The second of the Great O Antiphons:
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared in the bush to Moses in a flame of fire, and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law,
in cloud, and majesty, and awe.
If my Baby Boomer generation has trust issues (see one post upstream), we also have issues with authority. We have a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a default inclination to question authority figures and their authoritative statements. So if you want to interest us in God, portraying God as a law-giver is probably not your best angle.
And I’m not only a Baby Boomer, but the product of the vigorous trans-denominational (and non-denominational) evangelical subculture of DuPage County, Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. I cut my theological teeth on the Reformation nostrums of “grace alone” and “faith alone.” “The letter [i.e. the letter of the law] killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (II Corinthians 3:6) Law is so … “Old Testament.” Christians are saved by Christ through faith. What use do we have for the law? We have read Galatians, after all.
So here I am, a Baby Boomer child of “grace and Spirit” evangelical Christianity. What am I to make of a liturgical text that celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses “in cloud, and majesty, and awe”?
Getting past “authority” and “law” in a fruitful way requires what we used to call (back in the ‘90s) a “paradigm shift.” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the answer our parents used to give whenever we asked “Why?”—“Because I said so, that’s why!” It requires breaking the association we have between those words and the image of Bull Connor using fire hoses and attack dogs on non-violent civil rights protesters in Selma.
Instead of picturing “authority” as a parent, or a university administrator, or a sheriff wearing mirror sunglasses and a Smoky Bear hat, we do better to picture one who is “a leading authority in her field,” or better yet, an author. God has authority, not because he arbitrarily arrogated it to himself, or because he’s omnipotent and can “smite” anybody who opposes him, but because he’s the Author. He wrote the story. He conceived the plot. He named the characters. He made the props. It’s his theater and his show. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. I may find John Grisham more appealing than Dan Brown, but if I want insight into The DaVinci Code (perish the thought!), it’s Dan Brown that I need to be talking to, because he’s the author of the book.
So, instead of thinking of “law”, then, as a a statute in some criminal or civil or ecclesiastical code, we do better to think of “law” in terms of “the laws of nature.” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A molecule of water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The square root of nine is three. These laws are neither good, bad, nor indifferent. They just are. They mediate reality, and when we understand them, they enable us to bend reality to our benefit.
From this perspective, for the Author to “give” us the Law is a consummate act of love and mercy. It is literally an apocalypse—an unveiling, a revelation. The transaction between YHWH and Moses on Sinai’s height is an emblem of God’s desire for us to have the tools by which to successfully navigate the cosmic reality (that is, both physical and spiritual) in which we live. Per St Paul, the law is not the means of our deliverance from the dominion of sin and death. But it’s not a bad measure of our progress toward that end. It’s an invaluable roadmap of the territory in which we live and move and have our being.
Now bring on Psalm 119. “The law of the Lord is dearer to me than thousands in gold or silver.” (v.72)