The Law(s): Covenant stipulations for Israel

These are my notes on Chapter 9 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

‘The Law’ in the Bible most often refers to the material found in Exodus 20-Deuteronomy 33. The most important question for Christians is how this material applies to us (or does it?).

Christians and the Old Testament law

Six initial guidelines:

  1. The OT law is a covenant. A covenant is a binding contract between two parties, both of whom have obligations specified in the contract.
  2. The OT is not our testament. We have to assume that none of its stipulations are binding upon us unless they’re renewed, reinforced or restated in the new covenant.
  3. Some stipulations of the old covenant have clearly not been renewed in the new covenant. The majority of laws in the Pentateuch can be categorised as: (a) Israelite civil laws, and (b) Israelite ritual laws. The civil laws applied exclusively to citizens of ancient Israel. The ritual laws governed worship in the tabernacle and temple. With Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice, we are no longer bound to the ritual laws.
  4. Part of the old covenant is renewed in the new covenant. Some aspects of the OT ethical law are restored in the NT as applicable to Christians.
  5. All of the OT law is still the word of God for us even though it is not still the command of God to us.
  6. Only that which is explicitly renewed from the OT law can be considered part of the NT “law of Christ”. Included in this would be the 10 commandments as they are cited in various ways in the NT as still binding upon Christians (Matthew 5:21-37, John 7:23).

The role of the law in Israel and in the Bible

The law showed how high God’s standards of righteousness are and the impossibility of meeting them without divine aid. The law didn’t save Israel; God alone did that.

Apodictic law

These are the commands that begin with ‘do’ or ‘do not’. They are direct commands and set a standard by example. They aren’t exhaustive, e.g. Leviticus 19:9-10 doesn’t give any directions concerning figs. Though they are limited in wording, they are comprehensive in spirit.

Casuistic law

These are conditional laws in which an example or sample is cited. For example, Deuteronomy 15:12-17 only applies to Israelites who have slaves. Such case-by-case laws apply specifically to Israel’s civil, religious and ethical life. None is explicitly renewed in the NT.

So what can we learn from them? Taking Deuteronomy 15:12-17:

  • God’s provision for slavery was hardly brutal and harsh;
  • God loves slaves and demands generosity towards them;
  • Slavery could be practised in such a manner that the slaves were better off in bondage than free;
  • The slave owner didn’t have absolute power over the slave.

Even though this law doesn’t apply to us, it provides us with an important background for the NT teaching on redemption and a perspective on the love of God.

The OT law and other ancient law codes

OT laws were an improvement over others from the Ancient Near East. One aspect is that whereas class distinctions were built into the laws of other nations, the OT prohibitions do not distinguish gender or social status.

The OT law as benefit to Israel

God accepted the death of an animal in place of the death of a human sinner. A substitute’s blood could be shed. Moreover, the laws that required a substitutionary sacrifice set a precedent for Christ’s atonement.

In summary: Some dos and don’ts

  1. Do see the OT law as God’s fully inspired word foryou.Don’t see the OT law as God’s direct command to you.
  2. Do see the OT law as the basis for the old covenant, and therefore for Israel’s history.Don’t see the OT law as binding on Christians in the new covenant except where specifically renewed.
  3. Do see God’s justice, love and high standards revealed in the OT law.Don’t forget to see that God’s mercy is made equal to the severity of the standards.
  4. Don’t see the OT law as complete. It is not technically comprehensive.Do see the OT law as a paradigm—providing examples for the full range of expected behaviour.
  5. Don’t expect the OT law to be cited frequently by the prophets or the NT.Do remember that the essence of the Law (Ten Commandments and the two chief laws) is repeated in the prophets and renewed in the NT.
  6. Do see the OT law as a generous gift to Israel, bringing much blessing when obeyed.Don’t see the OT law as a grouping of arbitrary, annoying regulations limiting people’s freedom.