God and the Law
I made the point in Sin, Righteousness & Judgement that the moral law (in particular, the Mosaic covenantal law) profiles the God who gave it. I’m certain that’s true but it begs to be developed. Jews whose giftedness was scribal in nature believed the law profiled God but they still lost sight of his character and heart, which were made known in the law.
There are laws in the Torah that exist only because there were hardhearted people. Take the case of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which regulated an evil that was going on. If some hardhearted men had not been mistreating women, dishonouring themselves and God there would have been no need for that piece of legislation. Jesus said it existed because their hearts were hard (Matthew 19:7-8).
This means Deuteronomy did more to profile the people than it did to profile God. It exposed their hearts rather than God’s. These men were fools to go to a passage that had For Sinful Weaklings written all over it, line their lives up with it and then boast about it as if they were the righteous cream of the crop. “Sin you can get forgiveness for but stupid is forever,” as Billy Sunday (borrowing from an ancient writer) used to say.
So, then, does Deuteronomy 24 not teach us about God’s heart? It does indeed, but it doesn’t teach us what these people thought it taught. Their problem wasn’t intellectual though there might have been some of that too. They read the law with sinful hearts and settled on the texts they liked best, the ones that justified their sinister agendas—or at least their “settle for less” agendas. Had they been looking for the heart of God they wouldn’t have settled on Deuteronomy 24, they would have seen it for what is it: God regulated an evil he didn’t approve of. (Why he did that is another question for another time.) God tolerated (and tolerates) much that he certainly did not approve. Polygamy, concubinage and divorce in order to marry someone else illustrate what I mean.
Had they looked for the heart of God they wouldn’t have settled on Deuteronomy 24, Jesus said. He said they would have gone for Genesis 2:24, which he linked with Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 2:18-23. There we find God’s heart desire for marriage. Line up with that, he tells them.
So what does a text like Deuteronomy 24 teach us about the heart of God? I think there are a number of things behind this Deuteronomy text but let me select just one. I think, among other things, that the passage is written to give abused women a break. The men were either sending them away from home without a clear indicator that she was no longer his wife or they had taken a second wife and the first wife is kept like a piece of furniture (compare Exodus 21:10). In either case the vulnerable woman can’t remarry and build a life. “If you don’t want her,” Moses said, “free her with a bill of divorce and let her get on with her life.” He said more than that in the section but he said no less than that.
In his care for the vulnerable we see the heart of God—he’s compassionate. And in his legislation that regulated something he hated we see the heart of God—he’s unbelievably patient. So while we have to be careful how we use God’s law if we are to see his heart, there it is, the steady beat that means hope for the world.