Theology: October 2007 Archives

Consider the city of refuge law in Deuteronomy 19:

Here is the law concerning a case of someone who kills a person and flees there to save his life, having killed his neighbor accidentally without previously hating him: If he goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings the ax to chop down a tree, but the blade flies off the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies, that person may flee to one of these cities and live. Otherwise, the avenger of blood in the heat of his anger might pursue the one who committed manslaughter, overtake him because the distance is great, and strike him dead. yet he did not deserve to die, since he did not previously hate his neighbor. [Deuteronomy 19:4-6, HCSB]

Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestorys, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to hellfire. [Matthew 6:21-22, HCSB]

Jesus' sequence of "You've heard that it is said" statements and their corresponding "But I say" statements are sometimes taken to be revisions of the Torah or at least revelations of the hidden meaning behind the Torah, which readers couldn't have seen very easily without his aid. Not so. When he refers to the spirit of the law, he doesn't mean just some hard-to-see intent. He means the basic fundamental principles that undergird the specific teachings, and these are usually explicitly taught clearly within the Torah, some of them over and over again.

I just noticed this particular statement yesterday, but it's pretty clear in the Deuteronomy passage that the difference between the murderer and the manslaughterer is that the murderer hates their neighbor. The reason the manslaughterer doesn't deserve death (and by implication the reason the murderer does) is that the manslaughterer doesn't hate (and the murderer does). So it's actually hate, in Deuteronomy 19, deserves death. When Jesus says that anyone who hates deserves hellfire and judgment, he's not going deeper than the Torah's own criterion, which is the heart attitude. There are probably lots of cases of this kind of thing, but this particular one struck me yesterday when reading Deuteronomy 19. I don't think I'd ever noticed it before.

Numbers 30 deals with Israelite vows to God, i.e. declaring something to be dedicated to God. This would usually involve vowing something to God that one would give to the tabernacle or temple system much later, e.g. a certain percentage of the harvest that hasn't arrive yet or something of that nature. Some of the Pharisees in Jesus' time abused this system by vowing things to God that were necessary for caring for their parents, and thus they used these laws to get out of more important ones like honoring father and mother.

Jephthah in Judges 11 vowed whatever first came through his door, and it turned out to be his daughter. In that case, he tragically honored his vow when he shouldn't have done so, although if he had broken it he would have needed to make atonement. But other vows could be rash and should never have been made that nonetheless have to be honored. Typically if a man made a vow, he would have to honor it even if it was rashly made and burdensome to honor.

The regulations in Numbers 30 relate to girls and women making vows when under the authority of someone else. Normally a man would be responsible for his own vows. A girl under her father's authority would also normally be responsible for her own vows, provided that her father, when hearing about it, said nothing. But he did have the authority to cancel her vow. The same is true of a husband of a married woman. The father or husband would have to cancel the vow immediately when hearing about it, but the authority to cancel the vow came with being the father of a minor girl or the husband of a wife.

What interested me in reading this chapter recently was how it treats widows and divorced women. There were cases of widows and divorced women going back to live with their father, but there were also cases of widows retaining the property their husbands had inherited and serving as a head of household. These cases would have to have involved children, since otherwise the property might leave the clan, and property ties to tribes and clans was a very big deal in ancient Israel. But what's notably absent in this chapter is any statement about such women being under the authority of their father in terms of vows. As far as this chapter is concerned, a widow or divorced woman was simply responsible for her vows, and no one had the authority to cancel them.

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