Readers of my old blog may recall that around two years ago I was wrestling for several months with how to understand and apply the Old Testament economic laws–their relative moral and judicial significance, in particular. Well, the conclusions that took me six months and research and writing to haltingly articulate, Richard Bauckham, with disarming surefootedness, manages to establish in five splendid sentences of his book The Bible in Politics (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough, and hope to be blogging frequently about over the next week or two). I here quote most of the fantastic paragraph in which these five sentences appear:
“The law, as we have seen, is concerned with broad principles of social morality and with illustrating their specific application. The specific examples include both laws enforceable in the courts and moral exhortations. Leviticus 19:9-10 [the law of gleaning] is not in the form of judicial lw and, we may guess, would not normally have been enforced in the courts. But on the other hand, it would have been open to the elders in any particular local community to choose to enforce it with legal sanctions. In any case it had the force of social custom, which in small, close-knit communities like those of ancient Israel can be very effective. In such a society, social disapproval, which itself is inseparable from shared religious beliefs, can be as important a sanction as legal punishment. Thus to insist that these verses envisage private charity rather than state welfare–or vice versa–is to introduce anachronistic distinctions. Morevoer, as this example illustrates, the distinction between moral and civl law scarcely helps us with the problem of modern relevance. Whether we consider it a moral or civil law, Leviticus 19:9-10 is a culturally specific* law. It was an effective means of provision for the poor in the economic circumstances of ancient Israel, but would not be in modern Britain, where, on the one hand, most people are not farmers, and, on the other hand, the majority of the poor, who live in the inner cities, will not be much helped by the food they could gather on country rambles. The relevance of this law for us can be discovered only by discerning the principles at work in it. How far these principles can or should be embodied in social legislation in our society, rather than being matters of purely voluntary social morality, is something we have to decide in the concrete circumstances of our own society. No attempt to distinguish between moral law and civil law in ancient Israel will help us there.“
*all italics, except this phrase, are mine.