100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Answering the Letter to Dr Laura, Part 6

We have one last bullet point in the Letter to Dr. Laura.

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

Well there are a few things alluded to here. But let’s start with Leviticus 19:19, which also mentions not breeding two kinds of cattle together as well. This is probably the most interesting of the laws cited in this Letter. Leviticus 19:19 doesn’t appear to be a moral law; there’s nothing immoral about planting two seeds in the same field, or using two kinds of fabric. Rather, this appears to be a sort of metaphorical lesson for Israel alone. It has to do with Jew versus Gentile. If Jews are sheep and Gentiles are goats... then there should be no “interbreeding”. And actually, this is true both in the metaphorical sense and the literal sense, as the Old Testament forbids intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. When an Israelite considers these laws they are to be reminded of the separation of Israel as God’s people from the rest of the nations. In New Testament terms, the same principle is applied to believers and unbelievers. Jesus tells the parable of a man who sowed “good seed” in his field, but his enemy sowed weeds amongst it all. The parable represents the mixing of believers and unbelievers, and acknowledges that this is a corrupt situation. It is certainly an allusion to this very law. The New Testament also tells us not to be “unequally yoked”. It inevitably leads to strife if a Christian should marry an unbeliever, or for a Christian to become business partners with an unbeliever. These relationships are far too intimate, and a clash of world view will always cause trouble. But having less intimate relationships with unbelievers is not forbidden. That’s the point Jesus makes in the parable cited above; that we aren’t to uproot all of the “weeds”, but bear with living amongst them where there is a tension between our competing world views. As Christ came to live amongst sinners because He loved them, so we live amongst them and love our neighbour sincerely. Though marrying foreigners was forbidden in the Old Testament, we have examples of Gentile wives such as Rahab or Ruth. In both examples these women had become devoted to Israel’s God. The prohibition really applies to the spiritual state of a person rather than the sort of physical category they fit into. So this was a law that applied to Israel, and applies to the Church in principle today.

Regarding the comments on blasphemy, the writer refers to an incident in Leviticus 24 where a man was stoned for blasphemy. This set a precedent that all blasphemy would be dealt with in the same way. I don't think that using God's name as a swear word is really what the Bible has in mind here. This would have been an expression of hatred for God, or more likely a denial of God's authority and power. In the context of Israel, a people whom God chose to represent God on Earth before the other nations, this was a serious offense which needed to be "stamped out" immediately. There is nothing worse than hypocrisy amongst the people of God, whether it was back then or today, where unbelievers look at one who is supposedly a Christian and yet doesn't seem to think much of God at all. Whether this is by verbal denigration or by living a life contrary to the teaching of Scripture, it is a serious thing to bare false witness of Christ; which is essentially what happens when someone is looking to you and thinks you're a follower of Christ but you don't speak or act like it. In fact, so many of the criticisms that unbelievers have towards Christianity are criticisms I myself have towards people who call themselves Christians but probably aren't really, or aren't acting like it. Such people give unbelievers this wrong idea of Christianity which makes it all the more difficult for unbelievers to come to Christ. Here, this fellow who blasphemed in Leviticus was probably not a true believer in God. But being associated with Israel he would have been seen as one of God's people, and would therefore be perceived as some kind of apostate. The writer might be implying that this is a ridiculously harsh penalty for someone who happens not to believe in the God of the nation. After all, everybody tends to support religious freedom in our society. But this also pre-supposes that the God of Israel is fictitious anyway, because if there really was a Yahweh who chose Israel as His people and appeared before them in the wilderness, then this isn't just about a man who has a different philosophy to others - this is a blatant act of defiance; amongst God's representatives, no less. It's not analogous to a Christian intolerance of unbelievers in society, it's more analogous to Christian intolerance of unbelief and heresy from within the Church. Now, we don't put heretics to death. Though this has occurred in the history of the Church, I don't think we should be doing that. After all, when the New Testament gives instruction on Church discipline it doesn't mention the death penalty. Exclusion is as bad as it gets.

Finally, to wrap this up, there is a comment on the death penalty for sexual immorality. The specific case here is sleeping with one's in-laws. Of course this letter is primarily about the law against homosexuality, which happens to be the verse just prior to the one cited about incest. The passage as a whole forbids various kinds of sexual acts with various other family members, and also sex with animals. In other words, here is a list of things you can't have sex with. I find it interesting that we would all agree with most of the prohibitions. Nobody defends incest or bestiality. But same sex relationships are put at the same level as these things. On what basis do people say that it is wrong to have sex with your sister but it's okay to have sex with another man? The very argument of this letter is that Christians sort of “pick and choose” which laws to obey, but isn’t this what the writer is doing by arbitrarily choosing that homosexuality is right, while they would surely affirm that incest is wrong? If we make an exception for homosexuality, what grounds do we have for maintaining that incest is still wrong? Or bestiality? We can't even appeal to some idea that homosexuality is hereditary, because frankly any man is “hereditarily predisposed” to becoming aroused by their sister or their mother's female body, were they to dwell on such thoughts. God has designed a man and a woman's body to correspond to one another sexually. But not only did He design our bodies, He also designed our social structure. He designed the family, and He also put us above animals. These relationships are according to God's design for mankind, and so sexual relations across these relationship boundaries is forbidden as they corrupt God's design for society in ways I probably can't even imagine myself. But take, for instance, the relationship between a mother and daughter. A mother is supposed to be someone the daughter looks up to and reveres. How messed up would that become if they were both sleeping with the same man? God has set up His laws because He loves us. His concern is for what these sins will do to us when we break those laws! Like a child who is told not to talk to strangers, it can be hard to understand how God has our best interests in mind when He forbids us to do what we want to do. But we can trust that He does, and so live in obedience to His law.

The letter finally finishes with this sort of tongue-in-cheek remark...

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

We've seen a lot of laws which, according to Christian theology, are no longer binding upon the people of God, (that being the Church). To reiterate what I've said throughout this series of posts; the Mosaic Law consists of Moral laws, Ceremonial laws, and Judicial laws. Of these the Ceremonial, such as animal sacrifice, are no longer practiced because Christ has fulfilled the purpose of these laws. He is our perfect sacrifice, for example. There is no priesthood because Christ is our priest, which also does away with all of the duties performed by Old Testament priests. The Judicial laws were specific to the people of God as a nation, and this was to teach us the metaphor of the "Kingdom of God". But now the Spiritual Kingdom has come and the illustrations of the Judicial law, like the illustrations of the Ceremonial law, are done away with. God's word is eternal and unchanging, but if the word of God makes promises and predictions about a future state of affairs, as these laws do, then when these predictions are fulfilled we don't expect to live as though they haven't. The Moral law remains, however. These are those laws which plainly remind us of what is right and what is wrong for all time. People will forever argue about whether right and wrong can change, but when you believe in a God whose unchanging character determines what is right and wrong, then you will be one of those who believe in an unchanging Moral Law. This letter may reinforce the convictions of unbelievers who already believe in a moral relativity, but it ought not change the minds of Christians who believe in a God who says what He means and means what He says.

<- Part 5

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