Laws for a Different World

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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“These are the regulations you must present to Israel.”

Exodus 21:1

If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country, you know the feeling of being out of place in a different world. All around you are signs in a language you don’t understand. The conversations you hear aren’t intelligible to you. Everything looks unfamiliar. You may not even know quite where you are or how to get to your destination. Life seems mixed up, as if you’re Alice in some strange Wonderland.

That’s how many Christians feel when they begin to read the Old Testament Torah (torah is Hebrew for “law, instruction”). Whereas the Ten Commandments translate fairly easily into our world, the laws that follow seem far away from our reality, both in context and in content. For example, the first specific laws in Exodus 21 (often called casuistic, from the Latin word for “case”) deal with owning slaves, and in a way that seems to accept the fact of slavery rather than objecting to it. Now, while slavery is a major problem in some parts of our world today, most of us would never consider owning a slave, and we might well be distressed by the Torah’s acceptance of slavery.

I’ll say a few words about slavery in a future reflection. For now, I want to draw our attention to the cavernous cultural gap between the world of the ancient Hebrews and our world today. This gap makes it difficult for us to understand many of the laws or the rationale behind them. What might strike us as a bad law could have been, in its historical context, a major legal and ethical advance. But, if we lack an in-depth understanding of the Ancient Near East and the details of the Jewish law, we might completely miss the point. This poses a problem for our understanding, not to mention for using the Torah as a basis for devotions.

In my Daily Reflections, I will not be able to take time to explain the intricacies of the Old Testament laws. Rather, as usual, I will focus on a verse or two from each chapter, leaving many legitimate questions unanswered. (In the P.S. to this reflection, I will recommend some helpful books if you’re interested in learning more about how to understand the Torah as a Christian.) But I want to recognize, at the beginning of our study of the Law, that reading this material might be unsettling to you. That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay, because your discomfort with God’s Word presents a chance for you to wrestle with God and his ways. It invites you to go deeper in your relationship with God. The most important step you can take when you find something in Scripture that distresses you is to lay it and yourself before the Lord, asking for his wisdom and for the gift of knowing him better. Remember, the God who made himself known in Jesus and who took our sin on the cross is the same God who revealed the Torah.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: If you’ve ever been in a foreign culture, what have you found to be unsettling? Have you ever experienced reading the Bible as a visit to a foreign culture? When? What do you do when a passage of Scripture is unsettling to you?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, as I begin to read the specific laws in Exodus, I am about to enter a different world. I expect that there will be many things in this world that I don’t understand, perhaps many that I don’t like. It will be tempting just to forget about it, or to try to ignore my discomfort. I know that when dealing with difficult passages like those in the Law, some folks decide to jettison the authority of your Word altogether. None of these options is best, however.

Rather, as I move into the different world of the Law, I ask for the courage to engage the text as it is so that I might engage you as you are. Help me to be honest with my uncertainty and, most of all, with you. Help me to known you more deeply and truly as I wrestle with this part of your Word.

Thank you, dear Lord, for the Holy Spirit who is present to teach me and guide me into all truth. Amen.

P.S. from Mark

If you’re looking for guidance about how to understand the Old Testament laws in relationship to Christian faith, a good beginning is a book by Tremper Longman III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. For a helpful look at how Christians should deal with troubling passages in the Bible, see Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. For an honest, faithful wrestling with hard things about God, see Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith.