For much of this, see Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
Societies are framed by institutions. In some senses, that might be a tautological claim: what are societies besides framing institutions? These institutions, at heart, are developed over centuries. The basis of democratic societies cannot be merely installed in a shock and awe campaign — it takes time, intention, and growing levels of self-determination. I would also argue that there are no revolutions in institutions. There is only gradual change that is sometimes framed in revolutionary language. But that is another issue. This post’s issue is about how to interpret the Law of the Old Testament, as part of an ongoing series on how to interpret the different genres of the Scriptures.
One of the key ways to understand the Law, which compromises most of the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. But actually, “the Law” refers to a few different but connected things:
(1) the laws delineated in the Old Testament (613 of them!);
(2) the Law could be the law (the collective 613 laws);
(3) the Law could also be the books of the Law, the Pentateuch;
(4) the Law has been used by New Testament writers to refer to the entire Old Testament sacrificial worship system;
(5) and the Law has been used by New Testament writers to refer to the interpretation of the covenant throughout the Old Testament by rabbis.
Key Ideas for Christians Interpreting Old Testament Law
When Christians read the Old Testament law, they need to be the covenantal nature of it. God comes down to meet human beings and enter into a relationship with them. It was actually a sign of grace to know what God demanded in response to sin — otherwise, to “appease” God, you might end up sacrificing your own children, which did happen in the cultures surrounding the Israelites. The covenant establishes a binding relationship between God and the people of God, even if the people walk away from it. God does not abandon it, because God does not abandon.
This being said, the Old Testament is not the Christian testament. A testament is another word for a covenant. So, the New Testament is about the new covenant that God establishes through Jesus Christ. This is the complicated potion of this whole thing, because some of the old-covenant has been renewed in the new, and even if it isn’t, the Old Testament law is still the word of God, as it still reveals God’s grace to people in particular situations. We must remember that only that which is explicitly renewed from the Old Testament law can be considered part of the New Testament “law of Christ.” The ultimate word in the law of Christ, though, is grace. That is God’s first and final word.
The Law for Israel
There are basically two types of law in the law of the Old Testament. The first is apodictic law: these are the laws that command, based in the personal attributes of God and God’s covenantal relationship with the people. Consider Leviticus 19:9-14. These commands are based in the person of God, in what God has done, and who God is. The second kind of law is the casuistic law, which are laws with conditions. For an example, see Deuteronomy 15:12-17. Under certain conditions what is prescribed in the law can change; there are options.
Under these two types of law, the people of Israel lived their lives and tried to make sense of the world. All in all, the law was about revealing who God was and what God had done. That is what the law was based in.
Benefits of the Law
There were practical benefits to the law, as well as spiritual ones. For example, some of the laws regarding food (and what it means to keep kosher) are really practical if you are desert-abiding semi-nomadic people: don’t eat shellfish! Food Laws protected the demographics of the people. They were about keeping away disease and allowing the people to increase in number. A lot of the laws were about that. The blood laws were also about sanitation and cleanliness. Without modern hygiene, so many diseases would be rampant, and these laws were the ancient way of going about public sanitation and personal hygiene, as a way to keep disease in check.
If you have browsed through some of the other laws in the Old Testament, you will have spotted some unusual ones, of course. And that is almost the point. To be the Jewish people rather than one of the many other semitic groups, the people of Israel had to be and act and believe differently. In this way, they proclaimed their covenantal relationship with God.
And so, God would bless those who kept the laws, as they were faithful in their relationship to God and in making God known in world. Some of these laws, we definitely still approve of today and still bless us today. For example, keeping the sabbath. We may not need to keep the sabbath, but keeping a sabbath not only reminds us that we need to rest, but it blesses us with that rest. Finding the blessings in the
Some Hints, Tips, and Tricks
This is taken directly from Fee and Stuart:
- Do see the Old Testament law as God’s fully inspired word for you.
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as God’s direct command to you.
- Do see the Old Testament law as the basis for the old covenant, and therefore for Israel’s history.
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as binding on Christians in the new covenant except where specifically renewed.
- Do see God’s justice, love, and high standards revealed in the Old Testament law.
- Don’t forget to see that God’s mercy is made equal to the severity of the standards.
- Do see the Old Testament law as a paradigm — providing examples for the full range of expected behavior.
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as complete. It is not technically comprehensive.
- Do remember that the essence of the law (the Ten Commandments and the two chief laws) is repeated in the Prophets and renewed in the New Testament.
- Don’t expect the Old Testament law to be frequently by the Prophets or the New Testament. Legal citation was first introduced only in the Roman era, omg after the Old Testament was complete.
- Do see the Old Testament law as a generous gift to Israel, bringing much blessing when obeyed.
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as a grouping of arbitrary, annoying regulations limiting people’s freedom.