Thursday, November 18, 2004

Torah Torah Torah

I promise you, o patient readers, that I will discuss things other than theology. But, they say, "write what you know" (not to say that I know anything about anything, but theology is as close as it gets)...

I'm currently reading Story as Torah by G.J. Wenham. It is definitely right up my alley and has helped to further define my vocation calling in the area of Old Testament studies and Hebrew (can you say nerd?). Here are some quotes that I want to interact with, especially in light of what I said about theonomy earlier (see "Is Theonomy a Four-Letter Word?"):

The law sets a minimum standard of behavior, which if transgressed attracts sanction. It regulates institutions like marriage or slavery, but it does not prescribe ideals of behaviour within marriage. (pg.80, italics not for emphasis, but to show a quotation without those pesky, modernist quotation marks)

[T]he ethical expectations of the Old Testament are higher than the legal rules. Laws define a floor of tolerable behaviour. Break them and punishment follows. But that does not mean that simply keeping the laws is sufficient...Ethical duty involves much more than keeping the law. (pg. 104)

In traditional Protestant preaching, that we cannot keep the law is a mainstay. The implications that these quotes have for that are astounding. Not only are we not keeping the law, we aren't even living up to our greater ethical duty. How can we expect to love our spouses, children, and be merciful to the 'other', if we cannot even keep the more simple laws like not carving images in our minds or by our hands? The mercy of God is great everyday.

Secondly, because this serves as such a ego deflation, it should kick the wind out of the traditional theonomist sails. It is no underexaggeration that theonomists are seen as arrogant (which many are), but the fact that many don't live up to the Biblical standard of human decency is appalling--I include myself in this indictment.

Now for the real meat of what I wanted to get to. The Torah cannot just be transposed into our 21st century context, without doing much violence to the text and to our society. Many take this as the argument against any application of the Torah today. However, if Wenham is right (and I am inclined to believe this) then it isn't the Torah that is the problem. The Torah just serves as a baseline ethics standard--not necessarily universally applicable, but a good guidepost since we still deal with some similar situations (murder, debt, etc.) and are still the people of God, just redefined around Jesus. What the problem is is the lack of wisdom in applying the larger 'ethical duty' (which, interestingly, Wenham aruges cannot be set down in propositions, but must be exemplified through narratives). The Pharisees in the first century had a certain way of doing this, which later became codified as Talmud and Mishnah. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is reacting to this by saying that the 'ethical duty' is not what they have defined, but what he is defining. Jesus, in this way, intensifies Torah for the new situation (the rule of God through himself). How does one fulfill the Torah on murder? What is the 'ethical duty' that the law serves as a baseline for? "Love your neighbor AND your enemy." This isn't to undermine Torah, but to provide how Wisdom (thereby emulating God--Proverbs 8ff.) fulfills what Torah can only point to: life with God and neighbor (and enemy) in society. You can't legislate that sort of thing.

What about adultery? Many wised and learned rabbis would say that as long as their is no intercourse or physical touch, you are fulfilling Torah. Jesus says, "Don't even look at another woman (or man) lustfully." Not legislation, but wisdom in going further than the Torah ever could.

I think that this is fruitful, especially for the Reformational movement. Often, it seems like our ethics are flying in the wind and blown in whatever direction we deem 'justice' to be defined in. However, with an actual rhetorical criticsm of our narratives, we might see how to fulfill God's wise law by being wise ourselves, living according to the narrative and not ignoring the first principles that it builds off of.

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