A New Guide to Old Testament – Reading Old Testament Laws

A New Guide to the Old TestamentFor many readers of the Bible, the Old Testament laws are some of the most challenging and controversial passages to read and interpret. They are often used by skeptics and atheists to show the absurdity of believing the Bible. Author A.J. Jacobs capitalized on this view by trying to obey every Old Testament law—all 613 of them—in one year. His resulting memoir, The Year of Living Biblically, describes how silly many of these laws seem in our culture today.

Hopefully throughout our journey through the Old Testament we have seen the importance of reading the Old Testament. But what to do with these laws? How should we, as Christians who still recognize that the Old Testament is Scripture, read the Old Testament laws?

What Laws?

When we talk about the Old Testament laws, we are primarily talking about the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books, along with Genesis, form the first five books of the Bible, which we commonly call the Pentateuch. We also call them the Torah, which is the Hebrew word for law.

If you have ever read through these books, you know that they are filled with laws, laws that are detailed, bloody, and seem somewhat bizarre to us today. My guess is that most people who stop their yearly Bible reading plan do so because they get bogged down in Leviticus!

If you haven’t managed to make it through the entire Pentateuch, here’s a recap of what is found in each book:

  • Exodus – Filled with narrative, this book describes God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. By Exodus 19, Israel finds its way to Sinai, where they meet with God. The rest of the book includes the Ten Commandments and the building of the Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus – A bloody book from the start, Leviticus begins by describing the different types of animal sacrifices required from the Israelites. Other highlights include guidelines for dealing with discharges, serious crimes, and holy festivals and days. Many of the instructions are geared toward the Levitical priests, who are charged with keeping the camp holy and obedient. Narratives in this book describe the choosing and, later, punishment of priests.
  • Numbers – The storyline of this book moves the Israelites from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land — twice! Interspersed between the narratives are further rules and regulations for the nation to follow. By the end of Numbers, the generation from Egypt has passed away, leaving a new generation at the edge of the Promised Land, preparing to enter.
  • Deuteronomy – On the plains of Moab, Moses gives a retelling of the law to the new generation. He reminds them of where they have come from, what they have pledged to do before God, and what God promises to do for them. For the Israelites gathered, it was a chance for them to recommit themselves to God, before they crossed the river and entered the Promised Land He was giving them.
Laws or Stories of Laws?

Each of these books is not a legal document, but rather a narrative; they are stories. Sure, there are large sections filled with laws and regulations, but they are interspersed with select narratives, often there to highlight the seriousness of sin and disobedience. As my seminary professor wrote, even the book of Leviticus is narrative, telling the “story of God’s instruction for Israel delivered to Moses from the tent of meeting.”1

What Was Their Purpose?

For the Israelites living in Old Testament times, the laws (Torah) had several purposes, shaping every part of their lives.

Covenantal Relationship

Primarily, the laws are a core part of the covenantal relationship between Israel and God. After the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel went to Sinai, where they entered into a covenantal relationship with the God who rescued them. As Fee and Stuart write in their brilliant book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Torah was an accord:

“[The Law] functioned as a way of establishing loyalty between God and his people. The Law simply represented the terms of the agreement of loyalty that Israel had with God.”2

God is King

The laws also identify God as sovereign king over His people. While their may be leaders, judges, and eventually kings over the people, at Sinai God is established as ultimate ruler.

Much work has been done to note how similar portions of the Pentateuch, reflect ancient Near Eastern legal codes. One in particular—the Hittite suzerian-vassal treaty—shares a similar structure to the book of Deuteronomy. In the Hittite culture, this was a treaty made between a feudal lord (or suzerian) and his subject. In the context of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is showing another covenant, not between a human lord and subject, but between Yahweh and His people.

Combat Sin and Chaos

Finally, torah reminded Israel of Genesis 1–3, and the effects of sin on God’s good creation. The cleanliness laws, the regulations surrounding the priests and tent of meeting, and the guidelines for animal sacrifices are all so that sinful humans can worship a holy God. They provide a sense of restored order in a chaotic and fallen world. As one scholar remarks,

“Law is a means by which the divine ordering of chaos at the cosmic level is actualized in the social sphere.”3

Should We Obey Them?

This question of how the Old Testament laws apply to followers of Christ is on the mind of several New Testament authors, as well as the apostles. In Acts 15, Luke describes the Jerusalem Council, where the apostles gathered to discuss how Jewish should the new gentile believers look. And throughout the writings of Paul, he is dealing with how gentile believers should handle the Old Testament laws.

The conclusion formed by the apostles in the New Testament is that Jesus changes things, including how we view the Torah. For Christians, the Old Testament laws point to the need for a savior; they are markers pointing the way to Jesus. And now that Jesus has come and instituted the New Covenant, the old ways are no longer necessary. N.T. Wright describes the Torah as like an alarm clock, and “to go on looking at the alarm clock to see whether it is morning yet when the risen sun is flooding the bedroom with golden light is perverse.”4

It is true that some parts of the Law—like most of the Ten Commandments—are mentioned in Paul’s writings; but they are redefined in New Covenant terms. As Paul writes in Romans 13:9–10:

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

How Should We Read Them?

There is immense value in reading the Torah as 21st-century Christians. Here are a few ways you can read the Old Testament laws in light of Jesus and the New Testament.

First, recognize that these laws are as part of God’s Story. The old covenant serves an important part of God’s redemptive story, a foundation for the climax of Jesus Christ. We remember and celebrate the earlier parts of the story, but we do not relive them.

Second, as you read the myriad laws, remind yourself of the impossibility of earning God’s favor. Just remembering all the different regulations for staying ceremonially clean is exhausting; imagine following all those laws every day! When reading the Old Testament laws, my first thought is to be thankful for the grace and mercy of God in my life, because I know I couldn’t do it on my own!

Third, the Old Testament laws highlight the grace and mercy of God. Sure, to our 21st-century eyes the laws may seem bizarre, and the punishments severe. But, remember that this is still God’s covenant with Israel, His treasured possession. The laws given at Sinai were received by people who had just been rescued by God from slavery in Egypt.

  1. Gary Schnittjer, The Torah Story, p. 292. 

  2. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 170. 

  3. Terrance Fretheim, quoted in Schnittjer, The Torah Story, p. 253. 

  4. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 158. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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