Understanding Old Testament Law helps us understand it not as harsh, but loving and merciful.
There is hardly a subject that garners more extreme emotions and thoughts than the Old Testament Law. It seems that we either fall into one of four categories: extreme resentment, extreme anger, extreme confusion, or extreme boredom. The Psalmist, however, “delights” in the Law of the Lord and “meditates” on it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2).[i] Does he understand Old Testament Law in a way we do not, or is he just brainwashed to believe the Law is something worthy of delight?
For most detractors, the Law is nothing to delight in. Understanding Old Testament Law is precisely the problem! It teaches, in their minds, the benign but absurd (such as prohibitions against eating shellfish, Leviticus 9:9-12), the rhetorically troubling (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” Leviticus 24:19-20), and the downright vile (a woman must marry her rapist, Deuteronomy 22:28-29). We will discuss these last two laws in due time. Nonetheless, the stage is set and the gauntlet thrown. The (faulty) logic goes something like this:
- The Laws of the Old Testament reflect the character of the Old Testament God.
- The Laws of the Old Testament are vile.
- Therefore, the God of the Old Testament is vile (and probably not real—we just slide that one in, hoping it’s true).
This is not entirely unreasonable logic. Rather, the problem is with both premises. The second premise is false, and the first is true only once we have a grasp on what the Law actually demonstrates.
That’s not to say that there is no merit to the challenge. It may be that some reject the Law simply because we are sinners who do not like to submit to a power higher than ourselves. But I think that many times the issue is that we have received incorrect interpretations of what the Law is and how to interpret individual laws. And as is often the case, the loudest and most vile voice is the only voice one may hear, and that one (or two … or three) versions of loud and vile become the most well-known and understood beliefs about the Law. But in fact, there are several ways that Christians have and still do interpret the Law, from considering it obsolete to desiring a new theocracy.
What we can all agree on is that the Law considers some things morally repugnant that others today do not, and it finds some things morally acceptable that others today do not. Moreover, it is not just the judgments it makes but the verdicts it gives that make it even more reprehensible to some. Like what we have discussed in previous articles, I contend that modern condemnations of the Old Testament Law are condemning something that doesn’t exist. They may be understanding the law, but not Israel’s law. Although, since this is God’s Law, and not all agree with our conception of God, there will no doubt still be disagreement on the merit of the Law. Nonetheless, I believe with the right eyes, the story of the Law can emerge, and it may be enough to change perceptions so that we understand the Law as the Israelites did.
This topic is one in which there are many specifics that are found troubling. While we will get to those specific laws somewhat later when we discuss women and slaves, we must first step way back and try to get a bird’s eye view to understand the framework within which specific laws rest. We must, in other words, make sure we are speaking the same language.
Law in the Ancient Near East
We start first with the type of law we are referencing, for the type of law we are accustomed to is not the same type of law that flourished in the ancient Near East. When we think of law today, we think of written codes by which all are held accountable. These written codes are comprehensive and held as something like sovereign documents above all persons, regardless of socioeconomic class, position, rank, and so on. If someone is found guilty of doing something wrong, one can look to the written code to let them know the range of retribution that person deserves. It is a machine of sorts: If you input X, you receive Y.
The ancient world was vastly different than this. John and J. Harvey Walton explain that law in the ancient Near East was not comprehensive, nor was it a “formal, written, normative legal code,” and that judges did not refer to legal documents in their verdicts. Instead, judges relied on custom and wisdom, and the ancient world desired their judges to use their own training and intuition to try cases based on their own merit. Ancient legal wisdom trained judges in the ways of recognizing and differentiating what was good or bad, but it did not give them legislation as we think of the word.[ii] “The texts do not teach what the law is,” they clarify. “They provide a model for right and wrong so that the judge will know it when they see it.”[iii] Lists of legal wisdom, handed down by kings in order to inform judges, were also meant to show the wisdom of the king, since as king he represented the gods and their desire to maintain order in the community.[iv] Since ancient legal documents were more about conveying wisdom and “descriptive instruction” rather than “prescriptive legislation,” there is no need for comprehensiveness. Rather than strict obedience to a legal code, the point was to foster “comprehension and application” of legal wisdom.[v] This is why we “find no reference to sources of law in the court documents. The list of legal sayings is not the source of the law; the sayings are a resource for informing the wisdom of judges.”[vi]
Old Testament scholar Michael Lefebvre points out that, while at one time we had few resources to study the function and form of ancient Near Eastern law, we did have the words of Aristotle as a source. He confirmed—and criticized—the proverbial nature of the law of “barbarians,” the “art” of their law rather than the science. Their law was unhelpful, he asserted, because it consisted only of general principles rather than detailed instructions. This meant power resided more in the hands of kings and judges than in a source above them that they were themselves subject. The abuse of power with which he is concerned is not an illegitimate concern at all, and history bears this out for us. Polemics aside, what Aristotle believed has been confirmed in unearthed collections of ancient law writings. “Remarkably,” Lefebvre explains, “the rulings of Mesopotamian practice documents do not match the stipulations of law collections. In fact, law as practiced in those societies often ‘contradicted’ the specific penalties and fines indicated in the law collections.”[vii] The purpose of writing laws often was not for the sake of passing along legislative norms. Along with what was mentioned above by the Waltons, Lefebvre adds that laws were often presented publicly as royal propaganda (to prove how close the king was to their deity/ies). And often the reason for writing the laws was for scribal education. And so, in the words of Meir Malul, “We are dealing here with a literary tradition rather than with a practical legal tradition.”[viii]
Understanding Old Testament Law in Context
In the Old Testament, the Law is referred to as torah, which means instruction or teaching. And in this, we already begin to see that it means something closer to what the rest of the ancient Near East meant by “law” than we do today in the West. Roy Gane explains that Old Testament laws “were formulated with awareness of [ancient Near Eastern] legal traditions.”[ix] The Law is, for instance, more like biblical wisdom literature than legal codes. And along with other ancient law collections, Lefebvre explains, Hebrew law is also incomplete and contradictory if read anachronistically as legislation, the penalties received being different than the penalties prescribed.[x] That said, there are some other cultural differences as well that interfere with our understanding of ANE law, such as the idea that the Law was independent of and prior to the king, and that the king was accountable to it—something Aristotle believed didn’t exist in this type of law.[xi]
There is both more law and less law in the Old Testament than we realize. There is more law in the sense that law itself was not taught through just the reading of laws, but also by witnessing cause-and-effect relationships in the biblical narratives. Indeed, some laws stipulated that it was God who meted out the punishment for transgressing them, and so watching God’s interactions with people would communicate His unwritten law. But there is also, in one sense, less law. It has already been mentioned that the Old Testament’s law statements are incomplete. Some reasons for that have already been posited, but one that has not is the notion that laws are always incomplete. As Dale Patrick explains,
Rules will necessarily play some role in this order, but there also will be principles and values which form a consistent system, cover all possible situations, and belong to the collective conscience of the community. By this definition, explicit rules—laws—are only the tip of the iceberg of the phenomenon of Law.[xii]
None of this means that we should understand Old Testament Law as less normative or authoritative for ancient Israel; rather, it shows in what way it was normative and authoritative, both in its high volume and its silence. The Law, then, is much vaster than one may have expected. The written Old Testament Law is “dynamic and adaptable rather than static and rigid,” which allows it to be applied to specific situations with particular needs.[xiii] The Law is holy because—though “incomplete”—it is whole.
The Law is also perfect in that it communicates the heart and character of God for harmonious order and care for the oppressed—but that is not the same thing as saying it is ideal for all times, or even for that time. For instance, the Law includes regulations for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), of which Jesus said: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8). The Law then did not represent God’s original ideal—Eden—or his future ideal—the new earth—but it moved people along, meeting them where they were, and gradually bringing them a more fully idealized version of ethics. That the Old Testament Law includes, for instance, regulations for slavery is not to say that it endorses slavery (slavery will be addressed more fully later in this series). Rather, it is minimizing the damage while bringing the Israelites along a journey to see the unfittingness of slavery in God’s world, which uncoincidentally is absent from both Eden and the new earth. All people must be taught to understand something before they do it. As we saw in the case of Pharaoh, simply saying do this because I am God and you are not would not have made God’s people act accordingly. Rather, all of us have pharaoh-like hearts, and the people who heard that message probably would have just grown more hardened in their practice of slavery. The Law worked “within an existing tribal culture as much as possible by regulating its customs in order to mitigate or prevent problematic side effects rather than by replacing these customs with unfamiliar and unnatural alternatives,” Gane explains.[xiv] As Paul Copan wrote, “Embedded social attitudes and ideas die hard, especially in places like the ancient Near East.”[xv] Properly understanding Old Testament Law then does show its commonaly to all law in at least one metric: it is a compromise. It is a negotiation between what people want, what people need, what is fair for all different wants and needs, and what people are capable of actually doing. Gordon Wenham elaborates:
In most societies what the law enforces is not the same as what upright members of that society feel is socially desirable let alone ideal. There is a link between moral ideals and law, but law tends to be a pragmatic compromise between the legislators’ ideals and what can be enforced in practice. The law enforces a minimum standard of behaviour. … Ethics is about much more than keeping the law. Or to put it in biblical terms, righteousness involves more than living by the Decalogue and the other laws in the Pentateuch.[xvi]
Understanding Old Testament Law: The Heart of the Matter
The perfection of the Law is in its underlying morality, the source of which is God’s holiness. It is for this reason that we can also proclaim that, though Israel’s law did not apply to other nations, law is nonetheless a universal notion that finds all people accountable to God for the way in which they respond to Him and treat others.[xvii] Truly understanding Old Testament Law leads to the conclusion that God desires an order that is full of shalom. Cornelius Plantinga defines shalom as not just peace, but “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.” Shalom is “the way things out to be.”[xviii]All of the Law is meant to aid in that flourishing—to protect and lift up the oppressed and to defang and humble the proud. And this is why the laws given to ancient Israel were to be seen as normative, establishing a personal and social standard of ethical faithfulness to Yahweh. The Law was to inform their whole being, and wisdom compelled them, Gane articulates, “to act in accordance with its principles and ethos of justice.”[xix] It is only Old Testament Law, as opposed to other law from the ancient Near East, that addresses the underlying issues, such as love and generosity, among other things.[xx] Jesus was not wrong when He claimed that “all the Law and Prophets hang on” the commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:40), which is understood as both a feeling, a moral posture, and an act.
We can recognize that the foundation of the Law is love when we take a step back to see how it treats the unfortunate. Christopher JH Wright suggests that the Law “prioritizes human need over strict legal rights and claims,” seen again in the case of slavery in which Israel—in a law exactly the opposite of any other in the ancient Near East—protects runaway slaves from masters who try to reclaim them. And since God’s underlying moral law is universal, and the Old Testament’s interaction with surrounding cultures is both a correction and condemnation of them, this Law can rightly be understood as being in direct opposition to—and a condemnation of—laws that returned runaway slaves to brutal masters. “The law inculcates an ethos,” Wright states, “in which even the law itself, and the rights and claims it gives to people, must yield to the realities of human need. There is a highly relational and situational dynamic at work within Israel’s scale of values as seen in their legal codes.”[xxi] Wright points out that we see this dynamic at work not only in the protection of slaves, but also in the protection of female needs against the rights of a soldier, the needs of debtors against creditors, and the landless against landowners.[xxii]
Admittedly, some may be confused as to what the Law’s purpose was in Israel given the descriptions above. This may be asking someone to understand Old Testament Law in a completely new, more contextualized way. Yet when we do that, we see its beauty anew. Essentially, the Law was not to save Israel. Israel had already been chosen and saved by God (Deuteronomy 6:20-25). The Law, then, was the way to remain in close communion with God. Sacrifices did not bestow salvation upon Israel; they cleansed Israel—both the people and the land—so that God’s holiness would continue to dwell among them. Carmen Joy Imes hits the nail on the head when she writes, “Israel’s laws are the fences within which life can flourish.” The Law allowed them to continue receiving the covenant blessings of Yahweh, and it was meant to be a light to the nations of the character and love of Yahweh. Israel was saved just as we are today—by grace through faith.[xxiii] This is one of the reasons why God is often so concerned about his Name and reputation among the nations. It is not out of pride, but out of missional concern. His relationship with Israel was meant to eventually bless and invite all of the other nations to be the people of God (Genesis 22:18; Isaiah 45:22; Joel 2:28). “Their well-being,” Gane explains, “would draw others to the divine source of wisdom and blessing.”[xxiv]
The preceding makes more sense when we observe that Old Testament Law was articulated and handed down at a particular point in time. Indeed, the connection of the Law to Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt is foundational to understanding the Law and its requirements. Because the Law was to help the Israelites in that particular moment where they were—after hundreds of years of slavery—it was not always meant to be the final particular word on ethics.[xxv] As already discussed, it is why this law is called torah—guidance or instruction. These instructions are teaching them “how to live as free men and women.”[xxvi] They had clearly picked up some bad habits concerning how to view “gods” and other human beings while in Egypt. They had been reared in mercilessness and they would have to rethink that paradigm. Indeed, perhaps the whole law could also be summed up by the lesson in Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant: to whom much mercy is shown, much mercy is expected (Matthew 18:21-35).
What Went Wrong?
When we understand Old Testament Law in context, it sounds quite wonderful. But what went wrong? By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the Law doesn’t look very much like what has been elaborated thus far. The Israelites had created laws around the original 613 laws to form a strict buffer zone, in hopes that their adherence to torah would bring the messiah and release Israel from its Roman bondage. In witnessing this, Jesus is none too pleased. In the New Testament, Jesus draws a distinction between the commands of God and the traditions of the elders, chief priests, and others (Matthew 15:1-3, 6; Mark 7:8-9, 13). “Woe to you,” Jesus says to teachers of the Law and Pharisees, who give a tenth of all they own but neglect “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). It seemed like Jesus had to keep reminding people of something they had forgotten. What sounded radical to his contemporaries’ ears was, in Jesus’s perspective, something of a return to its original form and intentions. The Sabbath, he said, was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28). Recalling Hosea 6:6, Jesus reminded people that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13, 12:7). And when looking at the burdensome legacy of the traditions, Jesus kindly remarks to all those who will listen, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:25-27). So, what went wrong? How did we get from delighting in the Law of the Lord to reminding of the Law of the Lord?
It turns out that the answer is not all that foreign to our own times. We live in a society where science is often considered supreme. It is the field with, it is asserted, the highest quantity and highest quality of knowledge one can attain. Because of that, many people and movements seek to validate themselves by appealing to science. Even ghost hunters and sasquatch trackers attempt to legitimize their endeavors by branding them as scientific inquiries. Each branch of science often believes it is the most important branch of science as well (being at one time an aspiring scientist myself, I can confirm this happened quite often between chemists, physicists, engineers, and mathematicians, and even inside of branches, such as between biologists who study plants and those who study animal organisms). Not only do we wish to claim our fields of expertise are scientific, but we also wish to show that members of our particular tribes really invented science, despite what else you might have heard. Certain Christian circles have not been immune to this. With the rise of science came the rise of attempts to harmonize scientific discoveries with, say, the Book of Genesis. And with that also came arguments that science wouldn’t exist without Christianity. I think that there is a lot of merit to both lines of argument, and this is not a judgment upon them as futile endeavors. Rather, it is just an observation that we, too, have gone this route and have at times submitted to the notion that science is supreme.
Apparently, Michael Lefebvre claims, the same thing happened with the notion of law in the ancient world. After the reign of a particularly wicked tyrant, Greeks sought to create a law that was above all human capriciousness and that held every person accountable, even kings. This notion of law eventually became part of how the Greeks distinguished themselves from others: those with an extensive law code were civilized; those with other types of law common to the ancient world (like the one Israel had) were considered barbarians.[xxvii] This was a pre-racial barrier that carried with it the same prejudices as later ideologies based on biological racism, including the idea, reinforced by Aristotle, that certain people (barbarians) were born to be slaves, while others (Greeks) were born to be free. As Ivan Hannaford explains, in Greek thought, where there is law, there is virtue, and where there is virtue, there is freedom.[xxviii]
By the time of Alexander the Great’s conquests—Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle—this ideology was firmly rooted. Unsurprisingly, Lefebvre informs us, people did not take kindly to being called barbarians. But rather than rejecting the dividing of the world between the civilized and barbaric—just as our recent ancestors did not always reject the notion that all truth is found in science and no truth may be found elsewhere—ancient societies sought to establish that their law was just like the law of the civilized world, but that it was even older (and therefore better) than Greek law traditions.[xxix] In the Second Temple period—roughly the period from the construction of the second Jerusalem temple in the late sixth century to its destruction by Rome in AD 70—Israel began to succumb to the same temptation as other nations after it was surrounded by and conquered by Alexander or Alexander’s generals. The land of Israel was once again sandwiched between kingdoms but was eventually absorbed by the (Greek) Seleucid Empire around 198 BC. While Israelites often fought very hard against their conquerors and sought to remain distinct from them, they still fell into the trap of turning their wisdom laws into legislative laws, though they did this in order to elevate the appearance of their own divine law in the Greeks’ eyes. Indeed, some like Josephus even claimed that the Greeks learned their law from Moses, for Moses was “the most ancient of all legislators.”[xxx]
What happens when this switch is made is that all nuance in the Old Testament Law is lost, and you end up with what people often think the Law is: a merciless and heartless book of rules that literally commands the death penalty for, say, unruly and disobedient children (Leviticus 20:9).
Lefebvre’s overall point is that by the time we get to the New Testament, we do not see Jesus changing the Law or inaugurating a new Law necessarily. Rather, we see a restoration of what the Law was always meant to be: mercy because we had been shown mercy, love because we had been shown love, and a collection of wisdom guides to help freed people live freely and flourish. Jesus understood Old Testament Law in how it was always meant to be understood. Where Jesus seems to be confronting the Law in the New Testament, He is actually confronting the literalistic/legalistic interpretations of the Law that have arisen. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but fulfill it, and “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Jesus contrasts the traditions—“you have heard”—with his own revolutionary (in the strictest sense of the word) interpretations of the Law—“But I tell you …” And in doing so Jesus, Lefebvre explains, reasserts “the traditional (allegedly ‘barbarian’) way of reading the Law.”[xxxi] Through Jesus, the Law would be love once again, not a heavy yoke of oppression but a light, guiding yoke of freedom.
All articles in this series:
Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.
Image: Marc Chagall (1887-1985), “Moses with the Tablets of the Law,” 1956.
[i] Thank you to Michael Lefebvre for pointing out to me the strangeness of such a comment given our modern reactions to the Law.
[ii] John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 29-30.
[iii] Ibid., 31.
[iv] Ibid., 33.
[v] Ibid., 34-35.
[vi] Ibid., 35.
[vii] Michael Lefebvre, “Jesus, the Law, and the Hermeneutic of Love,” Bulletin for Ecclesial Theology 9.2 (forthcoming, 2022), 6-9. Note that page numbers may vary in forthcoming publication. My sincere gratitude to Michael Lefebvre for allowing me to read this article pre-publication. For a more truncated and readily available version of this article, see Michael Lefebvre, “Jesus’ concept of the Law in the New Testament,” The Biblical Mind, October 28, 2021, https://hebraicthought.org/jesus-law-in-the-new-testament/.
[viii] Meir Malul, the Comparative Method in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Legal Studies (AOAT 227; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1990), 129. Emphasis original. Cited in Lefebvre, 9.
[ix] Roy E. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 129.
[x] Lefebvre, 10.
[xi] David W. Baker, “Law and Legal Systems in Ancient Israel,” in Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (eds.), Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 496. Baker gives the example of Solomon deciding the proper mother in a maternal dispute, which exemplified Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16-28). This type of ruling and the ruling handed down spoke to the wisdom of Solomon. It was not understood as a detrimental system readily abused by kings.
[xii] Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 4. Quoted in Gane, 25.
[xiii] Gane, 35.
[xiv] Ibid., 109. In an anthropology course, I once learned about the devastation that can be wrought upon a community when proper care is not given to its existing structures. And these seemingly small disturbances can lead to full communal breakdown. For instance, a missionary may serve a community where polygamy is practiced. If the people there accept the Gospel as truth, then they will eventually learn that polygamy is a prohibited practice in the Christian faith. One could demand that polygamy stop being practiced immediately, but without the proper systems in place that could be a disaster. The missionary may not know, for example, that this culture has no concept of social welfare except for polygamy. Polygamy may be the way, for instance, that the widowed or divorced or destitute are cared for in this particular culture. You may think you are ending polygamy when you are really increasing homelessness and poverty. It will take time to reshape the hearts and minds of a people who have only known polygamy as social welfare for centuries.
[xv] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 102.
[xvi] Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 80. Quoted in Christopher JH Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 324.
[xvii] Wright, 320.
[xviii] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 10.
[xix] Gane, 33.
[xx] Ibid., 130. “Only OT law deal with underlying attitudes, such as love (Lev. 19:18, 34; Deut. 6:5) versus hatred and grudges (Lev. 19:17-18), covetousness (Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21), and generous versus selfish thinking (Deut. 15:9-10), which only God can detect and reward or punish.”
[xxi] Wright, 314.
[xxii] Ibid., 312-14.
[xxiii] Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 35.
[xxiv] Gane, 54.
[xxv] Ibid., 39.
[xxvi] Imes, 35.
[xxvii] Lefebvre, 2-4.
[xxviii] Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 54-56.
[xxix] Lefebvre, 4.
[xxx] Josephus, Against Apion 2.15.154-56. Quoted in Lefebvre, 5.
[xxxi] Lefebvre, 6.