#146. Does Yahweh vindicate the guilty OR not? (Rom 3-4; Gal 3-5 vs Ex 23:7)

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“For I shall not vindicate a guilty one!” (Ex 23:7)

One of the many gaping theological contradictions between the Old and the New Testaments—between a culture and worldview which existed in the 1st half of the 1st millennium BC and one which existed in the 1st century AD—has to do with who Yahweh vindicates or accords righteousness to.

As posted in an earlier entry (#6), Old Testament theology was constructed on the empirical. If an individual or a nation was suffering distress or illness then obviously that individual or nation has transgressed Yahweh’s words and are enduring the appropriate punishment. Conversely, if one follows Yahweh’s commandments and laws then that individual or nation will reap its just rewards, living on the land (see #29). In other words, Yahweh vindicates those who do the works of the law and punishes those who do not.

There is no middle ground. The guilty, those who have transgressed Yahweh’s laws and statues, are to suffer their punishment, or in the Priestly literature seek expiation for the offense through the Aaronid cult. In the Priestly law code in the book of Leviticus the issue of sin and guilt are presented in the cultic language of impurity versus purity, unclean versus clean. Here too, there is no room for Paul’s abusive stance. “He shall bear his crime” is the refrain that runs throughout the Priestly canon, no exceptions. Indeed, Paul borrows P’s sacrificial theology of atonement and applies it to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—with one exception however. Now through believing that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, the sinners and the guilty ones are vindicated!

“By the works of the law no flesh will be justified” (Rom 3:20).

Paul’s strict dichotomy between works of the law and faith in Christ rests on a distortion of the Pentateuch’s 3 law codes. Indeed the law code of Exodus 20-23 does not speak of being vindicated or justified. But it does clearly list those stipulations and prohibitions that, if violated, will produce their proper punishment and retribution—a life for a life, an eye for an eye, etc. (see also #143). It is also clearly stated in this law code that Yahweh will not vindicate or make righteous an individual who has transgressed one of these commandments. On the flip side, the law code does subtly suggest what the benefits are of doing the law.

He set law and judgement for them, and he tested them there. And he said, “If you’ll listen to the voice of Yahweh your god and do what is right in his eyes, and turn your ear to his commandments and observe all his laws, then I won’t set on you any of the diseases that I set on Egypt because I, Yahweh, am your healer. (Ex 15:26)

And you’ll serve Yahweh your god, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I shall turn sickness away from within you. There won’t be a bereaved woman and an infertile woman in your land. I shall fulfill the number of your days. (Ex 23:25-26)

And conversely, for transgressing just one commandment, the 1st commandment, Yahweh—our Elohist author contends—swears to utterly destroy them all:

And Yahweh said to Moses: “I’ve seen this people, and behold, it’s a hard-necked people. And now leave off from me, and my anger will flare at them and I’ll finish them off! (Ex 32:9)

Or again, concerning the incident/sin of the spying of the land:

And Yahweh said to Moses: “How long will this people reject me, and how long will they not trust in me, with all the signs that I’ve done among them? I’ll strike them all with an epidemic and dispossess them! (Num 14:11-12)

The author or tradition that wrote these passages—the Elohist—clearly depicts a Yahweh that does not vindicate the guilty, and on the contrary, vows to utterly destroy the people for the littlest of offenses. In other words the Elohist would have vehemently disagreed with Paul’s assertion that god Yahweh will vindicate and render righteous the sinners. In no circumstance do we find this belief supported in the Elohist tradition. The Yahweh of the Elohist tradition refutes and contradicts Paul!

The same can be said with respect to the Deuteronomic law code. Deuteronomy does in fact end with a series of blessings and curses—blessings for those who keep Yahweh’s laws and curses for those who do not.

If you won’t be watchful to do the words of this law (torah) that are written in this scroll, to fear this honored and awesome name—Yahweh, your god—then Yahweh will make your plagues and your seed’s plagues astonishing, great, and enduring plagues, and great and enduring diseases. And he’ll bring back upon you every disease of Egypt which you were dreading and they’ll cling to you. Yahweh will bring over you every illness and every plague that is written in this scroll of torah until you are destroyed! (Deut 28:58-61)

Yahweh will send curse and tumult and annoyance at you in everything your hand takes on that you’ll do, until you’re destroyed and until you perish! (28:20)

Yahweh will make an epidemic cling to you until he finishes you from the land to which you’re coming to take possession. Yahweh will strike you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with burning and with sword and with blight and with mildew. And they will pursue you until you perish. (28:21-22)

Yahweh will strike you with the boils of Egypt and with hemorrhoids and with scabs and with itches, from which you won’t be healed. Yahweh will strike you with madness and with blindness and with amazement of heart. And you’ll be feeling around at noon the way the blind would feel around in the dark. (28:27-29)

And your corpses will become food for every bird of the heavens and the animals of the earth (28: 26)

You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her (28:26)

And you’ll eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and your daughters whom Yahweh your god has given you. (28:53)

Does this sound like a deity who vindicates the guilty? A deity who accords righteousness to those who do not follow his laws and commandments?

Christians often use the argument with atheist that isn’t it better to be on the safe side and believe in god just in case there is a postmortem judgement. But I say the same here with even more urgency. Isn’t it better to be safe and listen and believe in Yahweh’s (and Jesus’ !) own words and do the law, rather than Paul’s claim that god Yahweh will vindicate you even if you do not follow the law. Errr, that’s not at all what Yahweh claims repetitively throughout the various sources of the Pentateuch! For the Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly writers not keeping the laws irrefutably leads to one end—death, destruction, and disease. I’m not sure but if you claimed to be a people of the book, wouldn’t you want to hedge your bets and heed the words of your own god? Apparently Paul’s words are more important.

In fact, Paul’s theology is shaped by his own historical circumstances and beliefs. From there, a reinterpretive process takes over through which means the Old Testament is reinterpreted in order to legitimate the reader’s, here Paul’s, own views. This is what all reinterpretive enterprises do.

The particular phenomenon that I’m alluding to here, as well as elsewhere (#120-122, #124, #143) is the process of creating new religious beliefs and systems, and new gods—or revamping the image of an old god—and legitimating these new beliefs by claiming, through an elaborate process of reinterpreting an already existing authoritative text, that they are merely a continuation of the same time-honored authoritative tradition. Well clearly they are not. I make a plea: let Yahweh be Yahweh. If he no longer serves our 21st century beliefs, values, worldview, fine. Then let us not be hypocrites and let us call a spade a spade: we have created a new God to go before us, one which supports our own cultural values, beliefs, worldview, and beloved American traditions such as imperialism, capitalism, and the belief that we are the measure of all things. Let’s stop cowing behind hypocrisy and false idols… Give us a god who will vindicate us helpless greedy sinners! And let us pray that Yahweh is not the God of gods!

3 thoughts on “#146. Does Yahweh vindicate the guilty OR not? (Rom 3-4; Gal 3-5 vs Ex 23:7)

  1. Hi Steven,

    thanks for the input. It helps some, and I’ve been thinking along those terms for quite some time. “this isn’t God they’re talking about, but some being they created to maintain their own power and prestige” But it does mean that I have to revamp my thinking about so many things. If God is not as described in the bible, then who is God? Kind of like standing at the edge of an immense unknown-ness.
    And at the same time, I wonder how it will impact my friendships with Christians whom I have known and studied with for years. Some big changes coming on.

  2. wow…this list! I have long wondered how God can call himself long suffering and full of mercy, when there are SO many immense, horrific threats and smitings and strikings throughout the Torah. And tonight’s big insight for me, not in this particular contradiction, but a related one, where the people go after the Ba’als and God commands Moses to impale the leaders so that His anger against Israel might be assuaged.

    wow. I don’t even know what to think. I’ve read it before, but just now seeing it as it is, and I’m appalled. Yes, it is time I put behind me the belief that God had anything to do with the writing of “The Book”.

    1. Hi Heidi,

      One thing that might help assuage your being appalled, or maybe not, is that the portrait of Yahweh here in these passages and countless others is a literary creation by the scribes who crafted it. So the question then becomes why would the scribes present God, a god, in these terms? What message was he trying to convey to his historical audience? This approach to the texts sometimes allows readers, especially Christian readers, to not necessarily see an ‘evil’ and appalling deity, but rather a literary image of such a deity crafted by the biblical scribes for a specific reason. I’m not sure if this helps or not. I’ll throw this one out there too. One biblical scholar writes: “It is not a good idea to believe in a god when he is a character in a story!” (Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel, 303). I’ve always appreciated this quote.

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