Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part II, the Old Testament


I think it’s fair to say that when people hear Old Testament, they do not immediately think about intellectual freedom. However, what I want to suggest in this post is the idea that there are good reasons why we should see the Hebrew Scriptures as a foundational set of texts for the modern idea of intellectual freedom. I want to build my case around the concept of law and with a background that I learned from reading Nahum Sarna’s now classic work, Understanding Genesis.1 That background is that much of what is written in the Old Testament takes account of the mythological and polytheistic worldviews of ancient Canaan in order to distinguish the character of Israel’s God from the gods of Israel’s neighbors. That which most distinguishes Israel’s God from Canaan’s gods is that Canaan’s gods are arbitrary and unstable. That may seem opaque, but hopefully I can make it clearer in the sections below. Of course, I also recommend you take the time to read Sarna’s work. That being said, the argument will be divided into periods: (1) Eden, (2) Noah, (3) Abraham and Isaac, (4) the Exodus, and (5) the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. 

The Law in Eden

While the concept of law is probably not what immediately comes to mind when someone first encounters Genesis 1-3, there is a detectable correlation between Genesis’ repetition of “and God said” with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.2 The main idea behind this correlation is that when God speaks, his words carry the force of law in the sense that they bring order and determine functions.3 This main idea is the first place where the concept of natural law is implied in the biblical text. By natural law, I mean something similar to the Platonic notion of a divine order that is accessible through the exercise of human reason.4 We see this, for example, in putting the role of Adam, who named the animals, up against the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam named the animals (Gen 2:19), he was essentially determining their role in the created order of Eden, he was operating within his functional role as determined by God. That is that God’s placement of Adam within the overall created order gave him the authority to determine the roles that the animals would play, within the limits initially set by God. The prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge was a prohibition against Adam attempting to control the overall order, primarily in the sense of claiming that he could self-determine his own role. It’s not that God was hiding something from Adam or keeping him from something to which he was entitled. Rather, it was the limits that the natural law places on humanity’s role–humans are subject to the natural law, they are capable of discovering and cooperating with natural law, they are not able to control it.

The question you may be asking at this point is what any of this has to do with intellectual freedom. The first thing to remember, as mentioned in the introductory paragraph, is that the deities of the Canaanite religion were often arbitrary, capricious, and could be unreliable. The image of God presented in the Bible, however, is one of stability and reliability. In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that God makes the rain fall on both the just and unjust (Matt 5:45), he isn’t just making a rhetorical point. The fact that the order and function of the universe remains consistent, based on God’s spoken word, creates a space for free action and deliberation. This is true because that order and function is both stable and discoverable. In essence, what I’m talking about is the possibility of science or, if you prefer, the empirical investigation of reality. For centuries, scholars have taken notice of the fact that nature’s conformity to certain law-like behaviors can only be rationally presupposed if there is a divine mind behind those laws. Today, those committed to a naturalistic worldview laugh this assertion off and present circular arguments that basically say that our ability to observe the universe means we live in a universe that is observable and if it were any other way we wouldn’t be here to observe it. However, to counter that non-argument, what a Christian worldview says is that if God did not exist, we would have every reason to believe that we lived in a universe controlled by forces not unlike the Canaanite gods. In fact, that the Canaanites invented the gods that they did is testimony to the effect that they saw the universe as a largely disordered and unreliable environment. 

Returning to the example of Adam naming the animals, in some respect we could restate that action not as Adam determining the animals’ role–in the sense of saying what their role was–but determining their role as an act of discovery. That is, Adam was able to perceive, understand, and communicate what each animal was through its apparent location within God’s created order. Once he had determined or discovered that role, he was able to exercise the dominion over the created order that was his own assigned role. In other words, to be human is to investigate and theorize about how all the parts of the created order fit together and then communicate those ideas in ways that bring humans and their environment into a relationship. Recall from Part I that I asserted that communicating in ways that make sense is a large part of how people relate to one another. We create communities based on our common understandings. We write laws based on our common understandings. And in many ways, these are acts of discovery. We write new laws as we discover new or better ways of structuring our communities and our socio-political relationships. 

Of course, these new discoveries are not always correct. They do not always conform to the natural law. This results when we, like Adam, attempt to take over the established order in ways that are beyond our means or illegitimate relative to our assigned role in creation. This is what Adam and his offspring did, and it brought about the necessity of starting fresh–that is, the flood of Noah. 

Law in the Story of Noah

There is a common misunderstanding about the nature of God’s law prior to Moses and Sinai which holds that the Law–properly speaking–did not exist, or was unknown, or was not in effect. Part of this misunderstanding comes from a common misreading of Paul’s words in Romans 5, where Paul writes of sin existing “in the world before the law was given” (Rom 5:13). However, the text of Genesis speaks directly against this misinterpretation of Paul’s words. Genesis 6:9 calls Noah “blameless” and “righteous.” That implies that there was a standard by which one could define blamelessness and righteousness. Otherwise, by what standard were Noah’s neighbors who perished in the flood judged? When God notices that the whole world has become corrupted, there is implicitly some standard by which God made this determination (Gen 6:11-12). The standard answer to this–one that I accept–is a three-fold division of what we call biblical law: (1) the moral law; (2) the judicial or civil law; and (3) the ceremonial law.5 The moral law–summarized by the Ten Commandments–is discoverable absent any special revelation. It is the natural law encapsulated into short, straightforward, legal language. I don’t want to get bogged down in a lengthy review of how, for example, one could discover through reason the first four commandments. Instead, my point is to simply note that the natural law–that is the universe’s order and function as God had determined it–was not unknown or unknowable to the people of Noah’s generation. 

What’s more important for my purposes here is the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood waters had receded and Noah’s feet were, once again, on dry ground. This covenant–like the covenant with Adam–was made with the whole human race. In the covenant with Adam, the human race consisted of just two people. In the covenant with Noah, it was made up of just eight people. Nevertheless, the covenantal relationship is predicated on the idea that everyone knows the basic requirements of justice which are demanded by God’s ordering of creation.6 In both cases, people began, over time, to diverge from this known standard. But in the case of Noah, what’s perhaps even more significant is the fact that God, through his covenant, actually placed limits on himself: “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (Gen 9:15). We could restate this as meaning that God takes his own declarations so seriously that not even he will violate them. Once again, it is important to read this in the context of comparing the God of Israel with the deities of Canaan. Those deities, like polytheistic deities in other societies, behaved more like humans, with capricious passions and desires. Israel’s God, on the other hand, sticks by his word, which itself is what establishes the natural order. 

This is an important point because of what we learn later in places like Deuteronomy 32:8, where it is said that God divided up the nations according to the “number of the sons of God.” Although this has been taken to some extremes in the conspiratorial margins of Christianity, the implication here–among other places–is that the deities that men began worshiping after the flood were, in fact, demonic entities. These entities–fallen angels in common parlance–did, and do, in fact behave with passions similar to human beings. The larger point being that even these entities, as far above humans they might be in terms of power and knowledge, are still themselves subject to God’s decree and they, like men, occupy their own designated place in the natural order. So, in the instance of God’s promise to Noah to never destroy the earth, God can make such promises by which he voluntarily limits himself precisely because he is the one who has set everything else within the created order. Again, the major point of the author of Genesis is to distinguish Israel’s God from neighboring Canaanite gods. They appear arbitrary and capricious because their words do not set the boundaries of nature. This means they make promises that they cannot keep. This point becomes all the more important when we consider the story of Abraham and Isaac. 

The Law in the Story of Abraham and Isaac

When I say, “the story of Abraham and Isaac,” I am talking specifically about the story in Genesis 22, where Abraham is told to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Few Old Testament stories have received the level and diversity of treatment as this story. My point is not to get lost in those treatments but to point out that prior to any consideration of the story one must remember that Abraham was called out of Ur, a Canaanite city with Canaanite gods. As a former undergraduate professor of mine once said, “Abraham and his family were semi-pagan.” What this means is that Abraham most likely had an initial image of God that was more consistent with polytheism than with the developed monotheism of Second Temple Judaism. Abraham most certainly did not think that God was the only god, and his developing relationship with God was, in large part, God constantly trying to demonstrate to Abraham how different he was–better, greater–than the pagan gods of his former life. That is the necessary background to Abraham and Isaac. 

Thus, when God told Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice, God was not asking anything that Abraham would not have expected of a deity. All too often we gloss over or ignore altogether this aspect of Abraham’s relationship with God, choosing instead to focus on Abraham’s enormous faith and the allegorical or foreshadowing relationship the story has with that of Christ. I’m not in any way suggesting that these are not important points to consider. I am suggesting that this is not the primary way the text’s original audience would have read it. If we take at face value the traditional understanding that Genesis was written by Moses, then the original audience would have been a recently-freed enslaved population that no longer had any clear recognition of their own identity as God’s covenant people. Therefore, this text, just like every other text in Genesis, would have been written in order to inform the Hebrew people about their own identity, which was contingent upon understanding God’s identity. In that light, the main purpose of the story of Isaac’s almost-sacrificial death is the revelation of God’s character as distinct from the gods of Egypt and Canaan which, in turn, was a call for Israel to reflect God’s character to the world in opposition to the character of the other nations. 

This relates back to the idea of God as one who sticks by his own laws. It is important to note how Abraham’s interaction with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah happened before the incident with Isaac. This means that Abraham had already started to learn something about God’s character and justice. This, again, speaks to the idea of reliable stability. Abraham knew that asking for human sacrifice was not typical of God’s character, but he also knew that God’s character was stable and reliable. Thus, if Isaac must be sacrificed, then it must be consistent with God’s character. What God ultimately ends up doing, of course, is using this as just one more lesson in how his character is distinguishable from that of the other gods. That no matter how things appear on the surface, God remains stable and consistent. As I stated in the above paragraph, we cannot ignore the fact that the original audience of this story as well as the rest of Genesis would have been the recently-freed Hebrew slaves. It is to their particular story that I now turn. 

The Law in the Exodus Story

We now arrive at the point in Old Testament history where God’s law becomes God’s Law–a codified, written, specific revelation. Although much ink has been spilled in the attempt to make the development of Old Testament law nothing special in the ancient world, there is actually much that distinguishes it from other ancient law codes, such as that of Hammurabi. What is perhaps the most revolutionary development in this respect is the fact that, for Israel, the same body of law applied to everyone within their jurisdiction–native and stranger alike–with the narrow exception of laws applicable only to the priests and Levites.7 It is difficult to overstate just how radical this development was. It is essentially the first example we have of the idea of the rule of law–the removal of the arbitrary judgment of kings and priests and even culture, with the substitution of an objective standard to which everyone had recourse in matters of justice, even slaves captured in battle. 

It is not hard to see the connection to the theme that has been developed thus far regarding the arbitrary and capricious actions of Canaanite gods. Just as God distinguished himself from the other gods by his reliable and consistent ordering of the universe (an order to which these other gods were necessarily subject), so too were God’s people called to live within a socio-political order that was reliable, consistent, and universally applicable within their own community. On the surface, connecting a reliable Creator to the modern understanding of freedom may seem tangential or unsustainable. However, when the theological assumptions inherent in that understanding are connected to their overall effect on socio-political developments, it becomes arguable–if not clearly demonstrable–that modern political theory and its emphasis on intellectual freedoms relies on, at the very least, monotheism and, perhaps, the Judeo-Christian instance of monotheism specifically. This idea of a body of law that can be appealed to in an objective way becomes even clearer as we move into the more developed era of the Davidic kingdoms. 

The Law in the History of Israel and Judah

Obviously, there is too much material in the Old Testament history of the two Hebrew kingdoms to deal with here in any brief but comprehensive way. Therefore, I want to focus on one specific story that illustrates the point I’m trying to make. The story is that of David and Bathsheba, told in 2 Samuel 11. The basic outline of the story is that one night, David cannot sleep and so he steps out onto his balcony at the king’s residence. Looking out over Jerusalem he sees a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the roof of her house. David immediately lusts after her. He learns that her husband is a Hittite soldier employed in David’s army, so he knows that she’s alone since he is away fighting in a war. Being the king, he has no problem convincing Bathsheba to sleep with him. And she has no problem getting pregnant by David. In an attempt to preserve honor, he recalls her husband and encourages him to go and sleep with his wife, thus the baby would then be his and nobody would have to know the difference. Only Bathsheba’s husband doesn’t go along with it, he refuses to sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers are sleeping in the field. So David has him placed on the front lines at a place where he knows he’ll be killed and he takes Bathsheba into his harem. What’s important to realize is that David “did what was typical for a Mediterranean king at the time in a situation like this.”8 He did not do what ought to have been typical for a king who knew the God of Israel and his Law. 

This is where the prophet Nathan enters the picture. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan is said to have entered into the king’s palace and confronted him directly with a prophetic word accusing David of violating God’s Law. At this point, what would probably have been typical of a Mediterranean king would be to silence the prophet (this is something that Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, would try to do later, as told in 1 Kings 18). Instead, after Nathan confronts David and points out his violation of God’s Law, David only says, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). To put it in terms that make sense in our contemporary world, an informed citizen confronted his government about the government’s own wrongdoing–and the citizen won. The citizen won because he appealed to a common body of objective law that was recognized by everyone within the king’s jurisdiction. Even the king himself recognized the validity of that law (c.f., Psalm 119:45-46). This was a radical departure from the societies that surrounded Israel. Even in places where there was a public body of law, the king in many instances was “above the law.” But in Israel, that a stable and reliable God gave stable and objective laws–both natural and judicial–meant that nobody, not even the king, could avoid their implications. This is a major foundation for intellectual freedom because it, like God’s law in Eden, carves out a space for free moral action.

Conclusion 

The purpose of this post was to argue that the Old Testament Scriptures provide an important textual foundation for the development of intellectual freedoms. This argument begins with the observation that God created an orderly universe that obeys certain natural laws. This stability in both nature and the God who created it was a primary distinction between Israel’s God and the gods of their Canaanite neighbors. This stability also provided a grounding for the development of ideas about free action because it mapped out, so to speak, the natural boundaries of behavior. The natural law, revealed within the ordered universe, is discoverable and knowable without any special or specific revelation. That God allows himself to be limited by his own decrees makes his reliability that much more stable. When the Law proper was revealed to Moses at Sinai, it provided an objective basis on which the Israelites ordered their own society after the example of their God. This meant that the Law applied universally, even to the king and his government, as we see in the story of David and Bathsheba. 

Each of these steps is important in the development of intellectual freedom as a legal and cultural concept. Before wrapping this post up, however, I want to take notice of a possible counterargument. It is possible that someone might raise the objection that I’m suggesting that one must be a Jew or a Christian in order to accept or believe in the validity of intellectual freedoms. The specific counter in that case would be that there are millions of non-believers in the world who support and defend intellectual freedom. This is not what I am trying to say here. My reply to this counterargument would come in two parts. 

First, while I am not saying that one must be a Jew or a Christian to accept or believe in intellectual freedoms, I am saying that outside of a biblical worldview, one has no rational basis on which to ground that belief. Absent the existence of an orderly and stable Creator, we have no reason to expect an orderly and stable universe. In that case, we would have every reason to expect an arbitrary and chaotic universe without discernible, constant natural laws. That we do observe a stable and orderly universe with constant and discernible natural laws rationally implies that there is some kind of stable and ordered Mind behind it. Also, to the extent that our laws are–or ought to be–in pursuit of the discernible natural law, we would not have principles like the rule of law unless God’s creation generally, and even God himself, abided by the rule of law.

Second, I admit–again–that one need not be a theist, Jew, or Christian to support intellectual freedom. My bigger point is not that you need to believe in God and his Law for those freedoms to exist or be recognized. I am saying that someone at some point in the past did need that belief. Whether one wants to admit it or not, the ideals of the rule of law first developed in an environment that held a biblical worldview. These ideas would then continue to be developed in the New Testament, which will be the subject of my next post in this series. 

Footnotes

  1. Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1966).
  2. Jared C. Hood, “The Decalogue of Genesis 1-3,” Reformed Theological Review 75, no. 1 (April 2016): 39-43, https://doi.org/10.3316/informit.156534035765735.
  3. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 24.
  4. Julia Annas, “Plato on Law-Abidance and a Path to Natural Law,” Jurisprudence 9, no. 1 (January 2018): 28, https://doi.org/10.1080/20403313.2017.1352316.
  5. Richard J. Ross, “Distinguishing Eternal from Transient Law: Natural Law and the Judicial Law of Moses,” Past & Present, no. 217 (November 2012): 82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23324204.
  6. David VanDrunen, “The Two Kingdoms and the Social Order: Political and Legal Theory in Light of God’s Covenant with Noah,” Journal of Markets and Morality 14, no. 2 (September 2011): 447-448.
  7. Mordekhai Zer-Kavod, “The Code of Hammurabi and the Laws of the Torah,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 26, no. 2 (1998): 109.
  8. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 125.

4 thoughts on “Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part II, the Old Testament

  1. You mention that “perhaps the most revolutionary development in this respect is the fact that, for Israel, the same body of law applied to everyone within their jurisdiction–native and stranger alike”. I remember watching a PBS documentary years ago during which a scholar mentioned that the Ten Commandments was the first recorded document that indicated a people believed that God cared how they treated others. All other people believed that my interactions with depended on my own interaction with the gods. As long as I made the proper sacrifices, the gods didn’t care what I did to my neighbor. But the Hebrew God did care how others were treated, and my relationship with God depended not just on pleasing God but how I treated my neighbors. I don’t think that relates to your points at all but I found it interesting. Ha.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Actually, it relates perfectly. I’m glad you brought it up. That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make–that there is an objective standard, an intelligible system for arguing for things like rights and duties, both individual and social.

      Thank you for drawing the connection!

      R.

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