Misconceptions about Old Testament Law

A common misconception about the Old Testament is that it’s laws were meant for everyone. This is not so. The laws of the Old Testament were always handed down in the context of a covenant or treaty. The rules were always articulated in the context of a relationship. Outside of that covenant, that treaty, that relationship, they were null and void.

Now in some instances the relationship in view was that between God and the whole of humanity, as was the case when Noah and the other survivors with him made their covenant with God, but this was more the exception than the rule. More often the relationship in view was far more immediate, such as God’s relationship with the twelve tribes of Israel, or God’s relationship with the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the priests from the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the high priest. Such laws were NOT universal. Rules handed down to the high priest were applicable to no one other than the high priest.

This is why it is foolish to cherry pick laws out of the Old Testament and apply them indiscriminately. If you don’t know the context you can’t know who it was supposed to apply to.

Consider how, even in our society, there are different rules and responsibilities for emergency services than for the general public. Police officers are exempted from some rules in order to fulfill higher duties but have additional responsibilities placed on them for the same reason. When they err and have to front up to court they are not judged as anyone in the street would be but are judged by a higher standard as befitting of a professional. The situation here is not exactly equivalent but neither is it entirely different. According to the scriptures God had a special relationship with Israel and held Israel to a higher standard as a consequence. It was never intended that the laws of Moses be applied to non-Israelites, especially beyond the borders of Israel, unless it was specifically stated or merely reiterated a more general law already instituted elsewhere in more generalised situations.

We should be very wary, therefore, of formulating a universal ethic or public policy from an indiscriminately application of Old Testament law. We need to be a lot more discriminating about what’s a valid application of Old Testament law and what is not.

Why the laws of Moses aren’t always for Christians

Moses with the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.
Moses with the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.

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.


Did the prophet Jesus consider any food forbidden?

Many have suggested to me that Jesus advocated the same food laws as Mohammed and Moses. The gospel of Mark, however, tells another story:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—  then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Who is the Old Testament law for?

Woodcut-style-image-of-the-Biblical-Moses-bringing-the-ten-commandments-down-from-the-mountain--Stock-VectorWhen interpreting Old Testament law it’s important to recognise who it’s for. For while some laws were given to humans in general, other laws were given to the Israelites alone. And while some laws were given to the Israelites in general, other laws were given to the Levitical priests alone. And while some laws were given to the priests in general, others were given to the high priest alone. It is important therefore to pay attention to the context as well of the content of laws. Lest we apply laws in situations for which they were never intended.

Why is female circumcision practiced by some Muslims and not others?

Female circumcision is widely associated with Muslims in Western consciousness, but in truth the practice of female circumcision varies widely between different Muslim communities. Why is this?

Well, I came across an intriguing explanation for this in “The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom” by Mark Durie. Mark writes:

“The modern distribution of female circumcision among Muslims cannot be explained in terms of geography, nor in terms of pre-existing cultures before the arrival of Islam. The Acehnese in Indonesia were Hindus before converting to Islam, yet they practice female circumcision, while Indian Muslims, who also converted out of Hinduism, do not generally follow the practice. The simple explanation for the distribution of female circumcision among Muslims in the world today is that, while all four schools of Sunni Islam allow the practice, it is only the Shafi‘i school which makes it mandatory. Wherever female circumcision is widely practiced among Muslims, this is a region where the Shafi’i version of Sharia law prevails. In this case it is belief which determines behavior, not perfectly, but to a very significant degree.”

I have since had many Muslim acquaintances affirm that many of the differences in the ways Muslims practice Islam can be attributed to different schools of jurisprudence. So there you go.

Would you say legalism is as Satanic as licence?

I ask this question because it came to mind after some Atheists I know started talking about Satanism, LaVey and the Hebrew roots of the word Satan.

I couldn’t help thinking of this image, “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” by James Tissot. It illustrates the incident when Jesus called Peter a Satan, that is, an adversary or accuser. The context? Peter had affirmed Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus immediately predicted his death, the conjunction of which Peter reacted against. It seems Peter had messianic expectations that were more traditional, more militant, more self-righteous, than Jesus.

The image that often lurks behind this Satan language is a court room drama, where their is a defendant, an accuser, and a judge. The accuser was not necessarily evil, but he was no friend of the defendant, innocent or otherwise.

Now, few would argue that a lifestyle licence is Satanic (least of all LaVey!), but what about a lifestyle of legalism? The accuser is aiming to bring you down whether you wander to the left or the right of the justice. Jesus recognized this. Peter wasn’t tempting Jesus to go soft. No, he was tempting him to attack his enemies in self-righteous fury.

So it makes me wonder. Fundamentalists often accuse Liberals or being satanic, but isn’t the converse equally justified? Jesus seemed to think so. If memory serves me right he called the Pharisees satanic more often than Sinners. And you know what, when I present this image of a self-righteous Satan to Atheists, often they find sin and Satan a lot less attractive. Funny that.

Is the Torah redundant?

The other day I was reminded of a conversation I had with Rabbi Zalman Kastel at the last Anabaptist peace conference. It started with a question about the Old Testament. He asked me, if I recall correctly, if I regarded the Jewish law as “superceded” or “redundant”.

After thinking this over I replied, “not exactly”. For, if I understand the apostle Paul correctly, what he was critical of was not Jewish Christians following Torah so much as the expectations of some that Gentile Christians should follow Torah.

Moreover, Paul wasn’t anti-Moses so much as Christ-centric. He still held Moses in high esteme, its just he held Jesus in higher esteme.

I would therefore prefer to speak in terms of Jesus “reframing” and the significance of Moses and the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, rather than “replacing” it.

I was however amused by this comic here, which I came across through web crawling, seemingly espousing the opposite view. Though I have no idea if the artist was Jewish or not I suspect it could prompt some interesting interfaith conversations.

Katter candidate’s anti-Halal comments have the attention of this Greenway resident

Having just arrived back from an interfaith conference and opened my waiting email in-box, I find this news report from the Sydney Morning Herald about Jamie Cavanough:

A candidate for Bob Katter’s fledgling political party declared his preference  for buying ”guaranteed non-halal meat” so his money does not ”go to the Muslim community”.

Jamie Cavanough, who is standing for Katter’s Australian Party in Sydney’s most marginal federal seat, Greenway, is under fire for the apparently divisive comments he made to a community forum in one of the city’s most ethnically diverse areas.

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. That’s no way to introduce yourself to a Greenway resident like me. Particularly since I’m one of the Christians you’re expecting to vote you in. Particularly since a good friend of my son is a Muslim. Particularly when his Dad, who is also a Muslim, is the well respected head of the P&C committee for the local public school which my son attends. Particularly since I’ve just came home from an Australia Day weekend where I met a wonderful Muslim woman who was kind hearted, curtious and every bit the exemplary Australian citizen. Particularly since our local church only recently staged Christmas carols where halal options were served as part of the free BBQ in celebration of the giving season. Jamie Cavanough, it looks like you and some of us voting Christians from Greenway need to have a talk.

Faith and Law

When talking about law versus faith, is Paul focussed on the relationship between Jews and Christians or between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians?

Although the former is the more common interpretation I am inclined towards the latter. See for instance Romans 2:17 and Galatians 2:14-16 and 3:26-29.

Which way you go on this?

It has significant implications.