A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Is the Old Testament Law really good?
A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 4 – The Good Life: Moses and his Law
The fourth chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible is probably the best chapter of the book so far. Dickson explores the often misunderstood Old Testament law of Moses. Dickson rightly acknowledges that the Old Testament law ‘is the cause of some confusion to modern readers’ (p.68). Dickson writes a very helpful chapter in exploring a number of aspects of the Old Testament Law and allaying some of this confusion.
Premise of the Law
As Dickson paints the context for the law he rightly discusses the Exodus from Egypt. The lack of corroborating extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus presents some concerns for the Christian believer. There is no direct clear archaeological evidence that a major Exodus from Egypt ever occurred. Dickson asks the correct questions about historical corroboration for the Exodus, ‘Where is the archaeology?, Why didn’t the Egyptians record it?’ (p.70).
Dickson then slightly curiously says that these questions assume that ‘the biblical record itself is not evidence.’ Dickson is correct at one level – the biblical record is a form of evidence. But this overlooks the main reason doubters seek extra-biblical corroboration of the biblical story, which is to demonstrate the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical story. Is the biblical story more likely a true historical event or a legendary saga?
Hence assuming that the Biblical story is evidence for the historic Exodus event reeks a little of a circular argument – i.e. the evidence that the Bible is true is the Bible!
Nonetheless, Dickson does helpfully point out that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. He points out that only a tiny fragment of the records of the Ancient world survive meaning there are enormous gaps in our knowledge. There have been some attempts to suggest that pieces of the archaeological puzzle confirm the biblical story and Dickson points to a couple of clues that the biblical record might be reliable, e.g. the large number of Semitic people enslaved in Egypt and the consistency with the Merneptah Stele. Yet clear corroboration with the biblical story is missing.
Dickson concludes with a very apposite observation that in assessing the evidence most believers and skeptics, ‘have to fall back on their underlying convictions and preferences to form opinions about the exodus’ (p.71).
Is the Old Testament Law really ‘freedom’?
The most controversial point of Dickson’s chapter are is comments surrounding the freedom of the law. Dickson asserts that the Old Testament law (notably the 10 commandments) is actually a charter of freedom. Dickson acknowledges that the laws are expressed negatively, but that this is a good thing ‘for the simple reason that only a few things are really forbidden and pretty much everything else is there to be enjoyed’ (p.77-78). He claims that a few negative laws are better than a thousand positive prescriptions.
I found this a thought-provoking suggestion. It is a relatively common assertion that the 10 Commandments are a negative document. Yet Dickson suggests that this ‘negativity’ is actual a positive prescription for freedom – because it enables us to ‘become what I’m made for’. Dickson demonstrates the failure of modern notions of ‘freedom’, the power to choose what I want, by demonstrating that some ‘freedom’ is destructive and enslaving e.g. being an alcoholic. Hence Dickson points out that some laws prevent destruction and enable us to be who we really are.
What do people make of the 10 Commandments – do you think that they are negative or positive? A charter for freedom? Do laws enable us to become ‘who we really are?’
The refraction of Jesus
The biggest source of confusion around the Old Testament law is their applicability to believers and society today. Doubters often accuse believers of inconsistency in application and Dickson demonstrates this by quoting a powerful scene from the West Wing. In this scene US President Jed Bartlet confronts Jenna Jacobs over her condemnation of homosexuality by quoting Leviticus. He then explains a number of other Old Testament laws which believers seem to conveniently “forget”. This scene highlights the apparent ‘cherry picking’ that many believers appear to adopt when using the Old Testament law to justify moral decisions today.
Dickson writes a very helpful response to this claim by showing that the Old Testament has been fulfilled in Jesus. This means that that the Old Testament law has been ‘refracted’ so that some injunctions are adjusted only slightly e.g. the mandate to care for the poor, others are intensified e.g. love neighbour becomes love enemies, and other laws have been refracted more radically ‘beyond recognition’ (e.g. Old Testament food laws). Dickson shows that this ‘refraction’ is not cherry picking because it was anticipated by the Old Testament itself through promises of a new prophet and a new covenant (p.84-85).
This is not some fancy footwork designed my modern Christian apologists to get out of the charge of inconsistency leveled at them by the likes of Jed Bartlet. It is the way Jesus taught his followers to approach the Old Testament. It is how the Old Testament itself said it would one day be read. (p. 85-86).
Dickson’s explanation is both correct and crucial to understanding the Old Testament law and the Old Testament more generally. This ‘refraction’ (or transposition as I describe it elsewhere) provides the interpretive key to understanding the application of the Old Testament today. It is so fundamental that I wonder if explanation would have been better suited in the previous chapter, where Dickson alludes to this ‘refraction’ but doesn’t expand on it (and hence potentially creates confusion).
What do you make of this idea of ‘refraction’? It is an idea that is contained within the pages of the Old Testament, so it’s not cherry picking. But it can be misunderstood by both doubters and believers. Doubters can misunderstand it and hence reject the Bible as a relevant document, and believers can misunderstand it, precisely as Jenna Jacobs did in the West Wing and make incorrect judgements as Jed Bartlett points out.
Overall, this was a very helpful and thought-provoking chapter which allays some of the concerns about the application of the Old Testament in the modern world.