Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hardness of Heart

Here I am, minding my own business, doing my morning scripture reading. Leviticus chapter 25, on the years of Sabbath and years of Jubilee. One of the central principles of this text is the theme, "Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the Lord your God" (vs. 7).

The year of Jubilee was designed to put limits on the extent to which the rich could become richer at the expense of the poor. If a person fell on hard times, he or she might sell part of their inheritance -- their land -- to someone else. If times got really bad, and they had already sold all their land, they might "sell" themselves as indentured servants or slaves. But in the year of Jubilee, held once every fifty years, slaves and indentured servants went free, patrimonies that had been sold reverted to their original owners:

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (vs. 10)

In laying forth the law of Jubilee, God explains, "For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God." (vss. 42 & 43).

This is quite an extraordinary passage, potent and relevant yet today. Or so I am thinking, until I run across this:

Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. (vss. 45-46)

That stopped me dead in my tracks. Did I read right? Is God here really saying, "You may not make perpetual slaves of your fellow Israelites. But if you want perpetual slaves, go ahead and take them from among the alien peoples who are your neighbors"? Is God really giving the go ahead here to make slaves of other nations?

Perhaps this passage is like the "hard" things that Lehi taught his children, of which Nephi wrote: "For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought" (1 Nephi 15:3). Perhaps the full meaning and context of a passage such as this can't be properly understood without the Spirit of the Lord.

Perhaps the prophet Abinadi held the key to understanding this passage:

And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God; Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him. But behold, I say unto you, that all these things were types of things to come. And now, did they understand the law? I say unto you, Nay, they did not all understand the law; and this because of the hardness of their hearts; for they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God. (Mosiah 13:29-32)

Perhaps this commandment is like the law concerning divorce, of which Jesus said: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). Could we infer, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to make slaves of your brothers of other nations, but from the beginning it was not so"?

Was the lust for slaves like the lust for wives, that Jacob condemned, when he wrote: "And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son" (Jacob 1:15)?

Did God let the ancient Israelites take slaves of their neighbors, because it was hard enough getting them to give up the idea of making slaves of each other? Was it that God knew it would take several hundred more years of suffering and captivity and slavery before they could understand that no people shall be sold as bondsmen, for they all are God's servants which he brought forth out of captivity?

This is a hard thing to understand, this section of Leviticus 25. A hard law, perhaps, for a hardened people.

But if that is so, the only hearts that could be harder than those which received this law would be the hearts of those that, after the light God shone through Isaiah, after the light God revealed in Christ, would want to go back to that law.


Alan said...

Great point John, I had not thought of this before. But I really like it!

Reuben said...

That's still a hard God for me to believe in, John. I guess I'm more likely to think that God never said any such thing and that the author incorrectly attributed these thoughts to God.

...but if I use that interpretation for this verse, I can justify the same interpretation for all the troubling aspects of the Old Testament. Before too long, the Old Testament isn't looking very authoritative at all anymore... I've been wrestling with this a lot lately.

J G-W said...

Reuben -- Reading passages like this, it is certainly easy to see why some Gnostic "heretics" of the first and second centuries began to insist that the God of the Old Testament wasn't really God at all, but something more like the Devil.

Those two verses (45 & 46) do seem to rub against the grain of the overall text in this chapter, which contains clear injunctions against slavery and for liberty and equality. In contrast to the rest of the chapter, they are quite shocking. They are so shocking, a valid theory might indeed be that some human author fudged them into the text in order to justify what was, after all, an almost ubiquitous practice in the ancient world.

To admit the possibility that the Old Testament text has been corrupted is to stand well within the mainstream of LDS exegetical tradition. I don't think it really poses a problem for Mormons to do so. We don't need the Old Testament to be "authoritative" in the way that, say, Fundamentalists do, because for us authority resides in modern-day prophets and modern-day revelation.

I love the text I quoted above from 1 Nephi. Nephi here plainly states that when we encounter difficult teachings or doctrines, we ought to inquire of the Lord. Not only is to question the text not unrighteous, but to fail to bring our questions directly to God is indicative of "hardness of heart." Again, this implies that authority resides in God and God alone, not in some antiquated text that has admitted "errors of men" in it.

This is how I think we need to read all of scripture...

J G-W said...

Having said that...

I think an equally probable explanation is that we only receive as much light as we are capable of receiving because of the "hardness of our hearts."

The notion that under certain circumstances slavery is prohibited, is an advance over the notion that slavery is never prohibited. Protecting some people from slavery, and introducing the notion that God prefers freedom over slavery, can be a step forward, depending on where you're stepping from.

I can accept that God would reveal a "half-measure" as a stepping stone toward the fullness. To acknowledge this also stands within the mainstream of LDS theology. God winks at our hard-heartedness and our failings, and slowly, patiently, tries to move us along toward something better. When the Saints reject the United Order, instead of rejecting the Saints, God gives them the half-measure of tithing. That's just how God works.

What I find blood-curdling is not that notion that God might have, in Jesus' words, "suffered" a lesser law to stand. Rather, it is when human beings who ought to know better, and who, in the name of biblical inerrancy and a certain literal interpretation of scripture, insist that God is for slavery. That's what I call hard heartedness.

Anonymous said...

at one time or another, the bible can be intepreted to promote genocide, child abuse, slavery, polygamy, incest, and the list goes on.

i live in a glass house, hardly capable of throwing a pebble across the street let alone a meteor across 8,000 miles and 5,000years.

Bravone said...

John, I made the goal a few years ago to read the Old Testament from beginning to end, as I had never done it before. I quit after a few weeks because I had a very hard time believing that God would command, or condone, people doing such crazy things as conquering their foes and circumcising them all. That was only one issue. I began to lose faith in such a God.

J G-W said...

Bravone -- I read the Old Testament from cover to cover as a Seminary Student when I was 14 or 15 years old. At the time, I remember being horrified by the commandment to the children of Israel to massacre Canaanite men, women, children and cattle. I think the glib explanation for this atrocity was that the Canaanites had achieved a ripeness of iniquity. I'm still trying to figure out what the poor cattle did wrong, or how massacring children gels with LDS doctrines regarding childhood innocence. As a teenager, I sort of set those qualms aside, assuming that those must have been unique times and unique circumstances.

I'm now in the process of re-reading the Old Testament from cover to cover. This time around, I have a lot more context, and more interpretive lenses.

Another interpretive lens (besides the ones I've already suggested): Ancient Israelites did not know the true God, but worshiped a ruthless tribal god of war. The true God used slavery, calamity, and captivity to teach ancient Israel humility and mercy, and win their hearts away from idolatry and war to a way of justice and love for neighbor. The transition from the lower form of awareness to the higher one was gradual and messy, and the Old Testament contains artifacts of that messy transition...

Another interpretive lens: The ancient Israelites didn't actually do everything described in the Old Testament. Historical evidence suggests that in many cases, the Israelites peacefully intermarried and merged as a people with Egyptians and Canaanites. The accounts of slaughter were actually just mythic tales told many generations after the fact to emphasize the importance of avoiding idolatry at all costs. Such tales may or may not have been inspired.

At any rate, as I have said above, the general thrust of these texts is to powerfully affirm freedom, equality, and justice. Leviticus 25 is an amazing text, with some amazing theological concepts that I would hate to toss out just on account of verses 45 & 46.

I actually have come to love and admire this mixture of the beautiful, the good, the bad and the ugly in the Old Testament. I sort of like that the gross parts haven't been tidily expurgated. It reminds me that we're human, that we can be ignorant, stupid and bestial at times, but that we can also transcend our worst instincts, that God can move us toward something better.

Bravone said...

John, I really appreciate your perspective. I too love some parts of the Old Testament. Maybe I should try again and not get wrapped up in the parts that don't make sense to me.

I suppose I do that to some extent with the modern church. Thanks for your thoughts.