Do we actually love God's legislation?
This is the fourth part of a six-part series of essays from a cross-section of leading scholars who revisit the "First Testament" place in contemporary Christian belief. – The editors
C.Christians have a problem. We know that we should base our ethics on the Bible, but sometimes the Bible is vague on ethical issues that we think are easy.
For example, the New Testament does not raise questions about slavery. Paul instructs the slaves "to obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with heart sincerity, as you would obey Christ" (Eph 6: 5). Texts like this have been used throughout Christian history to justify horrific dehumanizing acts by Christians who believed that the Bible was "on their side".
But the Old Testament is hardly silent about slavery. It is said that debtors should be released after six years. Why doesn't the New Testament refer to this rule? First, it is realistic to take into account the human hardness of hearts, which was greater in the context of the Roman Empire than in Israel. In contrast, the Old Testament limits debt service so that actual slavery is excluded for other Israelites (it is misleading that newer translations in the Old Testament use the word "slave"). The Old Testament assumes that work generally belongs in the context of community relationships and sets clear boundaries for bondage. Israelites are never “owned” by one another, their entire service is temporary and compensated in some way, and there are strict regulations to ensure that foreign servants (who were owned) are treated with respect and compassion.
Although I suspect that most of us believe that the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God, we often do not. This could partly be because some of what we find in the Old Testament seems uncomfortable or even horrific to us. In most cases, however, we don't consider looking for instructions. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, the scriptures are useful in teaching, rebuilding, correcting, and training the right life, and therefore play a role in equipping us to do good things. "The scriptures," to which this passage refers, are what we call the Old Testament today – people still wrote the New Testament when Paul wrote to Timothy. Since we believe that the Old Testament writings are inspired and we consider this to be important, why do we not address them much for ethical reasons – the purpose for which we are promised to be profitable? What would happen if we did it?
The Old Testament speaks for itself
Paul told the Church in Rome that the proper requirement of the Torah (the Hebrew term that is translated as "law" in our modern Bibles) is fulfilled in us if we live by the Spirit (Rom 8: 4). Let us summarize this together with the line from 2 Timothy: If we want to walk according to the Spirit, we have to know what the Old Testament scriptures say. We need an understanding and familiarity with the Old Testament, including the rules that many of us avoid when reading the Old Testament. Without them, we miss God's ideals and expectations of human behavior, the crucial foundation for understanding the full biblical answers to some of our greatest ethical questions.
When we think about the Old Testament and ethics, we tend to approach them in two ways. One way is to find out how the Old Testament can inform and support us on issues that are important to us – such as justice or the maintenance of creation or same-sex marriage or the care of migrants. The other is to be angry about problems that the Old Testament seems to raise for us – like polygamy or the annihilation of the Canaanites. In the first case, we set the agenda and we want the Old Testament to say something that is important to us. ("You see? The Old Testament is relevant!") With the second, we think we know what is right and we try to let the Old Testament off the hook if it does not match our understanding. ("It really isn't as bad as it seems.")
But what if we look at the Old Testament's own view of ethics to see how it raises concerns that we need to respond to? What if we allowed the Old Testament to meet our needs instead of adapting it to our needs? Doing so will be a challenge, but it is valuable and necessary to live faithfully
Fulfill the Torah
One reason why it is difficult to see the effects of the Old Testament writings as a whole is that they were not written all at once. They have been the work of many different people for most of a thousand years. They come from cultures that are different from our western life. So they can appear distant. And they seem to accept things that we don't expect God to accept. The scriptures dealt with situations very different from ours, and God needed them to speak differently in different contexts.
The Old Testament is not systematic and is not structured according to topics. Part of the challenge and richness of the Old Testament is its colorful variety. In due course, these writings became a book. How can they become a resource for us? Jesus gives us some pointers to answer this question.
Picture: Matt Chinworth
One of the first things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount is that he did not come to nullify the Torah and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17). "Fulfill" sounds like a technical term, but Matthew uses the usual word "fill". Jesus came to fill them, to fill them. how did he do that? When he goes on to say, "You heard it … but I'm telling you," he gives a number of examples of this filling. For example, it is possible to abide by the law prohibiting murder and the warnings of the Ignoring Old Testament with Rage. Jesus says nothing new as if the Old Testament did not recognize that anger should be avoided. Proverbs make this point clear. Rather, Jesus fulfills the Torah and the Prophets by pointing out things that do Old Testament says, and on things that it implies that people could possibly avoid, it brings out the full implications of Scripture.
In another example, the Torah says, “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). The context makes it clear that Leviticus is keeping an eye on the neighbor you cannot cope with, the neighbor who is your enemy. Perhaps Jesus knew of people who thought that as long as you love your nice neighbor, you can hate your neighbor who is your enemy. But the Old Testament never says that you can hate someone, and you can't say any other Jewish scriptures either. Leviticus himself implies that you must love your enemy, but you might overlook this conclusion. In one case of this "filling", Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan and fulfills the Torah by highlighting its implications: your neighbor may not be someone you like, but you still need to love him.
Justice and justice?
A friend of mine suggested that Christian ethics is primarily about principles that arouse feelings, as if I were on the side of love, justice, and liberation with Jesus. We assume that what love, justice and liberation are is obvious. The risk, however, is that the implementation of these principles is primarily to accept and promote the commitments of other progressive or conservative people. And the danger is that our thinking and life is essentially shaped by our culture, by our social context. It is tempting to assume that our thinking must be broadly correct – after all, we are Christians and we are committed to Scripture, aren't we? But we may have to confront or at least optimize our understanding.
Take, for example, the way we think about justice. It is easy to assume that everyone generally agrees on what justice is. However, the definitions of "justice" vary between cultures. There is an Old Testament sentence that is translated: "Justice and Justice". It was rightly described as an Old Testament expression for "social justice". However, this does not mean social justice in the sense that we traditionally use this phrase. Individually, the two Hebrew words are not translated as "justice" or "justice", with the meaning that we attach to these words in English. The word translated as justice (Mishpat) means something like the right exercise of authority and power. And the word translated as justice (sedaqah) means something like loyalty to doing the right thing in relationships with people in your own community – while the English word justice means living an honorable individual life.
For us, concern for justice can above all mean working for what is right. In the Old Testament, "justice and justice" was at least as much about what you did as what you worked for. It was practical and down to earth, personal and expensive. It was about doing what you could do on behalf of the people who lived nearby. For the heads of household, this meant that the family's resources were shared with needy people outside the family and that the family did not exploit the people they were working for. For us, it's not just about what the city should do about homelessness. I want to see what I can do to give the homeless person the shelter and help he needs on my street. It's not just about getting a government or company to do something for nature conservation. The point is that I do less long, environmentally harmful flights over the Atlantic.
The most important
Although it is necessary for Christian ethics to read the Old Testament in general, what would be the most important commandment in the Torah if we had to reduce it to one thing? Jesus' answer to this key question provides important clues for understanding biblical ethics (Mt 22:36–40). Jewish theologians liked to discuss what was the most important commandment, although there was little doubt about the answer: love God with heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6: 5). Like some other Jewish teachers, Jesus extends this commandment with another from the Torah, the commandment to love one's neighbor, and teaches that it deserves to be placed alongside love for God.
The thought-provoking observation that Jesus then adds is that the entirety of the Torah and the Prophets depend on these two commands. This is an amazing assertion and central to understanding Old Testament ethics. If you are wondering about the meaning of an individual rule in the Torah or if you think that a certain commandment seems strange to God, it is always worth asking: “How is this commandment a result of love for God? or love for the neighbor (or both)? "
Consider an example: The Old Testament teaches that people became impure when they had to bury a deceased family member and that a man became impure after ejaculation. How do these biblical rules about purity express love for God? It's easy to believe that it's about sin, but that's only part of what's going on. Rules about purity didn't concern sin – until you ignored them. There was nothing wrong with the funeral or having sex with the right person. What is wrong is to forget that the creator and his creatures are very different.
A key focus of the rules on purity was this important distinction between man and God, which the Bible sometimes means when it comes to holiness. The rules recognized that God in his own being had nothing to do with death or sex. Many of us live in cultures that avoid thinking about death and that are obsessed with sex. The rules in Leviticus remind us that death is an integral part of human experience and also unnatural, which is due to the case. They also remind us that sex is only human, and although it is good, it is not divine. All of this further serves to illustrate that ethics in the Old Testament is not an independent category. Who we are and who God is are inextricably linked to what we should do.
Bless our hard hearts
The Old Testament recognizes the difference between ideal and reality and speaks accordingly. We see this clearly in a discussion Jesus has with some Pharisees about divorce (Mark 10: 1–12). When asked what he thinks about it, Jesus turns the question, "What does the Torah say?" They find that the Torah allows divorce. But Jesus points out that divorce is allowed because the Israelites were hardhearted. If you look back at the time when things were at creation when God made the first man and woman, you cannot imagine that divorce was intended as part of the picture. But when the rules are introduced in Deuteronomy, God recognizes that some men throw their women out, and therefore sets a rule that regulates the way this gloomy event takes place and offers some protection to women. As with the question of slavery, the Torah sets out the ideal of creation and the vision of God and takes into account the fact that we do not do it justice. This pattern in no way diminishes God's righteousness. Rather, it emphasizes its mercy towards us.
How do we apply the Old Testament scriptures and the ethics described therein today? How can a Christian obey the scriptures that the apostles and the earliest Christians considered "useful in teaching, blaming, correcting, and training in righteousness"? We can ask three questions as we study the Old Testament diligently and try to live according to God's revelation: How must the implications of the Old Testament teaching be “filled in”? How does the Old Testament teaching express love for God and love for one's neighbor? And finally, how far does the Old Testament define the ideals of creation and how far does it take our hard-heartedness into account?
Of course, it is a great challenge to pursue the ideal of creation and not just to be satisfied with the compromise. But the Old Testament ethics are fundamental to the teachings of Jesus, and he gave us the tools we need to implement them. If the Old Testament was so central to Jesus, the real question is not: How can we as Christians apply the Old Testament ethics to our lives? but "How can we not?" Jesus has already made it possible for us, and by dying and rising we have already covered us when we do not.
John Goldingay is a professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. This article is taken from his book Old Testament Ethics: A Leadership (IVP Academic).
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