Just how do we, as Christians, relate to the laws in the Old Testament? Are we supposed to keep them? Some of them? All of them? In my last post I gave a few guiding principles to help us. Today, I want to look at a variety of laws given in Leviticus 19 to help us apply those principles.
Leviticus 19 opens with the statement: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” That captures the big picture purpose of the Mosaic Law. God gave it to his people, Israel, in order that they might reflect his holiness and live lives that displayed his character and heart.
And we encounter several kinds of laws in this chapter. We won’t address every one of them, but here’s a sampling, with brief explanations:
- When you offer a sacrifice, offer it like this… (Lev 19:3-7). There are many laws in the Old Testament about how the Israelites were to worship and offer sacrifices to God. These laws relate to God’s gracious plan to dwell among his people. How in the world can a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people without his holiness consuming them? That’s what the system of worship God gives to the Israelites is about. Sacrifices address sin and enable God’s people to be forgiven and to dwell in his presence. Other ritual practices provide cleansing from impurity. Others relate to the priests, whom God gave to Israel to intercede on their behalf and to lead them in worship. All of them make it possible for God’s people to be in his presence. And these laws, we know, ultimately point to Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice for sins, and the ultimate high priest, through whom we find forgiveness and access to God’s presence (see Heb 10:19-22). That’s pretty amazing!
- Don’t reap the edges of your fields, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t oppress your neighbor… (Lev 19:9-18). These are “justice laws.” They show what righteousness and justice look like in how we treat others. For example, in Lev 19:9-10, God commands his people, when they are harvesting their crops, to leave the edges of their fields for the poor and for the sojourner. In that simple command, we learn that God is compassionate and cares for the needy. And we, as his people, are meant to be like him, showing concern and care for those in need. Does that mean we should leave the edges of our crops unharvested today? Well, only if that is what the poor in our cultural context depend on for their food and sustenance, as they did in Ancient Israel. Otherwise, the principle we derive from this law is that we are to care for those in need, in whatever ways are fitting for our specific context. Many of the laws function in this way. They flesh out what it looks like to “love God and love neighbor,” which is really what all of the laws are ultimately about (see Matt 22:37-40). Laws like not worshipping idols, not stealing, not murdering, not taking bribes, and caring for the poor direct us toward God’s heart and how we, as his people, are to love him and love others.
- Don’t wear garments of two kinds of cloth (Lev 19:19). This is one where it’s helpful to remember that many laws relate to the specific culture of Ancient Israel. I’ve read a couple of explanations that attempt to get at the rationale behind this law. For example, Gordon Fee and Doug Stewart argue that “These and other prohibitions were designed to forbid the Israelites to engage in fertility cult practices of the Canaanites. The Canaanites believed in sympathetic magic, the idea that symbolic actions can influence the gods and nature…. Mixing animal breeds, seeds, or materials was thought to ‘marry’ them so as magically to produce ‘offspring,’ that is, agricultural bounty in the future.”1Or some have said that because the high priest wore a garment of mixed wool and linen (see Exod 28:6-8, 39:4-5), others were forbidden from wearing such clothing to prevent the people from usurping the role of the priests and showing disrespect toward the authority structures the Lord had set in place.Either of these are possible explanations. But even without knowing for sure, we can see how this command relates to a specific cultural, geographical, and religious context. Laws like this don’t apply directly to us, though the principle beneath them can be instructive for us. If Fee and Stewart are correct, the application for us might be to look to and trust in the Lord for our provision, rather than relying on our religious deeds or superstitious practices (like wearing a lucky pair of socks) aimed at controlling God (or the gods/fate) in order to secure blessing for ourselves. If the priestly garment interpretation is correct, the law reminds us to honor those in authority over us and show respect for the structures of authority God has put in place. Thankfully, these things are taught in other parts of Scripture, so we don’t have to have to be experts in Ancient Near Eastern Culture to know God’s heart and his will for us.
- If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave … he shall not be put to death because she is not free, but he shall bring compensation to the Lord (Lev 19:20-22). There are plenty of laws like this one that are tough. Why doesn’t God just outlaw slavery (or abuse of slaves) altogether? When we compare these laws to our modern laws, or even to our sense of what is just, they can really seem to fall short. We need to remember that these laws were given to set Israel apart from their surrounding neighbors. If we compare them with laws of the nations around Israel from the same time period, we find that God was in fact pushing Israel toward a higher standard of justice than was known before. Even Jesus recognizes that some laws were given as a concession, because of people’s hardness of heart (see Matt 19:7-8). God was moving his people toward a greater righteousness than that of the nations around them, but this move toward righteousness, in some cases, seems to come in increments. As the Scriptures unfold, and especially as we get to the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, we find a fuller expression of God’s righteousness and his intention behind some of these laws set forth.
- Don’t go to fortune tellers, make cuts on your body for the dead, or tattoo yourselves… (Lev 19:26-31). So can you get a tattoo? That’s the real question you’ve been waiting for. Well, short answer, it depends. If you’re getting a tattoo as part of your worship of pagan deities, then no, you probably shouldn’t do that. That’s what these laws are about. They forbid practices that the nations around Israel did as part of their idolatrous worship. God’s people aren’t to adopt the idolatrous practices of the nations around them. But this law is not a blanket statement against tattoos. If you’re interested in getting a tattoo, you should probably consider your motivations, ask whether your reason for getting a tattoo violates love of God or love for others, get some wise counsel, and most importantly, think about what this thing is going to look like when you’re 80 and have flabby skin! Once you’ve done that, go for it!In all seriousness, though, laws like these remind us that we, as followers of Jesus, are not of the world (John 17:16). We’re meant to shine as a light so that others might see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16). Many of the laws remind us of this calling to be a light to the nations, a people set apart, who love God and love others, living as citizens of heaven in our culture and our day.
There is plenty more that could be said, but I hope this gives us a starting point for how to approach the laws in the Mosaic Covenant. If you’re interested in exploring this more, let me point to a couple of really good resources that are easy to access.
- The Bible Project has a helpful 6-minute video on “How to Read the Bible: Law.”
- Another really good Bible Project video, called “The Law” talks about the different kinds of laws and how all of these point to the new covenant and to Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. Very good.
- One of my favorite articles on this subject is called “The Law of Moses and the Christian” by David Dorsey. You can access it for free online, and it’s well worth your time to give it a read.
Keep pressing on in your Bible reading. And for the record, next time you go out to eat, I think you can order the lobster and enjoy every bit of it, guilt free!
1 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 179.