A 21st Century American suburbanite examines ancient mayhem and majesty...
If this is the first time you have checked this blog lately--let me explain what I am doing. I am reading through the Bible this year using the plan posted on the upper right hand of the blog. Once a week I am posting a set of reactions to at least one section of reading.
This week, I have concentrated my writing on Exodus.
Jethro, father-in-law to Moses, an ancient Peter Drucker or Stephen Covey, gives leadership advice to Moses, who empowers his appointees to handle disputes, bringing only the most difficult to him. Moses, receives recognition for listening to his father-in-law.
The Lord wants the Israelites, the house of Jacob, to recognize how he has borne them “on eagle’s wings” to himself. God considers all of the earth his possession, but he treasures the idea that the Israelites will be a priestly kingdom. He wasn’t singling out the people of Israel for their own benefit, though he was pleased to give them blessings—but he was doing all of this to make them bridge the gap between men and God. It was once explained to me like this—in a world rife with violence and worship of many types, God intended through Israel to shape a nation that would bring Christ. These creatures of God, newly redeemed from slavery were given the law to create out of the ethical chaos of the ancient world a community to bring light to the world.
I told my son, Chris, our family ethicist and theologian, that I can see much of the law given on Sinai as wonderful.
The Big Ten
First of all, the same force that brought these thousands of slaves freedom from the most powerful empire on the earth, demands unrivaled devotion from the people.
Secondly, for all the treeness of Genesis and the emphasis on the giving of the land, this God makes it very clear that there would be no veneration of things earthy or animal-like. I read a thoughtful discussion of this perspective in Christopher J.H. Wright’s Walking the Ways of the LORD. There is not a kind of New Age, Jungian kind of attachment to the earth, or the veneration of trees, animals, moon, sun, stars, or other objects called upon by some religions. For the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the land is the place upon which the LORD does his acts of grace and love. It is the God himself, the Creator of all things who demands worship. He delivered the children of Israel in order to prepare a nation to be priestly to the entire world. He gave them a land, upon which they could become a nation, acting out his will. He gives them sun by day, the moon by night for sustenance and guidance. He is giving them this law to help shape a community that can model what a just God would want from his people. So to make an object of veneration offends this God who loves his creatures, delivers them, and provides for them.
Third,, the LORD is personal and relational, and finds it offensive to ignore or misuse him in anyway—so the language and life lived before him should in no way mock or make light of his godness, his creative power, his redemptive actions, his provision and care. Perhaps because there were so many objects of worship in the world at the time, the LORD wants to be clearly understood, and he wants his name to be known precisely for what he truly is—creator, sustainer, redeemer, protector, and not anything less than the most powerful force in the universe. For this name is to be honored—not trivialized or trifled with—by poor conduct or any kind of scornful talk.
Next, the Sabbath, with its guarantee of rest for all—wives, children, servants, animals, even resident aliens—according to Wright, is much more than simply a way to catch up on rest and to worship. Because it is a command to be applied across all of society, it is a significant factor in establishing social justice and protection for all. This could inspire even the peripatetic citizens of modern Atlanta. There are few among us who take an entire day to devote to worship, family, and respecting the needs of all. I would also like to note that for all of the anti-alien sentiment around, we probably should take note that in the most basic moral code given by the God most modern Atlantans call God, he demands equal protection for aliens. Further, the reading of Exodus demands that the people of Israel always care for the alien remembering that they themselves were once aliens and strangers in a strange land—and God took care of them.
Fifth, having children give honor—care, respect, protection—to their parents—thus preserving the life of the elderly and modeling this for the next generation would certainly lead to long life for people in such a society. I do not think this command means you have to do every little thing your parents ever want you to do, no matter what your age. It is a construct to give to families permanence and protection for each generation.
The first few of the Ten Commandments are not difficult to understand. The next few—you shall not murder, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or covet can clearly be comprehended by our 2010 minds. There is certainly much to consider about these commandments, but let’s skip them for now and go past them to the next level of laws given by Moses.
A cursory look at the conditions of slavery mentioned in the laws given after the Big Ten make all of the so-called Biblical justifications of the slavery sounded a century or so earlier by Americans a sham. At least in Exodus it was more like indentured servant hood with protections for the slave and eventual freedom.
Many of the laws given—the what to do if someone does such and such to you—have been explained to me in a helpful way—they were given to LIMIT retribution for wrongs done by one to another. In other words, if someone gouges out your eye—you don’t get to KILL them—your retribution is limited to a consequence commiserate to loss you have sustained. Not a pretty consequence—but in a lawless society—a limit to violence.
On the other hand
I told my son, Chris, our family ethicist and theologian, that I can see much of the law given on Sinai as downright disturbing.
For a middle class American woman in the 21st Century, some of the commands given after the Decalogue seem brutal.
For example, although dealing with a recalcitrant child can be frustrating, the idea that a child who curses his parents should be killed is frightening. There a few times when I was growing up that my mom did refer to this practice. She suggested I should feel lucky to have the limited consequences I experienced when being a bit sassy.
Joking aside, the idea of a parent killing a rebellious child is barbaric.
On the other hand, I knew a family with a minor child so violent that he made their life a curse. The parents would literally lock their bedroom doors at night, and sometimes take turns staying awake, in fear of the child. The child did things like vivisect animals. In our society we might call the police to protect us from such a nightmare. Was this command a civil response to the violent, dangerous child—perhaps even an adult child?
Reading through these laws shows some that seem to have a reasonable, perhaps contemporary equivalent and others that seem beyond the pale. I wonder what I should make of these.There is a theme in the scripture that the Law is "holy, just, and good." Some of these does not seem so good if applied to my world.
I ask--can we love, obey, or understand this God by simply reading this text?
Chris to the rescue
Chris, family ethicist and theologian, helped with this crisis of consideration by reminding me that in the practice of Judaism, through the ages, discussions about the meanings of these laws are documented by volumes of points, counter-points, arguments, applications, arguments, and counterpoints. Great rabbinical conversations have pursued these topics and have often left exactly what a contemporary should do with certain laws open to disagreement. It is only in the last few hundred years or so that people have been persuaded that each thing must be examined scientifically and either proven or disproven for veracity and possible application. He got me to thinking that is okay to be quizzical about many points of the law.
Christopher J.H. Wright has also given me some help in reckoning these laws to my life in God today. He gives the idea that we might look for the broad principles of justice built into these laws as a paradigm for our conduct today. A good example is the Sabbath—we may or may not be compelled as modern Christians to observe the Sabbath in the exact way of the Israelites, but we may indeed understand and act upon that significant reality that all in society need time to rest, to worship, to devote to their family. As we exercise influence or power in our world, we would make such provisions for all—regardless of their status in society--to workers, to aliens, and even to animals. Sounds very contemporary. Even challenging.
The Rest of the Story
Much can be said about the rest of the book--including the tabernacle story. I summarize Exodus like this: Exodus exposes his covenant family, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in a world of violence, political confusion, and human uncertainty.Exodus details the sentinel story of the rescue, redemption of the people of Israel--the escape from slavery in Egypt, the passage across the Red Sea on dry land, the destruction of the Egyptian Army and the journey the promised land. Exodus shows the LORD providing basic needs, giving guidance, structure, and a place of beauty for worship.
Here's a Bev paraphrase of several of the laws in Exodus:
When you buy a slave—set him free after six years with no debt.
If a slave comes married; the slave leaves married.
If the master gives him a wife; he goes and the wife and children stay. If he wants to stay with his family—he can become a slave for life.
When you marry off your daughter--If the man takes a second wife—he must still give the first wife food, clothing, and sex. If he does not—she can leave him debt free.
If you kill someone by striking them—you may be put to death. If the death is not premediated, God will provide a sanctuary. Premeditation is the factor that gets the death penalty.
Whomever strikes mother or father—will be put to death.
If one strikes someone and the person recovers—the assailant must pay for time lost and for medical care.
If some strikes a pregnant woman and she miscarries—the assailant must pay what the husband requires—an amount approved by a judge.
Other losses are to be recompensed in a manner limited in direct relation to the loss—eye for eye; tooth for tooth.
Maiming a slave in any way demands the slave be set free with no debt.
Ox gores should not be repeated upon pain of death for the ox and the owner.
Pits devouring others animals will result in a lawsuit.
Repeated ox gores are trouble for the owner of the ox.
You can’t kill an intruder in the daylight without being guilty for their blood. Breaking and entering is NOT a capital crime.
Arsonists shall make full restitution.
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
If you lend to the poor, you should not charge them interest.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in Egypt.
A significant part of your wealth over the years should be managed so that the poor may share in it. You should manage your fields so that the wild animals will be able eat as well.
An important part of the Sabbath is the opportunity not just for you to rest, but for your servants and animals to rest. Included in this day of rest are the resident aliens who need to be refreshed as well.