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How to Interpret Old Testament Law

Related articles

Interpreting OT Narratives Interpreting the OT Law
Interpreting Hebrew Poetry Interpreting Wisdom Literature
Interpreting the OT Prophets Interpreting the Four Gospels
Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Interpreting the Book of Acts
Interpreting NT Letters Understanding End Times (Eschatology)
Interpreting the Book of Revelation

Interpreting the OT Law

The law of Moses is probably one of the most obscure and least favourite parts of the Bible for us to read today. We are often left wondering how to distinguish laws which God still requires us to obey today from those which were only binding on Old Testament Israel. In practice many people pick and choose which ones to obey without much genuine consistency. So tithing is required, but building a parapet around your roof is not required.

The Old Testament law, or the Law of Moses, consists of a large group of laws contained in the Pentateuch from Exodus chapter 20, through much of Leviticus, some of Numbers and most of Deuteronomy.

What was the purpose of the law?

To understand the law, it is necessary to appreciate its original purpose in the life of Old Testament Israel, setting it in its original historical situation. God gave Israel the law through Moses on Mount Sinai shortly after he had delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. The law was then repeated to the second generation who had grown up in the wilderness, and recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, immediately before they entered the Promised Land.

The law should be seen as the constitution of the nation of Israel, determining the way this new nation will function. The giving of the law effectively changed Israel from a large family and established them as a nation, with God as their king. The law was a complete package for OT Israel, through which God set Israel apart as a holy nation, to represent his character on the earth, and through whom the Messiah would finally come. It is not merely a collection of individual laws. God had set apart a people for Himself to fulfil a special role in His plan of redemption. Therefore God wanted this people to be different (holy) from all others, and to be a light to the Gentiles. This is why He gave them the Law, "You shall be holy because I am holy." (Lev 11:45).

Characteristics of the law

The law has two aspects: The first is the ritual law, directing how they should worship God; and the second is the civil law, controlling how they were to treat their fellow human beings. These categories mirror the two greatest laws Jesus identified: to love God and to love your neighbour, as these are the heart of the law (Mt 22:38-40).

There are two different types of commandments in the law. The first are absolute commands, which are introduced, “Do this”, or “Don’t do this”. Examples are in the ten commandments. The second is case law, when an example is given, “If this happens, then do this ..." eg. Deut 24:7. It was the role of the priests and elders to apply the principles of the law to particular cases brought before them.

To us the law seems all mixed up, not in neat thematic groupings. Life was seen as a whole, to be lived before God, and not in separate categories.

Law contained in a covenant

The law was given within the terms of the covenant. A covenant can be defined as a legal way of establishing and maintaining a relationship between two people on a long-term basis. Through the covenant, God formed a legal relationship with his people. This would explain why loving God was the most important commandment. In the Book of Exodus, Moses received the law from God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 20-23). He then read the covenant to the people, and they took an oath to obey it (Ex 24:1-7). The covenant was finally sealed by the sprinkling of blood.

The whole book of Deuteronomy has similar structure and content to a Hittite suzerainty covenant. This was a covenant that was imposed on a nation by a conquering king (the suzerain). A king would take certain obligations to protect them and the people would take on obligations to obey him and pay taxes. It is a commandment and the lesser party has no choice but to accept the covenant, and if they break it, they are a transgressor and face the penalties.

The Book of Deuteronomy is structured in the same way as one of these suzerainty covenants. These began by a statement that the ruler is their new king (1:1-5). This was followed by a historical section, showing the previous relationship between the king and the people (chapters 1-4). Then followed general rules (chapters 5-11), then detailed rules (chapters 6-26). Towards the end came the blessings for obedience and the cursings for disobedience (chapters 27-28). Finally, witnesses were called, and provision made for regular renewal of the covenant (chapters 29-30).

Was the law ever intended to be a means of salvation?

It is most important for us to appreciate the fact that God never intended that obeying the law would enable Israel to earn salvation, and become accepted by God. Salvation has always been by faith, and never by obedience to the law. This can be shown by the fact that God rescued his people from Egypt, before giving them the law. Salvation came first. Abraham was declared righteous by God through his faith, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). This was 430 years before the law was given (Gal 3:17).

Salvation by law-keeping is normally understood to mean that we have to do more good deeds than bad deeds, in other words, the pass-mark is 51%. If the law was not intended to be a means of salvation, then it had other purposes: The first was to show that God is holy, that his standard is total perfection, and he measures people against that standard. The pass-mark is 100%, not 51%. This makes it very clear that mankind cannot possibly succeed in keeping the law and attain God’s standard through their own efforts. The law is rather like a mirror, which show us what we look like, but does not help us in any way. The law is effective in exposing sin, showing us our sinfulness, and condemning us. As a result, the law shows us that mankind needs a Saviour. The law should drive people to Jesus, where we see how merciful and gracious God is.

The law brings death to any religiosity. It shows that salvation is not through our own efforts, but purely by the grace of God. It is only through Jesus that sinful mankind can be brought into relationship with a holy God, and be changed into his likeness.

On a practical level, the law has a purpose in restraining sin, and enabling sinful mankind to live in harmony with each other. The law of the land in modern nations continues to have this purpose.

The law shows the purity and holiness of God. He desired to dwell in the midst of his people, so the tabernacle was set up in the midst of the camp. The presence of a Holy God was in the midst of his people. To defile the tabernacle would lead to death, so no impurity could be tolerated in the camp. If sinful mankind came into contact with the holy God then death was the result (Lev 10). In his mercy, God allowed the blood of an animal to be shed instead of the death of the sinner. It is important to note that under the Old Testament law there was no sacrifice available for deliberate sin, only death.

How does the law apply to Christians?

The law of Moses was the covenant God made with Old Testament Israel. Jesus made a new covenant with his people. The difference between the two was predicted by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), quoted in Heb 8:8-13. The Old Covenant was written on stone tablets, and mostly addressed outward actions, but the New Covenant is written on hearts, addressing inner motivations and attitudes as well. For example, the commandment in the OT was not to murder, but Jesus extended this to include hating someone in your heart (Mt 5:21-26).

Paul described the Law as a custodian until Christ came (Gal 3:23,24). Now Christ has come, it is no longer our custodian. Jesus has fulfilled the law by obeying it totally (Mt 5:17), the only person ever to do so. He stated the two laws upon which the whole law is based: loving God and loving your neighbour (Mt 22:34-40). Because we are in a New Covenant, the Old Covenant is no longer binding. The Old Covenant was fulfilled and completed by Jesus, so we are under the New Covenant, a new law.

So what do we do with the OT law?

If we under the New Covenant, and the law is no longer binding on us, then what do we do with all these laws? Do we ignore them, or is there wisdom we can still learn from them? We need to recognise that the laws are still part of God's inspired word and we can learn a great deal from them. They are still valuable for teaching, correction, reproof and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). There is great wisdom to be found in the law (Ps 119). In order to understand and apply them today, we need to determine the principles being taught, and then see them through the perspectives of the New Testament. It is essential that the law is applied in grace, in a way that avoids any hint of legalism.

How can we apply the law today?

The first thing to do is to read each law carefully, to determine what exactly the requirement was. What was it that the people of Israel had to do, or not do? Sometimes this can be surprising. For example, they actually ate one of their tithes themselves (Deut 14:23).

Then it can be helpful to consider why God gave that particular law to Israel - what was the purpose of that law? The key question to ask is, “Why?”. Careful thought is needed to determine what benefits would come through obedience to that law.

The laws reveal particular aspects of the character of God, particularly his care for his people. Therefore it can be helpful to ask what would they be implicitly saying about the character of God by breaking this law? For example, to steal is to declare that a person was not trusting God for the provision promised to him, thus denying God's faithfulness. It is also helpful to consider what the physical consequences would be to the individual and society if the law was broken? This is different from the stated penalty. An obvious example is that to steal is to take someone’s property, and to deprive them of it, taking what God has blessed them with.

Categories of laws

I have identified four basic reasons for particular laws, although there is much overlap between these categories. These can lead us to effective application of the wisdom seen in the laws.

The first is that many laws were part of their worship. These would include the laws of sacrifice, building the tabernacle, and the rules for priests. This is often known as the ritual law. These laws control access to God. It is impossible for sinful mankind to enter into the presence of a holy God, so blood needed to be shed. These point towards the greater and final sacrifice that would be achieved by Jesus on the cross. Studying these laws give us a greater appreciation of what Jesus did for us.

Secondly, there are a great many laws which essentially were for their own physical benefit, both individually, or for their neighbour, and corporately as a nation. An example of these would be the food laws and hygiene laws, including those controlling sexual relationships. There are very practical reasons why they should not eat pigs or sea food, as these are scavengers and carry diseases. These laws give great wisdom for healthy living, even today. Many of these laws are included in national health and safety laws today. There is an amazing level of scientific understanding found in the laws that scientists did not rediscover until the ninteenth century, nearly three and a half thousand years later.

I would also include the Sabbath law in this category, as Jesus told his disciples that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27). In other words, the Sabbath was intended to be a blessing as a day of rest, to enjoy fellowship with God and their neighbours.

Thirdly, a number of laws are in place to protect the needy in society, the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. These demonstrate God’s heart for the poor and for the nations, which is also seen in the NT, and which continues today

Fourthly, quite a number of rather obscure laws were given to prevent the Israelites slipping into idolatry. They were about to enter the Promised Land which was currently inhabited by the Canaanites, who worshipped fertility gods and practised all sorts of debased religious rituals and sacrifices. Israel was to be holy to the Lord, not like other nations, and not to get involved with Canaanite religious practices. Because Canaanite religion was based on fertility rituals, laws under this category would include those which forbid mixing of crops (Deut 22:9), or dress (Deut 22:5, 11), or boiling a kid (baby goat) in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21). The timeless principle from these laws shows the importance of avoiding involvement with all occult and idolatrous practices.

Practical help in the process of interpreting and applying the individual laws

This are some suggested questions that can be asked, or things to look out for, when studying an individual law within the Law of Moses.

Observation questions - what does the text actually say?

1. Is it a command ("Thou shalt not ..."), or a case law ("If this happens, then ...")?

2. Try and summarise the law in your own words.

3. What is the general direction of the law, either to love God, or love your neighbour?

4. What area of life does it address? These are some of many possibilities: criminal law, property, protection of life, sexual relations, idolatry, hygiene, worship ...

5. Look carefully to identify what did the Israelites specifically had to do, or not do?

6. What was the penalty for breaking the law?

7. Look out for God's heart for the poor, the widows, the orphans or the strangers.

8. Look out for concepts of God's holiness, contrasted with sin or uncleanness.

Interpretation questions - what did the law mean to the Israelites?

1. Try and determine why God gave that particular law to the Israelites. Remember the four main reasons noted above: worship, physical benefit, caring for the poor, or protecting against idolatry.

2. Who does the law aim to protect?

3. Does the law protect the people of Israel against idolatry?

4. What godly principles or value does the law illustrate? These can be the great value of human life, or the importance of justice, or others.

5. Who would benefit, and in what way would people benefit if the people kept this law?

6. What would be the natural consequences of breaking that law. How would people be affected when others broke that law. Note, that this is not the same as asking what the penalty for breaking the law was.

7. What implicit statement would people be making about the character of God if they broke that law?

8. In what way was faith and trust in God needed to keep this law.

Application questions

We need to determine how to apply that particular law in our lives today, or in the church, or in wider society. Always remember that we apply the wisdom from the law in grace. For more help in the process of application, please read the Application page.

1. What aspects of the character of God does the law illustrate?

2. What godly characteristics does it illustrate? (eg. justice, mercy, care for others, care for property belonging to others, care for the poor ...)

3. Aim to find some timeless principles, and then suggest concrete application.

Related articles

Interpreting OT Narratives Interpreting the OT Law
Interpreting Hebrew Poetry Interpreting Wisdom Literature
Interpreting the OT Prophets Interpreting the Four Gospels
Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Interpreting the Book of Acts
Interpreting NT Letters Understanding End Times (Eschatology)
Interpreting the Book of Revelation

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John
Jude

Revelation

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Tithing
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah


Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS