Reading through the Old Testament Law can be a hair-raising, brow-furrowing experience.
In it we encounter strange sights and smells, embarrassingly graphic details and prescriptions, and seemingly unbendable strictness that can be scary. What should we make of this ancient code? How do we navigate it?
In this article I won’t pretend to give the definitive, exhaustive answer. Instead, I’d like to suggest just a few things to “keep in mind” that will hopefully help you as you read.
When you read the law, keep in mind…
The various categories for the Law. Reformed churches have often spoken of the Law in three categories: civil laws, cultic/ceremonial laws, and moral laws. This taxonomy is probably an oversimplification, but regardless, these categories are helpful because they remind us that not all the laws are doing the same thing. They don’t all stand at the same level of historical or ongoing significance.
“You had to be there.” We sometimes say about a joke or a story “you had to be there.” When we say that, we mean the context, the moment, the timing, was crucial to the humor or zing of the story. The same can be said for some laws. Some laws would make more sense if we had been there, if we knew the context. In our own day, we have laws that make perfect sense to us in our context, but they might mystify earlier civilizations. We have laws against actions like jaywalking that make perfect sense to us today because we know the context. To someone in rural Israel, a law about where to cross a street may have seemed odd or the height of arbitrariness, maybe even superstitious. But to urbanites today, who have stopped traffic or nearly gotten hit by jaywalking, the law makes perfect sense.
The Law was a picture of perfect holiness. These laws confront us with our imperfection on every level. To be near a sinless, perfectly holy God would require a level of personal holiness we cannot achieve by ourselves. We need a covering or a mediator or a pass, and the Law makes this painfully clear. So, some of the uneasiness you feel as you read is the point.
The Law was a shadow, provisional, fulfilled. In the new covenant, the Law is referred to as a shadow (Colossians 2:17). Shadows are not necessarily wrong. Silhouettes are striking and accurate portraits. But they are incomplete. They are inferior to the thing itself. And so, thinking through that analogy, we realize the Law is not “wrong,” but it is inferior to the new covenant (Hebrews 8:6). So as we grimace and squirm at parts of the law, we realize that that response is not unreasonable. You are feeling rightly the longing for a better way.
The Law often spoke to non-ideal situations. We must remember that oftentimes we are dealing with hard cases (Copan, 2011). So, maybe some law says something like, “If this happens the victim must be repaid in this way and the perpetrator dealt with in this way,” and you don’t like any of it. You don’t like the problem, and you don’t like the solution. In that moment, you must realize the Law is not necessarily describing ideals. Instead, the Law is describing a way out of a messy situation, and no way out is going to look pretty in this life. We should thus read some of these case-by-case laws with the sense, “God forbid this should happen, but if it does, proceed as best you can like this…”
Our modern worldview/bias may render some things incomprehensible. I often think of some of the punishments meted out in our own century or two of history which already seem overly harsh. For example, in the “Wild West,” a horse thief might be hung. In a war, a coward might be court-martialed and shot. These things are nearly incomprehensible to our modern sensitivities and views on life, but they made sense then; they fit then. In this way, some punishments or prohibitions, even if I knew the whole context, still might eclipse my worldview.
The Law provided safety. Some of these laws are surely for the safety of the Israelites. Certainly, we see in the Ten Commandments moral requirements that will protect the fabric of the community. But also in rules about skin diseases and infections, there is safety in view, too (Leviticus 13:5).
The Law had mercy built in. Copan (2011) reports, “Walter Kaiser points out the general observation of Old Testament scholars: There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the Old Testament. Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a ‘ransom’ or a ‘substitute.’ This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving capital punishment by designating a ‘ransom’ or ‘substitute'” (pp. 95-96). So, we should note that there were all kinds of mercies built in.
More could be said, of course. But I hope this modest list will increase the fruit of your reading and decrease your blood pressure.
Copan, P. (2011). Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense Of The Old Testament God. Baker Books.