Perhaps the greatest dangers we have when we approach the Bible as a single, unified story brought about by a single, divine mind is that we may read it as a flat, textureless narrative where we suppress and “fix” any differences because we–understandably but mistakenly–think that differences are the same as contradictions. And, since most Evangelicals (or others from a similar vein) grow up hearing that there are no contradictions in Scripture, we often read that to mean that there are no differences, either. But appreciating the narrative’s texture can inoculate us against these dangers because it allows the text to have four dimensions instead of two. In my last post I used the stories of Zelophehad’s Daughters to show that laws were meant to change over time in response to certain situations. But—most of the time—we don’t get the “backstory” to those changes.
When we read those stories closely we saw a progression and I left off with some points that I want to clarify, for today.
Laws can and are meant to change based on case law. The simplest but most overlooked point that we can take from the situation with Zelophehad’s daughters is that laws were meant to change. Just because the laws that were given to Moses on Sinai (particularly the “Covenant Code” Exd 20.22–23.33) were inspired, doesn’t mean that they were all-inclusive. Look, even if we look at every law in the Hebrew Bible, these laws are sparse. There are enormous swathes of law, entire situations and occasions, and even categories of law that are non-existent in the Hebrew Bible. And I’m not just talking about modern law, I’m talking about things which were important to people of this time and place but aren’t included in the Pentateuch at all. The Pentateuch’s laws were not comprehensive, and they were never going to be. That means that laws had to be able to adapt and they did.
These changes were intended by God. If God never meant his laws to be comprehensive, then he wanted them to be able to change in response to situations. Indeed, that’s exactly what we see played out in our reading! Both times when a situation arises and is brought to God he says, “You’re right!” (Num 27.5; 36.5). That makes it pretty clear that God intended these changes. We can, and should, extrapolate that he feels the same way about other changes.
These changes follow a procedure. But we also see that there is a sort of procedure to these changes: in both cases the leaders of the congregation are gathered together (we have priests, elders, prophets, and political leaders involved, although we’re not sure—just from these episodes—which institutions must be involved to change laws!). We often see other gatherings of similar types of leaders in other situations: it seems likely that one or more of these offices were required to change the law.
Laws were meant to serve a community. Often, we have a wrong idea about how these laws functioned. We may think that, since they’re all inspired, they must all be the same and they must all be perfect. But that would be crazy because that’s not how anything else works. The laws are meant to serve a community and as that community’s needs change and shift based on their context, so too must the laws. God recognizes that. Those socio-demographic changes normally happen in building, major shifts (e.g., landless wanderers in the wilderness to landed people in Canaan; judges to kings; rural focus to urban; tabernacle to temple to exile, etc), but sometimes it’s much faster, like what we see with the daughters of Zelophehad. Imagine the (ad absurdum) alternative reading!
God at Sinai: Here’s my perfect inspired law for inheritance that will never change!
Moses and the People: Sweet! This will never change because it’s perfect!
Daughters of Zelophehad (a few years later): Umm, but is it really?
God: Oops. My bad. Now it’s perfect and inspired and will never change!
The People (approx. 5 minutes later): Umm, but is it really?
God: Ok, ok. My bad. Foiled again! I just never realized these situations could be so complicated. I could never have foreseen these foreseeable events!
Such a reading is clearly ridiculous, and yet, if we do not allow the motivating factor of legal change to lie with the community, then we force some version (although, probably, a more “holy” sounding one!) of the above on the text. Once we allow the law to evolve as the people grew in their socio-economic situation and learned more about God’s character, this all makes sense.
Older, out of date laws coexist with the updated laws. The last point that you may have picked up on is what we could call the “Law of Preservation of Text.” Just like matter doesn’t like to (is unable to?) be destroyed, no one in antiquity wanted to destroy holy writings. No one in the ancient world valued consistency and simplicity in quite the same way as we do. We might think that—if we were going to update a law—that we would replace the old, out of date one. But no. There’s an understanding that such texts are holy and should be preserved, even if they are preserved alongside things that contradict them. In fact, this is present in all forms of ancient literature. There are a few different ways to do this, but some of the clearest examples comes from the Hittite Law Collection. Just look at a few of the many examples:
HL $ 7 – If anyone blinds a free person or knocks out his tooth he shall pay 20 shekels of silver (they used to pay 40 shekels of silver) and he shall look to his house for it.
HL $ 9 – If anyone injures a person’s head, they used to pay 6 shekels of silver: the injured party took 3 shekels of silver, and they used to take 3 shekels of silver for the palace. But now the king has waived the palace share, so that only the injured party takes 3 shekels of silver.
HL $ 19b – If a Hittite abducts a Luwian man in the land of Hatti itself and leads him away to the land of Luwiya, formerly they gave 12 persons, but now he shall give 6 persons. He shall look to his house for it.
One of the cool things about how this is done in ancient texts is that seeing the progression allows us to understand a law collection’s (and, therefore, the community’s!) trajectory. We’ll talk a bit about that trajectory and how that helps us read biblical narratives next time.