“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.

Binding Where God Has Not Bound

The following was published in the 14th Ave. Church of Christ bulletin on 7 January 2018.

Jesus proclaimed a ministry of liberation, “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), so we are unsurprised to find Jesus in Luke 6 being more “liberal” than the Pharisees can tolerate:

On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:1-5).

This passage gives us fits if we think that Jesus is flexing His muscle as “Lord of the Sabbath,” carving out exceptions in the Sabbath law. The arbitrariness that such an interpretation requires should make us uneasy. It is true that God the Father has the authority to change His mind arbitrarily if He wants, but an important part of His character is that He doesn’t (Num. 23:19). Is God the Son really just brushing aside the Sabbath law because His disciples are hungry?

Such an interpretation of this episode requires us to believe that the Pharisees are correct in their interpretation of the Law. We must take care when we consider what captor Jesus came to defeat in Luke 4:18. Equating Pharisaism with the Law makes the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the oppressor holding Israel in bondage.

Let us study the question and see whether the Law is really as oppressive as the Pharisees’ interpretation of it.

What does the Law itself say about the disciples’ actions? The general Sabbath laws are rather vague; they require that the people abstain from “any work” (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Lev. 23:3). Exodus 34:21 comes closest to addressing this situation: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.” The Law therefore prohibits sowing or harvesting on the Sabbath day, which is consistent with the restrictions of the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:4-5, 11).

Is this the legal basis for the Pharisees’ condemnation? Not quite. Calling the disciples’ actions “reaping” is a stretch. The Pharisees must interpret the Law through scribal tradition to reach this judgment. As we have seen, most of the Sabbath laws are vague. The Jews of the Second Temple period wanted to know just what constituted “work” under the Law, so the scribes created standards for the people to operate under. The scribal tradition for the Sabbath equated“plucking” with “harvesting” and “rubbing” with “threshing,” which is how the Pharisees arrive at their conclusion that Jesus’ disciples are doing work in violation of the Sabbath.

Let us return to the Law to see if it informs this scribal reading. In Deuteronomy 23:24-25, Moses distinguishes between plucking and eating out of a vineyard or a field of grain on the one hand, and putting in the sickle and gathering into a bag on the other. The laws for the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee carry this idea forward. The people of Israel were not to reap the “wild” produce of the field; to do so would violate the land’s Sabbath rest (Lev. 25:5, 11). They could, however, eat from the field or the vineyard directly, which would not violate the land’s Sabbath rest (Lev. 25:7, 12).

Thus the Law shows us that the Pharisees’ interpretation is wrong on both counts: “plucking” is not the same as “reaping,” and eating directly out of a field does not violate Sabbath rest. The Pharisees’ scribal reading of the Law led them to restrict the Sabbath in a way which God Himself did not do. In other words, they bound where God did not bind.

The Law condemns such behavior. God tells Israel, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2). Disobedience to the Word is not just a matter of ignoring what God has said; it is also a matter of making things up which God never said.

We must understand the Pharisees’ motives for restricting the Sabbath and beware. The scribal tradition likely started with a desire to follow a vague law well. Surely we can sympathize. Take care, Christian, for the Adversary still uses this trick to lure people away from the pure Word of God. What begins as a set of standards to clarify a vague command morphs into an unbiblical restriction that we place not only on ourselves but on others. Woe to the man who puts his standard on the same level as Almighty God’s!

Header: detail from Gustav Doré, “The Disciples Plucking Corn on the Sabbath”