Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“The Law of First Mention”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Interpreting a written document is difficult, and the stakes go up, the more important the document is.  There’s a reason lawyers are very well paid for their work: it involves learning to properly interpret and apply a vast body of text, written over a long period of time by many different hands, in a form of language not used by the common people.  They do all this in order to help their clients comply with the law and defend those clients before a judge, if necessary, who is often compensated even more generously for his expertise.  In the Bible, we’re dealing with a collection of incredibly important texts, and many people have an interest in reading God’s words and especially his instructions in one particular way or another.

As a result, some have devised systems of interpretation and application, just as lawyers have done with the law.  One of these principles occasionally thrown around is called the Law of First Mention.  The idea here is that the first time a word or topic shows up in the Bible, it is the touchstone—the clearest, simplest, most authoritative expression of the idea, and therefore the key that unlocks all of the other instances.

We see Jesus doing something like this to settle the debate over divorce:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19.3-6)

There it is—an important issue, subject to competing interpretations by the lawyers of the day, settled by a simple appeal to “the beginning.”  The first time it’s mentioned, God’s intent for marriage is clear.  He himself joined the first husband and wife into “one flesh,” and thus the argument is settled.

There’s value in going back to the beginning.  Examining anything’s origins is a good way to better understand its core meaning and more fully comprehend its development over time.  For example, the creation account teaches us many things about God’s purpose and intentions for his creation.  

However, it’s foolish to make the first mention of a topic the authority at the expense of everything else God has said.  That would be to deliberately ignore later and perhaps more precise instructions from God, on the basis that we liked the old ones better.  Worse than that, it would throw us wildly off the trail in many areas.  For example, consider the passage from which Jesus was quoting when he settled the divorce question.  He quoted Genesis 2.24, and the very next verse says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”  This is the first appearance of both the word and the concept of nudity in the Bible, and to use Jesus’ language, “from the beginning,” there was nothing remotely wrong or dangerous about flagrant nakedness in daily life. Ok, now we clearly have a problem.  

In case you find this argument appealing, let’s note that Adam and Eve realize they are naked after eating the forbidden fruit, and immediately fashion a crude covering of their more vulnerable areas.  Shortly thereafter, God finds these to be insufficient covering, and provides better clothing for them even as he’s busy banishing them from their original home in Paradise: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Ge 3.21).  Whatever happened to the “first mention”?  There’s still something important to learn from the origins, but it’s a terrible standard for our behavior today.

This approach would also have us continuing to follow many obscure Old Testament laws that don’t pertain to us anymore.  Tassels are first mentioned in Numbers 15.37-40, for one example.  They are not an optional fashion accessory, but a requirement.  For another example, pigs first appear in Leviticus 11.7, and while Jesus later made it clear (Mk 7.18-20, Ac 10.13-15, and Ro 14.14) this is not an issue under his covenant, we’d conclude from the “first mention” that pork is forbidden for human consumption and always will be.

We haven’t even discussed yet, which arrangement of the books holds sway?  This doesn’t matter until you move past the book of Judges, but after that point the Hebrew arrangement differs from the Greek Old Testament, and both differ from our modern arrangement.  The same books are included, but in a different order—what comes “first,” then?  This may seem like a silly question, but the doctrine of first mention would demand we reach a firm answer to it, in order to establish priority, and thus authority.  

We’re barking up the wrong tree.  While there are good reasons to pay attention to origins, the real answer is to consider all that God has said, not to pick and choose based on some man-made standard that would have us walking around both naked and also wearing tassels—but free from defilement brought on by bacon consumption.  Even if you like that idea, it makes little difference in God’s eyes, and he’s the one who gets to make the rules.  Pay attention, and don’t just obey the ones you like, or the ones you think are important.

Jeremy Nettles