According to Jewish law there are three divisions of the Torah. I will deal with each one of these separately but first a little something to think about: according to David Stern in his book, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, he believes that the Torah is Christian theology's greatest deficiency. He goes on to state that Christianity has gone far astray in its dealings with the subject of Torah and that the most urgent task of Christian theology is to get right its view of the law (Torah). Accordingly, he states that Jewish theology devotes much attention to Torah but Christian theology denotes very little in comparison. He thus comes to the conclusion that the topic of Torah interests Jews and not Christians. The main reason given for this discrepancy within Christian theology is because of anti-Jewish bias that was incorporated in its early centuries, and because of the misunderstanding of the writings of the Apostle Sha'ul (Paul). By misunderstanding the Apostle's writings the early Christians came to the conclusion that the Torah is no longer in force.
What does this have to do with edot, mishpatim, and chukim? It has everything to do with the discussion because these divisions of the Torah are vital to understanding Torah to its fullest.
We have the Jews to thank for the Scriptures! If it were not for them we Christians would not have the Old or New Testaments. We owe them a great debt for their dedication to the preservation of the Older Covenant (TaNaKh), and their diligence in writing down for us the life and words of our Messiah Yeshua, and the acts of His first apostles and disciples. I am also grateful that the Jewish man Sha'ul wrote his letters to the congregations and that they are preserved, even though they have been greatly misunderstood for centuries.
As we owe them a great debt of gratitude, I think it also wise that we learn from them many other things that they have learned about the scriptures from all of the centuries of study and dissection of the words of our Elohim. Torah is full of much learning, but one must be willing to lay aside preconceived notions, traditions, and misunderstandings. These three words: edot, mishpatim, and chukim will do much in helping us to understand Torah on a much deeper level. After all, why not take a closer look at Torah since both the Older and Newer Testaments actually refer to it as being - truth, good, perfect, and holy (that is unless you are among those that have misunderstood the Apostle Paul)?
YHWH is our God and King. A King has a kingdom. In a true monarchy the King reigns supreme. The statutes, laws, that govern that kingdom are placed there by the king and anyone who does not obey those laws receives some sort of punishment, from minor to major. Since there are no true monarchy's left in the world today it is hard for us to grasp the true reality of living in a kingdom.
YHWH also has rules that govern His kingdom. God commands people to live a certain way in His kingdom or a penalty will be paid by a human court, according to His guidelines, or God Himself will render the justice deserved at the end of this age. Either way, a just penalty will be paid. His kingdom is based on justice. Each act of disobedience against His laws merits punishment based on justice. Those that the king places underneath him must also practice justice. No unjust judges allowed!
So, what do these words truly mean. If you look them up in a concordance like Strong's oftentimes the meaning that they give is ambiguous and very confusing. It would seem, as it once did to me, that the word mishpatim, edot, and chukim are not rules that can be obeyed but rather judgments that are rendered by a judge, a sentencing because wrong has been done. When the Bible is studied by serious students the Jewish understanding of words need to be understood not just Strong's concordance. Yes, judgments are made, but judgments are made because commands are broken. These words denote that God wants and operates a kingdom of righteous laws and justice when those laws are broken.
So, let us look at these words through Hebrew lenses.
And this is the law (Torah) which Moses set before the children of Israel: These are the testimonies (edot), and the statutes (chokim), and the judgments (mishpatim), which Moses spake unto the children of Israel, after they came from out of Egypt.
And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies (edot), and the statutes (chokim), and the judgments (mishpatim), which the LORD our God hath commanded you?
In these two verses, and there are many more, we see that these three words are mentioned as three separate things. So, they mean different things.
Notice in verse 4:44 it stated that these three things are the Torah that was set before the children of Israel.
Ye shall diligently keep the commandments (mitsvot) of the LORD your God, his testimonies (edot), and his statutes (chokim), which he hath commanded thee.
I Kings 2:3
And keep the charge of the LORD thy God, to walk (halak) in his ways, to keep his statutes (chokim), and his commandments (mitsvah), and his judgments (mishpatim), and his testimonies (edot), as it is written in the law (torah) of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself.
From these two verses (and there are many, many more) we see that all three: edot, chokim, and mishpatim, are to be "kept". The word kept (shamar) is a verb and thus denotes an action of keeping, guarding, observing. In Kings it also says they are to walk (halak) in keeping these three things. That word halak is also a verb and denotes action. Halak or halacha is how you walk out your life. So, we see from these two verses each word in our study is mentioned and we are required to keep and to walk in obeying God's edah, mishpat, and choke (I used the singular form of the words here).
In Deuteronomy it stated "you shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD". Mitsvot denotes all of the Torah; the covenant.
Mishpatim is usually translated as judgments. It more accurately means right-rulings. Mishpatim represents those moral and ethical commandments that need no explanation, neither is explanation needed for the punishment that will be rendered, as ordered by the king, if His laws are broken. Human courts are to rule as the king has prescribed if these commands are broken. Instructions are clear as to the penalty for breaking these commands. These commands include adultery, bestiality, murder, theft, etc,. Reasons to keep them are understood and the instructions are very clear.
Edot is usually translated as testimonies or witness. Edot give witness to God's plans and purposes, it speaks of a spiritual truth of the King and His Kingdom. In edot we can see the King's character, His faithfulness, His holiness, and His presence with His people; because the Appointed Times (Feasts) are included within the edot commands. Edot commands bring us in oneness with the king through the keeping of things that "witness or testify" of Him.
Chabad.org states that edot are the commands that commemorate or represent something, such as to eat matzah (unleavened bread) on Passover in remembrance of coming out of Egypt. So, it has to do with remembrance. It has to do with reinforcing the character of the King.
Edot are pretty straight forward and understandable as are the judgments that are to be rendered if these commands are broken.
Chukim is usually translated as statutes or decrees. They are the difficult commands because they are not usually understood. God does not explain why we are to keep these commands, we are just told to keep them. Man's reasoning gets in the way of these commands and tries to exclude them because they fail to understand why they need to be kept. Examples of these types of commands are: the red heifer commands, the dietary laws, not mixing seeds, not mixing wool and linen.
So, how are Christians to respond to this information? Well, if you believe in the writings of the prophets regarding the "new" covenant that is to come and the giving of the Holy Spirit then listen to them speak in these two scriptures:
I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes (chokim), and ye shall keep my judgments (mishpatim), and do them.
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes (choke), and keep mine ordinances (mishpat), and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
I encourage everyone to look up these three words in scripture and study out the way they are used and the commands attached to them. There are way to many references for me to address in one article.
I hope this article has brought some clarity to the 3 divisions of Torah commands, and how all three are commands from our God and King that are meant to be guarded and kept in our walk with Him.
1 David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, Jerusalem: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1988
All scripture from KJV with Hebrew words added in parenthesis for clarity