Monday, February 21, 2011

Is God a Moral Monster?: #4a

It's a day off + a snow day for my MCCC teaching. I went out for a few hours this morning and took photos of the ice storm. Photographic conditions were poor (gray skies) but I got some shots of the quarter-inch icing coating everything. If the sun had been shining the whole earth would have glistened, reflecting the light in a myriad of ways.

I'm settling in to some reading. I've got Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster? in hand, and am reading ch. 7 - "The Bible's Ubiquitous Weirdness?" What's the deal with all those wild dietary laws?! Copan takes two chapters to answer. The first chapter focuses on gthe calling of Israel as a people to be "set apart," "marked off," or "unmixed" from its surrounding nations; viz., Canaanite culture. Here are the bullets from ch. 7 as I see them.
  • Ancient Israel had a tribal and kinship structure. The Canaanites "had a kind of feudal system with a powerful elite at the top and peasants at the bottom." (70) "Israelite society was 'socially decentralized and non-hierarchical' until the time of Solomon onward. By contrast, Canaanite kings owned all the land. Peasants had to work the land as tenants and pay taxes." So? It's this, among other things: Israelite law was a "dramatic improvement" over the Canaanite system. (71) Israel's un-mixedness dramatically improved moral and living conditions.
  • At Sinai God bound himself to Israel in a loving covenant, the Mosaic law. We read about this from Exodus 20 to Numbers 10. Here we see some odd laws, at least fromm our POV. The atheist Bertrand Russell, e.g., wondered about the command not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21). This is weird, and seemingly arbitrary. Out of context, of course it is. In context, it is not.
  • In order to understand such things we must keep this in mind: The law of Moses is not eternal and unchanging. "Despite what the New Atheists assume, Old Testament sages and seers themselves announced that the law of Moses was intentionally temporary." (71) OT laws are not for universal application to post-OT times. The dietary laws do not and could not apply today.
  • The law of Moses was not a-contextual. "It is interwoven into a dynamic historical narrative of a covenant-making God's activity through Israel from its beginning." As usual, in textual studies one must understand the context. (We here reject postmodern hermeneutics that imposes its own context on the text.)
  • God had called apart a people, a nation, for the sake of revealing his love to all nations. Israel's environment helped to "prepare the cultural and theological context for God's revelation of Jesus of Nazareth "when the fullness of time came" (Gal. 4:4)." (73)
  • This "calling apart" of a people is captured in the word "holy." "Holy" means "set apart," or "marked off." "Holiness" affected every area of life. And, it "wasn't just for official priests; it was for the entire people of Israel... We could rephrase the command 'be holy, for I the LORD am holy' (Lev. 19:2) this way: "You shall be my people and mine alone, for I am your God and yours alone." This relationship can be compared to... serious marriage vows... Being God's people meant living lives dedicated to God in every aspect of life." (74) This "every aspect of life" thing is important.
  • With this in mind, we must remember that God's underlying moral and spiritual concerns were primarily about justice, mercy, and walking humbly before God (Deut. 10:12; Micah 6:8). We read that God hated rituals and eating kosher foods if the worship of God and treatment of others weren't kosher." (74) But note: "This underlying moral concern didn't cancel out ritual prescriptions - with their rich theological meaning - even much later in Israel's history after the Babylonian exile." (75) So the rituals and dietary laws were not the summum bonum of God's revelation to us. They were, as N.T. wright would say, a necessary chapter in the biblical Grand Narrative.
  • So what's the point so far? God called and was preparing a people through which to display his love. He "set apart" this people. For them all of life was sacred and holy. Including what you eat. As Copan writes, "God isn't cordoned off to some private, religious realm." (75)
  • What about the distinction between "clean" and "unclean?" The underlying idea is this: "For the Hebrew, life wasn't mere biological existence." (75) "Uncleanness symbolizes loss of life." (Ib.) "Life" means "being rightly connected to God and to the community - and properly functioning, whole, or well-ordered within (peace = shalom)." (76) So re. food, e.g., carnivorous animals were connected with death. Therefore, they were "unclean."
  • "Cleanness" was essentially a heart issue. "The nearer one came to God, the cleaner one had to be... The pursuit of cleanness was a kind of spiritual 'dressing down' - an inner unveiling or internal examination of where one stood in relation to God." (Ib.)
  • Israel's food laws and sacrificial laws and even the land itself "all had social and theological significance. Israel's various boundaries were to remind her of her relationship to God and to the nations around her. Just as God was set apart from human beings, Israel was to be set apart in its behavior and theology from the surrounding nations. Just as the tabernacle represented sacred space within Israel, so the land of Israel itself represented a set-apartness in contrast to the nations around it." (Ib.)
  • Just as a parent today might instruct his child not to "mix" with a certain crowd, the word "holiness" is about living the unmixed life. Understanding Israel's historical and social context and the unmixed life in relation to that context is needed to get the logic of the "weird" dietary laws.
All of this, for Copan, is setting the stage for the next chapter on the dietary laws.