Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules: Exodus 20:22 - 23

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.


First, a note on a previous post. It has been brought to my attention by one regular foe of the Church of the Orange Sky that openly calling for inconvenient verses to be "shoved under the carpet" - which were indeed my words, I beliee - is an inappropriate approach to Biblical studies.

Not so, sister! As any honest conservative scholar will admit, the Bible is chock full of seemingly inconsistent statements, in large part because it was written by a large number of people, some of whom were elitist priests, some of whom were elitist military and political leaders, some of whom were cranky anarchistic prophets, and some of whom fit somewhere in between. Thus we must "harmonize" the Bible, an ironic thing to do to "inerrant" Scriptures but actually a necessary thing to do - even conservatives agree on that! - because the Bible is in fact so unharmonious that it requires extra-special efforts to impose order upon it. The process of harmonization proceeds by burying unwanted verses under large and impressive piles of more appropriate ones, producing an intricate and often quite implausible "synthesis" which often makes even less sense than any of its component parts, then finally tying the whole mess together with confident and thunderous rhetoric and possibly some arm-waving thrown in for good measure. It is this process which I propose to undertake, knowing that in doing so I will have the full support of generations of conservative scholars who have adopted much the same methodology.


Now, to business.

Having overawed the Israelites with his impressive fireworks at Mt. Sinai, God sits down with Moses to have a long chat about the rules. This is the first of a large number of sets of laws handed down, ostensibly via direct revelation from God to the prophet, which comprise the bulk of the remainder of Exodus as well as parts of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. After some brief instructions about how to make an altar (complete with a warning that God doesn't want to see any naked priests), God spends almost two chapters describing how people and animals are legitimate property and how you can resolve disputes that inevitably occur when the people you own get damaged in some way.

There's a tension in Exodus. On the one hand, there's some basis for the sort of rigid hierarchical social order that the nation of Israel clearly eventually adopted; on the other, there's still some remnant of awareness of the ethical implications of liberation from Egypt. Thus the laws of Exodus are a strange fusion of what is now conservative theology and liberation theology.

Implicit in these chapters is an acceptance of slavery and patriarchal rule over the household, with an assumption that people who are not free Isarelite men are eligible to be owned. God, as described here, does not seem inclined to liberate the slaves of the Israelites to the same extent that he liberated the slaves of the Egyptians. Amidst a long list of death penalties, God permits the sale of daughters, and even suggests that if a slave is married while working for you, you, not he, own his wife and children (and can therefore keep them even when you free him). All punishments are modeled on that well-known aphorism, "a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound." To this end God is sometimes surprisingly specific, among other things specifying a fine if you accidentally hit a pregnant woman and cause a miscarriage. This verse is usually used by pro-life activists to claim quite fictitiously that the Old Testament bans abortion; one may see that it is fiction because a fine clearly does not compensate for human life, and thus it follows that if God's laws really were meant to communicate that the unborn fetus is a human life, they would not prescribe a fine for the death of that fetus. Depending on how one reads this verse, it is quite plausible to argue that in the eyes of the Law a miscarriage on its own is "no serious injury." (Come to think of it, miscarriage is a really stupid word; it sounds as though you were carrying around a baby and accidentally dropped it.)

God's laws for property are also very specific, and no doubt gun-toting Second Amendment lovers will be happy to see that you have the right to kill a thief invading your home. (Those same people will doubtless be very disturbed to hear that this privilege is granted only after nightfall; if you kill a thief during the day, you are guilty of murder and must be put to death.)

On the other hand, God clearly intends to restrict the ability of his chosen people to oppress themselves and others. Israelite servants must be freed in the seventh year of their sevice (unless they choose to stay with their master for the rest of their life; apparently it's an either-or choice). You can sell your daughter into slavery, but anyone who buys her has an obligation to take care of her (the Biblical text actually says he must do so even if she "does not please the master," which might be a euphemistic reference to our first exception to the Seventh Commandment). If you beat your slaves so badly you knock out a tooth or damage an eye, you must free them by way of apology. God promises he will create sanctuary cities where criminals may flee to.

God also provides a considerable list of social and judicial responsibilities (alternatively, only the liberal writers showed up to the drafting meeting for chapter 23, and took the opportunity of the conservatives' absence to shove through some ameliorating amendments). Hilariously, my always-well-subtitled New International Version Bible starts off the section it calls "Social Responsibility" in the middle of chapter 22, with the instructions that if you sleep with an unbetrothed virgin you have to marry her, that if you see a "sorceress" you have to kill her, and that you also must kill people who have sex with animals and people who sacrifice to other gods. Social responsibility, indeed!

The "social responsibility" section actually begins at 22:21, with the admonition that you must not "mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." The section closes at 22:9 with a repetition of this: "do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." Sandwiched in between are a variety of social justice rules, and in many of them God explicitly sides with the poor and needy:

- if you exploit a widow or orphan, "I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused."

- if you lend money to the poor and charge them interest, or take the cloak from a poor person and do not return it, "I will hear, for I am compassionate."

- justice must be impartial, not siding with "the crowd" or otherwise showing "favoritism." Specifically, "do not deny justice to your poor people."

- you must rescue the lost or over-burdened animals of others, even if they belong to "your enemy" or to "someone who hates you."

You also aren't supposed to blaspheme against God or "curse the ruler of your people"; it's interesting and somewhat disturbing that those two are lumped together in the same commandment.

After this, God provides rules for the Sabbath - specifying that slaves and aliens must also be permitted the Sabbath, and that during the Sabbath year (i.e. the seventh year) every field be thrown open to the poor so that they may harvest it. Then there are some new festivals - three per year, one to remember the exodus from Egypt, one to celebrate the coming of the harvest, and one to celebrate the end of the harvest season. And finally, an extra rule is thrown in as an afterthought: "do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." That's a bit of an odd one.

It would be tempting to pick and choose some laws that seem particularly useful and downplay the others. The suggestion that even your enemy's beasts of burden deserve your attention, for example, would appear to foreshadow Christ's later teaching that we love our enemies and our persecutors. The specific attention to the poor and the needy also seems useful to invoke, and actually requires considerably more social responsibility than the religious right is usually prepared to accept. Where, for example, are the laws banning interest on loans, or giving the poor legal access to farmers' fields? Instead the right takes comfort in the ideology of capitalism, suggesting that the real way to help the poor is not to force them into "dependence" upon charity but to force them to look after themselves. Whatever the merits of economic theory applied to social problems, clearly they have no meaningful relation to the laws given in Exodus.

Having said that, I am reluctant to fall into the same trap of picking and choosing useful laws. I haven't actually come across anything all that objectionable yet, but I'm anticipating doing so shortly. I find it extremely unconvincing when, for example, churches suggest that there are certain codes of moral behaviour from the Old Testament which remain relevant, while others - those relegated to the role of religious purity, etc. - may be safely chucked away. My primary problem with such a claim is that the Bible itself doesn't make any such explicit distinction, nor does it give us guidelines for the process of categorization. Inevitably what such a process ends up being is a way of justifying and legitimizing one particular group's view of what moral laws are desirable and which ones are unwanted, all wrapped up in an unconvincing theological package. I'll have to reflect more on this once we get to a section I actually find too objectionable, but in the meantime I'm going to stay noncommittal.