Barr-revelation and common sense

I am still reading James Barr’s Biblical Faith and Natural Theology. Prophecy and law in the Hebrew Bible seem totally revelatory and not drawn from any kind of natural knowledge. James Barr said that this was because of the “rubrics”. By this he meant the forms and contexts given to law and prophecy. It is said, for instance, that the word of the Lord came to Isaiah or Jeremiah. Thus what they said according to the texts was revealed to them directly by God. Or, in the case of law, the commandments were written by the finger of God or God spoke to Moses face to face and then Moses spoke to the people. The P tradition traces all the law back to a revelation at Sinai. Barr says that if you look at the content of the prophets and the law, they seem to be more derived from reason and natural theology than the surface impression allows. He wrote only a brief section about the prophets. I think that is because his case is weaker with them. When Isaiah appeals to reason and Amos seems to speak of a universal law applying to other nations, there are grounds to believe they accepted knowledge that was not directly revealed to them. They do not appeal to the revelation at Sinai as much as one might expect. However, I am pretty sure each of the prophets felt that he had a revealed message. With the law, however, the case is strong that you can set the rubrics aside and see how the codes developed based on legal reasoning over time. That is how other law codes develop, and the close parallels between the Hebrew law and other Ancient Near Eastern codes supports this. Barr cited the Hammurabi laws as being close to the Bible’s laws at several points. The Hebrews seem to have taken the structure of their codes and sometimes the individual laws from foreign law codes. This means that the totally revelatory character of Hebrew law is in its narrative context rather than its content. Barr, however, did suggest that making this material into revelation fit within the Hebrew view of how God worked. He cites the example of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Jethro proposed a way to organize the way case law was handled (Exodus 18), This worked better and relieved Moses, so it was adopted. Jethro actually said to Moses, “what you are doing is not right.” Nobody else got away with saying that to Moses. But Jethro was not a Hebrew. As a priest of Midian, his religious credentials were dubious. Yet, what he proposed was based on normal common sense. It was accepted. Barr says that this is:

very good evidence of a positive valuation of normal human common sense independent of religious affiliation as an element in the establishment of the Hebrew legal polity.

He also cited the case of the daughters of Zelophehad from Numbers 27. There was a problem with the law as it stood. Zelophehad had died with no son, so his family name and inheritance threatened to disappear. Moses speaks face to face with God about this and decrees that the daughters may inherit. Then in Numbers 36 a further question arose about what happened if the daughters married outside Israel. Again the law was amended. This time it does not say that Moses spoke to God about it. What we seem to have here is the normal way that case law develops. When new cases come up, new rulings get made. Every time this happens there does not need to be supernatural revelation, but rather the application of human common sense. The whole law is revelatory in the sense that God instituted a law with unique characteristics in Israel. But human beings using common sense and a knowledge of the changing needs of Hebrew social life built upon the law. Barr thought that this was a problem only if you did not believe in natural theology. The Hebrews did not think that because you could derive much of their law from reason and common sense that this disqualified it from being revealed. Jews tend to see natural law and the Torah supporting each other.  Medical knowledge shows some the dietary laws had health benefits.  The moral thing to do is also often the wisest and most philosophically coherent thing to do. Now natural law is not exactly the same thing as natural theology. In many ways natural law developed first as a practical necessity. But it provided a valid basis for the rise of natural theology. So Barr found within the Bible itself some forms akin to natural theology. These forms easily developed into something more elaborate after the biblical period.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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