We’re working through Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan. by John H. Walton.
In chapter 10, Walton investigates the purpose of the Law of Moses. The New Testament, of course, is filled with the struggle over how the coming of Jesus affects the Law. Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, Paul’s epistles on faith versus “works of the Law,” and Hebrews all deal very explicitly with the Law.
To modern Christians, it’s all very abstract and arcane. What do we care about the Law of Moses? Dispensationalists simply declare it repealed and move on, until they read passages where Jesus or Paul or others seem to apply the Law as though it’s not been repealed at all.
In several places, Paul insists that charges not be brought against someone except on the testimony of two or three witnesses — a command by Moses. Jesus says not a “jot” or ”tittle” (KJV) of the Law will pass away before the end of time. And there are many such examples.
As a result, some seek to selectively impose the Law today — such as by converting Sunday into the “Christian Sabbath.” We take from the Mosaic sacrificial system the idea of “giving God your best” when it comes to Sunday morning clothes. But there surely must be a better way of apply the Law today.
[Ancient laws] were comprised of illustrations of the kind of laws that were enacted and/or enforced under the king’s administration. By collecting such exemplary laws the king intended to reveal something about himself as the promulgator of those laws. He was under obligation to promulgate and enforce such laws so as to retain his official relationship with the gods under whose auspices he ruled.
In a very similar manner, the biblical law collections are comprised of illustrations of legislation paradigms that are intended to reveal something about the promulgator of the laws. A key difference here, however, is that God is the promulgator of law in Israel. Therefore, rather than revealing the justice of the king, the law in Israel reveals the holiness of God.
The law is a revelation of God’s ways (Ps. 103:7). Beyond mandating justice for society, Yahweh mandates holiness for his people. Just as the king’s enforcing that type of legislation maintained his elect relationship with the gods, so Israel’s enforcing legislation would maintain their elect relationship with God. The law reveals what God is like and circumscribes a covenant relationship that asks the people to imitate and reflect God’s holiness.
(Kindle Locations 2231-2241).
The collections of laws are not intended to prescribe a comprehensive legislation, but represent the foundation for the ever-changing legislation required in order for a society to operate. In that sense, it functioned more like our constitution, which is not legislation but the foundation for legislation. The obligatory force carried by the law in the Bible is not the obligatory force of enforceable legislation, but that of a binding agreement; the obligatory force is thus connected more to covenant than to law.
(Kindle Locations 2241-2245).
Israel, as the covenant people, is obliged to observe the law in order to maintain its elect status before God. That does not mean that its legislation will always and only look exactly like the law of the Pentateuch, for that law is illustrative. Its actual legislation must reflect interpretation of the covenantal law.
(Kindle Locations 2254-2257).
We see this process at work when, for example, the rabbis continually toughened the evidentiary standards for adultery, so that by the time of Jesus, it was essentially impossible to stone an adulterer within the rabbinic system. (Only a vigilante group acting outside rabbinic authority and in rebellion to Rome would have tried to stone a woman taken in adultery.)
Just so, by the time of Jesus, the rabbis has developed a system whereby a woman could compel her husband to divorce her when he failed to honor his marital obligations to her.
That is, the rabbis applied the over-arching principles of the Law but often varied the Law to reflect a changing society. After all, there were probably far more Jews living outside Palestine than within Palestine. Strict adherence to the sacrificial system and countless other rituals was impossible for a Jew living on a different continent. And the rabbis made allowance for the new reality.
This led to the so-called Oral Law, which by the time of Jesus was equated with the written Law. In fact, the Oral Law had gained enough of the weight of tradition that it had become hard to distinguish the Law of Moses as written from the Law of Moses as interpreted by the rabbis.
As a result, by the time of Jesus, the experts in the Law were much more likely to be expert in the Oral Law than in the Law itself. Hence, the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his disciples for eating with unwashed hands, a violation of the Oral Law but not the Law itself.
When Jesus began interacting with the Jewish leaders, they were shocked at his neglect of their traditional interpretations. It was an act of audacity, in their view, for Jesus to bypass all of that time-honored tradition and offer his own interpretation of covenantal law. But what Jesus was doing, in effect, was replacing the superimposed rabbinic law with his own superimposed interpretation of covenantal law. We see Jesus presenting himself as a new Torah that perfectly fulfills the covenantal Torah.
(Kindle Locations 2302-2306). Jesus did not reject the idea that the Law needed to be interpreted and applied in light of new circumstances. His point was that he himself was the new circumstance!