Interpreting Biblical Law

This is a wiki I created as part of a group assignment on interpreting genres of the Bible. We were to construct a wiki that surveys each of the nine biblical genres (Acts, Gospels, Law, Letters, Narrative, Poetry, Prophets, Revelations, Wisdom), and was to be a resource that we would feel confident turning to when studying the Bible in future.

The genre I chose was Law, a topic that is frequently misunderstood by Christians and misrepresented by skeptics. I focused on the two types of law (apodictic and causistic) rather that the three categories (ceremonial, civil, and moral) as there is not always a clear line dividing Law into a single category. I may discuss these categories in a later post, as well as covering the other eight biblical genres.

Overview

The “law” as it is used throughout scripture has a variety of intended meanings. Depending on the surrounding context “law” can mean:

  1. Any single command ancient Israel was to keep to be the covenant people of God.
  2. The entire collection of over 600 commands ancient Israel was to keep.
  3. A rabbinical interpretation of any or all of the above commands
  4. The Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).
  5. The entire religious system of the Old Testament (Fee, Stuart 169).

The focus of this wiki is in interpreting the genre of legal series as outlined in 1&2. However, as the Law itself is wrapped into the literary genre of narrative it would be reasonable also to consult methods of interrupting narrative.

Many of the laws in the Old Testament are very specific (Exod. 21:2-6), and some are general (Exod. 20:3). It should be observed that the Old Testament Law was not designed to be an exhaustive list or a reference wiki, but rather to “teach the Israelite fundamental values — what it meant to live all of life in the presence of God” (Klein 345).

Types of law

There are two kinds of law outlined in the Old Testament, casuistic and apodictic.

Casuistic Law

Casuistic, also known as “case law”, is usually written in the third-person, and often describes civil and criminal matters (Klein 341-342, Fee 178-179). These types of law represent a condition, usually formed with an “if…” statement, and a penalty preceded by “then…”. The conditions and penalties can be very specific and have multiple stipulations. For example:

Exodus 21:33-34 (New International Version)
Condition: If anyone uncovers a pit or digs one

-And-

Fails to cover it

-And-

An ox or a donkey falls into it

Penalty: The one who opened the pit must pay the owner for the loss

-And-

Take the dead animal in exchange

The above example describes the specific case of what would happen “if” someone were to meet all the conditions. Though as noted above it is important to understand the laws not as a comprehensive list of commands, but as a general instruction to living a holy life. The underlying principle of the above law illustrates how God desires for us to be socially responsible and care for our neighbor’s safety (cover the pit), livelihood (compensate for property loss), and purity (removing the unclean body).

Apodictic Law

Apodictic laws can be best described as absolute orders. There are two forms of this type of command, either a positive admonition or a negative prohibition. These commands frequent begin with “do” or “do not”, and they mostly concern themselves with moral and religious matters. The Ten Commandments are an example of this kind of law.

Admonition Prohibition
Honor your father and your mother… (Exod. 20:12) You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)

For the apodictic laws, there are no exceptions, and while they may be “limited in wording, [they] are very comprehensive in spirit” (Fee, Stuart 178).

The Interpretative Journey

Based on Grasping God’s Word by Duvall and Hays. (47).

Step 1: Understanding what the law meant to the original audience.

The first part of this step is to understand the law in a covenant framework.

Context is key to this step. In general, the laws of the Old Testament do not exist in a vacuum, and usually appear in groups of similar laws. Reading the surrounding content for clues is helpful, it can illuminate who the law applies to, why it was given, and the circumstances surrounding.

Seek an understanding by consulting, at least, three translations (one formal, one dynamic, and one in the middle).

An analysis of the book the law appears in is also a help. Why was the book written? What is the narrative surrounding the Law?

Mount Saini
Fig. 1. Mount Sinai (Eviljohnius)
Book Narrative Overview & Covenant Context
Exodus A nation of mistreated slaves, was elected by God to become a holy nation and were a firsthand witness to His power, and were about to reside in His presence. Moses received the Law from God on Mount Sinai (Fig.1) to teach the Israelites how to live in the presence of a holy God.

19:5-6 acts as a purpose statement for the laws that follow: “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.”

Leviticus God is now living among the Israelites; they are a new nation with a new identity. Leviticus is the natural progression of Exodus and is concerned with “how Israel is to live with God in their midst” (Duvall 361), and how they can be the “kingdom of priests” as promised in Exod.19:6.
Numbers Chapters 1-10: Israel is preparing to enter the Promised Land

Chapter 13: Israel rebels against God, and must face the consequences of having broken their covenant promise. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home . . . As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you” (14:30-34).

 Chapters 20-36: The next generation of Israelites wanders in the wilderness under the reinstated covenant preparing to enter the land promised to their parents.

Deuteronomy The Promised Land is in sight! Forty years of roaming have been building up to this moment. Deuteronomy records Moses’ farewell sermons; “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness” (1:1).

Chapters 32-33: These chapters are poetic in nature, and methods of interpreting poetry should be consulted when reading.

The covenant is renewed with the new generation of Israelites. Many stipulations outlined in Exodus are elaborated upon. In his passionate speeches, Moses pleads,“Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess” (32:46-47).

Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Differences Between “Us” and “Them.”
We are not former slaves We do not lead a nation
We are not under the Mosaic Covenant We are not fighting pagan nations
We do not live in the wilderness  We do not have to slaughter animals for atonement
We do not live in a Theocracy God no longer resides in a tabernacle
We are not preparing to enter the Promised Land

Step 3: What is the theological principle in this text?

     Laws in the Old Testament are “usually based on a broader universal truth . . . that is applicable to all of God’s people” (Duvall, Hays 365). In this step, it is important to remember that Jesus is the interpretive key to all of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still the word of God, and it still applies to Christians today, however “none of it applies apart from its fulfillment in Christ” (Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard 347).

Similarities between “us” and “them.”
We are a covenant people We are called to be clean and avoid sin
God resides in the believer The wages of sin is still death
We are surrounded by a secular and pluralistic culture
Christians are often met with hostility
We are called to be a separate people

     Duvall and Hays note that the universal principles contained in the Law are usually related to “the character of God and his holiness, the nature of sin, or concern for other people” (365).

Step 4: How does the theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?

As Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law (Mt, 5:17-18), it is pertinent to consult his teaching on the topic. The New Testament reaffirms some laws, loving God with all your being (Deut. 6:5) and loving your neighbor (Lev. 19:18) are affirmed in Mt. 22:37-39). Some Laws become stricter in the New Testament such as adultery (Mt. 19:3-12). And some Old Testament laws became obsolete in practice such as the sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1-10).

Concerning laws where the New Testament is silent, we must determine if it fits a category of law the New Testament does address. This, however, is not always simple, for example; Exodus 23:19 commands “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”.

  • Is this a dietary law which was abolished in Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:15?
  • Is it a stipulation of the sacrificial law to atone for sin, which Christ fulfilled in his death?
  • Or is this law meant to keep Israel separate from the cultic practices of the surrounding pagan nations?

Given the surrounding context in which the law appears, in the midst of celebrating agricultural festivals, I suggest the later. It may be possible that such a practice was common in pagan fertility rituals.

Step 5: How should individual Christians today apply the theological principles?

Each law should be examined carefully individually and from within the surrounding context, and application for the Christian today is dependent on whether or not the individual circumstances are comparable.

Take the example in Step 4. If you find yourself in a situation where Goat cooked in milk is the main dish, under dietary laws, it would be acceptable to eat. However, if you are being asked to eat and participate in the ritual for any purpose other than eating then the Christian today should abstain.

Works Cited

Duvall, J S, and J D. Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. Print.

Eviljohnius. Mount Sinai. Image. flickr.com/photos/eviljohnius. flickr.com. June 22, 2005. Web. Feb. 1, 2016.

Fee, Gordon D, and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982. Print.

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. Print.

Holy Bible: New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan. Print.

Klein, William W, Craig Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, and Kermit A.Ecklebarger. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004. Prin

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