Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse:" A Postulate of Biblical Criminal Law

In his classic essay, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,"* Moshe Greenberg threw down the gauntlet at historical and comparative approaches that he saw as draining the life and meaning from our analysis of biblical law: "...until the values that the law embodies are understood, it is questionable whether any individual law can be properly appreciated, let alone profitably compared with another in a foreign system."

Greenberg then observed two crucial distinctions between "biblical" (meaning all of the legal material in the Torah, treated as a single system) and Mesopotamian law: First, Mesopotamian law is authored by the king, while biblical law is never authored by a human:
"Not only is Moses denied any part in the formation of the Pentateuchal laws, no Israelite king is said to have authored a law code, nor is any king censured for so doing. The only legislator the Bible knows is God; the only legislation is that mediated by a prophet."
Second, in biblical law human life has an absolute value: unlike supposedly more advanced Mesopotamia or supposedly more primitive bedouin cultures, you cannot pay money ("damages," in our terms) to restore a life. For these two distinctions alone his article retains enduring value.

But Greenberg then makes a move with stunning potential consequences: Offhandedly fusing historically and juridically distinct laws from Deuteronomy and the Covenant Code of Exodus with Priestly law, he concludes that "In the sphere of the criminal law, the effect of this divine authorship of all law is to make crimes sins, a violation of the will of God," citing Numbers 15:30's claim that anyone who violates the law "affronts the Lord, and will be cut off from among the people." "The way is thus prepared," writes Greenberg, "to regard offenses as absolute wrongs, transcending the power of men to pardon or expunge."

Indeed. The greatest impact of the idea that any violation of biblical law was an unforgivable offense against God came from another brilliant holistic Jewish interpreter who also treated the entire Torah as a single legal statement:
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law...
St. Paul's audacious claim in Galatians 3:10-13 is that the law had become a curse because any violation of the law is not merely wrong--a human act that must be made right by human means, but a sin against God, a cosmic stain that human power can never wipe away. And Judeans who had experienced repeated, crushing defeats and exiles, all of which seemed predicted in just that section of Deuteronomy Paul uses, might have understood just what he was saying. We remain defeated; we must have violated some part of this sweeping law, which has cursed us; our law is a curse. Of course, there was a corresponding positive holistic reading of the text, well known and popular in Paul's time but in which he was understandably uninterested: the idea that repentance and the Day of Atonement together completely remove precisely this cosmic stain.

My argument, implied in the joke fusion of my title, is that when "holistic" reading frees scholars from historical context--the obligation to heed individual biblical voices--they may unintentionally conjure up powerful ghosts that only theology can confront. Come to think of it, speaking of powerful theological ghosts the next post should be about Jacob Taubes.

* Greenberg's "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law" was originally published in Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion, the Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, ed. Menahem Haran (Jerusalem, 1960), and its interest in discovering a qualitatively distinctive biblical-Jewish approach to law that could not be explained by social evolution fit well with the dedicatee's brilliant nationalist project.

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