Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Finding Sense in the Law

It's kinda hard to pray "Lord, teach me your ways," when you're reading through a series of laws that don't make sense. A prohibition on certain people entering the assembly. A test for virginity that isn't really that fool-proof. Instructions on how to marry a captive woman.

When reading the Torah, so many of its practices seem archaic and sometimes unjust to our modern eyes. At one point in time, I would have defended the commandments as the definition of justice, arguing that it's today's perspective that needs to be changed. But, now I've come to the conclusion that this does injustice to the Bible and damages our reputation.

During the writing of the last article, I started looking back through those nonsensical passages again, to see if I could find any good examples of nonsensical laws. What I found was that things were actually making a bit more sense, like I was seeing the text through different eyes (it's funny how easily our opinions can change with our moods). I want to share with you this perspective that I believe both upholds the holiness of the Bible while satisfying our modern sense of justice.

Laws of Kings -- Protective, not Prescriptive
Deuteronomy 17 gives the laws for kings in the land of Israel. Things like prohibitions on having many wives or hoarding wealth, restrictions on who can become king, and a positive command to write a copy of the Torah. When you read through this section on its own, it makes it sound like a king is a good thing, just a natural part of the process of becoming a nation. Just as so many laws take effect "when you enter the land," this one takes effect when the people say, "we want a king." It would not be hard to read this passage and conclude that a king was naturally expected.

Yet, we know from later portions of the Bible that this is not the case. When Israel demands a king in the book of Samuel, they are accused of rejecting God as their king. They are warned of all the dangers of a king. And then they are given what they asked for.

What I want to point out here is that the commands concerning kings in Deuteronomy are not prescriptive--they are not telling Israel that they should have a king. Rather, they are protective. If (and when) you decide to appoint a king, these are the precautions you must take. It is an allowance for human nature with safeguards to minimize the damaging impacts.

You can take this paradigm and apply it to other commands in Torah. Slavery. Polygamy. Divorce. Yeshua does this quite plainly in Matthew:
He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." - Matthew 19:8 ESV
These commands do not need to be taken as endorsements of these activities any more than the command about kings. They are allowances with protective restrictions.

Eunuchs and Strangers in the Assembly -- Redemptive, not Restrictive
Coming to the beginning of Deuteronomy 23, we find another set of commands that at first seems puzzling. Certain conditions beyond a man's control can have him excluded from the assembly. God seems to be restricting who can approach Him.

Yet, again, we see the plain text contradicted later on. In the book of Ruth, a Moabite joins Israel, even becoming a mother of king David himself. Then in Isaiah 56, we see what looks like almost a complete reversal of the law when God declares that there is room for the foreigner and the eunuch in His Temple. What's going on here?

You've probably heard it said that the first step to healing is admitting you have a problem. Similarly, the first step to redemption is seeing that you need to be redeemed. That's where holiness/separation comes in to play. Holiness makes a clear line between the clean and the unclean, the good and the bad, the whole and the unwhole.

The men excluded from the Temple are unwhole or unclean in some way, through no fault of their own. But, they are not unloved. They are not uninvited. Rather God extends to them an invitation of redemption, a chance to become whole. Holiness is not intended to be restrictive, keeping outsiders outside. It's meant to pave the path to redemption.

The Principles
In looking at these texts, we should not use these principles to simply explain away laws. There's something the text is trying to show us here. There are two principles I think we can glean from this study.

1 -- Meet people where they are at

The path of Torah is not an all or nothing walk. Meet people where they are at in their own walk and help them from there. Find the things they are doing good and encourage them in those things. When you see them going the wrong direction, gently redirect them. But, remember this is their life, their choice. If they insist on going a certain direction, help them prepare for the dangers. Be there for them. If a man insists on traveling with a dragon, it's better I send him with a gun than simply denounce him for not following my advice.

2 -- Preach Redemption

And that means preaching holiness. We must maintain a clear line between what is good and what is evil. We must realize that this world is broken and in need of a healer. But, the story doesn't stop at brokenness. The goal is redemption. The line in the sand is not to create an "us vs. them" framework. It's not to give us bragging rights; apart from God we're no better off. It's a door for them to walk through into holiness. It's a bridge across a great chasm of despair. The chasm is already there as a result of sin--we bring attention to it so that it may be crossed. And in this is hope.

There is wisdom in the Torah. But, sometimes we have to dig for it. It's a lot like the Tabernacle--you can stare at the outside all day and see nothing more than animal skins. It's not until you approach the Living God within that you begin to see the glory of God's dwelling place.

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