After the revelation on Mt. Sinai of the Ten Commandments, the next portion in the Torah cycle opens with two words: וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, “And these are the statutes.”
The Torah portion called Mishpatim/Statutes signals a drastic change from historical narrative and revelation, to chapters of legal code. Again, mishpatim itself means “statutes,” and we begin to look at statutory law in Israel, concerning the covenant community of God.
The ten commandments are apodictic, divine law; while beginning in Exodus 21:1, casuistic or case law, which is conditional in nature, is now in view. Casuistic law refers to the incidents or circumstances that emerge in life, meaning “if this” than “this.” Many of these instructions direct us in the right way to love our neighbor, stranger and even enemy as ourselves.
Yet, as is so often the case, one word can mean so much. Depending on when and where you were educated (in English grammar), you probably learned that beginning a sentence with the conjunction “and” is incorrect. And for strict grammarians it probably remains so … yes, I started that sentence ironically. Even though I am aware that it is not incorrect, I still wrestle with doing so. Thankfully, Moses did not have trouble with English rules of grammar.
The portion of Mishpatim/Statutes, opens with the conjunctive letter “ו,” which means “and.” וְאֵלֶּה, “And these…” Exodus 21:1. The conjunctive vav connects the previous subject with what follows after it.
There is an important lesson to learn from this: the casuistic law, the “if … then …” statements were revealed upon Mt. Sinai with the apodictic laws contained in the ten commandments.
I’ve often explained that the horizontal love of neighbor and stranger is an important outworking of the vertical love we have for the Lord God, the two tablets of the Law. With this tiny letter, ו/vav, a simple stroke of the scribes hand, we find how true this is.
Walking in faith is not just about our responsibility and devotion towards God, but also to our fellow, in our environment. Moses is careful to show that the sanctity of our business, civil and interpersonal relationships is as important as our relationship with the Lord. Why? We live out the reality of our vertical relationship within the framework of the horizontal communal reality.
Two Scriptures, of many, speak powerfully to this:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27).
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
So often our minds get caught up in and overwhelmed by the dense legal matter of sections such as Mishpatim/Statutes. Yet, as I’ve often taught, these detailed instructions are an elucidation of the ten commandments themselves. Now, the vertical devotion enumerated in the ten are amplified in the dozens of situations where humanity intersects with humanity in the realm of society. How does God enter that setting? The devoted actor present in the situation.
It is our devotion to the unseen God in the midst of the, often difficult, seen reality that manifests His presence, and our devotion to Him for the world around us.
The conjunctive vav not only moves our text forward, but it also connects our forward movement to the past revelation. It was not only the presence of the Living God and the ten commandments revealed on Mt. Sinai, but also those seemingly mundane “legal matters” of every day life that God gave to Moses in order for Him to be present in our business deals, in our marriages and families, our communities, and in our walking along the way.
The vav/and connects the mundane to the supernatural, and makes our spiritual lives very much part of our every day life. “And” becomes a bridge between heaven and earth in faith-obedience to the Messiah, and stakes or holds the revelation of heaven firmly upon the earth into which we have been sent (Matt. 28:18-20, the Hebrew letter ו/vav resembles a tent peg).
Be well. Shalom.
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