Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Relevance of the Old Testament Law: A Response

A couple of days ago a reader who is apparently also a professional preacher (I have to admit this makes my cheap online credential from the Universal Life Church look quite worthless) took time out of his busy schedule two days ago to make some detailed comments, on my comments, on Leviticus 25 (the article is older, here).

To reward the inexcusably tiny fraction of visitors (according to my stats counter) who actually leave comments, it is standing policy at the Church of the Orange Sky to respond to lengthy posts with equal verbiage, something made possible by my current lack of gainful employment and ability to procrastinate on my still-incomplete thesis research. The following has not been well thought-out yet, but I hope it counts for something.

According to Toby of Texas, whose blog Beware the Ides of March is here:

Fair enough, but all of these laws are based on 2 ideas that are somewhat unique to Israel's historical situation: 1) the extermination of the Canaanite peoples, and 2) the preservation of the land and seed so that the promise to Abraham could be visibly fulfilled in the Messiah.

With the coming of Messiah, the preservation of the land as ethnic Israel's and in fact of Israel as a distinctive ethnicity no longer has a function. The whole earth is deeded to the Messiah, and the promised inheritance flows through Him to His People, thereby fulfilling the promise to Abraham.

I'm one to take Old Testament law as continually binding for today, with the proviso that the land and seed laws were for a specific time and place. Granted, that interpretation leads to bigger questions about what constitute the land and seed laws as opposed to other aspects of Old Testament law that should govern human conduct in perpetuity, but interpretation will always be a task as long as there is a written text one uses as the basis for law. This is true whether the origin of the written text is divine or not.

I'm a relative novice in the area of theonomy, but if you have any sincere questions about Biblical Law you should consult Greg Bahnsen's work "By This Standard, The Authority of God's Law Today." You will find that he and others like him (myself included) do not toe the line of the popular religious right. We are often lumped in with them, but most of our political views fit the paleolibertarian (think Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry) mold much better than the Republican.

If I have intruded on a blog that is intended merely for satire whose author does not with to seriously engage the ideas of the Bible, my apologies.

First off, Toby, this blog is not intended merely for satire, though I suppose it is riddled with sarcasm, beginning with the frequent references to my Church of the Orange Sky. My proclamation several months ago that I would read and seriously consider the entire Bible was also not made in jest - if it was, I'd have picked a smaller target. I also apologize for lumping too many people into the same category when it comes to Biblical interpretation - it's a shorthand I indulge in which is probably quite unfair, and which I probably shouldn't actually indulge in at all.

I actually started with a more conservative (distinct, I think, from "religious right") view of the Bible, partially as a result of years spent in the pair of Baptist churches in which I first learned the Bible. At one point I in fact embraced total Biblical inerrancy, though ultimately I found that viewpoint not worth keeping, particularly since I am currently convinced that not doing so doesn't detract from the validity of my religious beliefs about what the Bible discusses, and also because I'm convinced that there are too many mythical, inconsistent, and otherwise very probably errant elements to the Bible to cling to any absolute position in that regard which isn't completely necessary.

I didn't really know what my position on the law would be when I started this project because it had been a very, very long time since I'd read the Old Testament all the way through. So we are both "novices," and probably me more than you in terms of any sort of training.

Now that the handshaking and pleasantries are out of the way:

I'm one to take Old Testament law as continually binding for today, with the proviso that the land and seed laws were for a specific time and place. Granted, that interpretation leads to bigger questions about what constitute the land and seed laws as opposed to other aspects of Old Testament law that should govern human conduct in perpetuity, but interpretation will always be a task as long as there is a written text one uses as the basis for law. This is true whether the origin of the written text is divine or not.
I have a couple of principal objections to the viewpoint you're providing here.

First, I'm not all that concerned about the division you're suggesting because my moral and other objections to the law don't really fall evenly on the line between "land" and cultural "purity" laws on the one side, and some category of "moral" or other laws on the other. I know that that division is common, although I'm not convinced it was intended by the initial writers and I'm certainly not convinced that "reading in" that division is an easy or perfect process.

First off, though it's a tempting way to move beyond objections to the more genocidal and oppressive elements, I have to worry that making divisions between "good" rules and "bad" rules - or at least "irrelevant" rules - is an interpretation we're adding on later, which the original writers of the texts that are now in the Old Testament simply did not have. While I am not completely averse to the idea that god may use actions in ways other than they are strictly intended, I am hesitant to do this with respect to the Bible. The legal code of the Old Testament as a whole, barring I suppose (and hypothetically) any rules which might have been added in after the fact by later scribes and forgers, are pretty much a complete set which reflect the thinking of that particular culture.

Nevertheless, I'll accept for the sake of argument, and at least for the moment, that the laws regarding conquest and "seeding" the land are a set which only applied at a particular time in history, and can be easily distinguished from the other rules. I still have two remaining objections.

First, suggesting that they applied only to a particular set of circumstances gets us out of the question of how we'd have to consider upholding them today, but it implies that under those circumstances, those laws were morally justifiable. And I have to say that I can't see those laws as morally justified. As a pacifist, in particular, I believe that there are no circumstances which justify the murder of other human beings. This certainly sets me outside the will of god as his will is interpreted by the writers of the early Old Testament. I have to accept that my conscience leads me in other directions than the plain language of this part of the Bible. It's probably a fairly pointless thought experiment, but if I put myself in the position of an ancient Israelite, I would refuse an order to kill others in order to take their land. (Probably irrelevant because I would also likely have been killed off in the Kohathite rebellion in Numbers, for the sin of protesting the place of the holy priesthood.)

This brings us to my other principal complaint, which is that the laws regarding treatment of other nations in ancient Israel are only one thing I find a little distasteful, if quite understandable given the historical context of what frequently went on at the time. I actually like some of what is in Leviticus 25, and I think it speaks directly against some of our current ideas about capitalism and private ownership, which is intriguing - for example, should we follow this today by suggesting that all loans must be forgiven after seven years, we must never profit off the poor's need for food, the land should be rested, and so on? Which part no longer applies? The process of drawing lines between standing and outdated laws tends to reflect our personal interests as much as anything, and I have to wonder at how convenient it would be if we today were to suggest that private land ownership is now okay, after all.

More to the point, and without going too far along that tangent, I don't like the Old Testament laws for a wide variety of reasons. Even if the treatment of foreigners laws are now obsolete, and that religious wars are no longer justified, I object to many of the rest of the laws for a host of other reasons. For example, I object to the sexual and marital laws, including that of homosexuality, on the grounds that they reflect and reinforce a patriarchal system that comes disturbingly close to owning women, and which I simply do not agree with. Even the Ten Commandments are phrased in such a way that arguably they are for men only. You could read in their application to women as well, I suppose, but that too would be an alteration of the laws as plainly written.

So I like some of the laws, and I dislike some of the others. I won't indulge in some exercise to justify my feelings here, because I fear it would be much too self-serving, providing some dubious theological pretext for moral beliefs that I already hold and would continue to hold anyways. In my view, either all of the law or none of the law must be upheld as morally appropriate (even if some sections were morally appropriate only in specific times and places). Therefore I must choose "none of the law," and seek theological or textaul support for my moral beliefs elsewhere. Ultimately I admit I may not find that support in the Bible, though I remain hopeful that later sections of the Old Testament will change my views on the subject.


Toby said...

Thanks for the response. I think your observations are reasonable given a point of view that the Biblical text is not inerrant or inspired in the "traditional" (for lack of a better word) sense. There are quibbles here and there that I would have about historical setting, literary context, etc., but the main objections that you have would remain.

I readily admit that my observations/perspective flow from a worldview that holds the Bible as the foundation of my epistemology. I begin with the assumption that the Bible is true/right/inerrant etc., and then proceed interpretively from there.

For me that means I am forced to have to wrestle with the text in a different way from one (such as yourself) for whom the Bible is a book that is no more or less true than any other. If there is a difficult passage, then I have to wrestle with it in order to find a better understanding, or I have to learn to live with a truth-claim that may sound crazy to other people outside of my belief system. Either way, my goal is to follow God through what I believe is His Word. I'm certain that there's a whole lot of interpretive screwing up along the way, but that's what I'm shooting for.

On the other hand, I would say that there are a great many people who are professing Christians who don't see the Bible the way I do. (That fact doesn't stop them from being Christians in my opinion, by the way.) They would go to the Old Testament in much the same way you do, and take the things they believe to be good advice and make the argument that the other parts must not be inspired, or must represent God's capitulation to these "primitive" people, etc.

My interpretive goal is to NOT do that, primarily because I believe it's inconsistent, and puts on back on the same epistemological footing at secularists. (If we Christians think we've heard from God, why back down from that?) Anyway, this whole epistemology thing is a big deal to me. I'm interested in the basis of our knowing as much as I am the conclusions of our thinking. I have come to believe that the Bible provides the only sane beginning point for knowing in this world that is objective (in the sense that it exists outside of any person's consciousness). Someone may have God speak directly to them, but that's not an objective thing in the way I'm trying to use it here.

Whew, I didn't mean to post so long, but here I am! Let me skip to the end:

The Bible is waaaayyyyy too big for anybody to be an expert on the whole thing. I don't claim any of my particular interpretations are the last word. I do think that they make sense from an intellectually honest inerrantist's perspective. I'd love, with your permission, to continue to comment on your blog with regard to specific interpretive issues regarding the Bible. Some of your readings of the OT might have a different twist with a little extra bit of info.

Again, thanks for the response.


Anonymous said...

Interesting comment; however, the real issue (theologically speaking) of making the Bible inerrant truth is that when it is found to contradict (to be untrue) we need to justify these errors and finally when we find that we cannot we must either admit that there is no God or that the Bible is not, in fact, inerrant. Clearly, both of these options are contradictory to the worldview of inerrancy. Of course there is the third option in which we lie to ourselves and create intricate paradigms to fit the disparate parts together.

Moreover, historically speaking, the idea of Biblical inerrancy is relatively new within Christian thought. I would recommend reading George Huntston Williams' The Radical Reformation. It is long but worth reading. I could suggest others. It would be wise for all Christians to have a strong background in Christian history as well as theology and textual analysis. Too bad the Holy Spirit doesn't provide this information on a need to know basis.

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Blaisteach said...


I would welcome further comments; I freely admit my knowledge of historical setting, context, etc. is somewhat limited.

I respect your faith in the Bible but ultimately in my own life I've found it unhelpful. My experience has also led me to believe that most Christian groups, among both the liberals of whom you speak and those who profess to see the entire Bible as inerrant and God-breathed, actually engage in various methods of downplaying those sections which they dislike. I agree that doing this is inconsistent which is why I've tried to avoid it. This is why I've noted, in this commentary, several sections I liked, but have been (or have tried to be) fairly hesitant about deciding that one section is somehow more divinely inspired than another.

To me, reading the Bible is not about accepting that the entirety of the book is inspired and inerrant - something I can't accept because of the weight of "laws" which I refuse to believe are divinely inspired, and which for that matter very few Christians today actually bother to uphold; and also because of various "historical" stories and myths which I simply do not believe actually happened.

However, I also don't believe in going through the Bible and selecting out only the sections I happen to like and then suggesting that only these sections are divinely inspired. I agree that's a fairly inconsistent approach, but at the same time, I would challenge you to examine your own approach to the Bible. In my experience much the same thing is often done, though less explicitly, under the guise of harmonization, "proper" interpretation of Hebrew or Greek phrases, etc., all with the convenient aim of justifying views already held by the person doing the interpreting.

I didn't really have a well-formed theological or epistemological perspective on the Bible when I started this project and I still don't, which probably detracts somewhat from the strength and consistency of my writing, which I accept.

In the meantime, however, what I do believe is that the parts of the Bible I have read so far were written by human beings to describe and explain how they related to the divine. Some of these sections, in my opinion, betray the power and interests of the writers more than others, which does make it particularly tempting to criticize them - the priesthood elitism of Numbers, for example, the militarism of Joshua, the basic propaganda function of Ruth (which starts as a story of a convert but ultimately takes on a propagandistic pro-David flavour in the final verses).

This doesn't mean that what is said in those parts of the Bible is totally irrelevant - after all, I do consider myself a Christian, and thus am attempting to relate to and understand the same divine figure, if separated by several thousand years and the separation of Christianity from Judaism. It does mean, however, that for the moment I see the Bible as human writings about the divine, subject to most or all of the usual flaws of human writing and the tranmission of that writing through all-too-flawed and variant manuscripts.

Ultimately, of course, if I reject the Bible as the rule of faith, I suppose I'm wandering dangerously far towards implicitly claiming direct revelation as a basis for at least some of my beliefs. This is a problem, though not, I think, because it is not "objective." I am not particularly concerned about objectivity because I do not believe real objectivity is possible, let alone essential, in matters of faith.

At some point I will perhaps develop a more coherent position. At the moment it's unsatisfyingly incomplete.