Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Deuteronomy 21 – The laws we are reading about in this section of Deuteronomy are among the 613 that make up the full “Law of Moses” – the “mitzvoth.” Some very odd laws are put into place in this code, none stranger than the few here described: the concerns are understandable but the methods of dealing with them are hard to understand. If a dead body is found – a murdered person – you need to go to the leaders of the town nearest to where it’s found, get a young cow (under a year) and take it to a “spot near a stream that never runs dry and where the ground has never been plowed or planted and there they are to break its neck” (21:4). All the leaders of that town “are to wash their hands over the cow and say, ‘We did not murder this one, and we do not know who did it’ Lord, forgive your people. . .and do not hold us responsible for the murder of an innocent person” (21:8). The Schocken editor points out that the cow’s death “symbolically atones for the death of the murder victim” (940). Hard as it is to make sense of, the process reflects a concern for the dignity of the human corpse, even the corpse of a possible criminal. And the innocent sacrifice is figurative as well from a Christian point of view.
Another issue involved women taken in war; they were to be treated with a degree of respect. First of all, she has to be able to mourn her family for a month. If she is beautiful, and you want to marry her, she must have this month to mourn, and then taken in marriage. But if you ever want to rid yourself of her, she must be set free and not sold as a slave.
Concerning inheritance rights of sons from polygamous marriages, the man may not favor the son of the more “beloved wife.” The first-born son should get twice what other sons get, no matter who the mother is. Rebellious sons should be stoned after a trial before town leaders. And if a man is put to death and hung upon a wooden stake, he is to be cut down the same day “because a dead body hanging on a post brings God’s curse on the land” (21:23).
Deuteronomy 22 – Continuing the list of very detailed laws that seem in many ways similar to those listed in Hammurabi’s Code. Lost animals and possessions are to be returned to their owners if possible. Women are forbidden to wear male garments and vice versa. Rules are laid down for the treatment of birds whose nest falls on the ground. You must put a railing around the edge of your newly built roof, so no one will fall off. Keep your vineyards pure – only plant grapes in them. Do not weave wool and linen together and many other detailed rules. Sexual laws involve the treatment of wives one has come to dislike, stoning of wives who were not virgins at marriage, stoning of adulterers (male and female), and so on. They all sound so much like the many rules strict Muslims claim they must follow in their Shariah Law. I am not an expert on Orthodox Judaism, but in Wikipedia, it says that most of these laws have not been observed since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD. I wonder what would happen if they rebuilt it?
Galatians 2 – Continuing his story, Paul recounts to the Galatians that 14 years after something – his conversion? - Paul again went to Jerusalem, moved to do so by a revelation of some kind from God. He goes with Barnabas and Titus (an uncircumcised Greek friend and co-worker). There, he reports on what he has been teaching – that the Gentiles are welcome to become Christians without undergoing circumcision or accepting the Jewish Law. The tone of the letter is angry. He thinks “false brothers [have been] secretly brought in . . . to spy on our freedom . . . in Christ Jesus” (2:4) and are trying to keep converts “enslave[d]” to the law of circumcision. It is through his stubbornness that “the truth of the gospel” is being preserved or kept “intact.”
Paul reports that the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem - Peter, James and John - “recognized that God had given me this special task; so they shook hands with Barnabas and me, as a sign that we were all partners. We agreed that Barnabas and I would work among the Gentiles and they among the Jews” (2:9). Paul is only asked to keep the poor in Jerusalem in mind, something Paul was eager to do (2:10).
When Peter comes to Antioch, however, Paul feels he must opposes Peter “to his face” over the question of table fellowship with uncircumcised brothers. He thinks Peter has been influenced by James’s people, and become unreliable. Even Barnabas apparently has been induced to join their pro-law anti-freedom faction (2:13). Paul is sure that “a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires” (2:16), “For through the law, I died to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (2:19-21).
I take this all to mean that while it is true that they (and we all) come through the Law (through our identification with the “chosen people” in the salvation “narrative”), our faith in Christ now brings us into the New Covenant, which frees us from obedience to the Law, and make it possible for us to live in obedience to Christ in us. It isn’t what Luther described as salvation through faith alone; it is salvation offered to all nations now through Christ’s work, which is kept present to us through the teachings and sacraments of the Church, and through the working of the Spirit of God in us as well.