Summary: When we read the Old Testament, we find there are several parts of the law described. Some Hebrew Scriptures divide the law into three main segments: commandments, statutes and judgments (Deuteronomy 5:31; 6:1; 7:11; 30:16). How does this work?

When we read the Old Testament, we find there are several parts of the law described. Some Hebrew Scriptures divide the law into three main segments: commandments, statutes and judgments (Deuteronomy 5:31; 6:1; 7:11; 30:16). Some translations use the word decrees instead of statutes and ordinances instead of judgments.


The word commandments comes from the Hebrew word mitzvah, which may sound familiar, and commandment is the most popular translation. So the familiar words bar mitzvah mean son of the commandment. Mitzvah also means the code of law and code of wisdom. It comes from the root word tsavah which simply means a charge or command given to someone. Some scholars down through the ages have called this the moral law, but that is a subtle change of meaning. Better to stick with the original meaning than change to different words which may or may not convey the original inspired meaning.

Are all the commandments the foundational principles upon which the rest of the law is based? If there are 613 commandments recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are they all foundational principles? A further distinction is made between the Ten Commandments and further statutes and judgments.

“Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 4:12-14)

Yet, Jesus considered something outside of the Ten Commandments to be the greatest commandments. Were these summaries of the Ten Commandments or foundational principles of the whole law? Jesus explains.

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 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.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

The phrase “the whole law” means that we cannot divide the law into irrelevant parts that do not exhibit the love of God. The whole law (commandments, statutes and judgments) must be seen as expressions of love for God and neighbor.


The word statute is from the Hebrew word choq, which is a prescription describing the limits decreed, a prescribed portion or required tasks to fulfill the commandments. It builds on the basic principles and applies limits to them in civil duties. For instance, the Ten Commandments are expanded throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy.

An example could be the commandment you shall not kill, which is often rendered murder. The idea of not killing at all could be misunderstood as applying to eating meat or even capital punishment and defensive wars. Such questions about this broad principle are answered, as it is expanded upon and given limits throughout the rest of the law. Some have called this the civil law, but again, that is a subtle change in the meaning, because it applies moral limits.


The word judgment is from the Hebrew word mishpat. These are verdicts and case studies with specific applications to specific situations. The idea of changing the original biblical divisions of the law from commandments, statutes and judgments to moral, civil and ceremonial has weaknesses. It is safer to try and understand the original words in their context, than to change them in an effort to simplify them for a Christian covenant.

Moral, Civil and Ceremonial?

Where is the division of the law into two or three categories of moral, civil and sacrificial/ceremonial? Paul and other New Testament writers always speak of the law as a whole, even if some translators insert words like moral or ceremonial at times. These categories are from tradition and not the Bible. Are they valid? How do we decide which laws fit which of these categories? Are nine of the Ten Commandments considered moral, but the Sabbath command not? Is the Sabbath not also moral, or is it also civil and ceremonial? What do we do with other laws that fit several or even all three categories? Are we judging God when we judge which of His laws are moral? Doesn’t Paul apply the whole law in spirit for the Christian, regardless of any categories not described in the Bible?

An example of the arbitrariness of using these words moral, civil and ceremonial, instead of commandments, statutes and judgments, might be where a clear moral principle of not oppressing foreigners is immediately followed by what could be called a civil or perhaps ceremonial law about land sabbaths followed by another moral law about providing for the needy and wild animals.

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