Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Impossible Yoke: Part II

In a previous post I stated that I wanted to examine the idea of the (in)ability of Law-observance in Judaism near, chronologically, to the NT. To begin I want to examine some quotations taken from Timo Laato's book Paul and Judaism: An Anthropological Approach (1995). In section 4.1.1 he examines the notion of "human freedom" in Judaism, which is a key component in the discussion of the (in)ability of Law-observance.

On page 67 Laato quotes Sirach 15:11-20, which he dates to 200 BC. I will not reproduce the quote as it appears in the book since it is likely a translation from German into English of a translation. So, to excise one step, I will quote from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (AP 105-06). Sirach 15:11-20:

11-Do not say, "It was the Lord's doing that I fell away"; for he does not do what he hates. 12-Do not say, "It was he who led me astray"; for he has no need of the sinful. 13-The Lord hates all abominations; such things are not loved by those who fear him. 14-It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. 15-If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. 16-He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. 17-Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. 18-For great is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power and sees everything; 19-his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every human action. 20-He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.

This passage seems to be highlighting a few things that are important to our discussion.
  1. Humans have the ability to choose to keep the commandments, i.e., to choose between life and death.
  2. This ability to choose is a power given by God from the beginning of human history.
  3. Choosing to follow the commandments of God is the faithful choice, the satisfactory choice, the choice that expresses love toward God.
  4. God is effectively taken off the hook for the sinfulness of humanity because, though he knows all human action, he never commanded (much less forced) anyone to be wicked and to sin.
The question of the (in)ability to fulfill the Law remains however. It is clear that the choice to not fulfill the Law (in toto or in part) is a decision that falls squarely on the shoulders of the one who so chooses. Can the same be said of the choice to follow the commands? Was a Jew, according to the author of Sirach, the one responsible for the fulfilling of the Law? Let's take another look at Sirach 15:14-15 (AP 106): "It was he [the Lord] who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice."

The logic of these two verses is clear. God created humanity, God gave them the power to have free will, the free will can be used to fulfill the commandments (which is equivalent to acting faithfully), and this choice is solely the responsibility of the one choosing (it is identified as "your own choice"). Not only is the basic logic easily spotted, so are some underlying meanings.

This ability to choose is called a "power" that can be enacted. "Power" conjures up ideas of effectiveness and capability. If this "power" can be harnessed, then it seems possible that one could ably fulfill the Law. All the Jewish believer would have had to do was reach out, through the power of his/her will, and choose to do the commands faithfully.

Moreover, while it could be interpreted a bit more positively, Sirach 15:19 has a very negative ring to it. To paraphrase: God is keeping his eyes on believers and he knows every human action. It is hard to read this verse in any other way than the hallway monitor, who watches those who follow the rules and those who don't. Those who follow the rules don't get detention, those who don't do.

Chapter 15 leaves us with the impression that the book of Sirach teaches that humans have the God-given ability in their own beings to fulfill the Law, even completely. As Charles Talbert put it, this passage and others "focus exclusively on human freedom" (Reading John [1994], 181). However, if we give any credence to the idea that the book of Sirach has a basic coherence of thought from beginning to end, then chapter 33 leaves us with an unresolved tension (J.J. Collins, Apocalypticism in the Dead Sea Scrolls [1997], 34). The specific reference that Collins has in mind seems to be Sirach 33:13, which reads as follows: "Like clay in the hand of the potter, to be molded as he pleases, so all are in the hand of their Maker, to be given whatever he decides." Collins sums up his ideas on the tension between Sirach 15 and 33 like this, "the exercise of human choice is conditioned by the inclination with which a person is fitted at creation" (34).

However, this tension exists partly because of the context of each of the passages. Chapter 15 seems to be, in part, a defense against theodicy, while chapter 33 is presenting the reader with a magnificent picture of God as creator, the one responsible for all that is, the one who even chooses the pathways of humanity. Despite the apparent thrusts of each section, the tension remains.

Thus, free will and predetermination are intermingled here, but chapter 15 teaches that the ultimate responsibility for sin is to found within the one who has chosen not to keep God's commandments. The strong emphasis on human freedom in chapter 15 necessitates that one lean more toward the free will of human beings and the ability to fulfill the Law, whether this freedom was given and empowered by God or not.

I will continue this series of posts later with a quotation from the Psalms of Solomon.

The Impossible Yoke: Part I
The Impossible Yoke: Part III
The Impossible Yoke: Part IV
The Impossible Yoke: Part V
The Impossible Yoke: Part VI
The Impossible Yoke: Part VII
The Impossible Yoke: Part VIII

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