Commands And Laws
Statures Always Do
Exodus through Deuteronomy are the four books of the Old Testament that contain what is called the Law of Moses and these laws are the topic of many discussions.
Some people misguidedly attempt to super impose these laws on today’s cultures, a hopeless and useless endeavor. Refrigeration and modern farming methods have made the dietary restrictions obsolete. We eat pork today with no nutritive repercussions. Even in Jesus’ day improved food handling had overcome the obvious dangers of eating “unclean” animals.
Of course, Old Testament laws are not all given an equal hearing. Some people attempt to uphold certain laws while completely ignoring others. We love the laws relating to monogamous marriage but are a bit embarrassed to admit polygamy was regulated rather than run out of town.
Moralists today are adamant about the one and embarrassed by the other. It’s difficult to argue loudly for one without getting tripped up by the other. It raises many questions also: Why wasn’t polyandry regulated? And a question like that implies chauvinism.
Some of the laws are considered morally binding (death penalty), others morally neutral (women wearing mens clothing) and still others morally reprehensible, and at times the laws seem to be contradictory:
- Monogamy on the one hand, polygamy on the other.
- Lovingly training your children one day but stoning those who, in the end, rebel.
- Being gracious to slaves on the one hand but destroying everyone and everything in certain villages on the other.
Those who attempt to abide by these laws completely, just to honor God, are obviously thoughtless. Those who pick some and leave others, while claiming God’s justice, are hypocritical. Neither is credible.
Obviously, most agree that some of the laws represent the moral high ground and others fly in the face of human compassion but what is at stake is the credibility of the Bible. All of these laws were God sanctioned. Why would God make laws, which even Jesus seemed to deny?
Christians become very defensive when these apparent discrepancies are pointed out. On the surface it seems to reflect badly on God, the Bible and everyone who claims to believe. We must have a response for those who ask. This post is an attempt at formulating one.
To get this right we must consider two important issues:
- One, the culture to which the laws were applied.
- Two, the difference between Commands, which by nature are universal and timeless, and Laws, which are constantly changing.
Israel was God’s nation but by today’s standards they weren’t a very nice one. They, above all nations, believed in God but initially they knew little about Him (albeit more than any others) and they weren’t immediately responsive to His leadership during or following the Exodus.
They had learned a few undesirable traits while in Egypt and were often in conflict with the laws God stipulated. They struggled in this relationship throughout their history.
Even before Egypt they weren’t the clean-cut bunch we like to imagine and there is good reason for this. Abraham, their primary progenitor, started with only eleven chapters of the Bible and several generations of family tradition. Not much to go on. Unfortunately, all the patriarchs from Abraham onward and their immediate families demonstrate some undesirable tendencies.
Abraham and Isaac insulted their wives, lying about their marital status and putting them in vulnerable situations. Abraham did this on two occasions.
Abraham had a child by Hagar while still married to Sara. Jacob bested him by fathering children with four women (two wives and their handmaids).
Isaac was oblivious to family problems. He was never there when the family needed him most, he favored one son over the other and Rebecca was manipulative and lying. God worked in spite of these two rather than through them.
- Took advantage of his brother, Esau, to get the family birthright.
- Was complicit in his mother’s attempt to deceive Isaac, lying to his father to get the family blessing.
- And never seemed too bothered when tricked into marrying two sisters and taking their handmaids as concubines.
Jacob’s sons were not much better.
Reuben slept with one of his father’s concubines, Bilhah (the handmaid of Rachel not his mother, Leah). It wasn’t lust. It was a way of insulting the other side of the family. They, as usual, were divided. It seems to be a tradition. Reuben picked a very unbecoming way to express his dissatisfaction.
Simeon and Levi destroyed all the males in a Hivite village taking the rest captive and spoiling the entire city. They accomplished this by deceiving the men, suggesting they could be allied with Israel if they would be circumcised. The Hivites believed the ruse and Simeon and Levi pounced when they were in too much pain to fight back. They did all that because Shechem, the son of the city leader raped their sister, Dinah. Pardon the pun but it was definitely overkill.
All of the sons of Jacob conspired to sell their own brother, Joseph, into slavery! The end of that story turns out well but it still soiled the family image.
Judah casually slept with a woman he thought was a prostitute only to discover later that it was his daughter-in-law in disguise.
Many years on, immediately following the Exodus, the Israelites danced naked before an idol while Moses was on Mount Sinai taking instruction from God.
This was the culture God’s law was applied to. They had a long history of morally questionable tendencies. They had also spent the last several generations as slaves, without the benefit of legal recourse, which generally produces a lawless mindset. They weren’t used to being regulated equally and God was now going to turn them into a law abiding nation. Not an easy task. Calling it a “turn around” would be an understatement.
Where do you start in a situation like this? Well, you don’t start by completely revoking every questionable practice. The best approach and the one God used was to begin putting regulations on many existing trends which otherwise would not have been allowed.
All of that is say that Old Testament law was suited to the culture of the day. They were intended to curb wrongful habits eventually removing them altogether.
God was regulating their traditions not endorsing them. His laws were restrictive not prescriptive. The common inclination was to kill everyone for any offense so the law stipulated, “an eye for and eye,” not meaning they HAD to take an eye but they could ONLY take an eye.
Instead of the overkill approach to justice they were required to measure precisely the nature of the offense and exact no more than an equal punishment. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, moved the goal post even further suggesting we don’t have to take an “eye” at all. We can simply turn the other cheek. That really makes you think twice about capital punishment.
Prominent use of the death penalty reflects poorly on the society that employs it. It isn’t a solution. Screaming for it means you aren’t doing enough to diminish capital crimes in the first place.
Legal issues must be considered on several levels and the Bible refers to those levels as: commands, laws, statutes, judgments, testimonies and fear.
Commands are broad and generalized statements, which become guiding principles for how we live each moment of each day. They are usually positive (do this) rather than negative (don’t do that). They represent the character of your motives (love your neighbor) not the specifics of your actions (love your neighbor this way). The Ten Commandments, which Jesus summarized as two great commandments, is a good example.
Laws emphasizes the unbreakable connection between actions and consequences. Action X leads to consequence Y. Laws are both physical and spiritual and, like commands, quite general.
We are familiar with overarching laws such as: the law of gravity, the law of good nutrition and exercise, the law of the work/rest cycle, the law of sin and death and the law of faith. All of them are self-explanatory. It is important to remember that laws apply to everyone equally and like commands are irrevocable and immutable.
Statutes, however, are applications of commands to specific situations and are constantly changing. We usually refer to them as laws. The content of the Law of Moses is mostly statutes and this is where all the controversy exists.
Regulations on diet, marriage, farming, charity and warfare were extensions of broader commands and designed to control or curb specific traditions. The important thing to remember is that Commands and laws never change. Statutes always do.
That is why the laws (statutes) in most western cultures today don’t mirror Old Testament law. Statutes didn’t make everyone right. They placed boundaries around unacceptable behavior limiting the potential damage. The law didn’t endorse polygamy. It kept it from getting out of control. Because human behavior is never constant laws require continual revision.
Judgments are made any time we don’t have a statute (law) for a specific offense. There are too many ways in which one person can offend another and it is impossible to write legal statements for every possible offense ahead of time. Therefore, judgments must on occasions be made. This happens regularly in judicial systems today.
Testimonies refer to the outcome. The end of a life that honors God’s commands is usually very different to the end of one that doesn’t.
Fear, specifically the fear of God, is employed any time we take unavoidable action in difficult situations which on the surface seem contradictory to God’s stated commands and statutes.
David, for example, took and ate bread from the Tabernacle, designated only for priests. He, and the priest who gave him the bread, were acting outside regulation but in character with God-fearing men and were honored by God for doing so.
If you would see the wisdom of God in Old Testament law you will have to thoroughly investigate each statute individually to ascertain exactly why it was appropriate for the culture of the day.
And, once done, you will be able to give a rational explanation why Old Testament law cannot be directly overlaid on modern day cultures.
Old Testament law is a perfect example of molding an imperfect legal framework for an errant but shifting society. We still need that today.