Tag Archives: Legal

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

“Give Me Land, Lots of Land…”

So they finished dividing the land.
Joshua 19:51 (NRSV)

When I was in college I took a semester off and worked as an abstractor. It was tedious, monotonous work. In the morning a stack of property abstracts sat on my desk in the Polk County Office Building. One by one I would walk a legal history of property around the Recorder’s Office checking various land and tax records for buyers, sellers, and the property itself to make sure that the abstract was accurate and no one was trying to pull something (on at least one occasion, I caught people attempting to do just that).

That semester my acquaintance with property records and their arcane legal descriptions gave me an appreciation for the value and importance we humans place on land.

“Give me land, lots of land, with the starry sky above!”

I finished my college career and a few years later found myself leading a congregation in a small Iowa farm town of 300. As a city boy, this was my first real exposure to the way farming exists for so many in my home state: legacy, business, family, inheritance, and life. It is hard to appreciate just how inseparable people become with the land they and their family possess.

Every Sunday there two old farmers who sat in the back pews as far away from one another as possible. The two had a long standing dispute over a boundary line and fence between their adjacent properties. They never spoke to one another.

As I read through today’s chapter, which is basically an ancient abstract, I had all sorts of thoughts about land and the value we place on it. The property descriptions laid out in these chapters are so black and white, but you have to believe that there are all sorts of stories and emotions that the book of Joshua does not record. Families feeling cheated that another tribe got more land. A tribe thinking they should have such and such a village, river, well, forest amidst their property. Tribes disputing exactly how to interpret what it meant that the boundary “touched Tabor.” In time, these tribes would end up in a bloody civil war. How much bad blood was rooted in resentments hidden in these property descriptions.

This morning I’m thinking about God’s original admonishment that we should “subdue” the earth, and how we may have misinterpreted His intent. History teaches me that we’re really good at misinterpreting things. I’m thinking about Jesus who owned so little and encouraged his followers to hold on loosely to the things of this earth (including, I imagine, the earth itself). I’m thinking about Iowans intimate relationship with the land from which we make our livings and feed the world. I’m pondering the ways that possessions, including that same land, can end up coming before and between relationships.

I’m happy not to be an abstractor.

Chapter-a-Day Exodus 21

Playground rules.

"These are the laws that you are to place before them:" Exodus 21:1 (MSG)

Do you remember the law of the playground? When I think back on it, the playground was a vicious place. There might have been an adult or two standing by the school door casually making sure no one died, but once you got out by the jungle him it was a whole new world. It was survival of the fittest, baby. The older, bigger and meaner you were the more clout you carried and the more scared followers you had in your herd. It was mob mentality to the core. The weak and defenseless were easy targets while the herd moved in unison behind the playground leaders out of self-defense.

Now, expand those rules and mentality to a regional level. Expand it to a national level.

We can scarce imagine a world without laws. Life without a well-defined set of civic rules, prescribed authority, and clearly laid out legal system is almost beyond our comprehension. But, for Moses and the millions of Israelites wandering through the desert behind him, there is no formal set of rules. The law of the playground is at work in the daily lives of a nation of people who have suddenly become nomads. The chaos between the lines of the chapters passed down to us must have been mind-boggling.

It's easy as modern readers to scratch our heads at these chapters of rules and laws, but I'm trying to wrap my brain around what this must have meant for them. As I read through the chapters yesterday and today, I think about the weight of responsibility on Moses to help God define a set of laws and a legal system for an entire nation of people who find themselves homeless wanderers.

It's pretty impressive to think that the legal system we take for granted traces its' roots all the way back to these very chapters of Exodus and to these people wandering in the desert 10,000 years ago.

creative commons photo courtesy of flickr and funkybug