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The Law in the Old Testament is relative to time and place, as well as to the prevalent historical conditions, not the Gospel of grace and forgiveness.

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Rereading the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Bible, has been incredibly rewarding, because now I can understand and grasp it with a mature reading, while in my earlier days it was merely bewildering, confusing, and unfamiliar. The Bible is the book of books because it introduces us to the God, who remained faithful and dwelt with and protected God’s chosen people. That same God so compassionately involved with them became incarnate for us in Jesus Christ.

Reading Deuteronomy chapters 1-11 has been a wonderful experience. They are like a gospel hidden away in the Pentateuch. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (6.5) and “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8.3). Interestingly enough, in Hebrew the book is called Devarim or “Words.” Ah, the gospel is filled by living words and the Book of Nature is filled with the Word of God.[1] Ah, “the Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” In Hebrew, “flesh” in this sense refers to the word becoming a human being.

In chapter 12 however, Deuteronomy takes a spin into the law by means of its Holiness Code, and then problems emerge thick and fast. I woman discovered not to be a virgin by her bridegroom shall be stoned to death (22:22). No question is asked whether or not she was raped or locating the man who took away her virginity. In championing justice by means of the law, which is the real contribution of the law, here the law violates the law, since it is the men who judge her and may have been the ones who violated her.

An incorrigible son shall be stoned to death (21:18-21). No question about the bad government of the parents or about rehabilitation for a young person. This punishment could in itself well be a crime. The parents take the child to the elders: “Here is our son. Fix our problem.” The son could be the loud speaker for the problems the family is having.

“Cursed is anyone hanged from a tree” (21.23). In the case of Jesus, his capital punishment was itself the crime, it was a curse not on the innocent man, but on those who condemned him, and thank God, that he forgave us.

In the previous chapter, it gets even worse: prisoners of war might be taken in some cases, “But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them:” the Hittites, Amonites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, because they might lead you astray to worship other gods. What is sometimes called “holy war” is neither holy nor really a war so much as sanctioned genocide. Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon, where the Gentiles worshiped other gods, and converted them. Jesus had mercy on the Syro-Phoenician woman and showed Peter the revelation of unclean animals and bade him eat. This picture language instructed Peter to preach and baptize even the household of the Roman centurion.

That the law in the scriptures is thus relative to time, place, and historical contingencies is illustrated by this change in the instructions given to those chosen by God to further the reign of God.[2]

But sandwiched right in these instructions are those that forbid the Israelites from cutting down all the trees in a siege. A tree-hugging question follows: “Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (20.19) This question is really relevant even for those companies that clear cut the forests and lay waste our land today. Christ came to bring life and life abundantly. That places capital punishment into question as well as the clear-cutting of forests and the subsequent devastation of nature.

Capital punishment is dealt out freely for too many “crimes,” even for prophets who divine by dreams. They shall be put to death if they use them to speak treason against the Lord (13.5). By your own hand you shall kill anyone who tries to entice you to worship other gods, even your wife, brother, children; and in a town that serves other gods, all the people shall be killed, even their livestock (13.6-11). We will not judge the people of that day, but for today, such an instruction would be an abomination. By means of the Holy Spirit and through healing campaigns of love and compassion, our Lord Jesus sends us to proclaim the Gospel of grace and forgiveness and would only shake the dust off his feet to recalcitrant towns.

In the old days, religion used to be the chain that held a society together and the worship of other gods was a threat to the society and held to be like treason. But Emil Durkheim has argued that now the division of labor has made humans in society need each other and religion is in a forum of freedom, in which everyone can be convinced from his or her heart about what is a true way of life and what is a false way. Jesus introduces this freedom with the reign of God and Martin Luther in the Reformation introduced the diversity of Christian expressions, in which different faiths could remain faithful. In his prohibition of crusades, he was trying to exorcise violence from religion.[3] The freedom of a Christian spells the religious freedom to become convinced of the truth from the heart without coercion.

In our Sierra Pacific Synod assembly a man stood up in the spirit of these old laws, when the equal medical and pension rights for same gender marriages was being debated and read Leviticus 20:13: “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” He failed to read verse 10 which dictates that in cases of adultery both parties should be put to death, as well as those who curse their parents (20.9), for all manner of abnormal relations, a son sleeping with a father’s wife (and of course many wives are permitted to a man), an uncle’s wife, a daughter-in-law, that prostitutes should be burnt to death (Lev. 21.9).

Now Jesus said about a woman taken in adultery (and notice, not the man, who must have been part of it!) “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” Why did that member of our church take account of Jesus’ approach to faith and life?

Did he never read the Sermon on the Mount? You have read of old, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also” (Matthew 5.38-39) and “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so shall you be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat 43-45).

Admittedly, the first three alterations of the law by Jesus intensify the murder, adultery, and divorce commandments, but Jesus obviously stands for an absolute Gospel and a law relative to a time, place, and the historical conditions of the day. Don’t forget how Jesus places himself and his healing mission over the Sabbath law.

Then look at Leviticus chapter 21 beyond verse 9, in which prostitutes are commanded to be burned, while Jesus claims that the righteous have no need of a physician, but the sick do. He came to save sinners and not condemn them. In the further verses of this chapter all the blemished people are listed that a priest is not allowed to draw near: the blind, the lame, someone with a mutilated face or a limb that is too long, someone with a broken foot or hand, a hunchback, a dwarf, a man with a blemish in his eye or itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. A descendant of Aaron with any of these blemishes is not to bring the Lord’s offerings to the God’s holy altar.

Now Jesus transgressed these commandments by not only drawing near to the blemished such as these, but by touching, and healing them. Certainly the scriptures cannot be broken, but the living Word, Jesus broke them, and then he was broken on the tree for us. In this Heaven of grace that Jesus spreads out over us, we realize that we are all sinners fallen short of the glory of God, and the people that we designate as sinners, have a special place, a pride of place, in the gracious forgiveness of God. Therefore we follow our gracious Lord, by being un-self-righteous, trampling the monster of presumptuousness under our feet, all the way to the cross with our savior, Jesus.


[1] See Psalm 19 in its good translation that I have in my Moltmann piece.

[2] See Luther’s, “How Christians should Regard Moses,” in Timothy Lull’s, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pages 135-148: “If I accept Moses’ [law] in one respect (Paul tell the Galatians in chapter 5 [:3], then I am obligated to keep the entire law” (page 140).

[3] See my dissertation, The Sword of the Spirit, the Sword of Iron.

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Written by peterkrey

July 2, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Posted in 1, Biblical Commentary

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