Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

Part 1 of a multi-part series of studies on Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.

Eric Auerbach, in his classic work on Western literature, devotes his first chapter to contrasting Homer with the Bible. Of Homer, he writes of the “need of Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalized.”[i] This is more fully expressed in the following: “the basic impulse of the Homeric style: to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spacial and temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment:  here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed.”[ii]

In Homer, then, “never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.”[iii] There is, rather, what Auerbach calls a “procession of phenomena” which takes place entirely in the “foreground,” that is, “a local and temporal present which is absolute.” Homer’s style “knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.”[iv]

Auerbach then turns to the Bible. He begins with the story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice in Genesis 22. As he says, comparing the Bible to Homer, “it would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts”: “The personages speak in the Bible story too; but their speech does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to externalize thoughts—on the contrary, it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed. God gives his command in direct discourse, but he leaves his motives and his purpose unexpressed; Abraham, receiving the command, says nothing and does what he has been told to do. . . . Everything remains unexpressed.”[v]

Since everything in Homer is “externalized,” “completely expressed,” and “connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground,” there is no room for interpretation. The Bible, on the other hand, since it expresses only what it necessary and leaves everything else in obscurity, demands to be interpreted.[vi] The Biblical narrative raises questions that it does not directly or explicitly answer, at least not in the immediate context. The reader of the Bible, then, is left disturbed. Why is this happening? Where is this story going? The hermeneutic quest begins as the reader compares Scripture with Scripture to find answers for the questions which naturally arise from the story.

Not only, however, does Biblical narrative remain “mysterious and ‘fraught with background,’”[vii] but it is also a narrative that makes totalitarian claims about representing reality. Auerbach rightly notes: “The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy.”[viii]

Seeking to rightly understand the Bible, in other words, means the pursuit of ultimate truth about reality itself — if the Bible’s worldview is true. Auerbach, together with post-enlightenment thinkers in general, rejects the Biblical worldview.[ix] But at least he is completely aware of the immensity, the comprehensive grandeur of the Bible and its worldview. He knows he is rejecting an ancient theory of everything that calls into judgment those who do not submit to it.

Thus, by way of introduction to this essay, I want to emphasize first how different the Bible is as a piece of literature from any other book we might read. We need to remember that even though modern Western literary conventions have been influenced by the Bible, the Bible itself was not written according to our accustomed literary conventions. This means that reading Scripture requires special effort. We cannot understand it well through a casual reading. But this labor required to interpret the Bible is something that the Bible itself demands from us.

The second thing I want to emphasize is that reading the Bible brings us under the judgment of the Bible’s teaching. Reading the Bible is not and cannot be a neutral enterprise.  The Bible does, as Auerbach duly notes, make totalitarian claims. I believe those claims are true and that this book uniquely judges its readers. It not only demands that its readers put in the extra effort to understand it, it also calls its readers into judgment for their response to its contents.

 Approaching Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8

This series of essays examines Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8, a paragraph in the book of Deuteronomy discussing the application of the Seventh Commandment. I will offer here an approach to the passage that differs from typical commentaries, though I depend on their insights as well. The approach I recommend in this essay is, for want of a better term, a “meditative” approach to reading the law of Moses, the Torah. The particular sort of meditation I am introducing here, however, is not a subjective, feeling-based reading. Rather, as Auerbach also demonstrates, I believe that the text of Scripture itself, invites, provokes, and demands interpretation based on comparing Scripture with Scripture. Of course, just comparing Scripture with Scripture is traditional.  What I am recommending is a more detailed and comprehensive comparison than is often attempted and I argue that this detailed reading is actually demanded by the text itself.

In other words, Moses composed Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 in such a way that he subtly reminds readers of other passages either in the laws of Exodus through Numbers or the historical narrative from Genesis through Numbers. If we read the law slowly enough, asking questions of the text, and meditating on its meaning, we will discover subtleties and meaning that a casual reading completely misses. I am not, however, suggesting that our meditation should create a new meaning for the text, the meditation I recommend is intended to enable us to enter the ancient text and its fuller meaning with the mind of an ancient reader — to the degree that is possible.[x]

To begin with, then, remember that David pronounced God’s special blessing[xi] on the man who delights in Yahweh’s Torah and meditates on the Torah day and night (Psalm 1:2).  So, we naturally ask, What does it mean to “meditate”? To answer the question, consider how the Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament. The word translated “meditate” in Psalm one only occurs 24 times.[xii] The first reference stands out. It is Yahweh’s word to Joshua, commanding him to mediate on the Torah day and night. David’s declaration in Psalm 1:2, therefore, clearly looks back to Joshua himself as a man who meditated on Yahweh’s Torah and was richly blessed. That gives us an example, but it doesn’t show us concretely what the word means.

The second use of the Hebrew word for “meditate” in the Psalms gives us a concrete picture of exactly what meditation involves. The wicked are said to “devise” (same Hebrew word as “meditate”) a vain thing against Yahweh (Psalm 2:1). In other words, they “meditate” on challenging God. Imagine the wicked devising plans, thinking and rethinking day and night about how best they can make their rebellion against Yahweh succeed. Similarly, another Psalm tells us how those who sought David’s life planned all day how they could trap and destroy him (Psalm 38:12).[xiii]  In these verses, the Psalms show us that the hatred which consumes the wicked and preoccupies their minds with plans for rebellion and evil is the precise opposite of the love for Torah that inspires the righteous to dwell constantly on the law. To meditate is to think over and over about the meaning of each statute and command, to ask questions about why God gave a particular command, and to deeply consider what the command might mean for daily life.

Thus, to meditate on the Torah is to be passionately preoccupied with it. This is exactly what Psalm 119 show us:

I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.  (119:14)

My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thine ordinances at all times.  (119:20)

The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.  (119:72)

Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day.  (119:97)

How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!  (119:103)

Thy testimonies have I taken as a heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart.  (119:111)

Therefore I love thy commandments above gold, yea, above fine gold.  (119:127)

I opened wide my mouth, and panted; for I longed for thy commandments.  (119:131)

Thy word is very pure; therefore thy servant loveth it.  (119:140)

Consider how I love thy precepts: Give me life, O Yahweh, according to thy covenant love.  (119:159)

Seven times a day do I praise thee, because of thy righteous ordinances.  (119:164)

My soul hath observed thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly.  (119:167)

It is my contention that what Joshua was commanded to do and what David commended is exactly what the Christian approach to the Torah ought to be — though, of course, not the Torah only. We need to ask questions about each command and statute in the spirit of one who is humbly seeking to know and understand not only the law of God, but even more, the God of the law. Why did Yahweh give this command? How does this fit into Israel’s whole covenantal system? What might this have meant to an ancient Israelite? Especially we need to ask a particular question that modern Christians are not likely to ask, but I think that ancient Israelites would have certainly ask: What in Israel’s history might this law allude to? Or if “allude” is too strong a word, the question could be: What in Israel’s history echoes in the background of this law? Or, even more generally: How does this law relate to Israel’s history?

I need to emphasize in particular questions of this last kind, for questions concerning stories have special meaning. Only when we can see the meaning of the Torah in the light of Israel’s history will we be able to relate it to our history. In a discussion of worldview, N.T. Wright made the following observation: “Stories are one of the most basic modes of human life. It is not the case that we perform random acts and then try to make sense of them; when people do that we say that they are drunk, or mad. As Macintyre argues, conversations in particular and human actions in general are ‘enacted narratives’. That is, the overall narrative is the more basic category, while the particular moment and person can only be understood within that context. . . . Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative. Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute for the ‘real thing’, which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about ‘bare facts.’ An equally unsatisfactory alternative is to regard the story as a showcase for a rhetorical saying or set of such sayings.  Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview. . . . all worldviews contain an irreducible narrative element, which stands alongside the other worldview elements (symbol, praxis, and basic questions and answers), none of which can be simply ‘reduced’ to terms of the others.”[xiv]

Our worldviews, in other words, are story-haunted. Stories are lurking beneath the surface and behind the scenes of every event and action in our lives, even every word we speak. In the nature of the case, this is no less true for ancient Israelites than for modern men. Thus, the narrative approach to worldview questions that characterized Paul was not original with him. It is typical of all the authors of Scripture beginning with Moses. What this means for Torah is obvious. Moses wrote laws and history that are haunted by the stories that preceded them. Virtually every law in the book of Deuteronomy presupposes, alludes to, recalls, reflects on, or inescapably reminds readers of stories in Genesis to Numbers.[xv]

Meditating on Deuteronomy, then, includes taking time to ask which stories the various commands and laws allude to, relate with, or remind us of. As we recall the stories from Genesis to Numbers, one of the outstanding features of the basic story is that God Himself is the central figure. Biblical history is entirely His story. Considering the links between the statutes and rules of Deuteronomy and the history recorded in Genesis to Numbers guides us to God.

In addition, when we approach Deuteronomy, we need to remember that the so-called “Law of Moses” — perhaps better referred to as the “Instruction of Moses” since the Hebrew word torah is usually, if not always, closer to the English word “instruction” than to “law” — is written as instruction in wisdom and righteousness.[xvi] As such Deuteronomy not only contains commandments, statutes, and judgments, but it also includes stories of its own, hortatory material, and even riddles and puzzles.

Allusions to other parts of the Torah sometimes qualify the meaning of one statute by another. The effect of combining allusions to stories and laws, new or revised forms of old stories, riddles, and puzzles with apodictic laws and case laws is to multiply layers of meaning in the text. Thus, the so-called “law” is a multi-layered, highly complex literary work; simply making a list of the rules found in the five books of Moses would not at all do justice to the actual message.[xvii]

What this means, then, is that the Torah was written in such a way that only meditation on its commandments, statutes, and judgments would open the way to a true understanding of the meaning of Yahweh’s Torah and Yahweh Himself. A superficial reading, like that of modern atheists skimming through the Torah to find material with which to accuse God, can only result in the most profound misunderstanding — though this is not accidental. The Torah both illuminates and mystifies its readers. For some, God’s word is the light of life; for others, like Pharaoh, it hardens the heart. For all it is the sword of the Spirit, which pierces as far as the division of soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12).

Therefore, Deuteronomy — the quintessential book of Torah — is much more than just the Ten Commandments.[xviii] At the same time, however, it is important to emphasize that most of the book, chapters 11-26, is an exposition of the meaning of the Ten Words for Israel’s life.  The allusions to stories and other laws, the background taken for granted in this exposition, and the presuppositional framework provided in the story of creation and redemption — all function almost as Biblical commentary on the laws.[xix] If we take time to consider the laws of the Torah in detail and look into their complex literary background, we will discover that the Torah itself expounds the Torah.

The passage that this essay will concentrate on is Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8. These verses are part of a larger section of Deuteronomy (22:9-23:14)[xx] that applies the Seventh Word to Israel’s life in Canaan. Though, as I said above, it is not entirely wrong to call this “law,” we will see that these verses are more like a Moses’ own meditation on the Seventh Word, actually pointing in directions that are not at all apparent on the surface of the text.

There is one more matter that I should deal with by way of introduction. The special concern of this paragraph (22:30-23:8) is with the “assembly of Yahweh.”[xxi]  What is the “assembly of Yahweh”? Put simply, to be a member of the “assembly of Yahweh” was to be a citizen of Israel. The meaning of “citizenship” in ancient Israel, however, is quite different from modern conceptions. It did include “political” or civil aspects —  inheritance of land, the responsibility to pay taxes and to fight in Israel’s militia, for example — but these aspects of citizenship were subordinate to or rather part of the larger and more important “religious” meaning: the responsibility to participate in the sacrificial worship of the priestly people, to keep oneself clean from defilement, and in general to love Yahweh and keep His commandments. To be a citizen of Israel was to be a member of the nation of priests that Yahweh had called to Himself to be His sacred treasure (Exodus 19:3-6). This special priestly relationship was the prominent feature of being a member of the assembly, even when the assembly is being considered in terms of responsibilities that we would regard as civil or “political.”

The requirement of ritual purity for the members of the assembly of Israel, therefore, is a function of the priestly character of the people of God. Every law, statute, and ordinance is given with this context in mind. The whole Torah is about a holy God who has called a people to Himself to be a holy priesthood.

Ralph Smith is pastor if Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.

[i] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis:  The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 5.

[ii] Ibid., p.6

[iii] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[iv] Ibid., p. 7.

[v] Ibid., p. 11.  In context, Auerbach is speaking of Genesis 22.

[vi] Ibid., p. 11.  Concerning Homer, he also writes, “Homer can be analyzed, as we have essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted.  Later allegorizing trends have tried their arts of interpretation upon him, but to no avail.  He resists any such treatment; the interpretations are forced and foreign, they do not crystallize into a unified doctrine.”  pp. 13-14.

[vii] Ibid., p. 12.

[viii] Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[ix] Ibid., especially pp. 19 ff.

[x] James Jordan’s book, Through New Eyes:  Developing a Biblical View of the World, attempts to give a broad introduction to the Bible’s own worldview in the Bible’s language.  This essay attempts to apply that basic approach to the exposition of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.

[xi] In passing, I think it is important to note the distinction between the blessing (happiness) promised to the man who meditates on God’s word and the blessings of the covenant promised in Deuteronomy 28, for Deuteronomy is speaking of blessings for national obedience, not individual obedience. In a nation of people who hate the true God, individual faithfulness to Him will often, if not always, bring persecution and opposition, as it did to Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul. What Psalm 1 speaks of is blessing and success of the sort that we see in Jesus — peace and joy in the true God in a life full of trial and suffering that bears fruit for eternity.

[xii]  Josh 1:8; Isa 8:19; 16:7; 31:4; 33:18; 38:14; 59:3, 11, 13; Jer 48:31; Ps 1:2; 2:1; 35:28; 37:30; 38:12; 63:6; 71:24; 77:12; 115:7; 143:5; Job 27:4; Prov 8:7; 15:28; 24:2

[xiii]  They also that seek after my life lay snares for me;

      And they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things,

And meditate on/devise treachery all the day long.

[xiv]  N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), p. 38

[xv] It is my contention that there are some statements of a law that no Israelite could read without thinking of related stories, even though the law itself may not contain the elements of a literary allusion.  We might call these “echoes,” but it seems even more ambiguous that that, so I have added various ways of referring to them.

[xvi] Actually, “instruction” might sound too much like a classroom word. Perhaps it is best to explain what the Torah is and, then, transliterate the Hebrew rather than try to translate it. That is what I have done in this essay.

[xvii] Although Calvin’s commentaries on the laws of Moses contain much insight and the arrangement of the detailed laws under the Ten Commandments correctly defines the relationships of the various laws as applications of the Ten Words, nevertheless, by taking the laws out of their original contexts, the commentaries miss the logical connections among the laws and their narrative contexts. Calvin has inadvertently erased much of the theological message of the Torah. This means, too, that it would be wrong for modern readers to approach the Torah expecting to find black and white rules for life, and to read “the law” as if it were written as a manual for success: “Follow these ten simple rules and all will be well.” It must be admitted that there is actually some truth to this approach. In the Ten Commandments Yahweh gave to Israel, He outlined a pattern of life that would lead to rich blessing. If the nation of Israel would have obeyed those simple rules, they would have lived long and happy lives in the land that Yahweh promised to Abraham. But the rule-approach threatens to take the very heart out of the law. This is seen sometimes in a striking fashion when we find a list of the Ten Commandments that does not include the preface: “I am Yahweh your God who delivered you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

[xviii] I use the tradition expression Ten Commandments here, but in the rest of this essay I will employ the more accurate translation, Ten Words. The Hebrew text does not say “Ten Commandments,” but “Ten Words.” There are actually more than ten commands in the Ten Words, and the Ten Words include material that cannot be subsumed well under the idea of “command.”

[xix] Calum M. Carmichael has the right idea about looking at the law through narratives, but because 1) he does not believe in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and 2) he disregards the Bible’s own chronology and story line, he distorts both narrative and law in a profoundly unilluminating book. See Illuminating Leviticus:  A Study of Its Laws and Institutions in the Light of Biblical Narratives (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).  Ephraim Radner does a much better job of showing how the laws of Leviticus fit with the overall story of the Bible climaxing in Jesus, even if he is not always very helpful in the exegesis of Leviticus.  Leviticus, in Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008).

[xx] In the Hebrew Bible, the verse and chapter division is different, with the English 22:30 being the Hebrew 23:1.  I think this division is better.  The English 22:30 begins a new section of laws that contain numerous allusions to Genesis. 22:30 alludes also to other passages in the law, which also allude to Genesis, specifically, Leviticus 18:8; 20:11. These verses not only forbid a man to lie with his father’s wife, they also pronounce the death penalty on anyone who would.  The allusion to the story of Reuben is obvious and its repetition in the law is pronounced (see also:  Deu. 27:20). It seems to me that the clear allusion to Reuben here is an indicator of a new section, since this law is quite unlike the laws that precede it, but similar to those which follow, even though the assembly of Yahweh is not mentioned in 22:30.

[xxi] I assume this expression is synonymous in meaning with similar expressions such as, “assembly of Israel” (Exo. 12:3), “assembly of the congregation of Israel” (Exo. 12:6), “the congregation of the sons of Israel” (Exo. 16:1), etc. including in Exodus through Joshua, at least, even the simple expression, “the assembly.”