Book Review: Dwelling in the Past: Old Testament Law for New Testament Christians

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A book review of Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application by Roy E. Gane (Baker Academic, 2017).

This book considers the question “Is Old Testament Law Relevant for New-Covenant Christians?” Proceeding from the premise that a purpose of Old Testament (OT) law includes revealing God’s characterand creating a model society as a guiding light to the nations, Roy Gane writes 410 pages and answers in the affirmative.He acknowledges problems applying OT law in modern times and provides the context of ancient Israelite legal culture.

Three approaches to applying OT law are discussed:

Radical Continuity
Radical Discontinuity
Both Continuity and Discontinuity

Thus framed, the Aristotelean golden mean presents itself: there is both continuity and discontinuity between the OT law and New Testament (NT) covenant. Proceeding from OT moral principles one can discern what is to be kept and what discarded, or so the author contends.

Ten Commandments as Enduring

Amongst the materials kept are the Ten Commandments, which are unchangingly authoritative. Per Gane, the first four deal with our relationship with God, the remaining six our relationship with one another. But that assumption helps the average Joe very little in discerning what else in the OT remains in full force and effect. One needs the scholarship of a Professor Gane to sort it out.

Cross-Fertilization

Gane writes that OT laws are from God. This reviewer takes a less pious approach and insists, rather, that OT laws are attributed to God. Moreover, morality, language, and law are linked. But it is not a one way street. Our morals mold our laws. And in turn our laws (expressed in words) curb our conduct. There is a cross-fertilization. Our shared values, for better or for worse, facilitate and even require us to enact certain laws. The assumption that slavery was an inevitable if not preordained part of life, for example, led people in ancient times (even those in NT times) to assume its morality, which was reflected in the laws attributed to God.i Whether our morals or our laws came first is akin to the chicken-and-egg dilemma.

Problem of Pain

Theodicy seeks to explain divine goodness and providence in light of the existence of evil. David Hume wrote that “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

These are not idle questions. C.S. Lewis dubbed this the “problem of pain.” His solution in part referenced pain as a natural part of growth and a consequence of God-given freedom. He may have revised his view after his wife succumbed to cancer.

Whence Immoral OT Laws?

With the OT law, we have a somewhat analogous though admittedly different conundrum. We have two presuppositions: 1) OT law is from God and 2) God is of good character. But then the unavoidable question: Whence (from what place or source) come the immoral laws in the OT?

To consider a specific example: If a genuine value found in OT Scriptures is equality of the sexes, as Gane says, then whence all the chauvinistic if not misogynistic OT laws? One must dare to plumb the depths of the patriarchal mindset of OT times for answers regarding what to do with, for example, laws forbidding contrasting fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11), prohibitions regarding cutting one’s hair, dietary restrictions, such as prohibition of eating certain parts of so-called clean meats, legal provisions for determining a woman’s fidelity by having her drink a potion,ii and etc.

To his credit, Gane does not ignore difficulties in OT law, such as:

Permanent Servitude
Severity of Punishments
Divinely Mandated Destruction of Nations

Critical Assessment

This reviewer finds this book to be a careful and closely reasoned work of scholarship. It is for a niche audience, is conventional in its conclusions, and is a model of misplaced certitude. I still find it instructive and worthwhile reading.

Niche Audience

That the laws of the OT are consistent and coherent is regarded as a truism by many biblical scholars, including Gane. But others consider this assumption little more than a comforting myth.

Is the glass half empty or half full? Is the relationship between OT and NT one of stark contrast or affinity? Continuity or discontinuity? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Every book is written to persuade, but Gane’s book is without question an advocacy piece rather than a descriptive piece. His argument is thus: the OT laws are of orfrom God,iii God is good, ergo(therefore) OT laws are good. QED. Gane’s audience (including perhaps some doctrinal apparatchiks) already believes this, so he finds it unnecessary to examine his premises.

Conventional Presentation

Gane writes that “the Pentateuch [the books of Moses] presents its law as coming from, and therefore endorsed, by YHWH.” He asserts the “NT is the continuation of the OT story of redemption” and that “modern Christians can gain much practical wisdom from the rich and fascinating world of OT laws” – but nowhere are these assertions examined. iv

Gane proceeds methodically and logically from his premises. But his unquestioned assumptions are worthy of a moment of reflection. For example, he writes: “Divine laws came to Israel through an especially transparent and therefore reliable medium because Moses is described as being supremely humble and having a relationship to the Lord transcending that of other prophets…”

Is not this circular (if not self-serving) reasoning, since the citations noted by Gane (Numbers 12:3, 6-8; Deuteronomy 34:10-12) are from books attributed to Moses?

Gane writes that “A moral ‘principle’ is an objective, absolute, changeless truth that governs human nature and relationships. Society corporately agrees on principles….A moral ‘value,’ on the other hand, is a subjective, changeable perspective of an individual or group that has developed from past experiences….”

But how do we know objective from subjective in the Bible, when there is no identification in the text itself? Nowhere does the Bible say “Warning: this particular command is a mere subjective changeable value with an expiration date.”

Gane writes that “Human values are subjective, changeable, and affected by culture; divine values remain constant, although OT law can temporarily constrain expressions of divine values…in order to accommodate human weakness….”

A cynical reader might say this preemptively “explains” what appear to laypeople as immoral laws. Just blame it on the victim — humans compelled God to accommodate human weakness.

Misplaced Certitude

Gane acknowledges that there are apparent “discrepancies between laws” — and he explains this by saying that God “can maintain justice through variable circumstances by giving somewhat different laws to different people for different situations. Thus OT law is dynamic and adaptable rather than static and rigid.” A classic technique of lawyers is turning a weakness into a strength, a vulnerability into something venerable. Gane has done so here.

What if we simply cut the Gordian knot and recognize the plausibility of the Documentary Hypothesis that the Books of Moses were composed by different authors (or groups of authors) over a rather lengthy period of time, thus explaining discrepancies, rather than insisting that the OT Pentateuch (five books of Moses) was written by Moses just prior to his death?

A conservative pastor zealously involved in overseas evangelistic crusades once told me that the “remnant does not wallow in the gutter of modern biblical scholarship.” Oscar Wilde’s retort comes to mind: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” An omnipotent God can manage to convey the essential message, even if it is through a host of anonymous authors gathered in Babylonian captivity redacting their way through the oral traditions handed down over centuries.

With human laws, one can admit without apology that a prior law was wrong and that it is now overruled. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme court overruled Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (“separate but equal” is okay) with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) (“‘separate but equal’ has no place [because] separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”). There is no need to justify the earlier immoral case law.v

Gane writes that the variety of OT laws are a “massive demonstration of the divine character.” But what do we do with, as he puts it, the “especially brutal” OT laws commanding, for example, capital punishment of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18)? Troubling to moderns is YHWH’s fondness for the death penalty — often by burning or stoning. Even lesser punishments meted out by God are barbaric: having one’s hand cut off, being beaten with rods, and debt servitude (slavery).

To this reviewer, the prevalence of immoral punishments in the OT calls into question their divine provenance.

Tolerate vs. Legislate

Gane asks, “How could God tolerate evils such as slavery and polygamy and command cruel punishments, and yet still claim that his moral system is based on love…” (141). Tolerate is an odd choice of words, given that God is the Divine Law giver. His laws do not tolerate but go further: they mandate, legislate, and require, for example, the continuation of slavery and polygamy! This would be like saying Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution merely tolerated but did not legislatively enable the continuing slave trade until 1808.vi

Gane argues that certain OT laws are for all time, whereas other OT laws were merely allowed temporarily by God because of the sinful historical-culture milieu of the time.

Commandments vs. Man’s Commands

The Ten Commandments, for Gane, stand as pillars of enduring divine principles. For example, the Sixth Commandment unchangingly underscores Respect for Life.

But we have to be honest about what this law against murder permitted: you should kill your child for disobedience (Deuteronomy 21:18–20), you should execute your child for cursing (“For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death” [Leviticus 20:9]), you should slay your daughter for her loss of virginity prior to marriage (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), under certain circumstances you should put to death your daughter for prostitution (“If a priest's daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute you shall burn her” [Leviticus 21:9]), you could execute your neighbor for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), you could kill someone whose theology you found unacceptable (Leviticus 24:10-13), you could execute a prophet whose prophecies were unfulfilled (Deuteronomy 18:20-22),  and so on and so forth.vii

Gane points to the Seventh Commandment as yet another enduring value and summarizes it as: “Respect Marriage.” But the law’s asymmetrical enforcement and unequal application as between the genders underscores it as a law assuming men are favored. This is because the law is as much about property rights as it is about love and fidelity. Hence its placement amongst laws against theft and coveting property. And Gane recognizes the property aspect of the marital relationship: “A man who seduces and has sex with an unbetrothed virgin causes economic damage to her family (among other things). Once she has lost her virginity another man who might want to marry her will not pay the bride-price for virgins.”

The Bible never specifies what the other damages are to her family, never discusses consent when it comes to sex, always portrays fornication or sex outside of marriage as harmful to the property right of a male, whether the husband or the father. An example of this is the bizarre biblical “solution” to rape where one option is to have the rape victim marry the rapist! (Deuteronomy 22:28). The Bible never asks whether the rape victim or the unbetrothed heretofore virgin consents.viii Servant concubinage is mentioned, but Gane likewise explains it away as God allowingfor human weaknesses and moral failings. Men, especially powerful men, have always assumed certain privileges. Non-consensual sex did not begin with Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced American film producer. Even after having sex with his wife’s slave, Hagar, Abraham is admonished not for the nonconsensual intercourse but for doubting God’s provision for an heir.

Redemptive Trajectory Only in Hindsight

A theme of Gane’s is that enduring principles are at least hinted at in the OT and brought to greater fruition and fulfillment in the NT. But is this true? For example, where is freedom of religion even faintly hinted at in the OT? Today religious liberty is espoused as a core value of God, the heart of the Great Controversy. God does not cajole or coerce worship.

And yet OT laws concerning rival religions make clear that religious freedom is not contemplated, let alone safeguarded: those who worship differently are to be killed.ix One would think that an enduring, unchanging principle of divine law would include the notion that we love rather than hate, and err on the side of sparing rather than taking life, even toward those who worship differently. And yet the OT law exhibited just the opposite, especially with the prevalence of the death penalty as the preferred default punishment.

At the risk of gainsaying Gane’s redemptive trajectory in the OT, this reviewer suspects that such trajectory is imposed rather than discovered.

Love Clear at Calvary, Not in the OT

And how does Gane conclude his book? “Our study of OT law,” he writes, “has shown that the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] exemplifies the great principles of love for God and for other human beings, which Jesus affirmed and which also for the foundation of the rest of the OT law.”

But a review of just a few of the Ten Commandments suggests that even this most cherished summary of OT law is not without its cultural indebtedness.

The core problem with Gane’s book is his unexamined assumption that OT laws come from God. Is it hubristic to suggest to Gane that one ought not fear the possibility that some of the laws in the OT are man-made? Calvary shows that God permits Godself to be vulnerable, perhaps even to countenance sincere but imperfect followers to attribute to God ungodly laws. Perhaps epistemological humility requires this possibility.

Cognitive Dissonance

F. Scott Fitzgerald said a first-rate intelligence can hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time. Here, those propositions are that all laws in the Bible are God’s laws and God is all good. But what do we do with the OT, since it is God’s law? Gane suggests that over time the OT laws paint an ever-fuller picture of the character of God.

Laws as Humanity’s Mirror

Adam Kirsch of The New Yorker, has suggested that each generation of historians conveys the Jewish past in a way that is indebted to, bound up with, and reflective of its vision of the Jewish future. Our laws are similarly influenced by the lawmaker’s vision of the trajectory of a community.

If you have not noticed, this reviewer suggests that the Bible’s presentation of God’s laws is likewise beholden to its particular understanding of God. When God was seen as a victorious king, mighty in the ways of the contemporary kings, God’s law reflected that view. When God was seen through the visions of the prophets and their social concerns, God’s laws reflected their view. In the time of Christ, when seen through the sacrifice on Calvary, God’s laws reflected the compassion of Jesus. Post-Calvary, we have seen and heard things not previously seen or heard. It does not make us better; it only gives us a different vantage point. We benefit from humankind’s slow and often painful learning of lessons from the Beatitudes and the meditations on the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no shame in saying that old understandings of law however sincere were simply mistaken. We all have our own ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance.

As with the Supreme Court overruling Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board, we too can simply admit that there were immoral laws in the OT which never were and never will be reflective of the character of God. But for Gane this is verboten.

To allow consideration that particular OT laws were immoral and not of God is to let the inmates run the asylum. But how does declaring all OT laws to be from God solve this problem? We are all inmates. We are creatures of our time and place, immersed like fish in a bowl not fully aware of the water within which we swim, live, move, and have our being, to paraphrase St. Paul.

In conclusion, Roy Gane has written a commendable work of biblical scholarship. His erudition and research are beyond contestation and his argument is logically valid, which is not necessarily the same as true. Gane’s conclusions are sound — if you accept his premises.

 

Notes & References:

[i] How we all wish Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus with a letter to Philemon declaring with no uncertain terms that Christians do not own slaves and that Philemon was forthwith to free Onesimus from slavery, as was his Christian duty. How different our world would have been! Instead, Paul gave Philemon an option – which was used for the next two millennia to justify the holding of slaves by Christians.

[ii] “Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries” (Numbers 5:19-22, NIV).

[iii] It is not clear which Gane actually argues. The phrase made of is utilized when the material of which the subject consists does not substantially change during the process of making the subject. For example, a wooden table is made of wood. Or a cheese sandwich is made of cheese and bread. The phrase made from is employed when the material of which the subject consists is transformed in some important way during the production process. Hence paper is made from wood. Or cheese is made from milk. Thus, words can have precision but can also be ambiguous. One might think of laws of God being laws dictated verbally of God, no change being made during their transmission. Whereas laws from God may be filtered through culture, language, historical context and be less than a faithful verbatim transcription of the communication from the divine. The Bible does not tell us which is, in fact, the case. One simply assumes one or the other and proceeds from the assumptions.

[iv] Gane cites the touchstone of Sola Scriptura: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17), but would Paul have applied the status of Scripture to his own epistles, let alone to the Gospels he obviously had no knowledge of since they were likely yet-to-be written and yet-to-be deemed by the Church as authoritative?

[v] Regarding the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and racial segregation, the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson was decided by a 7-1, holding that “separate but equal” public facilities could be provided to different racial groups. In his majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown pointed to schools as an example of the legality of segregation. The one dissent argued against segregation and against separate but equal. Nevertheless, it was the law of the land — for a time. Then came the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read in open court the landmark decision unanimously prohibiting racial segregation: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

[vi] “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution.

[vii] The exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill” are so numerous that they virtually swallow up the rule against killing. Arguably, the prohibition against murder in Exodus 20:13 is self-consistent only if one very narrowly defines murder and meticulously identifies what sorts of killings constitute homicide. For example, you were permitted to kill another person simply for having sexual intercourse with someone of another nationality or tribal community! (“He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the [foreign] woman's stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped…” [Number 25:8: NIV]). God did not merely tolerate the killing but here required this lawful killing in order for the God-caused plague to end.

[viii] “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman…” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29, NIV).

[ix] “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’ (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people” (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, NIV).

 

David Alexander Pendleton is a partner in the California law firm of Bradford & Barthel, LLP, and before that he served as an elected state legislator, a policy advisor to Hawaii’s Governor, and an administrative law judge for the State of Hawaii until his retirement in 2014. His opinions are not necessarily shared by Spectrum magazine, his law firm, or the State of Hawaii.

Image courtesy of Baker Publishing Group.

 

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