There was once a preacher who shared a joke in the sermon he was preaching. The point of the joke was to highlight the difference between cutting back on sin or stopping sin altogether. The joke went as follows: There was a highway patrolman who pulled a gentleman over for a rolling stop at a four-way intersection. The highway patrolman asked the man if he knew why he was being stopped and the man replied that he most certainly did not. The patrolman stated that the gentleman had slowed down for the stop sign but that he did not stop for it. The gentleman in the vehicle angrily and quickly retorted, “well what’s the difference!” At which time the patrolman grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him out of the car and began beating him with his night-stick. The patrolman then said, do you want me to stop hitting you or do you just want me to slow down?
Now, the point of the story is evident, (even if hyperbolic) there is a difference between cutting back on sin or “trying to do a little better” and cutting sin out completely. However, the point I would like to make from this story is a different one, because we all know that there will not be a time on this earth when any of us can completely cut all sin out of our life. The larger point from this story, and from any story that speaks to the issue of law and order, is how laws are actually designed for human flourishing. The reason one is supposed to stop at a stop sign is for one’s own safety and the safety of the larger community. If you did not stop, you could cause a wreck harming yourself and/or others.
Many of us have a tendency to look down on the law of Moses or to dismiss it altogether, especially those of us in protestant churches. We have a fear, and in many cases rightly so, of religion becoming a rote act of religiosity based in rule keeping and not what it is intended to be, a relationship with God. So, if the danger is misaligning the law and allowing it to take the place of authentic faith, how can we say that the law is designed for human flourishing? Well, that is an excellent question and one that requires we see the law from the perspective of the Hebrew people before the New Testament era.
Imagine a scenario with me of a parent who left their child at home without any rules whatsoever and every evening when the parent came home, they punished the child for failing to do what the parent wanted them to do during the day. Exasperated, the child would ask daily why they were being punished, why they had to go to their room without supper? What is it that I did or did not do to make you upset? In this example, we begin to see that knowing what the parent wants the child to do (or avoid doing) would be a very helpful thing for the child and therefore would not be a burden but rather freeing.
This is how the Hebrew people saw the law of God; the Hebrews did not see the laws that Moses gave to them from Yahweh as something oppressive or too heavy to be born. They actually saw the law as something that was liberating in the beginning. It was a clear indication of what God desired for them to do (or to abstain from doing). This would have been seen as a liberating thing for the Hebrews as it would mean that they would not have to go through the dessert for forty years walking on egg shells every step of the way towards the Promised Land. Thus, Moses was not seen as an oppressive leader, or some type of dictator, who shackled them with a heavy weight to bear but rather as a liberator who gave them (and us) a form or structure within which to live fruitful lives that please God.
Secondly, the Hebrew people knew the laws that Moses gave them were not arbitrary rules and regulations but were from the heart of God’s concern for their flourishing and prosperity. Indeed, as comforting as it must have been for the Hebrews to know what God wanted them to do (and what God demanded they abstain from doing), it was also surely reassuring to know that these laws were designed with their best interests at heart. It is helpful for us to understand that the laws that Moses gave unto Israel for humanity to live lives that please God are not capricious desires of a whimsical dictator who demands his subjects dance for his pleasure. No, these laws, like the commands all good parents have for their children, are actually designed to protect us from harm and danger.
When a parent tells a little child to avoid touching a cherry red electric stove burner, it is not because the parent wants to curtail the freedom of the child or to keep something fun from the child. It is because the parent cannot stand the thought of the pain that the child would face as the skin from their hand melted onto the burner causing them permanent severe damage. Parents do not want to steal the fun from our lives when they warn us not to smoke cigarettes; they are actually trying to help us avoid the long-term pain of emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease, and other agonizing diseases that come from smoking.
The same thing can be said about God’s laws given unto humanity by Moses, the law-giver. God does not want to rob someone from what may seem like the pleasure of sexual promiscuity or adulterous affairs. Rather, God desires to help us to avoid the pain and suffering of sexually transmitted diseases that come from promiscuity, the broken hearts that lie in the wake of a promiscuous lifestyle, and the broken lives and families that those who commit in adultery invariably experience. Therefore, these laws should not be thought of as oppressive kill-joy type rules but rather as a guide and guard for human well-being.
The biblical narrative does not present Moses as an oppressor but rather as a liberator. He repeats the refrain throughout the exodus event, “Let My people go so that they may serve me.” This is a call for liberation, not bondage. To try to keep the law for salvation would have placed the people in a new form of slavery and would have indeed been the most fearful thing anyone could imagine. The first little slip up would confirm the fact that we are not righteous enough to earn our way into heaven and would thus leave us condemned for all eternity. In the New Testament book of Galatians, Paul gives an air tight argument against the possibility that salvation could come from meticulous law keeping. He reminds us that Abraham, who lived four-hundred and thirty years before Moses gave the law, was pronounced righteous by God. How could Abraham have been righteous if righteousness comes from the keeping of the law? No, Paul says, it is through a personal relationship with God that one is made righteous, not through keeping rules. Paul teaches us that the law was never given to be oppressive or rigid; rather, it was given as a guide to lead humanity into the fullness of life.
So in the end, we should re-read the holy scripture’s presentation of Moses as one who comes to give the law of life and reject the misreading of the text that suggests the law is oppressive or something to be used to earn our own salvation. If we embrace the life-giving nature of the law, we will be blessed with two major insights. The first one is that we will be enlightened to know those things that God desires for us to do and the things that God desires for us to avoid doing. Secondly, we will understand that these laws are not meant to be oppressive kill-joy type restrictions but rather life preserving instructions given by a loving and caring parent, God our heavenly Father. Therefore, let us embrace the law for what it was meant to be, a gift for our well-being. Let us embrace the gracious gift of relationship with God through Christ for our salvation and not mix it with any thought that we can earn salvation. And let us be thankful for Moses, the bringer of the law and the liberator of all people of faith.