Summary: How do the complex, often strange laws of the OT apply to today? What is the function of the law of God? And what does it mean to live lawfully when salvation is by grace?
What do we do with the Law?
As we read the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, we come across some strange rules nearly no one practices today. A.J. Jacobs wrote an intriguing book, The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of his attempt to actually follow all the many laws of the Bible (easily one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time). A.J. said his purpose was “to see what I was missing by having no religion in my life.” He recognized that the Bible was “the force behind humankinds’ greatest achievements.” Living in Manhattan and working for Esquire magazine, he saw how challenging a biblical lifestyle would be in a culture that runs on coveting, gossip, lying, self-interest and the distractions of materialism. One of his projects was to volunteer at a food pantry, much like ours. It became a source of great satisfaction, focusing on the needs of others. After his year, he admitted, “My worldview became more biblical.” As the year progressed he grew to appreciate the structure that God provides for us in His word.
What is the “Law of God”? It is God’s absolute, eternal standard regulating the moral conduct of all people. It is God declaring His will and demanding perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. The Hebrew word for “law” is torah, meaning “direction.” In an aimless world, God has pointed us to truth for living. God’s law shows us that there is definitively a “right & wrong” and points us to the right road.
There are three kinds of directives in the Bible:
• Moral Law that is Absolute Truth, unchanging, for all time
• Rules governing the Israeli conquest of Canaan
• Changing rituals, customs and traditions common to society
-In the first category, moral absolutes, we find fixed and unchanging rules such as the Ten Commandments, God’s eternal standards regulating the conduct of all people.
-In the second, we find God’s instructions for the armed occupation of the Promised Land; Israel’s collective life as a set-apart society. The prohibitions against mixing types of threads/fibers in clothing, circumcision, and the prohibition against certain foods was to remind Israel to remain a distinct, holy nation. A.J. notes that the Jews were “marking their territory with their menus”. Some laws came without explanation; Jewish scholars have attempted to interpret their meaning…meanwhile they obeyed; that’s commitment!
-In the third category, are practices that appear like laws but are merely cultural traditions that are not mandatory for today, like primogeniture--the bequest of a double inheritance for the firstborn son. In an agrarian society, this proved necessary for the security of the extended family.
In some laws we note a subtle progression within Scripture. Ancient Israel was given a very liberal divorce policy, which Jesus tightens. Whereas divorce could be for any reason B.C., Jesus limits it to infidelity; Paul adds desertion. Just prior to NT times, in Malachi, the last OT book, God tells Israel that He “hates” divorce. So even with “grounds” we need to consider that divorce is something God hates.
What God is doing is slowly bringing about social change. Although polygamy and slavery were tolerated in ancient days, a better way was introduced, not at the beginning, but gradually. By the way, the slavery allowed by the Bible was not the slavery of the American South; the slavery laws of the Bible made this institution a safe and temporary status. The standing of women also has seen dramatic change. In the time of Abraham, women were regarded as property, but over time have gained rights. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that men and women have equal standing before God. Paul was a reformer.
There are some grey areas, naturally. What about tattoos? The book of Leviticus condemns them because God wanted His people not to look like pagans. The Hebrews needed to distinguish themselves from pagans in any way they could. Should this prohibition continue? Perhaps the principle should; how worldly should Christians appear? How are we different from unbelievers?
What about sacrifices? We believe that the sacrifice of Christ eliminates any need for further sacrifice…and with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD sacrifice is no longer an option, although a very small group of Samaritans living on the West Bank (yes, some 700 are left) still sacrifice on Mount Gerizim.
Why do Christians no longer obey the kosher laws of the Old Testament? Because the New Testament says that they are no longer in effect. Peter was told in a vision that all foods are OK, and Paul said not to judge anyone by what they eat. We’re free to eat whatever we choose, even the stuff on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods program!
However, a benefit of a restricted/kosher diet is self-discipline. We train ourselves to master our appetites and restrain our desires, and to remind ourselves that the pleasures of eating and drinking are not the goal of human existence. We gain comfort from God, not food. Living lawfully is a different way of looking at the world; our existence isn’t about rights but responsibilities.