The greater our distance from another culture, the stranger that culture seems. This may be true geographically, but we observe it most commonly when the distance is chronological. The laws and customs of ancient civilizations often strike us as bizarre or unfair. There’s no doubt that sometimes they were. But if we assume that people then, just like people now, were rational beings, we can at least suppose that each law and each custom was arrived at deliberately and was meant to serve a distinct purpose. We learn a lot about these people and nations through the remnants of culture they left behind.
As Christians, we believe that every word of the Bible was breathed out by God. This includes the laws of the ancient nation of Israel that we find recorded in the Old Testament. While we do not adhere to this law, we do still study it to see what it reveals about our God. After all, the laws will always reflect the law-giver. If you want to know about the character of Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau, or Donald Trump, you will learn something of it by studying the laws they have advocated. And if you want to know about the character of God, a great place to begin is with a study of the laws he instituted.
Yet there are many who read the Old Testament law and come away with the conviction that God is capricious or unfair or bigoted or misogynistic. If you read the “de-conversion” narratives of those who now deny the faith they once professed, you may well find they express their misgivings with those ancient laws and impugn the morality of any God who would enact such decrees. Some Christians feel the weight of these critiques and cringe with embarrassment. Some struggle to understand how these laws reflect divine love and noble character. But this should not be surprising since we live at such a vast distance from that culture. If we want to see how the laws are just and fair and good, we need to study not only the laws, but also the context in which they were given; we need to study not only the laws of that land, but also the laws of the other lands surrounding it, for the laws were not only just and fair and good, but more just and more fair and more good than anyone would otherwise hope to expect.
What fascinated me during my most recent reading of these laws, is God’s own perspective on them. God does not only provide the law for his people, but he also tells the people what kind of response is appropriate. Listen to what Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Moses had a God-given confidence that these statutes and rules were good. They were not only objectively good but also comparatively good—“gooder” than those of any other nation. Why? He gives at least three reasons.
First, the law reveals a God who wants his people to display divine wisdom. Moses assures the people that if they keep the law God has given, other nations will see their obedience as a sign of wisdom and understanding. Why? Because this law is so very good and just. It protects those who need protection. It provides mercy for those who need mercy. The nation of Israel should not be sheepish about the words of this law and about their adherence to it. Rather, both should be a point of pride. If they do what the law commands, other nations will exclaim, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
Second, the law reveals a God who is near to his people. Through this law God reveals that he intends to dwell with his people. The laws regarding justice and purity are intended, at least in part, to make this nation a fitting habitation for God. He will dwell with his people, in the tabernacle (and then the temple), upon the ark, between the cherubim. He will reveal his will to the people through the mediation of priests and prophets. The law reveals him as a God who is willing to be present, who is willing and eager to hear from his people and respond to them. For, as Moses says, “what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”
Third, the law reveals a God who is righteous. The righteous nature of the law reveals the righteous nature of God. The merciful nature of the law reveals the merciful nature of God. Where the laws of the nations surrounding Israel showed favoritism and were often harsh and brutal, the laws of Israel proved the holiness and righteousness of her holy and righteous God. “What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
Contemporary Christians can sometimes feel awkward as they read laws that seem so very strange, and as they read statutes that seem so very harsh. But this strangeness and harshness owes far more to our chronological distance than to the laws themselves. Rather, the laws of God, even those laws of God, reveal him in all of his kind, merciful, righteous perfection.