March 31, 2015

Mercy, generosity, and dancing

Numbers 35:1–36:13; 1 Corinthians 16:1–24; Psalm 30:1–12
How many people know that many of the best parts of our legal system come from the Old Testament? One of those parts is that the law distinguishes between manslaughter and murder, killing someone without intending to do so, or killing with intent. The differences now from the way it was back in the days of Moses can be seen in this passage.

“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there . . . . But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death . . . . If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” (Numbers 35:10-15; 16; 30-31)

Today, instead of fleeing to a city of refuge, those who commit manslaughter are put in prison, a similar ‘sentence’ but not quite the same as having to stay in a particular city for a certain length of time. However, this law applied to everyone, Jews and Gentiles, citizens and those passing through. It is unbiased.

Also, today the death sentence for murder is upheld in some places, but not all. That was changed because of the danger of punishing an innocent person. However, the Old Testament law had a safeguard against that; the need for more than one witness. Further, no one could ‘buy’ his life, whereas today many murderers are allowed to plea-bargain.
I’m not involved in the legal system, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me that God’s plan seems both fair and just, but also merciful. If the death was an accident, the guilty party was given a decent option.

The NT reading hasn’t anything to do with legalities, but it does have something to do with the traditions that the church falls into. As a Bible student, I’ve learned that we often get two things mixed up in interpretation. We need to see the difference between narratives that are “descriptive” and those that are “prescriptive.” That is, do the verses describe what was done back then, but are not commanded for us, or do they give a pattern that we are supposed to follow? Today’s reading is one of those passages . . .

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Corinthians 16:1–3)

Paul was coming to the church at Corinth to collect an offering for the needy church in Jerusalem. He told the Christians in Corinth to give a weekly offering on Sunday so when he came, there would be no need for a special offering. He would simply collect that which had been donated up until then.

Is that descriptive or prescriptive? It isn’t a big deal, really, but if adhered to as strictly prescriptive, then a church today might box themselves in. That is, no spontaneous offerings, no love offerings without planning ahead, and you could not make a donation on any other day of the week. In this case, these rules sound silly, but there are many churches where failing to make this distinction has had adverse results in the way they do things.

I’m also learning how to read the OT in light of the NT and understanding how the redemptive plan of God fits into the history covered by the Bible. I’m also seeing how Christ is hinted at and revealed throughout – from Genesis to Revelation. I can see connections I’d not noticed before, but also am learning to distinguish between connections from my imagination and those that actually were intended by the biblical authors.

Here is an example. In the NT, Jesus said in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Some take this out of context and apply it at funerals. While it is true that God comforts those who grieve, this passage is not about mourning the dead, but mourning sin.

As I read the following verse from the Psalms, I wonder if it is saying the same thing. David wrote, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11–12)

Is David at a funeral? The Psalm doesn’t say so. It seems his mourning is not about grief of loss or a death, but the sorrow over sin and failure to love God by disobeying His commands. But how can I know that for sure? I could do word studies and read commentaries and so on, but the best way to interpret the Bible is by paying attention to the context. Read it and see what the whole Psalm is about.

Devotional reading has a different focus than Bible study as well, yet getting the gist of the passage is important so that I think rightly about God and His will for me. For that, today’s readings show His mercy for my mistakes, His desire that I be generous, and that it is just fine with Him if I do a happy-dance because He has turned my sorrow for sin into joy at His forgiveness!

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