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Thursday, February 16, 2017

That Wacky Old Testament (9)

“The law of the Lord is perfect ...”

Not only perfect, but more desirable than gold and sweeter than a honeycomb. So says the word of God, and I believe it. But perhaps we ought to ask ourselves exactly what the Psalmist intended to convey with the word “perfect”. Because when people today examine what the law of Moses says on the subject of slavery, or the role of women, or animal sacrifices, they seem to find an awful lot to quibble about.

They would argue — quite forcefully, I might add — that the law of the Lord is far from perfect. Primitive, even.

The Fallback Position

Now God is God, and he can make whatever rules he pleases, right? In the end, that is always the Christian fallback position, because our own failure to understand the purpose or value of any specific rule in any particular generation merely reminds us of our own insignificance. We are like gnats opining about poetry, or like amoeboid philosophers. As God put it to Job, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?”

Um, no. In the courtrooms of eternity, my personal opinion about the fairness or morality of God’s law means precisely squat diddly, as we used to put it so delicately in high school.

Furthermore, even in our day the social engineers have an appalling track record of successfully improving our collective lot. Well-intended laws do not always produce good outcomes, a fact to which the welfare system is excellent testimony: nothing has been more effective in accomplishing the utter demolition of the African-American family. And let’s not even start on the damage done to the Third World by our benevolent efforts to clean up the environment over here. No, the condition of our society stands as compelling testimony against any claim that our early 21st century standards are the apex of human morality, or even that we are currently headed in the right direction. A modicum of humility is in order.

Value in the Law

But I don’t think we have to leave it there. While God’s ways are immeasurably higher than our own, and our chances of fully comprehending them are microscopic, there is value in the effort. A law that consisted of nothing but propositions incomprehensible to the human mind would be useless to us. And, in fact, that is not at all what we find when we actually look at it. Instead, we find in Israel’s law a set of standards so far above those of the nations around them that the Queen of Sheba marveled upon seeing their practical application.

This remains true by anyone’s measure. Even vegans, feminists, people who believe slavery is the worst evil in human history and others who have difficulty with individual provisions of the law of Moses generally concede there are many things of great value to be found in it. You can’t maintain much of a society if the majority of its citizens are constantly sleeping with their neighbour’s wives, lying, stealing and murdering one another.

No, there was great benefit in observing the law of Moses, whatever difficulties our refined modern sensibilities have with some of its minutiae. And I am convinced Christians have something a little more intellectually satisfying to offer people who struggle with the “perfection” of the law of Moses than “God said it, so just do it”.

Out of Thin Air

Consider that more than 2,500 years passed between Adam’s creation and the giving of the law at Horeb. Further, almost 1,000 years passed between the Flood and the law. Humanity was well established in its habits, and down in Egypt, the children of Israel were almost as well established in theirs.

The law of Moses was not conceived in a vacuum. God did not pull it out of thin air. And yet people insist on reading it as if it comes with no cultural context at all.

Not so. Each of the nations around Israel had centuries of customs and practices of their own with respect to slavery, sacrifice, worship, the role of women in their society, and so on — not least their habit of violently making war on one another. Israel, while enslaved to the Egyptians, was unlikely to have developed customs for the keeping of their own slaves, but in every other area of life, Jacob’s offspring already had standing practices of one kind or another. They already offered sacrifices to make atonement for their sins. They already ate a variety of birds and animals. They already understood and experienced slavery. They already had customs with respect to gender roles, most of which in the violent environment of the day were very much to the benefit of Hebrew women.

A Series of Spectacular Improvements

Thus, the law given to Moses on Horeb must be seen not as a brand new thing, but as a series of vast improvements over existing default practices.

Martin De Haan describes how the law of Moses protected women in ways they had not been previously protected in Israel and were not protected in the nations that surrounded the people of God. For example, a woman sold into slavery had rights, even in a household where she was one wife among many and was entitled to compensation in the form of food, clothing, or her freedom if those rights were violated. Even women from other nations captured in war had rights in Israel.

Likewise, the law protected slaves from abuse and offered them freedom as compensation in the event they were abused, gave them a weekly day of rest, freed native Hebrews after six years and required that slaves going free be supplied with the fruit of their labor.

We may sniff at such things and consider that they do not go nearly far enough, but they were absolutely revolutionary in their day.

New Rights and Protections

The entire law is like this. Seen in contrast to the behaviour of Israel’s neighbours, and even in contrast to Israel’s existing practices, the law of Moses is the most significant advancement in rights and protections offered to fallen human beings in mankind’s entire history. Every real benefit we enjoy today in Western culture is either built on that law itself, or on the transformative reinterpretation of that law offered by the Lord Jesus and his apostles.

Consider this: the refined, sensitive Western liberals who criticize the Old Testament law for its primitive patriarchy owe their very freedom to do so to the successful application of the principles and individual rights which they find not quite up to their lofty modern standards. It is only because Western society is free that it can criticize the slaveowners of Moses’ day, and Western society remains free only to the extent that it still retains a few modest traces of its former Christianization.

Ask the Chinese about individual rights, or try complaining to a Muslim about the severity of his god and his laws, or explain to a Hutu activist in Rwanda that he is oppressing women. Let me know how that goes, assuming you succeed in outrunning the flailing machete.

Utopian Idealism

Still, there will be those who ask why God didn’t do more to establish human rights in the law. Why would he stop short of what we might today consider ideal?

Firstly, let’s start by demolishing the notion that the law was ever intended to create a perfect society. The law is not “perfect” in that sense. Obedience to the letter of the law will never usher in Utopia, even if we could all keep the law perfectly. Sorry.

I regularly read political commentary from people who are waking up to the idea that a society ordered on Old Testament principles would be distinctly preferable to our current mess. Hey, I agree.

But wait: If the law was “perfect” in the sense of creating social and cultural bliss, why the Sermon on the Mount? The Sermon (found in Matthew 5-7) largely takes the form of a series of corrections to then-popular Jewish notions about the law. Jesus starts with, “You have heard that it was said ...” and then goes on to promptly make compliance with the law that much more difficult by saying, “But I say to you ...”, demonstrating that true obedience to God demands an even higher standard than the standards of first century Judaism. Not murdering your brother is not enough; you can’t hate him in your heart either. Not having sex with your neighbour’s wife will not satisfy God; you must not even look at her with lust in your heart.

While reaffirming the letter of the law, in the Sermon the Lord Jesus elevates the spirit of the law and shows that mere rule-keeping, no matter how careful, is never enough.

All These I Have Kept ...

This principle is evident in the Lord’s response to the young man who asked him, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus responds, “Keep the commandments.” But this answer does not satisfy the young man. He says, “All these I have kept,” but in his heart he knows there is still something lacking. Law-keeping has not satisfied his soul despite all his diligence. So Jesus gives him a new command, and it’s one he can’t keep: “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.” And the young man went away sorrowful.

No, the law cannot make mankind perfect, and it cannot make a perfect society for us. It is not “perfect” in that sense. Yet Christians and secularists alike trip over this notion regularly. A significant percentage of evangelicals speak of the “Age of Grace” out one side of their mouths while attempting to reintroduce provisions of the law of Moses at every possible turn.

They are asking law to perform a function for which it is not equipped, and for which it was never intended.

The Limitations of the Process

But I believe God had a very practical reason for stopping short of giving a law that would satisfy feminists, vegans and social justice crusaders today: his people could not even keep the law as it was received, even with its many accommodations to their existing culture.

Since God did not impose the law unilaterally but rather with the voluntary consent of those he intended to govern through it, the law that he offered them had to be sufficiently superior to Israel’s existing practices to make it generally desirable, but close enough for Israel to believe it was possible to live by and thus to commit itself to following it. This is exactly what God gave them: not some pie-in-the-sky aspirational document obviously beyond their understanding, but a practical set of commands for everyday living that were within at least theoretical reach of those committed to obeying them.

But despite that, look at Israel’s history: if God’s people proved incapable of following God’s law for more than a few feeble years at a time, what makes us think such a thing is remotely possible for fallen human beings?

Fail, Fail, Fail

Israel plunged into idolatry over and over again, took interest from their fellow Israelites in flagrant violation of the law, neglected the house of God, took bribes, promoted injustice, ignored the law’s Jubilee provisions, fought regularly amongst themselves and in every way demonstrated their utter inability to live up to the standard set by God’s word to them.

No, given standards that vastly exceeded those of the nations around them, they promptly, willfully and repeatedly returned to banal imitation of the empty, miserable, destructive practices of all those heathen nations.

Do you think if you received a perfect law from God today that you would do any better at keeping it? I assure you, you would not. As Paul put it:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
The perfection of the law is not to be found in our fleeting and occasional obedience to it, but in the fact that it does precisely what God designed it to do: it tells us who he is, and it tells us who we are. The knowledge of these things gives us the clarity to fall to our knees and cry out to God for a righteousness apart from the law, which he has now graciously provided.

That’s what the law is good for.

Any behavioural and social improvements it might accomplish in the lives of the unsaved are absolutely a freebie.

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