In the 5th Dispensation, God gave His nation, Israel a volume of commands and instructions collectively called the Law. The particulars of the Law are very detailed and specific, and Israel’s compliance with them was non-negotiable (they were commands after all). The Israelites were promised great blessings and prosperity if they obeyed the Law, and severe punishment if they disobeyed.
In the last post we saw that one of the purposes of the Law was to help men understand God’s standards of righteousness and what constitutes sin. And while there is much in the Law regarding morality, there are also detailed rules on things like personal conduct, property rights, ceremonial procedures, worship instructions, food safely, litigation, hygiene, and medicine.
Many of the commandments of the Law can sound pretty strange and overly restrictive to modern ears, and when filtered through contemporary agnostic perspectives, can lead to misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the Law. In this post, I want to address some of the myths that arise from these misunderstandings.
Fun with atheists and their awesome arguments
A few years ago, I was having a discussion with an atheist friend about God and the Bible (its funny how atheists claim they don’t believe in God, yet they always want to talk about Him. I don’t believe in Santa Claus yet I almost never bring him up in casual conversation).
Anyway, as with most discussions I have with atheists, her point was not to gain knowledge, but rather to point out something so seemingly illogical or abhorrent about God that it would justify her decision not to believe in Him. In this case, the discussion veered toward the Law and how “oppressive” it was to women and how it advocated slavery (therefore I must be crazy to believe in God because He’s such an a-hole).
At best, this argument showed that like most atheists, she had scarcely more than a superficial understanding of the Bible, and was so quick to let her shallow perceptions color her beliefs that she failed to do the due diligence required to truly understand the subject matter (sadly, this is a trait that many Christians share, which is why they have trouble handling these arguments).
Does the Law oppress women?
Although the Law does have commandments that specifically address women, they are hardly oppressive. In fact, the Law was revolutionary in the fact that it guaranteed women certain rights that were unheard of in that part of the world during that time. The Law gave women rights in a divorce, it mandated special care for widows, and allowed women to own land, and it gave women the right to inherit land and property (all without any input from Gloria Steinem).
As for “slavery”, the issue is a matter of contemporary nomenclature. The slavery mentioned in the Law is not chattel slavery as we think of it today, rather its more like indentured servitude. For example, if you owed a man a debt that you couldn’t pay, under the Law, you would work for that man and your wages would incrementally relieve the debt. Once the debt was paid, you’d go free ( we have a similar arrangement with our credit card companies).
There are many other so called “oppressive” aspects of the Law which, while unprecedented during the era, would be simply considered common sense today. Under the Law, certain animals are considered “clean” and “unclean”. This is based on which animals are most likely to carry and cause disease. God was trying to keep the Israelites healthy, not be a diet Nazi.
People with certain diseases like leprosy or open wounds were considered “unclean”. The Law requires that they be separated from heath society and sanitized – things that are considered standard procedure for quarantine of communicable diseases and infection treatment to this day. So if the Law is oppressive, then so is your doctor!
What do I get if I follow all these rules?
Of course this is all well and good, but all this still begs the question, why did God give the Israelites all these rules as a part of the 5th Dispensation? If the purpose of the 5th Dispensation is to usher in the advent of the Redeemer, what does Israel get for all their troubles?
Rewards! If they follow the commandments of the Law, Israel was promised fantastic material prosperity! Prosperity that would make them the envy of all the other nations in the world.
But again, what does this have to do with the purpose of the 5th Dispensation. It’s all about Israel’s intended role as God’s ambassador nation.
Here how it was to work, God gave Israel the Law, which gave them the standards to follow that would make them a healthy, equitable, and civilized society. The Law also gave them ceremonial rules that would memorialize the advent of the Redeemer in advance (more on that in the next post). As Israel obeyed the Law, they would become wealthy and prosperous.
Other neighboring nations would see their prosperity and say, “hey, how’d you guys manage to get all that stuff?” This would give Israel the opportunity to tell them about God, the Law, and the Redeemer.
If the neighboring nations submitted to the Law, they too would become prosperous, leading their neighbors to ask about their wealth. Submission to God’s Law would grow exponentially, and by the time of the advent of the Redeemer, the entire world would be ready for Him, and God could quickly implement His plan.
But there was also a flip side.
You see, God had to set things up so that if Israel disobeyed God’s Law and acted unrighteous and unjustly, they would be cursed as spectacularly as they would have been blessed for obedience.
The reason for the harshness of the curse is they same as the reasoning for the great blessing – They were God’s acknowledged representatives on earth.
If other nations saw Israel acting immorally without any consequence, they would assume that God was ok with their evil behavior. So God had to punish disobedience severely so that the nations would know that evil was not acceptable to Him.
Sadly, Israel chose the path of disobedience to the Law more often than not. Thus much of the details of the 5th Dispensation in the Old Testament consists of the sad narrative pattern of Israel screwing up, God punishing them, Israel repenting, God restoring them, and then Israel going right back to screwing up. Ultimately resulting in the tragic screw-up where they failed to acknowledge the Redeemer and failed the dispensation.
I mentioned before that in addition to the rules regarding health and conduct, the Law contained many commandments that were sacramental in nature – dealing with blood sacrifices, the priesthood, etc. These rules are often confused for religion, because frankly, they look like religion! But they actually served a very practical purpose in preparing people for the advent of the Redeemer. More on this next time.
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