Science and Law in the Pentateuch

Law is explicit or implicit on nearly every page of the Pentateuch.  When the God of Genesis takes his lawful rest on the Sabbath, the creation stands in orderly distinction to the darkness and watery chaos from which it was called forth.  Discrete regular phenomena in the natural realm are the reflection of a moral law that will later be made explicit in the Decalogue, the dietary and cultic law of the Holiness Code, and Deuteronomic Law.  With a few words God has defined the formal order of all that is created.  A firmament divides the waters below it from those above.  Day and night and the movements of the heavenly bodies recur in regular orderly progression.  Living species propagate according to their kinds.  Man and woman have dominion on earth as the sun and moon have in the heavens.  The repugnance for spiritualism and divination in the Pentateuch, and the conspicuous absence of magic, accentuate and contrast with the lawful ordering of creation and cult.

From the very beginning a characteristic structure appears in the heavens and the earth.  The epistemology appropriate to this structure is compatible with an idea of rational laws in nature which has passed through several mutations in the history of science.  It must be conceded that science has distinguished itself, over the past half century, from the lawful understanding of nature that was apparent in its incipient stages.  Chaos theory is even deeper and slipperier than the quantum mechanics Einstein called a “stinking pigsty.”  Science has evolved through several stages of mathematical formulation of physical laws and probability theory.  In modern and “post-modern” scientific practice a single methodology is not easy to define.  Still, almost everybody agrees we have more knowledge of the world than ever before, knowledge involving rigorous analyses of basic processes in a way that makes them predictable.  Predictable phenomena are controllable.  The chain reaction of this result, like nuclear fission, now spreading even to the life sciences, is the power source in the epistemology of science.

A philosophical orientation that explicitly rejects divine law in nature was not always the norm in science.  Newton and Leibniz were theologians as well as mathematical physicists.  Michael Faraday was an exemplary experimental researcher, and he was devoted, throughout his life, to religious ideals.  Darwin began his work impressed with William Paley’s “argument from design” for the existence of God.  The evidence he found favoring evolution of living species was the end of that explanation of “adaptation and diversity” for him and for our culture.

An epistemology can be delineated in the Pentateuch that is consistent with assumptions that are implicit for science.  Predictable processes of discrete entities are the substance of nature and human society in this literature.  The power of language in it to make things happen is logically based on rational human discourse.  God’s word is the ordering force in creating the heavens and the earth.  The significance of human language in naming living creatures, the written moral law, and legal procedure that is based on the testimony of witnesses, denote an understanding of human beings as distinguished by a rational capacity that is essential for scientific enterprise.  Human dominion over the earth, controversial as it has become, is common to the creation account in Genesis and to science.

The first creation account (Genesis I–II:3) relates an orderly progression of days in which God utters commands of the form: Let there be… .  The seven days of creation–six of work and one of rest–are the beginning of order in nature that reappears as the cultic observance of the Sabbath in the Sinaitic covenant.

God says, “Let there be light,” and divides the light from the darkness.  The regularity of evening and morning is established, which provides the form for the rest of the narrative.  The distinct duality of light and darkness is the first in a set of binary dimensions of the emerging order.

On the second day God says, “Let there be a firmament to divide the waters.”  A duality is created between the waters above the firmament and those below it.  Many areas of the Ancient Near East were subject to devastating floods.  For this reason it is not surprising that chaos is represented by water in ancient near eastern literature.  An Egyptian myth includes the account of Ptah rising out of the primordial waters to speak the word, which is then embodied in creation.[1]  In the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, the seas are given godlike embodiment in Apsu and Tiamat.[2]  Flood narratives such as the Biblical flood, The Gilgamesh Epic, and the Sumerian Deluge are alike in that chaos threatens to undo the order that has been claimed like diked-off bottomland from the edge of a turbulent Mesopotamian river.

The third day is a continuation of the process of controlling the primordial waters.  Seas are gathered to their appointed places under heaven.  Dry land appears.  The waters above the firmament are contained.  Presumably they escape only when it rains.  The dry land is then commanded to put forth vegetation bearing seed according to its kind.  A simple observation of plant life-bearing seed according to its kind points to natural regularity as opposed to any form of animism.  Spirits are not lurking in every rock and tree of this landscape.  As will be seen on the subsequent days of creation, Genesis demythologizes nature.  Robert Alter has made a good case that the prose form of Biblical narrative is itself a repudiation of the epic verse used in Canaanite mythology.[3]  The incantations of the Baal fertility cult are a case in point.  The content of the following passage is alien to the Hebrew conception of nature.  It seems plausible that the form would be avoided because it carried objectionable connotations.

What enemy rises against Baal, /What adversary against Him Who Mounteth the Clouds? /Have I not slain Sea, beloved of El? /Have I not annihilated River, the great God?[4]

The Babylonian epic finds divinity in natural phenomena.  The division of the waters and the beginning of vegetation on dry land in Genesis are far removed from the warfare of monstrous deities characteristic of Enuma Elish.  In Enuma Elish, Tiamat and her offspring represent and embody a rebellion of waters.  She is vanquished and then dismembered to become the foundation for the heavens and the earth.  Marduke slits her body in two “like a fish in the drying yards.”  One half he positions and secures as the sky.  On the inside of her carcass he traces out lines for the mighty gods, that is, for stars, seasonal star groups, and constellations.  The sun gates he opens in both sides of her ribs.  He heaps the mountains upon her head.  From her pierced eyes flow the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Of the beginning of the lights in the firmament, the fourth day of Genesis renders a quite different account.  There is order in Marduke’s tracings of the seasonal trajectories of the heavenly bodies.  In that sense the accounts are similar, but the stars are not gods.  Genesis rejects the conception of warring deities and the idea that God is embodied in nature.  The God of Genesis is not embodied in the sea or the stars.  God’s rational command–his word–defines nature and gives it orderly progression.  The sun and the moon rule in the heavens in a metaphorical sense.  If this is an exception to Alter’s contention that metaphor is avoided in the Bible, the later reference to the rule of human beings on earth abrogates whatever implications this may have that heavenly bodies are worthy of worship.  The Hebrew word used of the sun is, mahshal, the rule of a king.  The metaphor (not the word) is repeated of human beings who rule (rahdah) the earth and its creatures.  The Hebrew word is used to denote prevailing over the beasts.  This is in contradistinction to any form of divinity embodied in animals.

The binary distinctions that appear in the process of creation include: The division of light from darkness on the first “day”; the firmament that, on the second day, divides the waters above it from those below; seas and dry land that appear on the third; the sun to rule the day and the moon the night that appear on the fourth.  On the fifth day the waters bring fourth swarms of living creatures, and birds fly above the earth.  Finally, human beings are distinguished from the beasts.

Dualism is a philosophical component of many mythologies and systems of thought.  The Hebrew Bible is not an abstract rational system in the manner of Greek metaphysics or modern scientific theory, but at the line of demarcation between light and darkness in Genesis–or later in the unambiguous dichotomy of good and evil–is an implicit logical core.  Aristotelian logic is based on the law of identity: A, or not A. (Fish, or not fish)  In terms of the fifth day of creation, a fish is a creature of the sea; a bird is not.  A computer functions on the basis of this distinction using a binary system; each byte is either on or off, 1 or 0.  There are ways of looking at life that ignore or deny this distinction.  The mathematician Alfred Korzybski introduced a non-Aristotelian semantics.  Some Far Eastern philosophies contradict the law of identity.  In this regard it is no accident that the rise of science occurred in the western world.  The merits and demerits of the scientific world view can be debated till the cows come home, but Edward Jenner could not have begun irradication of small pox if he didn’t think there was difference between small pox (A) and cow-pox (not A).  This example from the history of science is interesting in that it shows how a discrete entity (the virus that causes small pox) can be ambiguous, yet distinct.  Small pox is not cow-pox; small pox is often fatal.  But, the virus is similar enough that the body’s immunity develops to both by exposure to the less virulent of the two.  Perhaps, we are here considering what could be better described as a discontinuity.  There are discrete entities of both kinds in the Pentateuch.  A pox upon anyone who would deny it!

Discontinuities are important.  The final climactic discontinuity that distinguishes human beings from animals on the sixth day of creation is a case in point.  In one sense human beings are animals.  Yet Genesis grants them dominion over the birds of the air, the fish, the cattle, and the creeping things of the earth.  Enuma Elish certainly entertains no such distinction in human beings.  Man is created from the blood of Kingu who conspired with Tiamat in her uprising.  He exists to provide sacrifices for the gods.[4]  Discontinuities are troublesome to a common sense way of looking at things.  That there should be discrete energy levels at which an atom absorbs or emits energy is counterintuitive.  And why should light energy be quantized?  A modification of the theory of evolution, punctuated equilibrium, had to be introduced because species of life do not blur one into another in the world as we know it or in the fossil record.  The cardinal sin of philosophy, according to aformer mentor, Arnulf Zweig, is lumping things together.  The Genesis editor thus avoids a corner of hell reserved for sloppy intellectuals by noting that the plants and animals of God’s green earth reproduce according to their kinds.

In Genesis, Human beings are created in God’s image, after God’s likeness.  Image and likeness are two different words in the Hebrew Bible as they are in translation.  The Hebrew word, tzelem is used in other passages to denote images “cut out” of stone or metal, as is the case with pagan idols.  The word translated likeness is the Hebrew word, demoot.  This is physical resemblance.  In whatever way human beings can be said to be like God, whether in physical appearance or intangible qualities of the will, emotional makeup, or intellect, the important thing seems to be that human beings are the only godlike beings in his creation.  Numinous animals were worshiped by some of Israel’s neighbors.  Egyptian gods created by Ptah go to “inhabit their bodies of wood, stone, clay, or anything that might grow upon Ptah.”[4]  Modern literature with its references to the human animal has on this point committed the cardinal sin of philosophy by denying the distinct status of the human race.  It is a distinction acknowledged in Jewish and Christian literature of all periods.

How are human beings to have dominion over the earth and its creatures?  The Hebrew rahdah is, as mentioned previously, a verb used for prevailing over something or somebody.  The word translated, subdue, in the passage “subdue the earth,” is more forceful.  The word is kavash.  It is used elsewhere to mean trample down a path, or to bring into bondage, and even to mean the rape of a woman.  Little wonder that this is the passage often quoted in criticism of what is variously referred to in Western culture as ecological imperialism, species chauvinism, or technological aggression.  That this verse is objectionable from a modern understanding of ecology is an important piece of evidence for the present thesis.  Modern science has at its foundation, or had in its formative stages, certain axiomatic notions of human capacity to correctly understand, predict, and ultimately control nature.  This optimistic appraisal of human capabilities is based on two ideas implicit in the Pentateuch:  First, that nature is a lawfully functioning process of discrete entities.  Second, that human beings can understand and control these processes because they are in some sense themselves discrete from them.  To trample down nature, or to bring it into bondage, requires superior power of some kind.  The power of modern science to control nature is undeniable.  How it should be managed becomes a moral issue.  We have come to dominate forces that could have drowned, starved, or infected the human race in earlier periods of history.  Our lately discovered power is a function of our ability–in the terminology of the Pentateuch–to understand the word God has spoken in giving formal order to the universe.

What evidence is there after the creation hymn that Hebrew culture developed according to the principles we have been describing?  Is the moral law of the Sinaitic Covenant rational?  Is it lawful in the sense that it is more than the arbitrary canon of a sect?  The dietary and cultic laws seem susceptible to priestly control and manipulation of cult adherents–if not contrived for that very purpose.  Where in practice is there any reference to lawfully functioning processes of discrete entities that can be understood and justified by men and women who voluntarily enter into covenant?  The theophanies that accompany the inscription of the law on stone tablets seem indicative of divine sovereignty of the inscrutable Calvinistic mode, but there is more substance than smoke to be found in the laws inscribed–the text so often reminds us–“as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

The written law begins to spell out what lay between the lines in earlier stages of the Pentateuch.  Implicit in the patriarchal narratives is an ethics presented so artfully that it often leaves the reader muttering about the outrages perpetrated by God’s elect.

The Decalogue is as permanent a fixture of western culture, as is the creation hymn.  The laws have proved at least as durable as the theophany in which they are set.  In the case of the Decalogue, the question of whether the laws are justifiable–in absence of a divine mandate–by reference to the human behavior they are meant to regulate is largely rhetorical.  A thorough exegesis of Exodus 20: 1-17 and Deuteronomy 5: 1-21 is not necessary to demonstrate that the moral laws found there proscribe behavior that most people–then or now–would find objectionable.  Since the first three of the ten commandments (using Martin Luther’s numbers) regulate cult practice, they require a little different treatment.

The Pentateuch reveals moral law along with the Hebrew conception of God’s sovereignty as seen in his covenant relationship with his people.  The covenant follows the structure of a contemporary legal form, the suzerain-vassal treaty.  The overlord (God) identifies himself; he sets forth the grounds for the vassal’s loyalty (I delivered you from bondage in Egypt); he sets out the terms (the law); there is a deposition of the text (stone tablets) and provision for public reading; and blessings and curses are invoked for keeping or breaking the covenant.  God’s sovereign power, at least in relation to Israel, is explicitly lawful.

As mentioned, the first three of the ten commandments relate to cult practice.  Verse 2 of Exodus 20 is a justification of the exclusivity of the first commandment.  Deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage, to the extent that the covenant is voluntary, is rational justification for giving homage and obedience to one God.  How this works out in actual practice is spelled out in the commandment.  The proscription of idolatry harmonizes well with the creation account of human beings as the sole bearers of the divine image.

Swearing in the name of God and not keeping the terms of the oath is to incur guilt in terms of the second commandment.  This is a matter of personal piety or cult observance.  It can be considered psychologically healthy.  False witness in the name of God is both cult violation and moral offense.  The second commandment and the eighth merge in the case of perjury under oath.  The injunction against false witness is not dissimilar to that in the Law Code of Hammurabi.[5]  This stipulation, necessary in any system of jurisprudence, is punishable by death in the Hammurabi code.  In the prologue to this code Hammurabi’s avowed purpose is to ameliorate the condition of the powerless.  In the sense that Hammurabi’s rule is divinely ordained by the Sun God, Shamash, the law can be said to be backed by divine authority like that of Hebrew covenant law.  In any analysis the injunction against perjury is the kind of material that indicates reference, in the compilation of the Decalogue, to something other than power, whether the arbitrary power of God or that of an “old-boy” network of priests.  The commandment is not arbitrary; it is based upon the need in human society for true testimony.  It is backed by divine authority, but human beings can understand its compulsory nature.

Sabbath day observance is, like false witness under oath, both cult observance and practical morality.  On the face of it, it seems only cult practice.  When compared to other passages in the Pentateuch it is found to be a requirement of a more practical nature.  God may not need his rest on the seventh day of creation; human beings and animals do need days of rest.  This is provided in the way Sabbath observance is prescribed in the many texts that refer to it, notably Exodus 23: 10-12.  Nobody is to do any work on the Sabbath–not the master, the slave, or the alien in the land.  Animals are not to be put in harness.  Even the land is required to lie fallow every seventh year.  In the application of cult practice, days of rest and refreshment are assured, not only for the landowner, but for the hired servant and the alien.

The commandment to honor father and mother becomes the social security provision of the law.  It is justifiable in its application to the problem of aging in human society.  This is the converse of the prominence accorded blessings and birthrights in the patriarchal narratives.  In the story of Jacob and Esau, land and possessions are bequeathed in a man’s last words and through birthright.  The care of elders is given similar prominence here in the law.  Just how this ideal was applied is tangential for present purposes.

Murder, adultery, larceny, and perjury are alike inimical to civilized life.  One of the great accomplishments of ethical monotheism was branding them as evils to be eschewed by anyone who would court God’s favor by cult practice. Hebrew prophets established that in Western culture forever.

In Luther’s numbering of the commandments the injunction against covetousness is divided into the ninth and tenth commandments.  In any case, Exodus 20:17 is an application of moral law to an issue of the heart.  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” takes the law to the incipient stage of an offense.  Is this unique in the ancient world?  It would seem so.  The Law code of Hammurabi refers only to objective behavior.  Covetousness is an infraction of law that would be impossible to prove or disprove in any legal proceeding.  It doesn’t seem to fit the rubric of cult practice, so it must be intended to mold the ethical sensibilities of the covenant people.  Is it rational to ask people to control their innermost intent to such a degree?  The twentieth-century school of rational-emotive psychology (Ellis et al.) maintains that our feelings are largely a function of the way we interpret the circumstances of life.  In this view, the response of the heart is controllable by the thoughts we allow ourselves to think.  The literature of the rational-emotive school quotes the Enchiridion of a Roman stoic philosopher, Epictetus.  “Men feel disturbed, not by things but by the views they take of them.”[6]  That the Stoics come up in this regard is significant and will be pursued later.  For now, it is enough to establish that “you shall not covet” penetrates human motivation in a formative stage.

What have we accomplished so far in this analysis?  A culture, like a language, is distinguished by its characteristic modes of thought.  There is evidence that the creation hymn and the first normative statement of moral and cultic practice, the Decalogue, of the Hebrew people embody a consistent paradigm.  The evidence of the Decalogue and the creation hymn favor a sophisticated conception of God as a lawful sovereign.  The creation hymn is framed in six days of creation followed by the day of rest; economy and cult in the Decalogue are similarly regulated by the commandment to observe the Sabbath day after six days work.  The duality of light and darkness of the creation is as distinct as the blessings and curses that accompany good and evil.  The deities who are conspicuous by their absence in the natural realm are proscribed in Hebrew cultus by the first commandment.  In the beginning only human beings are bearers of the image of God; the law inveighs against graven images of heavenly bodies or earthly creatures.  The discrete processes of nature find their equivalent in the structure of human life in the covenant society; moral law is divinely ordained, but it is not impenetrable to reason.

There is another aspect of law in the Pentateuch, by which exilic Jews of all subsequent periods were distinguishable.  This is, of course, the dietary law which came to have canonical stature.  These laws have been described as an object lesson in a fallen world.  How might this be appropriate?  In one sense they distinguish Israel from neighboring peoples who worship idols or who are immoral in terms set down by the law.  As anyone who has ever been on a restricted diet knows, it is hard to be comfortable living with people who don’t have any reason to follow the diet.  This problem has, over the centuries, kept the Jews at some distance from the mainstream of culture.  Western civilization is indebted to Hebrew thought in many ways.  This suggests it was worth preserving from syncretism with cultures that worshiped Baal, Anath, their pharaoh, or a numinous animal.  Purity from the contamination of immoral practices or simply wrong conceptions of God and man can be preserved by purity in the ritual sense.

What about the substance of the dietary laws themselves?  Leaving aside their efficacy in preserving Hebrew culture, we can consider how they might have been compiled.  The blessings associated with observance of the law include preservation from the diseases prevalent among Israel’s neighbors.  If, for example, there is a health benefit in the restriction on eating pork, how was it discovered?  Even if one takes a view of revelation that assumes everything of substance in the law was written by the finger of God on stone tablets at Sinai, the contention is still valid that the law is true to the phenomena it describes and rationally justifiable.

Of course, in absence of the knowledge that pork must be cooked at a certain temperature for a minimum period of time, there is a health benefit in the avoidance of pork.  It could be discovered by noting the relationship between the incidence of trichinosis among certain groups of people, and pork in their diet.  Given the view of nature evident in the Pentateuch, this is the kind of observation people schooled in it might be expected to make.  Theirs is not a rigorous scientific method with control groups to verify that trichinosis is caused by something in pork.  It is a philosophically realistic view of nature that is propitious for grasping basic facts.

In essence, we propose is that the dietary laws were discovered by observation in a way consistent with the epistemology we have been discussing, not arbitrarily contrived by an elite.  Nor do I think such a large and systematic body of laws should be taken lightly because it could be described as folk knowledge.  Folk knowledge can be right or wrong.  One subculture might eat badgers and porcupines, while another knows that badgers and porcupines are two of the most parasitized animals on the face of the earth.

Many of these dietary regulations are, in fact, better understood in our scientifically advanced age.  Washington state is famous for its seafood, including crabs, clams, and oysters, but most of shell-fishers who gather them know enough to listen to the fisheries biologists.  If there is a “red tide,” the clams and oysters you gather may not kill you, but you’ll wish you were dead.  The water cleansings that were required after contact with the dead or with the carcass of an unclean animal are more, not less reasonable, now, in light of microbial science, than they were in 1000 BCE.

Leviticus 13, 14:33-48, and 15, the bulk of three chapters, contain detailed procedures by which priests were to identify and quarantine persons with infectious skin diseases and with bodily discharges.  Also found in this pericope are prescriptions for dealing with infestations in houses and contaminated garments.  The nature of the material is such that it could only have been empirically determined.  Many generations of priests must have developed these procedures by long and careful observation and passed the knowledge on to new practitioners.  The prognosis for various skin disorders depending on the color of the hair in the locality of the eruption, whether there is quick raw flesh in the swelling, or how a boil heals, are the kind of knowledge that can be gained only by rigorous observation.

Numbers 5:11-31 is a text that is ambiguous with respect to my thesis.  The Law of Jealousy can be read as a magical incantation.  The “water of bitterness that brings the curse” is supposed to make only an adulterous wife ill; in the case of an accused woman who is, in fact, innocent, the mixture is purportedly harmless.  This resembles trial by ordeal or divination, since the judgment of guilt or innocence–conviction or exoneration–is impenetrable to human reason.  In that interpretation it would have to be considered a lapse from the normative paradigm.  To establish guilt or innocence, witnesses are required in other legal proceedings in the Pentateuch.  If God acts in judgment, it is in a powerful and conspicuous way, not by the magical incantation of a priest.  Because the Law of Jealousy is atypical, a more acceptable exegesis of it for modern readers is that the ritual is intended to resolve a conflict that is in the final analysis impossible to judge.  There are no witnesses.  The woman was not taken in the act of adultery.  In the few cases that would ever come to the priest, the holy water with a few grains of dust from the floor of the tabernacle, and strands of the woman’s hair, would be harmless.  The ritual might have calmed a jealous husband or two.

The textual material that can be interpreted by reference to an epistemology that operates on discernible moral law is extensive in Deuteronomy.  Only a few examples can be mentioned.  Deuteronomy 17:14-20 subjects the king to the same law as his brethren.  He is not to multiply horses or wives for himself because of his status, and the book of the law is to accompany him to his throne.  The Levitical priests are to read it to him all the days of his life.  Here the generality of moral law is such that it applies to all people.  The king is human and therefore subject to it.  In Deuteronomy 24:14-17, justice is not to be denied to the hired servant, the sojourner in the land, the widow, or the fatherless child.  Justice is also discernible in the prohibition of second gleanings in the fields and vineyards.  It is proper for a people who were once sojourners and slaves in Egypt to leave surplus food in the fields for the alien and the dispossessed.  Justice is so general in application that an ox must not be muzzled while it treads out the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4).

Deuteronomy 4:5-8 refers to law as wisdom:  “Behold I have taught you statutes and ordinances… .  Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’…And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?”

Throughout this discussion we have referred to formal order in the physical and moral universe without using the terminology that seems, from our modern vantage point, most suitable.  From the time of the Greek and Roman Stoics to Thomas Jefferson and into this century, natural law has been the accepted designation for regularly recurring physical processes and universal moral truth.  Beginning with Zeno and Cleanthes, the guide to wisdom, in arguments against arbitrary pagan gods, is natural law.  The universal word Logos in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus is the divinely ordained structure of all things.  In his Lives, Diogenes Laertius wrote:

“There are two principles in the universe, the active principle and the passive.  The passive principle, then, is a substance without quality, i.e. matter, whereas the active is the reason (or Logos) inherent in this substance, that is, God.  For he is everlasting and is the artificer of each several thing throughout the whole extent of matter.”

This is mostly consistent with the Pentateuch.  A conception of God’s word as the active organizing force in the world is similar to the Bible in ways that did not go unnoticed by Christian apologists who used it to make Judeo-Christian ideas comprehensible in the Hellenized Roman empire.

The Stoics considered themselves citizens of the world, not sectarian loyalists.  Because reason is a spark of the divine in all people, the slave Epictetus can do philosophy as well as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  Epictetus believed there is an innate moral predisposition in everyone which can either be left to decay or be actualized by education.[7]  All Stoics believed that the purpose of philosophy is to understand the laws of nature, to obey, and to adjust to them.[8]

Epictetus gives as good a description as could be found for human distinction from the rest of nature when he speaks of “the reasoning faculty which contemplates both itself and all other things.”[9]  This capacity of human beings to detach themselves from the object of their knowledge is taken for granted in science.

But, the Stoic conception of natural law is not optimistic in the final analysis.  Where Genesis gives human beings dominion over nature, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius find an inexorable determinism.  It is the equivalent, in modern parlance, of B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  Moral insight is of value.  And justice.  But courage and self-control are perhaps more important.  “I must die.  Must I die groaning too?”  Further,  “The wind is not good for sailing?  What is too be done?  Make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.”[10]

A lot more needs to be said to connect all this with later writers who acted as midwife to nascent science.  This examination of law in the Pentateuch is to show the consistency of early Hebrew thought with natural law as it is commonly understood.  When Isaac Newton wrote in the preface of Principia Mathematica that “God is the most perfect mechanic of all,” he was working from a different systematic understanding of natural law.  His contemporary, Leibniz, had ideas about the essential rationality of the universe, again with a theological basis.  His two great principles, the principle of contradiction (earlier referred to as the law of identity) and the principle of sufficient reason (God will do nothing without good reason) are based on differently phrased, but similar, ideas of nature’s regularity.  Science has proved itself to be an epistemology with a powerful command of the orderly forces of the world.  In the modern world where science and theology are thought by many to be mutually exclusive, it is noteworthy that much that is essential to the epistemology of science can be found in the Hebrew Bible.  It is also important to consider how the egregious failures of Aaron and the Levitical priests recounted in the Pentateuch must have affected the status of law in ancient Hebrew culture.  While the law was being thundered forth at Sinai, Aaron was forging a golden calf.  If a divinely ordained witness of God’s mighty acts of deliverance could be swayed in an orgy of rebellion, how clearly is responsibility thrown back upon the individual to exercise the autonomous dominion invested in each bearer of God’s image!


1. The Memphite Theology of Creation; trans. John Wilson; The Ancient Near East; Ed. J. B. Pritchard; Princeton University Press.

2. Enuma Elish; Trans. E. A. Speiser; Ibid. 1.

3. The Art of Biblical Narrative; Robert Alter; Basic Books.

4. Ibid. 1.

5. The Law Code of Hammurabi; Trans. W. J. Martin; Documents from Old Testament Times; Ed. D. Winton Thomas; Harper Torchbooks.

6. Enchiridion; Epictetus;

A New Guide to Rational Living; Albert Ellis; Robert Harper; Wilshire Book Co.

7. Christianity and Western Thought; Colin Brown; IVP.

8. Ibid. 7.

9. Enchiridion; Epictetus; Classics Club Edition.

10. Ibid. 9. Note in the preface

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