posted on Mar, 21 2014 @ 06:01 PM
The social laws of the Pentateuch were not designed for the modern world,
They were clearly designed for a different kind of world, a mainly agricultural society.
But since they were published in the name of the Biblical God, they can still throw light on his nature and intentions.
Which gives us a new reason for reading this collection even if the laws themselves have been superseded.
Let’s take, for example, what God’s law says about the treatment of the poor.
Strictly speaking, according Deuteronomy, the state of poverty should not have existed at all;
“There will be no poor among you (for the Lord will bless you in the land which the Lord God gives you for an inheritance), if only you will obey
the voice of the Lord your God”- Deuteronomy ch15 vv4-5
But this is followed almost immediately (v11) by a warning that “The poor will never cease out of the land”.
That amounts to recognising that the condition of “obedience to the voice of the Lord” will never be fulfilled.
Since “the poor will always be amongst you”, the laws direct their neighbours towards ways of helping them to live.
One of them is the law of gleaning.
Instead of scouring the land with ruthless efficiency, the farmer collects the bulk of his harvest, while tolerating any pockets of un-gathered crops,
and allowing the poor to take for themselves what food they can find;
“When you reap your harvest in the field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back for it” Deuteronomy ch24 v19
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your
harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor
and for the sojourner; I am the Lord”- Leviticus ch19 vv9-10
We can see this at work in the story of Ruth. She was gleaning in the fields of Boaz, who encouraged her to remain under the protection of his own
people and not to go elsewhere (where the young men might be less respectful).
If the poor man wants to borrow money (or “loan” it, if you’re a Londoner), then the man who lends him the money (or the man who “borrows”
the money to him, if you’re a Londoner), will probably demand a pledge.
The law does not forbid the practice, but imposes restrictions.
“No man shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge; for he would be taking a life in pledge”- Deuteronomy ch24 v6
The debtor can’t live without them, because they are the “tools of his trade”; there’s a similar, more generalised, provision in English
“When you make your neighbour a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge.
You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you”- Deuteronomy ch24 vv10-11
“If ever you take your neighbour’s garment as pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is
his mantle for the body; in what else shall he sleep?” Exodus ch22 vv26-27
“You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” Deuteronomy ch24 v17
These provisions allow the debtor to at least retain some dignity in his borrowing.
There is also a ban on the charging of interest, which would make things worse.
“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him”
Exodus ch22 v25
“You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest upon money, interest upon victuals, interest upon anything that is lent for interest”
Deuteronomy ch23 v19-20
This leaves no motive for the loan except a care for the brother’s welfare.
(But this immunity from interest is for the benefit of the brethren, and does not apply to the foreigner).
It is written into the law, in any case, that the debt will not be permanent.
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release…every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it
of his brother, his neighbour”- Deuteronomy ch15 vv1-2
But this provision might have an unwanted side-effect, and Deuteronomy warns against it;
“Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say “The seventh year, the year of release is near”, and you give him
nothing…You will give it freely, and your heart will not be grudging”- Deuteronomy ch15 vv9-10
At first glance, there seems to be a natural way round this problem. The law could simply allow loans to be reclaimed for seven years only from the
date of the loan. But that would require some way of proving the date of the loan. In a less documented society, a “general release date” would
probably be more workable.
If a man’s debts are large enough, he may be obliged to sell his land-holding.
In which case, in theory, the Jubilee laws of Leviticus would come into play.
The Jubilee is to be celebrated every fiftieth year (or possibly every forty-ninth year).
The basic principle of the law, insofar as it concerns land-ownership, is that no family-group should permanently lose the land which has been
assigned to it.
The first possible solution is that “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his next of kin shall come and redeem what
his brother has sold”.
Failing that, if the debtor recovers his prosperity in the following years, he may be able to redeem the land himself, by paying for the years that
remain before the Jubilee period expires.
Failing that again, the land will be “released” in the year of Jubilee, and he (or at least his family) will be able to return to it.- Leviticus
What can these laws tell us about the God who endorses them?
They speak of a God whose concern is for the weak and vulnerable, making it easier for them to maintain themselves and live.
They work by taking the sense of “care for the brother”, which belongs to the kinship system, and extending it more widely, to cover the whole
In so doing, they bring in the concept of the “near kinsman”, the redeemer, the one who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
This then prompts the reflection that the same description might be applied to God himself.
This is already moving towards the teaching of love.
We may think that these laws are imperfect.
We may call it a fault that the definition of “brother” hasn’t been extended even further, to cover the world at large.
I think this demonstrates once again what we learn from some of the other laws, that God is willing to compromise.
It may have been God’s final will that “all the world” should be treated as our brethren, but that further step was not taken because the
Israelites were not yet ready to receive it.
So this shows us a God who deals with people as he finds them, starting with the customs they’ve got already and aiming to improve them.
He is prepared to deal with people in ways that they can understand, before trying to lead them further.