More reflections on the odd laws in the Old Testament
Looking back, I can’t think of a single rule or regulation that my parents enforced within their household jurisdiction that seemed arbitrary, injudicious or unreasonable. Note well the first two words in that sentence – “looking back.” As a child living under the jackboot of their parental authority, those policies were stifling.
Don’t play near the street. Make your bed. Eat your veggies. Don’t throw darts at your brother. Their do’s and don’ts were nothing less than the systemic suppression of my God-given freedoms. They were cruel tyrants, co-dictators in the Gulag Archipelago that was my childhood. My siblings and I ate the bread of injustice. We wept the tears of tribulation.
If you grew up in a safe but strict family, you too can probably look back and laugh at how you chaffed under the authority of your parents. Now, especially if you are a parent yourself, you can see good reasons for those regulations.
Don’t play near the street? Safety.
Make your bed? Self-respect.
Eat your veggies? Health.
Don’t throw darts at your brother? Financial responsibility. (ER visits are expensive.)
What’s harder is to come up with a rational explanation for some of the strange laws we read about in the Old Testament.
If Leviticus 19:27 were widely embraced today, companies like Dollar Shave and Great Clips would be out of business. Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. All the men in your life would look like Duck Dynasty’s Si Robertson. The very next verse forbids tattoos. Wearing clothes made of two kinds of material is nixed a few verses earlier (vs. 19). Why in the world would God put such oddly specific and apparently arbitrary rules on the books?
These kinds of laws are not as alien as they seem. Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when she accepted her party’s nomination. Why white? Because in 1913, women suffragists adopted white as one of their signature colors. Her clothing choice made a statement – a fashion statement. Identity and values are inextricably linked to hairstyle and clothes. Don’t believe me? Let’s play game.
I am a slightly overweight, bald, fifty-nine year old white male preacher. Which two of the items listed below do you think I regularly wear?
A varsity jacket.
Pre-ripped skinny jeans.
Right. I’m a big fan of sweater vests and crocs. In fact, the only men my age who wear skinny jeans and hipster hair are mega-church preachers. They are making a statement with their clothing choices and hairstyles: “This dope outfit and my textured pomp fade haircut mean you can trust me. Yo.” The point is, God wanted his people to dress and groom in certain ways because, in part, it demonstrated that they were different from the people around them. The grooming rules helped to both establish and project a unique identity.
Put A Little Love in Your Heart
Speaking of the people around them, many of the laws God gave Israel were intended to engender compassion for others and justice for all. Take Deuteronomy 23:15 – If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him. Laws like this, and there are many, were rooted in Israel’s four century slavery experience. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this, (Deut. 24:27).
Other laws were aimed at protecting the vulnerable. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, (Lev. 19:14). Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, (Lev. 19:32).
There are even rules about showing kindness to animals. Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, (Deut. 25:4). If the beast wants to snack on the grain he’s grinding, let him do it. Animals were even to be given a day off – the Sabbath – just like everyone else.
The Really Strange Laws
But what about the really strange laws? Boiling a goat in its mother’s milk? Do not sow two kinds of seed in a field? Do not eat rare steak? Scholars have varying opinions about the why behind some of the weirder laws in the Old Testament. Many of them, like the grooming laws, seem designed to remind Israel not to live like the nations around them. Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled, (Lev. 18:24). Some, like the food laws, were officially set aside by Jesus. In Mark 7, Jesus declared all foods clean thus making bacon the official meat for all who love the Lord and long for his appearing. Selah.
When we encounter these odd ordinances, it helps to remember that God had a plan for his people – a plan to bless all nations through them. In order for that plan to work, they had to be different. The good news is that despite their frequent failures, God’s plan worked. Through Israel, all nations were and are blessed by the gift of Jesus. His once-for-all sacrifice set aside all of the strange ceremonial laws (Hebrews 10:10), and simplified the often complicated civil laws. In fact, Jesus was once asked which command was the greatest. His answer was gloriously simple – Love God. Love your neighbor, (Matthew 22:36 – 40.) All the other ordinances, rules and regulations were commentary on how to do that in Israel’s ancient context.
Ridiculing the odd laws in the Old Testament is great sport for internet trolls who live in their parents’ basements and play World of Tanks with their online besties. But I bet their moms make them clean their rooms and ride their bikes on the sidewalk instead of the street. Putting limits on potentially destructive behavior is what loving parents do.
(See this previous post for more on the odd OT laws.)