Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. John Adams. Benjamin Franklin. These men shaped the framework of America’s laws, constitution, and government. But we may never have heard of these men and their revolutionary ideas if it hadn’t been for a Jewish man who lived thousands of years before they did.
I am talking about Moshe (Moses) who led the Israelites and developed a set of laws that were remarkable for their day. Many of the ideas that we find in our modern sense of democracy have their roots in the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
There is no parallel in antiquity to the laws outlined by Moses in Deuteronomy. Other legal traditions resembled vassal treaties where the kings set the laws without much focus on protecting the rights of the everyday person.
In Deuteronomy, God is the law giver through His prophetic leader – Moses. The laws were written to “all Israel.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19 insists that there should be no favoritism. This meant “due process” and equality under the laws should exist for everyone. This is remarkably close to many of the ideas we find in the American legal system.
The Torah focused on the importance of protecting the rights of the widows, orphans and resident aliens. It prescribed case law that regarded property rights and everyday problems in an agrarian society. Some of the laws may seem archaic by today’s standards. But we have to understand that the laws of ancient Israel were remarkably progressive for their time. This reveals that God is long-suffering in molding His people. He knows that there is only so much progressive change that we as humans can endure at one point in history. Change is a long process.
Deuteronomy shows an understanding of the potential for the abuse of power by a king. Moses established in Deuteronomy 17:14-17 that the power of the king should be limited. Any king should not stand above the laws. He simply ensures that they are followed. This pasage even hints that the priests are responsible in ensuring the documents that the king will use to guide his rule.
The Hebrew Scriptures demonstrate a clear separation of powers where the king, priests and prophets all served to kept each other in check. In Israel – the power of the king was not absolute. Everyone ultimately was responsible to God. The basis of the law was a covenant relationship with God and the people.
Moses wrote laws and then connected them with what God had done for the Israelites in the past. He wrote how they had once been aliens and that God had taken them out of Egypt. Thus, they were to be careful how they treated aliens living in their midst.
The fact that the laws came from God and reflect His principles also served to remind the people that they were accountable to God. There existed a sense of reciprocity. God would one day judge them for their actions.
Moses issued a divinely orchestrated social order that Israel was supposed to implement as God’s people – a light to the nations.
Just like the Israelites, the founding fathers of America talked about God as the giver of human rights. Although not all of these men were Christians, most of them had a belief in God and recognized the centrality of God to forming a just society.