Monday, April 23, 2007

Oh How I Love Your Law (Deuteronomy 20-26)

Theocracy is quite a buzzword these days. It seems you can hardly have a discussion about the place of religion in informing public life without someone pointing out how terrible it would be if the fundamentalist Christian right had their druthers and could directly institute the Mosaic law. And, just as there is a small club of folks in Greece wanting to reinstate worship of Zeus and Apollo, there are certainly a tiny sliver of Christians who want to do just that.

This is not a political blog, and I certainly don’t want to scare away my more left-leaning readers. I do not think we should be pushing for the institution of the Mosaic law today – some of it would be horrible in our context, some of it is just primitive and antiquated, some of it is specifically fulfilled in Christ, some of it he specifically repeals (divorce for any reason?).

But, having said all this, I have a confession to make: I really love some of these laws.

Let me start with one of my favorites:
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.
Here’s a verse for all us tree-huggers! And isn’t it true? So many of us have seen developers come in to a piece of lovely country and destroy everything – not giving a care to the living things that have lived there for generations. It breaks my heart to see a hundred year oak felled for a new strip mall, especially when, with a little love and effort, we might simply build around it. Hear oh stiff-necked Americans: The Lord your God says to spare the trees. It’s the law.

And don’t forget about the birdies:
If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself.
Again – a small token kindness to one of God’s creatures. What does it matter? There are plenty of birds out there, and trees will grow back? But part of our role as human beings is to care for creation, not oppress it. We may cut down trees if we really need to, and help ourselves to some eggs if we let the mother bird go. But our greedy desires need to be tempered with reverence for the God of creation. It’s the law.
You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
Here’s one to bring out whenever someone points out that the Southerners used the Bible to support slavery. Despite allowing slavery in some cases, in the very next breath the law undermines the very notion, for it is written for a people of slaves set free. No need for the underground railroad here.
When you go out to war against your enemies… the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’
There’s not much to say here – other than a sigh of satisfaction at the sheer human decency of it. There always seemed to be something quite wrong with the soldier getting married and suddenly being shipped out the next day. It is important to make sacrifices to serve your country, but the law reminds us that the State is not God – and some short-lived blessings are too precious to take away from people.

Finally, here are a group of laws that ought to make us Americans ashamed:
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

If you go into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.
Here, in such common-sense case law, we see the sanity that makes a fool of both individualistic libertarianism and collectivistic socialism. Your little plot of land is specially yours – God has given it to you as your own. It does not belong to the impersonal collective, but to you. And yet you have a legal obligation to be responsible, hospitable, and generous with what God has blessed you with. To withhold a few apples from those who pass by isn’t just unfriendly – it is criminal. To not leave a little in the field for the poor isn’t just greedy – it is illegal.

Our Declaration of Independence says that governments exist to secure individual rights, given to us by God. But, looking at the law of Moses, I think I see something deeper that we are missing. It’s not just about securing everybody’s rights, but about encouraging people to love their neighbors as themselves. Individual autonomy must never trump the responsibility to love, for love is the fulfillment of the law.

Sorry, Ms., This statement is false:
“Here, in such common-sense case law, we see the sanity that makes a fool of … individualistic libertarianism...”

There is nothing about individualistic libertarianism that would prevent or even discourage someone from sharing some of their wealth with others. The only “plank” of individualistic libertarianism that pertains to charity is that it’s not the government’s job to run charity programs and especially not to use taxation to fund them.

“Individual autonomy must never trump the responsibility to love,” and it never does.

I don't think you quite understood what I was saying. I'm pondering the type of law that requires people to be generous with their wealth, without confiscating it and being generous for them. It is the hand of the person sharing his own property with his neighbor in need, rather than a hand-out from the government. And yet it is also a legal obligation, and not simply something left up to the individual conscience.

I just find this really interesting - something worth thinking about. I don't necessarily have anything near public policy. But it is interesting to me in England, that though people own their land, they are required to keep clear footpaths for people to walk. There is a decent amount of courtesy they need to show to folks just passing through and enjoying the country, even though it is private property. I find this refreshingly humane and reasonable - something between the extremes.

By the way, I don't know that I've ever been called "Ms." before.

I was actually trying to discern your gender also..

Anyway, I enjoyed finding your blog tonight.

Hey Alex,

Glad to have you around!


Based on your post to our site: Atheist Parent dot org, I see I guessed wrong. I should just have calle you "wonders" or perhaps "WFO."

In response to your reply, the type of "law" you are talking about is a kind of moral law that any individualistic libertarian may follow, if they were of the mind that bought into the overarching paradigm in which that moral law was framed.

So, again, inidividualistic libertarianism is not contrary to the moral law you desribe, so is not "made a fool of" by it.


I'm startled to see you having given away small hints regarding your identity, after being so careful to remain ambiguous!

There is something intriguingly uncapitalistic about the various ways rape of the land is banned. Sabbaths and the year of Jubilee are certainly part of that. It's a very compelling notion to see that coupled with, as you point out, a law that doesn't quite stake its claim in individualism or collectivism. Maybe it's actually both, some form of extreme balance-- that it is both insistent on individual ownership and responsibility and zealous in its care for the collective.

So maybe what it does to individualistic libertarianism is to demonstrate it as incomplete. The people of God in Deuteronomy are being called to something greater than a mere moral law of fairness, just as the Justice of God is at once both completely holy and shockingly merciful.


Just so you know - in my post "Hi Lions, I'm Daniel" was meant to invoke the story of Daniel in the Lion's Den, or a Christian on an atheist board. It wasn't saying my name actually IS Daniel (though it could be, for all you know). ;-)

And I'm speaking of actual law - like the sort of thing you could get fined for breaking. Hence my example of a similar law in modern England. In our society, private property is absolute. In radical socialist societies, it is nonexistent. In Deuteronomy, property is private, but you have legal obligations to use it to the benefit of your neighbor.

Hey WfO! My favorite law:
Deu 24:5 When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken.

A lot of military marriages would probably be saved by this law; I know mine would have gotten off on a better foot!


Your more "left-leaning readers"?

Who might that be? ;)

This was a great post. Accolades to the chef.

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