Supreme Authority, Tremendous Authority, Amazing Authority

I teach Hebrew at a seminary that claims “trustworthiness and supreme authority [of the Bible] in all matters of faith and conduct.” The seminary is considered evangelical and its position on Scripture is one of the main factors in that consideration. Because the seminary is in Canada, one could argue that the “evangelical” label is more a description of hermeneutical method over ideology than it would be in my home country of the USA.

Though I’ve done most of my own research in the book of Job, its Hebrew is largely too difficult to teach during the first four semesters of Hebrew—the courses I’ve been tasked to teach. Instead, for intermediate Hebrew I have been teaching through a workbook that allows the class to read several passages in different genres. One passage from the workbook is Deuteronomy 24:14-22, which, when I picked the workbook, looked like a nice introduction to deuteronomistic legal texts, but while going through this year it has continued to stick with me.deuteronomy-chapter-24-25

What appears at first like a random assortment of laws is really a well constructed rhetoric, drawing the reader/listener in to make them feel good about their ethical behavior (don’t cheat people, because what kind of person does that) to being fair in the courts (don’t punish people for crimes they didn’t commit, even as a type of revenge, because that is not true justice) to being generous and charitable, because that is what God has been to you. In other words, “don’t be a criminal… oh good, you’re not a criminal, then be just and help maintain a just society… oh good, you’re just, then be righteous. Go above and beyond, for that is what being a God-follower really means.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the first two verses of the section (Deut 24:14, 15) as translated by the NIV:

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite (lit. “your sibling”) or a foreigner (ger) residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Such a blatant abuse of power, not paying someone for work they did (no mention of the quality or quantity of work) should obviously be considered a crime, but the command comes with a warning that the abused day-laborer, whether Israelite or foreigner (more on that word later), has the real power in the relationship. The day-laborer can cry out to the Lord and the Lord will judge the “capitalist.”

For further reference, see the following links:

At first read, the next passage seems like a jump to an incongruous law, but, as I stated above, the law progresses from not stiffing your employees from work they did to not punishing people for things they didn’t do. It shows the humane side of lex talionis. It’s not a part of God’s law to punish someone else for a crime they did not commit.

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. (Deut. 24:16 NIV)

For further reference:

Similarly, we read the next verse, again in the NIV:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deut. 24:17 NIV),

which assures justice for the most vulnerable in society. The stranger, sometimes translated alien or sojourner, has the following definition from the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament:

גר is a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war 2S 43 Is 164, famine Ru 11, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed.

In other words, we are talking about a refugee. What are the rights of the refugee? The word mishpat is normally rendered “justice”, but that doesn’t help us too much without an example of what that justice is. Fortunately, the author of Deuteronomy seems to have anticipated this question and given us something to hang our hat on in verse 18:refugee-boat

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:18 NIV)

For further reference:

One interesting thing about this particular verse is the way justice is to be done for the widow. The restriction on taking a widow’s garment in pawn was, presumably to protect the widow from shame. That is, the poor widow likely has few clothes to wear. If a wealthy person takes her garment in pledge, she will likely not have another garment to cover herself, thus causing people to think she is asking for sexual advances because of the way she dresses. It saves her from being taken advantage of by two different powerful men—the one who has taken her garment and the one who believes she “wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want it.”

For further reference:

The section ends with what seems like a command to be generous to the most vulnerable. The principle is familiar, but I was really struck by the Hebrew, the point of which most modern translations miss. The NIV’s is one of the most egregious, reading,

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, (Deut. 24:19 NIV)

The idea is not entirely wrong, but the radical nuance is watered down. The King James Version is, not surprisingly, the most literal, reading

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow (Deut. 24:19 KJV)

But even here, one misses the strong sense of possession conveyed by the idiom “be to the stranger” (sometimes called the “dative of possession”) after 21132_largethe repetition of second person pronominal suffixes in the rest of the verse. Let’s update the passage with the idiom in mind, highlighting the suffixes:

When you harvest your harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf, do not return to take it; it belongs to the refugee, the orphan, and the widow.

That is, your overlooking the surplus is no accident, but divine providence for the most vulnerable. Going back to glean your surplus is a violation of the divine order. Generosity is built into the laws of God so much that not being generous approaches theft.

For further reference:

The second half of the verse gives the explanation along with the entirety of verse 22. Here is 19b:

… so that the Lord your God might bless you in all the work of your hands.

After similar commands to leave ungleaned grapes and olives because they also are the property of the refugee, orphan, and widow, the passage explains further:

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:22 NIV)

All is fine and dandy with the first couple sections, but this is where I struggle as an evangelical. I love the idea of the generous being blessed by God. I wish this were true, but I question that truth. As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe in the “trustworthiness and supreme authority” of the Bible. In fact, I’m contractually obligated to believe such a thing. But how trustworthy is this passage?

Consider the book of Job which seems to challenge the above passage. Job describes himself in similar ways as the book of Deuteronomy describes the righteous Israelite

Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, 12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. 13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. 14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.” (Job 29:11-16 NIV)

The narrator also describes Job as blameless and upright, he feared God and shunned evil and was the greatest of all people of the east (Job 1:1-3). And yet, Job loses all he has and seems to become like the most wretched in society. He is not blessed as we understand it. In other words, the Book of Job would seem to challenge the “trustworthiness” of Deuteronomy. Perhaps there is an ironic grace, here. Job saves the Bible as a whole from issues that the real world would seem to undermine. Doing justice and loving mercy do not always lead to blessings.

Let’s also consider the flip side: Implicit in the commands of Deuteronomy 24 is that if you do not behave in such a way, you should not expect blessings. You should, in fact, expect to be found guilty of sin (Dt. 24:19). And yet we are now presented with someone who has violated every one of the principles espoused in Deuteronomy 24:14-22 and has been rewarded (blessed?) with the most powerful position on the planet, guaranteeing him the spot as most famous person in the world, a position this man seems to consider the most blessed achievement of all.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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3 Responses to Supreme Authority, Tremendous Authority, Amazing Authority

  1. johnbby says:

    I loved reading this… Brilliant.

    I have pretty deep-seated issues with the notion of ultimate scriptural authority, but leaving that aside, I wonder if this can be made sense of.

    I can’t read Hebrew – but in English the commands read like they are to and for the governance of the nation – rather than directed at individuals. How much control would an individual have over who gets put to death for whose wrongdoings? Isn’t it part of the states role to ensure a fair labour system, that pays workers on time? The context being slaves in Egypt makes more sense if the commands are thought of as to the community too.

    This helps with Job too – and much of the New Testament. Individuals seem to get their ‘just deserts’ after life, not necessarily during it. Paul makes much of this; and if he and the disciples are judged based on how apparently blessed they were in life they would seem to have pissed God off quite considerably.

    Nations, on the other hand, are forever being lifted up or punished for the nature of their society.

    Maybe Trump isn’t being individually punished or exalted here. America, however, may be getting exactly the kind of President it has earned.

  2. azlewis says:

    These are all good points and I had plans to address some (particularly the hope that is inherent in Job and the New Testament) in a subsequent post. Regarding the text as being for the nation as a whole, I believe you are right, certainly as far as the punishments being doled out (capital or otherwise). Deuteronomy begins with “These are the words Moses said to the people of Israel.” However, the final section is, strangely, addressed to the singular “you”. The fields are owned by individuals and so it is up to them to not overglean their fields (something that would be very difficult to regulate in any case). When I taught the passage in class, I regularly turned to the book of Ruth as how the laws are played out on the ground (or in the fields, as it were). Boaz (and Ruth, too, though she would be the prime example of widow and refugee [and orphan?] being protected) seems to exemplify the just and righteous person extraordinaire, described in Dt 24. He pays his workers more than they are owed, he encourages Ruth to glean in his field, and he protects her from shame. He does this as an individual, and not as regulated by the state. I’ll try to spell that out more in the next week.

  3. Pingback: Deuteronomy, Ruth, and the Long View of Wisdom (and Beatrix Kiddo) | azlewis

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