In the very beginning of our history, we see God giving Adam and Eve one assignment and one warning. As long as he took care of his wife and of the Garden, all was well. But then God gave them the choice of obedience--and we know what happened, and the consequences. We see then, and now; in the history of every human community and in our own experience, that we are capable of obedience and of defiance. We see the two sides of mankind in Moses' final message to the Israelites as they are finally approaching the Promised Land: " I set before you today a blessing and a curse; a blessing if you obey the commandments of Yahweh our God that I enjoin on you today; a curse, if you disobey the commandments of Yahweh your God and leave the way I have marked out for you today.." (Deuteronomy 11:26-28, Jerusalem Bible) Very simple--but not easy in practice!
The Jewish community has struggled with this for 3500 years now; first with judges and prophets, priests and kings. The kings were not religious leaders; they were supposed to be God-fearing examples, but the primary responsibility for the worship of God was the tribe of Levi. The first king, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin; David and his successors were from Judah. The kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel were a motley lot of who knows who; very few dynasties lasted more than a generation or two, and none of the political authority survived the Assyrian conquest just 300 years after the northern tribes rejected Solomon's son Rehoboam. There were only three times Israel was something like an actual theocracy--rule by religious authorities. One was the period of the Judges, whose job was to interpret the Law and settle disputes. Another was after the return from Babylon; Nehemiah was an appointed provincial governor who worked closely with the religious establishment. The last was the period of the Maccabees (165-63BC) when the rulers were a priestly family. The new nation of Israel is the first self-governing Jewish community since 63BC, and they struggle with the relationship between a modern democracy and a long tradition of religious law.
By the time of Jesus, the Jews had learned to take God's laws seriously; in fact, almost too seriously. Jesus pointed out that they too often were compulsive about small matters and compromising in the big stuff. If you look at Jesus' reactions to the "sinners" that the religious establishment brought to Jesus for judgment, we see that He was more interested in transformation than condemnation. He did, however, show no patience with overt, determined evil. In only one case did he actually take action--when the Temple itself was being used for unholy greed. As the early Church, following Jesus, the Apostles and St Paul, moved away from the obsession with Law and stressed the grace and mercy of God as demonstrated in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. In contrast, the Jewish rabbis and scholars went the other direction and went even farther into Law--spending several hundred years studying, discussing, and looking for ways to insure the Law could be meticulously observed, to the point of expanding the law to remove the possibility of even getting close enough to prohibited behavior to transgress. Orthodox Jews recognize 613 commandments, and some communities have gone beyond that. They are seen as obligations of their own people; they do believe that the rest of us are obligated to follow the seven laws given to Noah after the flood, but that this is our own responsibility before God.
(Part 1 of 3)