Check out the latest episode of the podcast: God’s Law Part 2. You can find the podcast on Spotify, ApplePodcasts and Stitcher. Or go right to the website here:
Pause: Do you think the Bible is easy to understand? Should it be? What are the toughest questions people have asked you about the Bible?
Last week we learned about how God’s Law was given to the Israelites not for them to earn God’s love, but as part of a covenant relationship with God. God had liberated them and promised to be with them; following the Law was their response. Following the Law would also set an example for the nations as Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. Priests mediate between God and humanity and the goal was for Israel to live in this way so blessing could come to all the nations. Even as we move into the depths of the law and the story of Israel, we must always remember God’s desire is to restore relationship with all people.
This week we will look at the law a bit further. As I mentioned last week, the Law was never meant to be universal for all time, as if we can just quote chapter and verse to know how to live or what to do today. It is vital to remember that all parts of the Bible need to be understood in their context. This includes the historical setting and cultural assumptions of the first readers and hearers. The Law was given to a certain people in a specific time and it is vital, though difficult, to understand those people and that time. Last week I mentioned the passages on how to deal with mildew in Leviticus and this reminds us how the law is contextual. It touched on nearly every area of life for the ancient Israelites. They didn’t have cleaning products and basement experts and such to call. Were we writing a Law today, we might find rules and guidelines for how to deal with social media, screen time or even Artificial Intelligence. But again, the Law was not written for our time. If you think about it a universal law would not work because times are always changing. If God had given laws that only made sense to us, people up to our time would have been sorely confused!
The law is rooted in the ancient near eastern context.
Emphasizing the ancient context is important because almost anyone who reads today, whether a believer in God or an atheist, will see things in the Law as either ridiculous or horrific. My wife is doing a Bible reading plan and she just got to Numbers 5 where there are rules for how to judge if a woman accused of adultery is guilty and its absurd. No one, not even the most staunch biblical literalist, would take that passage literally for today!
To take another example, look at how the Law address slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says that, after seven years of slavery, if a male slave is set free then he can go. But his wife and children must remain with the slave owner. A few verses later, in 21:20-21, it says that beating a slave is permitted as long as the slave is not killed. We could also note that there are different punishments for sexual assault against a slave woman compared to a free woman (Lev. 19:20-22; Deut. 22:25-27) and in murder cases the life of a slave is less valuable (Exod. 21:28-32). If you ask a Christian if the Bible supports or opposes slavery, most will be quick to assure you it opposes. Yet, these passages in the Law, as well as others throughout scripture, were quoted by slave owners and defenders of slavery in the American south to support slavery as a God-ordained institution.
We read these scriptures and cringe. We read the words of those defenders of slavery and cringe even more. Is there a way to salvage these Laws or do we just toss this entire section of scripture out?
A helpful question to ask, as we seek a way out of this morass, is how would such texts have sounded back then, in the original context? What we discover is that the laws given to Israel led to better treatment of slaves compared with surrounding nations. Slaves had at least some rights in Israel, which was more than other nations. Slavery was not abolished, but the regulations in the Law are a step above surrounding cultures.
This reminds us, again, that the Law is not the final, universal statement on morals and ethics. It is a step above the surrounding culture but not the ultimate ideal. Neither Christians nor Jews today take the entire Law literally; both religions understand its contextual nature and the necessity to interpret it for meaning today. I, of course, cannot speak to how Jews interpret it. From a Christian perspective, we see the law as a step in a progression towards the highest and ultimate ideal. We believe Jesus revealed the clearest understanding of what God’s ultimate intention for humanity is. We see this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here Jesus speaks of being the light of the world, echoing that original call to Abraham to bring blessing (5:13-16). From this, he emphasizes that the Law will never pass away. Perhaps surprisingly then, he goes on to overturn some parts of the Law (“You have heard it said…but I say unto you.”). Jesus is arguing that the Law is good and yet he has an authority to move past the Law, to give clearer and better moral commands than what had come before.
Let’s look at the case of an eye for an eye. When someone harms you, the Law commands you to take an eye for an eye (Exod. 21:24; Deut. 19:20-21; Lev. 24:19-22). To read one of the passages, here is Leviticus 24:19-20
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered
This limits the amount of vengeance you can get. If someone harms your brother, you cannot burn down their village. Our human tendency is to want to hurt people more than us. This is why violence and retribution tend to escalate. The Law limits retribution by allowing it but only to even it out. This is called the lex talionis, the law of retribution. Then Jesus comes along and says the ideal is no retribution at all.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
We see the Law giving a higher ethic than our natural instinct, but this Law is not the final as we are moving towards something better. Eye for an eye is better than eye for a dozen eyes. Forgiveness and no more eyes is better still.
In this, we recognize that within the Bible itself there is movement. As we interpret the Law, we look for what it meant in its original context and then we apply our revelation of Jesus to it to seek to understand what it means for us today.
Seen through the lens of Jesus, the Law still possesses much value. Two passages that illustrate this are Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25. Both are worth going to and reading in full. Each one offers what appear to be radical social and economic ideas: forgiving debts, taking pain to care for the poor, setting captives free. Of course, Jesus came along and acted in these same ways: forgiving depths, caring for poor, setting captives free. Passages such as these ought to play a large role in our developing a Christ-centered view of politics, economics and healthcare.
Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 present big pictures strongly in conjunction with the vision of Jesus in the kingdom of God. What about more obscure passages?
Deuteronomy 22:8 – “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.”
Most of us do not have houses with flat roofs that people may fall off of. Yet, we are responsible for visitors to our homes. The principle here is simply to care for your home because if someone is at your houses and injures themselves through your negligence, you are responsible.
We see a similar point in Exodus 2:28-29:
“If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death.”
This speaks to personal responsibility. If an animal you own harms someone that is surely a tragedy. But if the animal is known to hurt people, the human owner is responsible. Or, to put it in the language of Jesus, the entire Law – from the Year of Jubilee to the law of retribution to obscure passages on goring bulls and people falling off roofs – is summed up in loving God and neighbor. We do not love our neighbors if we do not show hospitality and care for their safety.
We discover when we study the Law in context and from our Jesus-centered perspective, some passages have relevant principles right near the surface. Others may only have principles when we dig a bit deeper. Still others may be totally rejected (Numbers 5!). I see no real helpful truth at all in those passages on how to treat slaves, because slavery is an abhorrent institution. A Jesus-centered interpretation tells us those who used these passages to defend slavery were wrong. When we are dealing with human trafficking or modern day slavery, or even workers rights, we don’t need to bring passages like those into the discussion.
Perhaps the biggest point then is that when it comes to interpreting the Law, there is no “one size fits all” perspective. We come to and analyze each passage on its own. We even do not have to wait till Jesus to see the Law being modified; there are examples of laws from Exodus or Leviticus being modified in Deuteronomy. When we get to the prophets, we see claims the Law is not the point, the heart is. The Bible has never been and is not an “answer book.” It is a book that teaches us how to think more than what to think.
Let’s wrap up by returning to the theme of God’s mission. God has desire from the beginning to restore relationship with all people; Israel is a kingdom of priests, blessed to be a blessing and a light to the world. How would living by the Law have set Israel apart from other nations? What would people in neighboring nations think when Israel created a nation rooted in love of God and neighbor, rooted in the principles of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 and thus was more just, kinder to the poor, and radical in working for reconciliation?
Life with God under the Law revealed a God who cares about both spiritual things, such as forgiveness of sins (we did not even mention the entire sacrificial system in the Law and how it deals with sin) as well as material things such as poverty and immigration. This reflects again God’s creation in Genesis and liberation of Israel in Exodus. When we jump ahead to the coming of Jesus, we see the themes of Leviticus 25 appearing in his first public sermon in Luke 4:16-30. When Jesus spoke of “the year of the Lord’s favor” in this sermon he was talking about the year of Jubilee. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, the pray asked for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus said that the entire Law is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor. The Law is about both our relationship with God and with others and we live out this law when we live with love of God demonstrated in loving our neighbor. We see glimpses of this life in the early Christian community where every shared what they had and there were no poor among them (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35).
In the end, the best thing we can say we know that the purpose of the Law is to point us in the direction of loving God and loving neighbor. The entire Law, the whole of life with God, hinges on these truths.
Questions and Action Points:
What role does the Old Testament Law play in your faith as a Christian?
Do you think seeing the Old Testament Law as a step above surrounding culture while not the final goal is helpful?
Research a Christian organization working to end injustice or poverty and share what you learned with a friend