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.

What books make up the Old Testament? 

While there is some disagreement between different Christian traditions regarding the extent of the Old Testament, these disagreements should be understood within the context of broad agreement overall.

To begin with, the three main branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) as well as rabbinic Judaism all agree the Old Testament includes the core Hebrew texts, commonly known as: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

There is also universal agreement on the inclusion of the Aramaic texts Ezra and Daniel within the Old Testament.

The texts which are disputed are primarily Greek, and that in itself should give us a hint as to why they’re disputed. Quite simply, they were composed later than the core Hebrew texts. In general, the Orthodox and Catholic traditions of Christianity tend to include them whilst Judaism and the Protestant tradition of Christianity tend to exclude them. The texts in question are 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 3 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Wisdom, the Letter of Jeremiah from Baruch, and the additions to Daniel known as Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon. There are also a few Hebrew texts (1 Esdras, Judith, 1 Maccabees, Baruch, Sirach) and one Aramaic text (Tobit) which are also disputed, but by and large it is for similar reasons, due to later composition. It is worth noting however that few doctrines of any of the above traditions are based solely on these disputed texts. Their impact should not, therefore, be overstated.

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.

Cynical wisdom in the Old Testament


How’s this for a quick explanation of Ecclesiastes in relation to wisdom lit?

  • God shows Job – a righteous man – that he is a sinner in God’s sight
  • God shows Solomon – the wisest man – that he’s a fool in God’s sight

Apart from God everything is meaningless

Is incense ok for Christians?

Last week I was over at a friends house and was asked about incense. I can't remember the precise question, but I do remember my off the cuff answer: if Jesus was ok with receiving frankincense and myrrh as a birthday gift then I am ok with it too.

More that ok with it in fact, because I just restocked with some frankincense incense sticks today. Not sure if you have ever tried this but I like to burn frankincense as I meditate and pray, as an affirmation of Jesus as messiah. I also like the aroma.

Thinking of this reminds me of an Old Testament incense recipe:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD. (Exodus 30:34-37)

A bit too Old Testament you think? Well here is something newer.  

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. (Revelation 8:1-4)

There, so angels do it too 🙂

Violence in the Old Testament

Some forgotten teachings on violence from the Old Testament.

Genesis 6:11
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.

Job 16:17
yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure.

Psalm 11:5
The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.

Proverbs 10:11
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.

Isaiah 53:9
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Jeremiah 22:3
This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Ezekiel 7:23
Prepare chains, because the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence.

Jonah 3:8
But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

Habakkuk 1:3
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Zephaniah 1:9
On that day I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold, who fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit.

Malachi 2:16
I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment.

Again, this is just a small sample from the Old Testament. But even from this small sample we can see that the living God associates the violence of humanity with corruption, impurity, wickedness, deceit, wrongness, evil, injustice … things which are condemned by God.

Understanding the Old Testament

Old-Testament-Rahab One of the difficulties people sometimes experience with Christianity is understanding how the Old Testament and New Testament relate to one another.

This is nothing new, as far back as the second century there were guys like Marion who struggled with this, teaching that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God, but rather, that the true God had been revealed only with Jesus. But a significant problem with split level approaches like this is that they come at the cost of discounting the fact the Jesus was himself a Jew.

For my own part, the aspect of this problem that I struggled with most in my first year as a disciple was the Old Testament wars, and the book of Joshua in particular. What helped me work through this, to begin to see how the Bible fit together as a whole, was "The Politics of Jesus" by John Howard Yoder. Written in 1972, way before the new perspectives on Paul became blog worthy, "The Politics of Jesus" sits solidly within my personal "most influential books" list. Following are a few samples from the book that I hope may wet your appetite.

In particular I draw attention to chapter 4, "God will fight for us". It starts:

When modern Christians approach the Old Testament with the question of war in mind, our attitude tends to be a legalistic one and the questions we ask tend to generalize. We ask, "Can a Christian who rejects all war reconcile his position with the Old Testament story?" If the generalization that "war is always contrary to the will of God" can be juxtaposed with the wars in the Old Testament, which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed.

This approach hides us from the realization that for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with the modern question in mind.

I think this is a very important point. All too often we can project our expectations anachronistically back onto the Old Testament in a way which does violence to the text and the original intentions of the authors. Yoder challenges us to think contextually as we engage the text.

One of the traits of the Old Testament story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves his people without their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf.

Yoder begins to hint here how it links up with the New Testament gospel and Christian soteriology.

Wars are the outworking of the unwillingness of Israel, especially of the kings, to trust YHWH.

The more Israel came to trust in kings, standing armies and foreign alliances for their national survival, the more the prophets God sent them, to warn them of the consequences of such idolatry and invite Israel to trust in God as the "one who would fight for them".

The crowning example of this theme of Chronicles is chapter 20, recording the response of Jehoshaphat to a massive attack from the neighbouring tribes to the south. The whole population of Judah, led by the prophet Jahaziel, paraded out to meet the enemy, with the temple singers, the Kohathites and the Korahites, groups of Levitical musicians, leading the total people in songs of praise. As the singing procession advanced they discovered that the enemies had come to blows among themselves and destroyed one another before they even got to Judah.

Yoder then moves beyond the exilic period.

It had thus become a part  of the standard devotional ritual of Israel to look over the nation's history as one of miraculous preservation. Sometimes this preservation had included the Israelite's military activity; at other times no weapons were used. In both kinds of case, however, the point was the same: confidence in YHWH is an alternative to the self-determining use of Israel's own military resources in the defense of their existence as God's people.

Our purpose in summarizing this story here is not to seek to reconstruct in just what way whatever happened did happen when YHWH saved Israel, or whether in each case any of the Israelites used weapons or not. Our present concern is rather with what it meant for Jesus and his contemporaries and his disciples to read this kind of story in their Bible.

There is more of course, but hopefully that provokes some thinking.

You see, in this age of fear over religiously motivated violence and rumours of holy war, I feel it is important for Christians to re-examine the wars of YHWH as depicted in the Old Testament with fresh eyes. As we come to realize that the true heir to Israel and agent of God in this generation is the church and not nation-states, Christian or otherwise, and that reliance on military superiority was regarded as idolatry by the prophets of old, the claims of modern day crusaders to be fighting in the tradition of the Old Testament, and under the authority of God, begins to look decidedly shaky.

The truth is the wars of YHWH and the cross of Christ are directly related to one another, they are both about how kings of Israel exercise trust, how holy wars are won, and how kingdoms are established. Both are equally political and our understanding of war, as Christians, should be grounded in both testaments. They are complementary, not contradictory.

  • The Old Testament lays the foundation for the New Testament.
  • The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

If you want to read more, here are some recommendations, and if you purchase them through these links the commission goes to my ministry 🙂