This is the second in the series of what I expect to be occasional posts in considering the role of the OT Law for believers today. In part 1, I started to look at the giving of the Law in the place of redemptive history and the context of Genesis and Exodus. In this post, I briefly overview the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. As is no doubt evident, these thoughts are in progress and I'd welcome comments. I'd also commend popping over to Dave Kirkman's 48 Files, where he is drawing together and analyising a large amount of helpful scholarship.
Leviticus and Numbers: the covenant expounded
In the previous post, I sought to demonstrate that the legal sections of the book of Exodus make sense when they are placed in context of the larger narrative. The same is also true for Leviticus, which also includes a section of Law before the action continues in the narrative in the book of Numbers. Again, I think context is crucial: as Leviticus is issued, Israel is camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. The context of the narrative Exodus and Numbers, which top and tail Leviticus, shows that here the people are being formed into God’s people. As one writer has put it, the book of Exodus is concerned with getting the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the book of Leviticus is concerned with getting Egypt out of Israel. God sets at work to make his people unique. And so in the book of Leviticus, we see God concerned with Israel’s ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ relationships – namely, their relationships with God and with each other.
Accordingly, the first set of Levitical laws prescribes how Israel should relate to God, who is now dwelling amongst his people in the tabernacle. Particularly, the commands here concern sacrificial offerings from the people (1:1-6:7), then instructions for the priesthood (6:8-9:24). A narrative describing the fate of Aaron’s sons, who thought they could relate to God on their own terms (10:1-7) then follows, plus further instruction for the priests (10:8-20). Chapters 11-15 deal with ritual cleanliness – with a view to avoiding what happened to Aaron’s sons. All of these laws are concerned that the people of Israel have a proper sense for what it means for God to be present amongst them. It is about getting their ‘vertical’ relationship in its correct perspective, and builds up towards the Day of Atonement set of rituals in Chapter 16. The Day of Atonement was to be a solemn day of forgiveness that ritually cleansed the people of their sin and purified the tabernacle as a place of worship. Chapters 17-25 inaugurate a new section of Law. The whole section is governed by the refrain from God, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. In response to God, the people of Israel are to love their neighbours as themselves (19:18). ‘Horizontal’ relationships with others are different because of their relationship with God.
The covenantal aspect of the Law in Leviticus, based on what God has already done, is a vitally important feature. But now, God reveals more of his covenant. He promises on his part to bless Israel, in response that they maintain a holy awe and obedience towards him. This can be read about in Leviticus 26:3-12 (cf Exodus 23:22). On the flipside, disobedience and rejection of God’s covenant will now bring curse on his people (see Leviticus 26:14-45). This provides a formal conclusion to the covenant structure that began in Exodus 20.
The book of Numbers also includes some additional laws in chapters 5-6, 15, 18-19 and 28-30. Most of these are further clarification of the laws in the Levitical Code (Leviticus 1-16). Including the Ten Commandments, a total of 613 instructions are given to the people of Israel in the Pentateuch.
Deuteronomy: the fundamental values of the Law
The setting of the book of Deuteronomy is forty years after Exodus. With the first generation all having died out, Israel have reached the border of the Promised Land, Canaan, and are camped on the banks of the River Jordan, just across from Jericho. Now before Israel crosses over the river to take the land, and before his death, Moses undertakes a major renewal of the covenant between the people and God.
In the first three chapters, Moses recaps ‘the story so far’ – what has taken place between Israelite slavery in Egyptian to that point, emphasising the LORD’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of their failures. Fresh commitment to the covenant is demanded. However, Deuteronomy is particularly helpful because more attention is given to the motivation and incentive of keeping the Law on Israel’s part. For this reason, Deuteronomy has historically been (and remains) central within the Jewish faith (see also Matthew 4:1-11).
The primary commitment of the Law is given, following the restating of the Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy 6:1-9:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
These verses show what drives the theological agenda of Deuteronomy – as Gordon Fee puts it, ‘an uncompromising monotheism coupled with an equally deep concern for Israel’s uncompromising loyalty to Yahweh, their God’. This is particular seen in verses 4-5. Known as the ‘Shema’ (Hebrew for ‘hear’), these verses describe God’s uniqueness and became the distinguishing mark of Judaism. The primary commandment of all is that Israel should love Yahweh their God totally. It is these verses that Jesus quoted when questioned regarding the ‘greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37). Deuteronomy 6 develops this theme, with a particular emphasis on Yahweh being the only true God, on his redeeming action to make Israel his people, and on his gracious gift of the land of Canaan.
Verses 5-6 show the synonymy of love for God with obedience to his commandments. In other words, and reiterating what we have already seen, Jewish obedience to the Law was never designed to be legalistic, or the basis of salvation, but rather a proof of a relationship with God, coming from the heart and will of the redeemed. The call for the covenant people is to ‘love God’ in response to what he has done for them, where ‘loving God’ encompassed will, careful intention, emotion and regular discipline from childhood. As Chris Wright writes, ‘without this, the rest of the Law is just miscellaneous instructions with no unifying principle. It is for this reason Jesus called this the first great commandment of the Law, from which all of the rest follows (Matthew 23:37-40).’ Or as Douglas Stuart says, ‘everything is predicated on Yahweh’s love and faithfulness and his actions that flow out of that love and faithfulness.’ This is the key idea that flows throughout the rest of the book of Deuteronomy and its key themes: how Israel are to act in the land of Canaan, that the places of Canaanite idolatrous worship should be destroyed, and the requirement that worship should take place at the tabernacle (and not the places where worship of idols previously took place).
More soon (eventually!)