How does one make sense of some of the outlandishly strange laws given to Israelites in the Old Testaments? In other words, what does it mean when someone says that the Bible is authoritative? Does it mean that one must take everything to be literal truth and follow it word for word? If the former is the case then what about passages like: Exodus 21:7, Exodus 35:2, and laws in Leviticus that commands people to kill someone for what seems to be minor technicalities? Any answer will be a of help.
Thanks for the challenge, but first things first: please do NOT under any circumstance pick up rocks to stone someone to death. Please don’t do that.
But jokes aside, this is actually one of the easier theological questions that always pops up when someone reads their Bible, and it’s totally sensible to ask.
It revolves around two mini-questions:
1) What is up with these crazy Old Testament commands?
2) How do any of them apply to us Christians today?
Let’s tackle these both, and please allow me the grace to outline some of the finer theology. Also feel free to skip around.
1) The Bible is an unfolding narrative about God’s redeemed people who are given a Law but fail to carry it out.
Real simple: God gave a specific set of commands to a specific set of people at a certain point in time for a singular purpose, and while there’s certainly a lot to learn from it, we are not those people in that time under those conditions.
The OT is a story of those people — and though we’re part of that story, we’re not under that Law.
Sometimes a dude tries to “aha-gotcha” by pointing out some of the sillier OT commands like the ban against seafood or wearing only one type of fiber in your clothes. But these commands for the Israelites were meant as a one-time demonstration of God’s meticulous perfection.
The laws are a little crazy and extreme, but I would expect a perfect God to have some crazy extreme laws. It’s just tough enough to show what God demands and just weird enough to show that no one could make it up.
Some of the doctrinal stuff: The commands came in three forms — 1) ceremonial laws, 2) civil laws, and 3) moral laws.
Ceremonial laws had to do with the Temple, the sacrifices, the washing, holidays, burnt offerings, and all the religious priestly duties. The civil laws were like state laws about property, business, relationships, business, and legalities. The moral laws were about character, particularly the Ten Commandments.
Every single law had some sort of principle and purpose in mind. God’s commands describe us as much as they describe God Himself.
The Israelites were terrible at keeping all of these and were never meant to: they only emphasized humanity’s dependence on the Perfect God. God knew all this which is why He set up the Temple for the forgiveness of sins. The Temple is also a foreshadow of Jesus, who said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. — Matthew 5:17
Jesus came to finish this unfolding human narrative by absorbing the full extent of our failures so we could be right with God. In other words, Jesus did what we could never do, and at the cross he said, “It is finished.” This also means we’re done with the ceremonial, civil, AND moral laws.
You’ll notice Jesus kept upending the OT Law by saying, “You’ve heard it was like that, but it’s actually like this.” He looked at the hand-washing and said it was more important to be soul-washed; he had the audacity to say, “I myself am the Sabbath.” Jesus was moving us to something better.
More doctrine stuff: If you read Hebrews 4-10, it’s a huge treatise on how Jesus came to finish out the Law to give us a New Covenant of Grace. Just a few verses here —
He [Jesus] sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. … By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. — Hebrews 7:27, 8:13, 9:15
So if anyone gets stuck on the OT commands and says, “Aren’t you contradicting yourself if you don’t follow these weird laws?” — then plain and simple, let them know this is all part of God’s unfolding story, not some pick-and-choose list of rules, and we’re in the final part of God’s metanarrative.
2) As much as it might bother you, we are NOT under the Ten Commandments today. The Christian is in a personal one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ in his beloved church.
The Ten Commandments is a very appropriate law and we’d do well to follow it, but obeying those commands do not make a Christian no more than changing a tire makes you a mechanic.
Any good theologian will tell you that we’re no longer under the Law. We’re instead in a relationship with Jesus in which everything we do flows out of God’s love.
Jesus himself boiled it down by saying, All the Law hangs on loving God and loving people.
Under this new covenant, we’ll still fall short: but God’s grace keeps empowering us to love God and love people. The point of the Gospel is that we would fail the Law, which is why Jesus had to die and was glad to die.
This doesn’t mean we toss out the Old Testament: in fact, the OT highlights the arrival of the Perfect Savior who would come alongside us with all grace, wisdom, mercy, and truth. Yes, there’s good stuff in the OT like Psalms and Proverbs and even Deuteronomy, but they’re all pointing to Christ, who is the realization of all the laws we couldn’t keep. Jesus also gave us access to the Holy Spirit, our helper and encourager having the same authority as God.
There’s a huge difference in someone saying “I’m basically a good person” to someone who says, “I follow the Only One who is good.” A good person can’t possibly hope to meet the arbitrary standard of “good enough,” which is exhausting, while the humble person knows he can’t be good in himself, so he clings to the Savior who is.
The New Testament will also describe a person who is following Jesus and becoming more like him. None of these commands have anything to do with “getting saved,” but they’re the blueprint for the type of people that God has called us to be.
So when you’re in that personal relationship, obedience becomes less about rules and restrictions and more about a long-term vision from God. God knows how you work, and His commands are part of His love for you.
If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. — John 15:10-12
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” — Psalm 16:2
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. — Romans 7:12