In my Biblical Thought course today, I taught on the meaning of the Law (Torah = teaching or guidance from God.) We distinguish between the Moral Law of the Ten Commandments (which reflect the character and values of God) and the Civil and Ceremonial Law in the 5 books of Moses.
Our tendency is to ignore or pass over the laws in Leviticus and other books as irrelevant or hard to understand. I want to recommend a wonderful article I shared today by Christopher Wright from a recent issue of Christianity Today called, Learning to Love Leviticus. Here is an excerpt. I encourage you to read the whole article. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read on principles for interpreting this part of the Old Testament.
Before we get the Ten Commandments, we get the story of Creation, the brokenness of our sin and rebellion, and the wonder of God’s redemption, displayed in the Exodus of the Israelites. So the law was given to a people who not only knew that story, and knew the God who stands behind it, but who had lived it as well. God gave his law to people who had already experienced his grace, his love and faithfulness, his great act of salvation. Obeying the law was never a way to earn God’s salvation, but the right way for redeemed people to respond to God’s salvation when they had experienced it (Ex. 19:3–6; Deut. 6:20–25).
And God gave Israel his law in order to shape them into a society that would reflect God’s character and values in the midst of the nations—what we might call a missional motivation (Lev. 18:3–4; Deut. 4:6–8). The Israelites were to be distinctive by living in God’s way, the ways of personal integrity, economic and social justice, and community compassion. The law was not a set of arbitrary rules to keep God happy. It was a way of life, a way of being human, a culture in a particular time and place, to show what a redeemed people under God looks like.
To imagine that “living biblically” means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God’s grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.
The best way to derive principles from the Old Testament law is to ask questions. All laws in all human societies are made for a purpose. Laws happen because people want to change society, to achieve some social goal, to foster certain interests, or to prevent some social evil. So when we look at any particular law or group of biblical laws, we can ask, “What could be the purpose behind this law?” To be more specific:
● What kind of situation was this law intended to promote or to prevent?
● What change in society would this law achieve if it were followed?
● What kind of situation made this law necessary or desirable?
● What kind of person would benefit from this law, by assistance or protection?
● What kind of person would be restrained or restricted by this law, and why?
● What values are given priority in this law? Whose needs or rights are upheld?
● In what way does this law reflect what we know from elsewhere in the Bible about the character of God and his plans for human life?
● What principle or principles does this law embody…?
Now we won’t always be able to answer these questions with much detail or insight. Some laws are just plain puzzling. But asking questions like these leads us to a much broader and deeper grasp of what Old Testament laws were all about: forming the kind of society God wanted to create.
Then, having done that homework as best we can, we step out of the Old Testament world and back into our own. Ask the same kind of questions about the society we live in and the kind of people we need to be, and the kind of personal and societal objectives we need to aim for in order to be in any sense “biblical.”
In this way, biblical law can function sharply as a paradigm or model for our personal and social ethics in all kinds of areas: economic, familial, political, judicial, sexual, and so on. We are not “keeping it” in a literalist way like a list of rules. But more important, we are not ignoring it in defiance of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. We are studying and using it as guidance, light for the path, in the joyful way of Psalms 1, 19, and 119. READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE.