Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 26:47-56; Romans 15:14-33; Psalm 75; Deuteronomy 23-26
Some of the laws in Deuteronomy seem draconian or even unethical. Today’s chapters show that many other laws were humane, uniquely so among other law codes in the ancient Near East. These compassionate laws must be kept in mind as we examine the overall approach to living ethically under Old Testament law. These laws and the principles underlying them will be the focus today, while some of the more controversial and challenging laws are discussed on other days.
When a slave would run away, masters could expect that he would be returned to them. That was the practice in the ancient Near East, in Paul’s time (see Philemon) and during modern slavery. A law giving a runaway slave refuge and freedom to choose where to work was ‘astonishing,’ in the words of one Old Testament scholar (23:16). Since Hebrew slaves were to be freed every six years, such slaves were most likely foreigners. As with other laws regulating slavery, this highlights the belief that slaves were viewed as fully human, made in the image of God, and to be treated humanely. An Israelite obeying this law would risk the anger of the slave-master, pointing to the cost of standing up for justice and the worth of others, even foreigners. We too must risk standing up for the weak and powerless who are exploited today.
Justice is sometimes viewed as equal treatment for everyone. The biblical view includes a humane dimension to ensure justice is also compassionate in recognising special circumstances. Israelite men would be called up into the army, but a newly married man was not go out with his comrades (24:5). Instead, the man was to concentrate on making his bride happy. The first year of marriage is of crucial importance to laying a solid foundation of love and respect. Note that the verse says the man is not to be pulled away by other duties. Today, this principle would call on newlyweds to focus less on their careers and other good pursuits outside the home, and more on their marriage. With a secure foundation at home, other ambitions can be pursued in later years.
Money-lenders and loan sharks have been regarded poorly throughout history. Banks today are likewise viewed dimly for giving out huge mortgages and insisting on unrealistic repayments. Earning interest from loans is not inherently wrong (23:21), but the Israelites had a special responsibility to help their brothers in need without profiting through interest (23:20). A number of laws call for a humane approach to lending. Taking the upper millstone would deprive a borrower of the means to feed his family (24:6) and cause him to need to borrow more. The borrower’s honour should be respected by not going into his home to collect the loan in front of his children and family (24:10-11). If someone’s only collateral is what he needs to keep warm, it should be returned at night (24:12-13). And some things should never be taken as collateral because they are so essential to someone’s well-being (24:17). These laws highlight the responsibility of the lender to protect borrowers, and ensure their lending does not jeopardise their basic needs.
Concern for the vulnerable comes up repeatedly (26:12-13). Such concern is not limited to other people, but to animals also (25:4; see August 22). This reflects a generosity towards others that arises out of our position as being treasured by God and seeking to act as he acts (26:17). The guilty were to be punished in proportion to their offence and not in ways that violate their dignity (25:1-13). Fair wages were to be paid, and wages paid daily if someone needed this to buy food daily (24:14-15). Likewise, farmers were not to cling to every last grape and ear of corn (23:24-25), but be willing to share with those in need (24:19-22). This applies not only to the traveller passing through, but to the orphan and widow. At the same time, those benefiting from this generosity were not to take advantage of the farmer by filling their pockets with extra food. What is reflected here is an attitude that everything belongs to God and should be shared with those in need, which contrasts sharply with an attitude to individual property where everyone clings to their own possessions. People with property or power were to take into consideration the needs of those with less. Programmes and procedures should facilitate the needs of the less privileged, even if they were less convenient or profitable for the wealthy. A society based on prioritising generosity and consideration of others would be a joy to live in.
This helps us understand the abhorrence shown towards the Amalekites (25:17-19). Given the importance of justice, generosity and concern for the weak, their actions reveal the very opposite commitments. As Israel left Egypt, the Amalekites ambushed the stragglers: the old, the sick, women and children. Just as the Israelites were to emulate God’s concern for the weak, they were to abhor the Amalekites’ exploitation of the vulnerable. Likewise, the Ammonites and Moabites were excluded from the assembly because of past atrocities and their commitment to idol worship (23:4-7). We must trust that God knew their influence would never be positive. At the same time, Israel was not to abhor the Edomites and Egyptians (23:8-9). In spite of more recent wrongs, ancestral connections and previous hospitality should be remembered and lead to reconciliation.
All these compassionate laws raise practical challenges because they are open to exploitation by their beneficiaries. Such is the risk of caring for others. The chances of this working well increases when everyone is committed to honesty and justice (25:13-16). Underlying these laws is a common framework of gratitude for God’s caring provisions (25:22) and a commitment to not dishonour God (25:16). This should lead to obedience from the heart and the soul (26:16), not out of legalistic fear. The text regularly reminds the hearers of when God protected them and was generous to them, especially when they did not deserve it. The same applies even more to Christians who know God’s love through Jesus Christ and have been forgiven much (Ephesians 4:32; 1 John 4:10-11). Without such underlying knowledge of God’s grace and love, such an approach to life would be difficult if not impossible.