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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 2, by Craig S. Keener

In this chapter from the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series, Craig S. Keener continues with a study of laws in the Bible, Biblical prayer and songs, proverbs, and romance literature.

As appearing in Pneuma Review Summer 2005.

Take a course on biblical interpretation with New Testament scholar, Professor Craig S. Keener.

 

For an introduction to the Context of Genre, see the Spring 2005 edition of the Pneuma Review.

 

Laws in the Bible

Biblical laws have much to teach us about justice, even if we need to take into account the culture and era of history they addressed. Thus God informs Israel that no other nation has such righteous laws as they do (Deut 4:8) and the psalmist celebrates and meditates continually on God’s law (Ps 119:97).

The law remains good and useful for ethical teaching, provided we use it properly.

Some laws, like the ten commandments, are stated largely as transcultural principles; it is also difficult to find genuine parallels to them in other ancient Near Eastern legal collections. Most laws, however, addressed ancient Israel as civil laws for how Israel’s society should work; these were addressed specifically to an ancient Near Eastern framework, and we need to think carefully when we look for appropriate analogies in how to apply them today.

Ancient Near Eastern law set the tone for which issues had to be addressed; Israel’s laws addressed many of the same issues as Mesopotamian law. The Code of Hammurabi and other legal collections addressed ear-boring (Ex 21:6); debt-slavery (21:7); the treatment of enslaved captives (21:9); causing a miscarriage (21:22); eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth (21:23-25); negligence regarding an ox (21:28-36); brideprice (22:16-17); local responsibility for bloodguilt there (Deut 21:9-10); and so forth.

Biblical laws have much to teach us about justice, even if we need to take into account the culture and era of history they addressed.

At the same time, significant differences modified ancient Near Eastern legal tradition. In other societies, one received a harsher penalty if one belonged to a lower social class; Israel’s law distinctively eliminates that injustice. Whereas in Babylonian law a man who caused the death of another’s daughter would have his own daughter executed, in Israelite law the man who did the killing would die. We do not know of other societies that protected ancestral lands the way Israel’s laws did (Lev 25:24); this law would prevent a monopolistic accumulation of capital that would make some people wealthy at others’ expense. Some offenses have more lenient penalties in Israelite law (thieves who break in during the day are executed under Babylonian law) and some have harsher penalties (Israelite law was harsher toward disobedient children). Babylonian law mandated the death penalty for those who harbored escaped slaves; God’s law commanded Israel to harbor escaped slaves (Deut 23:15).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener

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