The Irony of “The Law”

I have recently finished Dutch academic Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, and it gives me a way to introduce a subject I’ve wanted to write about since sometime in late March.


In describing how tolerance as an ideal evolved in Europe, Kaplan writes a length about how Christian Europeans, particularly in Germany (where the Reformation hit first, though not quite hardest), lived, both before and after the events of the first half of the 16th century. Something essential to Christian European life was the mixing of polity and confessional community:

The uses of church bells [to mark civic events] reveal something else of prime importance too, the lack of separation between the secular and sacred. In towns and villages across Europe, “the body social, the body politic, and the body of Christ were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.” A heritage of the Middle Ages, the equation of civic and sacral community survived the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as an ideal, even where it was no longer a reality. (p. 50)

While the church and the state were, mostly, separate entities, the congregation and the polity were not. Church and civil community, even before the Protestant Reformation, were contiguous; membership in one assumed membership in another. This is important because as Christians struggled with what it meant to live godly lives, they expressed those lives not just individually, but communally as well.

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (p. 60)

Sanctification, a word important to Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics, became the aim of community life. With the Law of God, as given in the Torah and most manifest in the Ten Commandments, as the guide for sanctified behavior (both individually and communally), laws were written, imposed and enforced. Violence was done. To this day, many Christians (many American Christians) assume that these laws should be the laws of the community, and that the failure of the community to uphold these laws is the cause of misfortune (such as hurricanes and terror attacks).

But is that the way to read the law — the Torah תורה, literally “the teaching?” Because I don’t think so.

Let’s consider the marriage laws of Leviticus 18, which specify who may not marry whom, so that Israel “shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I [the Lord] am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” (Lev. 18:3, JPS Tanakh) In verse 12, יהוה tell Moses the following:

Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.

עֶרְוַת אֲחֹות־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה שְׁאֵר אָבִיךָ הִֽוא׃

Okay, so who’d want to marry their aunt anyway? Yet, in Exodus 6, as the genealogy of Moses is outlined, we read:

Amram [a grandson of Levi] took to wife his father’s sister Jochabed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses. (Ex. 6:20, JPS Tanakh)

Moses’ father married his aunt (who was probably younger than he was).

Getting back Leviticus, a few verses later, יהוה tells Moses:

Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.

וְאִשָּׁה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ לֹא תִקָּח לִצְרֹר לְגַלֹּות עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ בְּחַיֶּֽיהָ׃

To find an example of this, we need to go back to Genesis 29, where we find Jacob sojourning in “the land of the Easterners” (v. 1). He meets Rachel at the well, is clearly smitten with her (she is the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban), and agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. On the night the marriage is consummated, Laban gives Jacob the older sister Leah instead, claiming “[i]t is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years” (v. 26-27). Eventually, Jacob gets both sisters as wives, and they become the mothers of the 12 sons who will give their names to the tribes of Israel.

Okay, a point can be made here — these relationships were made before יהוה gives the teaching to Israel in the wilderness, and thus they were not really against the law. I suppose that argument will work — I don’t buy it, and I will explain later why I don’t — but then consider David and Bathsheba.

The commandment has been given and written — twice, in Exodus and Deuteronomy — “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” along with “you shall not commit adultery.” In 2 Samuel 16, we read the story of Kind David, spying a beautiful woman taking a bath. He “sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her,” (v. 4) which sounds like a rape to me. She becomes pregnant, and David then tries to trick her husband, the loyal soldier Uriah, into sleeping with her so that everyone would think the child is his. No dice, it doesn’t work. So David then orders to put Uriah in the front of the formation and during the battle to withdraw so that Uriah can get killed. This happens, and Bathsheba comes to live in the palace with David. Rumors must have flown, because Nathan the prophet condemns David for what he did:

David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before the Lord!” And Nathan replied to David, “The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die. However, since you have spurned the enemies of the Lord by this deed, even the child about to be born shall die.” (v. 13-14)

A harsh consequence, the innocent paying the price. David later “consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went into her and lay with her. She bore a son and she named him Solomon.” (v. 24)

David should have known the law. And yet the eventual result of his coveting and adultery is Solomon, the greatest and wisest king Israel would know, the one who built the temple and extended its frontiers out as far as they would go.

Yes, a case can be made that the characters in the story, especially Jacob and Moses’ father, did not know the law, because it had not yet been revealed in the narrative, but the readers would know the law. Hearing that Jacob married sisters, that Moses and aaron were the fruits of a Levitically forbidden marriage, that David coveted and arranged to have killed and from that came Solomon, this says something about the relationship God’s people Israel have with God’s teaching. They would have been taught the law, reminded of who could not be married, but also reminded in the stories that the best of us violated that teaching. Or were the results of the violation. Without Jacob marrying Leah and Rachel, there would have been no tribes of Israel. Without Amram taking his aunt as wife, Moses and Aaron could not have responded to God’s call to lead Israel out of Egypt. Without David spying (and likely raping) Bathsheba, and getting her husband killed, there would have been no Solomon, and no temple in Jerusalem.

Israel owes its very existence, its covenant with God, to the violation of the teaching.

There are very few examples of human beings deliberately and purposefully punishing other human beings for violations of the teaching. In Exodus 32, after the episode with the golden calf, Moses commissions some Levites to take up their swords and “go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” (v. 27) In Numbers 25, God commands Moses to “publicly impale” (v. 4) Israelites cavorting with Moabite women (and worshiping their god). Phinehas the priest follows the command with vigor, stabbing an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the belly after following them into their tent.

But the example that comes to mind is Numbers 15:32-36 (Numbers is something of a gruesome, no-holds barred book, almost as violent as Judges). Israelite come upon a man gathering wood in the wilderness on the sabbath.

Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death–as the Lord had commanded Moses. (v. 33-36)

What strikes me about this passage, and the punishment it mandates for violating the sabbath, is that Jesus spends a lot of time deliberately breaking the sabbath. He violates the law, as it is understood, and tempts readers and listeners who might know that the punishment for sabbath breaking is death to appreciate the situation.

(Jesus doesn’t cavort with non-Israelite women, but he does encounter them, and he is present for them as he is for Israelites.)

This is why I find the law ironic. It is a guide to sanctified behavior, promising salvation if followed and exile, slavery and death if not. But God doesn’t abandon God’s people merely because they have abandoned God and God’s teaching (though God does come close in Judges 10). God continues to reach out, to forgive, to redeem, to make real God’s promises as God’s people struggle with the teaching we cannot follow and the law we cannot obey. It must be remembered that the history of God’s people is salvation in the midst of exile, slavery and death, God present with us in our suffering and amidst the consequences of our inability to follow God’s teaching. In the end, it isn’t the law that saves us, not our keeping ourselves sanctified as individuals or a community, but rather God’s unremitting faithfulness to us.