Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Musings on the Law

The first words recorded in the Bible as spoken to Man, "be fruitful and multiply", are sometimes called a commandment, but this is misleading. They are a blessing. For some, there is a greater blessing prepared in this world already, but this does not diminish the first blessing.

It is said, sometimes, that there are "613 Commandments" (or some such number) in the Old Testament. Some of them are famous, such as
____ the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. 4 Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. 5 Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: ____ the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.
It's a bit wordy, and includes command, revelation, and warning. It is a command, in that it outlines a necessary principle of human life in general: we owe our very being (reflected in deliverance out of Egypt) to the foundation of all being, who exists-by-nature; and so primacy of worship belongs to the same Creator, not to be supplanted in our devotion by any creature (though we may be glad of them for their instrumentality in our present life, or delight in them as rejoicing the senses, so far as that is good), and especially not any of our creatures — "graven images".

Another expression in the imperative follows soon after those famous ten,
And if thou make an altar of stone unto me, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones: for if thou lift up a tool upon it, it shall be defiled.
We might call this a command, but it certainly isn't a principle of human life in general. Firstly, it is already a conditional sentence, opening with "if". Secondly, it seems to come with an explanation, if one whose poetry remains obscure to me. (It occurs to me that, today, dedicated altars in Catholic churches all incorporate hewn stone reliquaries; hewing them is the most practical means of keeping a chalice level.) I've a sneaking suspicion that the intent is to keep not only hand-made idols away from worship, but to separate even the crafts of image-making from worship, for the moment, though I'd rather have a clear explanation...

These are the judgments which thou shalt set before them. If thou buy a Hebrew servant...
the translation chosen here is "judgment", and the whole of what follows is of quite a different class of Law than the Decalogue; it outlines what might today be called jurisprudence and sentencing guidelines. Like the liturgical law "if thou make an altar..." it is a series of conditionals. And every judgment is invoked only with particular manifest evidence.

The condition in the very first judgement raises an interesting question! Who, at the contextual moment, owns a Hebrew servant and might sell? If there are any in the present company, those servants will be free in the Seventh year. That is, this chapter opens, not with the sanctioning of slavery, but with a recipe for delivering captive Hebrews out of Pagan servitude! The ransomed Hebrew indeed owes his life and eventual freedom to whoever paid his ransom, and the law emphasizes this — though, note that it doesn't say anything against early release of a ransomed servant.

I think it is a mistake to suppose that God intended the sentences of Sinai to be understood by Moses as his last word to the People of Israel on the subject; and therefore neither did He intend Israel to think the Law was finished. The modern tendency to find this Law unbearably harsh ("If a man curse his father or his mother"... but what is meant by "cursing"?) I think speaks of a tacit assumption that this Law was given in a vacuum — that because Israel are currently sitting in the Desert they have no proper law or legal habits, and that they also have no problems that the Law is needed for to solve. But on the contrary there is a ... joke? ... about laws: if there is somewhere a statute explicitly forbiding, say, the blindfolding of a Cow on the Highway, and a specified fine for it, one must suppose that at least two people have at some point blindfolded cows on highways.

Or, let me put it this way: according to tradition, the Sinai legal Maxim "an eye for an eye" was written by the same human hand as Lamech's lament, "Sevenfold vengeance shall be taken for Cain: but for Lamech seventy times sevenfold;" (and, of course, we Christians all remember how many times to forgive our brother?). The Law given at Sinai may well be (and, I suggest, should be read as) the very first iteration of legal restraint in Israel's history. Do ransom captive Israelites, and retain their debt in servitude, but no more than six years. Yes, in the Desert you are wandering and cannot hold prisoners but must chastise crime, nonetheless don't get fancy or messy with execution— I do shudder to think it, but today probably the "cleanest" execution available is "firing squad", and... well, that's what stoning-or-arrows were, (c.f. "David and Goliath") and it was supposed to be done quickly. Anyways, read this way, supposing a progression from seventy-times-sevenfold vengeance to strictly equal vengeance... it's not that this, in itself, has to culminate with the Sermon on the Mount, but that once you get there, it is a most fitting conclusion.

But neither is this the end of thinking about this Law, these "judgments".


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