If there is any part of the Old Testament less liked than the uncomfortable stories about God-ordained genocide and child sacrifice, it’s the law. It has all the theologically squirm-inducing components (stone your rebellious children; if your wife has a daughter, she is unclean for twice as long as if she has a son) minus the easy-to-read plot.
While I’m still kicking around the idea that perhaps the stories about God are simply not accurate representations – historiography, not history – the law is harder because these are supposed to be the words of God himself, not just words about God. And there’s some stuff in there that is difficult to understand, uncomfortable to read or, perhaps worse, been used to spread hatred and violence against women, gays and minorities in the name of God.
But perhaps the law is something else. Perhaps it’s a code of ethics calling us to social justice, morality and deeper relationship with God and others. After all, Jesus himself summed up the entirety of the law in just two commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
My professor opened his discussion of the law yesterday with the above clip from Episode 7 of Firefly, in which Shepherd Book tells River, “You don’t fix faith. Faith fixes you.”
The implication: We can’t fix the Bible; we can only let it fix us.
He then launched into a series of seven commandments – “Thou shalt nots” – for reading the law and applying it to our lives today:
- Do not separate grace from obedience.
Grace comes first. It came first for us as Christians in the person of Jesus. For the Old Testament Jews, it came first in the exodus. After grace comes the law, guidelines for how to live in community with God and each other. They go hand in hand; we cannot ignore the law because we are saved by grace. We cannot follow the law and be saved without grace. A couple of guys you might have heard of, Paul and James, have talked a lot about this.
- Do not separate out the different types of law
Some argue we should follow morality codes but not the obviously culture-specific laws. Well, which are which? Those who advocate for affirmation of homosexuality say, with good evidence, the laws condemning it are cultural. Meanwhile, laws about food and clothing are not amoral.
“What we eat and wear and how we act are part of our morality,” my professor said, focusing specifically on food and slaughter regulations. We as urban or suburban Americans don’t slaughter our own food, but we eat food slaughtered by others — and often in horrific, inhumane ways. Does God have something to say about that? “There are deep issues with how we eat and don’t eat,” he said, “and it’s all there in the law.”
- Do not oversimplify Old Testament sacrifices
- Do not make excuses for Old Testament law
He takes a thin view of the oft-expressed idea that the Jewish law presents a more compassionate code than the Israelites ancient Near Eastern neighbors. That may or may not be true, but it also ignores historical evidence of calls for mercy in pagan law codes and implies that God cannot call other cultures to compassionate action.
Further, if we simply reject the law as something applicable to ancient Jews, we lose the potential for meaning for us: “It’s not, ‘How did the Jews get it wrong, but how do these expose how we get it wrong?” Do we treat others in ways that would be condemned by Old Testament law? Considering the passages about leaving food for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, eating healthily and not charging interest, we all could probably find room for improvement.
- Do not cherry-pick laws to judge people
Similar to above, think instead about how we can learn from them.
- Do not assume these laws were — or even could be — literally applied
This is a little surprising, but it’s true: There is no indication Israel ever gave up its standing army despite a prohibition against keeping or buying large numbers of horses. Despite detailed instructions for how to conduct a Year of Jubilee, Israel never had one. And this should make us wonder about other pieces of the law. For example, is the often-cited passage about stoning rebellious children actually a command or rather a cautionary narrative about the danger of rebellion and the excesses of parental complaint?
In the end, the law teaches us what is valuable to God even if it was not, is not, nor meant to be strictly applicable.
- Do not draw a direct correlation between Israel and America. But.
On the one hand, using Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy as a template for modern American law is foolish; considering America the new Israel is imperialistic and rooted in anti-Semitism.
On the other, the American church’s tendency to focus on prayer, worship and preaching, while “all of the loaning and all of the food and all of the minimum wage is done by ‘America,’ and we don’t have to think about it.” In other words, contra Barron Jones, if Christians have the opportunity to work politically toward ends that reshape society, even just a little bit, into the vision portrayed by the law codes, we should. That means, yes, working politically to end abortion and to protect the poor.
“We get to be a little salt and light and shape our society,” he said, “and ask, ‘What does the mercy and grace of God have to say about this?'”
This is not a zero-sum situation. We can advocate politically while carrying out the duties of the church. We can help single mothers make right decisions, feed the hungry, adopt foster children, care for widows – and we can make sure our government can leverage its power and efficiencies of scale to take care of the many, many more we cannot.
“We’re not just a voice of critique,” like the prophets, my professor said. “The laws teach us how to try to make some rules that will make it better – and it’s a work in progress. If the church is going to build a just society, it’s going to be a working project.”
In just an hour or so, my view of the Old Testament law was completely reshaped. Like much of the Bible, understanding it is not about the literal meaning of every word; it’s about the broad application of the vision of God as expressed through the text. Viewed in this way, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are not a collection of archaic fiats to be explained away but a vibrant call to compassion, charity and social justice.
Granted, there is much about the literal text of the law that remains difficult to understand — the purity codes, the shabby treatment of women — and it’s easy to lapse into cynicism. After all, these were likely not actually delivered straight from God to Moses on a mountain. A tribal, agrarian people wandering in the desert would have had little use for many of these ordinances, which describe a completely different culture involving cities and kings. Most scholars believe the law was written largely ex post facto, during and after the exile, in an effort to capture the faith traditions that had evolved over centuries before they were lost forever among the Assyrians, Babylonians or Persians. So it’s easy to think, “Oh, sure, ‘God’ told you priests writing these laws to take 10 percent of all the food offered for sacrifice. Of course he did.”
But that’s trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. Regardless of the exilic and post-exilic politics that led to the writing of much of the first nine to 12 books of the Bible, this is what God allowed to pass down to us. It’s certainly not historically accurate in every respect, and I’m not convinced it’s theologically accurate in all places either, but that doesn’t mean it’s not “God-breathed” and “useful.”
It boils down to this: Either we’re going to have the faith to let it fix us, or we’re not. I choose faith.