One of my least favorite laws was the National Speed Limit law of 1974 that mandated 55 miles per hour as the legal maximum. Government assured us that it would save gasoline that, back then, we were lining up at gas stations to buy at, gasp! 55 cents a gallon. Of course the law did nothing of the sort, not even cutting the country’s fuel usage by a half of a percent. Furthermore, I was hardly the only citizen who utterly ignored that law. While cruising at a comfortable 85 along some straight and deserted highway in Montana or Nevada I was frequently overtaken by cars whooshing by in a blur. Finally recognizing its futility, Congress repealed the law in 1995 returning speed limit decisions to the states.
How did they come up with the 55 miles per hour number back in 1974? I hate to disillusion you, but some anonymous bureaucrats sat in an anonymous committee and pulled the number out of the air. I’d have theorized that perhaps a brave and anonymous bureaucrat did it all on his own but then I realized that bureaucrats only make decisions from behind the safety shield of a committee. So it was a committee that determined the magic number to be 55. They could also have ruled 50, 60 or even 70. Whatever they decided would become the law. There are other laws like this; filing your income tax return by April 15, walking barefoot through the airport metal detector, and not buying more than 16 ounces of sugary drinks in New York City. Laws like these are proscriptive laws. Some person or group of people with authority, proscribed them to be the law. They could have made tax day May 29, they could have said you have to strip to your underwear at the airport, and they could have made 12 ounce Slurpees the maximum allowed.
However, there is another category of laws that I call descriptive laws. These include the law of gravity which says that anyone who steps out of a window on the twentieth floor of a building will plummet downwards to a sudden and fatal stop on the sidewalk below. There is no bureaucratic committee that can modify that law to apply only on Mondays. This law does not proscribe. Instead it describes how the world really works.
Boyle’s Law and Charles’ Law state that expanding gases must cool down. These convenient two laws make refrigerators and air conditioners possible. There is no bureaucratic committee anywhere that can repeal these laws. They were not created at the whim of Robert Boyle or Jacques Charles. They describe reality.
Are Scriptural laws, for instance the one prohibiting men from marrying their aunts and women from marrying their nephews, proscriptive or descriptive? (Leviticus 18:12 & 20:19)
In other words, would violating this law result in a penalty only if caught by a law enforcement officer or is the consequence intrinsic and automatic like gravity?
The first clue is that God’s concern is clearly not genetic. If it was, the Torah would also prohibit men from marrying their nieces and women from marrying their uncles. Yet marriages with exactly the same genetic element are permitted.
What possible reason could God have for prohibiting a man from marrying his aunt but permitting him to marry his niece? Likewise, why prohibit a woman from marrying her nephew while permitting her to marry her uncle? While we need to listen to God regardless of whether we understand His reasoning, we are supposed to look for underlying truths He is imparting to us.
Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that that most women yearn to look up to the man they marry. Sadly, many men discover that when poor conduct costs them the respect of their wives, the marriage is challenging to sustain and very hard to rescue. (While women also need to be respected by their husbands, it is a different form of respect.) Could the law we are discussing help tilt the odds towards successful marriage?
Ideally, in a thriving society, marriages draw inspiration and guidance from ancestors. Many homes proudly display pictures of grandparents on the walls. How often I hear women say, “My husband’s grandfather taught him how to…” In my own case, I know how influential my wife’s grandmother was in her life. We even named our oldest daughter after her.
With admirable multi-generational awareness in a healthy family, a patriarch or matriarch is vitally important. Now, if a man marries his aunt, then she is one generation closer to the cherished grandparents than he is. This makes it just a tiny bit more difficult for him to retain his wife’s respect. After all, she is a closer link in the transmission than he is.
However when a man marries his niece or a woman marries her uncle, the husband is a generation closer to the grandparents and the family heritage. This is admittedly a small matter, but marriage is so difficult to do well and so remarkably rewarding when it is done well, that even tiny little things can make a difference. With this seemingly random Biblical law that affects very few people, the Bible provides a practical lesson even for those of us who don’t marry relatives. It has nothing to do with arbitrary, proscriptive rules. Instead, it describes a feature of marriage and intergenerational life we would all do well to understand.
Many of the details in the first three chapters of Genesis provide descriptions of spiritual laws that God built into male/female relationships. We can ignore or object to these laws, or we can embrace and take advantage of them (even when our government and society condemn us for doing so). We expand on many of them in our 2 audio CD set, Madam, I’m Adam: Decoding the Marriage Secrets of Eden. Every couple, from dating to those celebrating Golden anniversaries can enjoy and benefit by learning how God’s world really works. Today more than ever, you need to make sure that those you love get exposed to the truth. The Supreme Court can proscribe laws; Genesis describes them.