The central question of how the laws, the mishpatim, given in Exodus 23:1-12 apply to us, or might, gets us into such deep water that we seem unlikely swim our way out of it by the end of our study on Sunday, January 16. [Some notes on the text are here.]
Probably we can all agree that we are reading ancient legal material, originally addressed to the ancient Israelites. So probably we can all agree that the “original intent” of this text was to regulate the life of people in ancient Israel. But after that, we may find ourselves in some perplexity, or even disagreement, as we consider
- whether we think any of these instructions still apply to anyone; and
- whether if they do, we think they apply to anyone who isn’t “Israelite” – or, perhaps, to be more contemporary about it, Jewish; so, specifically,
- whether we think any of these instructions would in principle apply to Gentile Christians – because these are clearly instructions with a moral/ethical intent, rather than a ceremonial one, which is often taken as the line that distinguishes the “law” Christians DO take as applying to them from the “law” that Christians feel justified in ignoring – or not; and if so,
- how to understand the way these instructions, which are all addressed to “you” (masculine singular), are addressing the audience they DO apply to – in particular, whether these are laws that apply to people acting individually, or to “the whole society” acting collectively, sort of like a “corporate person”; and,
- if we think the laws pertain to the whole society, what meaning that has for the behavior of individual members of the society – like, what if you, collectively, were actively oppressing some gerim, some strangers, what would you, individually, need to do; and further,
- in particular, how do we think we’re supposed to apply the particular instructions that might seem … obsolete or irrelevant, like the one about meeting an ox or donkey going astray, or lying prone under a burden that’s too heavy for it, which seems pretty unlikely to happen these days – literally, as pertaining strictly to the ox or donkey case, or more broadly, as exemplifying a broader principle, like “returning what’s gone missing” or “helping out a suffering animal”; similarly, what about the instruction about how to treat your land, since you might not have any literal land, but you might have some other productive asset, or you might have money, and there might be a larger principle involved here.
In short – we could mull all of this over A LONG TIME! But just in case we need even more questions to consider or possibly to discuss in class, here are a couple:
What does it tell us about people that these instructions exist?
What does it tell us about God that these instructions exist?
What does it tell us about the kind of people God wants us to be that these instructions exist?
[More personal] How do we feel about all of this? Any implications for our own actual behavior here? What implications?
Which instruction or instructions seem particularly relevant to the world we’re living in these days? If more people took this instruction to heart, what would change, do we think? Why do we think that?
If we ourselves took this instruction to heart, what would change, do we think? What would we do less of, or more of? Again, why?
How hard would it be, do we think, to put this into practice? Why is that?
Overall, it seems to me we will want to think hard about the ways these instructions do address us, and how they might be calling us to change some of our own specific, concrete behaviors. Like what memes we share on Facebook, possibly, or how we express our opinions about the latest highly-publicized court case. For two completely hypothetical, random examples.
Because no doubt we get to count on God being merciful, and forgiving. But wouldn’t it be nice if, knowing that, we were still working on spreading fewer false rumors and trying not to lend a helping hand to violent conspiracies and oppressing the strangers around us less and all that? All of which presupposes that we can actually tell the difference between the false and the true rumors, and can distinguish the evil from the non-evil majorities, and can perceive the difference between oppression and kindness, and so on.
Heaven help us.
Image: “A Family Around a Table,” Julius Paulsen (1919), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons