Scripture: Deut. 4:5-8; 13-14; 5:22-33
Leading Question: What is the role of “law” in education?
Given the secularizing impulse in higher education, it may seem surprising to see a lesson with the title, “The Law as Teacher.” The author of the standard study guide develops a view of law which will be helpful for some, but less so for others. Here we will seek to develop a broader view of law that can be more inclusive.
For most of us, the word “law” is not a particularly helpful word. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say, “It’s the law” in a friendly tone voice. Let me use “required” seat belts as an example, and I’ll start with some questions: When did you first start buckling up? And what made you do it? Or maybe you are one of the few remaining renegades who insists on a life of unfettered freedom….
I don’t remember when or why I started wearing them. Typically I’m fairly obedient in practical matters – I only rebel when someone tells me I have to do something. Initially I buckled up more faithfully when I was driving than when I was a passenger. But since the winter of 1963 I wear a seat belt all the time. I was a passenger without one and popped my head through the windshield. I can still rub the scar on my forehead and feel it in the middle of my scalp. It’s a convincing argument in favor of seat belts.
But if seat belts are such a benefit why doesn’t everyone wear them? Of course they restrict our freedoms and of course they’re uncomfortable. And yes, one can even cite examples of accidents where it was more dangerous to wear a seat belt than to be without. Still, the evidence in favor of seat belts is overwhelming.
So the people we have elected to govern us decided to help us wear our seat belts. The first efforts were gentle and kind, buckles in the shape of hearts with a “loving” message: “Buckle up – we love you!”
Didn’t work. Let’s try a harder line: “Buckle up! It’s the law.” Stronger words, but still not much muscle. Sometimes the hard rhetoric was softened just a bit: “Buckle up! It’s our law.”
But only when it turned expensive – “Click it or ticket!” – did the habit begin to catch on. When I checked the fines a few years ago, in Washington State, where I live, the fine is $101 for riding without a seat belt. Next door in Oregon it only costs $94. But in both states the authorities issue tickets with no qualms of conscience. Still, I am amazed at how often the report of a fatal accident includes the line: “The driver was not wearing a seat belt.”
Now let’s bring God into the picture. Should God be concerned about such things as seat belts? Why not, if God, like John, wants us to “prosper and be in health” (3 John 2)?
So God sets about the task of helping us protect ourselves and others. In short, to make us be good. Well, make is a bit strong. Encourage? Entice? Coax?
You see the problem. Paul lays it out – his dilemma, ours, and God’s: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).
But now let’s come to our leading question, the role of law in education. Does “law” help people think or just help them obey to avoid punishment? In typical evangelical theology, law is an instrument of condemnation and points to the need of grace. But that doesn’t go very far in helping us see law as good news or to see law as a catalyst for exploratory thinking.
So let’s look at some Old Testament passages that can paint a more positive view of law, starting with Deuteronomy 4:5-8:
Deut. 4:5-8 (NRSV): 5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
In short, even Israel’s pagan nation recognized the great value of the laws given to her. And if we look at a remarkable passage that follow the giving of 10 commandments in Deuteronomy 5, we glimpse two crucial factors: the role of fear, and the purpose of law:
Deut. 5:22-33(NRSV): These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. 23 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; 24 and you said, “Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. 25 So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? 27 Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.”
28 The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. 29 If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever! 30 Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” 32 You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. 33 You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.
Some people are squeamish about allowing God to use abject fear as part of his tool kit. But at the early stages of growth and development, fear is essential. If a youngster is at risk from a moving vehicle, the parent does not hesitate to scare the kid half to death. It is the difference between life and death.
And note that the laws are intended for Israel’s good in their new land. It has nothing to do with eternal salvation, but with living the good life here.
Question: Is it possible to love the Lord with all your mind with an emphasis on law?
Comment: Interestingly enough, the official study guide designates Deuteronomy 6:5 as the memory text for this week: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (NKJV). All three of the New Testament equivalents add to that list one that is missing from the Deuteronomy passage, namely, “mind”:
Matthew 22:37: Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
Mark 12:30: And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.
Luke 10:27: So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
Note: The exploratory note, so crucial in the educational process, is not stressed in the OT. The mind is central in the New Testament passages. That’s worth pondering.
Grace before law. While typical evangelical theology sees law as condemning and grace as saving, one can certainly argue that from a “motivational” perspective, grace comes before law. One of the best examples is Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Did they deserve deliverance. No. But God delivered them “by grace.” This touched their hearts so that when they got to Mt. Sinai they could appreciate the law, in all its thunderous glory.
The New Testament parallel comes in Romans. Note how God acted graciously toward his wayward children even while they were running in the opposite direction. I have italicized the crucial words:
Romans 5:6-11 (NRSV): 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
In sum, grace is wonderful gift of God and so is his law. Indeed Jeremiah 31 tells of a time when that law will become so much a part of us that we will intuitively respond to God’s invitation:
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NRSV): The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
For better or for worse, I have been blessed/cursed with a rebel soul. I hate to be told what to do. God’s promise is that someday I will live in a kingdom where nobody will tell anybody what to do because the law is written on the heart.
What follows is the chapter 4 from my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, “Strange People Need Strange Laws.” It addresses a number of the questions raised in this lesson.
Chapter 4, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
By Alden Thompson
[Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2011]
Strange People Need Strange Laws
“And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances sorighteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:8, NRSV)
“Whoever curses his parents must be put to death”; “If you take a second wife, be sure to treat the first one fairly”; “Don’t boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk”; “Don’t let a Moabite join the church.”
Reading the Old Testament laws makes for fascinating reading – and disturbing, as well. Yet the Old Testament says that all these laws came from God. What kind of God would give laws like that? Before we attempt to answer that question, let’s take a closer look at the laws noted above so that we can make sure that we understand the problems.
1) The death penalty for cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:17). Most of us would have no difficulty in agreeing that honoring one’s father and mother is an essential concept. But if that relationship should break down, we would probably have second thoughts about the death penalty. Then, again, does this law constitute a clear basis for capital punishment for one who accepts the Old Testament as the word of God? Some Christians have not been at all reluctant to appeal to passages similar to this one in support of capital punishment. Maybe we need to think again.
2) Fair and equal treatment for a first wife when a second one is taken (Ex. 21:10). No one would quarrel with the principle of fairness, but as expressed in this law, it is directly linked with bigamy. How can the great God of the universe give a law that condones bigamy? Yet the Old Testament clearly indicates that this law, too, came from God (cf. Ex. 21:1). Is God in favor of bigamy?
3) Prohibition against boiling a baby goat in his mother’s milk (Ex. 34:26). Frankly, I have never been tempted to transgress this command, nor do I know many Christians who have. Of course, if one were to follow orthodox Jewish interpretation and use this command as the basis for not eating meat and milk together, life would become rather more complicated. Nevertheless, however one might attempt to interpret the law in a contemporary context, the fact remains that the biblical text itself provides absolutely no rationale for the law. Since most of us thrive on rational explanations, this unexplained law (along with many similar ones in the Old Testament) merits a place on our list of strange laws.
4) Prohibition against allowing Ammonites and Moabites into the congregation, even unto the tenth generation (Deut. 23:3). In this instance, the biblical passage does give a reason for the law, namely, that Moab and Ammon did not properly welcome Israel when she was coming into Canaan from Egypt. Perhaps a little punitive action would be justified under the circumstances, though to Christians who have accepted the New Testament’s universal welcome to all nationalities (Gal. 3:29), this kind of exclusiveness seems rather strange. But that is not the primary reason why I have selected this law as an example of a strange Old Testament law. The curious thing about this law is that the history of its enforcement is so patchy. To be sure, Israel’s whole experience was rather patchy, a point that I have emphasized before, but does that give license to break the law “officially’? The law is included in the Pentateuch, but a major exception crops up during the period of the Judges, namely, in the story of Ruth the Moabitess. Now scholars are by no means agreed as to when the story was written; some think it was very early, others quite late. Since it appears in the third section of the Hebrew canon, we at least know that it did not become authoritative until relatively late. Ruth is included in the royal Davidic lineage (Ruth 4:18-22) and her name also appears in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5). Thus there is clear evidence that at least this one Moabitess was quite cheerfully accepted into the official community – ten generations or no ten generations. But to complicate the picture further, this very law became the focal point of the great post-exilic reforms under Ezra and Nehemiah. They insisted that the Jews put away all their foreign wives, Ammonites and Moabites included (Ezra 9-10; Neh. 13:23-27). Clearly, then, ‘official’ attitudes towards this law varied considerably. If we are inclined to think that an unchanging God gives only unchangeable laws, this law is indeed a strange one.
But after looking at these examples of strange laws, we must remind ourselves that Israel’s great lawgiver, Moses, apparently found none of them strange or even burdensome. His buoyant appreciation of the entire body of Israelite law is found in Deuteronomy 4:1-8. In particular, note his claim that one of the great landmarks of Israel’s experience lies in the fact that her God is near, ready and willing to be consulted. Furthermore, no other nation has received statutes and ordinances so righteous as the law which Moses has set before them (Deut. 4:7-8). So Moses thought of law as a great idea; good news, in fact. By contrast, Christians often have difficulty seeing law as good news, a matter which we must consider if we are to understand the function of law in the Christian community.
GOD’S LAW – ITS NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES
As we begin to look at Christian attitudes towards law, we should take one more glance at the Old Testament and remind ourselves, that, even though Moses’ attitude towards law was positive, the people under his direction were often less enthusiastic. They have our sympathies, for law does have a peculiar way of irritating human beings. Even the most docile and obedient souls must surely prefer to do what they want to do instead of what they have to do. Thus, when commanded or forbidden, we find it more difficult to perform or refrain, even though our natural inclination might have been to do precisely what the law indicated. I suspect that all of us have experienced this sudden withering of noble intentions when an injudicious command or an ill-timed reminder is laid on top of a good intention which had already issued from our own free will. Observant parents also soon learn that for encouraging rebellion in an otherwise good child, there is nothing quite like an admonition to do what the child was already doing or intending to do!
To illustrate another type of problem that we experience in connection with law, we could cite the example of speed limits. Now I don’t mean those notorious and nonsensical limits which we sometimes meet and which seem to persist even though their very absurdity suggests they must have originated in some bureaucratic mix-up. I am referring to those necessary limits which all serious-minded drivers agree are necessary for the preservation of life. Drivers need the official reminder that a more leisurely pace is preferred in urban areas. But who among us hasn’t chafed against a reasonable and necessary limit, simply because we are under the pressure of an urgent appointment? When it is our children who are walking to school on dangerous roads we become quite vocal about the need for tougher speed laws. But when it is our urgent appointment that we are attempting to meet, the risk of killing or maiming a child somehow seems so very remote.
These then, are some of the human problems that we must face in connection with law, problems which God must cope with as he seeks to show us a better way of life. It is so easy to lose sight of law as good news and to focus instead on its potential to irritate. The New Testament itself is quite aware of this negative aspect of law. Paul, for example, in Romans 5-8, often seems ambivalent when he speaks of law, being aware of its negative potential as well as the positive. On the negative side, “Law came in, to increase the trespass” (Rom. 5:20); and “the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom. 7:10; cf. also 7:13). But on the positive side, Paul says, “The commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), “I agree that the law is good” (Rom. 7:16), and “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self” (Rom. 7:22).
One of the more uncomfortable functions of law is simply its role in pointing out sin (Rom. 7:7; cf. 4:15). Even though 1 Tim. 1:8-11 says that the law is for the disobedient rather than for the obedient, still, an awareness of law as the sinner’s accuser hardly warms the heart of the saint! The answering grace of Christ strikes a much more responsive chord.
In addition to the “natural” irritating and accusing aspects of law, the Jewish distortion of law also complicates our ability to view it positively. The gospels bristle with the tension between Jesus’ attitude towards law and that of his Jewish antagonists, Instead of focusing on the mass of laws, Jesus sought to develop a healthier attitude towards law as a principle. Thus, when he was asked which was the greatest command, he simply said that there were two commands: “Love God,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). By seeking thus to establish the priority of law as the basis for principled behavior, Jesus saw himself, not as an opponent of law, but as its defender. To cite his well-known words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matt. 5:17). In other words: “I have come to fill the law full of the right kind of meaning.”
But perhaps the greatest significance of Jesus’ statement about the two great commands lies in the fact that it provides a framework within which we can come to grips with all the individual laws of both Testaments. Note in particular: “On these two commands depend all the law and the prophets.” All other commands are simply commentary on these two great commands and can in some way be subsumed under them. Paul refined this point a step further when, after mentioning several of the individual laws from the decalogue, he says, simply: “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Thus law is not really ten commands, or even two, it is one principle, love. When we love, we are fulfilling all that is in the law. Love can never be rebellion against law or its negation; it is the embodiment of law in every act of life. An echo of this positive view of law can also be found in the book of James where the law is described as the “law of liberty” (James 2:12).
We can conclude, then, that the New Testament gives ample evidence for viewing both laws and law as good news. But how can we understand and apply law in Christian experience so that we perceive it as something helpful rather than as something destructive and oppressive?
GOD’S LAW – A GRACIOUS GIFT
In attempting to answer that question, we need to look first to the body of laws in the Old Testament. Trying to make sense out of such a diverse mass is no easy task. There scarcely seems to be a way through that would not risk hopeless entanglement en route. The New Testament certainly provides plenty of evidence to demonstrate that such entanglement had become very much a reality, not just in the Jewish community, but in the Christian community as well. In the Gospels the argument about law repeatedly focuses on Jesus’ attempts to establish a more “human” approach to the Sabbath. In Acts, the famous Jerusalem conference provides at least a partial glimpse of the agony of the early Christian community as they wrestled with the problem of law: which of the commands of God were still valid for Christians who were not Jews (Acts 15)? The day of divine imperatives was clearly not past, but the “which” and the “how” were still very much discussed.
Given our difficulties in living comfortably with law, it is interesting to note the hints in both Testaments that God’s ideal would be to eliminate the imperative in favor of the indicative. The clearest statement of this ideal is found in the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Here God looks forward to the time when the law will be written in the heart and it will no longer be necessary for each man to command or teach his neighbor, for everyone will know the Lord. Thus in the mature experience the imperative has been entirely transposed into the indicative. No external code threatens to arouse the natural combativeness of the human heart, for the heart is in harmony with the divine will.
But given conditions in a distorted human environment, the external law is a gracious condescension to the needs of immature creatures, just as uncultured and uncouth children need more overt and explicit directions in the schoolroom, so human beings need more specific instructions to compensate for their lack of maturity. We can illustrate this process of greater specification by means of a simple diagram, based largely on the implications of Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 22:36-40 as discussed above:
The Law Pyramid
|2 Commands||Love to God – Love to Man|
|10 Commands||Commands 1-4 (Decalogue) – Commands 5-10|
|Many Commands||The additional commands in law and prophets which are applications of the 10, the 2, and the 1.|
Just as a maturing craftsman becomes less and less dependent on external instructions as the principles of his trade become more and more a part of him, so it is with the Christian and so it was with ancient Israel. With increasing maturity, the need for explicit law becomes less and less necessary. Conversely, as degeneration occurs, the need for explicit application of the great principles becomes more and more necessary. One of the more notable instances where Scripture actually defines this process involves the law on divorce. Jesus said that the law of divorce became necessary because of “your hardness of heart,” but originally it was not so (Matt. 19:8). The greater the hardness of heart, the greater the need for more specific application of law. But this willingness of God to condescend to man’s need and to give that more specific guidance is in no way a punishment for man’s hard heart. Rather, it is simply another one of God’s gracious acts on behalf of his children.
GOD’S LAW – ITS PURPOSE DISTORTED
Yet in spite of God’s good intentions, the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition shows that this gracious condescension of God to the needs of people can very easily be misunderstood and misapplied. Even well-intentioned and conscientious people can relate to law in such a way that it leads to distortion of God’s original purpose. The apostle Paul vigorously attacked one of the most dangerous distortions of law, namely, that obedience to law is a means of winning divine favor and gaining eternal life. Paul is quite certain that the law is good, but he never says that law is a means for obtaining favor with God. Law is a marvelous guide, but an impossible savior.
Another distortion is more subtle, stemming from a misunderstanding of God’s character. The logic of this distortion goes something like this: God does not change (cf. Mal. 3:6). These are God’s laws. Therefore these laws do not change. In support of that conclusion one could even cite the words of Moses (Deut. 4:2) and John (Rev. 22:19): don’t add and don’t take away! If we adopt that view, then we face two alternatives: either that all laws are cumulative (the orthodox Jewish approach), or that laws apply for a specific pre-determined dispensation or period of time. The latter alternative is the one that has sometimes been adopted by Christians with the resulting interpretation that the corpus of law is applicable from Sinai to the cross. Then at the cross, either all the law, or all law except the decalogue, is abolished (cf. Col. 2:14 in popular interpretation).
The problem with that latter approach is that it conflicts with the evidence from both Testaments. The record of Jewish and Gentile behavior as recorded in the book of Acts and especially in connection with the Jerusalem conference certainly indicates that the early Christian community did not see the cross destroying “at a stroke” the provisions of the Old Testament law codes.
But the testimony of the Old Testament is even more telling, for here, within the same so-called dispensation, clear evidence can be cited that the laws given by God were not eternal. We have already cited the example of Ruth the Moabitess, but an even more striking example can be noted, namely the law concerning eunuchs. Deuteronomy 23:1 seems to state unequivocally that only a complete and virile male could belong to the community. But Isaiah 56:3-5 gives quite a different thrust, for there the prophet reports the word of the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.” This latter passage seems to be so much more in keeping with the Christian spirit, that we are inclined almost immediately to proclaim it as the more mature “law.” The difference between Deuteronomy and Isaiah can scarcely be denied, but what possible reason could there be for the earlier law? The answer to that inquiry may stem from the great danger which Canaanite religion posed for Israel early in her experience. We now know from sources outside the Bible that Canaanite religion was violent and depraved, at least when judged by biblical standards. One of the customs that apparently prevailed was the practice of male castration, and that, in connection with the “official” worship practices! There was real danger that Israel would attempt to imitate Canaanite practice. Hence the need for strong prohibitions, including categorical statements about male castration. With the passage of time and a diminishing of the direct threat from Canaanite religion, the necessarily harsh provisions of an earlier age could be superseded by more appropriate commands. Of course, the Isaiah passage does not explicitly say: “This is a new provision to take the place of that old one.” Yet that seems to be just what happened. Jesus is perhaps using a similarly cautious approach in the famous story of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11). He does not say that the law of stoning has been abolished, but rather: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
The facts of the matter are that divine laws are no more enduring than that human situation which makes them necessary. The beauty of the divine condescension is precisely that God recognized the human condition and molded his revelation accordingly. Different people in different cultures need to have the great enduring principles of divine government applied in different ways. But therein lies a particular problem that we must realize, for the greater the specificity in the commands the greater will be the likelihood of apparent conflict between such commands and the need for exceptions. In a sinful world, conflict can develop even at the level of the two great commands, love to God and love to man, for when a human command from colleague, parent, or magistrate runs counter to our responsibility to God, the two commands are superficially in tension. But only superficially, for the higher law of God (self-sacrificing love) is enduring and that must always be the final court of appeal. It is never “necessary” to break the law; God’s law is the law of life and it is eternal. To be true to that law is to be true to God himself and that is where our loyalties must always lie.
We must admit, however, that not all cases of apparent conflict can be easily resolved. The great issues of war and peace, life and death, and the complications raised by tyranny and oppression make the modern study of ethics very pertinent indeed. Nor will it do to solve the problems with a mere appeal to a specific statement of Scripture. Each passage of Scripture, each instance of biblical law, must be studied within its larger context to determine just how and why the larger principles of God’s eternal law are to be applied in a distorted human context. Each bit and piece of God’s revelation will tell us something about God and something about the people with whom he is dealing. Furthermore, the great variety of conditions and circumstances in which God meets mankind means that we have a great wealth of material for understanding both God and humans. If we approach our problems today with an awareness of what has gone before, asking for the guidance of the Spirit, we will discover what God would have us be and how he would have us live.
STRANGE LAWS FOR STRANGE PEOPLE?
Perhaps a further word would be appropriate in connection with the rather more rigorous nature of Old Testament law. In particular, the death penalty was quite common. Conservative Christians have sometimes been reluctant to admit the great contrast between Old and New, perhaps because the image of an unchanging God is more congenial, at first glance, than the image of a God who condescends to enter the human arena. But if the New Testament can testify to a God who became flesh, cannot the Old Testament bear witness to a God who stoops even further in order to reach humanity? The Old Testament people were often violent; God had to meet them there and help them from there. The Old Testament reveals “approved” customs that are nothing short of barbaric, but we can also detect the hand of God as he works through these customs to lead his people to higher ground. The human race had chosen the steep downward path away from God; the journey back must be via the same tortuous route. Going down is always so quick and easy; retracing one’s steps upwards is so painful and so slow. But the God of the Old Testament would not negate the law of life. Growth comes by choosing the right. Step by step, God led his people at a pace which they could manage. The strange laws for these strange people are a marvelous testimony to a kind and patient God and provide a fitting background for the God who would one day reveal himself in Jesus Christ. Just as the New Testament would find Jesus and Mount Zion much more attractive than the terrors of Sinai (cf. Heb. 12:18-24), so we also will probably be more comfortable with Jesus of Nazareth than with the thunder and smoke of that desert mountain. But a closer look reveals a great God who knew that his first task was to impress that riotous mob of ex-slaves. And they were impressed, so much so, that they ran and hid and said that enough was enough. But perhaps their reaction was similar to that mixed fear and pride that a little boy has of his strapping big brother. Junior is afraid, but who wouldn’t be delighted to have that kind of brother to beat off the neighborhood bullies? So it was with Israel. They were afraid, but God had made his point and they were his.
Let us take a quick backward glance, then, at the four sample laws mentioned at the beginning of this chapter and summarize some of the implications that have surfaced in the course of our discussion.
1) Death penalty for cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:17). The value of honoring one’s parents is clear enough, but the background of the Israelites included the death penalty. Was God in favor of the death penalty? Is he still? Any straightforward answer could easily be misleading. We must say, of course, that God is in favor of life; death is the result of sin. Maybe all that we can say with certainty is that God apparently was willing to make use of the death penalty when dealing with ancient Israel. Israel would not have accepted a God who did not enforce such “standard” norms of justice. I suspect that the use of the death penalty was an accommodation to the condition of mankind at that time. Whether or not it should still be used today is a question which is still open for us to decide. Our prayer must be that we will make that decision under the guidance of the Spirit.
2) Fair and equal treatment for a first wife when a second one is taken (Ex. 21:10). Through the early patriarchal accounts the custom of multiple wives is evidently accepted without any qualms. It is not surprising, then, that God would include instructions as to how best to cope with a multiple-wife situation, Once we recognize the principle of accommodation to human need, we need not conclude that God is actually in favor of bigamy. Perhaps it might be instructive, however, to explore the possibility of applying this very command today within those cultures where bigamy and polygamy are practiced. Does this command suggest that where a multiple wife situation already exists, the status quo is in order? That is not an easy question to answer, but perhaps some agony of soul would be more appropriate than to conclude too hastily that the ultimate in Christian standards should be enforced in every place at all times. The problem will always be, however: How do we make the transition to the better way?
3) Prohibition against boiling a baby goat in his mother’s milk. (Ex.34:26). Fairly recent discoveries have suggested that this law is directed against Canaanite fertility practices. It would then be in the same category as the law against a castrated male noted above (Deut. 23:1), When the threat posed by Canaanite religion had passed, the law would also be irrelevant. Certain activities are wrong only because of the way that they might be understood in a given culture. There are basic principles in the law which certainly transcend human culture, but those basic principles also suggest that when we are within a particular culture we must avoid those things which would be offensive or which could possibly lead to a dangerous misunderstanding.
4) Prohibition against admitting Moabites and Ammonites into the congregation (Deut. 23:3). I have already noted how attitudes towards this law blew hot and cold. The potential threat of foreign influence against the true faith varied greatly from age to age. The most evident enforcement of this command took place in the post-exilic period during the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. Although the enforcement of the command at that time seems exceptionally harsh to us, we now know from sources outside the Bible that pagan influences threatened to compromise fatally the Jewish faith. Ezra and Nehemiah responded with vigor and enthusiasm, making use of this law as part of their reform.
Another point that we would do well to remember in connection with this law is that the Christian view of all being one in Christ has so conditioned us that we find it difficult to adjust to the more tribal and exclusive attitude in the Old Testament. Yet in a culture where tribal loyalties reign supreme, it is not surprising to find a persistent attitude of harshness towards one’s enemies. The Old Testament denounces not only Moab and Ammon, but Israel’s other enemies as well. Given these conditions, what is really so surprising is the appearance in the Old Testament of the story of Ruth, the Moabitess, the ancestress of David and of Jesus. Even in the Old Testament, the higher law of love sometimes superseded those harsher commands which were a necessary adaptation to the needs of a people who had fallen far from God’s ideal.
But after speaking so much of adaptation, of God’s condescension to the needs of fallen human beings, I must strike a blow on behalf of permanence and continuity, qualities which seem to apply much more to the decalogue than to the subsidiary commands in the Old Testament. Defined carefully, the commands of the decalogue have a high degree of permanence. This higher priority for the decalogue has found confirmation in the Christian tradition and seems also to be confirmed in the Old Testament, for the tables of stone were placed within the ark of the covenant, while the additional Mosaic legislation was placed in the side of the ark. We must recognize, however, that simply because the decalogue has a higher degree of permanence for fallen man, the ethical questions which we face today are not thereby automatically solved. In fact, one of the primary implications of the approach to law suggested in this chapter is the absolutely crucial role it assigns to the human interpreter of law. The point is sufficiently important to merit another whole book, but I shall content myself here with a few comments on some of the more significant aspects.
GOD’S LAW AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY
Conservative Christians have sometimes been reluctant to grant human reason a prominent role in the decision-making process because to do so would imply that we are walking “by sight” rather than “by faith.” Such an approach, however, tends to place faith in opposition to reason, a most unfortunate conclusion, for the two should be walking hand in hand. Perhaps we can take some steps towards solving the difficulty by looking first at the decision-making process, and second, by seeing that process as a focal point in the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Looking at the decision-making process, I find it helpful to note three basic elements in every decision: 1) The driving motive force behind the decision, usually love or selfishness or a mixture of the two; 2) The data base for the decision, including an awareness of relevant Scriptural contexts and a knowledge of the key factors in the modern context that have rendered a decision necessary. Additional information from many sources can be extremely important for substantiating and clarifying the data base. Thus the full spectrum of the modern sciences as well as the more classical disciplines can greatly enhance our understanding both of the biblical record and of the contemporary scene; 3) The actual decision-making process, the reaction of the motive-force with the data. The process moves from recognition of the problem, through the data-gathering and evaluation, and finally to the conclusion and execution of the decision.
Now the first element, the motive force, is in many ways the determining factor for the decision, for it determines the degree of honesty and intensity with which one gathers, interprets and applies the data. If the motive is pure, we are much more likely to make a right decision. Yet, crucial as our motives are, the stark truth is that we are powerless to change or purify them. That is something that only the Spirit can do as we seek a clearer vision of God. Recognition of that sobering fact should lead me as a Christian to set my mind on the Spirit, rather than on the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:5). That is the only way that my decisions can be truly Christian.
But having set my mind on the Spirit, what does that do for the data gathering? Since I have now sought God’s guidance in my decision-making I should be more thorough in collecting and evaluating the data. Far from negating my human responsibilities, being Spirit-led enhances and intensifies them. God gave me this mental machinery and he expects me to use it. I come to him so that he can purify my heart, my motives; that is something quite beyond me. But I do have capabilities for collecting and gathering data, for deciding, and then acting upon my decision, If the Lord is guiding my motive force, the whole process will be guided by him. And the beauty of this whole process is that God remains God and man remains man, I do not negate the purpose for which God created me, nor do I usurp the role that divine power must play in my experience.
Several distortions of this process are possible. First, I may fail to seek the Spirit, in which case, selfishness will dominate my motives and my decisions. Second, I may be operating on a legalistic basis in which no living decision-making process is necessary nor is the guidance of the Spirit really needed; I just obey the law! But since no specific set of laws can really be adequate or foolproof in this twisted world, such a method leads either to a horrendous and hopeless multiplication of laws (the rabbinic method), or to a cruel disregard for human need, or both. The classical biblical illustration of this distortion is the Jewish approach to the Sabbath. Jesus sought to show that the Sabbath was made for man and that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. In short, Jesus taught that human needs must be cared for through the Sabbath, not neglected because of the Sabbath.
The third distortion is one that is quite common among those who “let the Lord lead.” I firmly believe that I must let the Lord lead me, and I have attempted to describe how I see him leading in the decision-making process. But it would be dereliction of my human responsibility to expect him to lead me as though I were a blind man, totally dependent on him not only to provide the motive force, but also to collect my data and to make my decision. I am totally dependent on him to cleanse my motives, but it is my responsibility to collect and evaluate the data under the guidance of the Spirit. I am sympathetic with those who believe that it is important that the Lord make their every decision and I do not wish to be overly critical. But I do think that when we take that approach, we are virtually stepping to the sidelines in the great cosmic struggle. That is why I see the decision-making process as being so crucial in the great struggle between good and evil. Let me explain further.
If the cosmic struggle is all about freedom, then I must exercise my freedom to choose for God. If I surrender my proper role in the decision-making process, even if I surrender it to God, then I am forsaking the arena at that point. Even the apparent vote for God that I am casting at that point is, in reality, a vote in favor of the Adversary. He has said all along that God does not really want me to think; that God would rather make all the decisions for me. But I refuse to support the Adversary! The God that I serve asks me to surrender my will to him, but never to relinquish my humanity. When I surrender my will, my humanity is vivified and renewed. My life becomes a living sacrifice in which my every act tells for or against God in the cosmic struggle. That is the great challenge in Christian living.
A glance at Job’s experience can be helpful in this connection. He had to live and act for God even though he had no visible sign of God’s presence. So it is for us. My choice for God when all is going well and when I feel him near is not nearly so significant as my choice for him when I feel God-forsaken. The world so often appears God-forsaken and deserted. God is so often silent when we cry out to him in desperation. But if in that loneliness, if in that awful silence, I can still choose to set my mind on the Spirit instead of on the flesh, then I can play a part in the vindication of God and his government. The knowledge that I can play even a small part for the great God who made me and one day wants me to be with him adds an element of excitement to this life that I wouldn’t want to be without.
Of course, God has not always remained silent. Scripture is part of the evidence that he has been active on our behalf. And this very evidence in Scripture can shore up my confidence when God seems silent. In fact, I suspect that it was Jesus’ awareness of Scripture that made it possible for him to move from his feelings of God-forsakenness to the point where he could say, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
That final serenity, that deep awareness of God’s immediate presence is something that we all crave. God will grant it to us some day, But in the meantime, the war rages on, and we must have an understanding of God which will enable us to live for him with vigor and enthusiasm – even when he is silent. Every day brings myriads of decisions. God has given us the privilege of. making our own decisions. He expects us to make our own decisions, but with our minds set on him. Whether he seems near or far, life goes on. We must simply choose to set our minds on the Spirit, and then use all of the talents that the Lord has given us, and use them to his glory.
In this chapter, I have attempted to discuss law in a way which will enable us to understand both the consistency of law in principle and the variety of law in application. That fascinating combination of consistency and variety is what keeps the whole body of law in Scripture alive for us today. Not that all the laws apply with equal validity. By no means! But law remains alive in the sense that we can see how God has dealt with man in the past and thus can learn how he deals with men today. And, as with all our study of Scripture the mind must be set on the Spirit if we are to understand aright. But having done that, the very nature of the biblical law should alert me to the great danger of simply following specific laws. My mind and my heart must always be alert, so that in every situation, my life and my decisions will lead to the fulfillment of that greatest of principles, the principle of love.
Speaking of that principle of love brings us to the capstone of our discussion of law: the relationship between Christian experience and the law. The question can be simply put. How can love take the sting out of the imperative? I may understand a great deal about God’s activity in the past. I may even find that understanding to be a great help in the daily decisions that I must make. But sooner or later, I must come face to face with uncomfortable duty, with unwanted but necessary responsibility, with the divine imperative. Does God have a way of helping me to see my “duty” in a way that does not arouse my natural hostility to the imperative? He does. Let us see how.
I have mentioned several times that God’s willingness to reveal his law is part of his gracious activity on our behalf. But since laws come in the imperative mode they can so easily get our backs up. We simply don’t like to be told to do something, even if it is for our own good. But as I have reflected on the way that God has dealt with man, I have discovered that he is quite aware of the nasty barbs that accompany law. If we will look at the larger picture of God’s gracious activity we can see just how sensitive he has been to our need.
GRACE BEFORE LAW
This beautiful aspect of God’s way with man can be summarized in the phrase: “grace before law.” Now that may sound strange to those of us who are accustomed to thinking of law as something which condemns, something which must be followed by the good news of saving grace. In that way of thinking, law is, of course, bad news. Furthermore we if that is the way I insist on looking at law and grace, I will never make peace with law; it will always rub me up the wrong way. What then does “grace before law” mean? Just this. When God comes to human beings, his first approach is not law, but grace. Before we ever do anything for him or even in response to him, grace is there as his free gift. The classic New Testament passage in this respect is Romans 5: “While we were still weak” (vs. 6), “while we were yet sinners” (vs. 8), “while we were enemies” (vs. 10), “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (vs. 10). We did nothing to merit such a gift. While we were yet shaking our fist in God’s face he did something that could touch our lives and make us whole. Once our lives have thus been touched by his goodness, we are able to recognize that this great God also wants to show us how to live and that his law is part of his plan for our life. But now, the sting has been taken out of law because we have first been touched by grace. As the Gospel of John records: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). If we let ourselves be touched by his love, we cannot help but love him and then the natural result is to follow in the path that he has given us for our happiness.
Now since this is a book about the Old Testament, I should hasten to add that the familiar picture of grace before law in the New Testament is paralleled in the Old, and right at the focal point of the Old Testament record, Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The amazing story of God’s deliverance of his people shows that they had not one shred of merit to offer him. Even their faith was very much smaller than that of a mustard seed. But God delivered them from Egypt. He rolled back the waters of the sea. Then and only then, did he bring them to Sinai and the law. But it was the memory of God’s mighty deliverance that placed that smoking mountain in perspective. Even though the people did not always see the full glory of the law nor recognize God’s gracious purpose in speaking with them, there was at least one man who did. The man who was right at the heart of it all, the man who led Israel out of slavery and through the sea, that man Moses, did see the glory and beauty of the law. His heart had been touched by the grace of God so he could exclaim:
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:7-8).
Yes, all those strange laws in the Old Testament were still good news. They did not represent God’s ideal, for God was not dealing with ideal people. His great desire for them, as for us, is to be able to inscribe his law on the heart. Then we will no longer face that potential aggravation which is always lurking in the imperative. Then we can revel in the new covenant experience, an experience which enables us to live from the heart and with joy.
In the meantime, whenever I find myself chafing under the divine imperative, I find it so very helpful to retrace the steps from Sinai back to the Red Sea and there catch a fresh vision of the great God who first delivered his people and then brought them to Sinai. Or in terms of the New Testament, I find the sting of the imperative simply vanishing in the knowledge that while I was still his enemy, he died for me.