What’s With All Those Weird Old Testament Laws?
Reading the Old Testament is kind of like eating a box of assorted chocolates—there are parts that seem all sweet and wonderful, but the next thing you know you are hit with something that makes your face turn sour. Few things in the Bible can create this reaction quite like the Old Testament laws. Sooner or later, every believer has to resolve the issues that arise from those seemingly strange and unnecessary rules God gave to the Israelites thousands of years ago.
Have you ever tried reading through the Bible from page 1 and found yourself stuck at Leviticus? Or have you ever had a skeptic of Christianity throw in your face the unusual Old Testament laws and then pronounce, “Christians like to pick and choose what they believe about the Bible!” Beard lengths, eating shellfish, wearing clothes with mixed fabrics…what in the world are we to make of these confounding parts of the Bible?
While the Old Testament law can seem pretty intimidating, it is not nearly as confusing as it seems. There are several important principles that one needs to keep in mind when trying to make sense of it all. With the right framework in place, the OT laws can reveal a lot to us about God, his call on our lives, and the plan of salvation that was fulfilled in Christ.
The Law of Love
The first thing we need to know is that the OT law is ultimately about love. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked by someone which command of Scripture is the greatest of them all. He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Many people do not realize it, but these are direct quotations from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). Jesus is saying that the sum total of all the law is ultimately about loving God and loving others.
This gives us a great starting point to work from. Since we know that love is the goal of God’s commands, we can look at individual laws and try to determine how they fit that agenda. While admittedly some of the OT laws are very strange upon first reading, we know for sure that they fit into a broader perspective which is intended to move towards love for God and people. Knowing this will keep us from getting off track with our conclusions about the OT law.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the constant refrain in the Old Testament concerning God’s holiness. Holiness is mentioned 171 times from Exodus to Deuteronomy (the primary books of the law), making it a central emphasis within the commands.
For example, God says in Leviticus 11:45 “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This illustrates the mindset God has behind his commands. The fact that he is a holy God and desires to be served by a holy people is why the OT laws are given. The implication is that unholy people and unholy practices are not fitting in the presence of a holy God.
The word “holy” simply means to be “set apart”. It means that the object that is considered holy is to be treated with special reverence and care. It is to be considered sacred and worthy of honour. Since God himself is the holy object, the people who serve him must also be holy. Unholy people and a holy God simply do not mix.
This helps to explain many of the commands that are given in the law. Things such as special washing before worship or the giving of sacrifices when coming to the Tabernacle all were ways of demonstrating that a person knew they were approaching a holy God. There is no doubt a central purpose for the sometimes tedious laws was to drive home in an unforgettable fashion that God is to be considered with the utmost respect. He is not to be trifled with or addressed flippantly. God established this premise by laying out in great detail and in a variety of ways that he is a holy God and must be treated as such.
A People Called Out From the World
God chose the Israelites to be his covenant people in the era of the Old Testament. This was not because they were any better than other people groups—in fact, the Old Testament reads much like a broken record of the constant Israelite failures. Nevertheless, as God’s chosen people, Israel was to be a holy nation, set apart from the other surrounding nations who served other gods. In order to distinguish his people from those pagan nations, God set forth many of the OT laws for this very reason.
For instance, it was common practice in some ancient civilizations to perform child sacrifice in order to appease the gods. The Ammonites in particular were known to participate in child sacrifice to their god Molech. To ensure the God of Israel was not identified with this practice, a specific law was put in place condemning child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5).
Another less extreme example is the prohibition on tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). One might wonder, what does a tattoo have to do with anything? But historically we know that tattoos were part of pagan worship practices among the Canaanites. Thus, if Israelites were to readily mark their body with tattoos, it would signal to those around them that they are also partakers in Canaanite worship. To use a modern comparison, it would be like a Christian today walking around with a shirt that bore the star and crescent moon symbol that is typically associated with Islam. Such imagery is not consistent with one’s beliefs. In that same sense, the prohibition of tattoos was to relieve any confusion that the Israelites might be participants in pagan idolatry.
It is difficult to know just how many OT laws were given for this purpose, and which specific laws they might be. Leviticus 18 specifically states that some of the laws in that chapter are in direct response to pagan worship practices of surrounding nations. But what of the rest of the law? It is hard to know. This is because good chunks of ancient customs of the day have been lost to history. We know that tattoos were common in Canaanite worship, but what other practices might have associated the Israelites with pagan idolatry? It is at least plausible, if not likely, that some of the more quirky and detailed OT laws exist for this reason. We simply do not know for sure, but because we know that at least some of the unusual laws had solid rationale behind them, we can safely assume that others did as well. It is not a stretch to believe that when the Israelites first heard God’s laws, they would have made complete sense to them, given their knowledge of culture at the time. We must simply admit that the distance between today and the ancient world will create some question marks we can’t resolve, but that does not mean we have no reason to believe that sound logic is behind many of the laws that initially sound strange to our ears today.
Categories of Law
Another helpful tool for understanding the law is to consider how each law breaks down into specific categories. Some theologians have noted that the 613 commands given in the law can be roughly categorized into three major groups: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law.
Moral law are commands that reveal what God considers to be moral and immoral behaviour. It is essentially God showing us his ethical code. The straightforward command “You shall not steal” in Exodus 20:15, given as part of the 10 commandments, is an example of moral law. It is simply a judgment of right and wrong behaviour. The moral law, unlike the other two categories of law, is something that is still relevant for Christians today.
This is a major source of confusion for many people. Christians are sometimes accused of showing favouritism with the Bible based on the fact that they generally esteem the 10 commandments while overlooking the prohibition against eating shellfish, for example. But this is not actually favouritism at all. Christians are not picking and choosing what they follow from the Scriptures. Rather, rightly understood, Christians are keeping the ethics of the moral law given by God (since they are universal and timeless in nature) while doing away with the civil and ceremonial law as passing realities (more on this in a moment). We can know that Christians are right to pay attention to God’s moral law because the New Testament repeats dozens of Old Testament commands as still binding on Christians for today, and in each case, the command repeated is considered to be part of the moral law.
The second category of law is the civil law. The civil law are the rules and regulations that govern the nation of Israel and its individual communities. It functions much like modern day laws do, for the purpose of giving order and structure to society. Since God did not drop the Old Testament law out of the sky to the entire world, but rather to a specific nation, he included in that law the civil statutes and regulations that should govern them as a people. The civil law taught Israel how to run a court of law, penalize lawbreakers, demand restitution, and so forth. It functioned much like how the court system does today.
The civil law is no longer binding on Christians because we are not the same category of people as the nation of Old Testament Israel. Christians today are part of the family of God scattered abroad, not gathered together in one solitary country. Therefore, we live as those who are attentive to God’s moral law but not to Israel’s civil law. The civil law was given to a specific group of people for that specific time period in history and is not transferrable to other groups of people or other times in history.
The third category of law is the ceremonial law. These regulations include those that taught Israel how they were to conduct their worship practices. It included specific attire for Israelite priests, instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and it’s accompanying instruments of worship (such as the altar, table, etc), instructions for feasts and festivals, and the various sacrifices people were to make to the Lord. It was basically a worship manual for the Jews, God showing them the way in which he desired to be worshipped.
Like the civil law, the ceremonial law is no longer binding on Christians for today. This is because the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was fulfilled in Christ’s atoning death on the cross (Hebrews 7:23-24, 9:12). All that the ceremonial law entailed was ultimately pointing to the coming of Jesus and his once-for-all blood sacrifice. Now that Christ has satisfied the demands of the law, we no longer require animal sacrifice or mediation by a priest. Those were temporary institutions of worship that have been done away with in the New Testament era.
Failing to distinguish between these categories of law has led to a lot of confusion among both believers and unbelievers. The general rule of thumb to follow is this: if a command from the Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, it remains binding for believers. Those laws that are not reinforced are part of the era that has been done away with. This is not to say that God has changed his mind or that his commands are inconsistent. Rather, it is to say that God’s unchanging law had to be implemented in a way that fit the context it was entering into. Since the Christian Church and Old Testament Israel are not synonymous realities, we cannot treat them as if each should function the same way. In fact, Scripture explicitly says they should not.
Old Covenant vs. New Covenant
In theological terms, what we are talking about is the different between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant, which God originally established with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-7), passed away with the coming of Christ. Some confuse this to mean that God himself changed from the era of the Old Testament to the era of the New Testament, but that is not the case at all. God never changes, but how he chooses to interact with humanity sometimes does. In his wisdom, God established at least two eras that would progressively reveal his unfolding plan of salvation over the course of human history.
This New Covenant interacts differently with the law than the Old Covenant does. The New Testament points out a few keys ways in which the New Covenant differs from the Old when it comes to understanding God’s commands in the Old Testament Scriptures. Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews are three books in particular that emphasize and explain the distinction between the Old and New Covenants.
For example, Paul describes the law as holding people captive in the Old Covenant (Galatians 3:23-27). This is because no one can ever obey the entire law. Part of the reason God gave the law was to show people their sin and need for mercy from God. One cannot help but read the Old Testament laws and think to themselves, I’ve broken many of these laws many times over! And that is precisely the point. God wanted to break down man’s self-righteousness and show him his need for grace. Romans 7 is dedicated mostly to explaining this idea further. The law was intended by God to show people their sin and need for a Savior.
It is mistaken to believe that Old Testament people were saved by keeping the law while New Testament people are saved by faith in Christ. Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. Instead, the law was designed not to take away sin but to demonstrate that (1) sin required the penalty of death, (2) a substitute could die in one’s place, and (3) a final substitute sacrifice was coming. Ancient Israelites, like Christians now, were/are saved by faith (Romans 4:2-3). The law was never intended for the salvation of souls. It’s primary purposes was to show the existence and pervasiveness of sin while demonstrating that forgiveness was possible through the death of another.
Law After Redemption
It is significant that the law was not given by God until after the Israelites were ransomed out of slavery in Egypt. The order of events is intentional. It aims to teach us that the law is not a means to be saved, but rather the fitting response by those who have already been saved. In other words, obeying God does not make one right with God. Rather, being made right with God is what fuels our reasons to obey him. Redemption comes before obedience. God was showing the Israelites that he is their Deliverer and Protector, and therefore they ought to obey him, just as a loving father deserves to be obeyed by his children because he has already proven his love and commitment to them.
As such, the law (especially the ceremonial law) is rich with symbolism. The high priest would function as a mediator between God and his people, just as Jesus is our great High Priest, a mediator between God and his people (Hebrews 4:14-16). The shedding of animal blood in sacrifice for sins was to show the cost of salvation, just as Jesus is the lamb that was slain for the sins of the world (Hebrews 10:10-14).
The law functioned as outward reminders of inward realities. The outward regulations about clothing and washing were intended to show the inward state of the heart. The practice of physical circumcision was to demonstrate the reality of spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:29). The high priest laying his hands on a goat—symbolically transferring sin to it—and releasing it into the woods was an outward demonstration of the inward reality that God has taken our sins away. The entire system is one gigantic foreshadowing of the coming of Christ and the reality of salvation by faith in him through his shed blood on the cross.
With an understanding the like the one given above, the OT law becomes not just a confusing part of the Bible to be avoided, but rather one that is rich with wisdom, teaching, and applicable principles for today. When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he is speaking about the Old Testament. Even the Old Covenant system which has been done away with is still “profitable” for Christians. We would be wise to study it and learn from it to aid our spiritual growth and understanding.
The entire Bible is a cohesive unit that progressively builds upon itself. We live in an era where the law has been fulfilled perfectly in Christ, and thus we are freed from being enslaved to it. Instead, we can have Christ’s obedience counted to our credit by faith in him. Our sins can be removed by his death in our place simply by believing on him for salvation. Thank the Lord that we don’t need to perfectly obey the law in order to be loved by him or attain eternal life! If that were the case, we all would be hopelessly lost. But as it stands, God has made a way where there was no other way. He bore the penalty of sin himself so that we could be made right with him and begin an everlasting relationship with our heavenly Father. Love like that can be found nowhere else.