In the beginning…
Biblical law got started nearly 6,000 years ago, which is about when the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) imagined that God formed the universe, the earth, and all living things, culminating in the creation of the first human couple: Adam and Eve. According to the story, God gives the pair only one law: that they not eat the fruit of a particular plant, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
However, desire gets the best of this first couple. Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, and this disrespectful duo, unable to obey one simple dietary law, are off to a rocky start. Adam and Eve are expelled from God’s garden and find themselves wandering the earth wondering what went wrong. Inexplicably, God doesn’t even provide the first human couple with a simple checklist on how to live as God wants.
Life for Adam and Eve gets even more complicated after they have two sons, Cain and Abel. In an act of jealousy, Cain murders his younger brother Abel. God is understandably upset. Adam and Eve are at a loss for words. And apparently God begins to realize that these humans need more and better instructions if they are to live a good and moral life.
If you take these stories as literal history, then the first family evidently reproduced through incest (as the only female mentioned is Eve) and began to populate the world. However, in biblical times and today, many readers of the Bible view these vivid narratives, not as actual events in history, but as thought-provoking parables or legal case studies, which is the story-telling method that Rabbi Jesus loved to use when teaching about ethics, law and spirituality.
About a millennium after Adam and Eve, God still hasn’t given any moral laws to the couple’s descendants! However, God is increasingly unhappy that, in the thousand years since Adam and Eve, humans have gone forth and multiplied without the kinds of values necessary for a just society. Shockingly, God decides to wipe out the human race, according to this parable or case study, except for a man named Noah and his immediate family.
After the flood has destroyed most of humanity, God gives Noah and his kids another chance to get it right, and after two thousand years wandering without moral guidance, God decides to give humans some practical and legal advice. This time God offers instructions that include two laws: do not shed the blood of other humans, and do not eat meat with the blood still in it.
Gradually, to put it mildly, and very reluctantly, it seems, the God of the Bible gives these Homo sapiens as few laws as possible, perhaps in order to develop the gift of human consciousness and freedom. To use a 21st century video game concept, it’s as though the God of the Bible has created a four-dimensional SimCity on earth, where humans have considerable free will, but the Creator reserves the ultimate right to program, influence or intervene in human actions. In the case of the great flood parable, the Creator essentially aborts and reboots the four-dimensional reality of life on earth, and the surviving inhabitants are given another chance to explore their free will and, perhaps more responsibly this time, create a more perfect society.
God is depicted in the Old Testament as deeply concerned about creation and humanity’s special role in it. Human life is not a mere recreational game for God. Indeed, God seems to want humans to cooperate in the making of a society in which God, and his heavenly companions, would like to dwell. And while God gives humans free will, including the freedom to be against God, people are ultimately not free to win against the almighty Creator.
If they were alive today, the biblical writers would have little difficulty imaging the earth as something like a divine computer simulation where humans are granted the opportunity to live and learn, but the Creator can always shut down the game. If the mortal players are not willing to envision and establish a SimCity where the Creator would like to dwell, God’s way of preventing humans from winning against God is death. God can always pull the plug. Game Over.
With God introducing commandments at the rate of one new law every thousand years or so, the biblical writers and thinkers wander in the awesome and terrifying freedom of God’s creation. As the Bible documents, humans are trying to make sense of their experiences of God that they often have through dreams, visions and voices. Just as humans are learning to hunt and gather food, they are also learning to compile and share stories.
As the human mind is forming and evolving, patterns of thinking emerge. A perfect example is the biblical writers’ fascination with blood, which has become for them a puzzling symbol for the Creator’s power to give life, and allow death to take it away. As they are developing written language, these humans are terrified by the vivid presence and power of blood and, according to the Bible, are struggling to make sense out of the two primitive laws they have received (or perceived) telling them not to eat the blood of animals or spill the blood of humans.
According to the biblical timeline, after almost two thousand years have passed since Adam and Eve and a thousand years after the great flood, God gives the next or third commandment to Abraham and his descendants. It is the thought-provoking and bloody law of circumcision.
In order to understand the law of circumcision, it helps to know that child sacrifices to various pagan concepts of God were not uncommon in Abraham’s day. In fact, Abraham himself heard God’s voice telling him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Fortunately for Isaac, and perhaps for many other children to this day, the voice of God that Abraham heard ultimately stopped the sacrifice of his son in the nick of time.
Through this new law of circumcision, it seems that God is amending his earlier law against shedding human blood. In the mind of Abraham and his companions God now wants human blood to be spilled, but in a very small, non-lethal, highly symbolic way. Keep in mind that the biblical writers think of the world as being directly controlled by God. Evidently, God does not want humans to be mere robots ruled by the instinctual programming that animals have. And yet there is this persistent problem of humans doing cruel things, like killing their children because they hear voices that they think are from God telling them to do these sorts of murderous acts.
How does the Creator influence human thought and actions without turning humans into unthinking, programmed robots? For the biblical writers, they began to understand God’s influence through the collection of parables that ultimately became case studies for the creation of law. First came a case study: Abraham claims to hear God’s voice telling him to prove his faith in God by sacrificing his son Isaac. Then a law emerges: child sacrifice is not what God wants, instead God wants the descendants of Abraham to sacrifice the tip of the foreskin of their sons.
The puzzling law of circumcision also reminds parents that the tremendous gift of children originates with the Creator, and that parents are obligated to raise their sons (and daughters) in the laws and teachings of God as these statutes are being revealed to the faithful. And, as it turns out, it seems that humans are going to need a lot more laws in order to live a loving and just life, while also retaining free will.
For the next 500 years or so, the descendants of Abraham wrestle with the idea of a parable or case study leading to the creation of law. Meanwhile, the Israelites have gotten themselves in big trouble as they have become slaves to the rulers of Egypt and the Egyptian notions of gods. Fortunately, for Abraham’s children, God is prepared to free them from bondage and this time is ready to offer a complex legal system, consisting of hundreds of laws, that the descendants of Abraham evidently need.
The next major event in the evolution of biblical laws occurred about 3,500 years ago, when Moses had a mind-bending encounter with God upon Mount Sinai and returned to give the Israelites an astonishing 613 commandments that governed how to love God and love neighbor. It’s tough for many people to remember the top Ten Commandments. 613 laws necessitates that as many people as possible learn to read and write and teach and think.
God’s demand, according to Moses, is that the Israelites learn these 613 laws, a significant task for a barely literate bunch that had the effect of creating an enduring Jewish community centered in writing, reading, thinking and teaching. Although the biblical laws are not presented in an organized way, such as grouped according to category (that’s a 21st century task) these 613 laws embody ways to love God and love neighbor that were intended to promote order, justice and peace.
In other words, “love” in the Bible is often a pragmatic legal term pertaining to how people are supposed to act with one another, and how to fairly adjudicate inevitable disagreements among neighbors. There are many kinds of love depicted in the Bible, including deeply romantic and affectionate feelings of love. However, most of the time love in the Bible is about the creation of a just and law-abiding society that honors God and respects neighbors, even when we don’t like them.
About 2,000 years ago, while maintaining and honoring the basic legal principles and system established by Moses, Jesus and his followers started to shockingly amend specific laws of the Hebrew Bible, in large part to accommodate Gentiles. In fact, the New Testament is primarily a record of the ethical and legal teachings of Rabbi Jesus that inspired his followers, such as Peter and Paul, to amend, nullify or expand those 613 laws of Moses in order for Jews and neighboring Gentiles to more perfectly love God and neighbor.
Many people in the 21st century will often speak of Jesus as merely a wise teacher or philosopher. This view of Rabbi Jesus can easily be misleading because Jesus actually taught in a specific and pragmatic way: as if he is the chief and supreme justice, with a moral and legal authority superior to Israel’s chief priest and Rome’s emperor. It was this bold attitude, culminating in Jesus leading a protest march against the financial practices of the Temple’s leaders, that got Jesus executed by the religious and political authorities of his day.
Using more modern legal terminology, Moses taught the letter of the law and Jesus taught that the spirit of the law is love. In fact, the holy spirit that Jesus spoke of was understood by Paul as “the spirit of the law.” While Jesus’ teachings have a spiritual component far greater than the formation and application of law, Rabbi Jesus was unquestionably interested in maintaining the foundation of the just and loving legal system established by Moses. As the New Testament states: “Sin is lawlessness.”
About 250 years ago, a surprising turn of events in the history of biblical law occurred when the government of the United States was formed in such a way as to separate biblical laws pertaining to love of God from those laws in the Bible pertaining to love of neighbor.
In 1776, the Founding Fathers were surrounded by troops sent from England, whose king claimed to be divinely ordained to rule over his colonial empire. In addition, the American colonies were made up of mostly Christian sects whose members disagreed over seemingly insurmountable differences of opinions concerning specific biblical laws and interpretations.
However, out of this extreme irritation a pearl of great value emerged as Thomas Jefferson and others were able to conceive of a secular government based on the essential categories and principles of laws found in the Bible that, as it happened, virtually all major religious sects share.
In particular, Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of separating the biblical laws regarding love and worship of God from the biblical laws dealing with love of neighbor. Hence, the idea of the separation of Church and State developed. Religious sects could love, worship and obey God as they saw fit (providing they did not harm neighbor) and the government of the people, by the people and for the people would determine laws that concern loving and responsible neighborly relations.
Strongly influenced by the ethical teachings of Jesus, but wary of the many conflicting Christian sects in 18th Century America, Thomas Jefferson (and his colleagues) created a biblically inspired legal system where the civil government ruled primarily over those laws, and categories of law, that applied to the pragmatic and earthly human relations concerning love of neighbor. In this way, the diverse people of the United States would not suffer under the official state religion of the Church of England or any other religious sect.
The Founding Father’s non-sectarian solution was to establish a democracy based on the biblical legal system as it pertained to the Golden Rule, that is, love of neighbor. As they established this civil government, the framers of the Constitution avoided potentially divisive religious language and created a non-sectarian vocabulary to express the biblical mandate to love neighbor.
In language derived from or consistent with biblical writings, the principles of “love thy neighbor” were expressed in the Constitution’s preamble with secular yet enlightened rhetoric: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It should be noted that while Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did not extend their understandings of liberty and justice to women, African slaves, native Americans, and many others, they did create the language and an amendable Constitution that to this day is used by oppressed people in the ongoing quest to “form a more perfect union….”
And while specific biblical laws are still being discussed and debated by the approximately two billion Christians and 15 million Jews in the world today, the principles and categories of law given by Moses remain essential and enduring; such as the creation and maintenance of just governments and legal systems that regulate commerce, farming, industry, education, healthcare, food preparation and sanitation, marriage, family law, and civil or criminal disputes among neighbors.
To this day in these United States, many citizens (some claiming God is on their side) belong to conflicting and competing faiths that are on opposing sides when it comes to the establishment of laws that pertain to the biblical command of loving neighbor. These citizens, with different ideas of faith (now including many atheists) have the Constitutional and God-given freedom and responsibility to debate civil legislation embodying the Golden Rule, such as racial and gender equality, same-sex marriage, contraception, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, school prayer, fair taxation, public education, immigration, healthcare policies, etc.
In the non-sectarian manner established by the Founding Fathers, it is the state and federal governments of the people, by the people and for the people, as initially established by the United States Constitution, and now variously adapted by democracies throughout the world, that decide secular laws in order to more perfectly love neighbor.
For example, in European countries where Christendom once dominated, and where church attendance is now quite low, the modern state has often gone much further to promote biblical justice than what churches have historically accomplished. (Of course, churches would typically tax at a maximum tithing rate of 10% and many Western European countries have a tax rate that is around five times higher!) The point is that, despite the many problems, today’s secular democracies are often far better than traditional churches at fulfilling the biblical command that neighbors live in orderly and lawful societies, which seek to ensure justice and peace, and that provide citizens with fair access to education, health care and other qualities of a decent life.
The Word Made Flesh Seminar and Website is about figuring out how we can continue to responsibly amend biblically based secular laws in order to more perfectly love and respect our seven billion neighbors in a diverse and rapidly changing world.