Here is the thirteenth installment of our Exodus series. If you want to take a minute to read Exodus 21-23, click HERE. And if you missed the last column in this series, click HERE. As always, we will walk through the text and highlight aspects that are not typically noticed, and then conclude with a few themes for ecological discipleship. Thoughts and comments are welcome. - James.
When Bible readers come to the law sections of Exodus (as well as Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus), many find what is written irrelevant, incomprehensible, and occasionally offensive. Parents of teenagers might be tempted by Exodus 21:17, but no one takes this command seriously: "Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death." And what is behind Exodus 23:19: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk"? We can acknowledge the significant cultural distance in commands like these, but uncomfortable texts like Exodus 21:20-21 hit a little closer to home: "Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property."
It is understandable when contemporary readers are tempted to quietly skip these law texts or loudly denounce them. I suggest a different way, which sees them as a complicated gift that can help us discern how to live as ecological disciples today.
The Law Helps Us Discern How to Live Today
The laws in Exodus 21-23 are neither comprehensive nor set in stone for all time. They are representative samples - most likely drawn from real-life situations and other Ancient Near Eastern law codes - that highlight the kind of issues Israel needed to figure out as they sought to apply the ten commandments to their relationships with God, one another, and the whole community of creation. These examples established concepts and principles to help guide them - and us - towards lives of faithfulness.
Continued reflection on the principles, concepts, and "heart" of the law invites us to leave behind some laws that are no longer applicable, and to find guidance in situations that biblical laws do not address directly. As Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim puts it, "We are invited by the law to go beyond the law." This is one of the reasons I find biblical support for LGBTQ inclusion, and for expanding protections to our currently vulnerable, more-than-human kin (more on this below).
While this approach may make some Bible readers nervous, it actually models the Bible's own internal dialogue in matters of the law. Jesus, for instance, declares in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything accomplished." He then goes on an extended interpretation of the Law - the Sermon on the Mount - that moves the locus of ethical living from external standards (specific laws) to internal ones (motivations, thoughts, attitudes).
Jesus understood the law as the way of life that comes from being in right relationship with God, one another, and the community of creation. Seen this way, the law is not some kind of standard we must live up to in order to be "good people" accepted by God; it is a compass of wisdom that invites us to discern what it means to be in God-honoring and life-giving relationships.
This understanding of the law also requires us to address new situations with wisdom and imagination. To this end, I invite us to consider two ways the law invites us to discern what it means to be an ecological disciple in an age of planetary distress.
The Law Reveals God's Heart for the Vulnerable
One of these principles is the protection of vulnerable creatures. These chapters include protections for servants, women, slaves, widows, orphans, those in poverty, foreigners, and domestic animals. The importance of these protections to God can be seen in that some of these laws are followed by first-person divine speech, such as in Exodus 22:22: "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword."
We can rightly say that the protections offered in these laws do not go far enough, and that some practices, such as slavery, cannot be justified in any form. At the same time, we can acknowledge that they moved the community in the right direction, and that the principles and intent behind them invite ongoing reflection and development.
One place that needs this reflection and development is our treatment of vulnerable animals. If we acknowledge God's care and concern for our fellow creatures, it seems logical and necessary to extend the application of Exodus 22:22 to them. Our patterns of habitat destruction, sport hunting, and meat consumption have resulted in millions of animal widows and orphans. If we also acknowledge that these creatures have a voice, we should assume that their cries are heard by God.
Objections could be made that I am privileging the suffering of more-than-human creatures over that of humans. Ecological discipleship recognizes, however, that this objection presents a false choice. An interconnected and interdependent world requires that care be taken for the whole in order for the various parts to flourish, and this includes human beings. This leads us to the second insight regarding the law.
The Law Invites Us to a Divinely-Enchanted World
The laws of Exodus 21-23 assume a divinely-infused world in which all of life is a seamless web. The commands touch on every aspect of life, infusing everything that we might call the "sacred" or "secular." From how to treat a neighbor to how to let an animal rest to how to celebrate a harvest, all of life is seen within the frame of divine presence and care. Terence Fretheim helps us see that behind this perspective is an intentional connection to God as creator.
"...these laws are an extension of the work of God as creator in Genesis 1. God through the law fosters and establishes creational rightness and justice in all relationships. Life in Israelite society is intended to be a microcosm of life in creation as God originally intended it. The redemptive deeds of God are not ends in themselves. They propel people out into the various creational spheres of life. Redemption is for the purpose of new life within the larger created order. The law points the way to the will of God for every aspect of life in that order."
One of the causes of our current abuse of the earth is the loss of these connections, what is often called "disenchantment." This term is often used to describe the modern purging of religious and superstitious interpretations of the physical world. While there is obvious value to this - we no longer associate disease with demons - altogether removing any transcendent meaning and/or immanent divine presence from the world reduces the physical world to morally neutral material with no value or purpose other than what we decide to give it. Such freedom to approach the physical world with no guiding values, or only the values that originate from within human beings has, over the last few centuries, resulted in a pattern of exploitation and destruction that has ushered us into our age of planetary distress.
Ecological disciples are called to be living reminders that, in the words of theologian T.J. Gorringe,
"The world remains an enchanted place...in both the difficulties and delights of relationships, in the immediacies of every kind of cultural experience, from the pub and café to the theater and concert hall, and in our encounter with both the natural world and many parts of the built environment."
Read and interpreted in these ways, the law pulls us deeply into the web of relationships that connects us all, points us to Christ, who fulfills the law, and pushes us to join God's ongoing redemptive work to make all things new. What a gift!
With you on the Way,
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