Old Testament Law: An Introduction

Anthony Weber —  September 14, 2012 — 5 Comments
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Christians have long struggled to fully understand the Old Testament. The narratives contain many stories of hope and grace, but there are also plenty of stories of violence and despair.  To complicate matters, Christians claim that the Old Testament reveals  truth about not only about world, but also the character and nature of the God who made it.  Since our understanding of God is on the line,  I believe it is important that we seek to understand the Old Testament to the best of our ability.

In a previous series, we looked at the issue of war in the Old Testament.  In this series, we are going to delve into Old Testament laws. The Apostle Paul was adamant that all of Scripture is inspired and is useful (2 Timothy 3:16), and the “all Scripture” he referred to was the Old Testament.  The “inspired” part caused little controversy among the Jewish population; the “useful” part, however, created immediate tension.  In fact, the first church council at Jerusalem convened because of this issues involving the Law (Acts 15:24-29).

Over the next few centuries many Christians began either to reject the Old Testament completely or to make it allegorical as a way to find something meaningful without the uncomfortable task of wrestling with the literal meaning. One early writer, for example, interpreted the food laws of Deuteronomy 14:7 in the following way. “The clean animal symbolizes a true Christian who is able to both chew the cud (=meditate on the Word) of God, the Bible) and be cloven-footed (=walk in the world while not being corrupted by it and in the Spirit at the same time).”

Can we all agree on something? God’s Law as revealed in the Old Testament is daunting, uncomfortable, and confusing at best. But if the Bible is God’s revelation to the world, then something about that revelation should give us a picture of who God is and what He calls us to be. Laws reflect the giver of the law; it is important that we understand God’s laws so that we do not misunderstand God.

As with all forms of communication, there are at least three crucial aspects of the laws that we must remember.

First, every law has a context. Two summers ago my five-year-old discovered he could reach into our small outdoor pond and “pet the goldfish,” as he put it. After buying more goldfish, I had to put some rules in place to protect the new arrivals. Particular circumstances brought about a new law at my house.

Second, every law has content. In this case, the content of my new law was pretty specific: “Vincent, don’t pet the goldfish.” (I later had to add, “Don’t poke them in the eye,” but that’s a different story).

Third, there is a purpose or reason for the law. My purpose was two-fold: I wanted the goldfish to live, and I wanted my son to learn how to value life. I had an immediate goal of stopping a particular action in a particular context. On a much deeper level, I wanted my son to learn boundaries, self-control, and respect. I wanted my son become a man.

The content of the Old Testament law is simply the laws themselves. We run into trouble because we stop there: “Don’t mix seeds in a field? That’s stupid!”  If we stop with only the content, the text will push us away almost every time. But the content does not occur in a vacuum: there is context that clarifies language and social dynamics, and there is a broader purpose that helps us understand the laws as they are situated within much broader goals.

The context of Old Testament law is the Ancient Near East. Why were the Israelites not supposed to get tattoos or trim their beards in a particular way? Are tattoos and beards inherently evil, or is there something about the cultural and historical context that matters particularly at that time and in that place?

The purpose of Old Testament Law is to show God’s people how to be holy.  By “holy” I don’t mean mystically awesome; I mean they were to be the “called out” ones, unique among the nations.  I believe God intended for the Old Testament Law to help form the kind of people who embody the community of God on earth, and by so doing show the character of God.

Considering how Old Testament law is often presented, I realize this task will not necessarily be easy.  I am not suggesting that every law will suddenly make sense as we go through this series. I’m also not claiming that this series will answer all the questions about God, the law, sin, and sacrifice. I simply ask that you consider the possibility that the God of the Old Testament is often misunderstood and misrepresented because the Law is misunderstood.  My goal is that a clearer understanding of the content, context and purpose of the Law will be helpful in forming a clearer view of the God who gave it.

Anthony Weber

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Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.