This is the third in a five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Part 3: Law
Over the past two weeks, I’ve discussed two things in the Bible that most people find boring: genealogies and descriptions of ritual spaces. I hope I’ve shown convincingly that texts like these in the Scriptures are worthwhile to read, even if they don’t spark much excitement. Today, I’d like to consider another type of material which you’ve surely encountered in the Bible: laws.
Most of what we usually consider the laws in the Bible are found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and a few in Numbers. It’s no coincidence that Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which are almost entirely collections of laws, are two of the most challenging books of the Bible. And yet, as is true for the other material we’ve discussed so far, the laws are clearly important to the biblical writers. Not only do laws occupy much of the first five books of the Bible—known in Judaism as the Torah, or the Law—other biblical books also regard the laws of the Lord very highly. The Psalms are a great example. The book of Psalms begins with the words, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). The longest Psalm, Psalm 119 (176 verses long!) is an extended meditation on God’s law. And it’s not just the Psalms. The historical books from Joshua through 2 Kings evaluate the Israelites and their kings with respect to the way they keep—or don’t keep—God’s laws, especially those in Deuteronomy. And in the New Testament, even as Jesus gives his followers a new vision for life together, he maintains that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Even Paul, who maintains that we are not justified by keeping the law, does not merely lay aside the law, but reinscribes it within a new understanding of justification by faith.
Given the important role that the laws play throughout the Bible, how can we appreciate them as modern readers? It’s true that many of the laws in the Old Testament are no longer applicable to Christians today. I’m thinking especially of regulations regarding slavery and the laws governing sacrifices, among many others. What can we stand to gain from reading and understanding the laws and making them a key part of our encounter with Scripture?
Earlier Christian theologians identified various types of laws within the Old Testament, corresponding to civil laws, ritual laws, and moral laws. Examples of civil law might be laws about slavery, or those governing family inheritance (e.g., Exodus 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Examples of ritual law would be those about priestly service in the Tabernacle, or those about religious festivals such as Passover (e.g., Exodus 12). Examples of moral law would be regulations that are universal, such as “You shall not kill” and the rest of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Of these three types, the moral laws are the most enduring and significant for Christians in all ages. They show us how to live a moral life. These distinctions among the possible types of law can help us read the laws in the Old Testament with a deeper appreciation of their significance for the ancient Israelites and for us. They can help us better make sense of what we find in the laws and envision the way these laws can and should influence our lives today.
It’s important to recognize that these categories are later distinctions, and they weren’t made by the biblical writers themselves. For them, all of it was just the Law, and all of it was equally important. So we must take these categories with a grain of salt, and recognize that they are useful interpretive devices for us rather than something that’s inherent in the text. Furthermore, it can be difficult to determine which of these three categories a law might fall into. Care and discernment must be exercised, along with a healthy dose of humility. Where would we place the commandment to keep Sabbath, for instance? A case could be made for any of the categories, or “all of the above.” If we say too quickly that it has to do with ritual, we will miss the important moral implications of resting every seventh day to shape our lives in harmony with God’s creation.
It’s also good to recognize that determining a given law was “civil” or “ritual” does not mean these laws are invalid; we still need to pay attention to them. It just means that we may need to approach these laws differently than something that seems clearly to be moral and universal in nature. In other words, all of the laws can teach us something about God’s will for our lives and our Christian communities. Deciding whether a given law is best described as civil, ritual, or moral can help us discover what that “something” is.
Finally, the Law as a whole is important to read for another reason. As the examples from Jesus and Paul above indicate, the Law occupies a pivotal place within the larger biblical story. The giving of the Law on Mount Sinai was a crucial event for the people of Israel, shaping them as God’s people after their liberation from Egypt and before they entered the Promised Land. So much of what happens in the New Testament, from the Sermon on the Mount to the Last Supper to the Crucifixion to Paul’s letters to the book of Revelation, simply cannot be appreciated fully apart from the Law. Reading the laws and familiarizing ourselves with them form for us a foundation upon which to build a greater understanding of the whole Bible.
Reading the laws, then, can be understood as working on the foundation of our faith formation. We likely won’t recognize their influence in our lives right away. Instead, by reading them and taking them in on a regular basis, we will find that they shape our worldview over the long haul. We’ll find the rest of the Bible to be richer as a result of a regular and sustained reading of the laws which occupy a place of such importance.