One of the most vexing questions Christians face is what to do about the Law of Moses in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Is it still binding on the people of God or was its burden removed by Christ? Are parts of it still binding – such as moral laws like prohibitions against homosexuality – while other parts have been fulfilled? Is there value to studying it or should we spend our time in New Testament passages?
Attempting to follow the Law will run a Christian into a host of problems. Leviticus 19:19 commands us not to sow a field with two types of seed. If you have a backyard garden with peas, potatoes, and pumpkins you are in violation. The same verse commands us not to wear a garment made up of two kinds of material; polyester and nylon blends that make up much of athletic clothing would be forbidden. Deuteronomy 24:15 would turn the economy upside down since it commands God’s people to pay their employees on the same day they do the work. Should we demand five pay checks a week? Leviticus 15:19-20 indicates a woman in her cycle is unclean and must not be touched for seven days. How would we practice this in our churches? Do we print a bulletin roster of all unclean ladies so we can avoid shaking their hand? The Law also forbids the eating of pigs, shellfish, rabbits, and catfish, though it does allow for the eating of locusts (Lev. 11).
The problems of literally following the Law were illustrated by A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine who attempted to obey all the rules in the Bible, including the laws that command stoning. He writes:
The most commonly mentioned punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone. But how? …I figured my loophole would be this: the Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones. So…pebbles. Here’s the thing, though: Even with pebbles, it is surprisingly hard to stone people…after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on [someone’s] shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history – I said ‘I’m sorry,’ and then leaned down to pick up the pebble.
The problem is further illustrated by a popular clip from the show “West Wing” in which President Bartlett confronts a right-wing talk radio host who uses Leviticus 18:22 to condemn homosexuality. Bartlett says to the host:
I wanted to ask you a couple questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7… what would a good price for her be?… My chief of staff… insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it ok to call the police? Here is one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? …Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, will you?
Now we could answer President Bartlett by pointing out that the slavery laws in Exodus 21:7 prevented the exploitation of poor families, that Leviticus 11:7 forbids touching the carcass (not the skin) so the Redskins can play as long as they’re using a football and not the body of a dead pig, and that planting different crops and wearing garments with different threads are not punishable by death. But this still puts us in the difficult position of having to explain the reasoning behind every law to modern people who cannot begin to fathom the thoughts and lives of people who lived 3,500 years ago. Even though Bartlett’s little speech is riddled with errors, it still exposes the difficulties Christians face when trying to understand and live out the Law of Moses.
Some artificially divide the Law into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws and argue Christ fulfilled the ceremonial laws, the civil laws ended with Israel, and the moral laws are the only ones still binding. The problem is the Law doesn’t separate itself into these categories and many of its laws don’t neatly fit into them. Take Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” Is that a moral, civil, or ceremonial law? Did Christ fulfill it by having a beard? Did God want Israel to be a bearded nation and now, since we don’t live there, we can shave? This solution is helpful, but doesn’t ultimately solve our problem.
Some simply pick and choose what they want to believe in the Bible. They accept the parts they like and agree with and reject the parts they dislike that offend them. This allows them to dismiss the Law and not worry about it. However, this is only crafting a religion to one’s own liking. Christians who believe the Bible to seriously be the Word of God and who desire to follow all of it cannot just dismiss the Law; they must deal with it.
Some claim that in Christ, the Law is fulfilled and done away with so we need not concern ourselves with it. Paul said in Romans 7:6, “But now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” So we are free from the Law, but does it then become irrelevant to Christians? This answer is true but unsatisfying because it turns the books of Genesis – Deuteronomy into a lifeless appendage to the rest of Scripture.
Could there be a better way? I believe there is. If the books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy) are strictly law, why are there 70 chapters of biography before the giving of the Law? If these are simply laws to be follow, why does poetry shape so much of the book? If the purpose of the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) is to teach the Law given with the Sinai covenant, why does Moses look ahead to a new covenant (Deut. 29:1, 30:1-10)? We’ll explore these themes in the next post.