Orthodox Social Thought and the Law of Moses

“The knowledge of what is good and what is not … is an original and fundamental part of our nature, and … the Law of Moses praises it, and getteth praise from it….”  St. John Chrysostom

I recently ran across an amusing meme on social media that went like this: Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai carrying the two stone tablets engraved by the finger of God with the Ten Commandments, and a thought bubble comes from the crowd below, saying, “Whew! Glad my name’s not ‘Thou.’”

When we think of the Law of Moses, we often think of just the “Thou shalt nots” and forget the story in which they come about. But the Law is actually the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Genesis and the first half of Exodus are almost entirely narratives, as is every other section of Numbers, which alternates between laws and stories throughout. Most of Deuteronomy (as the name, meaning “second law,” implies) is an extended recapitulation of the Law in the form of Moses’s farewell speech to the people. And there is poetry interspersed throughout many of these books as well.

So while the laws are important, in order to understand how the “Thou” of “Thou shalt not” actually does apply to us and our social and economic life, we need to know the story of the Law, which begins with, well, the beginning.

Moses, 10 Commandments, Statue, Golden Statue, Bruges
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

“In the beginning,” so the story goes, “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). After creating, naming, and distinguishing all things within them and pronouncing them “good” over a series of six days, God then creates humanity and calls his creation “very good” (1:31). Unlike similar stories from the ancient Near East, humankind is made to “have dominion” over creation in the image of the one God, rather than working as slaves of the lesser gods of a vast pantheon. In short: humans are made free.

Then God rests from his work on the seventh day, after which we encounter the first of a recurring theme in Genesis: “These are the generations,” it reads, but not in this first place of people but rather, “of the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4). Here we encounter another, more detailed narrative of humanity’s creation, where Adam is a microcosm, whose body is made from the earth and whose spirit breathed into him from heaven by God, as Sts. Irenaeus, Gregory the Theologian, and Maximus the Confessor, among others, all affirm. He is made “to till the ground” (2:5) and “tend and keep” (2:15) the Lord’s Garden, where “it is not good that man should be alone” but, rather, we are all created, like Eve, to be “a helper” (2:20) to one another in these tasks.

Only here, in this context, do we encounter our first law, a fast: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:17). Long story short, through the temptation of the serpent, Adam and Eve decide asceticism isn’t important, disregard God’s law, and face dire consequences: their eventual deaths and a curse upon their work and their relations to each other and creation.

But they are also given a promise of salvation. God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The evil of humankind reaches its nadir in the story of the Flood, after which God makes a covenant with all the earth and blesses humanity and gives them additional laws. Then begins the origins of Israel, starting with their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom enter into a covenant with the Lord, dedicating themselves to him in order to carry on the promised blessing for all people: the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent.

Generations later, we get to Exodus. The people of Israel have grown numerous, as the Lord promised, but the Egyptians feared them and have enslaved them. Under the leadership of Moses, God frees his people through the Ten Plagues and, ultimately, through the Passover (pascha), in which the angel of death passes over the Israelites’ homes marked with the blood of the lamb. They pass through the parted Red Sea and into the desert, following a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, and come to Sinai, where Moses ascends the mountain and God gives him the Ten Commandments, beginning with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

The most emblematic commandments in the Law begin with this story of liberation. Israel has been freed, but just as in the Garden, freedom entails responsibility. The Lord demands their exclusive worship and tells them not to murder, lie, steal, or commit adultery. He commands them to observe the Sabbath day, in which every member of the household, including even slaves and animals, gets a day off of work.

Yet these commands, especially those dealing with human relations, are not considered by the Fathers to originate at Sinai but to be written, first of all, into our human nature. Fr. Stanley Harakas thoroughly demonstrated that the idea of a natural moral law is part of the consensus patrum, East as much as West. While there may still be differences, we all agree that there is a universal, God-given value and meaning to our lives, and that some actions work against that value and meaning and are correctly regarded as wrong by our consciences.

The upshot of this is that it helps us sort out the relation between the many commandments in the Law and our lives as Christians. While the Ten Commandments aren’t too hard to apply to our lives, the Law contains commands about dietary rules, Sabbaths, ritual cleanliness, animal sacrifice, and many other things that fit the context of a tribal, Bronze Age people much better than our lives today. According to Abba Serenus in the Conferences of St. John Cassian, “the severe restrictions of the law of Moses were added as the executor and vindicator of this (earlier law) and to use the expressions of Scripture, as its helper, that through fear of immediate punishment men might be kept from altogether losing the good of natural knowledge….” The Law was given for a specific people to be their civil law, in order to conform their lives more closely to the natural law.

Civil law, however, is not the same as the natural law. In the Law, the Lord condescended to Israel’s weaknesses. As St. John Chrysostom noted, God “did not draw them to the highest kind of conversation, but allowed them to enjoy wealth, and did not forbid having several wives, and to gratify anger in a just cause, and to make use of luxury within bounds. And so great was this condescension, that the written Law even required less than the law of nature.” Nevertheless, the Law was still holy, meant to distinguish God’s people from the nations as bearers of his promise, such that the Fathers regard even many ceremonial laws and rituals, such as the Passover, to be types that found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, the Law still stands as a witness to what it looks like to apply the natural law to a specific people and polity, even if many details differ from our lives today. We can see in the commandments principles that transcend that specific context. For example—to stick to our topic of Christian social thought—what exactly does “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15) look like?

A more specific version can be found in Leviticus: “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another…. You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning…. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (19:11, 13, 15). The prohibition against stealing includes all dishonest dealings. Most of us wait a week or two for our paycheck, but in an agrarian world of subsistence living, workers needed to be paid every day—even holding due payment too long, whatever constitutes “too long” in a given context,” violates the principle. So also, all people deserve justice in the courts. Preferential legal treatment undermines justice and opens the door to all sorts of theft.

The Law continues to expand on its application of this underlying principle: “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself…. You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin….” (19:35-36). Immigrants who join the people of Israel were not to be treated differently, reflecting the universal nature of the principle: respect for property applies to every human being. One must not disguise any defective goods in an exchange, and the currency used must be stable to ensure that no one gets cheated. We may not use an “ephah” or “hin,” but that principle is still something we can and should apply to our economic lives today.

After many such applications, explanations, and punishments for transgressions (see Numbers), the story of the Law concludes where it began: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). At the brink of entering the Promised Land and transitioning from a nomadic life to a kingdom, heaven and earth look on as the Lord gives his people a free choice between life and blessing with him or death and a curse without him, not just for their own good, but for all the nations of the world: “the peoples … will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there … that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (4:6-8)

As for how Israel did in living out that vocation and what we as Orthodox Christians can learn from their example, we will explore that in my next essay on the Prophets.


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