We've been reading through the Pentateuch for the last couple years on Wednesday nights: we started with Exodus a few years ago, and are now in Deuteronomy 32. So our reading of the Pentateuch is coming to a close.
Something I've heard over and over since I was a kid in Sunday School is that the Law is the best way to live in this world. They used to tell us, for example, that the strictures against eating pork were because pigs carry all sorts of diseases and parasites, and it was healthier not to eat pork.
I've heard that sort of reasoning given as we read through the Pentateuch this time as well. For example, someone commented on Deuteronomy 22:9 that crops are more productive if they aren't sown together.
But... that's not actually true. All the reading I've done on the subject says crops are much more productive when they are mixed. Mixed fields are more resistant to disease, and the soil is healthier with diverse plants. My understanding – which is far from perfect – is that we plant large fields uniformly because it makes the harvest easier to automate, not because the crops grow better.
This was brought home to me most clearly in the commandments regarding lending. The children of Israel were to forgive all debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1–2). So the maximum term of a loan under the Law is seven years. But they were specifically forbidden from considering how far away the seventh year is (Deuteronomy 15:9). So if it's the sixth year, and a poor fellow Israelite asks for a loan, you're specifically forbidden from taking into consideration that you must forgive the loan in less than one year. And if someone asks for a loan, you're not allowed to take his ability to pay it back into consideration (Deuteronomy 15:7–8). In fact, if someone poor asks for a loan, you're to return the collateral of the loan by sundown (Deuteronomy 24:12–13).
Those rules can only be described as "non-sustainable". You are expected to give loans without interest, which must be forgiven every seven years. You can take collateral for a loan, but you can't keep it overnight. You're not allowed to consider the borrower's ability to repay a loan, nor are you allowed to consider how close the mandatory loan forgiveness is when you're asked for a loan. It's madness.
I've come to the conclusion that many times, the Law specifies doing things in worse, not better ways. It's not because pork is unhealthy that eating it is forbidden. It's not because crops grow better separately they were commanded to keep them separate. It's not because it's good financial sense to lend to someone without thought for their ability to repay the loan that they were commanded to do so. It seems to me like the very opposite.
The idea that the Law prescribes "best practices" for our health and well-being entirely misses the point. These weren't strictures against practices that don't work. These are strictures against things our experience shows work very well. So why does God give rules that seem counter-productive?
Deuteronomy 11:8–15 establishes the principle of Deuteronomy: the rules are different in God's land. In Egypt, if you want your crops to grow, you need to irrigate the land (Deuteronomy 11:10). But in Canaan, if you want your crops to grow, you need to pray for rain (Deuteronomy 11:13–14). The principle of living in the land is immediate, direct dependence on God.
So laws about lending that forbid taking the most elementary precautions to protect your money aren't supposed to work better. That's not the point. They're designed to make you depend on God. The promise is, if you do things the way I tell you, then I will ensure your success (Deuteronomy 15:10). You won't succeed because you're following better rules, you'll succeed because God will directly intervene to bless.
And this, I think, is the point we all miss, all the time. We see Scripture as a sort of a guide for how to live in this creation. But that's not at all what Scripture is. It's a guide for how to live in an entirely different creation, a creation where your best ideas and hardest efforts will entirely fail. In the new creation, the only rule for success is to be close to Christ (John 15:4–5).
I wish I could get my arms around this! I wish I could really see this and live it out! I wish I could finally learn that one lesson: that my hardest efforts and my wisest decisions and my most clever plans and my most intelligent ideas are all bound to fail in the new creation. I wish I could see – consistently – that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. I wish I could finally be convinced that the only key to success in the Christian life is proximity to Christ. It seems like no matter how many times I'm brought face-to-face with that one truth, I manage to put it out of my mind, and go back to thinking I've got a better way.