Because life is a series of edits

The Brutality of Love

In Thought on June 7, 2008 at 9:40 am

Getting back to our final installment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Interpretation, what do we do with the perception in the minds of most modern people that “the Bible is a deeply ugly book”? With regard to passages like Leviticus 19:18b and Deuteronomy 13:7-11, what were Moses’ purposes and the needs of the nation (not the state) of Israel that led him to encourage loving one’s neighbor in Leviticus and, at the same time, punish his neighbor so violently if he enticed him to forsake God? Don’t Christians have to apply even the most brutal passages then to be consistent today?

As I mentioned in my post on Women and Head Coverings, context always comes into play; we can’t read our 21st-century perspective back into an ancient text, but have to allow it (and what we have learned about it) to inform us before we try to apply it. This is especially important in understanding the many casuistic – or “case” – laws in the Bible and what they were trying to protect; to do otherwise would be akin to someone three thousand years from now reading our modern-day traffic laws and determining that, because we place limits on speed, we worship slowness, when what we’re really trying to do is save lives.

Gordon Wenham writes in his Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch:

“They (case laws) do not express Old Testament ideals: they only deal with problems…they deal with serious contraventions of the law and thereby set a floor for social behavior. There is…quite a gap between the ethical ideals of the Old Testament, that is how it was hoped people would behave, and the laws which define minimum standards of behavior…The modern reader must bear this in mind in reading these laws. They are designed to curb the worst excesses of Old Testament society: they do not define its ideals.” (p. 71)

So how do we apply this thinking to passages like Deuteronomy 13? Again, let’s start with context. From where were the Israelites coming? From Egypt, a land whose people worshipped man-made gods, and, as a result, treated the Israelites as slaves in the building of temples to these gods for 600 years. In addition, the Egyptians determined that the Israelites had become too numerous, so they began a program not unlike genocide to control and contain their numbers. This was when God, because of his covenant with the nation of Israel, intervened and called Moses to lead them out of Egypt.

To where were the Israelites going? To a strip of land smack in the middle of other nations of multi-god-worshipping peoples. God did not remove the Israelites from interaction with other nations; he led them into more of it because of his love and commitment for all of his creation, not just the Israelites. To this end, God instructed the Israelites by his law – a reflection of his character and for the Israelites’ good – to learn both how to function as a people (remember – they had been slaves for 600 years and didn’t know the first thing about being an organized, functioning society), as well as how to be the people of God (hence the emphasis on exclusivity in the midst of so many peoples worshipping other man-made deities).

J.A. Thompson writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy:

“The number of gods that might claim Israel’s allegiance was considerable, ‘gods which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples that are round about you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other’ (verses 6-7). By means of this vivid language it was made plain to Israel that no god whatever was to take Yahweh’s place (5:7).” (p. 175)

Thompson then writes on the punishment for such practice:

“The penalty prescribed was severe, stoning by the whole community with the family leading the way. It was more necessary for the family than for others to show that it neither had been nor wished to be a partaker in the evil deed. Until recently many societies in the Western world prescribed the death penalty in order to stress the serious nature of certain crimes. While, in practice, this penalty was not always carried out, it remained as a measure of the seriousness of the crime.” (p. 175)

F.F. Bruce elaborates in his NIV commentary on the “due process” often forgotten in a cursory reading of the text and agrees with Thompson that, just because the law was on the Israelities’ “books” does not mean it was always carried out (God himself sets this precedent of mercy in his interaction with Cain after his murder of Abel – see Genesis 4, particularly verses 15-16):

“The responsibility of ‘casting the first stone’ would both discourage careless accusation and – unlike capital punishment today – make the ‘executioners’ personally involved in the sentence…The emphasis on purging the community of infection corresponds to Paul’s demand in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Yet there is little evidence that the death penalty was generally exacted in this and in similar cases (17:12; 19:11-13; 21:18-21; 22:21-24; 24:7) so that it has been suggested that the provision was intended basically to emphasize the gravity of the offense.” (p. 269)

Thompson once more:

“Whatever the origin of such a law, it served the purpose of making clear to a man who acted in this way that society disowned him, and that it would collectively destroy him. The procedures here accord well with the strong emphasis throughout Deuteronomy that society as a whole was involved in the national life. Conversely, each individual was required to play his part in the maintenance of the national life and the good order of society.” (p 175)

Christopher J.H. Wright, in one of my favorite Old Testament works, sums things up well, transitioning from the practice the Old Testament law prescribes to the principle of it that Jesus lives out in the New Testament:

“Deuteronomy 13 is one of the starkest chapters in the Old Testament, dealing with the threat of being enticed into the worship of other gods. With immense realism and perception it anticipates that the temptation to go after other gods may come not only from highly plausible but spurious wonder-workers (verses 1-6), not only from the social pressure of a whole disaffected community (verses 12-18), but also from within the bosom of one’s closest family – ‘your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend’ (verses 6-11).

Even if so, the enticement is to be resisted with a steely firmness that puts loyalty to the Lord alone above even such familial ties. This was a choice Jesus himself faced – not in the sense that his family wished to entice him into blatant idolatry, but rather that in pressing him to return to his family responsibilities they were inadvertently drawing him away from obedience to the will of his Father. Jesus promptly highlighted the stark nature of that choice when he redefined his family in terms of those who, like himself, would put the will of his Father above all else (Matthew 12:46-50).” (p. 344)

So what does this mean for us today? Do we dismiss the Old Testament as simply too brutal to be taken seriously? Hardly, especially since mankind is just eight years out of the most violent century (the 20th) in the history of the planet (and not exactly off to a great start in the 21st). Instead of kidding ourselves that we’ve made so much “progress” regarding human life, we ought to recognize that death is still a strong deterrent for most of us, as well as an ultimate punishment that illustrates how seriously God takes life, which is what God’s laws have always sought to protect.

Are we to stone family members who do not worship the God of the Bible? No. We are not a theocracy (Oxford American Dictionaries: “a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god”) as the nation of Israel was in the Old Testament, nor are we called to be one. Jesus’ new covenant (see Jeremiah 3:31-40 and Luke 22:14-20) established the Church in the New Testament as the chosen people of God, not the nation/state of Israel. This does not automatically exclude Jewish people, but it does not automatically include them, either (read Romans 9-11 for more on this).

That said, in our world today, we as the Church are called to apply the same single-hearted commitment to God as encouraged by the Old Testament laws and modeled perfectly by Jesus. This is why Leviticus 19:18 still applies: the idea of loving God was truly the only way one could love his neighbor. This “brutal” love for God and (as a result) neighbor is why God gave the law in the first place, and what Jesus later explained in Matthew 22:34-40 as the basis of the life he lived as the Fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets:

“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”


  1. Thanks for the post. I fully concur about the importance of allowing a passage to speak for itself–addressing its time and circumstances. I am currently working on a sermon series from the Book of Exodus, and in a sermon or two I will be addressing “laws” very similarly to what you’ve expressed above.

    Rather than simply “picking and choosing” which laws we like and which we do not; it is far more appropriate and faithful to discover the issue(s) at the time and bring the principles to our day. For example, “an eye for an eye” is actually an act of mercy. In a day and age that “mafia-like” feuds where the norm (you kill one of mine, so I kill 5 of yours; you killed 5 of mine, so I kill 20 of yours–and it just continues to escalate), “an eye for an eye” was a way to incorporate proportionality and to set limits on revenge.

    My only concerns, however, is that while folks often are able to avoid reading into an Old Testament passage modern understandings . . . at times the same mistake is made by reading into an Old Testament passage a New Testament understanding. The danger still exists that because both are Holy Scripture, that some may believe the New Testament culture and time is appropriate to understand Old Testament passages.

    As a Christian I believe the Old Testament must ultimately be understood with New Testament eyes and heart; however, that is an ending point and not the beginning. The Old Testament time, culture, issues, and circumstances need to be discovered (as much as possible) prior to bringing the New Testament or our modern understandings to the table. About which, I believe, your post is seeking to remind us.

    Am I close to what you were expressing? :)

  2. I think we’re saying basically the same thing. The Lex Talionis – “eye for an eye” – teaching makes for another good example of how our modern understanding is so opposite of what it actually was (Exodus 21:12-32, if anyone’s interested). I thought about using that as example, so I’m glad you brought it up.

    Regarding the OT/NT thing, the idea of “sensus plenior” – Latin for “fuller meaning” – is helpful. It refers to finding a meaning in a text that goes beyond what the first audience would have seen (the Exodus story as an archetype of Christ delivering us from our sin, for example). Still, we have to make sure such interpretation is legitimate (i.e. it can’t change or disregard the meaning of the original text to make a particularly imaginative interpretation work), which I think is what you’re saying.

    Chris Wright wrote a book called Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament that’s helpful on all this. The focus is obviously on seeing Christ throughout the Scriptures, but the principles can apply across the board.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: