Sunday, June 5, 2011

David's Law

"Her priests do violence to My Law and profane My holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of My Sabbaths, so that I (God) am profaned among them."  Ezekiel 22:26 NIV
So, awhile back, I was having a little debate with a blog commenter by the name of David.  We ended up touching on God's Law, but never really resolved it the matter.

I encouraged him for more study on the matter, because I had a sense that his perspective may be incomplete or inaccurate.  He was kindly putting forth a viewpoint which I had heard many times before; the mantra of the Pauline view of the Law.

I hadn't studied Paul's writings in any real detail myself yet, so I reckoned that I should do just that.  I studied Romans, which David was pointing to in defense of  his position.

I also got some time to review what I had learned about the Law from the Old Testament (OT), and put that together in a post on the Law on my other blog.  In summary of that post:
"God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites for eternity, but they can only stay there, and kings can only rule there, while they obey the entirety of God's Law.  God established the Law forever, perfect, and unchanging, just like Him.  It is possible to obey the Law, and obedience does not need to be perfect in order to please God as long as you are truly repentant for your sins.  Such obedience will be rewarded with long life and abundant prosperity, which will in turn lead others around you to seek God."
The funny thing is that after reading Romans and reviewing the OT, you start to realize by just how Paul's theology misses the mark.  If you read the words for what they are and what they mean, you wonder just how Paul could have been successful with this rift from Scripture, but you stop wondering why the majority of Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  And that circles back to the comments which David had made.  David had said:
"Your issue is solely with Mosaic Law and the implication of Mosaic Law as it relates to God's character.  Is Mosaic Law a valid representation of God's character?  I think you have demonstrated it is not. I maintain it was not intended for that purpose (please re-read my comments)."
David concedes that God's Law in the Old Testament is not exactly morally perfect.  You can see I have proved that point well enough to him, but David gives God a pass because it was not the intent of the Law to show God's character.  However, that is more allowance than God permits Himself.  God made the Law to be followed eternally, completely, and "as is" without any changes.  If the temporary work of my mortal hands demonstrates my character, surely such a permanent creation by God demonstrates His character, just like the charge Paul makes in Romans 1 that all creation has revealed God.

Elsewhere, David asks some interesting questions from the Pauline perspective:
"The problem is you are trying to convict God based on the Law. If God exists, was He righteous before the law? Did the ideas of good and evil exist before the law? How did we understand the difference before the Law? What is its purpose?"
Was God righteous before the Law was given?  Events like the flood massacre (Genesis 5-10) and the worldwide famine (Genesis 41-47) make the case that God will make the innocent suffer along with the guilty, which certainly suggests that, no, God was not righteous before the Law.  (But I guess that depends on your definition of righteous.)

Did the ideas of good and evil exist before the Law?  Absolutely.  Try searching for "sin" on Bible Gateway and you will find multiple Genesis entries (a.k.a. before the Law) on the matter.  A great example is Genesis 39:9.

How did we understand the difference before the Law?  Contrary to Paul's logic in Romans, people seemed to understand the difference without the Law, as noted above.

What is [the Law's] purpose?  Why not go with the explicit purpose given in Deuteronomy 6:20-25?

The bottom line is that you can't take the words at face value and have everything be reconciled between Paul and God (OT).  So believers must twist the definitions of the words to fit the square peg into a round whole. 

Forever, eternal, and unchanging don't really mean forever, eternal, and unchanging, because the Law was just a shadow of what was to come or what was to be fulfilled (not obeying the Law) through Jesus.  Sure.  If believing that makes you feel better, go with it.


  1. As with your other Blog the root issue is what you mean by the Law. There is a spirit of the law and a letter of the law. Certainly God commanding the people to Circumcise the foreskin of their heart (Deuteronomy 10:16) cannot be taken literally. Even the OT make the distinction between spirit and letter.
    When you discuss the Law as a Judge of the Law you are not trying to keep the Law but to use it as a tool. We know the Law is good if one uses it lawfully (1 Tim 1:8). To use the Law for another purpose is an old trick ascribed most commonly to the trickster ;-)
    Mosaic law is (in Cristian parlance) the letter. That is why Christ was able to answer the the pharisee as He did. The letter was written because of the hardness of our hearts.
    The Spirit of the law was clearly identified in the Gospel accounts. Keep the spirit and you keep the meaning of the letter. You cannot keep the spirit by keeping the letter.

  2. Even the OT make the distinction between spirit and letter. True, but the OT wanted full obedience of the Law both in spirit and in letter. As we see in Deuteronomy 32:46:

    [Moses] said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this Law.” NIV

    To use the Law for another purpose is an old trick ascribed most commonly to the trickster ;-) I am using the Law for the express purpose which God presents in Deuteronomy 4:5-6:

    "See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” NIV

    I, as a person foreign to these laws, am pondering them. Unfortunately, I am coming up with quite a different conclusion. I do not think that they are representative of a wise and understanding people. I am not sure how that makes me become a "trickster."

    I'm afraid that the spirit/letter argument is weak.

    First, you must understand that by keeping the letter you are obeying God, which, by the way, God seems to place very high value on within the Bible.

    Second, and perhaps most important, within the letter is the command to love God with all of your heart and the command to love your neighbor as yourself. So, I hate to break it to you, but if you follow the letter, you will be following the spirit as well. ;-) Or did you forget that the "spirit" section was a subset of the Law?

    You have really got to expand your mind beyond Paul. It's not like Paul was the Messiah, or even part of God.

  3. There is a fundamental difference between spirit and letter that is independent of Paul. In our earlier discussion I alluded to it when we talked about homosexuality. The difference is outward conformance and inner conformance. I cannot simply behave as if I love God, I am commanded to actually love Him.

    No you cannot keep the Spirit by keeping the letter. As Christ said the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth. Christ also said if you love me you will keep my commandments, He did not say if you keep my commandments you will love me.

    The spirit/letter argument may be weak (in the sense the weakness of God is stronger than men), but it is the fundamental argument we are having.

  4. Hello again, David. It had been long enough that I was wondering if you had just given up in disgust, or if you just actually had a real life which sometimes took precedence over blog commenting with silly people. Glad to see it is the latter. ;-)

    I'm afraid I have done a terrible disservice to the argument if you believe that the fundamental issue we are discussing is mechanics (letter) versus desire (spirit) (as you are representing it). I apologize. Let me see if I can clear up my perspective.

    Let's take romantic love as a metaphor. Your wife did not say “buy me flowers, take me to dinner, tell me you secrets, and laugh at my jokes, and you will love me.” But doing these actions show your affection for her, and because you love her you want to do these things. That seems to be the argument you are making with “Christ also said if you love me you will keep my commandments...” and your take on the spirit/letter argument. I agree. I have no problem with that, but that's not the whole picture.

    My first issue is with just how much of the spirit of the commandments are being followed. In metaphor again, you and your wife own a home, and she gives you a list of chores for which you are responsible: mow the grass, trim the hedges, pay the bills, fix the plumbing, etc. and she tells you “if you love me, you will do all of these chores.” So, do you obey the chore list “in spirit,” taking each task to be representations of your love for her, and therefore selectively do only the ones you want to do and consider that to be enough proof that you love her? No, you pretty much have to follow the chore list to the letter, or else the Homeowners Association will assess penalties, or the power will be cut to your home, or the plumbing will not work, etc. Presumably, even Jesus felt each task on the chore list was important, which is why He condemned those who did not obey the whole Law and taught others to do likewise (Matthew 5:19).

    My second issue is that not all of the commandments of the Law are good, in which you seem to have some level of agreement with me. Using the metaphor above, it's like if the chore list included “poison the neighbor just a little bit each day.” You love your wife, but probably not enough to kill an innocent person at her request. So what then?

  5. Taking second things first I think God's law is good. I leave it to you to point out the bad law ( I have faith in you ;-) )

    If I love my wife and own a home with her I want to do the things for which I am responsible. In fact I will often do them without the list. This is the "spirit" of our relationship. If I merely complete the tasks in the list (doing no more nor less than is required) I am honoring the "letter" of our relationship. This is kind of the point of Christ's statement that the command not to commit adultery is not sufficient, rather you may not even think about committing adultery - in your heart. The point is why you do it matters.

    It is a common mistake to think that by making the distinction between spirit and letter we are really saying we have license to do what we want. Indeed some people do really mean just that. This is not what David meant when he ate the show bread or what Christ meant when he healed on the sabbath.

    So the command to stone your rebellious child - what do you say, how can the parents keep the spirit of the law to teach their children and the letter?

    David Holland

  6. OK, David, now we are getting somewhere. I have no issue with obeying the Law in the spirit in the way you describe, which basically means (if I can paraphrase) obey the Law because you love God, but you can transgress the Law under extenuating circumstances for the greater good.

    There is more than one bad law. You finish with one of the bad laws which is a fairly commonly objection by non-theists; one which is most-often defended by Christians with a follow the spirit (essence) of the Law as opposed to the letter. I'm afraid, for those who read the full law, the spirit is not so, shall we say, simplified. Deuteronomy 21:21 ends with "All Israel will hear of [the stoning of the rebellious son] and be afraid." The punishment for the sin is of critical importance, meant to be an example. That part, that integral part, can't simply be "followed in the spirit" to be done as God wanted it done.

    May I ask you about another law? How about Deuteronomy 23:1?

  7. Sorry to take so long to respond.

    It isn't "you can transgress for the greater good." It is, more like what "The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath." What I mean by that is that sometimes really keeping the intent breaks the mold. Maybe the distinction is subtle, but I believe it is essential. There is no transgression.

    I thought about Deuteronomy 21:18-21 after I asked you ('cause I didn't really know myself). What I thought about was if as parents you do not raise your child to understand the rules of society or they simply refuse to follow them, then stoning is the self defense of the society, and motivates parents to do the work of training their children. So yes, children who are so utterly rebellious that their own parents give them up suffer as the consequence of their choice. It is also well to note the "children" spoken of are gluttons and drunkards. We are not talking about kids who won't eat their carrots. If you have children you know as well as I that if you love them you discipline and correct them (with the rod appropriate to the lesson). I don't see this as a bad law.

    Deuteronomy 23:1 Sundae toppings (if you forgive the vulgarity) I never understood. Or the follow on for bastards. I cannot defend this because I don't get it. Maybe someone does, and someday they will explain it to me. 'Till then there it sits. I can't really say it's "bad" law or a good law, I don't understand the purpose.

    What about forgiveness and the tenth generation? That I can rationalize. If the purpose is to establish a people within a region then maintaining identity becomes essential doesn't it. This isn't about forgiveness of an individual, so I'm not sure we have a real conflict there.

    Which brings us back to the purpose of the Law. Why? What does it mean, what does it do, what does it teach? I think Paul understood perfectly when he said the good I would ...


  8. I get what you're saying about the sense of the Sabbath made for man, but even that sentiment is at least subtly different from the true intent according to Genesis 2, where the de facto origin of the Sabbath is explained.

    I know it is probably very difficult for you to accept this proposition, but I believe that there is a fairly easy explanation for the "Sundae Topping" law from the skeptical perspective. From how it appears to me, the concept of an afterlife was not fully developed in the early scriptural times. That meant punishments and blessings, that God's judgement, would be applied on earth. That could happen in a person's lifetime or the lifetime of their subsequent progeny. If you can't produce progeny, then there is less collateral at risk, especially given that wicked people do sometimes seem to prosper without divine punishment. And that's also why you see the references specifically to subsequent generations for punishments and rewards.

    However, even if I am dead wrong in that interpretation, it does not change that law itself. So I think the question to ask is do you feel it is "good" to discriminate based on Sundae Toppings? Would Paul have considered such discrimination part of the good that he so desperately wanted to do, but instead found himself not discriminating?

    If you would like to change topics, I do have many other laws worthy of your consideration in determining what is truly good. ;-)

  9. We can change topics anytime. In fact the post about Forever - the eternal possession given in Genesis 13 is an interesting quandary. I don't have an answer for that either (without getting metaphysical). I suppose I could argue that just as our bodies are "changed" in the Resurrection, when the earth is remade (surly He can't leave all our trash lying about) the land is remade as well. I have not really explored that though.

    That said, you're right - I'm not thrilled with the idea that the priests built into the law a way to protect the possibility of wrath. It presupposes that the law was really given by the priests after the return from captivity, and that they made it up as a tool to manipulate the people (as is taught by some). I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist. Just muddling along with what is - is more than most are capable of. An organized conspiracy is awfully hard to pull off (Plato notwithstanding).

    I agree the question is how does the apparent exclusion fit with NT theology. I did find a reference that compares this with Isaiah 56:3 as a prediction this restriction would be removed.
    BTW - Nice word play about Paul's discrimination ;-)

  10. Any topic, any time David. Your blog or mine. :-) We should branch off to another post for a different topic though.

    I don't have all of the answers on the genesis of Judaism, if you will, but I doubt it was a massive conspiracy either, and I doubt that the Law was put together after the return from exile without having some precursor of that Law prior to exile. I don't know. But there are enough issues which make me doubt it all because it seems so human to me. :-)

    I think I understand what Paul was trying to say and what point you are trying to make about the NT version of the purpose of the Law. As I see it though, that version is a "30000-feet" summary, like saying Moby Dick is a book about a guy chasing a whale and Hamlet is a play about a dysfunctional family where everybody dies. Is it accurate? Maybe to some extent, but the fullness of meaning of those texts can not be conveyed in such simple language. It is the details which matter, and the details which should be compared against any summary to discern how accurate that summary is. With regards to the Bible, and specifically the NT take on the Law, I find that the devil really is in the details. ;-)

    As for Isaiah 56:3 being a prediction or prophesy annulling Deuteronomy 23:1, that is indeed an interesting verse, as is the context of Isaiah 56:1-8. Foreigners and eunuchs will be accepted by God; if they keep the Sabbath and the Covenant (obeying the Law). I guess Isaiah 56:7 would have to be considered part of that prophesy, where God will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices on the altar in Jerusalem. When do you think that will be? According to Isaiah 56:1, that should have happened a loooong time ago if we can believe the interpretation of "soon." ;-)