Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Old Testament Law, Justice, and Slavery

Our BSF study this year is about the life of Moses, and it covers the Old Testament books of the law, the complicated parts that everyone gets bogged down with and argues over. I've been particularly looking forward to this study. For one thing, I've always wanted to understand those books better -- to know how to apply them to our modern life. But more than that, I had many friends back in my early years of BSF who said that this particular year of BSF was life-changing for them.

So, last night was our first lesson actually starting to get into the specific laws (Exodus 21-24). And because we're just getting into it, I'm not yet going to claim any grand revelations or insights. But I did find some things interesting . . . and I did get hints of grand revelations and insights that may be to come.

- There are three types of Law given in the Old Testament. The first is the Moral Law, represented by the Ten Commandments. These were described as laws about "how to live as individuals." They are binding upon all people at all times, throughout history and throughout cultures.

-The second type were the civil laws. These were about "how to live as a nation", and they specifically applied to Israel in its theocracy at that time. Many (probably most) people argue that these laws do not directly apply to us today. However, they reveal the character of God, and therefore the principles behind them should be applied today.

- The third type were the ceremonial laws. We haven't read these yet, but they involve the sacrifices and so forth which maintained Israel's relationship with a righteous God. Jesus' sacrifice fulfilled all of these. They do not apply anymore.

- But going back to those civil laws: these are the most controversial because it takes discernment to figure out what to do with these. But again, if you are looking at the principles behind them, a couple things stood out to me.

- There is a whole group of laws that apply to personal injury and property rights (Ex 21:12 - 22:15). Here is where we find the first instance of that old adage, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." And what's interesting is that, this does seem to be the first instance of that concept. Like, ever. In ancient times, retaliation was the rule. If somebody did you wrong, you got back, and often in a really big way. This principle was given to ensure that punishment was equal in proportion to the offense, and it was rather revolutionary in that respect, apparently.

In other words, the laws were an attempt to teach the Israelites (and through them, the rest of the world) about Justice, a primary trait of God's. God is just . . . in fact, He is Justice; the only understanding we have of the concept of justice comes to us from where God has inserted Himself into our world and our understanding. On our own human understanding, we only get retaliation. But when we are taught justice, we recognize it as good, because we are made in God's image, although that image has been corrupted.

Now, when Jesus was on earth, he went even further: "You have heard it said, 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you . . . if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other one, also." Jesus taught mercy and self-sacrifice. Not that justice was now invalid . . . but Jesus' coming was the beginning of the era when we can be indwelled by the Spirit and enabled to do beyond what our human nature allows . . . when we are enabled to be Christ-like.

- Another note: this passage talks about slavery, and I know many are troubled by the fact that the Bible seems to "endorse" slavery. But slavery as discussed in the civil laws given by Moses is a different animal than our modern notion of slavery. First, the law called for the death penalty for anyone who kidnapped and sold any person. Clearly, this type of slavery (which is basically ALL modern or recent forms of slavery) is out of God's will. Hebrews, it seems, took slaves as payments on debts or punishments for crimes -- that kind of thing. Slavery as it happened in the United States, and as it continues around the world today, would have been unacceptable in the ancient Hebrew state.

Second, permanent, involuntary servitude was not allowed among the Hebrews; slaves were to be freed in their seventh year -- and even given a share of the flock and food to be able to start a new life and avoid falling into slavery again.

Third, a slave's family was respected and considered. Families were not torn apart, as often happened in slavery in America.

Fourth -- and this is most telling to me -- slaves were offered the option of choosing to become a permanent slave to their master rather than taking their freedom in the seventh year. And this option was often chosen. Apparently, slavery was not always undesirable. Hebrew slaves were treated well, considered part of the family, were protected by strict laws about their care, and were often quite devoted to their masters. (This particular concept of choosing to become a permanent bondservant is a model of our relationship with God as believers. A topic for another post.)

And again, we see new standards set in the New Testament, after Jesus ushers in the Age of the Holy Spirit, when we are enabled to "be holy as He is holy." In the New Testament book of Philemon, Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's slave who ran away and then met Paul and became a Christian. Paul is encouraging Onesimus to return to his master and submit to him . . . but he is also encouraging Philemon (also a Christian) to see his relationship with his slave as changed. "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever -- no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother."

Paul doesn't call for the elimination of the slave/master relationship -- as practiced in Israel, that institution actually revealed important things about God and about man. But just as Jesus encouraged us to go beyond simple justice to godly mercy, Paul encourages Philemon to go beyond his rights as a slaveowner to a relationship based on brotherhood in Christ.

Just a few things I noted . . . none completely digested and analyzed yet . . . more insights to come as the year progresses, I'm sure.

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