People coming to the Old Testament for the first time often make the assumption that its laws were intended to be universal, for everyone. Such assumptions, however, are misguided, as they aren’t always even applicable for Christians.
Some laws were for everyone. An example comes from God’s covenant with all people through Noah, recounted in the book of Genesis, where God said, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.” Now that needs some unpacking to understand it properly, but for now I simply want to point out that this law was one of the few that the apostles said non-Jewish Christians were required to follow when the issue of the law came up in the book of Acts.
Some laws were only for the twelve tribes of Israel. An example comes from God’s covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel through Moses, recounted in the book of Deuteronomy, where God said, “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.” Not only would this law be impossible for non-Jews to observe, since it is geographically specific, but we should notice it is addressed exclusively to the twelve tribes, not the nations beyond them.
Some laws were only for the tribe of Levi. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, “The Levites always have the right to redeem their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess. So the property of the Levites is redeemable—that is, a house sold in any town they hold—and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.” The name of the book, Leviticus, should be seen as a big clue here.
Some laws were only for the priests chosen from the tribe of Levi. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, “The priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.”
Some laws were only for the High Priest. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”
So an important question to ask, in evaluating the applicability of Old Testament law, has always been: what was the context in which it was given? And that was even before Christ reframed the law for Christians.