What is the difference between
commandments and judgments?

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QUESTION: In Deuteronomy 6:1 it states God wanted the children of Israel to keep his commandments, statutes and judgments. What is the difference between these parts of God's law?

ANSWER: The immediate context of this verse is as follows.

"Now this is the commandment [Hebrew: mitsvah], and these are the statutes [Hebrew: choq ] and judgments [Hebrew: mishpat] which the Lord your God has commanded . . . " (Deuteronomy 6:1 - 2)

The Old Testament uses various names to refer to different parts of God's law.  The meanings do overlap to quite a degree.  In Genesis 26:5, God said that He blessed Abraham because he obeyed him (Genesis 26:5).

So then, some naturally wonder about what are the differences between these divisions or types of God's law. Vine's states the word choq can also refer to nature's laws (see Jeremiah 5:22, etc.). It can additionally refer to that which is allocated or apportioned to a person (see Exodus 29:28).  The Hebrew word translated as the English word "statute" is chuqqah, which can additionally refer to nature's laws (Jeremiah 33:25; 5:24) and the regular allocation of something to someone (Leviticus 7:36).  It also can be used to refer to the customs or practices of the gentile nations, which Israel wasn't supposed to imitate (cf. Leviticus 18:3; 20:23).  The bad practices of Israel also could be called chûqqâh (Micah 6:16).  

Vine's states that Chûqqâh can possess a more exact meaning than chôq.  Chûqqâh references a law relating to a festival or even a ritual (see Exodus 12:14) or Holy Days such as the Feast of Tabernacles (see Leviticus 23:41).  Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies says a statute is:

"something decreed, prescribed; a statute, ordinance, law; usually applied to the positive statutes appointed by Moses, the institutions of his religion and civil polity." (p. 417)

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The meaning of the Hebrew word mishpat is "judgment or rights."  It can reference someone who sits to hear a case like a judge and who ultimately renders a verdict.  In reference to the rights of someone (Exodus 23:6), there are several related meanings, according to Vine's.  It can refer to the area in which things remain in a proper relationship to someone's claim (Genesis 18:19), a judicial verdict (Deuteronomy 17:9), and an established ordinance (Exodus 21:1). 

Wilson's Word Studies makes an interesting comment about the word mishpât

"There is a considerable difference between this word and [another Hebrew word], the former being much more general.  Jeremiah 10:24, 'correct me, but with judgment,' as a just as well as a considerate judge.  The latter rather implies a settlement of right between two persons, as to what is due to one or both; if Jeremiah had used this word, he would have prayed God to correct him according to his desserts [i.e., what he deserves]." 

Examples of judgments concerning how to apply God's law concern the laws of inheritance when a man has only daughters (Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-12).  After this case with the daughters of Zelophehad, it then served to govern how similar cases should be decided in the future.  In principle, this is rather like how English common law operates, in which prior decisions by judges should be normally respected by future judges as precedents to follow when making their own decisions in the same or analogous cases.  The difference here, however, is that God made the initial decision when this case was brought to His attention, rather than a human judge trying to figure out what is just, according to tradition and human reason, when some novel or first-time problem is brought to his (or her) attention.

The Hebrew word translated "commandment," which is mitsvâh normally appears when God Himself directly gives the order in question.  It isn't used often to refer to what human kings or others in authority order or tell others to do.  The plural of mitsvâh often refers to a "body of laws" which are given by divine revelation, according to Vine's.  According to Wilson's this Hebrew word means:

"to set up, to put, to place; to constitute, appoint; to command, to charge. . . . With an [accusative, or a word meaning "to" someone or something] of person, without mention of the thing commanded . . . " (p. 87)

An interesting comment by the (liberal) Interpreter's Commentary is that Deuteronomy 6:1-3 is (another) introduction to the law.  Therefore, it makes sense it would mention the different parts or sections of God's law.  The Shema, which starts in Deuteronomy 6:4, is so well known among Jews and informed Christians as virtually a "thesis" statement summarizing the core of Jewish belief.

I hope this brief answer has helped you understand the difference between God's commandments, judgments and statutes a little bit more.

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