The Old Testament Law Valued People Over Property | Sojourners

The Old Testament Law Valued People Over Property

Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash

A pastor in my home state of Louisiana who has continued to hold in-person services despite the governor’s order to cease, recently said, “The Bible teaches us to be absent from our bodies so we can be present with the Lord. So like any revolutionary, or like any zealot, or like any pure religious person, death looks to them like a welcomed friend.”

Similarly, Dr. Oz commented that “the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality,” an assertion he has since walked back. And Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, likewise has stated that he and other grandparents in the United States are — or should be — more than willing to sacrifice themselves for the economic good of the country.

Dr. Oz, Patrick, and a smattering of evangelical pastors utilize rhetoric that pits the long-term economic health of the United States against the short-term health of the actual, flesh-and-blood people living in the U.S. right now. Such rhetoric is dangerous to people’s immediate health, but it also puts in sharp relief a simmering debate among evangelicals: What does it mean to love one’s neighbor?

For some, it means remaining at home and keeping many businesses shuttered as the nation collectively battles a pandemic that has been more fatal for the elderly and people of color. Others argue that shuttering the economy does more significant long-term damage, necessitating that vulnerable populations shoulder the risk for the greater good of society. In other words, those at greatest risk should demonstrate love for neighbor by putting their health and well-being on the line. The Old Testament may offer some guidance as we work through exactly what it means to love our neighbors amid a pandemic.

As the Bible tells it, a God named Yahweh chose a man named Abraham to make a covenant with. That covenant meant that Abraham would have a special relationship with God and, essentially, teach other people, such as his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, to do the same. Some centuries later, this same God called Moses to lead the descendants of Abraham out of slavery, and — at the foot of a desert mountain in the Sinai Peninsula about halfway between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba — he created a nation out of them. God wanted this nation, Israel, to be a light to the nations around them.

But in order for Israel to be a nation, much less an exemplar for other nations to follow, it needed a set of laws that would order its society. That set of laws — housed in the larger Old Testament — was written for and into a particular time and place — the ancient Near East, or what is now called Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. In ancient times this area was made up of Israel/Judah, Egypt, and the various empires of Mesopotamia, such as Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Each of these peoples and empires created their own law codes to govern themselves.

Despite the large overlap between the ancient law codes — and despite the Old Testament’s fair share of eyebrow-raising laws and commands, such as prohibiting tattoos and wearing clothes made of more than one type of fabric — the Old Testament law stood out in one important aspect that can guide the Christian response to measures intended to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Simply put, the Old Testament law valued people over property. Law codes from the nations surrounding Israel were brutally rigorous in their defense of personal property. Hammurabi’s Code, for example, states that “If a man commits a robbery and is then seized, that man shall be killed.”

The Middle Assyrian Laws agrees with Hammurabi: “If a man is either ill or dead, and his wife should steal something from his house and give it either to a man, or to a woman, or to anyone else, they shall kill the man’s wife as well as the receivers.” If the husband is healthy, though, he can exact whatever punishment he deems appropriate.

Finally, the Laws of Eshnunna ordered restitution of a large amount of silver for a thief caught during the day, but it demanded death if the thief was caught at night.

 The Old Testament law, by contrast, is much more lenient when it comes to property crimes, only requiring restitution and never ordering the thief’s death. Capital punishment was reserved for crimes such as rape, bestiality, and murder, along with breaking the Sabbath and idolatry, crimes that threatened the religious unity of Old Testament Israel.

No matter our thoughts regarding capital punishment in general, the Old Testament law represents a significant, countercultural view of what is ultimate in life — and it’s not property.  

So as Christians consider how we should respond to the stay-at-home orders now issued by nearly every state in the Union, we would do well to think about how we, like Old Testament Israel, can value people over property.

Instead of stubbornly continuing to hold services in the name of religious liberty or clamoring to rescind social-distancing restrictions in order to lessen the burden on the national economy, Christians must actively work to value life.

Will we, like the nations around ancient Israel, save the harshest punishment for crimes against our wallets? Or, will we value human life over our personal property?

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