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Those Strange Old Testament Laws: Part 1

In our Bible Reading Plan for 2020, we’ve been reading through the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). And if you’ve made it past Genesis, that means you’ve encountered God’s laws given to the people of Israel. We read about them in Exodus. And in Leviticus. And Numbers. And Deuteronomy. Lots of laws—613 to be exact. So what do we, as Christians, do with all these laws? Are we supposed to keep them? All of them? Just some of them?

These are important questions, and some of the most puzzling for us. Many of the laws make sense to us. Like the 10 Commandments. Probably good for us to keep those, right? Don’t worship idols. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Those seem like a good idea.

But then there are others. Like not eating shellfish (Lev 11:10-11). Wait a second…that means no shrimp, no lobster. What gives?

Or not wearing clothing of mixed fabrics (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:11). So when I wear my cotton/polyester blended shirt, is that a sin?

These are really big questions, and not always easy to sort out. But in this post and the next, I hope to give us some pointers to help us navigate these kinds of questions. So let’s start with a few principles for understanding the Law in the Old Testament.

    1. First, the Mosaic Law was not a timeless law given to govern all people universally. It’s important to recognize that the Mosaic Law is a covenant that God made with the people of Israel—a people living in a specific time, a specific culture, and a specific geographical and religious context. Many of the laws only make sense in that setting. These laws were given to the nation of Israel in order to guide them in how they were to live as God’s covenant people in their specific context, a people who would display the wisdom and justice of God among the nations around them (see Deut 4:6-8). They’re not for all people at all times everywhere.


    1. Second, and closely related, the Mosaic Law is not our law. Christ came to fulfill the law (see Matt 5:17; there’s a whole lot in that little statement). He came to inaugurate a new covenant (see Luke 22:20), in which God’s law is internalized, written on our hearts (see Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27). And Christians are people of this new covenant. “You are not under law,” Paul says (Rom 6:14). None of the old covenant laws are legally binding on us, whether the 10 Commandments or any of the other laws.


    1. Third, this doesn’t mean that the laws found in the Mosaic Covenant have no bearing on our lives. They do. God’s laws given to Israel are ultimately tied to God’s character and nature, though they get expressed in culturally-specific ways. And because the laws are rooted in God’s nature and character, they are instructive for us in knowing God’s heart, and for knowing what it means to live as God’s people.


    1. To understand the ongoing significance of God’s laws for us today, it is helpful, as we read them, to ask, “What is the reason God gave this law to Israel?” or “What is the underlying principle behind this law?” Sometimes that’s easy to determine. God’s people are to be like God—who is loving, generous, and truthful. So we’re not to murder or steal or bear false witness. Easy enough. But other times—often due to a lack of knowledge on our part about Ancient Near Eastern cultures and practices—it can be much more challenging. Laws about clean and unclean animals, about clothing of mixed fabrics, and many others could fall under this category. But as much as we’re able, determining the underlying basis for a law can help us as we try to determine what it can still teach us about how to live as God’s people today (even if that particular law no longer applies).


In my next post, we’ll walk through a few laws and show how the above principles can help us understand how they do (and do not) apply to us today.

Just a taste of what’s to come: “You shall not tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:28). Say what!? Not even if it’s a Jesus fish tattoo? Well, check back tomorrow to find out!

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