Chapter 23 (Blasphemy) pages 368-381
On the subsequent web page entitled ‘Further thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 24:10-23’, I’ve discussed the concept of blasphemy and, Biblically, what it is, before going on to look at its punishment in today’s society.
This is in quite sharp contrast to North’s teaching on the subject in which he uses a concept of blasphemy which doesn’t appear to be warranted for the passage under question and in which he equates the death penalty as a type of restitution payment to God.
I will only briefly deal with the passages in his chapter that are along these lines and it may be best to read the ‘Further thoughts and teaching’ web page before embarking on this one.
North begins his chapter with an introduction that appears to be the basis for his ensuing discussion. I’ll quote the entire introduction in my comments here, but in three divisions.
Firstly (page 368), North states
‘Basic to the concept of every social order is the sanctity of the god that is believed to defend it. The source of a society’s law is the god of that society’
This statement is okay in a society who have a god-belief or god-consciousness - whether Islamic or Christian - but it falls down in societies such as the UK where secularism, materialism and humanism hold sway. I’m quite willing to go along with the statement if, by ‘god’, North means ‘belief-system’ but not all society’s lawmakers believe in and much less serve any concept of a sovereign god in control over all things.
The UK simply doesn’t hold to the ‘sanctity of the god’ unless that god can be understood to be prosperity and humanism. That is, laws will be based upon these precepts rather than on the revealed will of any idealised superior being that’s believed in and obeyed.
As a consequence to these first two sentences, North goes on to write (page 368)
‘For example, no political order exists that does not have a concept of treason’
Firstly, the relevance of this as ‘an example’ to what precedes it needs some clarification and I can’t see the connection. Perhaps it’s just me but beginning with the premise that society’s law has, as its basis, the god it believes in, the example of this, according to North, is here stated that no political order lacks a concept of treason.
The connection appears to be meaningless.
But, more than this, treason is an offence that speaks to us of the overthrow or the undermining of the State. Whether that political order believes in a god or not, treason is still a valid concept to describe political activity that seeks to undermine the will and power of the State.
Finally (pages 368-9), North quotes Rushdoony as saying
‘...there can be no tolerance in a law-system for another religion. Toleration is a device used to introduce a new law-system as a prelude to a new intolerance...Every law-system must maintain its existence by hostility to every other law-system and to alien religious foundations, or else it commits suicide’
In today’s UK society there’s a ‘tolerance’ for many other religions even though, through the law, there are no grounds for blasphemy charges to be brought by those other religions in connection with statements that might be made about their god (I understand that this may have changed recently but I have no definitive legislation that I can point to). However, this ‘tolerance’ has actually become intolerance - instead of every religion being allowed to proclaim its own form of truth (sic), tolerance instructs society not to proclaim what it believes in for fear of upsetting or angering the adherents of the other religions.
Therefore, in the UK, christians should be wise not to proclaim the Gospel on open street corners because they should be keeping the peace with and not cause offence to, for instance, Islam. This ‘tolerance’ is therefore seen for what it is - intolerance - and the pluralism that engulfs our society shows that the laws made here aren’t founded on a belief of any one particular god.
How far Rushdoony’s ‘suicide’ is supposed to be taken is unclear. In the UK, the current Government courts the counsel of Europe and moves ever closer to a European super state through the laws that it brings in. Even though the people hear repeatedly that no Sovereignty will be lost, the reality is much different.
This does undermine the current political system and autonomy of the lawmakers which will continue to be eaten away at in subsequent years. In this way, the current political systems are eroded while legislation is sanctioned that tries to transform society little by little.
But ‘suicide’ seems to be too strong a word for the change that’s currently being achieved - and it’s certainly not true to say that this new system is being brought in in accordance with the foundation of any ‘god’.
North (page 369) notes
‘The blasphemer had uttered his curse against God in the midst of a physical struggle with an Israelite. This context points to the nature of blasphemy: a verbal attack on God by means of an attack on a representative of God. The blasphemer had verbally assaulted God in the presence of a covenanted follower of God’
Throughout the chapter, North appears to confuse ‘blasphemy’ with ‘cursing’ but the Scripture under discussion does make it plain that these two occurrences were different. Lev 24:11 (my italics) states
‘...the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed’
and 24:15-16 tells us that the person who curses God shall bear his sin but the person who blasphemes shall be put to death. There’s unlikely to have been two different comments if the act of the man was seen as one transgression. Therefore blasphemy and the curse should be seen as two distinct offences that need individual dealing with.
However, the real problem with North’s quote is his definition of blasphemy. He states (in his own italics as above) that blasphemy is
‘...a verbal attack on God by means of an attack on a representative of God’
Does North here mean a physical attack or verbal attack? Certainly, both took place - Lev 24:10 instructs us that a fight ensued between the two men and that, out of this, a verbal attack took place recorded for us in Lev 24:11.
Whatever North is trying to imply here, his definition of ‘blasphemy’ is incorrect. As I’ve shown on the web page that follows this one, blasphemy is a direct assault on the character and person of God and has nothing, primarily, to do with a third party or representative of the god in question. Therefore, the physical (and/or verbal) attack on the third party may have been what provoked such blasphemy but it shouldn’t be used as being a trait that defines the offence.
North also states (page 369) that
‘The blasphemer had announced by his curses that neither God nor God’s people possess lawful authority in history’
The content of the man’s curse hasn’t been recorded for us so it’s somewhat strange to read an explanation of what he actually said. Perhaps North is trying to convey that the implication of his words challenged both God and His people’s authority? The point is unclear but I think it best to take his words this way.
It would appear that the offender, firstly, cursed God (Lev 24:15) and, secondly, attributed God or His works with evil characteristics (the ‘blasphemy’ of Lev 24:16). In this way, his actions had to be punished in accordance with the Mosaic Law which was built upon the character of God - trying to actually tie down a law that forbade blasphemy is difficult when the concept is understood (see the following web page), but an assault on the Lord’s name was definitely forbidden within the ten commandments (Ex 20:7).
Though the offences weren’t direct assaults upon the authority of God and of His people, if nothing had been done about the transgressions, the authority of the Law would have been undermined and, subsequently, the authority of the God of which they were a reflection and expression.
The same is true even in today’s society. An unenforced law undermines the authority of the lawmakers and consequently of all the other laws within the national legal system. In these cases (such as the UK Sunday trading laws) either new legislation has to be brought in which changes the offence or else society will become lawless and anarchistic.
In the Israelite society, there could be no change of Law because it was founded upon the character of God. Therefore, the Law had to be enforced.
North quotes a Levitical passage (page 370) and notes the reference as Lev 10:14. It is, in fact, Lev 24:14.
North summarises the implications of the blasphemous outburst by stating (page 370) that
‘This verbal assault had been an act of rebellion, of treason. It had been a public challenge to the legitimacy of the social order’
Certainly, the utterance was a rebellious statement against God but treason is too strong a word and is actually an incorrect label to place on it. Treason is an offence that undermines the State and seeks to overthrow it (it seems to me that the political reformers could well be charged with this transgression [!] but it’s only applied - rightly or wrongly - to individual acts that the State deems to be offensive) but blasphemy only represents, as North says, a challenge to the legitimacy of the social order (because the Law’s foundations are built upon the character of God) - it doesn’t meet the requirements of the charge of treason.
Later (page 371) North states
‘What is...the judicial issue of blasphemy? It is treason against God’
The problem here is that ‘treason’ can only be defined in terms of the State and is therefore a misnomer when applied to an offence before God. If a person or persons betray or try to overthrow the Government of a nation then a charge of treason may be rightly brought against them but the offence is only a correct label for the affairs of man (actually, if we look at the way God intervenes in earth history and overthrows Governments and Empires when they rebel against Him, we could, with some justification but in a limited sense, charge Him with treason!).
Treason is a man-made concept usually established by the State to protect itself but it’s not a concept that springs out of blasphemy against God.
Even if we were to label the offence of blasphemy as ‘treason’ we have to ask ourselves how this man had actively been plotting to betray and overthrow God. Certainly, His slur on the character or work of God was ill-justified but there was no active intention on his part (as far as can be determined from the text) to undermine the control of God over the nation - that was a secondary consequence of his action but not a primary reason for the utterance.
Therefore, he was simply a transgressor of the Law and his offence shouldn’t be viewed as treason - either treason against the State or, in some way, against God.
Having said this, the seriousness of the offence cannot be overemphasised. Blasphemy undermined the character and work of God upon which the foundations of the Mosaic Law were built. An affront against God cries out for the weight of the Law to fall upon the transgressor - whether there’s any intention to overthrow the society or not (that is, whether the charge of treason is an accurate description).
Surprisingly (to me, at least), North states (page 371) that
‘...blasphemy is a verbal assault on God’s ethical character...’
which accurately describes one part of the offence but, going on, he says
‘...[it is] not an intellectual proposition about His nature’
Of course, blasphemy may be this. Even though North is quite correct to state that blasphemy isn’t heresy, blasphemy may be the result of intellectual processes that arrive at a conclusion that will then oppose the work of God. Take Mtw 12:22-32, for instance, where the Pharisees had already decided upon the fact that Jesus couldn’t be casting demons out of people by the power of God because they’d decided that He wasn’t of God. Their intellectual reasoning then led them into the conclusion that it must be by demonic spirits that the demons were being cast out - thus equating the work of God with satan and bringing the charge of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit against themselves justifiably.
North further notes (page 371) that blasphemy
‘...is a public curse, not an intellectual error’
and (page 373) that
‘Blasphemy is cursing: a verbal attack on God, comparable to assault. Blasphemy calls down on God some sort of implicit negative sanction for having misrepresented Himself’
The problem here is that the curse of Lev 24:10-23 and blasphemy are two distinct offences which have different punishments attributable to them (Cp 24:15 with 24:16). Indeed, a curse, in that society, normally invoked the name of a god and called him to do something particularly nasty against the object of the curse - blasphemy was equating God’s character or His work with evil.
North asks the question (page 372)
‘What is the mandated biblical penalty?’
‘Restitution. When a direct attack against God takes place in public, the restitution payment is the forfeiture of one’s life’
and (page 374)
‘By presenting a discussion of the civil laws governing restitution [Lev 24:18-22] within the context of the blasphemy laws, the Book of Leviticus makes it plain that the fundamental legal issue here is restitution...’
and (page 375)
‘Death is restitution to God’
I’ve dealt with this on the next web page which deals with some additional points concerning the passage. I don’t believe that North is right about the death penalty being a form of restitution because I fail to see how ‘an eye for an eye’ (which is used by North) can be adequately applied and shown that God has in some way ‘died’ that the death penalty is required.
The reason why, in my opinion, blasphemy carries with it the death penalty is because it attacks the very foundation of the Law - that is, God Himself. Therefore there has to be a drastic penalty against the transgressor that, say, theft need not reap.
Incidentally, it’s only where a person believes in or has had experience of God that blasphemy can take place - therefore the charge of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is levelled against those who believe in God - the Pharisees - and why the Israelite of Leviticus chapter 24 can also be charged with such an offence - because he’d witnessed at first hand the works of God in removing the nation from Egypt.
When a society’s laws are not built upon God (or a god), blasphemy is a difficult concept to include because there has to be a definition of God that verbal utterances can be judged against. That our present society’s laws are only loosely based upon God’s character (or, perhaps, not at all) would point me in the direction of considering whether the death penalty for ‘blasphemy’ is actually possible in Britain at the present time.
Besides, Jesus taught that spiritual life was thrown away when blasphemy took place and was such a dreadful sin that no forgiveness could be given for it - and this utterance was directed at believers, not secular society. I am, by no means, frightened to say that the death penalty should be still in force for certain sins but I don’t consider that, in today’s society whose law is not founded upon God, it’s possible to effectively judge anyone with regard to blasphemy (that is, the State cannot decide the matter).
But, in Israel, where the foundation of society is God, all who live in that society (even strangers) must abide by the one Law - and that includes blasphemy against God.
I don’t disagree with North’s statement (page 376) that
‘If God’s name and reputation are not protected by law, then no man’s name and reputation will be protected for very long’
but the foundation of a society must be God Himself before protection of the Name can rightfully be enforced. A people cannot blaspheme a God they don’t know – that’s why it’s knowledge that provides opportunity for a demonstration of blasphemy. A nation that doesn’t know God can’t blaspheme His Name because they’ve no concept of who He is and what He’s like.
Therefore, before North’s statement becomes an ‘absolute’, the society itself must be founded upon God. A society, such as the one in which I live, that’s founded upon humanism can’t possibly define blasphemy except on the basis of a transgression against the founding principles it adopts.
I note that North doesn’t believe in the existence of present day prophets. He writes (page 377)
‘With the final Mosaic sanction against Israel in AD 70, this office [of prophet] ceased. Today, God’s people act in a prophetic fashion, but they are not prophets’
Although the role of a ‘prophet’ seems to be much abused within the Church, I see no reason to suppose, with North, that God has withdrawn the role of the prophet from His Church since the destruction of Jerusalem. When North adds that believers (page 377-8)
‘…declare God’s law and His covenantal sanctions in history, but cannot say which sanctions will be imposed and when’
(because they are not prophets) then there’s a problem here - obviously, ‘sanctions’ have been declared by believers throughout Church history and come about because men and women have been in touch with God Himself and declared to individuals and nations the consequences of their actions as led by the Holy Spirit.
To say that this is not the Holy Spirit is actually pretty near to blasphemy (in the Biblical definition of the word) and I would hope that North doesn’t conclude that any prophecy that came about can’t be from God - it would be good if a fuller explanation of North’s position on this were forthcoming.
To be fair, North does state in his next sentence that
‘...to deny that God’s sanctions are in any way predictable in history in terms of His law is to deny the prophetic function altogether’
which may view men and women as functioning prophetically but not as prophets. It’s quite difficult to determine from the text in the book.
North states (page 378)
‘...a society that has disallowed the Bible’s blasphemy law is not in a position to defend itself against the extension of the society of Satan...’
but when a society has disallowed the blasphemy laws, it has almost certainly already been founding the society’s laws upon a god (such as humanism) that has replaced the God of the Bible - therefore, in a very real sense, satan has already gained dominance within that society.
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