In our last post, we tackled problems Christians face in trying to understand and apply the Law of Moses as found in the books of Genesis – Deuteronomy. In this post, we’ll unearth a faulty assumption many of us carry.
First, let me share an important fact that will guide us. The first five books of the Bible are one book. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are not five books which happen to be placed side-by-side but are in fact one book beginning in Genesis 1:1 and ending in Deuteronomy 34:12. They are commonly called the “Pentateuch” – which means five-fold book or a book in five parts. Moses is the author of the Pentateuch and meant it to be read as a whole. In our attempt to understand what the Mosaic Law means to Christians we will consider the entire Pentateuch and not just the Laws recorded in the middle of it.
An assumption many Christians share is that the Law of Moses recorded in the Pentateuch is meant to be obeyed by the reader of the Pentateuch. When Leviticus 19:28 commands, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the Lord” we assume Moses was telling the reader not to go down to D Money’s Tattoo Parlor and get a dragon etched on their bicep. But is that what Moses was saying by including this law? A strange thing happens when we read the Pentateuch which is full of commands; we make arbitrary assumptions about which ones God gave to the characters in the story and which ones He gave to us. Even the strictest biblical literalists among us make judgments about which commands apply and which ones don’t.
God commanded Noah to build an ark (Gen. 6:14). Should I go to the Home Depot and start building my own?
God commanded Abraham to pack up his house and go to the land He would show him (Gen. 12:1). Should I sell the house, buy a Winnebago and drive until I feel led by God to settle down?
Most of you are probably ready to protest: of course we don’t follow those commands! They were given by God to specific people in a story! Exactly. We find the same thing in the Law of Moses. The Laws are a set of commands handed down by God – a specific character in the story – to the people of Israel who are a specific people in the story. In other words, the commands are not meant to tell us what to do but to teach us how Israel was to live under the Law. They were not given to us; they were given to the people of Israel in the wilderness. They were given for us; that we might learn from what God did with Israel after the Exodus. The laws are part of the unfolding drama of the Pentateuch which Moses included to teach us something. Dr. Robert Cole explains it this way:
“Each individual command to men is to be interpreted in light of the message of the entire work, not as injunctions to be obeyed to the letter at that instant by the reader. We could say that the [Pentateuch] is not a legal code but rather a narrative or drama that includes within it selections from a law code.”
This idea that Moses included the Law in the Pentateuch not to tell the reader what to do but to teach the reader about God’s covenant with Israel is scary at first. We live in a time when the authority of the Bible is under attack. Pastors, scholars, and whole denominations are reworking the text of the Bible to accommodate every cultural trend. To say part of the Bible, even the Mosaic Law, wasn’t written to command us but as part of a larger story to teach us seems to undermine its authority – unless that’s the way Moses meant it to be read. Christians have been so caught up in arguing over the authority, accuracy, and truthfulness of the Pentateuch they forgot to think about what it was actually saying. O.M.T. O’Donovan put it like this:
If, as I walk down the street, somebody in a blue coat says, ‘Stop!’, I shall have to ask, first, ‘Is he speaking to me?’ – the question of claim – and, then, ‘Is he a policeman?’ – the question of authority. And so it is with the commands of the Old Testament: we must ask, ‘Do they purport to include people like us in their scope?’ – the question of claim – and, ‘If so, ought we to heed them?’ – the question of authority. In the patristic church…the question of authority was not really open to discussion; Old Testament commands were evaluated entirely in terms of their claim. Our own age, conversely, has been so dominated with the question of authority that the question of claim has been obscured and forgotten.
We automatically assume Moses wrote the Pentateuch to tell his readers to obey the Law when he actually intended to use the Law in his unfolding drama to teach us something much greater.
In Exodus 20:24-25, the Law says an altar is to be made of earth or stones and can be set up in any location. In Exodus 27:1-8 the Law says an altar is to be made of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze and only placed in the tabernacle. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch as a law code for the reader to obey, why would it have conflicting laws? Did he want to confuse the reader? Did he fail to proofread his final draft? Moses wasn’t a confusing or lazy writer. Rather, he selected laws – from larger law codes – as examples to teach his readers about God’s covenant with Israel and life under the Law. The Law was for Israel in the wilderness, the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is for all of God’s people for all time.
In the next post, we’ll look at the unfolding drama of the Pentateuch, the place of the Mosaic Law in that drama, and the message Moses wrote into its pages.