I Can Read the Bible

How-To Read Old Testament Law

Matt Carter


When we don’t know how to read Old Testament Law, we usually either don’t read it or misinterpret it badly. This brief guide is a how-to for reading the Law.

There are two primary purposes to the law that God gave the Israelites. The first purpose is that it was a gift for the Israelites to set them apart as God’s chosen people. The second purpose is that it is a gift for us new covenant people to teach us about what it means to be in a loving relationship with God and our neighbor.

For Israel

That the law was a gift to Israel is clearly seen by comparing God’s law to the other laws of the Ancient Near East. Remember, God reveals himself to his people in real history not a vacuum. There were already customs and laws in place when Moses met God on Mount Sinai. Here’s an example from the famous Hammurabi Code, which is considered an important advancement for civil society:

“If a free nobleman hits another free nobleman’s daughter and causes her to have a miscarriage, he must pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If that woman died, they must put his daughter to death. If by a violent blow he caused a commoner’s daughter to have a miscarriage, he must pay five shekels of silver. If that woman died, he must pay ½ mina of silver. If he hit a free nobleman’s female servant and caused her to have a miscarriage, he must pay two shekels of silver. If that female servant died, he must pay 1/3 mina of silver” (Fee & Stuart, 182).

Here’s another example from the Laws of Eshmunna, an Akkadian legal code from about the same time:

“If a free man has no claim against another free man, but seizes the other free man’s servant girl, detains the one seized in his house and causes her death, he must give two servant girls to the owner of the servant girl as compensation. If he has no claim against him but seizes the wife or child of an upper-class person and causes their death, it is a capital crime. The one who did the seizing must die” (Fee & Stuart, 181).

These are significant advancements over lawless anarchy, of course, where the strong and powerful just do whatever they wish. It should also be clear, however, that there are a number of weaknesses in these laws. One of these ethical problems is that they perpetuate and enshrine class divisions in society. While death must follow the death of a nobleman’s daughter, mere fines follow the death of a commoner or a servant. In Hammurabi’s Code, the person who must die is actually not the mudering man but his daughter. In these laws, women, children, and servants are treated similarly to animals and other material possessions.

Now consider Israel’s law from God about similar crimes. Exodus 20:13 prohibits all murder regardless of sex or status when it states that “You shall not murder.” In Exodus 21:12 we find that all murder is a capital crime. “Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death.” Servants were also treated very differently in ancient Israel. Consider Exodus 21:27: “An owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.” Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose.” What about the daughter under Hammurabi’s Code who must die for her father’s crime? Deuteronomy 24:16 says that “parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”

The law’s nature as a gift is also seen in its protective provisions for Israel. The overwhelming majority of prohibited foods in the law, for example, are either prominently disease carrying and hence risky in their arid climate, environmentally or economically destructive in the Sinai desert or Canaan, or were commonly used in the religious rituals of their Canaanite neighbors. A big part of this gift was its separating of Israel as God’s chosen people from their Canaanite neighbors. The sympathetic magic beliefs of Canaanites led to their practice of mixing different seeds in their fields to promote the field’s fertility by symbolically influencing their pagan gods. Seemingly bizarre, arbitrary, or even capricious laws like the prohibition against planting your field with two different kinds of seed in Leviticus 19:19, for instance, worked as an intentional separation from the religious practices of their pagan neighbors.

Among the most significant gift of the law to Israel is showing them that the wages of sin is death. Rather than being able to influence and manipulate God like their pagan neighbors tried, the LORD showed them in living color that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). He also showed them in great details that while he would indeed dwell with them, it was to always and only be on his holy terms.

Just like there were other law codes in the Ancient Near East, there were also covenants. The Old Testament law is a covenant between God and Israel. It is not a path of salvation. It is not the case that an Israelite could be saved by keeping the law. An Israelite was saved by grace through faith in God. This covenantal law that Moses laid out is the terms of agreement for the loyalty that Israel had with God. This familiar covenant form was used by God to stipulate to Israel the terms of his protection and benefits for them. That the rest of the Bible after the giving of the law in Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy 33 is largely a long and sad chronicle of Israel’s disobedience is not due to Israel’s inability to keep law but from their choosing not do keep this life-giving law.

For Christians

While the first purpose of the law was as a gift to Israel, it is also a gift to those of us who are members of God’s new covenant brought about through Jesus. Because we are under a new covenant with God, though, things are different for us than for an ancient Israelite. What remains is God’s character, his plan for salvation, and our need to be loyal to God. The big question for us is how that loyalty is to be expressed.

Our loyalty to God is not expressed in terms of the old covenant, because that has been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. Therefore, the default for us is that none of the 613 old covenant laws apply in the new covenant unless they have been specifically renewed in the new covenant. More specifically, none of Israel’s civil or ritual laws apply any longer but all of the ethical laws do still apply. These ethical laws include the 10 commandments and the two great commands to love God (Dt 6:5) and our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18).

So, if the specific civil and ritual laws of the Old Testament no longer apply to us, why would we bother reading them? They are still God’s word to us. From reading the law, we learn a lot about God, justice, social ideals, love, care, relationships, and redemption even though we are not obligated to follow specific commands. Consider Deuteronomy 22:8, which states that

“when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.”

I myself have a house with a flat roof, and I do not have a parapet around it. I am not obligated to follow this specific law from ancient Israel, but I am obligated to follow the specific building code of my municipality. But what do I learn from this? If in addition to reading this specific Old Testament law I also know that it was common for people in their society to walk on rooftops, I learn that God is specifically concerned with health and safety. Not only is God specifically concerned with health and safety, that concern stretches out to everyone no matter their age, status, or relationship with me. God specifically commanded ancient Israelites to spend the extra money and do the extra work to go the extra mile to also concretely express that shared concern for health and safety. While no one is usually walking around on my roof, what about my stairs? Even if I would never personally use a handrail on my own stairs, I learn from this specific command that concern for the health and safety of those visiting my house should probably compel me to install a handrail on my stairs.

From reading laws like these we get a sense of what it meant and continues to mean to be God’s people. It means that all of life is given over to God. I do not get to keep any of life back for myself. God demands all of me. It also means that there are specific concrete things I can and should do to express that loyalty to God. It is not enough to simply state or feel loving towards my neighbor. For an Israelite, it meant following that up with building a parapet around my roof to work out that love for my neighbor. This also means that my politics, my relationships at work, my driving, my everything must change to conform to the pattern of holiness that God has given us. Through realizing this, we also learn that we simply do not have it within ourselves to keep all of this law. We will never get there on our own!

There are two basic forms that these laws follow: direct commands and conditional commands. Direct or apodictic laws are direct commands that often follow the ‘Do this’ or ‘Do no do that’ format. They are general commands for everyone in Israel. Conditional or casuistic laws only apply if certain conditions are present. They follow an if-then format like ‘If this is the case, then do this or do not do that.’ Most of the law is in this conditional form.

Regardless of form, the Mosaic law given to Israel was given as a paradigm or model to follow. It used examples not exhaustive lists. It was not meant to be comprehensive and all-inclusive. For example, read Leviticus 19:9-14:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”

We see in here specific commands about field crops and vineyards. Even though they are not specifically mentioned here, this command would also have applied to olives and sheep, for example, even though they are not specified in the command. Similarly, the final command in this passage references the deaf and the blind, but this would have also applied to the mute and the lame. Further, the command prohibiting keeping a day laborer’s wages all night would not have allowed a boss to keep the wages until right before dawn. While that would comply with the bare letter of the law, it would not be in keeping with the spirit of the law.

Indeed, this lawyerly ‘letter of the law’ legalism was used by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day to distort God’s law (Mt 23:23). Keeping the spirit of this law requires dealing justly and well with the poor and handicapped in all dealings with them. Keeping the law in spirit is impossible for us (Rm 8:1-11). Even simply reading it shows us how impossible it is for us to fully keep on our own (Rm 3:20). When we read the law, we ought to be humbled at how incapable we are of keeping this law in spirit.

Finally, it is this ongoing humbled awareness of our own sin saturated weakness that should drive us to God in prayer. When we read the law, become aware of its comprehensive and complete demands on all of life, and pay attention to our sinful failing short of those demands, we come before God in confession. We recognize our own utter incapacity. We reach out and plead for the mercy of Christ. Without him, we are dead in sin. With him, we seek to live our lives in grateful obedience, thanking God for his law that drives us to prayer and Christ.  

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