Do people who have no fields or olive groves or vineyards – which probably includes most of us – need to pay any attention to the instructions for leaving some of their produce for the stranger and the orphan and the widow? And if so, why? We might ask similar questions about lending money and taking garments in pledge, or paying wages – if we don’t do any of those things, what do these instructions have to do with us? Assuming we should see in them something that applies to us – perhaps larger general principles, or perhaps situations that translate to similar or analogous situations that we do find ourselves in – we would need to consider what those general principles or those similar or analogous situations would be.
This may be the central question raised for us by the very concrete provisions of the text we are studying for Sunday, January 30: Deuteronomy 24:10-21. That is: what do we learn from these specific instructions about how we ourselves are supposed to be conducting ourselves justly? [Some notes on the text are here.] But here are a couple of additional questions we might also want to consider, or perhaps discuss in class:
A couple of these instructions have rationales that make references to the reactions of the people affected by them. Verse 13 gives as the rationale for returning a garment taken in pledge that the debtor “will bless you.” Verse 15 gives as the rationale for prompt payment of wages that otherwise the employees might “cry out to YHWH against you.” What is our response to these rationales? Why is that?
[More theoretical, maybe] How would we describe the relationship between these rationales and the Golden Rule? On the whole, how consistent do these instructions seem with the Golden Rule? Why do we say that?
Another couple of verses give as a rationale for the instructions that “you were a slave in Egypt …” Why would that legacy of slavery be a reason for these instructions, do we think?
[More personal] How much do we ourselves relate to the idea of having been a slave in Egypt? And of having been liberated from slavery? Does that feel personally relevant to us? Why, or why not?
The categories of the stranger or alien – that is, someone who is “not one of us” – and the orphan and the widow are named several times in these instructions, as needing special protection. What do we know about these categories of people? Why would these laws give them special attention, do we think? How do we feel about this? Why?
[More political, no doubt, and more for those who might like an argument] Verse 16 makes reference to the death penalty. Does this imply that the death penalty should be retained today, do we think? Why, or why not?
Image: “Conversation,” Camille Pissaro, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.