Century upon century mankind has made one discovery after another, invented new things, created new designs, and developed new ways to live with one another. Each century added to the previous one before it and we called each new discovery, thing, design, or way to live an “advancement.”
And here in the 21st century we can see the ways such advancements have changed how we live.
Now we walk for exercise or pleasure versus the only mode of going from one place to another. Now we communicate through a wide array of devices from one place in the world to another in the blink of an eye. Now we can enjoy a diverse smorgasbord of foods from other places in our country or world no matter what our growing season thanks to transportation and refrigeration development.
We have established a way to govern. Whatever country we are in, there is some established order of governance with laws and some variety of courts to adjudicate and interpret thousands of laws. In the United States the federal level of laws alone falls into five sources: constitutional law, statutory law, treaties, administrative regulations, and the common law which includes case law. And that doesn’t begin to show how many specific laws are in each category or how many state, city, county, or township laws are on the books.
Over time the number and specificity of laws have increased in order to seemingly be clear on what is being regulated and what consequences are appropriate. We hope that works well for both the innocent and the guilty and yet juries and judges often struggle to ascertain despite all this information what decision needs to be made.
In our increasingly complex life and laws, have we made things too complicated?
Despite our belief that newer is better, are we missing something that ancient laws had inherently?
Reading a commentary related to Exodus 20 and the nature of biblical law, I learned that ancient laws were of a “paradigmatic nature.” That means they described models of behavior and models of what was prohibited and or punished according to the behavior without a detailed exhaustive description of what was included. As a result, ancient laws were more guiding principles than a complete description of what was governed.
The law described in Exodus that we know as the Ten Commandments (actually Ten Words) was paradigmatic. To explain what that looks like, consider Exodus 21:18 that talks about the penalty for hitting someone with a fist or stone. The Israelites or other ancient cultures understood the principle and that if the same person was kicked or hit by a board versus a fist or stone, a penalty was still called for.
The commentary by Douglas K. Stuart goes on to say:
“Such arguments would have insulted the intelligence of all concerned and make no impact on those rendering judgments.”
Today it wouldn’t be uncommon to try to use the more specific statues or the law as a way to avoid punishment for a similar behavior. I can almost hear the defendant’s beginning assertion, “But I didn’t…”
This way of looking at the law helps clarify what Jesus is communicating to us in his teaching in the New Testament when He says two laws sum up all the rest in Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV):
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
He is speaking in a language they understood by stating the two key paradigms to govern life. If a person loves God then it determines everything about how they behaved and lived, choices they made in every area of their life.
That being said, if he or she loves his or her neighbor as stated, the behaviors, attitudes, and choices will reflect that. All other laws try to detail every possible scenario related to these two perfect primary principles. As a result, some can be missed, and new laws are created. One recent example is how laws are now developing regarding vaping because the laws about tobacco use in the United States said nothing about vaping since it hadn’t been created when the laws were written.
Is our complicated legal structure something we should throw out?
But looking at the paradigmatic nature of ancient laws point to how and why we can use what Jesus taught about the two great commandments because they are so extraordinarily comprehensive in nature.
If I reflect on loving God and my neighbor as Jesus teaches in the passage I cited in Matthew and live those out, all other laws will be fulfilled.