God’s Law: Case Laws

Some of God’s laws are given as general principles such as, “You shall not steal.  You shall not murder.”  And then we can apply these general principles in specific situations.  We know that it is wrong to steal a particular thing from a specific person because in general it is wrong to steal.  However, some of God’s laws are just the opposite.  They give a specific example, from which we are supposed to derive the general principle.  These are called “case laws.”  Let’s look at some examples.

Deuteronomy 22:8 states, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it.”  It was common at the time in that part of the world for houses to have flat roofs upon which members of the household or guests could walk about for recreation, meditation, relaxation, or conversation.  God’s law therefore insists that such a roof should have a rail or fence around it, so that people would not accidentally fall.  If the home owner failed build a parapet and a guest falls from the roof, then the home owner is held responsible.

The general principle we are supposed to infer from this specific illustration is that we should take reasonable precautions to make our homes safe for family and guests.  And if a home owner fails to do so, then he or she is held responsible for injuries or deaths that happen as a consequence.  Does this law still apply today?  Yes, this is a moral law and thus the principle still applies.  Does this law mean that all modern homes must have a fence around their roof?  No—only those homes that have a flat roof or deck that is easily accessible to guests.  The law really isn’t about roofs and parapets; it is about the preservation of human life.

The specific, detailed requirements of this law (fence around a roof) only apply if the circumstances are the same (you have a flat roof that is easily accessible to guests).  But the general principle of taking precautions to make a home safe applies universally.  Perhaps a modern illustration of this biblical principle would be to build a safety rail next to a flight of stairs.  If a flight of stairs lacks sufficient safety railing, and a guest falls and is injured, the home owner is responsible.  The principle given in Deuteronomy 22:8 is easy to understand even when the specific circumstances differ.

Case laws may seem “backwards” to some people.  Why does God give us a specific illustration of a general principle, and not simply state the general principle directly?  Actually, He does both.  The Ten Commandments are given as general principles.  But without case laws, we might not always apply the Ten Commandments properly.  For example, the Sixth Commandment states, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  The word “murder” refers to an unlawful killing of a human being.  But how are we to decide which kinds of killing are unlawful?  For example, is it “murder” to kill an enemy soldier in combat?  Is it unlawful to kill in self-defense?  Is a person guilty of murder if his accidental actions result in the death of another person?  The Sixth Commandment does not (by itself) answer any of these questions.  We need the case laws of the Old Testament in order to properly apply the Sixth Commandment.

We learn from the case laws that accidental deaths are not considered murder (Deuteronomy 19:4–6), unless the death resulted from avoidable negligence (Deuteronomy 22:8).  Public executions for capital crimes are not considered murder; they are permitted (Deuteronomy 13:6, Leviticus 20:15–16).  Killing in combat in a just war is also permitted (Deuteronomy 13:14–15).  However, the premeditated killing of an innocent person is murder, and warrants capital punishment (Exodus 21:14, 23:7).  So the case laws of the Old Testament are not contrary to the Ten Commandments.  Rather, they help us to understand and properly apply the Ten Commandments.

God gives case laws because He knows that the human mind is often able to extrapolate general principles from specific instances more easily than if we had been given the general principles directly.  Human beings possess the ability (given to us by God) to learn by example.  Case laws help us understand how to apply the general principles given in the Ten Commandments.

10 Responses to God’s Law: Case Laws

  1. In fact, the 10 commandments are case laws as well, are they not?

    Consider Mt 22:35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

    I wrote about it awhile back and it seems to go well with your examples: http://www.michaelcoughlin.net/blog/index.php/2010/07/deuteronomy-65/ God bless you, Jason.

    In light of Deuteronomy 6:5 – I think we can see that even the 10 commandments are, as you’ve pointed out above, specific instances instructing us how to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as He’s commanded.

    • Dr. Lisle says:

      Since the Ten Commandments are stated as generalizations, they are not usually classified as case laws. Case laws would be the most specific illustration – like building a fence around the roof of your house. But you are correct that the Ten Commandments are more specific than the greatest commandment and the second greatest. The Ten Commandments bridge the gap between the greatest commandments and the case laws. To Love the Lord and love your neighbor are the most general commandments possible. The Ten Commandments are slightly more specific instructions on how to love the Lord and love your neighbor. And then case laws give very specific illustrations of these principles.

  2. Nick L. says:

    Dr. Lisle,

    Would not many of Christ’s parables also qualify as case laws (eg. the story of the Good Samaritan)?

  3. I’m interested in your thoughts on these sermons about God’s Law and its use in evangelism:


    If you go to this blog post, you will see the link to Jesse Johnson of The Master’s Seminary speaking about Ray Comfort’s The Way of the Master.

    What are your thoughts?

  4. Delica Castaneda says:

    I agree that the judidial laws of the Old Testament have been a model for our government system to follow; however, when Jesus came it changed the way christians are to live while being subject to them. For instance, regarding many of these laws, christians don’t have a choice, but when it comes to killing in war, self-defense or otherwise, we are not to participate. In Isaiah 40:1-2 Jesus will declare it finished:

    1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
    2 Speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

    When Jesus was being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, roman sorldiers were arresting him (a judicial practice). Peter, in his righteous indignation, cut off the ear of Malchus (He was defending for his master, he could have been defending his family or his country).

    Matthew 26:52
    Then said Jesus unto him, “Put up again your sword into its place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

    Jesus proceeded to heal the servant’s ear and permitted them to do whatever they wanted to him. But to HIs followers, He instructed them not to fight. This story illustrated the point in the cause of the judicial system as well as self-defense. THere are many more instances where disciples are tortured and killed without defending themselves. Jesus said to Love your enemies. Can you imagine that killing or fighting shows any kind of love at all? Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you (Matthew 5:44).

    I am not without gratitutude, compassion or regret for our soldiers or for our enemies who have been at the mercy of our soldiers. I do not believe they will be held accountable unless the truth is revealed to them.

    God Bless you and your work.

  5. Delica –

    Jesus also said to love one another – can you imagine watching someone hurt a child and standing by and doing nothing to stop it? Would that act seem loving to the child and the parents or family of that child?

    If we are to defend the innocent, sometimes that will take force. If we are to protect women and children from evildoers, that can sometimes take force. A simple example is the obvious proscription for capital punishment in the Bible – taking the life of an enemy. You can’t measure the lovingness of the act by how it would seem to the enemy…it is loving because God commanded it and we carry it out and He is perfectly Loving.

    I cannot imagine walking into a situation where someone is harming another human being and standing by and watching unless by the power of God I am held by for His Good purposes which is what happened to several of His people who’ve been martyred.

    I would not stand by and watch an evil man torture and rape my wife or kids, nor would I stand by and leave you to be harmed by someone who could overpower you. I would show my love for you by protecting you and my love for my enemies by trying to stop them from doing what they are doing, and, if lethal force were required, I’d trust the sovereign Creator in the matter.

  6. Josh Davis says:

    Dr. Lisle,

    Thank you for clarifying what the Bible says about the Ten Commandments how they are general, and then you have case laws that are based on applications of the Old Testement times. So we have to try to apply those case laws for today.

  7. Hans baer says:

    When god created light on the first day
    What was the source housed
    Light always needs a source
    Also when he created the plants and after that the sun,how could the plants live
    We all know plants need the sun

    • John W says:

      Howdy Hans baer,
      I’m not Dr.Lisle, but I think I can answer your questions adequately. The text in Genesis does not specify the source of the light created on the first day. Proposed sources of the light include:
      1) The light emanating directly from God, in similar manner to how Moses emanated light after being in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai.
      2) The use of a temporary light source which was discarded when the heavenly bodies were created on the fourth day.
      A couple points in regard to plants requiring the sun to live:
      1) It would be more precise to say that plants need light to live. Plants require light to conduct photosynthesis. The sun is a prominent source of light but not the only one. Plants grown in greenhouses using artificial lights attest to this.
      2) Plants were created on the third day, and the heavenly bodies were created on the fourth day. That is a difference of only 24 hours or so. It has been observed that plants can survive 24 hours even when in total darkness; but there was light on the third day, not total darkness!
      I hope this has been helpful.

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