Monday, May 27, 2019

Jonathan Burnside on Deuteronomy 4.5-8: God's Law and the Nations

* More thoughts from Jonathan Burnside's Words of Wisdom, Words of Prophecy: Why and How Biblical Law Speaks in the Public Square.  See Applying God's Law Today for previous post.

"Deut. 4:5-8 indicates, strikingly, that Israel is obliged to communicate the wisdom of Torah to the surrounding nations, even though they do not share what would nowadays be called Israel’s ‘private commitment’ to the deity. Even (or especially) after 40 years in the wilderness, Israel is exhorted to positive political engagement with the nations. Moreover, the reference to “the peoples” in verse 6 includes even those people-groups with whom Israel is in armed conflict. Deut. 4:5-8 thus envisages the potential for persuasive communication even in the most hostile of political contexts.
“See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight ofthe peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nationis a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god sonear to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set beforeyou today?” (Deut. 4:5-8; Moses speaking).
"The key point is that Israel communicates divine laws to the nations through practical action(“keep them and do them”). Although there is no reason to think either teaching or instruction(as opportunity permits) is excluded, it is only when Israel herself follows Torah that Deuteronomy expects the nations to respond positively and enthusiastically.60 The criteria of practical action reminds us that, contrary to the claims of modern biblical scholars, biblical law is not presented as utopian or élitist. It is always presented as practical and populist (even though it may not always be popular). This means that the virtue of Torah is publicly ascertainable – even to those outside the faith community.

"As far as Deuteronomy is concerned, then, the criteria for successful communication in a pluralist context is practical action."
Footnote 60: Notably the nations’ observation does not lead them to conclude the laws are bad, or evil. It may well be the case that part of the reason why a negative view has been allowed to form about biblical law is because, for example, the Christian church has not engaged in practical action that reflects the concerns of biblical justice. It is hard to do this, of course, when the texts themselves are ignored and misunderstood within the church. It is notable that when it has tried to do so, as in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, the results were powerfully effective.