(This is part one of a rather long chapter … follow the link at the end of the page to reach part two)
So far in our attempts to better understand what God is truly like, we have looked at the different apparent portrayals of God found in each Testament. From there we discussed the fact a Christian view of God believes that the New Testament revelation entirely reframes the image of who God is. Those who stick to a “literal” interpretation of the Old Testament are actually far closer to Judaism than they are to Christianity.
We moved on to begin looking at how we might be able to better read the Old Testament in a way that truly reveals the God Christians believe in by discussing the fact we must first look at the content in context. It must be read with eyes that show us what it meant to its original hearers, because this will be the jumping off point for what it means to us today. This was reinforced in the previous post by discussing the fact God used humans to write the text(s) and therefore they wrote from a perspective of their own culture, understanding and worldview. This means God spoke their language and did not cause them to write things they would never understand.
This brief review is simply here to prepare you for the next posts, in which I hope to show how these facts can lead to a better understanding of why the views of God may at a surface reading show a picture that, to us, may seem less than flattering, yet when we read it from this foundation, the picture actually begins to reflect exactly what we learn about God with the arrival of Jesus. The key is to be able to put things back in their proper order and get back to what the authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, intended to convey about God.
Why are rules needed?
Why do we have laws?
These questions may seem silly, but the answer is simple, obvious and yet profound. We create rules, laws and a justice system in order to deal with the fact that people are acting in ways that hurt themselves and those around them. The specific rules and laws we create are meant to deal with the issues our culture has to deal with. Rules are only created because people are currently struggling with the very things these rules are meant to regulate. When issues are resolved, rules and regulations are often repealed due to the fact they are no longer needed, while new rules are created to deal with new issues that arise.
I enjoy reading examples of older rules that are still “on the books” in locations around the world, but are extremely outdated. Here are just a couple to illustrate my point:
1. Mobile, Alabama is a haven for great laws that seem useless or outdated. Here are just a few laws on the books in Mobile;
- Bathing in city fountains is prohibited. Anyone who washes his hands, face or feet in any of the fountains is subject to penalties.
- It is unlawful and an offense against the city for any person to have in their possession, keep, store, use, manufacture, sell, offer for sale, give away or handle any confetti (they really don’t like confetti).
- No person is permitted to spit fruit skins, pairings or peelings on any sidewalk or on the floor of any bus operated within the city or in any public elevator, public building, public theater or public hall or upon any walkway in any public park in the city.
- It is illegal to howl at ladies within the city limits (apparently there were many military personnel in the area and the law was passed in order to keep the young men from embarrassing the women).
- It is unlawful to wear women’s pumps with sharp, high heels (this law was passed as the result of a lawsuit involving a woman injuring herself while wearing pumps).
2. In Maricopa, Arizona, it is illegal for more than six girls to live in any house. The law was meant to crack down on brothels, but could also cause problems for larger families, university dorms, etc… Another Arizona law that is not exactly outdated, but illustrates the point; throughout Arizona it is illegal to refuse a person a glass of water.
3. In Arkansas it is strictly prohibited to mispronounce the name “Arkansas”. This was put in place in the 1800s, but is still on the books. It was enforced in order to protect the state’s cultural heritage.
4. In the UK, no cows may be driven down the roadway between 10 AM and 7 PM unless there is prior approval from the commissioner of police.
5. In 1896, Pennsylvania passed a bill requiring all motorists upon encountering cattle or livestock to immediately stop the vehicle, as rapidly as possible disassemble the automobile and conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes until the horses or cattle had calmed down. The bill did not become law because it was vetoed by the Governor at the time.
As crazy as they may sound to us, laws and rules actually give a very good indication of what a culture is like, what is important to them and what their concerns are. (If you try to think of why any of the above laws were made, it will tell you something about the unique concerns in these locations).
With that in mind, take another look at the Old Testament laws that were given, but this time do so while trying to ask yourself what these laws may reveal about the culture rather than what they reveal about God. What you will likely find is these laws actually can give you a very interesting picture of what issues needed to be addressed in this Ancient Near Eastern culture.
Let’s start with the ten commandments. These are/were considered to be the most important things God wanted us to obey. But remember, we’re trying to look at them in reverse; the rule was given because it was obviously something that needed to be regulated.
The first four commands deal with Israel’s relationship with God;
- You shall have no other gods before me
- You shall not make for yourself an idol / You shall not bow down to them or worship them
- You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God
- Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy
Looking at these commands, it seems very clear that although the Lord had brought his people out from Egypt, he knew they would still struggle immensely with the temptation to worship other gods. Notice how he first stresses to keep him first (don’t put any gods above me) and then instructs them not to create idols to worship or to worship idols anyone else has created. The need for this command immediately becomes clear because at the same time God was giving Moses the commands on a tablet, the rest of the people were making a golden calf to worship.
The same can be seen throughout ancient Israel’s history. Time and again they turned from God to worship other gods, despite the horrific practices required by these “gods”.
The third command speaks to something we will find continues to be a huge problem even today. This is not a command about swearing; it is a command to ensure you are properly representing God. As a nation of priests, they were called to represent God to the world and this command was instructing them to make sure they never invoked the name of God for wrong purposes. (Remember our discussion earlier about how a name in ancient times meant much more than simply a word to call someone). Many years later, Ezekial makes a prophetic statement that speaks to how far from the ideal Israel was with regard to this command;
“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, “These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.” … It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name … and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” – Ezekial 36:20-23
The final command in this group regarding the sabbath is one all people have struggled with, but was especially relevant to this group of newly freed slaves. Think of how important it would be to reiterate to this culture that taking a break to rest is of utmost importance. It wasn’t simply a command, it was a call to remember that God had delivered them from slavery. This is why Jesus clearly states; “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
From there, the laws move into seemingly more basic territory; Honour your father and mother, You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour, You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.
I won’t go through these individually as above, but what would this say about the people if your starting point with them is, “now today when you go out to work, try not to kill anyone”?
Or how would you enjoy your marriage if during breakfast you had to remind your spouse “today while you’re out, try not to commit adultery”?
Of course, we can see that even today these rules are still needed. Even though people intuitively know these things are wrong, many still struggle with them. For example, nobody goes through life without wishing they could possess something a neighbour owns.
Now these ten commandments may not have completely proved my point about how laws are made to deal with a nation’s current struggles, so I’m going to throw a few more at you just to (hopefully) make it clearer. Let’s start in Exodus 21;
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.”
Wait just a minute! “When a man sells his daughter as a slave…”?
What happened to “Hey, don’t sell your daughter as a slave.”
Or how about “If he takes another wife to himself…”? Why don’t we simply see; “You should only have one wife”?
Wouldn’t we all agree it would be much better just to have a definitive rule here and not mess around with what to do in these obviously less-than-ideal situations?
I believe this is exactly the point. These were things that seemed to have happened quite frequently in this culture. People who were in debt, rather than having to lose their land, could sell their daughters as slaves to pay the debt. Often, it would seem, this meant marriage or some other form of union.
Likewise, given it was a violent culture, asking one man to have one wife was very unfair to women as there weren’t enough men to go around, with all the blood and killing and such.
These laws were not given as God’s ideal rules for the ordered world he created, but rather were his way of working within a culture that was very obviously not where he would have liked it to be.
Let’s look at a few more laws;
“Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee.”
“When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned…”
“Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.”
Now things might seem to be getting strange – or hopefully my point is becoming more clear. Why would God give a law that seems to force innocent people to flee to one of the six “cities of refuge” (see Numbers 35) in order to avoid being killed by relatives or friends of a person killed by accident?
Why would anyone need rules to govern how to deal with an unruly ox?
Do we really need a rule to stop people from sleeping with animals?
The answer to all these questions can be found in the culture of the day. Private vengeance wasn’t just a normal occurance, it was expected. “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth” really went the whole way – one person’s life for another, even if that life was taken by accident.
There were actually many laws dealing with oxen. They seem to have been a very important animal in the ancient near east and would also have been one of the more dangerous to keep. God provided a lot of laws around oxen because the culture relied on them, but also needed to know how to react if things went wrong.
The law about not sleeping with animals – well, I’ll just let that one speak for itself.
What I have been attempting to show here is that God did not provide an extensive list of laws that must be obeyed in order to be right with him. He gave a set of laws that spoke to the particular culture of the ancient Hebrews and provided an accommodating view of how to live within that current culture in a way that more closely approximated what living a life of love looks like.
The laws speak first to the cultural environment, what it was like and what rules were needed, but did so in a way that started to point his people toward an ideal of “love your neighbour as yourself”. He provided guidelines for how to act within a specific cultural context.
This becomes all the more clear when we turn to the New Testament and see how Jesus treated God’s law from the Old Testament. In a sweeping statement Jesus provides insight into God’s overall purpose for the law;
“… they … asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” – Galatians 5:14
Jesus and Paul both show that the law can essentially be summed up in one command; LOVE. That was God’s intended purpose for the entire law, he simply worked with Israel in their infancy to show what love looks like in some very strange and difficult cultural circumstances. Often these laws, while bizarre to us today, were huge leaps forward in acting in a way of love compared to what the surrounding cultures were doing in this time period. It may not have been ideal, but it was a whole lot better than what was common during that time and was what this group of people needed in order to see a glimpse of what God was like.
Jumping forward to the New Testament, how did Jesus treat the specifics found in the law?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill … I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” – Matthew 5:17-45 (abridged)
There is a lot to disect here, but the gist of it is this; Jesus has made some serious changes to the law the Jewish people know and love right there. And yet, he does so just after saying he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
It seems to me what is happening here is Jesus is saying he is the perfect completion of the law. He will unveil the true meaning of the law. He will fill the law full of new meaning by revealing what God’s intentions behind the law were all along.
You may have heard it said this way, but I tell you this …
Notice how many times that is repeated in this section of Matthew. The implication is that while you may have read these words, exactly as stated, in the Old Testament law, Jesus is about to show you the meaning beneath the text. He is about to reveal what has always been there, but you could not see. Some of his edits push deeper and showcase that the law did not truly get at the root of the issue, while others seemingly change the meaning entirely.
For an example of this second type the statement; “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The original law indicated it was fine to hate your enemies, but Jesus says not only is that not fine, you need to actually love them and pray for their blessing and benefit. That seems like a drastic change. The same could be said regarding his teaching on divorce and an “eye for an eye” justice. How can he really be fulfilling this original law when he is changing it so much?
The answer lies in the fact he is showing that the original laws were meant for a culture and a time and to push them toward an ideal. God was accommodating for the culture’s current state and knew that moving from A to Z in one step would be too much, too fast and so he allowed things that were not his ideal in order to move from A to B along a progressive path toward reaching Z. This ultimate ideal is the kingdom of God exemplified by love not just for neighbours, but for everyone.
Believing God would “command” things that are not actually his perfect intention for creation might sound a bit too far for some people, but Jesus himself shows this is the case. After a question about divorce meant to test him, Jesus responds by saying;
“‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female,” and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.'” – Matthew 19:4-8
First Jesus starts by questioning whether they have ever read the scriptures, which of course they had and was the exact reason they were testing him. They thought his response would conflict with the scriptures and they would have something to prove he was not from God. Jesus responds by pointing to the ideal for which God created man and woman – to be joined as one flesh.
It as at this point I would like to publicly thank God for “follow-up questions”, because I think this response by Jesus provides huge insight for how we can view many of the significant “problem areas” of the Old Testament. The Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce if this was not God’s ideal, after all, it was God who gave the law to Moses. In an amazingly insightful response, Jesus says, “it was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
That is a powerful statement right there.
Jesus is claiming God would accommodate humanity’s fallen condition and give a command as law to do something that is otherwise than what he would like to see. If I may paraphrase, he is saying, “I might not like that this is happening, but I am willing to permit it to go on so that I can slowly work on your hearts. I’ll condescend to your level and start working with you right where you are. It’s a bit of a risk because people may believe I condone your actions, but its better than the alternative, after all, how can I let you go? My desire is for your benefit and I can only work toward that goal if I am close to you.”
This has been a life-changing revelation for me. God is not an aloof God whose holiness prevents him from entering our mess. Even in the Old Testament we see shadows of God bearing the sins of his people; taking on their sins in order to draw them to him. He gave laws that even today people mock because they seem to condone slavery, rape, retribution and more and yet none of this was what he intended for his creation. His creation was perfectly ordered. When we stepped away from his intentions, he did not simply let us walk away, but rather self-sacrificially took all the initiative, the risk, the pain and carried the sins of the world on his shoulders.
He took responsibility for what we, his creation, had done.
Now doesn’t that sound like a picture of the cross?
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?