A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Finding Value in Biblical Law

Why bother reading the laws of the Bible if you’re not going to live by them?

That’s the question that comes up–explicitly and implicitly–every year in teaching the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.  Students, especially those from more progressive-to-liberal traditions, can’t figure out what to do with the laws in Exodus 20-23 (commonly called the Covenant Code or the Book of the Covenant).  They are shocked to learn that Exodus 20 softens rather than condemns slavery and recognizes but doesn’t protest the sexual vulnerability of female slaves. They interpret “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” literally as a barbaric approach to justice.  I can see the cultural and religious superiority kick in:  aren’t we glad we’re more sophisticated than this?

My own experience is different.  I’m not rallying for a society that follows all the laws of the Pentateuch, but every year I find the legal materials more interesting and see more similarities between ancient cultures and my own.

Some of those similarities don’t make me very proud. For example,

  • while my society doesn’t share the Israelite system of debt slavery, it does share with Exodus 20 the tendency to soften the effects of economic injustice rather than challenge the systems that create it.  The same could be said of the laws in Deuteronomy, which are often described as humanitarian in character.  It is true that Deuteronomy cares more for the indigent than the laws in Exodus, but both attempt to address poverty through charity rather than through changes in the economic and social structure.

Other similarities are informative, reminding me how much of the U.S. legal system relies on biblical principles.  For example,

  • regulations about how to punish the owner of a goring ox provide the basis for determining liability for pet owners.  If a usually-docile pet freaks out and bites someone once, your liability is less than if you have a pet that has a history of vicious behavior.

And some make me realize that ancient societies may have done some things better than mine does.  For example,

  • the U.S. legal system often exceeds the one-for-one compensation principle built into “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, stripe for stripe, wound for wound.” Punitive damages and other allowances for pain and suffering often far exceed the original loss.  The same might be said of some prison sentences.

Maybe I feel more freedom to observe and reflect on these laws because I don’t approach the Bible with the assumption that I must obey whatever I find.  Rather, I can approach biblical laws, and the rest of the Bible, as testimonies that can be listened to, considered, evaluated.

2 Responses to Finding Value in Biblical Law

  • I think we are on the same teaching schedule. I’m about to get into the legal material as well. I’ve been sending my students to your blog regularly. Thanks for posting this.

  • It can also help if students look for the principle, rather than just focusing on the law. This seems to be how Jesus read law in Matt 5. And it makes sense of e.g. laws about blood – based on the principle that “life is sacred, especially human life”…

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