Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jewish Law and Government as viewed by a Protestant – Part 4– The Law concerning rebellious children



One common Scripture portions which is objected against the law of Moses in these times is Deut. 21:18-20  "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

Viewed by itself this portion may give a false understanding to a reader, however when this portion is compared with the ancient laws of other nations it is actually seen as limiting parental power rather than establishing an easy means for parents to control children.

In the Semitic patriarchal system which Israel shared in common with many neighboring lands prior to the giving of the law, the father had absolute authority in his home and the power of life and death within it. Thus when Laban reproved Jacob for leaving without his knowledge, he refers to his patriarchal power over Jacob in saying that he had the power to do him hurt (Gen. 31:29). Jacob by marrying Laban’s daughters and staying with Laban had become part of his group and thus was under his power even though he was by this time a father himself. The patriarch would often serve as judge, jury and executioner, and could be very rash and unjust. Judah pronounced a hard and rash sentence exercising his patriarchal rights only to be left with great shame himself after the facts were fully known (Gen. 38:24-26).

The Mosaic legislation limits this power in a few notable ways:

1.      It required the consent of both parents to take effect, not the father alone.
2.    It was done publicly before the elders. This would imply that if the charges were not true there was some sort of recourse if the son could produce character witnesses.
3.    The crimes for which this was allowed were repeated drunkenness and gluttony not any and all offenses.

Thus this law was a limiting of former patriarchal rights. Indeed it gave the son far more rights than he had in most ancient lands. In ancient Rome fathers had absolute power of life and death over unmarried children, and in some places in France where the Justinian Code formed the basis of legislation this continued until superseded by the Napoleonic Code.

It is noteworthy that there is no instance recorded in Scripture in either Old or New Testament of any son being executed under this statute, however, there are several examples of sons who would have qualified. The two most notable instances would be King Manasseh and the unnamed Prodigal Son. In both those instances the withholding of punishment produced a changed heart which made any punishment unnecessary. Again God’s constantly stated desire is not the punishment of the wicked but their repentance.

As Augustine noted when writing his work Against Faustus, many times the first offense against a divine command was punished with much greater severity than subsequent ones. Sodom was destroyed to show God’s hatred of the sin of homosexuality, it’s destruction never needs to be repeated. This and other judgments show God’s hatred for the particular sin judged. This is the purpose of the law to show each individual that we are sinners who are dying and also deserving of death because of our own sins. Once we acknowledge this and repent coming to Christ as our atoning sacrifice the law has served its purpose. It does continue to show us where we are contrary to God, but it never is a method of justification, its purpose is to condemn those who break it so they will acknowledge guilt and ask for God’s freely given mercy.

To conclude when Jews and Christians begin to use these verses to perpetrate “honor killings” then it would be right to compare us to other religions which allow them. The fact that these have historically never been prominent in either Judaism or Christianity shows that the practice even as instituted in the law was a last resort and involved a public acknowledgement of failure as parents by the parents. God’s desire is and always has been for repentance and not punishment, which is why this has historically hardly if ever been used.



Friday, November 09, 2012

Jewish Law and Government as viewed by a Protestant – Part 3– Slavery

When we look at the Mosaic Law it must be born in mind that some of the regulations were established to restrain already existing customs, and did not amount to a divine endorsement of these practices.

This is not merely the view of Christians, but even Jewish Rabbis at the time of Christ, interpreted certain passages such as Deut. 21:11-14, concerning captive women in this way. It mitigated the usual practice of soldiers in these circumstances and dictated an allowance of one month of mourning for her family by the woman, and made the marriage a regular and not inferior marriage. The woman could not be sold into slavery or treated as a slave, but was to be regarded as a wife. This was decidedly more humane than the laws of most ancient nations who regarded such captives as spoil to be disposed of however the victor deemed fit. The ancient Irish would customarily cut out the tongue of such women so that any children raised in the home would only learn the language of the conqueror.

When Christ was asked by the Rabbis concerning the Mosaic regulation of divorce (Matt. 19:1-9), He went to the back to the original establishment of marriage and showed how divorce, and incidentally polygamy, are contrary to the original intent of God, even though both were allowed with certain restraints in the Mosaic Law.

Thus when we look at the Mosaic Law we should look at all its provisions to determine whether something was given as a moral precept, a temporary prophetic type pointing to a future fulfillment, an ordinance specifically for distinguishing those in the Old Covenant, or a partial restraint on wrong behavior which was culturally acceptable but morally wrong.

 The question is was slavery a good or an evil? Is it something which God intended to be in place or only something which was already in existence which He regulated in the Law?

Slavery is clearly seen as an evil to be regulated in the Law

It is clear from all we know of ancient cultures and the Mosaic legislation that slavery was already well entrenched in the time of Moses. The only thing good that can ever be said on its behalf is that it encouraged the taking of prisoners in war instead of wholesale slaughter. The Mosaic Law restricted slavery in several ways:


  1. 1.     It restricted the source of slaves

Under the Law kidnapping was a capital crime whether for the purpose of ransom or slavery. Not only the one kidnapping but the one found in possession of a kidnapped individual was to be killed (Ex. 21:16). This effectively limited the source of slaves to those who were sold to cover their debts, including debt incurred through theft, and those captured in war. If the Levitical Law was followed in regard to tithes and gleaning then widows and orphans as well as sojourners would have been supported with some portion of the tithes and also able to gather the gleanings of the harvest and thus avoid debt and debt slavery. Since Israelites were not to charge each other interest on loans even debt slavery must have been more rare in Israel than surrounding nations.


  1. 2.   It limited the duration of slavery for Israelites

An Israelite was to be released after six years of service, when this was done they were also to be furnished with ample means to set themselves up and thus avoid a return to slavery through debt (Deut. 15:12-18). There was also the year of Jubilee which occurring every 50th year could bring freedom even earlier. This law gave great incentive for masters to treat their slaves well, because at the end of this time a slave could make a formal public declaration that they were happy with their master and choose to remain with him forever.

The law was a bit more complicated for female Israelites who were bought for the purpose of betrothal to the master or one of his sons. In that case they were not released after 6 years, but were either married to the one to whom they were betrothed, or were to be redeemed by their relatives. The marriage was a form of concubinage and thus was not in God’s original intention, because He formed Eve to be an equal companion for Adam, not a servant to him. However, in this law God restrained the existing evil by stating that any reduction of the wife’s food, clothing or conjugal rights was grounds for immediate release  (Ex. 21:7-11).


  1. 3.   It limited punishment inflicted by the master

Beatings which resulted in permanent damage were grounds for freedom for the slave (Ex. 21:26-27). This is in extreme contrast to most of the ancient world.


  1. 4.   Escaped slaves were to be allowed freedom

One of the most interesting provisions in the Mosaic Law was that escaped slaves were not to be returned to their masters but were to be granted asylum (Deut. 23:15-16). Many interpret this as referring to slaves of non-Israelite masters, but the actual wording is broad and would refer to any slave who chose to escape from his master. This verse was the moral basis for the underground railroad which they considered to supersede any law of man to the contrary. It has been noted that this verse if followed would essentially destroy slavery as it would no longer be economically viable.

A brief look at the New Testament view of slavery

This is perhaps a slight digression from the topic of the Old Testament law, but it is worth looking at the New Testament attitude toward slavery.

Slavery was of course ubiquitous in the Roman world. Christianity began as a despised and persecuted religion with no political voice. In these circumstances it would have been impossible to fight slavery as an institution. Not only that but given the economic situation wholesale manumission would have been ruinous to masters and not of great benefit to the slaves if they were given no means of self-support and essentially made homeless. However it would be wrong to say that the New Testament is pro-slavery.

Roman law was far more brutal to slaves than the Mosaic, yet the church gave a moral code requiring more leniency on the part of the master. It taught an equality before God of all men whether slaves or free. This had been hinted at even in the Old Testament, because all slaves were allowed to participate equally in all the feasts of the Lord if they were circumcised and as these feasts were Sabbaths they would have had free time to participate. Because of this equality before God masters were not even to menace their slaves let alone beat them (Eph. 6:9).

Slaves were encouraged that their lack of personal freedom meant that God required less of them, whereas those who were free were in effect bound to obey Christ and more responsible (1  Cor. 7:20-24).

Freedom was also clearly more desirable so that one would be able to fully follow Christ, thus slaves were encouraged to become free if possible. Christians were also forbidden to voluntarily go into slavery. This prohibition would include not only the name but the fact and is the reason why oaths of perpetual or unquestioning obedience, oaths of renunciation of all property, and any absolute submission to another other than Christ in matters of life choices are evil. We have one Master to acknowledge another when we have the possibility of avoiding it is treason and a spurning of the price with which we were purchased. Christian fundamentalism has forgotten this point and that is one reason it is in the condition it is in today.

The Epistle of Philemon is the only case we have in the New Testament showing an actual case of dealing with a slave. Here we see that a slave named Onesimus had apparently stolen something and then run away. Since the Roman law required the death penalty for escaped slaves it was necessary that Paul write to procure his release from his master Philemon. Paul knew this man well and offered to reimburse him for whatever Onesimus owed him. He then entreats him that he would release Onesimus so that he would be able to stay with Paul and aid him during his imprisonment (Paul was currently under a type of house arrest). Church tradition claims that not only was Onesimus released but that he became a leader in the early Church.

The Church prior to Constantine was on the whole anti-slavery to the degree it was feasible in that time. Wealthy Christians were encouraged by the church to purchase the freedom of slaves and sometimes special collections were taken up for this purpose in the churches. This became somewhat less prominent after the merger of the church with the state, and Leo the Great did not want slaves to be ordained presbyters unless they had first been freed by their masters, a thing which had been allowed in the early church, and which had been a demonstration of the truth that all were equal before God.

Thus William Wilberforce and his evangelical friends were far more in keeping with the whole tenure and ethos of the Scripture in seeking to put an end to slavery, than the southern ministers were who tried to keep up their “peculiar institution.” 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Jewish Law and Government as viewed by a Protestant – Part 2– The Jewish Theocracy

As stated in the introduction to this series of posts, separation of church and state is a relatively new concept in the history of mankind. Early Anabaptists, especially the Mennonites believed in it, but the separation was based on a total abdication of any role in the state at all. Thus the first government to actively promote the idea was Rhode Island under William Rogers. All nations and states of antiquity had titular deities. While other deities could sometimes be added to the pantheon in polytheistic states, apostasy from the official religion of the state was always punished. In this post I want to look at the Mosaic theocracy in practice. 

This is necessary before we begin to look at some of the legislation in the Mosaic Law that is often seized upon by critics, most of which has been used for centuries. Frankly, one has to feel sorry for the poor old argument trotted out all lame, saddle-sore and hackneyed, thrust into the box to run in the derby of public opinion. The poor thing is so weak that it can scarcely support the weight of even the most mentally anorexic jockey, and yet there it is instead of being mercifully put out to pasture or even turned into dog food, getting its flanks whipped for all it is worth. Arguments such as if you believe the Old Testament why do you eat pork? Do you support the stoning of rebellious children? And many other similar arguments show a fundamental lack of understanding of how Christians view the Old Testament, and even how these laws were often applied even in the Old Testament itself. What is even worse many of these have been used before by men like Celsus (2nd century) and Faustus (4th century) so they are hardly original. The only reason these arguments continue to be used is that many Christians even in this day are ignorant of the Old Testament and its proper application. In this post and subsequent ones I hope to address some of the misconceptions and show the hermeneutic and rationale behind consistently Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. 
Three types of rulers in the Jewish Theocracy 
The Jewish theocracy had three types of rulers each with their own sphere of influence. 

The first were secular and would include the local elders of each village, the judges in the time of the judges, and also the kings and their officials in later times. These were the immediate rulers of each local area and attended on all civil and criminal cases within their jurisdiction. 

The second group was the Levitical priesthood, religious functions and duties were their domain, as seen in Deut. 17:8-13 they also played a vital role as appellate judges. As appellate judges their duty was not usually to confirm guilt or innocence, but instead to judge the case and determine sentencing. They would have almost by default been involved in most capital cases. They would determine whether a killing would be classified as self-defense, manslaughter or murder and would give sentence accordingly. It would appear that guilt or innocence would have already been determined in the lower court unless it was referred to the higher one specifically on the grounds of it being overly complex for that court to handle. It should be noted that the death penalty for disobedience to the priests only applied to their role as appellate judges and to their verdicts in these cases, not for disobedience to whatever they said in a personal capacity outside of the court. Eventually this appellate court would become the Sanhedrin and the wording of Deut. 17 does allow for either priests or judges in the court so the Sanhedrin would be within the framework of the original legislation. 

The third group was the prophets. While there were prophets who had positions in one of the other two groups, the prophetic office itself never had any power other than moral and advisory in the theocracy of Israel. Their authority was not founded in their being part of an office, but instead in having heard and proclaiming the Word of the Lord and in giving needed reproof, guidance and counsel. It is a mistake to equate prophecy with predicting the future. Yes, prophecy did include the prediction of the future, but prophets were not the Israelite equivalent of the pagan oracle. They were the national conscience of Israel, reminding them of their failures to obey God and calling them back to Him. The miracles and predictions were secondary to the main objective, though otherwise important. 

John the Baptist worked no miracles, and gave no notable predictions. His two prophecies were that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, and that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Both were important prophecies and completed the focus of his message of repentance, but neither were visibly verifiable events, even though both were fulfilled. 

In 2 Chronicles 28:9-15 we learn of a prophet named Oded who told Israel of their evil in being unmerciful to their brethren in Judah who they had captured in war. Again there is no prophecy except a declaration of the anger of the Lord because of what they were doing. This resulted in the captives being returned to their homes. More could be written, but to keep it brief the main mission of the prophets was to reform the nation as it began to drift from God. The predictive element was often present to show the consequences of the current course pursued the blessings on reformation and most importantly future further and final reformation and renewal through the Messiah. 

There were of course many false prophets who in general told people whatever they hoped to hear. Their message was one of nationalism and prosperity with a total absence of the moral element. In the time of Jeremiah they promised deliverance to Jerusalem based on the temple of God being present in the city. Jeremiah rightly showed that God moves on behalf of those who are upright, not those who have a formal tie to Him through a building. 

These three classes gave the Israelite theocracy its distinctive character. The two religious classes while very prominent and important were given no direct secular authority; their power was legal and moral. This partly explains why in the period of the judges and even more so during the monarchy the religious obligations were often ignored – there was no direct method of coercion in the system if the local or national government was inimical to the received religion. In such a case the religion could only appeal to individual consciences. In actual fact the theocratic element of the state was always fairly weak. 

The entire book of Judges shows how quickly the people at large became pagan, and how a short lived reform would be enacted by the judges. These reforms appear to have been voluntary with individuals choosing again to follow the Lord. There is no record of a judge leading a force against recalcitrant Israelites in the name of God, the oppressors were mostly foreign. Gideon merely destroyed the altar to Baal in his city; he never killed any of the worshippers of Baal. In the case of Gibeah and Benjamin in Judges 19-21 the offense was not so much religious as moral. The town was in breach of every law and custom of the day, and Benjamin by refusing to deliver the perpetrators was aiding anarchy. 

By the time of the monarchy the religious side of the government was even weaker, judged by the religious standards of the prophets in the book of Kings and with a priestly view in Chronicles the kingdom of Judah had few good kings and the northern Kingdom of Israel had none. That said there was only one overthrow of government in each of these kingdoms that had any appearance of a religious revolt. The first of these would be the destruction of the prophets of Baal by Elijah, and a generation later the overthrow of the dynasty of Ahab and the reign of Jehu. To put these events in proper perspective a few facts should be remembered: 


  1. Ahab due to the influence of Jezebel had made Baal worship the official religion and had killed as many of the prophets of the Lord as possible. Thus when the fire fell from heaven it was those who had been the special agents of persecution on the discomfited side who were seized and killed. They would also likely have been foreigners. It would be hard for anyone to place blame upon a people if when they are being forced to submit to a foreign religion they rise up and destroy those who first applied force. When there is a manifest sign of the superiority of the native religion added in all I can say is if you can call down fire that will burn up water and rocks, then go ahead and complain. 
  2. Elijah never directly attacked Ahab’s rule or his government as such. He reproved Ahab for his establishing a foreign religion and pronounced severe judgment on him for his complicity in the murder of Naboth, but he never advocated a removal of Ahab. 
  3. Jehu was anointed to overthrow the dynasty of Ahab, kill Jezebel and destroy the worship of Baal; however it would be a grave mistake to interpret all of Jehu’s actions as sanctioned by God. He was a vehicle of God’s vengeance and fulfilled some prophecies, but it must be understood that prophecy is God telling what will happen, even in some cases where it is not something that pleases Him. God had told Ahab that his posterity would be all destroyed because of his murder of Naboth. God had also showed Elisha 2 Kings 8:8-15 that Hazael would kill Ben Hadad and become the next king of Syria and carry on some very barbarous wars against Israel. The prophecy was a sign of God’s knowledge of what He would allow to happen, but not of actions of which He approved. Hazael likely already had murderous designs when he saw his sick master lying there sending him on his mission, and Elisha’s words seem to show that in the ordinary course of events Ben Hadad would have lived, but Elisha knew that Hazael would intervene. In the same way a close look at Scripture shows Jehu as a man whom God used to break the foreign oppression of Jezebel, whose own father had come to the throne of Sidon through murder, but Jehu is in no way pointed to as a good example. He appears to have been a man who was happy to use God and the injustice towards Naboth as excuses to further his own agenda. His destruction of the whole family of Ahab and of the Baal worshippers were really more about securing his own rule from those with the best motives to oppose it than anything else. As soon as he had no rivals and no need for any justification for his actions, he promptly dropped any religious fa├žade and did whatever he wanted. 
 The second change of government happened a short time later in Judah, and has really no need of apology at all. The only reason why Athaliah was even on the throne for a day after she had killed all her own grandsons that she could is because the only one that had survived was still a baby. He was rescued by his sister and her husband who was also a priest and hidden in the house of the Lord for several years. This revolution was a clear cut restoration of the rightful royal line in place of a murderous usurper, and while the order was given to kill those who followed her to fight on her side, there is no record of that happening and it seems like she had very little popular support. The reason why is fairly clear. 

It is also worth commenting here that not only Elijah not advocate removal of Ahab, but Samuel did not advocate an overthrow of Saul even though he declared God’s rejection of him. He trusted God to remove Saul and raise a successor in His own way and time. In the meantime he paid Saul the customary respect. These men knew nothing of the medieval idea of releasing the subjects of a recalcitrant king from their oaths of obedience or any other direct subversive measure. 

On the whole then the religious government of the Hebrews throughout its actual establishment had a very limited scope. 

In most cases even those crimes were stated as capital crimes were often punished with lesser punishment in practice. The prescribed punishment was apparently interpreted as being what was warranted by the offense though the option to show mercy in lessening the punishment was apparently considered allowable. As any lawyer will tell you, precedent in interpretation of the law is just as important as the actual wording of the law, and from the records we have most of the religious offenses that required capital punishment were more often dealt with by banishment. This may seem harsh in itself, but it should be noted that even in a western nation of today with freedom of religion it might be theoretically possible to declare allegiance to Baal, Chemosh, Ashtarte, etc. But to actually practice the worship of the these deities as it was practiced at that time with child sacrifice, sex slavery in temple prostitution, and its other rites would still be illegal, and bring about severe civil penalties. God Himself declared that He desires the repentance of the wicked far more than their death (Ezekiel 33:11-15). Even in the Old Testament there was placed by God a provision for mercy to those who gave sufficient evidence of remorse and desire to change their conduct. 

There is much more that could be written, and I hope to continue this series of posts by looking at some of the laws that most Christians would see as restraint of existing customs. Suffice it for this post to close by saying that having looked at the actual historical record of the kings and judges, it is the height of absurdity to compare the Jewish theocracy with either the medieval church or the modern Taliban. It never had that much power, and the prophets who could have pushed for political power such as Samuel, and Elijah never manifested a desire to retain a political hold. They realized their greatest impact was through their moral force of prayer and preaching not through physical coercion. It would be good for modern Christians to also remember this lesson.