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God Cares About Changing Laws

Has anyone ever noticed that God cares about justice? As I’ve been reading through the first couple books of the bible again (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and now Deuteronomy), I’ve been noticing just how much of the text by sheer volume is dedicated to societal laws. When Yahweh, the God of Israel, calls Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt so that they might live a different way of life, in worship of him, he calls them to be a radically different society from the one they were just in.

Yes, Exodus contains a fair amount of exciting narrative (the plagues, lots of wandering, disobedience with the golden calf), but Leviticus is almost ALL ritual and ceremonial description of how God wants the Israelites to be holy (holy in the sense of “set apart,” and not necessarily any attachment to an ethical “good” or “bad.” Being “unclean” in Leviticus is just a state of being, not an indictment of moral fault or transgression). In Numbers, there’s the exploration of the land of Canaan, and then lots of declarative societal laws and tribal upkeep thrown in from chapter to chapter.

I just finished watching the 2016 documentary “13th.” So that’s why I have societal laws on my mind. It is horrendously eye-opening to see how closely entwined the justice system is with capitalistic interest in America. Doesn’t it just speak of flagrant corruption if people and corporations are incentivized to keep as many prisoners behind bars as possible? That’s just wrong. Our justice system is supposed to serve the people, not treat them as bounty for corporations that make profit based on the headcount of our prison population. It was also educational for me to see the progression of these laws coinciding with presidential campaigns and political calculation—another sad example of how deeply engrained capitalism is in our nation. It’s no secret to anybody that the candidate with the most financial backing, the biggest wallet to campaign and advertise, usually has the upper hand to win in an election.

But back to the Bible. Yahweh is a god of love. He is a god of human dignity. Taken in isolation and out of context, so many Old Testament commands can be read as barbaric, backward, and outright oppressive (to the modern audience, basically any verse that mentions slaves or women). But when read in the context of what the overall passage or chapter is communicating, many of these laws were incredibly progressive for society at that time—trying to institute more (not full, mind you) protection and equality for marginalized populations such as slaves and women. The specifics of that are for another blog post.

But I wanted to highlight two passages that caught my attention: Number 27: 1-11, and then Number 36 (the last chapter of the book). Both of them deal with Zelophehad’s daughters (from the tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph), and the concerns raised for equal inheritance and protection when it came to the divvying up of land. Zelophehad had died in the dessert and left no sons, and thus prompting his name to disappear from the clan and his daughters excluded from receiving any inheritance. They brought it up to Moses, and you can see the response in Numbers 27:5-7:

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them.”

Later on, a similar issue arises over the concern of whether the daughters of Zelophehad would end marrying outside of their clan (again, losing their inheritance when the Year of Jubilee came because inheritances were reallocated by the tribal lineage of the males, not females). So again, see the response in Numbers 36:5-7:

Then at the Lord’s command Moses gave this order to the Israelites: “What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right. This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors. Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors. No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.”

At first glance, it feels horribly repressive. The “solution” is that the daughters of Zelophehad are not permitted to marry whomever they want, only within their tribe. But in the larger narrative, it’s clear that God cares about equity and justice. And the striking thing is that he listens. He listens and responds to the concerns brought forth by the people through Moses (not the first time God has “changed his mind” on account of Moses’ pleas). God amends the societal laws. I think since society is always changing, it makes sense that the laws of the land intended to help God’s people in accordance to his vision for humanity should continue to change too.

Just food for thought. If God cares about changing laws to protect and uphold justice among the marginalized, shouldn’t we as Christians care too?

Question: what OT passage makes you scratch your head in disbelief?

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