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Discrepancies in the legal system are nothing new

They date back at least to the time of the Torah, Dr. Bill Brown tells his Worship & Music Conference class

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Taylor Flowe via Unsplash

MONTREAT, North Carolina — Moving on from Creation to the Torah, Dr. William Brown made the case Wednesday that the current struggle to determine what’s concrete in, say, the interpretation of laws under the U.S. Constitution was vexing for folks in Old Testament times as well.

Brown, who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, is teaching the Dialogue, Dissonance & Debate in the Bible class for the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship & Music Conference being held at Montreat Conference Center. More than 700 people are here, with another 700 or so expected next week for an identical offering.

Brown shared examples of legal discrepancies between the Decalogue in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, which he called “Moses rehearsing for a new generation.” In the former, for example, male slaves are to be released after six years. In the latter, male and female slaves are released after the same interval, and reparations are to be paid. The rules for returning a neighbor’s property are more numerous in Exodus than in Deuteronomy. That fifth book of the Hebrew Bible “moves more ethically into how to better observe these stipulations,” he said.

“It’s not written in stone. They’re timely laws open for revision,” Brown said. “Torah is not dead. It’s a living Torah,” sort of like the whole debate on the U.S. Constitution. “Is it dead? Do we need to get back to the intent of [the founders] or is it a living document? Torah leans toward the latter.” Most remarkable, he said, is that the laws in Deuteronomy are preserved as well as the older laws. “That suggests they both have legitimacy,” Brown said. “It’s up to us to apply.”

Dr. Bill Brown is shown teaching his Dialogue, Dissonance & Debate in the Bible class at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

One example that shows the law is not fixed is the Numbers account of the daughters of Zelophehad. The five daughters protest a law that says they can’t inherit after their father dies, and Moses says he’ll take up the matter with God. God tells Moses the daughters are right, “and a new law is formulated on the spot to make sure inheritance is retained and received by the daughters,” Brown said. “It’s a pointed illustration of the dynamic of law.”

But there’s also Deuteronomy 12:32, which is a warning from Moses not to add to or take anything away from the law. A Jewish scholar who’s a friend of Brown says that Moses “was kidding. So, take it from a Jewish scholar,” Brown said. The warning “may be Deuteronomy’s way of claiming legitimacy.”

For Jesus, of course, it’s about setting priorities: “It’s all about loving God and loving neighbor,” Brown said.

As he’s done in previous class sessions, Brown turned to the psalms for further explanation, even proposing the theory that the latter part of Psalm 19 was rewritten to lift up the importance of Torah.

“It’s a speculative thesis. Not everyone agrees with me,” Brown said.

Nevertheless, Psalm 19 is “a beautiful meditation on Torah but it never says what Torah is,” he said. “It talks about the benefits of Torah, and it’s open-ended.” Whatever restores, enlightens, enlivens and gladdens — that’s Torah, Brown said of the psalm.

“it’s a much more operational definition of Torah,” Brown said, “that veers away from the legalistic view.”

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