Liberated to the Law
As we move out of the Exodus story, the next segment of Scripture is not one that is typically considered to be particularly interesting: the Law. Before we delve into some of the details of the Law and how they speak of God’s social justice, we need to briefly pause and consider the setting of this Law in this post and Jesus’ hermeneutic for reading the Law in the next post. Whether we are talking about the narratives, the prophets, the epistles, the Law or anything else, the context matters.
The Law is given to a group of escaped slaves. They’re a group of nobodies in the desert. They’ve never had to govern a nation before. It has been generations since they were even free to make basic daily decisions for themselves. They’re now a new people, freed to return to their Promised Land. How can we expect them to run a nation? The Law is given to help them figure out what that looks like for their context: social law, religious ritual law, some that makes sense to us today and others that make absolutely no sense translating from their context to ours.
In a major way, our context is not as far removed from these poor escaped slaves as we may imagine. The apostle Paul and others speak of ethics (moral law, if you will) in similar ways in the New Testament. Unlike more legalistic approaches to life where you have to meet certain requirements to be liberated, they argue that God in Jesus has already liberated us.
The lesson here: the context of working out what right living looks like is the context of new and radically free life. We often want to approach things the other way around: get your life together, essentially as a way to earn new life. Or sometimes we go the other way and treat the concept of grace cheaply as if that means you do whatever you want. While many important details change from the Old to the New Testament, both covenants share this principle: God offers unconditional liberation, but it is a liberation into a new life that is in many ways a different kind of life.
To put it a slightly different way, we are given freedom, but it is a freedom into a new identity. This identity inevitably means that we are striving toward a different way of being, a way that is centred in love of God, love of neighbour, and even love of enemy. Our character becomes more like that of Jesus – not about following the details of the rules, although we can surely come up with some consistent guidelines, but always seeking what is the best way to love in the current context. We are not broken sinful people who are commanded to go against our instincts by showing love. We are, in our core, loving Christ-like people. We just need to learn to act out of that true self.
This is the context for us to keep in mind. We are asking the question: what did it look like for these Ancient Israelites to live out of a newly-liberated life in their context? And most importantly, what principles can we draw from their context that applies today?