God’s Covenant with the Hebrew People
The Jewish people live under a Covenant with God, ‘I will be your God and you will be My people’: that meant being God’s subjects, obeying his commandments.
And what did he command? Well, most of those commandments were given about three thousand years ago. If he had given his commandments in terms of principles, then it would have been possible to reformulate them in the differing context of each era, but a primitive people might have found the very concept of ‘principles’ a little hard to understand. They were used to a brutal reign of the Pharoahs, and the tyrannic commands of the pagan gods. Principles, abstract concepts of how to live life well and build the sort of society God wanted would have been hard to grasp. So they were given concrete commandments: Do not kill, do not covet etc.etc. By looking at the laws they were given, both in the Torah, the books of the Law, and in the Prophets, the wise who gave an understanding of how the Law should be applied – we can see something of what the principles underlying the Law were.
Over and over again, God has said, in many different ways, that we should avoid oppressing the vulnerable, the poor, the helpless.
• Do not be over-efficient in harvesting your crops – let the poor come and pick the crop that is hard to get at. Definitely doesn’t sound as if God would be into Agribusiness or factory farming there!
• Provide for widows and orphans. The poor of the day, since a woman alone had no respectable means of earning a living.
• Don’t be too zealous about collecting debts: if you have taken someone’s land against debt, the longest you can keep it is seven years. If you have taken someone’s liberty against debt, again – you must let them go after at most, seven years. If you have taken a man’s possessions against debt, then you cannot take his bedding unless you give it back each day at nightfall – he will need his bedding to sleep in.
• Do not use different weights and measures when you buy from the poor to those you use when you sell to the rich.
• And above all, the law of the Sabbath!
Ah, the Sabbath. The working class of Britain experienced the Sabbath restrictions as both good and bad. Good, because at least on that one day the bosses, the masters of industry, would let them have a day off; bad, because they weren’t allowed or able to use the day for anything that would be useful to them. Housework, shopping, leisure. All the things they had little time for during the working week. But the Sabbath as it was originally instructed was something very special. You see, a rich man could take a day off any time he liked. “You, go feed my animals; and You, go deal with my clients, and You, go collect my debts, and You, go pay my workers – I shall take my family to the seaside for the day”. Perfectly possible. The rich man always had freedom to take a day of rest, the poor, and the powerless hadn’t.
The Sabbath was a day when the poor could rest. All the things which were forbidden were activities which would require someone else to do something. You may go to the Synagogue to worship – IF is is near enough for you to walk on your own two feet. Not such a distance that would require a servant to prepare an animal to carry you. Not only the servant, but even the animals are entitled to a day of rest. Not even such a short distance that the rich man or woman might require slaves to carry them in a litter – even the slaves are entitled to a day of rest.
And even the poor man might have those over whom he had power. For this was a society where women had no status. And in the domestic sphere we find that it is forbidden to cook a meal, or to light a fire. Both tasks that a woman would have been expected to do. Even a woman was entitled to a day of rest.
The Sabbath, I would contend, was designed primarily to ensure that the least powerful of society were entitled to a day off.
There is another group of people who are specifically referred to in the laws of the Sabbath, whose lack of power I have not yet mentioned: ‘the stranger who lives among you’. The non-Jew, the gentile. Even here there is a requirement that they be entitled to a day of rest. For, we are told ‘you must treat the stranger who lives among you as you would one of your own’.
The underlying principle I find in God’s Law is a requirement that we be aware of the power we have over other people, and avoid abusing it. That we ensure that the least of our society can be enabled to live with some decency. That even where justice would give us the right to take from one of the powerless, then justice must exist within limits which protect the poor.
And do I see God’s Law operating in Israel’s control over Palestine? No, I don’t. For these are ‘the strangers who live among you’. They are entitled to the same care and protection as your own. These are the powerless, abuse of whom is to be guarded against. These people are entitled under God’s Law to a means to stay alive, to gather their crops and bring up their children in peace. These are the people who are entitled to a day of rest on the Sabbath.
The most powerful evidence I have seen of Israel’s contempt for God’s Law was when a 12 hour truce was declared on a Sabbath day. There is no specific commandment ‘thou shalt not fire rockets at your neighbours on the Sabbath’ but the principle of permitting the least powerful, and the ‘stranger who lives among you’ a day of rest is most definitely enshrined in God’s Law. The Sabbath lasts for 24 hours – by declaring a truce of just 12 hours Israel declared its contempt for God’s Law.
And yet, having perceived that contempt in the lack of honour for the Lord’s day of rest, the general contempt can be seen too. To covet your neighbour’s land, to abuse the powerless, to deprive the powerless of the means to stay alive, taking their crop-fields for your own ‘settlements’ or even for a park. All these are in contempt of God’s Law.
I am glad to say that there are many Jews, indeed, many in Israel, who do live by God’s Law – but the state of Israel I see as being sadly in contempt. God’s Law of love for all his people is not being obeyed. By this route – the people of Israel will never fulfil God’s requirement that they be His People – to shine a light to the Gentiles that we may know, through them, how he should be honoured. For the people of the world to know that, through the children of Israel would require that they themselves honour his Word as Law.