Meditations in Meaning & Values 29. Laws that Value People
Ex 20:12-15 “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house.
We considered in the previous meditation God’s first ‘laying down the law’ in respect of the sanctity of human life. When He said, ““I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man,” He not only warned about being held accountable for taking a human life – and by implication forbade the taking of human life, but He also warned of what the repercussions would be for taking a human life.
When we come to the Ten Commandments, the first half are about relationship with God and the second half about relationships with other human beings. The start of those instructions go to the heart of community and indeed civilisation, relationships within families. Parents are the building block for the next generation and they are to be honoured, not only because they are made in the image of God as we’ve seen before, but also specifically if they are dishonoured or disrespected, the following generation will be at odds with God’s design for a harmonious world.
The following commands are all in the negative form – “you shall not” – and are so sharp and clear that the consequences for ignoring them are not spelled out by God there. They are in respect of a) basic human life, b) marriage relationships, c) personal property, d) human reputation and e) human peace and security.
When we move on to the main covenant laws in chapter 21, we find guidance laws about dealing with servants (slaves) i.e. respect within employment (Ex 21:2-11), the penalty for murder (v.12,14), manslaughter (v.13), a child attacking or cursing its parents (v.15,17), the death penalty for kidnapping (v16), and so on. It is a steady catalogue of instructions about dealing with people and the whole chapter is about dealing with circumstances where life is threatened. The first 15 verses of chapter 22 are about dealing with property problems and although the remaining verses are a mixture, we still find some that are specifically about protecting people, e.g. virgins 22:16,17, aliens (22:21), widows and orphans (22:22-24), i.e. protecting the vulnerable.
Into chapter 23 and we find laws about justice in general, about not helping the wicked (v.1), not perverting justice (v.2), not showing favouritism (v.3), not denying justice (v.6), not making false charges (v.7), not using bribes (v.8), not oppressing foreigners (v.9) and then the rest of the chapter is essentially about their relationship with the Lord when they enter the Promised Land. But note that the first nine verses of that chapter 23 are about making sure that people are dealt with fairly (justly).
In all these ways we see that the underlying value of the importance of each individual human being is being covered by a law to protect them. The reality is that we live in a Fallen World where sin prevails and therefore we need these restraining laws or laws to deal with a situation where sin has prevailed.
Many years ago I used to teach law and in the first class always asked the question, why do you think we need laws, and the answer always came back unanimously in two forms: first because “people are not nice” and, second, to protect the weak from the not nice people. Those students, year after year summed it up well. The fact of having the laws does not stop people breaking them and, as we’ve seen before, people will only hold to valuing human beings when they have some form of relationship with God.
The major destruction of human life last century by Stalin and Hitler, were abuses under atheistic and godless regimes, but they simply characterise on a massive scale what we are each capable of. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies characterised what happens when restraints are lifted off human beings and survival of the fittest prevails. It is a grim picture but it is the honest picture of a fallen human race where Sin prevails.
Now you might think that a holy God would give up on a fallen human race and knowing that some of Israel are going to break the laws anyway, why bother to have the laws? The answer has to be twofold. First, to show God’s design and lay down a charter which the majority will adhere to. Second, the laws show how to deal with miscreants, how to deal with situations that go wrong. Now although we might see these as the two primary reasons why God gives these laws, it doesn’t stop there, for we also find in Leviticus a whole series of lengthy requirements about offering sacrifices and those laws are all about how a guilty sinner can get right again with God.
Getting right with people came through restitution; getting right with God was about appeasing the conscience and showing by an outward act contrition and repentance. The outward act was coming to the Temple with a sacrifice. Although we may see them as lengthy and inapplicable to today’s living, they nevertheless did do the job of enabling people to come back into a right relationship with God. God’s respect of the human life He has created thus extends to caring for it, even when it has turned away from Him, even when it purports to follow Him (Ex 19) and yet fails in wrongful human behaviour. There are times when, for the sake of the rest and for the sake of His name, God does bring destructive judgment on human beings but even when you study that you see a remarkably restrained hand. God is constantly looking for the good for humanity, and that He seeks to convey to us so that we might convey it to one another. We are to value human life.