Saturday, December 16, 2006

Obedient to Their Laws

Nearly 2500 years ago, three hundred Spartan soldiers and a handful of allies fought against nearly a million invading Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Seeing such a tiny force against him, king Xerxes had initially asked the Spartans to lay down their arms. In characteristic Spartan hubris, they replied “come and take them.” When told the Persian arrows were so many that they would block out the sun, the Spartans joked that it would be a relief to be able to fight in the shade. They eventually died to the last man, but not before killing 20,000 Persians and holding off the entire invading army for three days.

An epitaph in their honor reads:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
That last line puzzled me. Why, when referring to such unbelievable heroism, do they speak of obeying laws? What does following rules have to do with being a vicious warrior?

I bring this up because I’ve had similar thoughts when reading passages like these in the psalms:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

The rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
I know, of course, that God commands things for a reason and if we love him we’ll obey him. And this need not be a burden to us. But what is this business of meditating on laws all day long? Legal codes are more desirable than gold? Rulebooks are sweeter than honey?

Though the first five books of the Bible are considered “the Law”, Leviticus is the most like a legal document of them. Thus it is also considered by many to be the most boring and tedious books of the Bible. It’s hard to imagine waxing poetic like the psalmist about Leviticus. But wax they do, and if it seems dull and lifeless to us, then there must be something the psalmists see that we are blind to.

So what did the Spartans mean when they claimed to be obedient to their laws by dying in battle against impossible odds? That these virtues – fighting fiercely, defending their homeland, sacrificing their lives for their fellow soldiers, fearing nothing – are the core of what it means to be a Spartan. Laws exist to explicitly state how people in a certain society are to behave. These three hundred men were a model of the Spartans ways, and that is why they lay dead at Thermopylae.

Similarly, the psalmist’s deepest desire is to live up to the calling of Israel – the chosen people of God. He knows his is a chosen race for God’s own possession to be examples for all the nations. He knows every aspect of his life is to be different – his customs, work, religious life, even diet. He embraces his identity as a son of Israel, and devotes all his life to being everything one of God’s chosen should be.

Which is what, exactly? How does that look in the mundane details of life? What laws has God set out for them, and what do they imply about the sort of nation this is to be?

We need look no further than Leviticus.

the 2nd amendment is my gun permit, now come and take them.

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