Mishpatim – “Judgments”

The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Mishpatim which means “Judgments”. This Torah portion contains a good deal of what we would call case law –  prescribed fines and/or punishments for a broad spectrum of offenses concerning personal injury and property. They include such things as:

  • The rights and obligations of slaves and their masters
  • Capital offenses, including premeditated murder, kidnapping, sorcery, bestiality, offering sacrifices to false gods, and even the striking or cursing of one’s parents.
  • Fines and/or punishments for non-lethal bodily injuries, including those arising from criminal negligence.
  • Fines and/or punishments for breach of trust, theft and arson

In previous generations it was argued by liberal scholars that the various statutes, ordinances and commandments found in the Torah were not the writings of one man (Moses), but had been thrown together in something of a patchwork by people living over a thousand years later. Despite more recent discoveries and far better scholarship, some still academics still embrace this erroneous teaching (also known as the Documentary Hypothesis, or JEPD theory). Granted, a cursory reading might give one the impression of a hodge-podge of rules and regulations. But a more careful examination throws the entire Documentary Hypothesis into question. You see, in the mid–19th century, biblical scholars such as Thomas Boys and E.W. Bullinger began to do careful structural analysis of entire books of the Bible. Earlier scholars had noticed symmetry and parallelism in single verses or in smaller passages, but Bullinger found that large sections and even entire books of the Scripture had been arranged with clear and intentional structure, and followed recognizable patterns.

Chiastic Structure Example

Example of chiastic structure in the Flood narrative

I say this because, while it may have finally been verified by scholars in the 19th century, it was hardly a new revelation to those who already held to the Divine inspiration of Scripture and who accept the claim of Moses as the essential author of the Torah. And in analyzing the structure of this parasha, there is symmetry to it, and what is commonly called a Chiastic structure. The Greek letter Chi is shaped like our X – you have parallel items or teachings at each outer edge – in this case, a divine encounter with God at Mt.Sinai on either side of chapters 19 – 24), and something of particular interest at the very center where it comes together. Whatever is at the center is what the author wanted you and me to give our fullest attention to! And at the very center of chapters 19 – 24, which includes parasha Mishpatim are these words:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him,

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.

If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me,

 I will surely hear his cry.

In the midst of all this case law, all these assorted personal and property rights, we find a strong warning not to take advantage of the weak and vulnerable: this would include the stranger (Ger – meaning non-Israelis), widows and orphans – those perceived as living on the periphery of society. Strangers, widows and orphans were generally the poorest, the least influential, and had little recourse to defend themselves against the ruthless and greedy who would use legal loopholes to seize their meager assets.

Along the same lines, we are admonished in this parasha not to exploit the bad situation of a fellow Israeli by charging unreasonable interest on loans we might make to him, and we are to accord dignity to those who are forced to take a loan. We are not to be unreasonable about what they give as collateral on the loan.

We are forbidden from cursing God or a ruler of our people. We are prohibited from perverting justice in any way; whether through perjury, lodging of false accusations, offering or receiving bribes or showing partiality toward either the rich or poor.

We are also commanded not to turn a blind eye when our enemy’s donkey collapses under its load (our equivalent would be helping someone out with a flat tire) or has wandered away and we find it (23:4-5).

In chapter 23 we are commanded concerning the Sabbath as it pertains both to ourselves and to our land and our animals. We are further commanded that every Israeli male must appear before God three times per year (Unleavened Bread/Shavuot/Sukkot), and we are warned not to come empty-handed! If you were invited to a friend’s house for dinner, wouldn’t you at least bring something for dessert, or flowers or a nice bottle of nice wine for them? How much more, then, when we appear before the King of kings, who invites us to His table!

The parasha concludes with the promise that God will drive out the inhabitants of the land before us, but also a warning not to participate in Canaanite worship or make any treaty with them. Finally, the people re-affirm their commitment to enter God’s covenant and to abide by its terms. Moses sacrifices bulls on God’s altar and sprinkles both the altar and the people with the blood of that covenant. It is a picture of our entering into the New Covenant by open confession of our faith in Yeshua, agreeing to His terms, and being sanctified by His blood.

A Torah scholar came to Yeshua once, asking what he would have to do to inherit eternal life. Yeshua put the question back to him, “What is written in the Torah? How does it read to you?” The scholar answered that all of the Torah was summed up in the dual commands to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Yeshua told him that he had answered correctly. But the young man wanted specific parameters. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked. Isn’t that just like us? “Never mind the principle, just tell me where the cut-off point is. What is the minimum I have to do to get in?”.

According to this week’s parasha, your neighbor includes the down-and-out, the poor, weak and disenfranchised, and how about this – your enemy, too! Do you still want in? Nobody said this walk is an easy one. Have you openly declared, “All that the Lord Yeshua has spoken I will do”? Good. I hope you won’t ask, “And who is my enemy?”