03 Oct Bonus Episode: Reading Numbers like a Historian with Dr. Mark Chavalas
We’ve got a longtime relationship with Logos Bible Software.
I use Logos – not hyperbole – every single day. It’s the second thing open on my computer, and I live in it. I use it on my tablet, and occasionally on my phone.
It’s an incredible resource. Imagine having all your commentaries, and all your Bible versions, and right click to get to a Hebrew definition or a Greek definition or theology handbook. It’s just a wonderful resource.
And as part of that, the Logos Mobile Ed curriculum program.
They went and found the best subject matter experts in different fields, including our guest today: Dr. Mark Chavalas.
Dr. Mark Chavalas is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse. He has authored and/or co-authored many books, including Mesopotamia and the Bible, the InnerVarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, Old Testament, which by the way, is a great single volume book that surveys, high-level, a lot of Old Testament history. He was co-editor of the Ancient Near East and Women in the Ancient Near East, which is one of the reasons we wanted to talk to him coming from a perspective of how women are viewed in the Old Testament.
He has done fellowships at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and others. He has nine seasons of excavations. We should probably interview him just about that sometime. And the Bronze Age sites in Syria.
His research over the past decade has focused on inter-connections between ancient Mesopotamia along areas as Anatoly, Iran, Egypt, Palestine, etc. And what he brings to the table is a focus from a bronze-Syrian age to the third millennium.
And all that means to me is: How do we think about the Old Testament from a Syrian Babylonian lens perspective? And he’ll talk about that a little bit, so it is with great delight that we have Dr. Chavalas on today’s episode about Numbers.
Dr. Easley: Let’s jump right in is our podcast listeners already know what we’re about. And one of the areas you have a Logos Mobile Ed course that people can get credit for, they can take a series of courses online through Logos’s ministry, but you have some subject matter expertise, particularly in the areas of Numbers.
So before we dive into some of the details, give me a 50,000 foot overview of sort of the background or context of how you think this helps Bible believing Christians today.
Well, I’m a Mesopotamian scholar who happens to love the Bible. So technically speaking, I’m not an Old Testament scholar. But my goal as a historian is to place the Bible in its proper context. And so as one of my colleagues, John Walton has said, sort of tongue in cheek, but I think that there’s a ring of truth to it:
“The Bible was written for us, but not to us,” especially the Old Testament.
So in order to really understand it fully, in a way that will gather all of the deep insights, and things that God wants us to get, we have to understand the original context to which the Bible was written.
Now, we couldn’t have done that very well 100, 150, 175 years ago, until people began digging up the documents from the ancient Near East. And to their utter amazement, they found that:
These documents provided a context for understanding many of the stories and narratives and laws and other things from the Old Testament.
At the beginning, I think it was considered somewhat intimidating because they found out that many of the law codes for example, the Hammurabi and many others, are quite a bit older than the Old Testament. But I think that in many respects, the Old Testament, if you think of Abraham, Hebrew origins, they claim that their origins are from Ur of the Chaldees, which is in Southern Mesopotamia.
In so many respects, what they’re doing is that they’re claiming to be from Mesopotamia itself. Abraham was probably just an average one of the middle Mesopotamian, perhaps an Amorite, who God called out of the middle of the areas to, in a sense, reconditioned to understand the world as it really was, and the spiritual world also.
So I think we have to put the Bible in that context, I suppose it’s in the same way that if I was living in 5019AD and all I had to understand the world from 3000 years earlier with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I could understand lots of Mississippi life, but I would understand a lot better if I uncovered the Library of Congress. Then, Huckleberry Finn would come alive.
And so in many respects, the Bible has, has come alive in ways that have been somewhat disconcerting because we find that the people that that constructed the Bible thought very differently about the world than we do. They had different ideas and different languages, their worldview was different, etc. In fact, it actually reflects the worldview of these other people.
And, I think in many respects, the Bible was written to counteract much of that worldview.
So for example, Genesis was a is a reaction to the Babylonian understanding of the origin of things. And Moses simply turned it on its head by saying that God was the one who created the universe, the bodyless Spirit, who created matter, rather than the other way around, where everyone was just convinced that matter was eternal, that had no personhood, and somehow personhood came out of matter.
Let me interrupt for just a second. I love your framing of context, because that’s a stickler for me. The way I was trained was you can’t teach the Bible without teaching the context to the people, how they understood as first hearers, authorial intent; and then the danger of ‘principleizing’, which a lot of us do. We draw principle from this.
And so let me go back for my own re-education, as well as our friends who listen, “Ancient Near East” is a phrase, a lot of us academics and train people toss around. Give the western brain education folks here in the states who maybe don’t know, a simple definition when we speak of ancient Near East–
Yeah, we would correspond to the modern day Middle East. And so it would be corresponding to the countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, roughly speaking. So that’s pretty much the the geographic region of games Near East eastern Mediterranean world.
And you mentioned “Babylonian” in one of your comments earlier to understand whether it’s a Gilgamesh epic, or some of the Babylonian influence heavily influenced the Hebrew way of thinking correct?
Well, I think I would put it in a different way.
I don’t think they influenced them. I think they were part of that tradition.
So it’s not as if Moses is thinking wow, or I’m really influenced by this–
No, but the cultural context which Moses lived in, is largely affected because of the Babylonian culture. Right?
Right. But I argue further, because they were part of it, that was them.
It would be in the same way that if you’re living in 5019 AD, and find a legal statute from Wisconsin, and then you’re shocked to find out that 19th century defined legal statutes from California, your figuring, these two are related, I wonder who influenced who?
Of course, there’s a bigger picture to it. There’s a much larger legal area.
So the legal tradition of Israel wasn’t influenced by Babylonia, they were all part of the same tradition.
Right. Okay. And I appreciate that clarification.
So we’re thinking about women in numbers in the in the book of Numbers. Give us some of the the misconceptions that Bible readers might have today, when they read these passages that might seem atrocious or hard to understand, or women were chattel, help us think through some of those misunderstandings?
Okay. Well, I think I’ll start with an analogy. If I give you a book, a manual on how to do plumbing (since I don’t know anything about it) the introduction will tell me all about this and the do’s and don’ts and how to do that… But I only need to know one thing: I need to know how to put this little screw into this area, so the water will stop spewing out. So I’m just going to jump to chapter 16. And look at that one thing.
Well, you know, what I’ve done is that I really can’t understand the context of putting this screw into this particular place, because I didn’t read the introduction or the preface.
And so for me, in order to understand the book of Numbers, and this might sound sort of silly, but in order to understand the Book of Numbers, I have to read the preface, and the preface is Genesis 1 and 2. Because once I get to Genesis three, everything collapses like a house of cards, for obvious reasons.
And so I think Genesis 1 and 2 is the ideal as to how to how the world is supposed to work. And so males and females are supposed to work together in tandem, that whole idea of the woman being an ezer or a helper, as if in front of him.
That idiom there, I think means that she’s an exact equal to him. Though they might have vocational differences, there is they are equal in God’s eyes, and they are equal and authority equal in a lot of different ways that might pan out differently,
We often compare the word you mentioned, Ezer, and how the Psalmist that word: God is my helper. And right, that, of course, is not demeaning to talk about God being your helper. This is someone who has more resources, more knowledge than you. So we can even suggest that Eve was more knowledgeable and more competent in areas that Adam, even though pre-fall because they’re image bearers of God, correct?
Well, I think that, practically speaking, I think that’s true. I think grammatically speaking, what the writer is saying is that he knows that the word editor can either be a superior or an inferior or an equal, and I think he goes to great pains to show that Eve is an equal.
In other words, this is an equal – it’s not superior, it’s not inferior, but once you get to Genesis 3, everything falls apart. And if you think about it, every family in Genesis after Genesis 3 is dysfunctional, and it gets worse and worse. And I think it’s sort of funny. I sort of tongue in cheek will tell someone,
“Well, yeah, look at what the patriarchs do and do the opposite.”
Because usually, the only person who comes out looking good in Genesis is God, because of course, he puts everything right and he’s able to continue his plan, in spite of these people who are trying hard – and Abraham has faith, but he still makes constant mistakes at it.
So when I get to Numbers, we’re living now in the real world, not the ideal world with Genesis 1 and 2, and there’s a lot of horrible things going on. None of them are sanctioned by God. In fact, you can see this by what Jesus was asked in Matthew, I think it’s 19. When he’s asked about whether you could divorce your wife, he doesn’t go back to a law, he goes back to Genesis 1 and 2, the ideal was that no, you would have no business divorcing your wife, if you realized what the original idea was: that you came together.
And so when you get to Numbers, we’re already looking at a flawed culture. And so it’s not as if this is something that we’re supposed to be doing at every point. If we go back to Eden we have no need for this. This is why I think, even when Paul talks about the law, the law of love, it transcends much of what we have in the Old Testament.
Now I’m getting theological, which I try never to do. So now we get to Numbers 5, and, again, I have to put it in the proper context: oh, men are having multiple wives, men are doing this… This clearly looks like it’s something that’s favoring the male, etc. But if you want to put it right, you go back to Genesis 1 and 2 and realize that the ideal was that this was not so.
However, in the real world, this is how to interact. And so we have to make a law for the real world.
Let me read part of this for our folks. Okay, of course, this is Numbers 5:11 “then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, if any man’s wife goes astray, and is unfaithful to him, and a man has intercourse with her, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected, although she has to follow herself, and there is no witness against her.
And she has not been caught in the act, if a spirit of jealousy comes over him, if he’s jealous of his wife, when she has departed or so, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous of his wife, when she has not defiled herself,” and then it goes on.
So to your comment, it sounds like he’s in a better standing, it’s all her fault. And back to your point, this is the this is the corrective nature of the mess we’re in, right. Help us out – How does this test for adultery? What does it look like in numbers? And how do we understand it?
Well, first of all, I think that the passage itself to a Western thinker is completely convoluted. You and I, if we were given the commission to write this out, we would have completely reorganized it – but that’s not the point, Israelites thought differently than us. They just didn’t think the way that we do, they have different categories for their literature, and their thinking patterns.
Their thinking patterns are actually much like the Mesopotamians. In many respects, they ordered things differently [than we do]. I even think the beginning of Genesis could very well be more thematic than chronological or sequential, and I’m not sure exactly what that would mean. But I’ll digress:
when I look at Numbers, I have to realize they’re thinking differently.
Furthermore, though I’m not a Hebrew scholar. I know enough about Hebrew to know that that, not only is the beginning of the passage convoluted, it’s really, really hard to understand, because it’s providing connections that are not normally done in other parts of the Old Testament. And so we really don’t know exactly how to interpret these.
But let me give it a shot. First of all, of course, the question might be, well, doesn’t a female get to have the same issue? And the answer is no.
Everyone knows, in the ancient Near Eastern world, a male had, at least technically speaking, the sexual rights over the women in his family. The [men in the] family had had very, very powerful rights. I think what’s going on as a man has a bad feeling about his wife. But he, of course, has no proof of that, he just has a bad feeling. That’s the spirit of jealousy, which of course, for the ancients, probably, they probably thought that this meant there was some sort of divine being that was causing him to think differently than he normally would.
Again, these all carry over from the pagan world. And so the figures of speech continue, I think, in the same mode, so he thinks mad about his wife. And of course, just like when they find a dead body, later on in Numbers, and they don’t know who did it, they have to allow God to make that determination.
So here, we don’t know whether the woman has done anything wrong or not, the man has a bad feeling about it. And so he’s decided to push the issue. Now, frankly, I think this fellow here in Numbers 5 is not very bright, because in many respects, this is a lose-lose situation.
So the man has a bad feeling about his wife, he only has one recourse, he has to publicly shame her in front of the congregation.
So he takes her in front of, you know, the elders, and of course, her hair will now be unbound. The reason that’s shameful is that means that she always had her hair bound in public, that means she’s now going to be rendered vulnerable before God, the assumption about this whole bitter water, this is really alien to anything that we can think of even some modern day Judaism.
This is so strange, but it fits perfectly in the nation, the ancient world of magic and medicine and everything else that the first problem if you have a malady, the first issue is, is to look at the spiritual reason behind the malady.
And I think the Bible even hints at things like that, too. That’s the culture itself.
God isn’t going to right every one of these wrongs, he has a much bigger fish to fry right now than worrying about every particular cultural peccadilloes that they have. So this has to be cleared up, the man is convinced that something’s wrong, he puts his wife in front of the audience.
The reason the wife wouldn’t do this, the husband’s because there is there was no rule about a husband. If he was, if he was in an adulterous relationship with the life of a social equal, the guy would kill him. So there wouldn’t be any issue for that. Here, nothing has happened. So she’s put forward, the bitter water is probably a deterrent.
In other words, if she’s really guilty, she’s not going to want to go through this, and she’s not going to confess it. But since she doesn’t confess it, she now has to prove her innocence.
In Mesopotamia, they would have done this as a river ordeal, where if a man accuses another man’s wife of adultery, she has to jump in the river. And we think swim under the underwater for a period of time to prove your innocence. If she jumps up early, she’s guilty if she dies, she’s guilty.
And so here, this is probably the Hebrew equivalent of that she’s been accused of something horrible, she has now has to drink the water. And what is fascinating to me is she not only has the drink the bitter water, the priest will now write out the curse, and washes the curse into the bitter water, the dirt and water together, which doesn’t sound very fun to drink. And you think about it, that means that they believe that the curse had some efficacious nature to it.
And I guess, my answer to that is, to the Israelites believe in magic? You bet they did, but they believed it was bad and evil. And so this is something that must have been acceptable. In other words, this is imitation-magic or something that God must have accepted.
So she now drinks the bitter water. And then something really weird happens if she drinks the bitter water. And it says, “If thigh falls away, then she’s guilty.” Well, I racked my brains over that. But it’s pretty obvious is that this must be a euphemism for something. Because of course, at the end of the passage, if she’s guilty, she can’t have kids any longer. How do these things connect? You know? And what does it mean to have your thigh fall away?
Well, as you probably know, the Bible has lots of euphemisms for the sexual organs of humans. Often it’ll talk about them by knees, or thigh, or feet, or some of them in right, yes. And so the falling away thigh here is probably what scholars, or medical people call a prolapsed uterus, meaning that the muscles in the uterus don’t work very well, and the uterus will fall through the woman’s private parts and come out. And obviously she can’t get pregnant any longer if that occurs. And that will prove that she’s guilty.
How does that work? I have no idea how it works, of course. But it also sort of projects the mindset of the Ancient Israelite: For them, if you have a medical condition that’s bad, it’s your fault. In other words, first I’m going to figure out that you’ve done something wrong and then go in reverse, and go backwards.
Of course, Jesus knocked that out of the water in the New Testament by talking about the fact that no, there’s no 1-to-1 correspondence between that. It doesn’t mean that God believed this in the Old Testament, it means they made a law to compensate for human beings’ sin. And so I think that’s what’s going on here.
So the woman, of course, if she’s innocent, whether she’s drinks the water, I’m wondering whether drinking all that water in and ink and such might cause the uterus to to collapse. But it might take days or weeks for this to take effect. In other words, she goes home. And you know, I’m thinking the husband has got to have his head examined. Because if he goes home, give his wife’s guilty, well, that’s bad. If she’s innocent, what is she gonna say to him? I told you that I was innocent. And you just shamed me in front of everybody. If you think we’re going back to that wedding tent any anytime soon, you got another incoming, buddy. So this is a really strange law.
Let me ask a question. So we know that sometimes physical things in the Old Testament, whether it’s an accent floating or whether we have, we have obviously, miracles super natural, above nature, they defy the laws of nature, when Jesus turns water to wine, He’s violated all kinds of laws of nature.
And so could there be something as this is part of the aaronic law, the Mosaic Law expanded, that just whatever this bitter water is, maybe it’s an herb, maybe it goes back to Mara the waters of bitterness – Who knows? But we’ve got this emblem, and that God supernaturally is intervening through this thing that exposes her guilt or innocence.
And I’m with you. I mean, if the guy accuses his wife of this, you would hope that spirit of jealousy, and what we don’t know what that is, but that internal, spiritual check, whatever you want to call it. He thinks: I think my wife’s been unfaithful. And so this is the without testing system that was, you know, invented, right or created by God’s law. And the the outcome, all I’m saying is the outcome then would be God’s hand, not the bitter water, not what you know, it was…was this is something God potentially used?
Well, I think that you’re ultimately correct. I sort of live, especially when studying the Old Testament, I live with a lot of messiness. And I think that eventual Christians, we don’t like the messy stuff, we need to resolve the issues. And I think this is this one of the resolvable, the text does not give you a hint, anywhere, that something supernatural is happening.
They’re simply saying, This is what you do. And there is a there is obviously, there’s a heavenly element to this be God’s presiding over it. But it doesn’t afford you any possibility of thinking that something different is going on, or this is simply how you do it. And I think that any Israelite or anybody from the Ancient Near East would have looked at this and said, yeah, this is business as usual.
You know, another thing in Mesopotamia, they wouldn’t work accused of something and nobody knew whether she did it. It was simply do a divination to the god or ask the god what to do about it. In other words, what do we do with this woman, she did this or that, and the god would tell them, this is simply a way of God telling them or telling them how to deal with this issue.
If there’s something supernatural, it’s not explicit in the text. And I wish it was because, you know–
It’s easy to be very uncomfortable about this, you know,
How do I put this in some sort of application process?
My answer is: I don’t, until I read the whole book of Numbers or maybe the whole Pentateuch to figure out how God is working.
But if I slice it up into particulars, there’s no sermon illustration to find here.
Okay, let’s talk about some of these inheritance laws. And you you refer to Numbers 27 and 36 along the same line. Help us out there.
As a historian, one of my favorite laws, and all the Bible is Numbers 27, because it’s almost as if we’ve been kind of like the Wizard of Oz: you go back there, and you open up the veil, and you see the little man behind the scenes.
Of course, I don’t mean that Moses is the little man behind the scenes. But what we get in Numbers 27 is: What did they do when they came across a situation they hadn’t thought about before? What do we do about this?
I look at the Old Testament law codes and if it were me, and I’m glad it wasn’t me, would have ordered things very differently. And I also would have been much more comprehensive, I think, the Christian has to realize that the Old Testament laws are not not only are they not comprehensive, not only are they not in the order that I would like them to be, most of them are case study.
So in other words, they’re individual circumstances that probably be dealt with on a family level. And so there had to be a law made about it. Of course, as a Christian, I look at and say the law was divinely inspired. Of course, it was. But it was still done through a human process. And so here we have in Numbers 27: if you’re a female, when you’re a teenage girl, you are now going to be married into another family. And you are legally part of that other family, even though you might have emotional ties to your family of origin, They have no legal ties over you. It’s now either your father in law or your husband, who now has no legal precedent over you they’re your ward.
And this is exactly how it was in Mesopotamia. So there’s nothing different here from that standpoint. And so now we have a problematic situation. in Mesopotamia. If I didn’t have a son, who carried on my name, it was more important than just carrying on my name. When I died, I still had a consciousness and I still had to be fed and watered in the underworld.
Now, where of course, in Mesopotamia, they used that you had dirty water and steal dust. And so your firstborn son was the one who would actually come to your grave site. And by the way, you’re you are probably buried underneath the floors of a private house where the family still was you you were still conscious, you just didn’t get around very well any longer. And the firstborn son would come feed and water you.
Of course, we don’t have that in the Bible. But we still have survival from that. Because I’m desperately hoping that my family will continue on my name. In fact, I think it’s even hinted at when Joseph says to his family, to paraphrase at the end of the Genesis, you folks are going to be in Egypt for a long time. And when you leave, make sure my bones go with you – probably thinking of the same thing, I still have a consciousness, I don’t want to stay here. I want to go with you guys.
And of course, this doesn’t make any sense to us. Like, what? No, I’m absent in the body, who cares or my bones go? But the Israelites didn’t think that way. And so they’re not being put right at every single point. So here, it’s really important that the inheritance stay within the family. That must be what’s going on here. We have a law originally thought it was from Lipit-Ishtar code, even five years ago, I thought now I take it from the Ur-Nammu code, which is an even earlier law, where it simply says if a man does not have male issue, then the females that we give issue to will inherit his estate, it doesn’t go any further than that.
The same thing happens here. The five daughters of Manasseh, my favorite one is Hoglah, which of course is an unfortunate name for an English speaking person to give to a female, or anybody, I suppose. Anyway, the five daughters, all of whom must be under age – and when I teach my course on Women in the Ancient World, I say these girls have a lot of chutzpah, they are pretty assertive, not what you might expect.
But they go to Moses, in a sense, they’ve unveiled things for us. They’re showing us how laws were made. Of course some laws were given right to them by God directly. Other laws obviously came from their cultural environment, and though divinely inspired, but they were certainly constructed with the culture in mind. So my property must go to a male heir, I don’t have one. And this is probably corresponding to where, you know, if I die, that means my brother will have to marry my my dead wife, and then the first child will be my legal heir.
And I wouldn’t want to do that, because economically speaking, you knew that you weren’t getting the inheritance. You weren’t getting the firstborn inheritance. Your child was that was yours biologically, but it was your brother’s in terms of legality. So here’s the daughters coming to Moses to say: why? The inheritance is going to the closest living relative, why don’t we get it? That’s not fair.
Do you think in the tribal context, the clan context, and again, this is your subject matter expertise, not mine, but I’m thinking of Ruth and Boaz, and you know, the acquiring of the property and the wife and the children. So it was this was a clan that was then being cared for, so we didn’t leave a widow without resource?
Well, yes. In fact, if you think about that passage in Deuteronomy 25 where the law is, the goal is not, unfortunately speaking when you read the text as it is, bad as it is, the goal is not to take care of the widow. It’s to raise up the name of the dead man.
I agree with you, but apart from patriarchal society, that’s how we read it. But is it unfair, or improper to make the conclusion that included the clan tribe survival? Again, back to Boaz and Ruth, I acquire the woman, I acquire Naomi, I acquire all, it’s my responsibility now, because the closer kinsman redeemer did not step up to do his lawful job. The next in line, we might say, says, I’ll take care of that.
Right. And I think it’s there. But I’m just saying it’s not at–
face value. Yeah, it’s not it’s not being specified. But it is that an unfair conclusion?
No, it’s I don’t think it’s an unfair conclusion. And I think that, you know, interesting that Boaz is really taking a couple of extra hits because he’s taking care of this young child. In fact, you know, the rabbinical tradition, they said Boaz was 84 and as soon as he went into the wedding tent, he did his duty, and then he died. But I don’t want to go that far. But the point was, in fact that the fellow who didn’t do it, Mr. So and so – he may not have been able to do it, because it was damaging his inheritance.
He complains about that. But I think the delicious part of that story is his faithfulness. The kinsman redeemer is the one who steps forward and God blesses. You know, and that to me, again, one of these, again, your your expertise of women in and the Old Testament and sort of their role and how the scriptures are written, versus going back to Genesis 1-2, made in God’s image, co-equal heirs to the kingdom of God. And and yet, this is a male dominated culture with levitical, aaronic laws.
Right. And so I think that’s it right. So it goes way over and above what the law was. And so that’s right, that that that’s why the story is there to show. These people were of excellent character. No wonder David. David’s got good family stock, to say the least.
They saw Moses, clearly, had not dealt with this issue before. And so to prepare for his, “Okay, girls, I don’t know what to do just a minute. Let me go talk to God.” And my joke is he probably came right back in a minute, “Oh, you girls are right.”
So in some sense, what they’ve done is that they’ve shown us how a law was made.
We could have suspected it in many points. But this is a case law made because of an incident that occurred. This is a rather benign incident, but an incident occurred that caused the law to be or something to be modified.
The same thing happens in our culture. We’ve had all these horrible school shootings. So what has it done? It’s caused us to modify laws to compensate for that issue. But of course, they didn’t go far enough here. So Moses goes, all right, the girls should get the inheritance. Now, nine chapters later, just sort of paraphrase: The problem is, okay, the girls are not old enough to get married, what do we do now? Because if they marry outside the clan, that means the inheritance of the clan is leaving and going somewhere else. We can’t allow that to happen.
So now, in other words, the addendum to the law is made. So as you know, of course, the law is ok, the daughters can marry anybody they want, which is quite interesting, as long as of course, their last name is Zelophehad. In other words, the same. My joke to my daughter would have been, okay, honey, if we’re living back then you can marry anybody you want, as long as their last names are Chavalas.
So here, as a historian, I’m thrilled because it’s unveiled a lot for me, it makes me think, oh, a lot of the other laws probably were made in the same way – the law of the goring ox (Exodus 21:29), or whatever other laws for compensation. And they’re remarkably like, the Babylonian laws. Why? Because they’re in the same cultural venues and legal venues, the same issues are occurring. And so there’s a much wider legal tradition from which they’re drawing. The biblical laws have a very different flavor to them.
Now, if we think of talionic justice, and then we think of the eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, sort of a hierarchy of laws. Would it be improper or am I wrong in thinking that the subsets – and this goes back to Jethro his observation of Moses: you’re wearing yourself out, you’ve got to, you know, which I would argue becomes the synagogue model.
You’ve got to appoint other faithful men to have these hearings, with people’s complaints. But then when you had a problem that they couldn’t resolve, it went up the ladder, so to speak. Right. And, and, and if we have a lex talionis, or, you know, I for an eye, tooth for tooth type law issue. And so when you’re talking about compensation laws, well, what would be the bigger law here? Well, he injured this and he injured that. We lost that, then we need to lose that. Is that a fair way of thinking about this?
Yes. But there’s one big difference. The similarities are ultimately superficial, because the meaning behind the laws is different. So I’ll show you those through the goring ox:
If you have a goring ox in Mesopotamia that kills someone else, there’ll be compensation for it. Or if it kills her ox, she has to compensate.
However, in the Bible, if an ox gores a human, not only are you compensated for the human, you also have to kill the ox. Why is the ox killed?
What isn’t the ox just being an ox? And you think, “oh, that’s for a deterrent.” But, no, it’s not. There’s no hint that it’s as a deterrent, in the same way that – and I hate to bring this up but I’ll be tasteful about it – it’s the beastiality laws in Leviticus. You kill the humans that are participating, but the animal is also put to death. Well, the animal’s an animal.
JJ Finkelstein, this great Mesopotamian scholar, was convinced after many years of study, that it’s because the animal somehow violated the sanctity of the image of bear, whether they did it on purpose or not, they had to be destroyed. And so that is the only way to explain the biblical issue of killing an animal. I think the meaning behind these laws was ultimately derived from the divine source.
In fact, in Mesopotamia, two laws when you see Hammurabi sitting there, he’s handing his law code to the god Shamash, you know, it’s: “Here’s my law code that I made. This is my annual report, I hope you’ll keep me on for another year.”
But in the Bible, of course, the laws come from the Divine Source to the human. It’s just the reverse. And so that’s where they’re really, really different.
Okay, let’s, as we kind of wind down this program, give us the “Okay, so what?”
The application, when you talked about in context and Mesopotamia, thinking and biblical thinking, in 21st century, evangelical, fundamental Bible believing and, you know, broad-umbrella Christians – What do we take away from this at high level?
Well, I think the best way to look at this is in a in a big picture issue rather than a small one. And in the big picture, my answer is:
This tells me more about the character of God. Because really, the whole purpose of the laws is to protect the innocent and the downtrodden. So it shows God really wanted to be merciful from the beginning, and He’s orderly, He’s structured, He wants equal compensation for things to occur.
So this tells me more about God’s character, and it is hammered down over and over again:
If I try to make spiritual application for each situation as it comes up, I think I’m going to force the issue and I’m going to spiritualize and make make applications that are not from the text, which in many respects, renders the power of Scripture ineffective, in my opinion.
So that’s why the Old Testament is so hard to preach from, in my opinion.
To me, it’s a wild, untamed book that is very, very hard to understand – and this is why trying to look at the context, at least gives me a fighting chance to understand this alien culture and this alien way of thinking.
Dr. Mark Chavalas, we appreciate your time and look forward to our next broadcast with you thanks for your insights and your time.