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

Mere obedience to the law without faith has never brought salvation; God always saved people by grace through faith.

While the laws in the Old Testament did improve the standards of the Hebrew culture, they did not necessarily provide us with God’s perfect ideal of justice. In any culture, civil laws provide a minimum standard to enable people to work together efficiently. However, civil laws do not address all moral issues. For instance, a law may say, “Do not kill.” But only God can enforce the fullest implications of that law for moral standards, that is, “You shall not want to kill” (Matt 5:21-26).

We may take for example the law concerning a slave who is beaten and dies in Exodus 21:20-21, where the slaveholder is not executed if the slave survives a day or two. To some extent, this follows the law for anyone who does not die immediately from injuries (21:18-19), but in this case the law specifically states that this is because the slave is the slaveholder’s “property.” Given what we read about slavery in Philemon and Ephesians (treated in a previous section), slavery hardly seems God’s ideal purpose! Likewise, although the law condemns the sexual use of another’s slave, it is condemned less harshly than adultery because she is a slave (Lev 19:20; cf. Deut 22:23).

In other societies, one received a harsher penalty if one belonged to a lower social class; Israel’s law distinctively eliminates that injustice.

Two centuries ago some people tried to argue from such texts that God supports slavery, but no text specifically endorses slavery. Rather, the texts address a system that already practiced slavery and made it more humane. Fellow Israelites could not be enslaved permanently; they would serve for a time, then be set free and given capital by which they could provide for themselves (Deut 15:12-15). However, Israel usually did not even meet this divine standard; cf. Jer 34:11-22. Christians who opposed slavery cited broader biblical principles (such as loving one’s neighbor as oneself, Lev 19:18; or all people being the same before God, Acts 10:28). It is this latter group of interpreters who correctly articulated the ideal of Scripture. How do we know?

When some scholars cited Deuteronomy 24 as permission for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus said that law was a “concession” to human sinfulness (Mk 10:5). That is, God did not raise the standard to its ultimate ideal because he was working within their culture. To provide workable laws in a sinful society, God limited sin rather than prohibiting it altogether. But the morality God really demands from the human heart goes beyond such concessions. God never approved of a man divorcing his wife, except for very limited reasons (Mk 10:9; Matt 19:9). Other concessions in the Old Testament may include polygamy, indentured servanthood, and perhaps holy war. God worked through or in spite of these practices, but his ideal in the New Testament is better. Ritual and civil laws may contain some moral absolutes, but they also contain concessions to the time and culture they addressed, just as Jesus recognized.

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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. Twitter: @keener_craig

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