Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hermeneutics 101: The Law

Perhaps no area of the Old Testament is more foreign and confusing to modern-day Christians than the Mosaic Law. When reading through the Pentateuch, many believers breeze through the narrative of Genesis only to hit a roadblock when confronted with the overwhelming number of commandments, statutes, and ordinances in the last half of Exodus (not to mention the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

A separation of time and culture prevents many Christians today from fully understanding and appreciating the Old Testament, especially the Law. It is certainly true that “the most difficult problem for most Christians with regard to these commandments is the hermeneutical one."(1) Often the problem lies in a failure to grasp the original purpose of the Law and its relation to Christians today.

The Law in ancient Israel served three distinct purposes: relational, instructional, and structural.(2) The Law was given to Israel in order to form a covenant or relational agreement between Yahweh and His people. These laws were not comprehensive in nature but rather served as illustrative, instructional examples to guide Israel into godly living and teach them fundamental values. In addition, the Law functioned as a constitution which provided internal structure for the nation as a whole. It provided objective standards by which the Israelites could maintain appropriate boundaries with one another as well as neighboring nations. Walt Russell explains:

The Law was to be the administrative or housekeeping covenant that structured Israel’s daily walk with God and her behavior in the world. While all Israelites were saved by grace through faith in God alone…, they were to express their life of faith in faithfulness to the Law and in obedient living according to the Law’s objective standards. In a very real sense, the Law was Israel’s guide to spiritual formation.(3)

Obedience to the Law set Israel apart from other nations by identifying them as the people of Yahweh and allowing them to reap the blessings promised in the covenant. Keeping this in mind, how should Christians approach the Law as informed readers and interpreters? Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart note several important principles.(4)

First, it must be remembered that the Mosaic Law is a covenant and this covenant is a binding contract between two specific parties: Yahweh and Israel. Christians under the new covenant are not in view here. This means “we should assume… that none of its stipulations (laws) are binding on us unless they are renewed in the new covenant."(5)

This leads to the second point: many (though not all) of the civil and ritual laws of the Old Testament are clearly not renewed in the New Testament. These laws served to govern the daily life of ancient Israel both in their relationship with God and their relationship with one another. Even though these laws are God’s self-revelation revealing the character of God, it must be remembered that no Christian today is a citizen of ancient Israel.(6) Furthermore, the ritual laws within Israelite worship and ceremony found their fulfillment in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Finally, some laws and aspects of the old covenant are renewed in the new covenant and therefore are binding on Christians. These include the two great commandments found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 as well as the Ten Commandments.

In summary, while the Law may not be regulatory for Christians it continues to be revelatory.(7) That is,

…the Law is of unspeakable value in revealing to us who God is and what sin is like…. In the process we can see how pervasive and far-reaching the holiness of God is and how different He is from us. While this may be overwhelming from the perspective of how far short we fall, it is encouraging in that the Law enabled God’s people to be holy so that God could dwell in their midst (Deuteronomy 23:14).(8)

Therefore, the primary interpretive question readers should approach the text with is this: “What does this passage tell us about God and His holiness, about Israel and her sin, and about how Israel needed to obey in order to maintain her covenant relationship with God?” Also ask, “What specific areas of life does God expect holiness and transformation within His people?"(9)

Historical/Cultural Context

Furthermore, examining the historical and cultural context in which the Law was given allows us to appreciate its importance and provides additional background knowledge and information which assists in our understanding and interpretation.

Law codes and regulations were not unique to Israel. In fact, the form and function of the Law contained within Scripture was influenced by the legal tradition of the ancient Near East.(10) If nothing else this testifies to Yahweh’s willingness to meet His people where they are. However, it also becomes evident upon inspection that Hebrew Law was unique in several significant ways.

First, in order to fully appreciate the Law and its role for ancient Israel it is important to understand the context in which it was given to them. Fee and Stuart provide helpful insight:

Here were people who knew only slavery and Egyptian culture for centuries, whom God was now about to reconstitute into a totally new people on the face of the earth. Not only must they be formed into an army of warriors in order to conquer the land promised to their ancestors, but they must also be formed in a community that would be able to live together both during their time in the desert and eventually in the land itself. At the same time they needed direction as to how they were to be God’s people… so that they would shed the ways and culture of Egypt and not adopt the ways and culture of the Canaanites whose land they were to possess.(11)

Once the historical setting is understood it should be clear that the Law, with all the covenant stipulations contained therein, was not a burden to Israel. On the contrary, the Law “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. At the same time, the Law set boundaries with regard to their relationships with the cultures around them.”(12) The idea of the Law being a gift is further appreciated when it is contrasted with the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East. The giving of the Law was seen as an act of grace because

In the ancient Near East, gods were not known for their consistency. Worshippers were left to guess what might please their god or displease him, and this could change from day to day. That doubt and uncertainty led to constant confusion, and one could only guess whether he or she was in favor or out of favor by evaluating one’s daily fortune. The law changed all that for the Israelites. Their God had chosen to reveal himself and to tell them plainly what he expected of them…It was a great example of God’s love for them that he would communicate to them in this way. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to know what God required of them. The law was viewed as a delight rather than a drudgery, as freedom of revelation rather than fetters of restriction.(13)

In terms of ritual law, such as that found in the book of Leviticus, the Israelites were not the only ancient Near Eastern culture to practice ritual purification and animal sacrifice. Many religions, including those found in Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture, possessed priestly classes, ceremonial washing, purification rites, and sacrifice, as even the Old Testament attests to.(14)

However, there are several important, distinct differences among the Hebrew religion which include the following: the idea of direct divine revelation and theophany, the concept of strict monotheism, the understanding of the origin and impact of human sin, the highly ethical and moral nature of Hebrew religion in contrast to the Canaanite fertility cult, the holy and righteous character of Yahweh in contrast to the capricious behavior of the pagan deities, and the prohibition of human sacrifice.(15) When reading Leviticus and seeking to understand the stipulations it is important to keep the following background information in mind:

Crucial here is the fact that Israel is still camped at the foot of Sinai—a wilderness area—where they will spend a full year being molded into a people before God will lead them toward the conquest of Canaan. Here they will need double protection—from diseases of various kinds and from one another! Therefore, in order for these individuals who grew up in slavery to be formed into God’s people, there is great need for them to get two sets of relationships in order, namely, with God and with one another.(16)


Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle adds an important dimension by noting six ways in which the Mosaic Law still benefits modern-day Christians and societies.(17)

First, the law is God’s self-revelation making known His holy and merciful character. The Law itself demonstrates His holiness while His desire to reconcile rebellious sinners demonstrates His mercy.

Second, the principles found in the Mosaic civil laws restrain sinners and maintain order in society when legislated in modern-day nations.

Third, the law prepares sinners to receive the gospel by making them conscious of sin and aware of their need for a savior. It reminds us of how we fall short of God’s standards and cannot please Him on our own.

Fourth, the law functions as a guide for Christian living. The moral principles of the law set a standard for proper behavior while the ceremonial laws provide a framework which helps believers understand Christ’s work of salvation.

Fifth, Biblical civil laws can serve as a guide for modern jurisprudence.

Finally, the law points toward Christ who is its fulfillment. The Law demands the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22) which Christ provided in His atoning work.

(1) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 165.
(2) Walt Russell, Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000), 120.
(3) Ibid., 121.
(4) Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 165-169.
(5) Ibid., 167.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Russell, Playing With Fire, 126.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid., 128.
(10) Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 62. 
(11) Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 163.
(12) Ibid., 163-164.
(13) Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 175.
(14) Ibid., 129.
(15) Ibid., 129-130.
(16) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 44-45.
(17) Joe M. Sprinkle, Biblical Law and Its Relevance: A Christian Understanding and Ethical Application for Today of the Mosaic Regulations (Lanham: University Press of America, 2006), 26-27.

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