Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Levitical Interlude #3: The Israelite Woman’s Son

The warden in the movie The Shawshank Redemption greets every new arrival with the words “Rule number one: No blasphemy. I will not have the Lord’s name taken in vain in my prison.”

Now, Shawshank is set in 1947 — not that long ago, all things considered — yet modern movie critics find the warden’s priorities perplexing.

“Ahead of murder?” inquires one.

Yes, even ahead of murder.

Ahead of Murder

The blasphemy law was part of a package delivered by God to a nation over which he ruled personally and directly. In a theocratic context, one’s attitude to God trumped all other considerations. Every other precept followed logically from that.

We see the same principle operating in the Ten Commandments. Rule number one is “You shall have no other gods before me.” The relationship to God is established first, as the highest of all priorities. Accept that and you have no problem accepting the next 612 rules, because you have already granted that God is the one entitled to make and enforce them.

Now, we don’t live in a theocracy, and blasphemy laws are a thing of the past in most Western countries. When Canada scrapped ours in 2017, journalist Adrian Wyld wrote, “A law prohibiting blasphemy should be anathema for any country that purports to value freedom of expression and freedom of religion.” That is more a reflection of the degraded and incoherent value system Canada now embraces than it is a commentary on the morality of blasphemy laws, but it points out the essential incompatibility of the rule of God with religious freedom. Religious freedom is not a Christian value. As a theocracy, Israel had no such thing. If you wanted to travel with the Israelites or live in the land they would inherit, you left your allegiance to foreign gods as you entered the camp and you accepted that Israel’s God dictated the terms of your continued existence.

The first foreigner in Israel who decided to put this to the test found out the hard way that God means what he says.

Leviticus 24: The First Blasphemer

“Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.’

“So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses.”

Privilege and Responsibility

It may not be Mark Steyn who coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to describe affirmative action programs and other social accommodations for diversity, but I’m pretty sure I picked it up from him. In any case, Israel was not to do that soft bigotry thing. Foreigners could not reasonably anticipate being coddled like children in Israel. A long list of privileges was bestowed on the sojourning alien, but he was also expected to abide by exactly the same standards as the native born. No exceptions were made for him because he came from another culture with a different value system.

You know the old line about “cup half empty / cup half full”. Today we would probably say the first blasphemer was half Israelite. But three times the text of Leviticus calls him “an Israelite woman’s son”, not an Israelite or even a half-Israelite. His opponent is called “a man of Israel”, and it is difficult to ignore the writer’s intended contrast. One was an Israelite and the other was just traveling with them, even if he had a few of the same genetics. His mother’s name is given to us, but his is not.

In any case, Israel’s God was not this man’s God, and words that were an abomination to any devout worshiper of YHWH tripped lightly off his tongue.

Blasphemy Defined and Described

So what is blasphemy exactly? Today, it has come to be more or less synonymous with offending the religious sensibilities of men, but that is not at all the way it is used in scripture. The warden in Shawshank prison thought it was synonymous with taking the Lord’s name in vain, but that cannot be quite right either. The third commandment comes with the amplification that “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain”, but it does not specify a legal penalty for doing so, and it certainly doesn’t authorize the nation to put an offender to death for it. (It may be argued that the original blasphemy law in Exodus does not specify a penalty either, but since it comes in the same context where cursing father or mother [same Hebrew word] is punishable by death, it is reasonable to infer that cursing God is a greater crime of the same sort.)

When God is their object, at least five different Hebrew verbs are translated into English as “blaspheme”, including words generally translated “curse”, “revile” or “despise”. In Greek it is a lot simpler: the verb is blasphēmeō, which means to revile, vilify or speak evil of.

The Israelite woman’s son cursed God, which is not the only form of blasphemy but is probably the most indisputable. But Jesus was also accused of blasphemy for forgiving sins. That sort of blasphemy is implicit: it is a man presuming to do something only God can do. Again, he was accused of blasphemy for claiming to be Israel’s Messiah. The same word is used of those who derided the Lord Jesus on the cross, mocking him and wagging their heads. And it is not clear what form the blasphemy of Hymenaeus and Alexander might have taken.

No Mitigating Factors

As you can see, by the New Testament era the question of whether someone was blaspheming had gotten rather nuanced. It had become a cause for theological disputation. You could be accused of blasphemy without saying anything about God at all. The words of the Lord Jesus were interpreted as implicitly blasphemous on the false assumption that he was not really who he claimed to be. But here in Leviticus 24, there is no question of whether a line had been crossed. The issue was not whether blasphemy had been committed, but what to do about it.

After all, cursing men can happen inadvertently, especially when they are throwing punches at you. But cursing God is not something one does by accident. This was no mere slip of the tongue that might be easily overlooked. It surely reflected the young half-Egyptian’s true feelings about the God who was feeding and caring for him daily and whose personal presence was evident in the service of the tabernacle right in the midst of the camp where he lived. So the Israelite woman’s son was put in custody while the matter was referred to Moses to see what God would say. There may have been the thought that for a half-Egyptian, such a thing might be excusable.

But this was not the case. God reveals to Moses that where blasphemy is concerned, “the sojourner as well as the native shall be put to death”. The law of God was to be applied even-handedly. After all, nobody was forcing this young man to keep company with Israel. He had chosen to leave his homeland with his mother, and his choice meant the same rules applied to him as to everyone else in the Israelite camp. Accordingly, he was taken outside the camp, the witnesses who heard him curse God laid their hands on his head to confirm their testimony, and he was stoned by the people just as God had commanded.

Another ‘First’

I pointed out in last week’s post on Nadab and Abihu that the first violation after God introduces something new to human society tends to result in the strictest possible disciplinary response, and listed at least six examples. Here is yet another. God’s name is holy, and reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom. A society that is not built on a foundation of reverence for God cannot and will not last. It does not deserve to.

If the penalty prescribed in this case seems unusually harsh to us, it must be remembered that the purpose of God’s law is not to inflict punishment but rather to avoid inflicting punishment. The law was given in love. But laws that are not enforced are not obeyed. A law without teeth encourages all manner of evil. To function as intended, the penalties for violation of the law must be real and they must be consistently enforced. This is especially true of a first violation. It establishes a precedent and actualizes what would otherwise remain purely theoretical.

And it would seem this incident may have provided the necessary incentive to obedience. The only documented case of execution for blasphemy I can find in the Old Testament after this was a miscarriage of justice secured by the false testimony of a foreigner. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen from time to time, but it’s safe to say it probably didn’t happen a lot.

And that was Israel. No country in the world today is attempting to operate as theocracy on the basis of the Law of Moses, and none has been authorized to do so. In any case, Jesus made it plain that, with a solitary exception that is impossible to duplicate today, all manner of blasphemies will be forgiven men when we repent. And if God forgives the foolish words of men who revile him, secular governments have no business criminalizing them. The idea of a legal penalty for blasphemy is foreign to the spirit of the New Testament.

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