Monday, 19 November 2007

What is the place of the OT Law for Christians today? (3)

Here's the third post in what I expect to be a series of many in working out what the role of the OT Law is for Christian believers today (Part 1 and Part 2 are older posts where I looked at the place of the Law in the unfolding Biblical story). Now before moving on, I want to dwell a bit further on the place of sacrifice in the Law. I think that perhaps this is the most underplayed theme in much of the writing about the Law.

As we saw in the section on Leviticus, the purpose of the sacrificial system as a whole was to enable people of Israel to maintain the relationship with the LORD that had already been established through the exodus and his covenant with them at Sinai. The sacrificial system was itself a form of grace – it provided a way of ritually cleansing the people from the sins that defiled them, thus enabling them to continue in covenant fellowship with God and each other.

The burnt offering, described in Leviticus 1, is of particular note. This is dedicated entirely to God and burned entirely for atonement for sin. It is entirely consumed by fire. The established principle is this: if you are to live in fellowship with the Lord, something must die in your place in atonement for sin. The four sacrifices that follow, described in Leviticus 2-5, have different but overlapping significance, and together with the Day of Atonement ritual (of chapter 14) synthesise a way in which Israel could be forgiven having transgressed the covenant with God in different ways.

This shows the place of grace from the LORD within the Mosaic Law. The sacrificial system clearly acknowledges the inevitability of human failure, yet sets such failure in the context of the much greater fact of God’s forgiveness and his ongoing mission to ‘bless the nations’ through the people of Israel. God never forgot that his people were human. He did not expect perfection from his people – rather I think the sacrificial system showed that he expected a commitment from his people to love him and each other in response to the grace that they had been shown and the rescue that had been performed. When they transgressed, they were to rely fully on the LORD's ongoing grace, shown in their commitment to the sacrificial system and the provision of grace that this represented.

When we hold such convictions about the place of the Law for Israel in the Old Testament, I think that this makes sense of many of the psalms that describe Israel’s relationship to God. For instance, Psalm 106 describes in detail the ways in which Israel had rebelled against the covenant God had made with them. Israel had failed both in the time of the psalm-writer (verse 6), and had failed here on numerous occasions throughout the history of the nation (verses 7, 13, 19-21, 24-25 etc.). The psalm also speaks of the punishment that Israel incurred for this rebellion (verses 15, 17, 26-27 etc.) Yet the psalm begins and ends – perhaps surprisingly to modern Christian readers – with the refrain ‘Praise the LORD’ in verses 1 and 48. The final verses of the psalm are of particular attention, following the long section about Israel’s ongoing rebellion:

44 But he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
45 for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
46 He caused them to be pitied
by all who held them captive.
47 Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
48 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, "Amen!"
Praise the LORD.

These verses unlock the rest of the psalm. The psalm is not primarily about Israel’s sin, or even the LORD's punishment of that sin, but rather it concerns the LORD's amazingly patient grace shown to his people in the light of that sin. The Old Testament is full of accounts of Israel’s sin, stupidity, grumbling and rebellion (a mirror of all humanity). Yet, in spite of this, God shows his incredible patience in preserving them, providing for them and maintaining his covenant. The sacrificial system was a visual and God-given reminder of his gracious provision in the light of ongoing and desperate human failure.

This brings us to a question which the Law apparently leaves unanswered. How could so much grace be shown by God under this covenant? In other words, how can a God, who frequently has pointed to his own holiness and righteousness, appear to just simply forgive sin? How can a fair judge let guilty people walk free? Even with the institution of the sacrificial system, Israel would have surely known that the sacrifices of bulls and goats were no just satisfaction for their sin. The answer lies in a future intervention by God, and becomes increasingly clear through the witness of the prophets. Perhaps Isaiah saw it most clearly when he wrote:

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
[Isaiah 53:4-6]

Even in the Old Testament, then, under the old covenant, the question of quite how a just God could be so gracious and so freely forgive is pervasive. Isaiah and the other prophets presumably understood that there could have been no covenant with Abraham and no covenant with Moses without God’s further future intervention. Perhaps, then, Israel’s worship would have had a future-oriented element to it, which is something that we seem to see reflected in many of the psalms.

Would love to hear your thoughts on all this - more soon as we look at the place of the Law for OT believers and the prophets' description of the covenant.


Dave K said...

You're certainly making me think Peter. I apologise in advance for the disjointed nature of this comment. I haven't got time to edit it I'm afraid.

I definitely agree that sacrifice is an underplayed theme in most Christian discussions of the Law as most people tend to only think of the 'moral law' when thinking of the Law.

Having said that I'm not entirely sure what you do with that observation. You seem to suggest that Israelites under the Law were not demanded to obey the whole Law, just to be committed to him and trust in the sacrifices... that's probably an unfair characterisation as you say 'expected' rather than 'demanded' and 'expected' could mean something different to 'demanded'. In addition you do not say they should 'trust the sacrifices' but you say they should trust 'the provision of grace that [they] represented'. But even if I'm reading you a little wrongly I am wondering again about points 2 and 3 in my first comment on this series. Namely, your presentation of OT theology looks a lot like 'covenantal nomism', but what does that mean for your treatment of Paul; and secondly, is God graciously forgiving through the Law, or by acting outside it.

On that second point your discussion of Psalm 106 was interesting. I recently read Scott Hafemann argue that in the Bible (except for occasionally in Paul) there is only ever talk of ONE covenant, i.e. not a Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic one. However, in light of your post I started thinking about where in the OT you hear prayers to God to remember the Mosaic covenant or an equivalent. Indeed when you flick through the bible without exception it seems that it is people who are called to remember the Mosaic covenant by God, and yet God is called to remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Zion, or the individual himself never the Law. Illuminating in this respect is Ex 32 which you discussed in your first post. When Israel build the Golden Calf Moses appeals to God to "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self" (v.13) and God relents - but the tablets, the Mosaic covenant itself, are symbolically broken by Moses. The Abrahamic covenant sustains and the Mosaic covenant is broken.

For the sacrificial system was limited in many ways, not least in that they could not offer sacrifice for intentional sins (Lev 6:17 may provide an exception to this). Even as a shadow, and a representation it was incomplete and offered no hope, except outside of itself in what Paul calls the promise (interestingly Paul doesn't ever contrast gospel and law, to my knowledge, just promise and law).

The law was a gift and was accompanied by gifts, specifically it was a gift by bringing God closer. However, it was always going to be a curse when considered without the promise, which is separate and yet not opposed to it. Much like a school teacher is a good if there is the promise of learning from him to live as an adult one day, but is a slave-driver if the promise of adulthood is forgotten.

I ramble and I’m not sure whether you would actually disagree and I’m discussing things with myself (which is good for me if not you), so I will leave that there.

Final quibble would be over the purpose of sacrifice. I posted a little while ago a summary of the purpose of sacrifices being gift, communion and atonement. You seem to have only discussed atonement which may be due to time restraints but I think you can’t put all the sacrifices in that category, and you loose some of the wonderful imagery of being in the presence.

Sorry for the long comment, but it has really helped me think about things even if no good for you.

BTW how is Bournemouth going?

Dave K said...

One thing I may not have made clear is that the Mosaic Law and the promise are of course all within the same 5 books which are often referred to as 'the Law' themselves, which confuses them somewhat. Hence Paul can seemingly quote the promise within 'the law' (defined as books) against 'the law' (defined as covenant) in some of his letters.

This is a difficult thing to come to terms with but I think I'm right in saying it was central to Luther's reading of the bible, although Calvin and the Reformed read things differently.

I may be completely wrong, but that's the way I'm seeing things at the moment.

peterdray said...

Hi Dave

Not going to be able to do justice to your comments I'm afraid in a short time.

Think we're agreed on the central place of sacrifice.

I think that the demand was that Israel should keep the whole Law; however, this is balanced with what I see as a 'safety net' of sacrifice built in. God demanded full obedience to the Law but shows its impossibility.

I think that when we get to Paul we'll see that OT sacrifices in themselves didn't save - however, it was placing trust in God's provision (that the sacrifices represented) that saved. I think I'm increasingly thinking that there was a strong eschatological element to it all, as I hinted in the post.

I haven't really thought about whether there's one or several covenants. I guess I'd always thought that progressive revelation showed the same promises being slowly added to, but maybe that's simplistic?

I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your posts. On the purpose of sacrifice - yes, it was due to keeping things simple and time constraints. I've found Kiuchi's commentary on Leviticus very helpful in thinking about the precise role of the various Levitical sacrifices.

Cheers for your thoughts :)