God As Lawgiver and Judge

Dr. Fretheim makes many good points about God as the Lawgiver and Judge in The Pentateuch.

    God as Lawgiver
    The giving of law is integral to the story of creation, and this is so in two respects

      1. Human beings are commanded to fill the earth and subdue it (1:28).
      2. They are prohibited from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    Even after sin, and before God’s choice of Abraham/Israel, law remains an integral part of the created order (9:1-7).
    By being built into the created order, the point is made that every human being, not simply the chosen people, is to attend to the law for the sake of the creation. Creation entails such law-giving for three basic reasons:

      1) Law serves the proper development of God’s good creation. The creation is a dynamic reality, always on the move, and law both generates change (“subdue the earth”) and gives shape to that unfolding in an ordered way.
      2) Law helps order human life to be in tune with the creational order intended by God and, given the link between moral order and cosmic order, such obedience will have a salutary effect on the nonhuman world.
      3) Life in creation is not free from all threats; law is given for the sake of the preservation of God’s creative work.

    When Israel is given the law at Sinai, it is thereby given tasks in the tradition of Genesis 1-2. Israel now stands before God and hears anew the command to have dominion over the earth, to till and keep the land, and to be its brother’s keeper (the texts following Gen. 3 are also revealing of creational commands).
    The law given at Sinai is not a new reality, but a fuller particularization of how community can take up its God-given creational responsibilities in view of new times and places.

    By attending to the Sinai laws, Israel grows toward God’s intention for human beings that was laid out in the creation. Disobedience complicates these responsibilities immensely, but God’s redemptive activity has the effect of reclaiming and enabling true human life, freedom, and responsibility within the created order.

    God as Judge
    The sin of Adam & Eve (and their descendants) is not treated lightly by God.
    God’s judgment can be defined as the facilitation of the moral order.
    God’s judgment means that sin and its effects do not have the last word.
    Wrathfulness is not an attribute of God; it is a contingent divine response to a situation in creation (if there were no sin there would not be wrath). The God who judges Israel is the kind of God confessed in Exod. 34:6-7.

My own take on God and the Law:
I agree with Dr. Fretheim that God gives law to bless the created order. I cannot help, however, thinking that something is missing from this analysis.

What got me wondering is the increasing proliferation of laws from God as humanity strays ever farther from God’s creational intent. In Genesis 1 and 2, Fretheim notes that there were basically two laws. By Exodus 20-23 it has expanded to three chapters of laws mostly elaborating on the laws in Gen. 9 about killing and responisibility for shed blood and injury. Leviticus and Deuteronomy, add almost an entire book of laws each.

I suspect that the missing element is that stated law only becomes necessary when there is transgression against God’s obvious creational intent. It should be obvious in Genesis 1 and 2 that murder goes against God’s intent for a creation filled with humans and creatures. The same could be said for almost anything called “sin” in the Bible. For example, Homosexuality would also tend to limit human reproduction at a time that God wanted humanity to expand to fill the earth for obvious reasons. Anything else that limits human vitality and decision-making ability would tend to do the same over longer periods of time. (Ever heard of the “Darwin Awards,” given posthumously to those who do monumentally stupid things that kill them before they can pass their defective genes to the next generation?)

Yes, God gives laws to enlighten the next generation as to the dangers doing those stupid things involves, but usually only by way of reaction when someone has done those things already. We should have been able to figure those things out in advance if we understood God’s intent in creation, but we just keep on going ahead with creating new ways of unravelling God’s creation, incuding ourselves.

In a way, it would be pointless for God to try to point out every possible way we can screw things up in advance. All that would do is give us a heads-up on possibilities we hadn’t thought of yet for wrecking God’s work. All law can hope to do is limit further damage by reminding us that the forbidden thing is something contrary to God’s will. I am not naive enough to believe we won’t just go ahead and do it anyway.

This may be the reason for the Apostle Paul’s stance on law and justification. Law is reactive in nature, not proactive. You cannot be guided by God’s law and enjoy salvation. You must be guided by something more deep and powerful than law, because the unconverted heart will always look for loopholes: topics and methods not directly forbidden by law and therefore doable until God or society legislates directly against them.

It is not until God’s heart speaks directly into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that it becomes possible to really do God’s will. God’s will goes way beyond legal obligations to limit damage. It inspires people to not only repair damage, but also to beautify further the already beautiful.

Law can attempt to discourage exploitation, but can it encourage sharing and caring? No. That is why law is insufficient for God’s purposes. Only grace can go beyond legal boundaries into restoration of relationships and the created order. Law is reactive, while God’s grace is proactive.

Yes, God’s people should let His law inform them. As an example, God’s limiting of the Israelites to only certain kinds of meat was probably meant as a step toward a less-fearsome domination of wildlife. (See Gen. 1&2 compared to Gen. 3, Gen. 9 and Lev. 11.) As a reminder pointing toward God’s will, law has a good and necessary place in a broken world.

It is another thing entirely to trust the law to do what only God in His mercy can do. Only God’s grace can go beyond limiting damage. Only God’s grace can bring reconciliation and restoration. We need to trust the Lawgiver rather than law for our salvation.

Just a further thought, for those with ears to hear. If not even God’s law is the ultimate guide for how to live, what about entirely human-devised law? Not only judicial judgments obviously based on biblical ideals, but human-devised ones. Can they save? What about a government that gets into power on a law-and-order platform?

There are times to obey human law (almost all of the time, according to Paul), yet there are also times when God’s will is a higher priority than human law (e.g.: Acts 4:18-20). When push comes to shove, will followers of Jesus Christ be able to think critically about law, government and salvation? In other words, when Jesus returns, will He find faith on the earth? Or will He find mindless conformity to the will of the rulers of the world?

I hope so. Given the experience of people like Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who tried mostly unsuccessfully to nurture a “Confessing Church” during Hitler’s Reich, we may have reason to be concerned.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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