- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Narrative
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Law
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Poetry
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Wisdom Literature
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Prophecy
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: The Gospels & Acts
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: The Letters
- Tips for Reading Bible Genres: Revelation
The Old Testament Law can be a very difficult section of Scripture for modern readers. For one thing, it’s tedious (a less friendly word would be boring). Commands are often listed one after another for chapters at a time. And seriously, how long can you stay focused when reading about the many ways one’s ox can harm another’s family or property and the repercussions thereof?
But the Law is hugely significant. It runs from Exodus 20 through the book of Numbers. Then it gets recapped in Deuteronomy. So not only does it get a lot of Old Testament ink, it also sets the framework for the rest of the Old Testament. When Israel obeys the Law, they are blessed. When they disobey, they are cursed and sent into exile. So to understand the Old Testament you have to understand the Law. And to understand the significance of what Jesus did, you have to understand the Law.
Here are some tips, then, for reading Old Testament legal passages:
1. Acknowledge the historical & covenantal setting.
The Law was given in the context of the covenant that God gave to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. In this historical setting, God was coming to dwell with his people, first in the tabernacle, then later in the temple. Guidelines had to be established for how a holy God would live with a sinful people. How would Israel’s sin be dealt with? How would God’s holiness be kept at the forefront of Israel’s mind? These kinds of practical problems—arising from God dwelling with human beings—are addressed through the Law.
So when we read the Law, we’re not reading commands that are given directly to us. We’re reading a contract signed by God and ancient Israel. When he came to earth, Jesus was clear that he wasn’t simply brushing the Law aside: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). But this is not the same thing as saying “I have come to leave the Law exactly as it is.”
There is debate over precisely how the Law relates to New Testament Christians, but in my view, Jesus took the whole Law, rolled it up like one big prophecy pointing to himself, and then fulfilled it. So now Hebrews tells us that Jesus has instituted a new covenant and thereby made the old covenant “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13), which involves a change in priesthood and a change in the law (7:12). So the Law retains its value, but we do not read the Law as commands to govern our daily lives.
2. Identify which type of law is being described.
Once we acknowledge the historical and covenantal setting of the Law in general, we can analyze the specific laws we’re reading. Some laws are given as universals that appear to apply across the board: “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Others give more specific case laws. For example, Exodus 21:21–36 gives means for restitution when your ox gets out of hand. This seems to be more of a case study, which would give a judge a sort of legal precedent to use in making rulings.
It’s easy to learn something from the absolute laws. We read Exodus 20:13 and affirm that we serve a God who values human life. But the case laws are a little trickier to pull principles out of. That’s okay. You don’t need to reach new heights in your spiritual life with each of the 600+ laws in the Old Testament. Try to understand what you can, and don’t get caught up on the rest. When you get stuck, there are always study Bibles and commentaries to help.
3. Picture what a society governed by these laws would look like.
If a nation kept all of these laws perfectly, what would it look like? How would it function with regard to the rest of the world? How would it contrast with the nations around it?
Take Leviticus 19:9–10 as an example. God tells Israel that when they harvest their grain, they shouldn’t harvest right up to the edge of their field, but they should instead leave some for the poor to come and gather. So a society governed by this law has a built-in mechanism for caring for the poor, not as a state sponsored program, but through each person sharing with the poor of the land. Or look again at the ox-goring passages. A society that followed these laws would have incentive for maintaining responsibility for one’s animals and a set means for making things right when they went wrong.
Picturing the way that this type of society would function is an important part of understanding what these laws are getting at.
4. Imagine what it would feel like to live under these laws and meditate on how these laws are fulfilled in Jesus.
What would it be like to constantly make the kinds of sacrifices you’re reading about? How would it feel to always keep—or strive to keep—the laws that keep stacking up? What would be on your mind as you made these sacrifices and broke these laws? And then, think about what it means that Jesus “fulfilled” the Law. This can actually be a rich form of appreciating what Jesus has done on your behalf.