Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Proverbs and Laws (Exodus 20:1-17)

“You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3).

A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to give a proverb the weight of a moral absolute. Proverbs are designed to express practical truisms. They reflect principles of wisdom for godly living. They do not reflect moral laws that should be applied absolutely to every situation.

To learn how to interpret proverbial sayings, let’s look at an example from Jesus’s teaching. He says in Matthew 12:30, “He who is not with Me is against Me.” But Jesus also said, “He who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). How can both be true? We all know that in some circumstances silence means consent, and in others it indicates hostility. In some cases lack of opposition means support; in other cases lack of support indicates opposition.

Proverbs 26:4–5 illustrates how proverbs can be contradictory if taken as absolute laws. Verse 4 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” Verse 5 says, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Thus, there are times when it is foolish to answer a fool according to his folly, and there are times when it is wise to answer a fool with foolishness.

Just as you distinguish proverb from law, you must distinguish types of law. There are two types in Scripture: apodictic law and casuistic law. Apodictic law is absolute and follows a direct personal form such as “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” We find this kind of law in the Ten Commandments.

Casuistic law is expressed in the “if … then” form of conditional statement. This is the basis for the case law in Scripture. The casuistic form gives a series of examples that act as guidelines for rendering justice. For example, Exodus 23:4 says, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” The first clause is casuistic and the second apodictic. Here are instructions concerning the return of an enemy’s ox or donkey. But what if you see a camel or horse? Do you return them? The law doesn’t say so. Casuistic law gives the principle by example and implicitly covers all animals. If the Bible gave specific laws for everything, we would need an entire library to fill all the volumes. Case law provides a principle that has a wide range of application.

Read Proverbs 10:4 and 14:20. Why can these not be taken as absolute laws but still serve as truisms in life? Read Exodus 21:28–36. What are the underlying principles of these case laws? How can the principles of these case laws be applied today? Read Leviticus 25:35–38. What are the apodictic and casuistic laws in this passage?