The longest-running franchise on television is Law and Order. Fans debate which of the various series is better (although the original is clearly the winner). One thing fans don’t often debate is why the name is paired like it is. Yes, the original series used the pairing to divide the hour-long show into two parts: Law, where the crime was committed and a defendant was arrested; and Order, where the trial was held. But that doesn’t answer why those two terms were paired in the first place.
The law is full of these doublets (and an occasional triplet) that sound like they are essentially the same term. Common examples include: cease and desist, aid and abet, hue and cry, due and payable, full faith and credit, null and void, and lewd and lascivious. Many people have executed a “last will and testament.” Even the common wedding vows include “to have and to hold, from this day forth and forevermore.” That is a double doublet. Where did these pairings come from? In many cases they are combinations of English/German and French or Latin terms. Centuries ago, when England was a land of two languages (Saxon English and French), or even earlier when the Germans dominated the Holy Roman Empire which spoke Latin, legal documents“It is a mitzvah,” meaning it was done as a good deed rather than an obligation for which one would expect payment. included both terms to make the meaning clear to all concerned. After all, if you spoke one language and the opponent spoke another, it might make it easier to understand that to abet was the same as to aid. Over time these legal pairings continued, even though they now constitute a separate language known as Legalese.
The Bible is full of pairings and triplets as well. In some cases, though, this is because the Hebrews did not use rhyme in poetry, but rather parallelism. They would say the same thing in two or more ways for emphasis. An example might be 1 Kings 8:58.
That he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his judgments, which he commanded our fathers.
To the English mind, there is little difference between commandments, statutes, and judgements. There may be shades of meaning, but they all seem the same. But are they? Commandments
When we think of commandments in the Bible, what first comes to mind are the Ten Commandments. It is possible, in some cases, that the word might be limited to those. Thus the difference between commandments and the other two terms would be that you have the Ten, and everything else. This would lend a special holiness to these commandments that most Christians and many Jews might not be willing to give. Is it more important to refrain from perjury than it is to provide for widows and orphans? Are Christians still obligated under the Ten Commandments, per se, and therefore obligated to observe a day of rest on Saturday?
Even most rabbis do not limit the commandments to the Ten. The Hebrew word used here is mitzvot (plural of mitzvah). The rabbis say there are 613 of these commandments, although some rabbis differ on what should be on the list and what should not. Today you are likely to hear a Jew refuse payment for a service with the phrase, “it is a mitzvah,” meaning it was done as a good deed rather than an obligation for which one would expect payment. Thus a commandment is something God expects man to do because it is the godly or right thing to do.
Others, based on Leviticus 4:13, say a commandment is a prohibition, a “thou shalt not.” That verse talks about “commandments which ought not to be done.” This seems, though, an extreme interpretation not borne out in scripture. The verse is usually translated without a comma, which would then make this limitation obvious. “Commandments, which ought not to be done” would explain commandments, but without the comma it is to be understood as limiting a portion of the whole set of commandments. Scripture refers to “the Ten” as all being commandments, and yet two of these are things that must be done rather than not done.
One other interpretation is that a command is not legislative in the same sense as a statute or a judgement. It is similar to the distinction between illegal and unlawful. A law says not to commit murder, so to do so is illegal. Another law says to cross a street at an intersection, so jaywalking is unlawful (not following the law) but not illegal (expressly prohibited by the law). If your mother tells you to be home by 10 p.m. that is a command, but if the city has imposed a 10 p.m. curfew that is a statute. If a person found guilty of a crime is allowed to go to work, but must be in his residence between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., that is a judgement.
Perhaps the easiest way to look at the term mitzvot is to view it as an overall term, with the other two in the verse falling under its umbrella. All of God’s commands are to be kept, and to do that we have to keep his statutes and his judgements. Statutes
What is a choq (roughly pronounced coke)? That is the Hebrew word translated statutes. How does it differ from a command or a judgement? Even the rabbis have trouble with that question.
Generally speaking, interpreters of Hebrew determine a statute to be a law of God for which there is no clear or easily understood meaning. We generally understand the reasoning behind the prohibition against murder. God specifically explains the reason for Sabbath observance for the Jewish people. But what is the reason behind the law of the red heifer?
Numbers 19 specifies that an unblemished red heifer was to be slaughtered before the high priest. The high priest was to sprinkle part of the blood before the tabernacle seven times. Then the heifer was to be burned along with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet stuff. The ashes were to be collected. Anybody who touched a dead human body had to be cleansed by being sprinkled with water containing these ashes on the third and seventh day after contacting the corpse.
This was the law because God said it was the law. Why was it the law? Nobody can give a reasonable explanation. Even Christians who can usually relate sacrifices and rituals to the death of the Messiah have difficulty explaining this law.
Looked at it in this way, we can relate to the chukkim. What child hasn’t heard, when asking why they should or should not do something, “because I said so?” This shuts down all argument. The parent is saying they don’t have to explain the reason to the child. The parent may have a perfectly good and logical reason for the command or prohibition. They may understand the harm or benefit that could eventually result, but the child isn’t ready to hear the reason. “Why do I have to take math; I won’t use half of this stuff in my life?” It would do little good to reply, “Because it is teaching you how to think in an orderly way.” It is easier to say, “Because you have to.” Sometimes God knows why he tells us to do something, but we aren’t ready to understand the why. Judgments
Justice separates anarchy from civilization. Without justice there are no limits on what people can do to each other. The word “judgments” (mishpatim in Hebrew) in the verse in question is sometimes elsewhere translated “justice.” If the statutes are those laws that we cannot easily understand the reason for them, the judgments are those that can be understood, because many of them have the explanation built in.
“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” (Ex 20:12) “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image … for I the LORD am a jealous God.” (Ex 20:4-5) We can understand that murder, theft, and covetousness are violations of human rights and decency.
Judgments, though, may be much more than this. They are justice, what is right because it is inherently right. Judgments include not only the crime but also the sentence. Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by a man his blood will be shed. The sentence may be expressly stated or merely implied, but it is clear that God will execute a sentence for disobedience.
Judgments, or justice, demand equal treatment for all. “Ye shall have one manner of law [mishpat], as wellWhat child hasn’t heard, when asking why they should or should not do something, “because I said so?” for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.” (Lev 24:22)
The basis for justice, of course, is that God is just. While God’s justice may be tempered with mercy, God cannot be anything but just. Failure in that attribute would be to acknowledge and encourage sin. That would make him less than God. It is what, according to some proves the existence of God and disproves the “survival of the fittest” form of evolutionary theory. The latter says that I must do what is best for me, even if it is unjust toward another. Sometimes I might understand that to let someone who offends me live could ultimately be in my self-interest. Sometimes I might not understand that, and murder or vengeance appears to be right. But because God is just, even those who do not believe in him understand that some things are wrong, regardless of self-interest.
Commandments, statutes, judgments. It may be that these are parallel terms used just for emphasis. It may be that commandments represent the executive, statutes represent the legislative, and judgments represent the judicial in a triune understanding of God that is reflected in the United States Constitution. In any case, walking in these three attributes reflects our inclination to follow God. Otherwise we have anarchy, and each of us must watch his own back. I’d rather have God watch mine.