As you read this week, look for a variety of understandings about what the Law is and how it properly functions in the life of the community.
Don’t be afraid to question.
Was the Law literally issued from the mouth of the Lord from a mountaintop or is this metaphorical, powerful story telling?
Is it possible that the Law evolved over time as faithful people sought to live out God’s way within a community that called themselves “God’s”?
Over the centuries, within the Jewish tradition, “the Law” has developed through the three-fold Halakhah. Here are the 613 commandments of Torah, the laws of the Rabbis and the Customs or Traditions.
To this day, many of our Jewish cousins continue to function with this basic framework of Law. It is fascinating study.
See more here: http://www.jewfaq.org/halakhah.htm
And here: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm)
As you read Exodus 16-24, you will find the famous story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Read the story carefully. Are there any surprises? Probably we all have been shaped by Hollywood’s version of this powerful story; we may not even realize how much so. Name the influences that are working on your interpretation and as you read this week, see how well you can approach these stories with a fresh, more neutral lens.
As Exodus continues, there are many more ordinances and regulations detailed in the following chapters: rules for proper ownership of a Hebrew slave; rules about selling one’s daughter; a list of capital crimes – cursing or striking one’s parents, kidnapping, killing another person (but not a slave since a slave is ‘property.’) There are rules for when an ox injures a person; rules about lending money, bribery and perverting justice.
Of course there is other law in the pages of the Torah as well, not just the moral code. The Mosaic Law also details the particulars of worship, ceremonial law that includes rules for the priesthood and for the sacrificial system. (We will see more of that in Leviticus.) But fundamentally, the Law from Sinai teaches the fledgling people of Israel how to be in relationship, how to behave toward one another with fairness and justice. It is law grounded in a specific culture, time and place. It is law contingent on the particular circumstances of a particular people in a particular day and age.
As you read the Psalms (19, 91, 101)
In the ancient wisdom literature, Psalm 19 sings a song of praise for God’s law that governs the universe and for the beauty and mystery of creation. It’s a compelling psalm written in melodic couplets.
As you read Psalm 91, notice how it offers a perfect example of deuteronomistic theology.
As you read Matthew 1-7
It’s interesting to read The Gospel according to Matthew alongside the book of the Exodus. Matthew is our most Jewish gospel and throughout, we see comparisons and contrasts between Jesus and Moses.
- The Pharaoh in Egypt and the King in Jerusalem seek to kill the male infants who may threaten their power.
- “Out of Egypt I have called my son…” Matthew says of Jesus – while in the background he also sees Israel escaping danger and persecution.
- Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, passing through the waters (like the Red Sea) and then entering into a wilderness forty days and forty nights where he too is tempted to test God.
But again and again, unlike God’s other “son” Israel (or any of the rest of us sons and daughters), Jesus is the one who faithfully and persistently submits himself to the God who Calls, the God who Saves, the God who Provides.
(See Charlotte’s blog The Law of the Lord for more discussion about how Jesus reinterpreted the Mosaic Law.)
How does one faithfully interpret Scripture in our own day? Matthew’s Jesus and other New Testament theologians give us insight and models for sound and faithful re-readings.
As you read 1 Corinthians 1-9
The apostle Paul had his own way of understanding the significance of the Christ Event and the subsequent transition from the requirements of law to the freedoms and responsibility of grace. Reading between Matthew and Paul, it is clear there was some tension among the New Testament theologians about how best to re-read and re-interpret their own Scriptures.
The New Testament writers were all faithful Jews who honored their tradition and grounded their lives in the Law so it was with deep prayer and care that they pondered new understandings of the Law in light of the Christ. Even so, as faithful and conscientious as they were, they inevitably saw some things differently and so the Christian churches they planted emerged with different understandings, traditions and practices. (This is very much like our own experience of ecumenical diversity within the broad Christian tradition of our own day.)
The opening verses of the first letter to the Corinthian church launch quickly into admonitions for unity. There is significant division, Paul complains. The witness to the reconciliation and grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ is compromised, Paul insists.
As you read, notice how Paul obviously is answering specific questions that had been addressed to him. Remember we don’t know the questions; we only have Paul’s answers. It’s a little bit like that game show Jeopardy where the contestants are given the answer and must guess the question. Scholars pay attention to this kind of dynamic in our Scriptures and try to discern what might have been going on.
As a budding theologian, you too can pay attention and come up with some of your own wise theories that may help you understand the one-sided conversation better. As you ponder and discern, you may discover more wisdom for how to apply these ancient texts to our own day.
Don’t be afraid to question.
What situations have obvious cultural differences that resist too neat an application to force upon our modern culture?
What truths for living together in godly community do you see that can apply even across the centuries?
Much as the Law of Moses was a law grounded in a specific culture, time and place – so the “rules” Paul offers to the churches in the first century can also be understood as contingent on the particular circumstances of a particular people in a particular day and age.
We theologians are called to do the wise work of discerning eternal truths that transcend all our cultural limitations. We do this with humility and prayer. We must always read and then re-read these ancient texts, our holy Scriptures, with open minds and open hearts.