“You Can’t Legislate Morality”

Paul asks, “Why then the Law?” (Gal 3.18). If the promises of God come by faith rather than by law, then why bother giving the Law of Moses in the first place? Paul answers this question in terms of salvation and God fulfilling His promises, but we can consider the question from another angle: Israel was a physical nation that needed laws.

We can see how necessary the Law was when we consider some of the things it protected against. It prohibits rape and provides severe punishments for it (Dtr 22.25-27). It prohibits some forms of slavery (Lev 25.39-42), protects slaves from abuse (Lev 25.43), protects fugitive slaves (Dtr 23.15-16), limits the amount of time a man can be kept enslaved (Exo 21.1-2), and requires that new freedmen be sent away with ample provisions (Dtr 15.12-15). It protects widows, orphans, and foreigners.

Without God enforcing the Law, whether through the Israelite community, the priests, or the king, who would stand up for the vulnerable in society? The answer in the Ancient Near East was often, “No one.” Most people lived as subsistence farmers. They usually barely had the means to keep themselves alive, let alone some “useless” stranger. On the contrary, vulnerable people were easy targets, and stealing from them or oppressing them would make it that much easier for you to feed your family. Abuse was rampant in the ancient world, just as it is today.

Take the story of Jacob and Laban as an example. Jacob has fled from the wrath of Esau after swindling him out of his birthright and Isaac’s blessing (Gen 27.36, 41-45). The text has a little fun at Jacob’s expense as he sojourns in Haran, showing us how the heel grabber and master swindler is repeatedly out-swindled by his Uncle Laban. Laban infamously gives Jacob the wrong wife so as to extort more labor out of him, but his swindling doesn’t end there. Jacob works as a shepherd for Laban not only in exchange for Rachel but also for flocks of his own. In this payment also, Laban fleeces Jacob:

So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. (Gen 31.4-9)

Jacob flees toward home, and Laban pursues. When Laban finally catches up with Jacob, he makes it very clear that it is within his power to harm Jacob (Gen 31.29). In the end, it is determined that Jacob has not wronged Laban, the two men make a covenant, and they return to their respective homes. Jacob was blessed. If he didn’t have the hand of God protecting him–and the family structure and the laws which God used in protecting him–then Laban would surely have kept on abusing him. What could Jacob have done to stop Laban? Jacob was treated as a foreigner. Despite being a wealthy man, he had few options apart from fleeing.

Was that the best possible outcome for Jacob? Jacob seems to think not, as he tells Laban, “There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times” (Gen 31.40-41). It may not have been the best possible outcome, but it certainly wasn’t the worst.

Like any set of laws, the Law of Moses existed to keep human wickedness in check and limit its bad outcomes. We should bear this in mind today as we consider the laws that we implement. We often hear the cliché, “You can’t legislate morality.” The Law of Moses agrees. Changing the heart is not the point of the law. The prophets argue this repeatedly, saying that true righteousness is a function of the heart rather than just following the rules. It’s important that we divide the function of law from the function of faith and not expect the law to do what only faith can do. On the contrary, we should let each have its function: faith for the faithful to obtain the promises of God, and law for the rest to prevent them from making things miserable for us all. We absolutely should legislate to limit bad outcomes. We should not demand that a law make people righteous before we consider passing it.


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