Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Law and Perfection

Would you like to live under the Law of Moses? Think about that for a while. A surprising number today would not. Some may even be Christians.

I have great admiration for the Old Testament law, more and more so as the years pass and the defects in the ever-changing modern legal systems under which we live in the West become increasingly apparent. Compared to the long-term effects of any modern or historic system, God’s law always comes out ahead.

Not So Wacky After All

That’s one of the reasons I started writing our “That Wacky Old Testament” series: to deal with objections raised to the fairness, reasonability and even sanity of the Law of Moses, most of which are a product of historical and biblical illiteracy. When we take the culture and circumstances under which God gave his law into consideration, and when we read the law as a package rather than in isolated snippets of text, the reasonability of many of its otherwise-obscure provisions becomes apparent, as do the ways in which the delivery from Sinai surpassed all previous and future alternatives.

Compare, for example, the OT law concerning the rape of a virgin (discussed last week in this space) to the laws of other cultures from around the same period. Assyrian law permitted the virgin’s father to rape the rapist’s wife in revenge. (That’s an eye for an eye taken to the outer limits, but not so easy on the innocent wife.) Or take the Code of Hammurabi, under which the king could excuse the rapist for his crime if he so desired. (Can’t imagine how that exception might be abused, especially since the only documented Israelite rapist of a virgin in scripture was a king’s son!) In contrast, Moses required the rapist to pay a huge fine and provide for the woman for the rest of her life if she so desired. No law could give the virgin back her virginity, but of the three, Moses is observably preferable.

Intrinsic Limitations

That said, no law made by God or man can produce a perfect society. That is not the purpose of law. Done right, legal systems can punish evildoers after the fact, reduce incentives for criminal behavior and settle disputes more fairly than fists, knives or guns, but they can’t prevent crimes of passion or deter a wicked person determined to have his own way from acting on his choices. Laws deal with ugly, unloving people in ugly, unloving situations in the least-worst way possible. So long as we don’t expect from them what they can’t possibly deliver, laws are great things.

The writers of scripture recognized the intrinsic limitations of even the best laws. Hebrews tells us “the law made nothing perfect”. The Lord Jesus confirmed the divorce provisions of the Law of Moses fell short of God’s ideal: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” So then, even God’s law could not accomplish what was beyond its intended scope.

History, including Bible history, tells us that laws that impose behaviors too different from man’s natural instincts simply get ignored. Grant a Jubilee release to our debtors? Leave the land fallow every seventh year? Charge no interest to a fellow Jew? Are you kidding? There are strong hints in scripture that more than a few of the wonderful cultural improvements mandated in the Law of Moses were infrequently enjoyed by those who lived under it, or else were neutered and voided by the technical explanations of Jewish lawyers. The Law of Moses could nudge Israelites to behave better than their neighbors in many ways big and small, but even the Giver of the law acknowledged there were limits to what it could accomplish because of the hardness of men’s hearts.

What the Law Didn’t Do

Once this is recognized, many complaints about things the Law of Moses didn’t do can be recognized as demands for the impossible. Sure, God could have made Israel the only nation on earth with a law that forbade slavery more than 3,000 years before we enlightened human beings got around to doing it. Would Israel have followed it? Given its track record with other laws that negatively impacted the wealthier members of society, probably not. Slavery, for all the evils and abuses that resulted from it, was the social safety net of less-bureaucratic societies, and it kept them from having to charge competent Israelites prohibitive tax rates to keep their gamblers, fools and unfortunates from dragging down society. So then, instead of banning slavery, God chose to include in his law numerous provisions making the institution more humane and limiting potential abuses. One might reasonably ask what else we might have expected him to do.

It remains to be seen whether the net social impact of the combination of onerous taxation, deficit financing and a burgeoning welfare state is actually any kinder or sustainable than Israelite slavery combined with a regular Jubilee and debt relief practiced in obedience to the Law of Moses. I suspect we have nowhere near enough unimpeachable data to make any kind of intelligent comparison, but evidence from the UK strongly suggests a few generations of large-scale unemployment mitigated and perpetuated by government handouts speedily reduces average morality and intellect across a population to levels rivaling those of the Third World.

And some of our more eminent sages would like to see us move to a Universal Basic Income. There’s a recipe for disaster if I ever heard one.

Perfect? Really?

Recognizing the intrinsic limitations of law in a fallen world, what can we make of David’s statement that “the law of the Lord is perfect”? We know it wasn’t. God himself acknowledges the Law of Moses fell short of his own ideal for human behavior in many respects. The Hebrew word translated “perfect” in Psalm 19 may be understood in several different senses, including “wholesome”, “healthful” and “having integrity”. In the context of the psalm, it is perfect in “reviving the soul”. With respect to that, all of these apply to the Law of Moses, and might have been more understandable translations.

What we can say with Paul is that through the law comes knowledge of sin. The law is a mirror. By paying attention to it, we can identify personal defects we would not otherwise recognize without the help of others.

So long as we do not expect it to wash our faces for us, we should do just fine.

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