Law and Imagination

After the Civil War, the hobbled nation and fractured races looked about for leadership; animosity was high and envy was crouching at the door. Booker Taliaferro Washington, up from slavery, surveyed the rising tension and injustice, foreseeing civil unrest and chafing inequalities, eschewed, remarkably, a legislative remedy and advised a different path for the advancement of his race: through education and work, communal and economic growth, the whites would be unable to withhold civil rights from the former slaves and their offspring.

In an era where laws are treated as rulebooks, to be circumvented for advantage, and fairplay motivated by manipulation, Booker Washington’s philosophy of political nonintervention seems ineffectual and was easily accused of kowtowing to white power. This was certainly the narrative used after his death to dismantle his legacy. The United States, following the vision of W.E.B. Dubois and others, has found that the laws enacted, while achieving legal equality, have not attained true equality between the races.

The Mosaic Law is a bizarre and scanty legal code, unlike any from the ancient world. While scholars point to a superficial similarity between it and the Code of Hammurabi, there are things addressed in the Mosaic Law that have little to do with justice or fair dealing. It is odd in that it addresses absurd (mixing wool with linen in their garments) and unrealistic scenarios (yoking an ox with a donkey); it is incomplete in that it fails to address water laws (as important then as now), and strangely omits particularities such as the explicit prohibition of father-daughter incest amidst its extensive list of prohibited relations.

The difference between modern law codes and the Biblical form is that while today every loophole must be eliminated or else be exploited, the law given to Israel was crafted to elicit meditation and to shape the imaginations of the people. Consider the slavery laws: The strictures placed upon Israel were radically transformative. In the ancient world slavery was cruel and absolute, but the laws of Israel were designed to eradicate the practice.[1]

This was accomplished in a number of ways. Obviously, that all men bear the Image of God hinders inhumane forms of subjugation, added to this is that the word we translate slave or servant is the title of all Israelites (‘ebed: related to the word for work and worship). The law is full of reminders that Israel was brought out of slavery and liturgically this was repeated in the Psalms. It is difficult to look down on someone who bears your title.

Secondly, slaves had liturgical status in Israel and were partakers of the Sabbath and other festivals. Therefore there was no chattel slavery in Israel; kidnapping and selling the kidnapped (a staple of slavery in the ancient world) was forbidden and the punishment for it was death. Having full status was more than a day off during celebrations, for the servants were specifically mentioned to be included in the festivities: “And ye shall rejoice before the YHWH your God, ye, and your sons, and your daughters, and your menservants, and your maidservants,” Deuteronomy 12:12 (see also Exodus 20:10, Deuteronomy 16:10-14). Even more, servants owned by the Levites were allowed to eat of the sacrifices that only priests were to partake of (Leviticus 22:10-11). This sort of law goes beyond fair treatment, to eat with someone, to celebrate together, breaks down prejudice and breeds unity.

Thirdly, slaves were protected from abuse. Any permanent injury, whether great or small, granted freedom (Exodus 21:26, 27), thereby curbing abusive masters. Slaves were to be treated with dignity or masters would be stripped of their ownership. It should go without saying that the murder of a slave bore the same penalty as for a freeman (Exodus 21:20, 23).

In light of the ancient world these laws were radically transformative, but even more so was the ascent slaves in Israel could make. A master meditating on the Proverbs would reflect on Proverbs 29:21: “He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child shall have him become his son at the length.” Who could imagine a servant, rising from nothing to inherit all that his master owns?

While there were avenues of manumission and adoption in the ancient world, particularly in Rome[2], it was seen as a method of preserving the family dynasty, purely for self-interest, not as a desirable outcome for slaves. But this movement from servant to son, recapitulates Israel’s own relationship with Yahweh, and is the intended result of the law.

That the law was not written in a straightforward manner is befuddling to the modern mind. It seems madness to require contemplation in order for understanding, but that’s just what the law demanded: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein” (Joshua 1:8).

The word translated meditate (hagah) is the same word used in Psalm 2:1 and is translated imagine: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” The word can also be translated mutter, speak or even roar. So this meditation of the law is not just a hesychastic navel-gazing (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but a communal recitation, an embodied imagining and foremost a delighting (Psalm 1:2). This visual meditation is emphasized by the expression “day and night” which in the Pentateuch was strictly used in reference to the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire.[3] The meditation of the law should be as dynamic as the theophanies in the Old Covenant, an inescapable impression upon the hearts and minds of men.

So law always shape the imagination, but not all laws are from the Divine Lawgiver. Laws always shape, but not necessarily in positive ways. In a culture that has disengaged itself from the wisdom of the divine law, the question becomes, how do we live in a land whose laws are oppressive and wicked?

Booker T. Washington, in his autobiography,[4] tells a story he heard about George Washington, who, meeting a colored man politely lifting his hat, lifted his own in return. Seeing the incident some of his white friends criticized him for this action. In reply Washington said: “Do you suppose that I am going to permit a poor, ignorant, coloured man to be more polite than I am?” Despite his bigotry, George Washington, purportedly, responded with an action that leads the heart. Shaped by a liturgy more powerful than a law, he was coerced into right behavior and exhibited an equality that he otherwise would have suppressed.

In the telling of this story Booker T. Washington was illustrating the principle of love and service, understanding that faithful acts beget faithful laws. The counsel of Psalm 2, in the face of heathen rage and machinations, is to serve YHWH with fear, rejoice with trembling, and kiss the Son. In an era of moral turpitude and sexual license this seems to be an ineffectual strategy and in a land of civil idolatry all problems must be solved through civil legislation, but Booker Washington, with the Psalmist, understood that the heart is shaped through service, rejoicing and in communing with the Son face to face.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana.


[1] There are two kinds of slavery addressed in the Law, indentured servants (debt relief) and purchased foreigners. The focus of this article will be on the latter, but everything said about them would apply to the indentured.

[2] Bonnie Palmer, “The Cultural Significance of Roman Manumission,” Ex Post Facto 5 (1996), available at,_1996/palmer_b.pdf, accessed June 18, 2015.

[3] The expression is used eight times: Exodus 13:21,22, 40:38, Leviticus 8:35, Numbers 9:2, 14:14, Deuteronomy 1:33, 28:66.

[4] Washington, Booker, Up From Slavery, Ch.6.