A Good Law?

Sumerian Prayer

This semester I’ve been reading through Daniel Block’s How I Love Your Torah, O Lord: Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy. His first chapter “The Grace of Torah” really caught my eye. Block interprets “the Torah of YHWH” as the book of Deuteronomy, and this book is a guide to help us live in light of the Torah, Deuteronomy.

For many of us, when we think of the studying Torah, the Law, or Deuteronomy, our first inclination isn’t to think “FUN!” It’s usually instead, “Great…..another snoozefest of hearing about laws we don’t need to keep.” What is there to enjoy about a list of Do’s-and-Don’t’s? Why can’t we simply be free? We’re under grace now. What are we doing trying to put this yoke of bondage back onto us?

What Mean These Laws?

In Deut. 6.20, Moses asks his listeners an important question. “When your sons ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the covenant stipulations and the ordinances and the laws that YHWH our God has commanded you?’…” (Block’s translation). the idea behind this question is one posed for every day life: your children will ask questions about what God has done. How will you answer them?

Moses’ First Answer

“Moses stated that knowledge of the will of God is the supreme privilege of the covenant people of God” (pg. 5, author’s emphasis).

  1. In Deut 4.1-8, Moses tells the people that what he says (prescribed by YHWH) is “normative and canonical by definition (vv1-2)” (pg. 6).
  2. Obedience to the Torah was the key to life (vv3-4).
  3. “Knowledge of the Torah was the highest privilege imaginable” (pg. 8) [vv5-8].
    • Deut 4.6-7 doesn’t say, “You must keep the commandments and do them, for that is your duty and obligation in the sight of the people who, when they hear all these ordinances, will say, ‘Surely this unfortunate nation is a sorrowful and burdened people’” (pg. 8).

Sumerian Prayer

Now what I really want to get at with this post: To understand the significance of the Torah to God’s people, a nation of kings and priests (Ex 19.6), we have to look at what the surrounding nations in that culture were experiencing in their religious contexts. To show how significant the Torah was, I’ll relay a Sumerian prayer from the second millennium (2000-1000 BC).

This prayer is repetitious, but it gets to the point of how confused other people and cultures were in their vague and ambiguous religions.

“May the fury of my lord’s heart by quieted toward me.
May the god who is not known be quieted toward me;
May the goddess who is not known be quieted toward me.
May the god whom I know or do not know be quieted toward me;
May the goddess whom I know or do not know be quieted toward me.
May the heart of my god be quieted toward me;
May the heart of my goddess be quieted toward me.
May the god [who has become angry with me] be quieted toward me;
May the goddess [who has become angry with me] be quieted toward me;
[Lines 11-18 cannot be restored with certainty.]
In ignorance I have eaten that forbidden of my god;
In ignorance I have set foot on that prohibited by my goddess.
O Lord, my transgressions are many; great are my sins.
O my god, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins.
O my goddess, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins.
O god, whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins;
O goddess, whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are many; great are (my) sins.
The transgression that I have committed, indeed I do not know;
The sin that I have done, indeed I do not know.
The forbidden thing that I have eaten, indeed I do not know;
The prohibited (place) on which I have set foot, indeed I do not know.
The lord in the anger of his heart looked at me;
The god in the rage of his heart confronted me;
When the goddess was angry with me, she made me become ill.
The god whom I know or do not know has oppressed me;
The goddess whom I know or do not know has places suffering upon me.
Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand;
When I weep they do not come to my side.
I utter laments, but no one hears me;
I am troubled;
I am overwhelmed;
I cannot see.
O my god, merciful one, I address to you the prayer.
“Ever incline to me”;
I kiss the feet of my goddess;
I crawl before you.
[Lines 41-49 are mostly broken and cannot be restored with certainty.]
How long, O my goddess, whom I know or do not know, before your hostile heart will be quieted?
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists – what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.
O my lord, do not cast your servant down;
He is plunged into the waters of a swamp; take him by the hand.
The sin I have done, turn into goodness;
The transgression that I have committed let the wind carry away;
My many misdeeds strip off like a garment.
Oh my god, (my) transgressions are seven times seven; remove my transgressions;
O my goddess, (my) transgressions are seven times seven; remove my transgressions;
O god whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are seven times seven; remove my transgressions;
O goddess whom I know or do not know, (my) transgressions are seven times seven; remove my transgressions.
Remove my transgressions (and) I will sing your praise.
May your heart, like the heart of a real mother, be quieted toward me;
Like a real mother (and) a real father may it be quieted toward me” (pg.8-10).

This man had a keen sense of sin. He had an awareness of ultimate accountability. He expresses greater enlightenment than most in the west today. Yet Block tells us there were three insurmountable problems:

  1. He didn’t know which god he had offended.
  2. He didn’t know what the offense was.
  3. He didn’t know what it would take to satisfy the god or gods.

But unlike the other nations, YHWH revealed Himself to His people on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19. He showed His mighty deeds through plaguing Egypt ten times, by leading His people through the split Red Sea, by demolishing the gods of Egypt along with the greatest army on earth, and by providing the grumbling people with water, manna, and quail. Now He provides them with His law so that they know Who is in charge (Ex. 20.2-3, 4-17), what is required of them, and what do do when sin occurs (Lev. 1-7).

YHWH hears his people when they cry (Ex. 3.7) and when they call (Deut. 4.7).

Moses’ Second Answer

To keep this brief, “Obedience to the will of God is the supreme delight of the covenant people of God…The primary motive for an Israelite’s life was not a system of rules but the knowledge of the salvation YHWH wrought on their behalf by His mighty power and grace” (pg. 11).

They were to obey in faith, awaiting the fateful day when the Seed of the woman, the Messiah, would crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3.15) and deliver the sinful world back to (or into) the orderly, good creation it was supposed to be (Rom. 8.20-23).

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