Rational Interpretation

14 Then the king, when he heard these words, was much distressed and set his mind to deliver Daniel. And he labored till the sun went down to rescue him. 15 Then these men came by agreement to the king and said to the king, “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no injunction or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed.” 16 Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel,” May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!”

Daniel 6:14-16 (ESV)

13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day … and to plunder their goods … 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?” 6 And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen … 8 [W]rite as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked” … 10 And he [Mordecai] wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed it with the king’s signet ring. Then he sent letters … saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.

Esther 3:13, 7:5-6, 8:8-11 (ESV)

Young New Yorker Elmer Palmer stood to inherit the great balance of his widower grandfather’s estate, but that was about to change. The elder Francis Palmer remarried and then expressed an intention to change the will in favor of his new wife. To stop him and so secure his inheritance, sixteen-year-old Elmer poisoned Francis. The court, however, refused to accommodate the murderer (Riggs v. Palmer, 1889).[1] Though the “will was made in due form,” no reasonable person could think that it applied here. The conscience of a people, reflected in the “fundamental maxims of the common law,” insisted that “[n]o one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong.” Despite the letter of the law, equity demanded that the document be set aside.

Darius the Mede and Ahasuerus (Xerxes) the Persian would have benefited from the principle of equity. Instead, they were bound (and tormented) by the irrevocable nature of their decrees. When Darius discovered that a good man was about to die, he was helpless to stop it. When Esther exposed Haman’s wicked plot, Ahasuerus was forced to stack one irrevocable edict upon another. Instead of canceling the license to kill Jews, he had to issue them a hunting license of their own. Good outcome; absurd route. Had these legal systems been more sensible, things could have been set right without the aid of a miracle in the first case and legislative contortion in the second.

No lawmaker can anticipate every social eventuality. If laws were written to apply to every possible situation, they would be as absurd as maps with a scale of 1:1. (As one wry fellow observed, to unroll such a map would annoy the farmers.) Instead, laws provide general rules, to be applied by reasonable men, who must take into account good sense and original intent. This is the principle of “rational interpretation”: If a reading of the law results in “absurd consequences manifestly contradictory to common reason,” that reading is “void.”

Law, then, ultimately rests not upon blind power and the relentless application of regulative minutiae, but upon righteousness and prudence. the principles of decency and thoughtfulness. (Jesus made just this point against the Pharisees when, in Mark 2:23-27, He and His disciples “harvested” grain on the Sabbath.) By this standard, if a people lose their moral compass, the system destroys itself by endless compromise. Therefore, the Church is crucial to the State. At her best, the Church informs the consciences and wills of future legislatures and judges. When she falters, the courts may find themselves sending Daniel to the lions’ den and Francis Palmer’s fortune to his murderer.


[1] All of the below quotes come from Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506 (1889).