Getting the Most from Old Testament Law (Part 1)

Those who first received the Law viewed obeying it a privilege, not a restriction. Can New Testament Christians also see the beauty in these ancient texts? (This is another in a series of articles titled “Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth” that Matt Proctor is writing this year.)

________

By Matt Proctor

Imagine it’s New Year’s Day, and you make a resolution to read through your Bible this year. You begin with Genesis, and all goes well that first week. But hold on. Soon you’ll get to Leviticus, and then what will you do?

Genesis starts with a bang as God creates the world. And then stories like Noah’s ark, Abraham’s trials, Jacob’s schemes, and Joseph’s privilege-to-pit-to-Potiphar-to-prison-to-palace all make for compelling reading.

About three weeks in, you hit Exodus, and things continue fairly smoothly. After all, Exodus has some interesting stories too: a burning bush, a stuttering prophet, and a stubborn pharaoh. A sea parts right down the middle, and Charlton Heston gets the Ten Commandments. Good stuff.

But then you hit Leviticus . . . and if you’re like a lot of Christians, your daily reading starts to drag. The instructions here seem strange, arcane, even petty: don’t eat seagulls, tell the priest if your house has mildew, don’t trim your beard. Really? You find yourself wondering how any of this will help you love God or follow Jesus, and if you’re honest, you’ll admit it: Leviticus seems like a long, dry stretch of highway.

A lot of New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned alongside that road.

Can the Old Testament Law Still Speak Today?

The Year of Living Biblically, a New York Times best seller by A. J. Jacobs, chronicled the humorous attempts of this self-described agnostic Jew to abide by all the commands of Scripture as literally as possible for a year, just to see what would happen. This mission was unfamiliar, he admitted, because he was not a believer: “I’ve rarely said the word Lord, unless it’s followed by of the Rings.

But for one year he tried not to covet, gossip, or lie—not easy for a journalist in New York City. He also let his beard grow wild (Leviticus 19:27), wore no mixed-fiber clothes (Leviticus 19:19), and stood in the presence of the elderly (Leviticus 19:32). At the end of the year, he concluded that, while some rules were “wise and life-enhancing,” others were simply “baffling.”1

Let’s face it, those of us who do call Jesus Lord can find these commands just as baffling. Christians struggle to read the legal sections of the Old Testament with any relevance. It seems so old and outdated; no one suggests these passages for a Sunday school study. Preachers avoid Leviticus because they’re afraid of an exodus! Do we as New Testament believers really need to read these sections of Scripture? Can the Old Testament Law still speak today?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. A few observations might help us reconsider our attitude toward the Old Testament Law:

• The Jewish people loved the Torah, the Hebrew word for “law.” Leviticus is one of the first books observant Jewish children learn to read. In fact, the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, is a song of praise for the Law.

• The New Testament affirms the Law’s goodness. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. In 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul says, “We know that the Law is good if one uses it properly.”

• Do you know which Old Testament books are most quoted in the New Testament? The first three are Psalms, Isaiah, and Genesis. But numbers 4 and 5 are Exodus and Leviticus. By the way, Leviticus has more direct quotations from God than any other book in the Bible.

• When Jesus entered spiritual battle with Satan during his wilderness temptations, he quoted Scripture each time. Though he had 39 Old Testament books to choose from, he quoted all three times from Deuteronomy.

• As Christians, we can’t fully understand the New Testament or the work of Christ without the vocabulary of the Old Testament Law: sacrifice, atonement, unclean, holy, curse, blood.

But I think 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 is the most persuasive reminder to read the legal portions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. There Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Of course, “all Scripture” includes the Old Testament legal portions. Paul here conclusively states that the Old Testament Law does still speak today. It can teach us more fully what it means to follow God.

The Fresh Power of Ancient Law

Daniel Harrell, minister at Park Street Church in Boston, read The Year of Living Biblically and wondered what it would be like if a group of actual believers tried to live out the Old Testament Law. So he issued The 30-Day Leviticus Challenge. He asked his congregation to join him in “living Levitically” for one month, and several signed on.

Each volunteer ate kosher, kept the Sabbath, wore single-fabric clothing, and the men didn’t shave. They journaled their experience on Facebook, and the results were eye-opening.

For instance, they reported a deeper sense that God might want to be involved in their daily routines. One participant wrote, “I never before realized how good I am at detaching God from my day-to-day life.” Now, unexpectedly, deliberate attention to food and clothing was taking on a spiritual dimension.

One woman remarked that getting dressed each morning became a very slow and intentional process. Her discovery: “Fast girls aren’t holy.” The participants began to see that God claims lordship over all the details of our lives.

One group of women found that their Sabbath-keeping radically reordered their priorities, making much-needed time for their friendship. They were so deeply affected that they dedicated themselves to continued Sabbath observance.

Another participant wrote about a transforming event:

I had a hard time with Leviticus month . . .

Early in the month I had been reading through the sacrificial section and was convinced that the modern-day, post-Jesus equivalent is confession. This is something I knew about from my Catholic days, but it had never been part of my life. I was not interested in doing this again—but the way I was “not wanting to” made me think that I really ought to. So I made arrangements with an accommodating confessor, took a very deep breath, and jumped in.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was not what I was expecting. This was large. This was a major life event. I spent hours dredging up all the muck in my life and preparing my list—and then it was all washed away. Gone. I was walking on air. And all of a sudden I knew that I was in a really good place and I did not want to muck it up anymore. “Okay God,” I prayed, “this is fantastic. I want to stay here. Whaddya want me to do?”2

The congregation’s testimony at the end of the month was powerful. Leviticus breathed new insight into their faith, new life into their habits, and new gratitude into their worship. One lady wrote, “Leviticus reminded me of the power and holiness and justice and yes, the grace of God. You may think I’m crazy, but I’m going to say it anyway: I love Leviticus. Amen and amen.”

My challenge, then, is simple: when your year’s Bible reading journey takes you out of the familiar neighborhood of Old Testament narrative and into the unfamiliar landscape of Old Testament Law, don’t stop reading. God can use these sections of Scripture to deepen your discipleship.

Yes, the Old Testament Law still speaks today. But this leads us to another question: how? When we commit to reading these Old Testament texts, the difficulty we face is how to read them as New Testament believers. How can we read them accurately and apply them appropriately? The interpretive challenge here is real. So I would like to offer what might be called the “two greatest commandments” for reading Old Testament legal texts:

1. Thou shalt remember the Law’s original audience.

2. Thou shalt remember the Law’s theological purpose.

Thou Shalt Remember the Original Audience

If we want to understand the Old Testament Law, we start by remembering that it wasn’t written to us, but to ancient Israel. Put yourself in the Israelites’ sandals. While we live in a technological, urban society, theirs was agrarian. We face pressure from competing worldviews, while they faced pressure from surrounding Canaanite religions. Their culture included debt-slavery (Exodus 21:1-11), the practice of gleaning (Leviticus 19:9, 10), and flat-roofed houses where people regularly walked (Deuteronomy 22:8).

But the greater differences are theological. We, as Christ followers, live under the new covenant (Hebrews 8 and 9), but the Israelites lived under the old covenant. So while God dwells within us as Christians, God dwelled among the Israelites in a tabernacle or temple. We enjoy access to God through the sacrifice of Christ, but the Israelites could approach God only through the sacrifice of animals.

Another key difference: as Christians we live under a secular government, whereas Israelites were actually a theocratic nation. The church is not a nation, and as grateful as I am for our Christian heritage, America is not the promised land. But the Israelites belonged to a community of faith and a political entity that were one and the same.

So putting ourselves in the ancient Israelites’ mind-set will help us begin to read the Old Testament Law rightly. As we walk a few miles in their sandals, we’ll make two more important observations: Israelites saw the Law as a gift and as a compass.

Burden vs. Gift

To modern readers, the word law brings to mind nitpicky copyright restrictions, mind-numbing tax code minutia, and deputies with radar guns and flashing red lights. As a Bible college president, I probably should never quote Van Halen’s former lead singer. But when I was a teenager in the 1980s (which were totally rad and most excellent), I remember Sammy Hagar belting out “I Can’t Drive 55!” That song captures a common American mind-set: The law feels like a burden imposed on us.

Not so to the ancient Israelite.

When the Law was given, the Hebrews had just been released from 400 years of slavery—400! That’s almost twice as long as the United States has been an independent nation. The Israelites had never owned land or been organized as a political entity. They were just a rag-tag bunch of slaves who were more Egyptian than Israelite, and who were ingrained with almost 20 generations of oppressed-slave mentality.

So when God gives the Law, God is totally redefining the Israelites’ self-identity. By establishing a covenant with Israel, he is offering to extend his protection and care. Suddenly the Israelites were no longer the human garbage of Egypt; they were chosen and privileged! God wanted them! Israel never understood the Law as a means of salvation—hoops to jump through to earn God’s favor. God had already saved Israel in the Exodus, before the Law was even handed down. Rather, after experiencing God’s incredible redemption from slavery, the Israelites understood the Law as another act of grace. It signified God’s desire for an ongoing relationship.

Therefore, the Israelites received the Law as a gift. Theoretically, God could have established his covenant with anyone—the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, or even the Egyptians. But he didn’t. He chose the Israelites, and they knew that with privilege comes responsibility. “These directives, therefore, are the means by which God sets this nation apart as his special possession, dearer to him than all others (Exodus 19:5).”3

If you’re chosen to play football for Notre Dame, you don’t have to wear a gold helmet and slap the famous “Play Like a Champion Today” sign. You get to. And if you’re chosen as the people of God, you don’t have to obey the Law. You get to. To live within the Law was a privilege—part of a new identity.

By the way, another huge part of this new identity was that the Israelites’ had taken up residence in the promised land. To be “in the land” was to be among God’s people.

Scholar Christopher Wright points out the vital link in the Old Testament between ownership of land and relationship to God: “An Israelite’s land and property were the tangible symbols of his personal share in the inheritance of Israel.”4 An attack on an Israelite’s property was also an attack on his relationship with Yahweh. So while Israel’s property laws were certainly civil in nature, they also had theological implications. They were not only designed to protect property, but also to protect their identity as God’s people. The Law was truly a gift.

Compass vs. Map

While we’re walking in the Israelites’ sandals, we’ll notice one more thing: they understood that the Old Testament law was paradigmatic. The 613 Old Testament laws fall into “three levels of specificity.”5 At the top, most comprehensive level are the two greatest commandments: to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). At the next level are the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17), with the first four describing how to love God (vertical) and the final six describing how to love neighbor (horizontal). At the third level, then, are the 601 other commandments in the Old Testament Law, which address in greater specificity various vertical and horizontal concerns.

Still, 613 laws could not possibly cover the endless myriad of human situations in which the Israelites would find themselves. How could so few laws guide so many people? The answer is that ancient law was seen as paradigmatic. Modern societies opt for exhaustive law codes that seek to specifically mention every single prohibited action, and criminals sometimes get off because of a “loophole” where their action is not exactly forbidden by law.

Maybe you’ve seen those lists of absurd laws. For example, wearing a fake moustache to cause laughter in church is illegal in Alabama, and it’s a misdemeanor to feed alcohol to moose in Fairbanks, Alaska.6 Such specific laws were clearly put on the books to address a particular situation—to close a “loophole” for an undesirable behavior.

Ancient law codes, however, made no attempt to be exhaustive. They were instead intended to give models of behavior—examples of prohibitions and punishments. They weren’t written as a map giving detailed directions, but as a compass giving general guidance to judges as they administered justice. Douglas Stuart explains:

No Israelite could say, “The law says I must make restitution for stolen oxen or sheep (Exodus 22:1), but I stole your goat; I don’t have to pay you back,” or “The law says that anyone who attacks his father or mother must be put to death (Exodus 21:15), but I attacked my grandmother, so I shouldn’t be punished.” . . . Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior that the laws in their totality pointed toward.7

So as we prepare to read the Old Testament Law, be careful not to import a modern American mind-set. Instead we must strap on our sandals, put on our yarmulke, and think like an Israelite. As much as possible, keep in mind their cultural, philosophical, and theological context.8

Thou shalt remember the original audience. This is the first and greatest commandment, but the second is like it: “Thou Shalt Remember the Theological Purpose.” We’ll look at that one next week, in Part Two of this article.

________

1A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically, See also www.ajjacobs.com.

2Daniel Harrell, “The 30-Day Leviticus Challenge,” Christianity Today, found at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/august/13.30.html.

3Steven Bridge, Getting the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 70.

4Christopher Wright, God’s People in God’s Land (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 135. Wright also notes that the phrase “in the land” is replaced for the New Testament believer by the phrase “in Christ.”

5Douglas Stuart, “Preaching From the Law,” in Preaching the Old Testament, Scott Gibson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 93.

6See www.dumblaws.com.

7Stuart, 95, 96.

8A helpful resource for this is The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, John Walton and Victor Matthews, eds. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press).

Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!