The West Wing and the conundrum of unenforceable laws

I am currently rewatching The West Wing, whilst also reading Bearing God’s Name by Carmen Joy Imes, which, it turns out, is a pretty good pairing!

In Take Out the Trash Day (Season 1, Episode 13), Sam Seaborn has heard about a town in Alabama that proposed to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. In a series of conversations (with people who seem far less interested in it than he is) he teases out the impracticality of the proposal.

SAM: Leo, did you know there’s a town in Alabama that wants to…

LEO: Yes.

SAM: What do you think?

LEO: Coveting thy neighbour’s wife’s gonna cause some problems.

SAM: That’s what I said. Plus, if I were arrested for coveting my neighbour’s wife, I’d probably bear false witness.

SAM: Cathy, there is a small town in Alabama that wants to pass a law saying if I don’t honor my father I go to jail. What do you think about that?

CATHY: How do they know if you’re honoring your father or not?

SAM: Yeah, I think they’ve overlooked that.

A few days after watching this episode, I started reading Bearing God’s Name. I’ll write more about it when I’m finished (but in short, I’m halfway through, and it’s brilliant!) Dr. Imes argues that we misunderstand the Torah if we approach it with a modern, Western view of ‘law’ in mind. She writes,

The English word “law” is both too narrow and too misleading to accurately translate the Hebrew word torah. It is better translated as “instruction.” Torah encompasses a wider scope of material than just laws. And “law” is not the best word to describe what the Torah contains. Here’s why:

In modern Western society, “law” refers to a statute codified by the legislature that indicates either required or prohibited behavior, containing specific penalties that are enforceable by the executive branch of government. Often, their precise details are specified at length. […]

Ancient “law” didn’t function in the same way. Scholars studying ancient cultures are beginning to recognize that ancient laws were often hypothetical, rather than legislative. Lists of any kind were the primary means of demonstrating wisdom. You may have heard of Hammurabi (or Hammurapi, as his name is sometimes spelled). He ruled Babylon in the eighteenth century BCE and is best known for his law code consisting of 282 laws. Copies of Hammurabi’s code continued to be produced for centuries, indicating that a ruler such as Hammurabi was held up as the paragon of wisdom in governance. His law code was not legislatively binding, and therefore not cited in court, but rather a collection of wise deliberations on civil society, meant to be studied by judges to inspire reflection on justice. A judge or elder may have found a particular stipulation useful, but they were not bound to apply it across the board.

Could it be that the laws at Sinai fit this ancient category of “law as wisdom”? I think so. Significantly, in spite of the huge number of laws (613 to be exact), we rarely read about their enforcement in ancient Israel. In Old Testament times, the instructions at Sinai would have been understood as the paragon of wisdom—a portrait of a covenant-keeping Israelite. These instructions issued an invitation to a life worth living. Yes, he calls for their commitment, but not without his own. Yahweh’s instructions are embedded in a loving relationship.

Imes, Carmen Joy. Bearing God’s Name (pp. 37-38). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Treating the Ten Commandments as legally enforceable laws is to mistake their purpose and intention. This observation is actually borne out by the final two commandments themselves:

The Ten Commandments close with two surprising commands that are totally unenforceable. How can anyone prove that someone craved their neighbor’s house or wife when lust is a heart condition? The internal nature of these commands hints at the function of the entire law. This is not legislation in a modern sense, but character formation. These instructions paint an ideal picture of a covenant-keeping Israelite, including both outward behavior and inward motivation.

Imes, Carmen Joy. Bearing God’s Name (pp. 55-56). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

The unenforceable nature of these commandments is not an error, or a failure. It actually points to something beautiful.

It isn’t the case, as many have preached, that the Old Testament law was only concerned with our external lives, but the New Testament focusses on our internal lives. No – God has always desired for us to live with integrity. Literally, for our internal and external lives – our actions and our attitudes – to be integrated.

Neither is it the case that the Old Testament gave laws for us to keep in our own strength, but only when that proved impossible did God come up with the idea of coming to meet us in person and establish relationship with us. No, He has always been a relational God, far more committed to us than we to Him. And He has always intended for His life-giving instructions to be outworked within the context of a loving relationship.

Sam Seaborn is right to recognise the unenforceable nature of the commandments, right to point out the foolishness of the Alabaman town, but wrong to assume there’s a problem with the commandments themselves. The Ten Commandments, and the wider body of teaching of which they are a part, are wisdom laws, inviting us to live life to the full, in relationship with our creator.

Now if only God would send us someone who could achieve what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do…

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

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