Category: The Law

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Holy Shifts and Sexual Ethics

Today’s daily lectionary reading was Deuteronomy 22:13-30. I won’t copy the whole text here, but these are the key points:

  1. The onus is on a woman to prove her virginity. This is already problematic that her life is dependent on her virginity, but it becomes even more problematic when you consider that the test isn’t reliable; women don’t always bleed the first time she has sex. If she didn’t bleed on her wedding night, she is killed.
  2. If it turns out she has been falsely accused, the man is whipped and pays a fine to the bride’s father. In other words, slandering your wife in a way that risks putting her to death carries less of a punishment than maybe having had sex before the wedding night.
  3. If a man has sex with an engaged or married woman in the town and she is not screaming for help, they are both put to death. The assumption here is that if she isn’t willing, she would scream for help. What if she simply goes into shock and doesn’t know what to do? What if he’s strong enough to keep her mouth covered? Who determines whether she screamed loud enough to prove she didn’t want it?
Sodom and Gomorrah

The Destruction of Sodom

Cue the screams of pain from American dominionists* that the Supreme Court has declared marriage equality a right in all states. Comparisons will be made to Sodom. This comparison is made often. It’s also a really bad self-defeating argument. A simple search of what the Bible says about Sodom reveals this:

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were
arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16:49 NIV

Ummm… yeah, so even the Bible is pretty clear that Sodom wasn’t destroyed because men had sex with each other.

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Be Holy as YHWH is Holy

Generally considered to be the oldest part of the Levitical Law Codes is chapter 19. The chapter is a mix of what we would define as ritual worship code (3b-8) and social code (9-18). It ends with the famous text quoted by Jesus as one half of the Greatest Commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself” (18b). All of this is contained under an interesting overarching command: “be holy, because I, the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, am holy” (2b). That beginning and that ending serve, I think, as our guide in interpreting the sections in between and is valuable in understanding the entire Law.

Holiness is one of those words that gets used in a lot of different ways. Some use the term pretty much exclusively to refer to sexual morality, usually with little room for debate about what is and isn’t moral in the area of sexuality. Others use it to mean personal morality but include various other domains. Others use it exclusively for personal spiritual disciplines: reading Scripture, praying, being a part of a Christian community, etc. Others use it for communal morality, such as the kinds of social justice topics I’m working through in this series.

The Year of Jubilee

8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13 CEB)

The practice of the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year are far from the only laws designed around equal economics. There are laws against charging interest on loans (Lev 25:36). There are laws against taking collateral on loans (Exod 22:25-27). There are laws against moving boundary markers between your property and your neighbour’s to expand your property (Deut 19:14; 27:17).

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Slavery in the Law

Slavery was completely acceptable and even expected in the Old Testament Law. It even seems on the surface to be supported in the New Testament, too. When people tried to abolish slavery in the United States and in England (including Canada as a colony), defenders of the practice didn’t have any problem finding passages to support their view. And yet we pretty consistently today agree that slavery of any type is wrong. So along with the general look at how the vulnerable are protected in the Law, I want to specifically focus on slavery.

Ancient Near Eastern Slavery

First, let’s get a grasp of their context. Slavery in the Ancient Near East was not the same as slavery in the Southern United States, which is what we usually think of when we hear slavery. It was not the same as a lot of slavery that exists today. It definitely wasn’t good to be a slave, so don’t get me wrong there, but it isn’t quite what we jump to. It wasn’t about race where one race enslaved another, as in the British Empire and the United States, although when a nation conquered another they could enslave some of their people as spoils of war.

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The Vulnerable in the Law

21 Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22 Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. 23 If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry. 24 I’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.

25 If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don’t be a creditor and charge them interest. 26 If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27 His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I’ll listen, because I’m compassionate. (Exodus 22:21-24)

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Lex Talionis

In Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:18-21, and Deuteronomy 19:21, the Israelites are given this principle called the lex talionis:

23 If there is further injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, 25 a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound. (Exodus 21:23-25 CEB)

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Commandments 5-10

The final six commandments are much more obvious in their social justice purpose than the first four:

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:12-17 CEB)

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Commandment 4: the Sabbath

We typically think of the Sabbath as a religious rule rather than a social one. Along with church tradition, of course, we have some biblical reason to think this way for sure:

8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 CEB)

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Commandments 1-3: The Priority of God

We’ll begin our look at Social Justice in the Law with the centrepiece of that Law, the Ten Commandments, beginning with the first three:

Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

3 You must have no other gods before me.

4 Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. 6 But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way. (Exodus 20:1-7 CEB)