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)
Locutions, illocutions, perlocutions. This jargon can get in the way of understanding, even if it lends a necessary precision to the argument. The exact laws can change because the context changes and the way holiness works out can change with the context. There is some evidence that laws do change in the Old Testament, even in the Pentateuch itself. John and Brent don’t mention any specific examples, but one such example concerns the Passover lamb. I’ve heard this raised by skeptics to impeach the “inerrancy” of Scripture. Concerning the Passover lamb, Ex. 12:9 says “Do not eat the meat raw or bashal it in water, but roast it over a fire.” while Deuteronomy 16:7 says “Bashal it and eat it at the place the Lord your God will choose.” Our English translations cover this using different words to translate bashal in the two places. This could be right – but it is also possible that some change in context affected the practice. It doesn’t really matter as long as the ultimate intended result – to be holy as the Lord is holy – remains.
John and Brent summarize:
[The legal sayings] do not carry authority for us primarily in the legislative realm (although they have implications for that realm) or in the covenantal realm (although they serve a purpose there); they carry authority as God’s revelation of his character and his holiness. Christians remain responsible for holiness as they seek to be like God as revealed in Christ, and the legal sayings retain their usefulness in giving information about what that will look like. (p. 222)
Moving beyond John, Brent, and The Lost World of Scripture to some thoughts of my own. Jesus summarized the law for us as recorded in Matthew 22. Jesus was asked “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Considering the Old Testament laws then, a good place to stop, perhaps, is with Deuteronomy 10:12-22 where the focus is on God and the revelation of his character.
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Deut. 10:12-22)
The theme concerning foreigners is not limited to Deuteronomy; Exodus 22:21-24, 23:9 and Leviticus 19:33-34 repeat the command. We are still called to love those who are foreigners as well as the fatherless and widows. We are called to this because God shows no partiality and accepts no bribes and loves the foreigner. There is nothing in the New Testament that counteracts this command for us in the church. If anything the command to love our neighbors is strengthened. We are, after all, foreigners and exiles ourselves (1 Pt. 2:11)
Love God, Love others. Especially, but not only, fellow Christians … those who call upon the name of the Lord.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net