Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Responsive Law

Much is made of the fact that Christians are not obligated to keep the Law of Moses, and those who have come to understand the freedom believers experience in Christ are immensely grateful that the unbearable burden of compliance with its innumerable regulations has not been placed on us as a condition of salvation.

That said, disconnecting from the concept of law altogether, as certain modern evangelical preachers encourage us to do, is an impossible task.

Revelation of God and His Christ

For one thing, it was explicitly from the Law of Moses that the writers of the New Testament drew many of their conclusions about the sort of behavior that pleases God and the sort which does not: “They are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” Under the direction of the Spirit of God, those who penned the inspired words that are the Christian’s rule of faith and practice did not hesitate to appeal to Moses for their authority, not in order to urge mindless conformity with legal specifics (“It is written in the Law … Is it for oxen that God is concerned?”), but to deduce from the law general principles of godly living applicable to all generations. These men understood, as so many do today, that God does not change his character. The attitudes of mind that pleased him 2,000 years before the coming of Christ are every bit as pleasing to him in the present century. If we are to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord”, the Law of Moses is not the worst place to start, so long as we recognize it is only a starting point in the revelation of God’s character, and that the goal of the Christian life is not compliance with a bunch of ancient rules of conduct.

Moreover, the Law of Moses is an inextricable part of Christian history. The law both heralded the coming of Messiah and then confirmed his identity to those who believed on him in the first century. It was not just that Jesus performed signs and wonders; it was that he performed the very miracles of which the Old Testament had spoken. When even John the Baptist began to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?”, the Lord responded by referring him right back to the prophets who had written about him: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” Isaiah, among others, had spoken of precisely these things.

But it wasn’t just the prophets who spoke of the Christ. When Jesus revealed himself in the scriptures, he began with Moses. Our Lord and Savior is repeatedly pictured for us right there in the law, and we cannot pretend otherwise.

In Search of a Relevant Faith

So no, the Christian cannot dissociate himself from the law entirely, even though he does not look to it as his final rule for faith and practice as the devout Israelite once did. Even if we were to try to disengage with Moses, the world associates Christianity with Judaism whether we like it or not. The very expression “Judeo-Christian” was coined to deliberately perpetuate the association, though it is valid in some respects and horribly misleading in others. We may deny Moses until we are blue in the face, but the relevance of our faith is continually being critically filtered through unbeliever’s impressions — and they are all-too-frequently false impressions — about the law he introduced to Israel.

After all, that law was a product of its time, and it contains some things pretty foreign to the modern mindset, and not so easy to understand. Enlightened modernity views much of the Law of Moses as a ridiculous anachronism.

If we are at all interested in answering the natural questions of unbelievers and correcting their misimpressions, it will help us immensely to understand the following principle: The law was not given in a cultural and religious vacuum. Fully aware of the existing practices of the children of Israel and the nations around them, the Lord delivered a set of rules and obligations that forbade the worst of these entirely, while modifying others into a form more acceptable to God and better displaying his character.

In short, the law was responsive. It was corrective. It was relevant to its day in ways we cannot fathom when we have not taken the time to set it in its historical context.

Making Sense of Obscure Ancient Rules

This truth explains so much, and I am everlastingly grateful for having come across it. It did not originate with me, of course, and it took me years to recognize. But the responsive nature of the law is one of those things that once you see, you can’t unsee. The principle is endlessly helpful in making sense of the law’s otherwise-obscure details.

For example, I was delighted to discover that God did not originate the concept of slavery. It came as a great relief. Instead, God took something that fallen man had always done to his fellows — and which was so much a part of the economic landscape of the nations that to forbid it entirely would have removed a necessary social safety net from millions of needy men and women — and regulated it by way of the Law of Moses to make it less exploitive, briefer and kinder, and to allow the economically disadvantaged to eventually recover their independence by means of it. God’s version of the laws concerning slavery was a response to the existing laws and practices of the nations. It showed them a better way. The best way had still to be revealed in Christ, of course, but the introduction of God’s law at Sinai was a huge improvement in the working conditions of the oppressed and in their prospects for the future.

Likewise, the law’s regulations against certain haircuts were not pulled out of thin air; they were responsive. God took the mourning practices of the nations and modified them to give the people of Israel gravity and dignity the nations did not possess; a way of conducting themselves in times of sorrow that was appropriate to the things they professed to believe and to the God they worshiped, rather than modeled on the emotional excesses and self-destructive performance art characteristic of the heathen world.

Again, the law against making graven images was responsive. It wasn’t a matter of God hating art; rather, in refusing to reduce their God to the level of a created being, devout Israelites exalted him above all the local deities of their neighbors and distinguished him from all others.

One more: the law against admitting men with crushed testicles to the assembly of the Lord was responsive. It was not some random act of divine discrimination against birth defects and unfortunate accidents; rather, the Israelite law served to discourage the practice common in the nations of making their young men into eunuchs to improve their political prospects. (It has come to my attention recently that the same law likely also did a fine job of keeping pedophiles and other “sex pests” out of positions of power; apparently some versions of the primitive patriarchy had very effective and permanent ways of dealing with men caught abusing children. The physical evidence of having been subjected to such corrective measures was unmistakable.)

Near-endless further examples might be cited. In fact, I began this series of posts partly in order to set the Law of Moses in its historical context, and to attempt to explain how its various provisions were divinely designed to address the more wicked and destructive customs of the nations in its day.

The Ras Shamra Discovery

If you are interested in the looking further into the responsive character of the law, this article by Wayne Jackson on the Ras Shamra discoveries of 1928 showcases some intriguing instances. Here is Jackson on the law against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk:
“For years scholars were puzzled by the Mosaic prohibition: ‘Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ (Ex. 23:19; cf. 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Adam Clarke felt that the design of the commandment was basically to prevent blunting moral sensitivity and developing hardness of heart (n.d., 1:422). It now is known, however, that boiling a kid in milk to appease certain deities was a common Canaanite ritual. A Ugaritic text says: ‘Over the fire seven times the sacrificers cook a kid in milk ...’ (Driver, 1956, p. 121). The Mosaic regulation, therefore, was to prevent mimicry of heathenism.”
Again, the law was responding to (and distancing the people of God from) existing heathen practices, not enshrining bizarre and unnecessary food rules.

Jackson’s entire article is well worth reading, and very faith-confirming. Here’s one more:
“From Ras Shamra it was discovered that ‘sacred prostitution, both male and female, was exceedingly common, practiced in the name of religion at the various centers of worship. Fertility as a goddess actually became a sacred prostitute, who, curiously enough, was called “the Holy One”.’ ”
This makes even more sense of the law in Deuteronomy 23:17-18 against bringing the “fee of a prostitute” or the “wages of a dog” into the house of the Lord.

Once again, the Law of Moses is not only highly moral … it is responsive.

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