Monday, July 17, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 4.2

The Torah

The Torah (or Pentateuch) comprises the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy. Though it is unlikely that all of the Torah was written before the rest of the Old Testament, it makes no overt references to the rest of Scripture. This fact makes it somewhat difficult to discuss for our purposes, but not impossible. The final or canonical form of the Torah evidences multiple layers of skillful editing, and the finished product seems to include elements from older scripture traditions. These instances, then, will be useful for us to examine in order to see how the Torah used scripture in political contexts. In the interest of space, I’ll only examine one of these instances, the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments or Ten Words).

The Decalogue shows up in two places in the Torah—Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—suggesting a tradition (oral or written) prior to the writing of the Torah. Both places it appears are politically charged, and it’s interesting to note how the Decalogue is tweaked to fit the different contexts. In Exodus, the Israelites are at Mount Sinai, having just left Egypt. There God gives Moses the commandments in order to guide their behavior on the path to the Promised Land, basically to ensure that they will remain faithful in their travels. The Decalogue in Exodus therefore acts as a sort of basic political charter for God’s people on the move. In contrast, when the Decalogue is restated in Deuteronomy, it’s at the threshold of the Promised Land, acting now as a political charter for Israel’s life in the Land.

Though much of the two passages are the same, it’s notable that the rationale for the Sabbath command changes: in Exodus the Israelites are told to take a Sabbath in imitation of God’s rest on the 7th day of creation; in Deuteronomy they are told to take a Sabbath because God led them out of Egypt. It’s difficult to say why the rationale changes, but it does suggest a process of recontextualization in the face of new political contexts. As the political setting changes from a wandering tribe in the desert to an established nation, the stories that guide the application of the commandments change. This, perhaps, suggests a basic ‘negotiability’ in the structure of God’s teachings, though it is notable that the basic direction of the teaching stays the same. (See the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann for this concept of negotiability.)

To suggest some other places where older traditions have been incorporated into our Torah, I point out the two creation stories and the numerous places where psalms, prayers, and other liturgical elements have been imported (e.g., Jacob’s prayers for his sons in Genesis 49; Moses and Miriam’s songs in Exodus 15).

The point of all this is that the Torah itself, as a political document for God’s people, draws on older traditions that would have been considered ‘scripture’ by the Torah’s authors. Those traditions are brought into new contexts and altered somewhat to provide fresh political commentary. (Again, as I said before, the purpose of these texts is not only political, just as much as they are not only spiritual.)

1) I have said that God’s commands are altered or ‘negotiable’ to some degree in light of changing political contexts. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? What does your answer mean for how we read the Bible in light of our current political contexts?

2) The teaching in the Torah, including the Decalogue, is primarily directed at God’s people as a guide for their worship, politics, family life, etc. This being the case, to what extent can the Torah’s teachings be recommended to those ‘outside’ the people of God? Why would or wouldn’t you use the Torah to make political recommendations?


seth said...

I've been lurking for a while here Jaime, and I been greatly enjoying both the commentary and the dialogue.

I'm commenting now because my comment, i realised as i typed it, was contingent on an unanswered question: is revealing new or extending meaning(s) the same as revising? (I'm asking, really.)

I ask because it occurs to me that while the reasons for using the decalogue in the Torah may be different I certainly believe they are both just, therefore I couldn't agree if one argued that they had only one specific purpose, unless the purpose is released over time. I think we can all see the current day applications of my previous statement.

As for the second question: I think it that the decalogue would have been cultural gibberish to say the Egyptians their captors, no? How could they be expected to adhere to it?

jamie said...

Seth- Great comments. I think you're right to ask whether a 'progressive revelation'is the same thing as revising past notions. My guess is that it's not so much God that is revised, as our understanding of God. The two creation stories in Genesis might be read this way, as they seem to be in subtle (though perhaps constructive) conflict about gender roles among other things. The move away from violence between the conquest of Canaan to Isaiah and Jesus seems to be another period in which our understanding about God and violence had to be fundamentally altered. The inclusion of the Gentiles into early Jewish-Christian faith communities (worked out in Acts 10-15) is of course the most famous example of this process.

On the other hand, God's mind does seem to be able to be changed (if Old Testament narratives are taken at face value).

In that vein, process theologians speak of God in the process of becoming. Those 'new' revelations really are new in that perspective. I don't find process thought very compelling though. Perhaps someone else out there can give a better explanation of this.