Why Translating “God’s Law” into Government Law Isn’t Easy


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Samuel L. Boyd, University of Colorado at Boulder

(THE CONVERSATION) This article was last updated on March 10, 2022.

The relationship between certain interpretations of the Bible and public life in the United States continues to make headlines. At the March for Life anti-abortion rally in Washington, DC on January 21, 2022, the Bible featured prominently, with passages from the books of Jeremiah and Proverbs, among others, on display.

The DC Museum of the Bible, located near the rally site, offered free admission during the march. A keynote speaker at the event was Catholic priest Mike Schmitz, who hosts a popular podcast called “The Bible in a Year” and has published articles on his website regarding the Bible and abortion.

Some religious groups take the relationship between the Bible and American law and society even further. A movement called “Dominionism” and a particular version of it called “Theonomy” in Christianity became prominent in part through politicians associated with the movement, such as Michele Bachmann and the Senses. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

Many Christian dominionists want to somehow apply God’s law and Christian principles to American politics.


Yet few Bible readers realize that the laws then were not practiced the way many believe the laws work today.

Legal collections in the ancient world

In my research on the Bible and its legal material, I have come to the conclusion that much of the modern debate about the Bible in American society could be traced to misguided literary genres. Ancient texts that might look like law codes today were not necessarily enforced as the law of the land in biblical times.

For example, the laws of the Code of Hammurabi, an oft-quoted legal collection of King Hammurabi of ancient Babylon, have the familiar structure of modern, practiced law: if someone does something wrong, then that person is guilty according to the particulars of the law. law.

However, Hammurabi himself rarely referred to the collection. Sometimes his own royal decrees were in violation of what the inscription says should happen.

The Code of Hammurabi was not simply a reflection of the law in everyday Mesopotamia. Instead, it was probably a collection of possible legal cases and scenarios put together by royal scribes.

These cases demonstrate a range of hypothetical legal responses that could ensure maximum justice in society. They may look like the actual law, but they are not a direct representation of what happened in each case.

The laws were placed on a rock monument which contained an image of King Hammurabi seated before the god of justice, Shamash. The introduction of these registration laws was intended to make the king look good through propaganda, but, as research shows, not for the purpose of codifying practiced law.

Scholars believe that the Code of Hammurabi influenced some of the Bible’s legal collections, such as in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. There is evidence that, like Hammurabi’s law code, the laws of the Bible were not necessarily practiced.

For example, a law in the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, which is also believed to have been written by Moses, says that if a son constantly rebels against his parents and gets drunk, the parents will bring the son to the elders of the city. The men of the city then stone the son to death.

But what counts as “rebellious” and how drunk the son is would qualify the son to be found guilty.

The Bible does not say so. The ancient rabbis considered the passage not to be practiced at all. The prophet Jeremiah applied the law metaphorically to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. AD, but there is no evidence that the law was actually practiced.

There is another story of a former rabbi, Hananiah ben Hezekiah, who locked himself in his room, burning 300 barrels of oil to keep his light on in order to figure out how the laws of the Bible worked together. This incredible amount of effort highlights just how different these laws really are and how they cannot be reconciled into a single legal view.

The Laws, the Bible, and Ancient Israel

Although there is evidence that some sense of legal reality in ancient Israel resembled some of the biblical laws, the relationship was not accurate.

Rather, it seems that the genre of legal compendiums in the Bible operated according to the literary conventions of its time.

The fact that the laws of the Bible resemble other ancient laws of the Near East does not mean that the laws of the Bible do not have unique characteristics. Scholars have noted an innovation that occurred in the laws of the Bible: there is no king who acts as lawgiver.

All other laws of the ancient Near East were given by the king. The Mesopotamian god of justice, Shamash, endowed Hammurabi with wisdom, but Hammurabi himself derived the laws.

Yet the Bible’s first legal collection, in the book of Exodus, misses the king’s role as lawgiver for the first time in ancient Near Eastern history. Biblical laws, on the contrary, come directly from God.

The original intent of some of these legal collections may have been to emphasize the need for freedom against larger dominant imperial forces. They were used as statements expressing beliefs about justice, divinity and society, but without recourse to the ancient kings of the Near East.

In fact, a law in Deuteronomy relegates the king to a much smaller role than otherwise occupied royalty in ancient society. This law states that a king’s main job is to study the legal content of the Bible. He also orders the king not to act arrogantly towards other Israelites.

And given how the separate collections of the Bible differ and change over time, the legal material shows a remarkably adaptable sense of how ancient Israelite society constantly evolved in its response to historical events.

But such functions of these laws can only be seen when understood in their ancient context.

How and when perception changed

The modern Western sense of law books and judicial sensibility derives somewhat from the legacy of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. He ushered in extensive legal reform in the Roman Empire in the sixth century.

It included precepts such as “innocent until proven guilty”, which would become a maxim for many later legal systems, such as the notion of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” in America.

Later Christian thinkers attempted to identify three enduring uses of the law in the Bible over time in modernity, the second of which applies civil relevance to these statutes. The idea is that when a civil code that includes God’s laws is used in society, it should, in theory, curb evil.

Such sentiments can be found in the statements of modern lawmakers, such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s comments to King’s College New York in a 2019 commencement address.

There, he blamed what he believes is America’s current moral bankruptcy on a fourth-century Christian belief called Pelagianism that emphasizes mankind’s free will.

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Hawley claimed that such a Pelagian attitude prompted a 1992 court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the individual was held to have the “right to define their own concept of existence, meaning, the universe, and the mystery of human life.

For Hawley, this sentiment contradicts the belief that all mankind should be subject to God’s rule, as evidenced by the need for a personal relationship with God.

Yet the Bible, its laws, and the ancient debates that flowed from its view of humanity and society were more complex than the straightforward application advocated by Hawley and others.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/why-translating-gods-law-to-government-law-isnt-easy-177310.

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