In Part One we thought about why genre matters, how it is defined in the Bible, and why the definitions we often come up with can be a little tricky. It will be really important to bear all of that in mind as we go into this post, not least that last point, as it will hopefully guard against any tendency to see what follows as hard and fast rules.
As nice as it would be to be able to construct a ‘Five Things You Need To Know About The History Books’ and ‘Follow These Four Easy To Steps To Understand The Gospels’ kind of an approach, the biblical texts are far too rich and textured for that to work. What I offer you instead is a rough guide to some of the features you may expect to find in each of the genres we identified in the previous post, but still remember that not every text will play by the rules, and that genres will sometimes overlap or sit side by side.
I suspect that law will take the longest to deal with, as Christians have struggled from the very beginning to work out their relationship to it, so I will start by dealing with that on its own.
Let’s start with the obvious. Laws set down what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable. They shape society but they are also shaped by society, as they are rooted in basic shared assumptions about how the world works.
However, the law codes in the Torah do not just tell the people how to behave, but form the terms of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It has often been assumed that the people of Israel saw the law as a means of obtaining grace, but a number of theologians now believe that we have got the relationship backwards, and that they actually understood it as a response to grace. That would help explain why the law codes are given such a long narrative prologue, with the stories of creation and the patriarchs and the exodus setting the context and providing the impetus for the life of faith that the law demands obedience to.
It also reminds us to keep in mind that the covenant was found on a promise to establish a nation, meaning that the laws are intended to encourage the growth and survival of the people, and set them apart from other nations. We perhaps need to ask, in the light of the gospels, whether the new covenant changes the purpose and nature of the law.
There are three types of law – civil (to do with the governance of the nation), ceremonial (to do with ritual worship and cleanliness) and moral (to do with right attitudes and behaviours towards God and people) – although they often overlap and it’s not always clear which laws belong where. This gets tricky if we take the view that the civil and ceremonial laws were intended only for the people of Israel and were superseded by Christ, but the moral laws are eternal and still apply for us. Unfortunately we can’t just get our pencil cases out and strike through some sections and highlight others.
It has been suggested that the laws are paradigmatic, setting a standard by example. This suggests that when Deuteronomy 24:19-22 instructs the people to leave behind any grain, olives and grapes they do not harvest at the first pass for the foreigner, the orphan and the widow to reap, that doesn’t mean that the people should only be generous with these crops but can be greedy with everything else. The point is rather to establish a wider principle about providing for the vulnerable. Reading the law like this is significant because standards last longer than examples. Deuteronomy 24:19-22 is a principle we could stand to restate now, even if we don’t have vineyards in our back gardens.
The Bible states that the laws were given to Moses by God, but we know that they have been much elaborated and interpreted over the course of many generations, so that contemporary Orthodox Jews have Sabbath laws concerning the use of electricity, and this raises the possibility that similar elaboration and interpretation happened between the giving of the law and the recording of it.
Old Testament laws often look regressive from our standpoint, but if we can put ourselves into the culture they rose out of, they begin to look remarkably progressive. We can’t ignore that the laws allow for slavery, but we must also recognise that they provide ways for slaves to regain their freedom. And the command that a rapist must marry his victim seems barbaric, but underlying it is a powerful statement that women cannot be used and then discarded. The law looks a little shady on a number of counts, but it represents a big step in the right direction when compared with law codes from contemporary civilisations. The idea that the law is not perfect is problematic if we are trying to read the Bible as infallible, but if we see the scriptures as (one of) the means by which God teaches his people, we can allow for some progression in its moral codes.
Perhaps the laws that cause most confusion for us are the food laws. Why did God feel the need to outlaw boiling a goat in its mother’s milk? And why did he have to make the bacon double cheeseburger forbidden on not one but two counts? Well it seems that the law prohibits those foods which – in the climate and conditions in with the Israelites were living – were most likely to cause allergies or were inefficient to raise or were associated with sacrifice in other religions. In that light, they start to make a little more sense, and we can read in them a reminder that God acts and speaks for our good.
Now you can go have a long lie down in a darkened room and prepare for history and poetry…