Called by Stories: Biblical Sagas and Their Challenge for Law [NOOK Book]


Distinguished legal scholar and Presbyterian minister Milner S. Ball examines great sagas and tales from the Bible for the light they shed on the practice of law and on the meaning of a life lived in the legal profession. Scholars and laypersons alike typically think of the law as a discipline dominated by reason and empirical methods. Ball shows that many of the dilemmas and decisions that legal professionals confront are more usefully approached through an experience of narrative in which we come to know ...
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Called by Stories: Biblical Sagas and Their Challenge for Law

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Distinguished legal scholar and Presbyterian minister Milner S. Ball examines great sagas and tales from the Bible for the light they shed on the practice of law and on the meaning of a life lived in the legal profession. Scholars and laypersons alike typically think of the law as a discipline dominated by reason and empirical methods. Ball shows that many of the dilemmas and decisions that legal professionals confront are more usefully approached through an experience of narrative in which we come to know ourselves and our actions through stories.
He begins with the story of Moses, who is obliged both to speak for God to the Hebrews and to advocate for the Hebrews before God. What, asks Ball, does Moses’s predicament say to lawyers professionally bound to zealous representation of only one client? In the story of Rachel, Ball finds insights that comprehend the role of tears and emotion in the judicial process. He relates these insights to specific contemporary situations, such as a plant closing and the subsequent movement of jobs to Mexico and legal disputes over the sovereignty of native Hawaiians. In a discussion of “The Gospel According to John,” Ball points out that the writer of this gospel is free simultaneously to be critical of law and to rely extensively on it. Ball uses this narrative to explore the boundaries of free will and independence in lawyering. By venturing into the world of powerful events and biblical characters, Ball enables readers to contest their own expectations and fundamental assumptions.
Employing legal theory, theology, and literary criticism, Called by Stories distills a wisdom in biblical texts that speaks specifically to the working life of legal professionals. As such, it will enrich lovers of narrative and poetry, ethicists, literary and biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, law students, judges, and others who seek to discern deeper meanings in the texts that have shaped their lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Robin West
The law practices Ball describes open the possibility of finding spiritual satisfaction in legal work for ‘sleeping well at night’ as one judge puts it, for resolving what Tikkun recently called ‘the crisis of meaning’ in our contemporary lives, for discovering the joy that comes from losing oneself in the service of something greater. . . . Ball employs not only theologlical argument, but also literary interpretation, journalistic reporting, a good deal of personal narrative, and simply moral reflection to engage the reader directly. . . These meditations tell the story of one man’s intellectual attempt to make moral and religious sense of his own life, and the lives of some people he admires, in law. It is a story, and an intellectual journey, that is well conceived and well told.
William and Mary Law Review
Douglas B. Ammar
Called by Stories challenges the way we see our lives, the way we see law, the way law is taught, and the way we practice law. . . . Professor Ball inspires us. . . .
Georgia Bar Journal
James H. Burtness
This is a wonderful book to read. . . . It is full of wonders and of wonder. The title and the profession of the author lead the reader to expect a carefully constructed argument about tightly defined terms. Instead, the reader observes a parade of surprises and is invited to join the parade. . . . This law professor is also a theologian of remarkable knowledge and skill. He believes that theological reflection and theological categories can be used effectively in understanding the role of law in the actual living of life. . . The author is not the first to make this connection. His presentation may be, however, one of the most persuasive.
Journal of Church and State
Walter Brueggemann
A refreshing read that will lead most readers beyond accustomed interpretation of text or of life. . . . Ball brings passion, eloquence, and erudition that enhance the human and all those who care about the human. This is an important read!
Theology Today
From the Publisher
“Milner Ball has written a wonderful book, a sustained and fruitful meditation on the relation between fundamental biblical texts and possible meanings of the practice of law in modern America. He illuminates these crucial texts and the law itself in original, surprising, and highly persuasive ways. A truly impressive achievement.”—James Boyd White, author of Acts of Hope: The Creation of Authority in Literature, Law, and Politics

“Simply put, this book is extraordinary. Its author is a wordsmith of the very first order. He says strikingly original things about familiar old texts and acutely probes pressing contemporary issues. Milner Ball is deeply learned across traditional disciplinary lines, but he wears his learning lightly. A wise, clear, and funny conversationalist, he is also extraordinarily deep and inspiring.”—Aviam Soifer, author of Law and the Company We Keep

“This artful interweaving of literature and law evokes the power of biblical narrative to inform contemporary life. The result is a rich tapestry of words for sustained reflection and appropriation.”—Phyllis Trible, author of Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822396185
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 280
  • File size: 530 KB

Meet the Author

Milner S. Ball is both Harmon W. Caldwell Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Georgia School of Law and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He served as a judge on the International People’s Tribunal in Hawai’i in 1993 and was a founder of the annual Robert Cover Public Interest Law Retreat. A member of the Theological Anthropology Project at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, he is the author of many books, including The Promise of American Law, Lying Down Together, and The Word and the Law.

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Read an Excerpt

Called by Stories

Biblical Sagas and Their Challenge for Law

By Milner S. Ball

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9618-5


Law and the "Mouth" for God

When Turner Network Television produced its version of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, it had to contend "not only with what the text says but also with what modern audiences believe the text says—impressions now as likely to be based on past films as on children's Bible stories or regular reading of the Bible." Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments is one film—the film—that influences belief about what the text says. It is a wonderfully bad movie and a send-up of the text, but I find it hard to think about Moses without thinking about Charlton Heston. The same was true for critics of Ben Kingsley's uncharismatic, self-doubting Moses in the tnt production; they inevitably saw him as "anti-Heston." This is a kind of curse.

So I come to the text with Charlton Heston and now Ben Kingsley and a collection of other images and information gathered from childhood recollection, religious education, scholarship, and my own prior reading. I come to the text thinking I know what it says. And I am surprised, the more surprised the more deeply engaging the stories become.

The broad outline of the Moses saga is familiar enough and unchallenging. It is basically what many of us remember:

In order to save her infant son, an Israelite mother places him in a basket among reeds. An Egyptian princess finds him there and will later adopt him as her son. After the child grows up, he kills an Egyptian and must flee to the land of Midian, where he marries Zipporah, daughter of a Midian priest. For the time being, he becomes a shepherd. When he leads his flock into the Sinai wilderness by a sacred mountain, God speaks to him from a burning bush and tells him to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery. Moses confronts Pharaoh with the demand to let the people go, and he calls down a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. At last he guides the Israelites in an escape through the sea to the sacred mountain where he receives the law from God. From there Moses leads the people on their long journey north through the desert to the land of Canaan, the promised land that he is allowed to see but not enter.

This is the general, familiar outline. It is the details of the story that make it strange, not what I, like many others, thought I knew.

Early in the text come bits and pieces—intimations—of the strikingly unfamiliar. It is strange that God chooses as the leader of Israel an inarticulate, fugitive prince of Egypt. No less strangely, the book of Exodus announces that "Amram married Jochebed his father's sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses" (6:20). This brief, matter-of-fact identification contains two violations of biblical rules of legitimacy: Aaron and Moses are sons of a forbidden, incestuous union (Lev. 18:12); and, although firstborn sons are the ones to be consecrated and to inherit the father's wealth (Exod. 13 :1–16), God prefers Moses, who is second born.

And then there is the incredible moment near the beginning. Moses had yielded to God's commission and was returning to Egypt when "the Lord met him and tried to kill him" (Exod. 4:24). The text offers no mitigating explanation and instead deepens the mystery. God let him alone, it says, after Zipporah hastily circumcised their son and "touched Moses' feet" with the foreskin (Exod. 4:25). Moses is remarkably saved, and not for the first time, by a woman.

These details charge the story, upset expectations, and invite the reader to a closer look. They challenge beliefs about what the text says and what it should say, and the challenge brings with it much difficulty but also the promise of a journey.

The Moses of the biblical saga is a complex figure of many parts, but he is foremost a person of the law. The text does not say that he is a lawyer. It says that he is "mouth" (peh) for God, and the story furnishes the notion with meaning. Moses as mouth for God is the figure I follow to the episodes at Sinai and to intersections with rules of common law and lawyering to a situation.

When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, Moses is first humble: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" (Exod. 3: n).Then he is uncertainly inquiring: When the people of Israel ask who sent him, he wants to know: "What shall I say to them?" (3:13). He is next shrewdly wary: "Suppose they do not believe me or listen to my voice?" (4:1). Then he is modest: "I am slow of speech and of tongue" (4:10). Finally, he is simply reluctant: "O my Lord, please send someone else" (4:13).

God introduces the image of the mouth in response to Moses' argument that he speaks poorly. God says: "I will be with your mouth and teach you what to speak" (Exod. 4:12). The image returns at the conclusion of the exchange when Moses' truculent self-effacement at last makes God angry. Enough humility is enough. To Moses' "send someone else," God answers that He will send Aaron as a companion: "You shall speak to [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth.... he shall serve as a mouth for you and you shall serve as God for him" (4:15–16). Moses is to God as Aaron is to Moses: "a mouth for."

Not out of weakness or incapacity does God call Moses to be His mouth. God speaks when, to whom, and through whom He wishes, including, wonderfully, Balaam and Balaam's ass (Num. 22–24). He does not require empowerment by Moses. God summons a mouth for Himself because of who He is and how He acts and not because of some external necessity.

God's awful presence is consuming. There is danger in it for humans. Come too close to God or in the wrong manner and you die. For this reason, in giving Himself to His people, God provides Israel with the media, forms, being, and history that serve as the locus of His presence. Insofar as Israel's life is constituted by these gifts, they are not consumed when He is near.

But Israel must be exact in observance. In preparation for their meeting with God at Mt. Sinai, the people must consecrate and wash themselves, and in the event keep the proper distance with great care (Exod. 19:10–15). God warns and twice repeats: "You shall set limits for the people all around, saying 'Be careful not to go up the mountain or touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death'" (Exod. 19:12, 21,24).

The ranking, ritual, purification, structure, detail of tabernacle construction— and law—must be precisely observed, for only so does Israel move forward with the presence of God. The violent, destructive potential continues. Unsurprisingly, Moses "did everything just as the Lord had commanded him" (Exod. 40:16). And when he instructs the people, he is careful to employ a kind of careful, practical teaching. He wants to make sure the people get it.

The first nine chapters of Leviticus portray the careful unfolding and flawless observance of the commanded ritual. But then comes the formal inauguration of the priesthood when Aaron's two eldest sons interrupt the flow. In an excess of zeal they make an offering of fire, an added offering not prescribed by God. It is a terrible mistake. "The fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them" (Lev. 10:2).

To live with God's presence Israel must keep to the order without subtraction or addition. Precisely observed, it makes them a people apart but allows them to be animated by God. "You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess" (Deut. 5:32–33).

That God provides a mouth for Himself is the cardinal gift of enablement to His people. He is characteristically present to them as word. God talks. In the texts, He calls to Moses from the bush and later speaks to him all the words of the law. His voice is to be obeyed (Exod. 19:5). He creates by word. He speaks the world into being: "God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). The word of God can be destructive and terrifying. When the people hear the sound of His speaking at Sinai, they are afraid and tremble and stand at a distance. They cannot withstand His words spoken directly to them.

God's commission of Moses to be His mouth is an expression of His courteous power. Through Moses He speaks, and the people do not die. Through this mouth He is present to His people and does not consume them. God speaks through Moses, and the people are able to bear the word that will in turn sustain them in their journey to the promised land. God's distinctive power is expressed not so much in great and terrifying noise as in His speech through this person to this people.

When Moses acts as mouth for God to Pharaoh, he speaks for the people as well as God, and at least initially they accept his office and the words he brings: "Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped" (Exod. 4:30–31).

This popular belief in God and its attendant support for Moses prove to be fleeting. Moses' first confrontation with Pharaoh ends in failure, and afterward God does not visit a plague upon the Egyptians as He will do later on similar occasions. This time it is Pharaoh rather than God who speaks and acts. He demands more brick from the enslaved and already overburdened people. In response, the people turn away from Moses: "You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us" (Exod. 5:21). They "would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery" (Exod. 6:9).

The people then drop out of the story as active participants until the last of Moses' confrontations with Pharaoh, when they receive God's instruction in the Passover. At that time they once again bow down and worship and do "just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron" (Exod. 12:28–29).

Even so, the Israelites do not solicit Moses to act as their spokesman. When they arrive at Mt. Sinai to complete the first stage of their long sojourn in the desert, they at last approach Moses to plead for his help, but they do not propose that he speak for them. They ask that he speak to them: "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die" (Exod. 20:18–21). Moses is God's mouth and not theirs.

Sometimes, however, especially in the events surrounding the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, Moses does represent the people before God, and he appears then to act as their mouth.

The particulars of the writing of the law may constitute such an occasion. I think they do not, but the possibility rewards exploration.

According to both Exodus and Deuteronomy, God summons Moses to the mountain, writes the commandments on two stone tablets, and gives them to him. That the law is written is worthy of note. The act of writing is first mentioned in the Bible in association with other impressive events in Exodus 17. That chapter opens with an episode in which Moses draws water from a rock by striking it with his staff. A clash of arms with the Amalekites follows. On the day of battle, Moses surveys the action from the top of a hill. Whenever he "held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands ... until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek" (Exod. 17:11–13).

At the conclusion of that long day, God commands Moses to write. The command is brief: "Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (Exod. 17:14). It is a striking conundrum. God directs Moses to memorialize in writing the erasure of Amalek. But because Amalek is inscribed in the book, he whose remembrance is utterly blotted out is nonetheless still with us millennia later. Thus does the Bible's first mention of writing perform its power.

The references to writing that follow in the story of the long journey are associated almost exclusively with writing law: the book of the covenant, the tablets of stone at Mt. Sinai, the law written on plasteredstones set up at Mt. Ebal, and the written law deposited in the ark. Moses does most of this writing.

Moses erases what God writes. When he descends the mountain bearing the two stone tablets and approaches the encampment, he sees the people engaged in the idolatrous worship of a golden calf, and he smashes the tablets. They will be replaced later by a second set of stone tablets on which the commandments have been rewritten. Arthur Jacobson focuses on this erasure and rewriting of the commandments in an argument about the authenticity of law. He reads the Sinai events as a kind of negotiation with God carried forward by Moses on behalf of the people. This negotiation or participation, he believes, is what makes the law legitimate and effective among the people. I think Jacobson is wrong, but helpfully so.

The first time that God hands down the law, He speaks it with frightening power and then gives Moses the two stones on which He has written it. Clearly God does the writing. The scene is interrupted by the people's calf worship and Moses' erasure of God's handiwork. After the people offer an atonement, a measure of peace is restored, and God has Moses cut two more stone tablets and return with them to the mountain. God restates the covenant, and then "the Lord said to Moses: 'Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.' He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments" (Exod. 34:27–28).

Jacobson believes that the text is ambiguous and that it is not clear whether the "he" who wrote the second edition is God or Moses. I think it is clear in the Exodus account that Moses did the writing, but I accept Jacobson's point about ambiguity on other grounds.

Jacobson reads the ambiguity as signaling something about law: If law is rules and God unilaterally hands them down, people have no creative role to play. The law written by God on the stones will appear not as propositions for conversation but as rules that are a graven image to be bowed down to like the golden calf. Moses must destroy the first tablets to teach the people that these writings are not idols but propositions that lead to further creative conversation with God. Moses must then be included in writing the second set of tablets to demonstrate the possibility of collaboration. Moses "will let the people read the propositions only once they are written for a second time.... The people will not regard the second writing, the rewriting of a writing they saw Moses smash, as an idol. They will read the propositions, rewrite them in deeds, use them as further propositions in conversation with Yahweh."

I read the writing at Sinai differently. It is not negotiation but God's gift. God wrote the law the first time. Moses erased the writing because he was furious with the people just as God was. Moses thereby deprived the people of the writing that would have placed the gift of law literally in their midst. Without law, God cannot be present to them. When God orders the people to set out from Sinai, He says He will not go with them: "If for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you" (Exod. 33:5).

It is when God eventually relents and agrees to go with the people that He also agrees to a rewriting of the law to be placed in the ark. The words of the law, the ark, God, and the people set out together for the promised land. The law is the gift whereby God is present without destroying the people.

Uncertainty about who did the writing on the second set of stones has two functions. It serves first to certify and particularize Moses' role. God speaks, then writes the law. To be His mouth means doing both. Moses is commissioned to write as well as speak for God. When he utters God's word, Moses' speaking and writing are the same as God's.

The other function of the uncertainty is to indicate how the gift is to be received. That there is a second edition of the law exhibits the inexhaustibility of God's commitment to his people, their defection notwithstanding. That the law this time was or could have been written by Moses shows what the people are to do with it. God gives His law into the hands of Moses. Moses in turn delivers it to the people. And then the people are themselves at last bidden to write, like Moses. They are to be saturated with the words: "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.... Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:6–9). Israel carries the law about in the ark, on their doorposts, on their bodies, in their hearts, in their lives. So does God's law become the people's law, and so is reception of the gift completed.


Excerpted from Called by Stories by Milner S. Ball. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


I: Moses,
1. Law and the "Mouth" for God,
2. Intercession,
3. Counsel for the Situation,
4. The Word in Moses' Situation,
5. The Risks,
6. The Promise of Succession,
7. The Promise of Justice,
8. Psalm 114,
II: The Encompassing Women,
9. The Midwives,
10. Socratic Midwifery That Isn't,
11. Socratic Midwifery That Is,
12. Are You the Lawyers?,
13. Miriam,
14. Rachel,
15. Jeremiah's Rachel Poem,
16. Law and Tears,
17. The Womb of God and Tears,
III: The Gospel According to John,
18. The Jerusalem Trial,
19. The Gospel Trial: A Divine Lawsuit,
20. A Reversal and Appeal,
21. The Power of the Word: Two Women,
22. The Power of the Word: Moses and the Spirit,
23. The Power of the Word: Disbelief,
24. John's Freedom from and for Law,
25. Lawyers' Independence,

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