The Mosaic Law is a hugely important topic in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Law was a key part of the life of the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, many of the books are concerned with how the Law relates to the gospel. Over the next few weeks, I plan to try and draw together a Biblical synthesis of the Law, and then to think about how this impacts the way in which a Christian reads the Law, and lives and has a relationship with God today. Some of these thoughts are rather undeveloped, and so I'd value any comments.
What is the Law?
The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is what Chris Wright calls ‘the foundation block of the rest of the Bible.’ It sets the stage for the biblical worldview on which the rest of the unfolding drama of redemptive history takes place. Whilst the Pentateuch is sometimes referred to as simply ‘the Law’, this is somewhat misleading, as the Pentateuch contains nearly as much narrative action as laws. In fact, there are almost seventy chapters of activity before the Ten Commandments are issued by God to Israel. As we shall see, this historical element provided by the narrative is very important in giving the Bible reader proper perspective on the Mosaic Law (by which, I mean the body of commands given to Israel in the Pentateuch) itself. Above all, it is important to remember that the Law is not just an isolated, arbitrary statute book, but part of a much broader story of God and his dealings with his people in the midst of the nations of the earth.
Many contemporary studies of the Law do so from either a purely Old Testament or purely New Testament (primarily Pauline) perspective. This is an error. The Bible is a story with development and change, and is properly understood as being ‘salvation history’ or ‘progressive revelation’. Unfortunately, the importance of salvation history in seeing the nature of the Law can be sometimes missed. In this first post in the series, then, I will seek to form a biblical theology on the place of the Law, starting in the Pentateuch itself, in Genesis and Exodus.
Genesis: the context of Israel’s calling
The theological-history of Genesis 1-11 presents the story of creation, the fall, and the spread of sin, which climaxes in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. There we find the human race scattered and divided because of their arrogant attempt to together build themselves up to heaven and make themselves ‘god’. The effects of sin are global in proportion. It is, at this point, that God launches his project to save the world, answering the problems set by Genesis 1-11. God makes his covenant with Abraham, recorded in Genesis 12:1-3:
The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
Here, as Vaughan Roberts puts it, “God declares his intention to bring back the scattered people of the world and to bless them once more.” In other words, we see that God’s purpose is still to redeem all mankind, just as sin had brought disaster and division on all mankind. In the Old Testament, Israel – the people made up of Abraham’s descendents – was the chosen vehicle of that missionary purpose. They were a particular people with specific promises, but through them God had a universal missionary intention.
Exodus: the giving of the Law
One of the defining moments of Old Testament history is the exodus. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is repeatedly reminded that ‘the LORD brought you out of Egypt’ (see, for instance, Deuteronomy 7:8). The LORD's initiative is highlighted by the narrative in Exodus: firstly, God ‘adopts’ Israel as his firstborn, who will be set free ‘so that he may worship me’ (Exodus 4:22-23, see also 3:12). His miraculous intervention on Israel’s behalf over Pharaoh and all of the false gods that he represents are also emphasised by the narrative.
By the time we reach Exodus 19, following the Passover and exodus, the people have at last reached Sinai to worship the LORD, just as he had promised they would (Exodus 3:12). Here the people of Israel see a spectacular visible and visible manifestation of the God who saved them (Exodus 19:2), presenting something of what was lost by humans in Genesis 3. Then, before he does anything else, in Exodus 19:3-6, the LORD gives his people a very clear statement of their identity and purpose:
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."
Only then is Israel issued with the Law. The thrust of this passage is clear: obedience to the LORD and to his Law is essential – not in order for Israel to be redeemed, as this had already happened (verse 4), but in order for them to be who the LORD wanted them to be amongst the nations. The people of Israel are to act in the way described in the promises with Abraham. They are called to ‘live out’ their identity, the reason for which they were redeemed. They are called to be a ‘priesthood’ – a theme that will be developed later – in other words, the people of Israel are to ‘interface’ between the LORD and other peoples. They are also to be a ‘holy nation’ – to be a community that is set apart and recognisably distinctive from the other nations around them. The LORD's heart for the nations transfers itself to the envisaged distinction for the people of Israel. It is the latest step in the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham, the ‘father’ of Israel, whereby his descendents are ‘blessing the peoples.’
It is crucial that the Law is issued within this context. Israel has been set apart and blessed as ‘firstborn son’, ‘kingdom of priests’ and ‘holy nation’. The Law is given them to help them to fulfil this calling. And so the Ten Commandments are issued, in Exodus 20. This is followed by the Book of the Covenant (in chapters 21-24). Many commentators point out the order in which the instructions are issued: firstly, the people’s fundamental (‘vertical’) responsibilities to God are addressed (Exodus 20:3-11 and then 20:22-26); followed by the people’s ‘horizontal’ responsibilities to each other (20:12-17, and then chapters 21-24).
The Book of the Covenant (chapters 21-24) gives specific instructions, and is probably there to show what the Ten Commandments mean in practice. Each of the commandments is reflected in more detailed by the commands that follow. These instructions mainly cover various aspects of societal living – including the treatment of slaves (standing in stark contrast to how Israel was treated in Egypt), compensation and penalties for injuries, property, law, rape, fairness in dealings with others, and in worship. The Law reflects God’s priorities, which ran contrary to the values of the contemporary world around Israel at the time (illustrated by the narrative covering the period that Israel spent in Egypt).
The driving point of the book of Exodus is to narrate the matters that define Israel as a people in relationship to their God, the LORD. As well as God’s Presence continuing with the people (particularly highlighted by the long ‘tabernacle’ section in the second half of Exodus), Israel are defined by God as a redeemed people who live in the light of the revelation that they have received from him. The Law is prescribed as the way in which to do just this. Redemption (salvation) by works was never part of the Mosaic covenant. As Graeme Goldsworthy puts it, ‘When God gave his covenant stipulations at Sinai, he addressed Israel as his people. It is clear that this Law of Moses is not a program of works for salvation. Salvation is of grace, and the covenant of Sinai was given, not so that Israel might be saved, but because she was saved. The Law is thus a manifesto for the people of the kingdom.’
The later narrative in Exodus can also be placed within this framework. Within forty days, the people have already broken their covenant promise to God and made themselves a likeness of God – the golden calf (Exodus 32:8) – thus breaking the second commandment. Moses prays for the people and the LORD withholds his destruction (32:11–14). When Moses comes back down to the camp (32:19), he smashes the two tables of the covenant to show how the people have broken the covenant. The sons of Levi slaughter three thousand men (32:28) and the LORD sends a plague (32:35), but the nation as a whole is spared through Moses' prayer.
The covenant had been broken by Israel before it was even completed. If the covenant were based on works or on strict justice alone Israel would have already forfeited. But the covenant is based on grace. We see this as God renews his covenant to fallen Israel. So in Exodus 34:1, God tells Moses to make a new set of stone tables and to come up again. In 34:6–7, God reveals himself – and his character – as the basis of the renewed covenant with Israel:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
And so, in Exodus 34:27–28 God concludes this last meeting on Mount Sinai like this:
Then the LORD said to Moses: "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.” The covenant has been made again.’
After this, work is allowed to begin on the tabernacle, the symbolic dwelling place of God’s Presence amongst his people. And so we see that, even in the Mosaic covenant, a major emphasis is on God’s promise to be merciful and gracious and to forgive iniquity and transgression and sin so that he can have relationship with his people. God will treat Israel with mercy and grace and will forgive her sins. Israel’s required response is to keep the covenant. Israel will receive and experience blessing from God, including forgiveness of sin, as Exodus 19:5 says, "if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant."
The narrative in Exodus shows that the condition of blessing is not sinless perfection or legalistic law keeping. The Mosaic covenant does not teach that if you commit a sin, that covenant blessings are forfeited. When Exodus 19:5 says that Israel must "obey God's voice and keep God's covenant," it does not mean earning blessing by works. Rather, Israel is called to ‘obey God’s voice’ – to keep themselves in an attitude of obedience, where they seek to keep his covenant, aware of their need for the LORD's ongoing grace and mercy and forgiveness.
More to follow soon.