Book Review: The Law of the Covenant
James Jordan’s The Law of the Covenant is an exposition of Exodus 21-23. It was published in 1984 and is currently out of print, but I managed to get ahold of a copy at the recommendation of a friend. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading it (I have rather enjoyed some things Jordan has written, but I was also very aware of his Christian Reconstruction influences when he wrote this book). After reading it, however, I have grown to appreciate a lot of the insights Jordan brings to some of the more obscure laws in the Pentateuch.
In what follows, I will break down the review into three sections: an overview of the content of the book, the strengths and helpful gleanings I got from the book, and finally any reservations and objections I had to the book.
A General Overview
The Law of the Covenant has ten main chapters, a conclusion, and eight appendices. The ten chapters of the book can also be divided into two groups. The first four chapters set the theological and biblical context for the rest of the book, which focusses in on the ordinances (commonly called “case laws”, which he objects to) in Exodus 21-23. Each of the appendices fleshes out issues that were tangentially related to the ordinances.
The first chapter, “The Bible and the Laws of God,” is an elementary discussion of the source, function, and purpose of law in the Bible. Jordan explains the three uses of the law, the nature of revelation, and the function of law in society. Chapter two, “The Law and the Redemption of Israel,” starts to get a little more specific. The chapter deals with the relationship of the law of God to the people of God during redemptive history leading up to the conflict between Pharaoh and Moses. Chapter three, “The Book of the Covenant: Its Context,” moves into the immediate context Israel found herself as the law was given to them. This chapter gives an overview of the place that the law given at Sinai would have within Israel. Chapter four, “The Ordinances: Structure and Characteristics,” starts to analyze the laws that flow from the Decalogue. Here Jordan gives an explanation for how he categorizes each of the laws.
At this point in the book, Jordan moves into the substance of the argument that the first four chapters lay the foundation for: the laws in Exodus chapters 21-23. Jordan gives a chapter to each of the following groups of laws: slavery, violence, property, faithfulness, justice, sabbaths and festivals. After discussing each of the laws in his taxonomy, he gives a brief conclusion to the book and then has a series of helpful appendices. The following topics are ones that may have been alluded to in the book but only be tangentially related to its argument, many of which are helpful stand-alone treatments as well:
- Old and New Covenant
- The Case Laws Correlated with the Ten Commandments
- Tithing: Financing Christian Reconstruction
- State Financing in the Bible
- Salvation and Statism
- Proleptic Passover: Exodus 4:22-26
- Four and Five-Fold Restitution
- On Boiling a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk
I will come back to a few of the sections more in depth later in the post, but that is the general flow of the book. It was very easy to follow the argument of the book and was quite easy to read. While far from perfect or exhaustive (which was not its purpose), the book had many things to commend it, which I will now explore.
Strengths Of The Book
I found a lot of this book incredibly helpful. Many people find various laws in the Old Testament to be very strange, and offensive to our modern sensibilities. Jordan, whether you agree with all of his conclusions or not, offers some very helpful commentary on a number of these laws. Two examples that I found particularly helpful were his treatment on the laws regarding slaves and also his treatment on four-fold and five-fold restitution.
Slavery is a touchy subject, especially in the American context. When Americans hear the word slavery we think about racism, brutality, the slave trade, and dehumanization. Jordan does a good job explaining that this is not what we should think about biblical slavery. “Slavery” as prescribed in scripture, is much more a type of indentured servitude, one in which freedom could be attained. One of the striking observations he makes is about the modern woman (keeping in mind the book was written in 1984):
“I think the modern wife is more like the slave wife [than the free wife], having relatively little independent power. The proof of this, for me, is the fact that men so frequently beat their wives in this society, and get by with it. Thus, extending the equity of this law, by ethical analogy, I believe that women today should be permitted to sue for divorce on the grounds of serious maltreatment” (p. 87).
The bible typically sets forth a pattern that double restitution is the standard for theft (repayment, plus a penalty of the intended harm inflicted on the perpetrator). In Exodus 22.1 this is set aside for another principle: when a sheep or oxen is stolen and killed or sold, there is four-fold restitution for the sheep and five-fold for the oxen. Jordan gets into biblical numerology some, but also offers this observation: “...the bull represents the office-bearer, who represents the whole community, while the sheep or goat represents the ordinary leader or citizen” (pp. 266-267). He settles on a principle that I found helpful. A crime perpetrated from a person in authority against a subject, a crime of oppression, is punished more harshly than normal because it is an abuse of power. A crime perpetrated from a subject against a person in authority, a crime of rebellion, is punished yet more severely because it is a crime not against the authority of man, but against God himself, who gives man authority.
Weaknesses Of The Book
For as much as the book was helpful, Jordan’s argumentation was also curious at times. I have been told by a friend that in his copy of the book, Jordan made a notation saying he would like to republish the book at some time because he is no longer a theonomist. This would be very interesting to see in what ways he would change the book because theonomy is a driving force in his applications of these ordinances to society today. There were a number of things I didn’t like about his argumentation, two of which are his discussion of the law and Pharaoh and also his rejection of the three-fold division of the law, what is commonly called the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial law.
The discussion of Pharaoh and the law is a strange one. Jordan argues in chapter two that Pharaoh knew the laws of God regarding slaves, and that he knowingly disobeyed these laws. Jordan does anticipate the objection that the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh takes place before the giving of the law: “What evidence is there that Pharaoh was operating under laws which were given to God’s people? Our answer is that Pharaoh’s arguments with Moses make no sense unless we presuppose that he knew these laws” (p. 44). This is an unsatisfactory answer. If he wanted to argue from a natural law perspective about the treatment of slaves, that would be one thing. Jordan does not do this though. He seems to assume that the revelation of law at Sinai must have been understood (as he tries to argue from reminding the reader how close this was to the time of common ancestry with Noah). There is no argument for how Pharaoh would understand specific laws we know were given after the fact. Jordan just asserts it is the case, which is an unsatisfactory defense.
Jordan also rejects the confessionally reformed understanding of the law of God. His convictions as a theonomist seem to lead him to this conclusion when he states that:
“The creeds of the Reformation...state that there are three kinds of laws in Scripture: moral, judicial [also called civil], ceremonial...these distinctions do not stand up to theological scrutiny -- all of God’s law is moral...there is no exegetical basis for this three-fold categorization” (pp. 68-69).
I do wonder what his views on the three-fold division of law now that he is not a theonomist. While many theonomists I have encountered have defended their Presbyterianism by arguing for a very robust form of the general equity principle (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4), Jordan here seems to simply reject the entire taxonomy of law Presbyterians hold to. While I will not get into a discussion here, I recommend From the Finger of God for a defense of the three-fold division of law.
The name James Jordan comes with plenty of theological baggage. Understanding this, we would still do well to listen and learn from him when he had helpful things to contribute. This book is, in my opinion at least, one of those areas. As good Presbyterians we should believe in the general equity of the civil laws, and Jordan’s commentary on the laws following the Decalogue is tremendously helpful in doing so. For anyone who is willing to read it discerningly and critically (as we should read all books, even books from people we agree with), I believe it can be of profitable