How to Read Old Testament Laws – Part 1

by Dr. John Song, Full-Time Bible Faculty – Belhaven, Atlanta

Many of our students at Belhaven may struggle to understand the relevancy of the Old Testament laws. Are they mere cultural rules for an ancient civilization or do they apply to us today? As faculty, how do we train our students to become better readers of this genre of the Old Testament?

Alec Motyer lists three ways one can interpret these Old Testament laws (Motyer, 2009, pp. 26–27). For the sake of economy, I will only list two since these are the more popular lines of interpretation. First is the cultural interpretation where one reads the Old Testament laws as primarily belonging to the culture of their day. This view tends to mitigate the relevancy of the Old Testament laws for the present believing community. The second is to look for the underlying spiritual principle that governed these laws. While certain practices were cultural the underlying spiritual principle remains. I personally advocate for the second view. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Leviticus 19:28 prevented the Israelite community from cutting their bodies and placing tattoo marks on themselves. Many well-intentioned Christians quarrel over the relevancy of this verse. The argument may mistakenly focus on whether believers are allowed tattoos. Some argue that if Lev. 19:28 still applies to us then so should the preceding verse where there is a prohibition of cutting the hair at the sides of the head and the trimming of the beard. Whether Christians should get tattoos or not we will leave for another day. The immediate context of Lev. 19:28 is the prohibition of participating in certain pagan “customs which involved physical disfigurement” (Wenham, 1979, p. 272). The cutting of the hair on the sides of the head, trimming the beard, cutting the body, and placing tattoos on oneself (usually emblems of pagan deities) were pagan ways of mourning for the dead. The main underlying principle was that God was calling Israel to a different way of life that was distinct from their pagan neighbors. This spiritual principle still applies to us today.

Exodus 23:19 gives us the prohibition of not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk. This prohibition also appears in Exod. 34:26 and Deut. 14:21. The repetition of this prohibition is not insignificant. While the cultural interpretation seems to fit well for most city dwellers who don’t raise goats, it is actually a law that applies to all believers today. In short, this was a Canaanite fertility potion where its broth was believed to have magical characteristics to make the flocks more fertile. The underlying principle was that Israel was not to trust in pagan superstitions.

As a final example, in the Old Testament welfare system (e.g., Deut. 24:19) when one dropped a sheaf while harvesting the land the Israelite was not to go back for it; rather it was to be left as a provision for the foreigner, fatherless, and widow. While we may not all harvest crops this law does, nonetheless, apply to all of us whether one is a farmer or not. The common denominator of the foreigner, fatherless, and widow was that they were all disadvantaged in that society. The disadvantages of the fatherless and widow are plain to us but what about the foreigner? Foreigners may not have known the culture, practices, and the laws of the land and therefore could have easily been mistreated. God called Israel to love the foreigner as themselves (e.g., Lev. 19:34). The underlying principle was that God’s people were to care for those who were disadvantaged.

Many of these underlying principles find continuity in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:20; Gal. 5:20–21; Jas. 1:27). A fuller conversation on the continuity and discontinuity (e.g., food laws and sacrifices) between the Old and New Testaments require a separate discussion.

For now, it is important to train our students to think about what these laws meant in the culture of that day. Exposing our students to the history and context of the ancient Near East will help them become more sophisticated readers of the Old Testament.

References

Motyer, A. (2009). Roots: Let the Old Testament Speak. (J. Stott, Ed.). Scotland: Christian Focus.

Wenham, G. J. (1979). The Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

 

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