Five chapters today, covering a bewildering range of subjects and all mixed together so that under the wonderful heading (in the NRSV) of ‘Miscellaneous Laws’ we deal with keeping an eye on your neighbour’s animals (do) to cross-dressing (don’t), then on to gathering eggs (moderation), building safety (does your roof have a parapet?) mixing seed in a vineyard (don’t), forcing ox and donkey to plough together (don’t), mixing wool and linen (don’t – not just for fashion reasons) and finally having tassels on the corner of your cloak (definitely – four).
And all of this is bracketed by laws about the execution of troublesome sons, the treatment of the bodies of executed offenders (which would be often-consulted if all these laws were ever enforced) and then laws about sexual relationships covering all kinds of offences, false accusations and more.
A lot of it makes very uncomfortable reading. As before, I can see that in the context of the time some of the laws that now feel discriminatory and oppressive to women in particular would have felt radical in giving rights to women, even those enslaved and effectively forced into marriage. But having heard reports today of the execution of gay men by ISIL in the areas of the Middle East they control, in my heart I do still wish this stuff wasn’t in the Bible. The bits about caring for the weak, ensuring justice for the poor, leaving food in your fields to be gathered by the homeless and the refugee – these bits I like. I’m happy for them to stay in.
Thankfully I don’t get to choose which bits of the Bible count as God’s Word and which don’t. Nor do I have to like it or read it as it’s God’s direct word to me today. And this overwhelming flood of laws on anything and everything actuality makes that clearer. For one thing, the way the different subjects are mixed shows that this text comes from a very different world in history and in thought; from a world of thought where rules about textiles and safety rails sit comfortably between discussions of capital punishment and adultery.
That’s a relief – I’m on the ‘outside‘
In a strange way, it actually came as a bit of relief to find one of the laws that put me on the wrong side of the ‘in-out’ line – because it’s on that side of the line that we actually discover God’s love and grace. I had to wait until chapter 23 – thankfully verse 2 rather than verse 1… A few years back, while laid up after foot surgery, I looked into my family history, as far as I could from the sofa with a laptop. And I soon found out that I couldn’t go far back before – how can I put it – dates of birth and dates of parents’ marriages didn’t come in the conventional sequence. So I’m not eligible to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord – which probably means I’m in the wrong job. And that my great-great-great-etc grandchildren will still be ruled out. Oddly, it makes it easier to read these laws knowing that I’m – at least in a small way – in the category of the ‘out’ rather the ‘in’. Of course that’s even before we get to the big one of not being Jewish.
Thank God for Grace. By his love and through Jesus, I’m ‘in’ even when I should be ‘out’ – because I’m loved.
So what on earth can I get from this passage, except for my ever-deepening appreciation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone? There are a few specifics that seem to keep coming up, so perhaps they give us a hint of God’s values and priorities which might remain constant though their expression in law needs to change with the world around them, and especially with the fact that we’re now in Anno Domini, not Before Christ.
- All of life matters to God – whether it’s big or small, ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, it’s all involved in living faithfully to God.
- The right ordering of the world matters – here it comes across in laws about not mixing things that should be kept distinct, but there’s a wider principle which drives science as well as theology and ethics.
- God cares about the poor and needy, and God’s faithful people care too. Enough should be left, even at the edges of society, for those at the edges to be fed and clothed with decency.
- Everyone deserves respect and care – even a prisoner of war forced to marry an Israelite, or a criminal being flogged. All are human, and therefore all are made in God’s image. It’s often said that the measure of a society is its treatment of its prisoners. In Israel, punishment should not degrade a criminal or make others look down on him.
I’m sure there are plenty of others, but that’s probably enough to start with. The harder part is working out just how those principles should work out in 21st century England, rather than in 14th century BC Canaan. But I suspect that we’re more likely to work them out right if we start from remembering that we’re all on the wrong side of the line of the Law for one reason or another.