel (cf. Kline 1963).
However, unlike a standard suzerain-vassal treaty, the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant are such that Israel was obligated not only to God but also to one another. For the list of stipulations is nothing but the Mosaic Law. The best way to see how the Mosaic Covenant obligated the Israelites not only to God but also to one another is to consider how the Mosaic Law is summarized.
As recognized by Jesus Christ, the entire Law is summed up in just two commandments: Love God with all your heart; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Thus Israel was obligated to love God as well as love one another. This means the Mosaic Covenant was not just a covenant between God and the people but also a covenant between themselves. Hence the nation became a community bound by a covenant that obligated them to love one another. Israel is thus a “covenant community.”
Before elaborating on the idea of a covenant community we need to consider what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). We tend to think of “love” as a feeling. But as Jewish Biblical scholar Abraham Malamat (1990: 51) has shown, “the Bible is not commanding us to feel something—love—but to do something—to be useful or beneficial to help your neighbor.” By comparing Leviticus 19:34, where the command is reiterated, with Deuteronomy 15:12-15, where the command is applied, we can see that the “love” is indeed not about how we feel about others, but what we do to them. Jesus makes this unmistakeable when He rephrases the command as, “Do to others as you want others do to you” (Matthew 7:12), which is the positive version of the Golden Rule. This is why one can love even one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Recall that Micah 6:8 (cf. Deuteronomy 10:12-13) is another way of summarizing the Ten Commandments. Hence to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which means “do to others as you want others do to you,” in practice is to do good to others by doing justice and loving mercy. Hence love and justice are inseparable. What then is justice, and how is it related to mercy? Justice and mercy are best understood in relation to grace. Mercy, in its broader sense, refers to compassionate treatment of an offender or a person otherwise in need. But for our purpose here, we will focus on its narrower meaning: not doing to an offender what is bad (the penalty) that is deserved. Grace then is the exact opposite: doing to someone what is good (a favor) that is not deserved. Justice fits right in between: doing to someone what is deserved, whether good (favor) or bad (penalty).
Hence justice cuts both ways. This is because human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). On the one hand, it means human beings have intrinsic worth and so a person deserves to be treated accordingly (favor). On the other hand, it also means human beings are morally accountable for their actions, and so an offender deserves to be treated accordingly (penalty).
Many social and economic needs have gone unmet due to rampant social and economic injustice as a consequence of the lack of neighborly love. When justice involves doing to someone the bad that is deserved, love will ensure that the penalty is just. Further, Micah 6:8 does not only say “do justice,” but also “love mercy.” So justice (penalty) is to be tempered with mercy, and this involves love. Justice by the book, regardless of the mitigating factors, is unloving and unjust. For the offender is still made in the image of God. Hence even though justice cuts both ways it is still an expression of love.
What is referred to as “human right” is the good that a human being deserves simply because he is made in God’s image (cf. Wolterstorff 2008: 94-95; 342-361). Note that while a legal right may not necessarily be a human right, human rights should be protected by law as legal rights. The concept of human rights is certainly taught in the Bible. However, the phrase has been hijacked to cover not only legitimate rights, but also individualistic (self-centered) demands, even including what is unjust. So we need to be cautious in using the term. “Human rights,” understood as justice, cannot include anything that violates the Golden Rule or the basic morality recognized by all peoples (the sixth to ninth commandments).
To understand the nature of human rights we will take a (selective) look at Deuteronomy 12-26. Like Exodus 21-23 and Leviticus 17-27, these chapters elaborate on and apply the Ten Commandments. Some scholars have argued that the elaboration and application of the commandments in Deuteronomy even follow the order of the Ten Commandments (Woods 2011: 49-55). They “have not agreed on the precise identification of the particular sections with specific commandments, but the broad outline seems generally convincing” (Wright 1996: 5).
Since our concern here is the basic morality recognized by all peoples, we will only consider the sections from the sixth (murder) to the ninth (bearing false witness) commandments.
The commandment against murder actually reads, “You shall not kill.” But since Exodus (22:2-3) allows for killing in self-defence, it is clear that the commandment is against murder and not killing in general. The section on murder in Deuteronomy (19:1-22:12) does distinguish killing that is murder from killing that is not. In between outright murder and killing in self-defence is manslaughter, which does not deserve the death sentence (19:1-10), but unlike killing in self-defence, is not entirely free of guilt (see Numbers 35:22-29). As for killing in a (holy) war (20:1-20), it is a topic that we shall consider after we have looked at the book of Joshua.
Of particular interest to us is this stipulation: “when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it” (22:8). Israelite houses had flat roofs, which could be used for human occupation. This stipulation shows that, like in the case of the goring ox (Exodus 21:28-32), negligence leading to death is a very serious offence. This means, injustice can be perpetrated, or human rights violated, by what is done to a person as well as by what is not done for his sake. This helps us determine the scope of human rights.
There is a stipulation about finding a lost property and returning it to the owner, and taking care of it first when the owner is not yet known (22:1-4). It seems out of place in this section on murder. Not so, if we recognize that Moses was also concerned about preventive measures to minimize the breaking of the commandment concerned. The stipulation is about putting the Golden Rule into practice in daily life. If and when watching out for one another has become a culture in the community, hate-crimes like murder would be minimized. This requires a God-fearing, if not a God-loving, community.
Following the topic of murder is that of adultery (22:13-23:14). It is stipulated (22:23-27) that if an engaged woman (considered married then) was being raped but did not cry out for help, it was assumed that she was committing adultery. But this did not apply if the act happened outside the city; for unlike in the (ancient) city where the cry would not go unnoticed, out in the field, the cry may not be heard at all.
This shows that, just as not every case of killing is murder, not every case of having sex with someone other than one’s spouse is adultery. The context, especially the motive, matters. The motive matters so much that Jesus could say that a man who covets another man’s wife has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28). (This is not to say that motive is all that matters; adultery in the heart is not exactly adultery. So a good motive is not a license to doing what is bad.) This insight is crucial when we look at the ethics of truth-telling.
It has been explained in our exposition on Israelite Religion that due to the hardness of heart, divorce was allowed under the Mosaic Law to protect the interests (rights) of the unfortunate woman (24:1-4). For in that context, forbidding divorce would do more harm than good to women. But there are two stipulations here involving situations where a man is forbidden to divorce his wife (22:13-21; 28-29). In both cases, the man had wronged the woman in a significant way, and as a consequence was disgraced before his community. Thus the hardness-of-heart concession no longer applied, as he should feel more deeply the moral and social obligation not to mistreat his wife. The Mosaic Law takes the high moral ground to forbid divorce in such situations.
These laws on divorce illustrate that in seeking to do a good that is deserved (a right), the end can be achieved through even opposite means; and that out of good intentions we may actually do more harm than good when the wrong means is used. This helps us to consider how (and how not) to uphold human rights.
There is a stipulation that is particularly helpful to minimize a sin like adultery. When they went out to war (even when outside of the Holy Land), they were required to ensure ritual purity in the camp because “God walks in the midst of your camp” to ensure victory. So “He must not see anything indecent among you lest He turn away from you” (23:9-14). This would remind them, and should deepen their sense, that God who dwelt in their midst was watching them. And adultery is an indecent act that is particularly sensitive to being watched (cf. Proverbs 5:20-21).
How is this relevant today? Since the New Testament teaches that Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they can cultivate the sense that God is always with them. They just need to practice recognizing His presence in their daily lives, even while doing the most mundane chores (Brother Lawrence 1982). Initially the practice will have to be intentional, which gradually becomes habitual. It will then be relatively difficult for them to commit adultery.
The section on theft is rather long (23:15-25:17), and for good reasons, as this is the most common crime. Theft is taking what belongs to others without their permission. But again, not every case of taking what belongs to others without permission is theft. This is illustrated in two similar stipulations (23:24-25; cf. Luke 6:1). When a person, particularly a traveller, is hungry he is free to enter a vineyard or approach a standing grain and eat to his satisfaction; but he is not allowed to carry anything away. It is not theft (it is his right), unless he carries something away. This legal provision has implications for the “fair-use” of copyrighted “intellectual properties.”
A human right is a good that a human being deserves because he is made in God’s image; but not every good that a human being demands or desires is deserved (Wolterstorff 2008: 21-26). How then do we determine what is deserved and what is not? What is deserved is obviously not something that is immoral or bad for the recipient, or is unfair to others; and it is certainly not something frivolous. We now survey a range of examples to guide our conscience.
We have already considered two examples in our discussion on murder and adultery, namely, the right to life and safety, and the right (particularly for the wife) to fairness in a marriage (see further 21:10-17). And we also have one example with respect to theft: the right to “fair-use” of intellectual properties. We now add five more from Deuteronomy 24.
The stipulation against conscripting a man to war or to a duty that separates him from his wife in their first year of marriage (24:5) is about the right of husband and wife to live together. The harsh law against kidnapping for the purpose of selling the victim as a slave (24:7; cf. 23:15) is based on the right to live as a free person. In fact this right is a foundational reason God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt (cf. Nardoni 2004: 61-62).
There are two stipulations that protect the economic welfare of the needy. A creditor is forbidden to take as a pledge any item that his debtor needs in order the live (24:6,13). Hence everyone has the right to the basic necessities of life. The principle that using the wrong means to uphold a right may do more harm than good is particularly relevant when it concerns economic justice. This is clearly illustrated in the stipulation to allow widows, orphans and resident aliens to glean in a vineyard or farm (24:19-22; cf. Leviticus 19:9-10), which is a provision to uphold the right to make a living. For the means stipulated involves working with one’s hands, instead of receiving regular handouts which does more harm than good.
Finally, a creditor was not allowed to enter his debtor’s house to choose whatever he wished as a pledge (24:10). This is about not dehumanising even a person who is desperately poor, because he is still made in God’s image. It is about the right to one’s dignity as a human being. But this provision can be easily abused. A mere insult may be claimed as a violation of human rights. (Ironically, the “freedom of expression” to insult others has been claimed as a human right!) The safeguard provided in this stipulation is that there is no human rights violation unless a person’s dignity is violated to a degree at least comparable to the example given.
There is also a stipulation that aims at preventing theft. Merchants were exhorted not to carry two types of weights (25:13-16). This is to pre-empt falling into the temptation to cheat (a form of stealing) by using a heavier weight when buying, and a lighter weight when selling (cf. Amos 8:5). The principle here is to purpose in one’s heart not to cheat or steal before the opportunity arises. Otherwise the temptation may be too strong to resist.
Since theft is a rather concrete expression of covetousness, the exhortation against carrying different weights can be easily read as addressing covetousness. This is also true of the other stipulations in Deuteronomy 25. For the same reason the stipulations in Deuteronomy 26 about obligatory tithes and offerings can be read as addressing theft (stealing from God) as well as covetousness. Where then is the section that addresses bearing false witness?
According to Deuteronomy 26, when presenting an offering or a tithe, they were required to speak the truth before God through an oath-like confession. They had to declare before God that they had done what was required of them in their tithes and offerings. Unless they would lie even to God, these stipulations would effectively minimize covetousness.
Hence Deuteronomy 26 is about bearing false witness as well as covetousness. As we now move on to consider the ethics of truth-telling, we will see that addressing both bearing false witness (not telling the truth) and covetousness (the motive for doing so) at the same time is rather instructive.
Philosophers debate over the ethical dilemma when we have to tell “lies” in order to save lives. There are in fact two well-known cases in the Old Testament, where “lies” were told to save lives out of fearing God (Exodus 1:15-21; Joshua 2:1-7). Our conscience testifies to the rightness of their not telling the truth. If we believe that it is always wrong to lie (absolute morality), how then can we reconcile our conscience with this belief?
The best solution presented is the view that when two moral laws conflict, we are to do the higher duty (save life) and not the lower duty (tell the truth). We will “not be culpable for subordinating the lower duty to the higher one …. [For] the lower command is not really broken when the higher command is followed. Just as a magnet does not break the law of gravity in attracting a nail, killing in self-defense does not violate the law of respect and preservation of human beings” (Geisler 2010: 115, 111-12).
However, this sensible solution still implies that it is right to lie sometimes. A linguistic tweak will remove the problem. We saw that not every act of killing is murder, not every sex-act with someone other than one’s spouse is adultery, and not every act of taking what belongs to others without permission is theft. By extension, lying is not telling the truth, but not every act of not telling the truth is lying. Not telling the truth may in fact be an expression of love rather than covetousness. To selflessly risk one’s reputation or life in not telling the truth in order to save lives does not constitute bearing false witness or lying.
In other words, morality is absolute: it is always wrong to murder, commit adultery, steal or tell lies. Ethics is applying absolute morality to specific situations. Depending on the circumstances, particularly the motive, the ethical thing to do may differ. But this is not relative ethics as it hinges on absolute morality.
So we end our discussion here on justice with this example on the ethics of truth-telling, which shows how much love is needed (to selflessly risk one’s reputation or life by withholding the truth) to uphold justice in protecting human rights (the right to life in this case).