The Law’s Inevitable Tension between Ideal and Reality

by Steve Kindle

This post was requested by my publisher at Energion Publications as part of a project focusing on law in general and biblical law in particular.
For more insights visit https://www.energion.co/discussing-the-law-in-scripture/

Deuteronomic Theology
The Law of Moses as contained in the Torah established the ethical, religious, and social norms for the people of Israel. It is thought to be universally accepted throughout the Hebrew Bible. By and large, this is true. However, a distinct and vocal minority found difficulty with at least one principal component, its blessings and curses.

The Law was a covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel. Below are two passages that sum up the essence of the covenant. [All texts from the NRSV]

Deuteronomy 11:13-17  If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

Toward the end of Deuteronomy, Moses sums up the essence of the covenant blessings and curses in this way:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. [30:15-30]

Covenants, like contracts, describe the necessary obligations of the parties involved. In the Mosaic Covenant, God will provide the blessings of land, health, prosperity, progeny, protection from enemies, and long life in the land. Not obeying the obligations of the covenant will mean life in the land will be short, and none of the blessings will accrue to Israel. This is a straightforward recitation of the essence of the responsibilities of both parties. The operative motif here is a very clear form of retributive justice; justice that is based on reward and punishment. It couldn’t be clearer.  So clear, in fact, that its viability was easily ascertained. Herein lies the problem. We know that Israel failed to keep its end of the bargain and was forced from its homeland on two occasions (God keeping up God’s end). But what about the blessings that should accrue to the faithful?

Opposition Arises
Ecclesiastes questioned whether blessings and curses function in Israel at all. Koheleth, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes, ruminated on life in Israel and found many inconsistencies in how the blessings and curses of the Law actually worked “under the sun.” Ultimately, in his thinking, how a person prospered or not had no relationship to their obedience or disobedience of the Law. In fact, just how God administers blessings and curses has so many observable flaws that it is an inscrutable mystery.

All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God…. Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. (9:1-2) In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil-doing. (7:15 )Therefore, he concludes, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)

Job was utterly confounded that he would be subjected to the curses as he continually proclaimed his innocence before God and his companions. I am clean, without transgression; I am pure, and there is no iniquity in me. (33:9) After all, did not God promise that he will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, he will not inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. Deut. 7:15

Yet Job is portrayed as suffering as few people have. It’s notable that God, speaking to Job from the whirlwind, never contradicts Job’s innocence. And with Ecclesiastes, there is no resolution to the problem of the suffering of the innocent other than to note it doesn’t seem to be applied consistently according to the Law.

Many of the Psalms of Lament are words from the tormented innocent ones calling upon their God to, shall we say, live up to the Covenant agreement. Psalm 10 is a  heart-wrenchingly poignant illustration of Koheleth’s point.

For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.” Their ways prosper at all times;

They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved; throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”

They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

Apparently, it doesn’t require a wise man such as Koheleth or the writer of Job to see the ethical dilemma at play here between God’s Law and its administration. The evil oppressors were on to it and it led them to atheism. Obviously, there must be no God or there would be true justice in the land. 

The rise of the apocalyptic movement during the Intertestamental Period is due to Israel looking for another answer to the lack of movement toward Yahweh’s rule over the nations. Since it seemingly isn’t going to happen in history, God will end life as it is, destroy the earth and forcibly bring in the Kingdom. More evidence of the Law’s inability to transform Israel. 

What about Collective Punishment?
Does not collective punishment mean that righteous individuals will suffer along with the unrighteous? Recourse to the notion of collective punishment is no help here in my view. There certainly are many examples of collective judgment and punishment in the Hebrew Scriptures, but not many of collective blessing. It has been noted that Koheleth believed in individual blessings and curses as well as the writer of Job. Jeremiah and Ezekiel quote an old proverb that God instructs Ezekiel is nonsense.

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” Ezekiel 18:2

This goes against the Second Commandment’s punishment of the children for the idolatry of their parents for three or four generations. And did not Jesus say that God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous? We are not dealing here with progressive revelation, but with differing beliefs about how God deals with people. (See my post on “Sensus Plenior—Legitimate or Smoke and Mirrors?” here: https://faithontheedge.org/sensus-plenior-legitimate-or-smoke-and-mirrors/)

The Ultimate Purpose of the Law
As noted by scholars from von Rad, Noth, to Bruggemann, the Law was given as an act of loving grace. God promised that life under the Law would be a great blessing if properly followed, “so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” This would certainly be a blessing for Israel, but what about the rest of humanity?

Isaiah characterized Israel’s role in God’s plan of salvation as being “a light to the nations.” God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6

Ultimately, the Law was given to Israel for the benefit of the world. The light that is Israel will be so inviting that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah 60:3

By its very existence in the world, Israel will assume its mediatorial function of representing Yahweh to the world. Scholars debate how the “light” was to function. Was Israel to actively convert the gentiles, or would God do the drawing into the light?

Norman Gottwald prefers a passive role in the conversion of the world[1] and John Oswalt writes that “Israel’s function is that of witness as opposed to proselytizer. Israel, by its life and words, is to demonstrate what God is like and what he is doing. Beyond this, it is God who will do the drawing and the bringing of the nations to himself. If Israel will simply be the Israel of God, the nations will be drawn to him.”[2] These views have overtaken the older view that Israel would become a missionary religion.

Regardless of the means to accomplish the worldwide recognition of Yahweh as the only true God, it did not happen through the nation of Israel. This failure required another approach, and Christians believe it is through Jesus as Messiah of Israel. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God saying, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:30-32

John the Revelator picks this up and declares “The nations will walk by this light [Jesus] and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it .” Rev. 21:24

It appears that neither Israel, Luke, or the Revelator got it right (John anticipating it happening in his lifetime). Now some 2,000 years since the Jesus movement began, can we say that the church got it right? One might even dare to ask, Has God another plan in mind? Given God’s ability to change direction due to facts on the ground[3], we can only surmise and for some of us, even hope.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Norman K. Gottwald, All the Kingdoms of the Earth: Israelite Prophecy and International Relations in the Ancient Near East (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) 344.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Mission of Israel to the Nations, Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, W. V. Crockett and J. G. Sigountos, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991) 95.

[3] Richard Elliot Friedman in The Disappearance of God details how God moved from relating to all of humanity, en mass, and failing, to destroying this first effort in the flood and starting over with one person, Abraham. The experiment with Israel failed, and God gradually disappears from history. He ends with the inevitability of the death of God emerging in modern times. I see, instead, starting over with Jesus which, to date, seems to be no more successful than was Israel in bringing the world to Yahweh.

Interested in a Progressive Bible study? Meet with us on Zoom

Our first session will look at more of these ASTONISHING texts as we search for answers to what the Bible is and how it makes sense in the 21st century

WHEN: We meet once a month for an hour on the first Monday of each month at 4:00 pm PDT beginning in April 2021

WHERE: In a Zoom meeting (We’ll send you a link)

WHAT: Our focus is on how Progressive, post-modern insights combined with critical scholarship inform the meaning of the Bible

FOR WHOM: It’s for those who are uneasy with conventional Christianity and are looking for something more. We pull no punches.

HOW: If you sign up on the form below, you will receive a link and a preparation guide for each session.

WE WOULD LOVE TO HAVE YOU WITH US

Become a part of our Zoom Bible Study

We want this to be a safe place for inquiry and discussion. All are welcome and encouraged to participate. You will receive a reminder email a day or two before the class with the link and suggestions to prepare. I look forrward to being with you.

Marketing by
Please Subscribe for New Post Releases

You will now receive our posts as soon as they are published. We appreicate your interest and thank you for subscribing.

Marketing by

2 thoughts on “The Law’s Inevitable Tension between Ideal and Reality”

  1. Pingback: Steve Kindle on the Purpose of the Law – Energion Direct

  2. Pingback: What Was the Law Intended to Do? – Energion Direct

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top