< March 15, 2009 >

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

 

Biblical law remains on the front pages, both in church and society.

One thinks of the arguments within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other churches regarding the continuing applicability of Leviticus laws to churchly practice. The ways in which the church has used Old Testament law have, to say the least, often been less than helpful. And this dispute has kicked over into the culture as a whole.

Old Testament law texts are virtually ignored in the church, not least in the common lectionary. Besides the Decalogue, the only other law texts regularly read are the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and the "love your neighbor" text in Leviticus 19:11-18. These are probably chosen because Jesus quotes them in Mark 12, claiming that these laws are "greater" than others, and commending the scribe for saying they are "more important" (Mark 12:28-34).

Now, what might Jesus' claim about differing levels of importance among the laws do for our reflection on other laws in the biblical collection? At the very least, it invites us to recognize that there are distinctions to be made among the laws regarding their continuing significance.

Many people tend to think of biblical law in negative terms; it is that which restrains and keeps us from doing what we would really like to do. Or, we've learned about a basic Lutheran conviction: the law convicts us of our sin and drives us to Christ. And we've decided: that's enough, that's all we need to know. There are many other reasons Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament law texts, including:

  • their ancient cultural context
  • their claimed obsolescence
  • their hard-nosed, albeit selective use by some believers
  • the relatively narrow range of their coverage of life's exigencies
  • and their remarkable capacity to make readers feel uncomfortable (for example, Exodus 22:21-28; Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

It is important that we seek to capture some of the positive force of the word "law":

  • to be concerned about the law is to be concerned with the well-being of people
  • the law preserves life
  • the law instructs us and helps us to develop wisdom and maturity
  • the law promotes good

A most basic claim we all should make regarding Old Testament laws is that these laws, both individually and in their entirety, are a gracious gift of God for the sake of the life, health, and well being of individuals in community.

God's law takes into account what the people need for the best possible life. This means that the laws are not arbitrary; they are given in view of specific human needs. God's actions in the narrative which surrounds the giving of the law show that the law is not arbitrarily laid upon the people, but is given "for our good always, that God might preserve us alive" (Deuteronomy 6:24). The gracious purposes of God for Israel evident in the narrative demonstrate that the law is fundamentally gift, not burden.

As Deuteronomy 5:33 puts it (in connection with the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue): these laws are given to God's people "that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long on the land that you are to possess." God gives the Ten Commandments (and other laws) in the service of life. If for no other reason, they deserve our close attention, both with respect to (a) the laws as laws, and (b), the community concerns that led to their formulation in the first place. To obey the law (already given in creation) is to live in harmony with God's good intentions for the creation. The law is given for the sake of the best life possible; the law stands in the service of a stable, flourishing, and life-enhancing community.

Deuteronomy 5:33 shows that God does not simply give the law to the people by divine fiat. Instead, God accompanies the law with motivations to obey the law. The fourth commandment also illustrates this common point in the laws: "Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land" (Exodus 20:12). Such motivations reveal the kind of God that stands behind the law. God does not just lay down the law, but gives Israel good reasons to obey.

It is in Israel's self-interest and in the best interests of the human and nonhuman community, especially the vulnerable and marginalized, to obey ? that it may go well with you, and that you may live long. This, of course, is not reward talk. Rather, such benefits are intrinsically related to the deed; they grow out of the deed itself. To obey is a reasonable thing to do (cf. Deuteronomy 4:6). Right obedience is always an intelligent obedience. The concern of the law is not to bind Israel to some arbitrary set of laws, but to enable them to experience the fullness of life in relationship.

Generally speaking, God's giving of the Ten Commandments and the law is understood fundamentally in vocational terms. God has chosen to use human agents in carrying out the divine purposes in the world. God moves over, as it were, and gives to the human an important role to play.

We are to take initiative and assume responsibility for the world of which we are a part, including furthering the cause of justice and good order in Israel and the larger creation. God is the kind of God who has chosen not to do everything "all by himself." God lays out a vocation for those of us who are disciples. The Ten Commandments gives a basic shape to that vocation.

The Ten Commandments have a fundamentally personal and inter-relational character to them. God introduces them with highly personal statements regarding what God has done on behalf of the people (cf. Exodus 20:2). Obedience to law is thus seen to be a response within a relationship, not a response to the law as law. In the larger narrative, readers are confronted with a God who personally interacts with Israel throughout every stage of their journey through the wilderness, and the law must be understood within that relational context.