The grounds of Israel’s ethics and ours

God calls on his people to act in accordance with his own character and nature. Often we read in the Old Testament how the behavior of the Israelite was tied to his/her national story with God. For example: before God gave the people the Ten Commandments and the 613 laws of the covenant, he grounded it all in the founding story.

“I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2 KJV).

The central event of the Old Testament is the exodus from Egypt and Sinai. God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery and the covenant formed at Mt. Sinai were the founding events and documents of the nation of Israel. Through the exodus and at Sinai, they became a nation.

Notice such passages as:

“Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:21-23).

See also Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:19; and especially Deuteronomy 24:19-22.

In their national, story they had been oppressed aliens and were made widows and orphans by Egypt. Theirs was to be a different morality, an ethic based upon their story as the oppressed. They were to practice justice, righteousness, mercy, and compassion, because they knew what it was to be the victims of injustice, unrighteousness, to live at the hands of the unmerciful and those lacking compassion. Their story as victims was to inform their refusal to be oppressors.

The Law moves from the level of moral ideals such as “For I am the LORD your God…and ye shall be holy; for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44) into the concrete with commands such as, “You shall love the alien (with all the related rights and privileges that flow from that position) because I, your God love the alien, and proved it by the historical act of delivering you from Egypt’. (Meditate a while on Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:19ff.)

Read through the Old Testament and you’ll be impressed by the frequency with which their national story is repeated to remind / inform them of their obligations and expected daily life.

In the cross and the resurrection, God founded a community that was the ethical alternative to the sinful, ungodly, unholy, and unrighteous aspects of the culture it found itself in – Roman – and so, in all other cultures down through time, including our own.

Today, biblical Christianity is a counter-culture, in contrast to the ungodly things in our culture. For example:

  • We live in opposition to our own consumer culture; instead of “take-take-take” we “give-give-give.”
  • Rather than “watching out for number one,” we consider our neighbors better than ourselves.
  • Rather than asserting our rights, rank and privilege, we forfeit our liberties (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8), in order to meet the needs of others.

And consider, too, what is our personal story?  “But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

While we were yet sinners Christ died for us to redeem us from the slavery of our sin. He became our personal Passover lamb, our Exodus, and our Sinai. He became our living, breathing, standard of ethical behavior.

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Scott Wiley

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