In the first part of our series we examined the problems Christians face when attempting to understand the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Bible. In the second part, we looked at some false assumptions we bring to the text. In the third part, we explored the message of the first five books of the Bible – known as the Pentateuch. In this final part, we will discover what the specific laws mean to us.
One of the most important things any Christian can do is to read through the entire Bible. If the Bible is what we claim it to be – the Word of God – then failing to read through it as a Christian is either prideful arrogance or sinful laziness. If God has spoken, how can those who claim to love Him fail to devote themselves to knowing, treasuring, and applying what He has said? They simply cannot.
Most Christians would agree. The problem is when we begin to read the Bible we typically start in Genesis. Genesis leads to Exodus and Exodus leads to…well… a lot of complicated legal material that seems terribly irrelevant at some points and scandalously shocking at others. Many sincere Christians have attempted to read through the Bible only to get bogged down in the Mosaic Law and surrender. The excitement of the Exodus is replaced with tedious descriptions of rashes and sores which may or may not be a leprous skin disease. However, we must read and understand the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The rest of the Bible takes its cues from these books. Without the Pentateuch, the words of the prophets, the songs of the psalmists, the life and death of Jesus, the struggles of the church in Acts, and the letters of Paul will not make sense. So how do we read the Mosaic Law without ending up as confused as a husband buying clothes for his wife?
First, we must remember that the laws are part of the story Moses is trying to tell. They are not a randomly included list of do’s and don’ts, but a selection of laws to help the author of the Pentateuch make his bigger point about the importance of faith. The laws work to that end by teaching us how Israel related to God under the Sinai covenant. John Sailhamer says:
The laws give the reader a realistic picture of the nature of Israel’s worship and fellowship with God. The collections of laws give the readers an insider’s view of what God required of Israel. The sacrifices help demonstrate the nature of sin as a barrier to humankind’s relationship with God and what must be done about it. Hence, as can be seen by reading the various collections of laws, the notion of sacrifice and the analogous problem of sin are of central importance to the author.
The laws show us a genuine relationship with God was possible. They show us the holiness of God and the seriousness of approaching Him as sinful humanity. They demonstrate that all of life comes under God’s sovereign rule and His care extends even to the details of the lives of his people.
Second, the laws show us Israel’s falling into sin due to their lack of faith. In Exodus 19:6 God’s desire is for Israel to be a kingdom of priests who would believe in Him. This is a covenant resembling the one God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. But unlike Abraham, the people are afraid of God and lack the faith to approach him (Ex. 20:18-21), so God supplies the Law. Israel goes from a nation of priests to a nation with priests. Then the priests lack faith and fail by creating a golden calf in the absence of Moses (Ex. 32). Therefore God gives the priests the priestly code of laws (Ex. 33-Lev. 16). Then the people lack faith and make sacrifices to goat demons (Lev. 17:7). Therefore God gives the people the holiness code (Lev. 17-26).
As Israel’s faith fails and they fall into sin, God adds Law. This is why Paul says in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions…” The Law prevented Israel’s lack of faith from dissolving the nation into the sin of the cultures around them. However, the Law is unable to completely make up for their lack of faith (Num. 14) and the entire generation of Israelites – save two – perishes in the wilderness.
Finally, the Law demonstrates the justice of God. The individual laws are not meant to be read as instructions for all people in all times and in all places. Rather, they are the application of the justice of God to the specific situations found in Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. The lives of the ancients to whom the Law was given are so far removed from our own it is impossible to determine everything God intended to accomplish by giving these specific laws. Sailhamer explains:
…the laws in the Pentateuch show what divine justice looked like in actual situations…the goal was to allow the narrative context to disclose an insight into the way God sees our tangled lives. The laws do not answer the question “What should we do in cases like this?” but rather the question “What did God think about specific cases like these and how, or what, can we learn about justice from him?”
We are better able to apply God’s justice to our own circumstances as we understand how it was once applied to the nation of Israel. This may be why the blessed man of Psalm 1 is the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” As we meditate on the Law we become more aware of the character and holiness of God, our own sinfulness, and our need for His mercy and grace.
All Christians need to read their Bibles, but they don’t all have to get stuck in Leviticus. When we understand the place of the Law in Moses’ whole message about faith, the depth of Israel’s sinful failure to believe, and God’s character and justice as shown in the Law, the first five books of the Bible will take on new life for us. It will leave us longing for a new covenant of faith (Deut. 30:6) and the Prophet King who will change everything (Num. 24:7, Deut. 34:10, Gal. 3:19). When we begin to read and understand the Law this way, we may even find ourselves loving some Leviticus.
I want to be sure and give credit where credit is due! Most of my thoughts about this series have been formed through careful interaction with the Pentateuch itself and three books:
Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation. Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2009
Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992.
Meyer, Jason C. The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology. B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2009.