Sunday, May 8, 2011

How to Run a Theocracy - Introduction (Part 1)

Pretty much the most passionate Lady Justice I've ever seen (and probably appropriate for Deuteronomy).

A Few Insights on Political Law in Ancient Israel from Deuteronomy

I just finished reading through Deuteronomy this week. And wow! What an interesting book. Now, Deuteronomy is called such because it is the ‘second law,’ essentially a sermon by Moses about the Law from God.

Now, there’s a lot in the book that I expected:  a lot of commands against idolatry, a recounting of Jewish history to that point, warnings about disobedience, blessings for obedience, etc. But I came across a few laws that I had either forgotten about or never really registered before.

When interpreting the Old Testament, especially a book of the law, it’s important to remember that Christians are no longer under the law. We can learn from the law, but we are not to obey it.

The other thing that makes interpreting Deuteronomy difficult is what it says about God’s character. The New Atheists are fond of pointing out how Yahweh is a moral monster for doing the things that He does and commanding as He does. I don’t have space here to defend all that God did in ancient times, but I will at least counter this particular argument. For an Atheist to argue that Yahweh is immoral, he must put judge Him by something else. He must call upon something transcendent to Him, namely some kind of Moral Law. But then it must be asked, “You’re an Atheist who denies transcendent entities; how then can you call upon a transcendent entity called ‘The Moral Law’ to disprove one called ‘Yahweh’? The Morality of the Old Testament is a valid question, but one that only really can be asked by someone who believes in a transcendent Moral Law, namely Theists. Maybe I’ll give a defense in a later post.

For the purpose of this post, I will assume the Justice and Goodness of Yahweh, and I’ll explain how I read Deuteronomy (i.e. the following is my speculation, not Christianity). In His Goodness, Yahweh condescends to humanity. And He must condescend to Humanity wherever it is if He is to relate with us. If He were to relate to an ancient group of people, He must come to them on terms that they could understand. He gives laws that are relevant to the situation His people will be in. Christianity was to be an entirely different sort of thing than the congregation of Israel. Literal idolatry needed to be hit and hit hard in 1500BC, but it was spiritual idolatry that has largely been the temptation the last millennium or so. God gave Moses laws that were applicable to the ancient world, giving them all the truth they could bear but no more. Many of the laws seem silly to us because we don’t face the same problems. Many of them seem draconian because we have more ‘humane’ methods of punishment.

What Deuteronomy gives us is a model society, one where everything is in proper proportion. For example, they executed adulterers, idolaters and murderers. We’d look at this and say, “How vicious!” But it tells us that, in God’s eyes, these three things are all in the same category: capital crimes. In the twenty-first century, we may be more able to show grace because of several thousand years of human advancement (through God’s continued teaching). Punishment of adulterers by stoning is not a universal moral law; but the categorical seriousness of the offense is.

In the next posts, I’ll share some of the interesting stuff I found in Deuteronomy and what it might teach us.

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