Narrativing the Law of God

I am on my second reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations.  It is very hard but extremely worthwhile. I have found David Field’s outline on this book extremely helpful.

The Revelation of God’s Kingship (36-41)

Isaiah 33:22:   Yhwh is our king; Yhwh is our judge; Yhwh is our lawgiver.  He will save us.”  Ideas are connected.  Kingship implies judgment, law-giving, and salvation.

Salvation

The early Hebrews saw this element in the Psalms.   While it included salvation from sin, the term is often used to show God’s victories of his people’s enemies.   What is the purpose of these victories? (Ps. 13:5; 85:7).   They show God’s hesed, his enduring commitment to those in his covenant.  Hesed often stands in parallel to the Hebrew word for faithfulness (Psalm 98.3).

These victories also show God’s tsedeq, righteousness.  In the Psalms God’s righteousness is a public thing.   When he shows his right hand and holy arm, the nations will know (98.2). This is an important point in later Israelite history.   You are an Israelite living in Babylon.   While you are the chosen people of God, you have been publicly shamed by a pagan power (and presumably, so has your God).  Therefore, when God acts to show his righteousness, it must be public:  Is. 45.5; 46.13;51.5-8;56.1;61.10; 62.1).

Judgment

The Hebrew root words relating to God’s righteousness often appear in connection with his shpt, judgment.  This illustrates the problem with ancient Israel’s existence.  They were God’s chosen people yet they often worshipped idols.  If it is true that God vindicates his name among the pagans because he is a just God, how much more true will he vindicate his name among his people?

What do we mean by the words “judgment” and “justice?”  The Hebrew word for “judgment” is mishpat.  When it is used in the Bible it is seen as a judicial performance.  When true “judgment” is present it is not a state of affairs but an activity that is carried out.  The prophet Amos calls for mishpat to roll on like a river.  Isaiah says that the citizens of Jerusalem should seek mishpat by giving judgment in the cause of the fatherless and widow (1:17).  Isaiah even goes on to say that Zion will even be redeemed by mishpat (1:26ff).

The judgments of Yahweh have lasting validity because all of his acts have lasting validity.  This leads into what the Israelites believed about…

Law

If you look at the Old Testament law code, it is strange.   But maybe it shouldn’t be.   For us Westerners there is a sharp distinction between history and law.    This was not so for the Hebrew.  For Israel “history” is the telling of God’s acts to future generations.  Law was the telling of his judgments (mishpatim).  Psalm 119 is a case in point.  There are several terms of importance.   Testimony and decree. Interestingly enough, other Psalmists use the words in connection with a word we have just seen:  judgment.  See Psalm 81:4-5.

When the kingdom of Judah had its reforming moments, it is evident that “testimony” and “law” were in the foreground.  2 Kgs 22:8-13.  Jer. 26:1ff.  In both cases we see that “law” is simply more than a “code.”  It is attesting that God will live out his judgments in Israel’s history.  Look at how Psalm 96:10 unfolds:  the nations are to be told that Yhwh is king, that he established the world on firm foundations, and that he will judge the peoples with equity.

Tradition

Without the consciousness of something possessed and handed on, there could never be a political theology, since it could never be clear how the judgments of God could give order and sustain a community (48ff).  In other words, something needs to be possessed and handed down.  This traditional possession was not always identified with “The Law.”  Originally, the existence of Israel was mediated through the Land.  Possessing the land was a matter of observing the order of life which was established by Yahweh’s judgments (Psalm 37:29ff).

Land                 =     material cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

judgments             =     formal cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

Victories            =    efficient cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

Mediators of Yahweh’s Rule

Yahweh’s authority is image-less, like Yahweh himself.   However, Yahweh is immediately present in conquest, judgment, and law.  Israel still had a problem in its history:  it could never consolidate.  It had land, judgment, and victories (though never absolutely), but it had no stable means of passing it down.  Even acknowledging the sacred writer’s criticism of monarchy (1 Sam. 8), it must be acknowledged that monarchy exercised a stabilizing influence when contrasted with the Judges period.  Most importantly, monarchy allowed the passing down of the tradition (Land, Judgments, Victories).

Advertisements

2 comments on “Narrativing the Law of God

  1. Andrew says:

    I once tried to read The Desire of the Nations on my morning commute. It didn’t go very well. At some point I’ll have to give it another go.

Comments are closed.