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Relevant Verses: Exod. 20, Deut. 26:1-11

Leading Question: How does the divine example help move us toward caring for the needy?

Comment: Israel had been slaves for some 400 years when God “finally” came to their rescue. Exod. 2:21, the last verse in the second chapter of Exodus, reads very simply in the original Hebrew: “God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew.” In Exodus 3:7, the text reads, “I have heard their cry.” And when Israel recognized all this, Exod. 4:31 reports, “When they heard that the LORD had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped” (NRSV).

Several times in the Pentateuch, an appeal is made to Israel’s experience as slaves, as a motivation for their being sensitive to others who are being mistreated.

Question: Where in Scripture can we point to the most effective passages that show the divine compassion for those in need? Old Testament narratives? The life and teachings of Jesus?

Comment: Two passages in Exodus link Israel’s experience as aliens with God’s expectation that they treat aliens with care:

Exodus 22:21-23: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (NRSV).

Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (NRSV).

Question: Have you been able to look back on difficult times and see in those experiences a stronger motivation for helping others?

The Ten Commandments as a blueprint for communal life. The official study guide suggests that we not read the ten commands too “narrowly.” Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount points to a much more nuanced approach to God’s law. This excerpt from Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (p. 137-139, 2nd edition [2016]), suggests a way of understanding law that is both broad and narrow.

Narrowing the Letter, Broadening the Spirit

To understand biblical laws properly, one must first look rigorously at the letter of the law in its original context. That is, we must “narrow the letter.” A close reading of the text, for example, reveals that the command not to kill refers to first degree murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:9-28). It clearly does not exclude the civil death penalty (Ex. 21:15-17), killing done in national defense (Deut. 20:10-18), or killing done in immediate self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3).

Similarly, the command against bearing false witness, when we “narrow the letter,” clearly refers to the telling of falsehoods with the intent to injure innocent people. One passage specifies the penalty for false witness: “Then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother” (Deut. 19:19). This places a different light on the Hebrew midwives’ misleading words to Pharaoh (Exodus 1:19), Samuel’s shading of the truth to Saul (1 Sam. 16:1-3); and David’s use of Hushai against Absalom (2 Sam. 16, 17).

It is not enough, however, to “narrow the letter.” We must also “broaden the spirit,” moving beyond the external code into the heart. Then killing is broadened to include angry words (Matt. 5:21, 22), adultery includes lustful thoughts (verses 27, 28), and false witness covers even the misuse of the truth to hurt others. In the words of Ellen White, “Even the intentional suppression of truth, by which injury may result to others, is a violation of the ninth command” (PP, p. 309).

In short, circumstances may arise when telling the truth or refusing to kill could mean disobeying the letter of God’s law. One thing is clear, however: God never asks us to BREAK His law. Our every act must be an obedient one, in full harmony with His law. That is true even if we are called to kill.

You may ask, at this point: Is this situation ethics? Certainly not, if understood in the popular sense of “excuse for sinning”! God never asks us to sin, or even “allows” us to sin. His only call is to obedience. If we think we can use the law pyramid to excuse sin and to do as we please, then we have thoroughly misunderstood and misapplied it.

Admittedly, what I have outlined is a sophisticated approach to the law, one that requires a rather advanced level of mental and Christian maturity. We would not expect young children or new Christians to be able to function at that level. For that very reason, God has given rules and adaptations – a codebook, if you please – for those who need them. And the church, as the body of Christ, responsible for believers of every shape and capability, will always have a list of rules to get us started, so to speak.

The original reasons for progressively adapting law to human need are paralleled in the church today. A brief glimpse at those original circumstances can help us properly apply the law pyramid, for it was that progressive adaptation of the law to human need that gave rise to the pyramid in the first place.

Question: How does God’s law provide a blueprint for life that would include care for the vulnerable?

Question: Is it possible today to follow the Old Testament example of throwing a party to spend the tithe? Here are the crucial passages:

“Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake” (Deut. 14:22-29, NRSV).

“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13 then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments’” (Deut. 26:12-13, NRSV).

Year of Jubilee. I don’t know anyone who seriously attempts to follow the rules for the year of Jubilee, a plan that called for all land to be returned to its original owners every 49 years. How much of the Jubilee passage should we attempt to emulate today? Leviticus 25:8-23 gives us the key biblical passage:

8 You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.

13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. 14 When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. 15 When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. 16 If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. 17 You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

18 You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. 19 The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. 20 Should you ask, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” 21 I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. 22 When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. 23 The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.

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