A Revolutionary Document
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the English village of Bury St. Edmunds—so-named because St. Edmund is buried there. While there we toured the ruins of a medieval abbey, once one of the largest in all Europe. Little remains of the church walls except for a place near the altar. Embedded in this section of wall is a plaque listing the names of several nobles. In 1215 these men took an oath at that altar, vowing to confront King John about his treatment of the nobility, a confrontation that took place near Runnymeade. Out of that event came the Magna Charta, the document that is the basis of English law (and, to a great extent, U.S. law), and the nearest thing England has to a written constitution.
Few people today would consider this document revolutionary, but that’s exactly what it was. For anyone, even nobles, to challenge the divine right of the king was unheard of. King John, like most kings, assumed that he held all the power, and with it the right to do whatever he pleased. His mistreatment of the nobles was, he felt, his privilege. The nobles felt otherwise, and forced him to sign this great charter which said they had rights, and their rights could neither be taken away nor trampled upon.
More than five centuries later, another group of men meeting in Philadelphia affixed their signatures to another document—another declaration of rights. This declaration said that the English king could not take away or trample on the rights of those living in this “new world.” This time they had to fight for what they believed and to make that declaration of freedom a reality.
Today, we have a tendency to view these and similar documents as historical artifacts, frozen in the past, and set in time. While we revere them, we don’t think of them as being revolutionary—and yet that’s exactly what they are. They were so radical at their inception that people could have died simply for signing them. The men who created the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence were radicals, and these documents were radical departures from the accepted way of doing things.
In the same way, the law given by God to Moses in Deuteronomy is a revolutionary document. It stood in direct opposition to the way things were done in most societies, where all power was in the hands of the ruler. He was free to do whatever he wished to whomever he wished. His word was law, and there was no appeal from his decisions. Mistreatment of those at a lower level of the social structure was accepted.
Contrast that with God’s law as stated in God’s word. God was to come first. No person nor thing was more important than God. No physical representation of God was allowed. God moved freely among the people, unseen, but always present. One day each week was set apart as a day of rest and refreshment, a day to honor God.
Above all else, the prevailing legal concept was not power but love—God’s love for the people, the people’s love for God, and their love for each other. This was to manifest itself in a code of behavior which mandated that everyone was to respect everyone else. There was to be no killing, no stealing, no coveting, and no demeaning of any other person. No one had the right to “lord it over” another human being in any manner or for any reason. Having been released from slavery, the people were to live in equality, an equality of kindness and love. Their allegiance to God was to be lived out in their concern and care for their fellow human beings.