As Christians know, the Bible is an important book. It is through Scripture that we learn about the mission of God in his people Israel. We realize that the Old Testament sets the stage for the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Jesus is God’s messiah, the faithful Israelite, king from the line of David. We should read it, study it, and be immersed in the story.
I’ve made it a habit for eight or so years now to listen to the Bible read aloud on my morning commute (streaming through the BibleGateway App works well). It is an enlightening practice. This week I’m listening to Leviticus and Numbers. Although I’ve known the major stories most of my life, there is much, especially in the Old Testament, that is generally ignored in our churches. It simply doesn’t seem relevant today. There are passages the purpose of which seems (to put it mildly) obscure. The laws in the Pentateuch, Exodus 25 to 31, 35 to 40; pretty much all of Leviticus (there is one narrative concerning the dedication of Aaron and the death of two of his sons), Numbers 5, 6, 19, (the census is also rather boring) and several passages in Deuteronomy are among the passages often overlooked in our churches. (The image is of Moses ca. 840 AD receiving the law and reading the law: source)
Some of the laws, we agree, still apply today. The ten commandments (a.k.a. ten words) for example.
Some seem to apply only to another time long past. The laws concerning sacrifices and festivals fall into this category.
Some offend our modern sensibilities. Why should an accused wife be tested with bitter water?
Others simply seem bizarre. Why all the concern with moldy walls?
For some there is no evidence they were ever obeyed. The year of Jubilee and the freeing of slaves fall into this category.
John Walton and D. Brent Sandy (The Lost World of Scripture) suggest that the primary purpose of the Old Testament legal literature was revelation. The revelation of God and his character. The establishment of a stable, just, and merciful people of God. [Square brackets delineate my clarifications in the following quotes.]
[T]he general literary context for the legal collections of the Pentateuch is related to the covenant. In this case the illocution [the intent of the words] becomes stipulations of a covenant agreement rather than legislation of a society. (p. 220)
The consequence of the laws in the Pentateuch is to shape and form a people who will be holy.
The literature of the Pentateuch, with its covenantal context, carries the perlocution [anticipated response by the audience] for Israel that they should adhere to the torah so that they might remain in covenant relationship with Yahweh and that he might remain dwelling in their midst. … [T]hey will be keeping the covenant to the extent that they are holy as Yahweh their God is holy. The ultimate perlocution is not justice or obedience, those are only stops on the way to holiness. (p. 220)
How then should Christians understand and keep the laws?
The legal sayings in the Pentateuch revealed the character of Yahweh, and the character of Yahweh has not changed. Believers still have the obligation to reflect that character as they seek to be holy as God is holy. Jesus, as God in the flesh, embodied the character of God, and so revelation through the legal sayings is fulfilled in him, and through him we see how we are to respond to those legal sayings. The authority of the legal sayings is found in the revelation they offer of the character of God and the way they serve as guides to holiness. None of the locutions [words] (“jot and tittle”) will pass away until the ultimate illocutions are fulfilled in the outworking of the ultimately intended perlocutions. (p. 221)