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My Reflections on God as Lawgiver

God is extolled in Scripture as a lawgiver:  “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us.”  Is. 33:12 NIV. 

The law of God can be compared to safety concerns that bracket in time a fatal car wreck that occurs at an unmarked intersection.  A benevolent concern for others is a universal sentiment that precedes the car wreck, but placement of the stop sign follows the car wreck.  Law precedes sin and sin precedes law.

To see that the law of God is a transcript of His character is an important observation.  Equally important is what the law of God reveals about the character of His subjects.  For example, the biblical prohibitions against bribery, slander, and bestiality speak not only to what God is like but what we are like or are capable of becoming.  Ex. 23:8, Lev. 19:16, Ex. 22:19.  We see that these prohibitions can support an historian’s deduction that various ancient Israelites were taking bribes, slandering others, and engaging in sexual relations with animals, or were at risk of doing either one. 

Because the law of God is as much a reflection of our fallen humanity as it is of God’s righteousness, there are limits to what God as lawgiver can do.  For example, He cannot proscribe a husband’s irrational feelings of jealousy, because such feelings can flare up unexpectedly through no fault of the husband.  Instead, He statutorily institutes a judicial proceeding wherein a jealous husband’s wife is compelled to drink a concoction prepared by a priest and bear the consequences:  if innocent, she remains healthy, but if guilty, she becomes ill.  Num. 5:11-31.  Modern sensibilities are offended that a virtuous wife, unjustly accused, would be forced to undergo this uncomfortable and humiliating judicial ordeal.  As a result, some modern commentators are inclined to mischaracterize God, because they fail to understand that God as lawgiver is limited by our fallenness in how far and how fast he can elevate standards of decency. 

It is dangerous to superimpose upon Scripture modern conventions as we interpret and regard the law of God.  Even the most blissfully-unaware among us have been profoundly influenced by legal realism.[1]  Methodologically, we are on safer ground when we prayerfully draw on the entirety of Scripture to help explain a particular text we find disturbing.  We can be assured that God as lawgiver does not intend that His law be inscrutable, but seeks to put it in our minds and write it on our hearts.  Heb. 8:10.

There is a noteworthy difference between law and justice.  Law is a tool, an instrument.  Justice is a perfect state of community, a divine order of things.  The virtuous wife, compelled to drink a concoction prepared by a priest, is not getting justice.  She is getting law, which is preferable to what could have been her fate.  The law of God is greatly inclined toward justice and establishes that He is holy and just.  Justice exists in the realm of the heavens and the New Earth, where the concept, instrument, and vocabulary of law will be shrugged off as an anachronism.

[1] See Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. Law Rev. 457 (1897), the single most important essay ever written by an American on the law, in which he argues that the law should be viewed from the external perspective of a bad man.

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