(Information taken and adapted from How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart)
In order to understand the Old Testament Books of Law, one must see them in the context of the covenant in which they were set. The Law was not an independent code of conduct, but rather part and parcel of the covenant between God and the nation of Israel. Neither was the Law a set of arbitrary rules and regulations, not the means for salvation, rather it was “God’s gift to his people to establish the ways they were to live in community with one another and to provide for their relationship with and worship of Yahweh, their God” (p. 163), as well as a way to set them apart from their pagan neighbors.
To be clear, there are 5 different connotations to the word “law” with regards to scripture:
- in the plural to refer to the “laws” — those 600+ specific commandments that the Israelites were expected to keep as evidence of the their loyalty to God
- in the singular to refer to all those “laws” collectively
- in the singular to refer to the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) as the “Book of the Law”
- in the singular by some writers of the New Testament to refer theologically to the entire Old Testament religious system
- in the singular by some New Testament personages to refer to the Old Testament law (in sense 2 above) as it was interpreted by the rabbis
Here we will be dealing primarily with reading the law as connoted in senses 1 and 2, and also with the 3rd sense as it relates to the narrative context in which the law is found.
To start, you must understand covenant, at least how it was understood and performed in the ancient world. Covenant in the ancient world came in a very specific type and form, which the Old Testament covenant between Israel and Yahweh (which the Law is a part of) follows closely.
In Old Testament times, covenants were often given by an all-powerful suzerain (overlord) to a weaker, dependent vassal (servant). They guaranteed the vassal benefits and protection. But in turn, the vassal was obligated to be loyal solely to the suzerain, with the warning that any disloyalty would bring punishments as specified in the covenant. How was the cassl to show loyalty? By keeping the stipulations (rules of behavior) also specified int eh covenant. As long as the vassal kept the stipulations, the suzerain knew that the vassal was loyal. But when the stipulations were violated, the suzerain was required by the covenant to take action to punish the vassal. (Fee and Stuart, p. 166)
Not only does the OT covenant follow this ancient precedent in theme, it also follows in structure. There were six parts to the covenant format: preamble, prologue, stipulations, witness, sanctions and document clause. All of these parts are included in the OT covenant, within which the Law is contained.
Consequently, the Law, and laws, were the stipulations Israel was required to follow to show their loyalty to God, and thereby uphold their end of the covenant.
Another aspect of this covenantal law is that it functioned to set Israel apart from its pagan neighbors. God was setting out to create a holy nation belonging to him, and the Law was how they were to differentiate themselves and show to other nations that they belonged to God. As such, there are many laws which were intended to counter specific pagan practices that Yahweh wanted his children to have no part in (Deut. 14:21).
In this “setting apart” through the law Yahweh communicated his own character and showed Israel the kind of people they ought to be as his children. The things that Yahweh cares about, he wants us to care about.
The primary thing to understand when studying each of the laws is that they are paradigmatic. The Old Testament Law was not like our modern legal code, attempting to address every possibility and permutation thereof. Rather, the Old Testament laws were meant to set a paradigm of behavior for Israel. It is not an exhaustive legal code setting forth rulings on every case, but rather a precedent for righteous living.
Just as there are larger genres within the whole of Biblical literature, there are also different categories within the genre of ‘law.’ The two categories which all the laws fall into are casuistic and apodictic.
Casuistic law is case by case law. It is characterized by the “if, then” clause.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. – Leviticus 20:10
This type of law is conditional and speaks to specific situations that are given specific outcomes; “casuistic laws single out particular cases that apply only to some people in some situations, not to everyone in all situations” (p. 173). For example, see Deuteronomy 15:12-17. This casuistic law applies only if “(1) you, an Israelite, have at least one slave, or (2) you, an Israelite, have a slave who does or does not wish to remain as your slave voluntarily after the mandatory slavery deadline has passed” (p. 173). If you are not an Israelite, or do not have a slave, this law does not apply to you.
Casuistic law was the norm for ancient law code, and the majority of Old Testament law is casuistic.
Apodictic law is a contrast to casuistic law: they are direct commands that are generally applicable.
“You shall not murder.” – Exodus 20:13
All of the 10 Commandments are examples of apodictic law: direct commands with no conditions or stipulations, they are meant to apply to all who are under the Old Testament covenant between God and Israel.
It can be easily seen that these laws are not exhaustive of all cases, which is where it is important to remember the paradigmatic character of Old Testament law. We’ll use Leviticus 19:14 as an example: this passage of apodictic law specifically addresses only the deaf and the blind. Does this mean it is ok to mistreat people with other disabilities? No, this law is meant to be a paradigm for treating the disabled.
Apoditic law was extremely rare in ancient legal codes, so it is significant to see such a presence of it in the Old Testament Law.
There are three other categories that Old Testament laws also fall into: Ritual, Civil and Ethical.
Ritual laws constitute the largest portion of the Old Testament laws, including instructions for worship, sacrifice, and cleanliness.
Civil law is the second largest portion of the Old Testament laws, which address how the Israelites were to interact with one another and with others.
Ethical law is the final, and smallest portion of the Old Testament laws.
The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ
We are no longer under the Law of Moses: Jesus Christ has fulfilled that law, and has inaugurated something new.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17
Some will argue that since Jesus said he did not come to abolish the Law, that means we are still under it. That misses the point that the law has been fulfilled. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets because they are still vital to our understanding of God and our own spiritual heritage. It was the Law and the Prophets that paved the way for Christ’s coming and his atonement on the cross, to abolish them would leave little meaning to Christ’s actions. But neither did he let the old Law and covenant stand: instead, he brought the new covenant. We even acknowldge this every time we talk about the Bible, as ‘testament’ is another word for ‘covenant.’ Every time we speak of the ‘New Testament,’ we are speaking of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus.
With this being the case, the question becomes one of hermeneutics: how do we interpret the Old Testament Law when it no longer applies to us directly?
The answer is, even though the Old Testament Law may not be God’s commands to us, it is still God’s Word for us.
Through the Old Testament laws, we receive a remarkable picture of a God who cares about justice for the poor and oppressed and acting rightly towards your neighbor, and who expects his people to do the same. It’s incredible to see a God who does not want house guests falling of the roof of an unfamiliar house (Deut. 22:8).
Also, if you know the context of ancient codes of conduct (written and unwritten), you will see that the Law of Moses is a vast improvement over these in many areas. There are no class distinctions in OT Law: if a young woman is raped, it does not matter if she is a nobleman’s daughter or a slave’s daughter, the punishment for the rapist is the same. There is a significant decrease in sexism: if a pair are caught in adultery, both are to be put to death. Slavery as outlined in the OT Law is also a vast improvement over slavery at the time, and even better than American slavery was!
And even though much of the OT Law no longer specifically applies to us, specifically ritual and civil law (as none of us are under the old covenant, nor citizens of ancient Israel), some OT ethical Law has been specifically renewed in the New Testament. However, these are no longer rooted in a system of laws, but rather founded in the command to love God and love others (Mark 12:30-31).
So, even though the individual laws may not apply to us directly (unless renewed in the NT), they still give us a valuable picture of God’s character, and how he expects his people to live.
“In Summary: Some Dos and Don’ts
- Do see the Old Testament as God’s fully inspired word for you
- Don’t see the Old Testament as God’s direct command to you
- Do see the Old Testament law as the basis for the old covenant, and therefore Israel’s history
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as binding on Christians in the new covenant except where specifically renewed
- Do see God’s justice, love, and high standards revealed in the Old Testament law
- Don’t forget to see that God’s mercy is make equal to the severity of the standards
- Do see the Old Testament law as a paradigm — providing examples for the full range of expected behavior
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as complete. It is not technically comprehensive
- Do remember that the essence of the law (the Ten Commandments and the two chief laws) is repeated in the prophets and renewed in the New Testament
- Don’t expect the Old Testament law to be cited frequently by the prophets or the New Testament
- Do see the Old Testament law as a generous gift to Israel, brining much blessing when obeyed
- Don’t see the Old Testament law as a grouping of arbitrary, annoying regulations limiting people’s freedom” (p. 180)