The American satirist PJ O’Rourke once remarked that, ‘God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle-aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations.’
We spent last night in church looking at Exodus 21, one of those passages which contains a long list of instructions for various scenarios. Perhaps, PJ O’Rourke has read Exodus 21 too, and he reckons it’s texts like this which represent such a drag on God’s reputation. But as I’ve spent time thinking about Exodus 21, I’ve begun to think about similar OT passages in a new way.
One of the strangest things about Exodus 21 is the subject matter of the opening verses: how to treat slaves. Given that the people of Israel have just been delivered from the bondage of Egypt, this is the last thing you would expect to read. It seems like such a letdown to contemplate that in the post-Exodus landscape there will still be those who are owned by others, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is still a world which is governed by some harsh economic realities. However, Exodus 21 does at least affirm that in Israel’s life slaves are to have certain fundamental rights, disappointing to us but a significant piece of progress in 1200 BC.
Thinking about these instructions, I remembered Jesus’ words about divorce in Matthew 19, where he says that Moses only allowed such measures, ‘because you were so hard-hearted.’ These rules and regulations don’t exist to make us better people, they exist to safeguard us and the community when things, inevitably, go wrong. I was also reminded of how, in his letters, Paul seems to have recognised the gap between God’s ideal and what was achievable in the circumstances of his day. In a moment of lyrical rhetoric he proclaimed to the Galatian Christians that ‘there is no longer slave or free,’ but several years later, when he writes to the Ephesians and Philemon, he appears to be much more pragmatic on the issue of slavery. He is still a voice for change, in that he calls on masters not to threaten those they own, but his thinking also seems to be grounded in the realistic understanding that the abolition of slavery would have had catastrophic economic consequences at that point in history.
What has also struck me as I’ve reflected on these passages is the room for manoeuvre offered by many of the rules and regulations. For example, Exodus 21:12 instructs that a sentence of death for anyone guilty of deliberate murder, but the following verse offers the potential for leniency, if the act was ‘not premeditated but came about by an act of God,’ a clause which seems to provide ample scope for flexible interpretation. When I read the Gospels, it seems to me that Jesus never speaks of the law as harsh or restrictive (in fact he says he hasn’t come to take away one letter of it), but he is at his angriest when he finds the Pharisees applying the law with no flexibility, no willingness to look with compassion on what lies behind people’s actions on certain occasions.
I wonder what lessons there are for us from Exodus 21. It seems to me that one of the basic assumptions behind these rules is that you will never guarantee perfect behaviour. People will sin, people will make mistakes. But Israel is given a set of guidelines for knowing how best to minimise the impact of the mistakes on individuals and the whole of the community and we might want to think in that light about our own commitment to Christian standards. So often, it feels like our default option when relating to the world is to throw the rule book at people. We think we have the right to control others, and we forgot our calling is to model something more attractive, and to lovingly help when things go wrong.