We’ve been discussing the weird laws found in the Old Testament and how these laws / promises no longer apply to us as Christians. We then discussed why the Old Testament is still very much God’s Word to us though. The next logical question to ask is why these weird laws ever existed in the first place?
Jesus and Paul help us out with this, telling us that the basis of every one of the Old Testament laws was to love one another. This is the eternal meaning found behind every strange law in the Old Testament. I can stand up behind a pulpit and preach a sermon using the verses that tell us not to eat lobster, not to mix clothing fibers, and not to get tattoos, and preach a moving, God-inspired, authoritative sermon, with the takeaway being we need to be a light to the world and the way to do this is to love another. In fact, I did this once. It was riveting, people were burning their polyester and picketing outside of Red Lobster, it was beautiful. Ok they weren’t, but that’s funny to think about.
Paul says in Romans 13:9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be (i.e. no lobster, no shaving, etc.), are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (parenthesis are my words) (See Romans 9:8-10 and Matthew 7:12 as well as Jesus saying the entire Law hinged on loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew 22:38-40)
The primary reason for the numerous strange laws in the Old Testament was because God had set apart the ancient Israelites as a “peculiar people”, in order that they may be a light to the rest of the world. (See Genesis 12:2-3, 18:18, 22:18, Exodus 9:16; Joshua 4:23-24; Psalm 9:11, 96:3; Isaiah 49:6, 51:4) As a light to the world, their task was to bring salvation to the world. It is very loving to our neighbor to bring salvation to them. So any law designed to set them apart (circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath, no shaving, etc.) was a way of preserving this light, and preserving this loving salvation to the world.
Many of their laws, which seem quite odd to us today, were meant to be outward reminders of the inward reality that they were God’s people and He is their God. They were meant to set them apart in tangible ways, 1.) To keep them from being polluted by other gods, which came from intermingling with other cultures & 2.) To be a visual demonstration to them and to others of who their God was, similar to the visual purpose flags and stand-bearers serve, except that everyone’s appearance and behavior was the visual flag/standard, rather than a piece of cloth serving this purpose.
The entire foundation of the old covenant was that if Israel obeyed God, he would tangibly bless them (and if they didn’t, he would tangibly curse them, including taking away their land). This was an agrarian culture (agriculture ruled!) and it was a culture with many gods. In fact, gods were primarily cultural/nationalistic symbols of pride for a certain tribe, nation, or people group. Egypt had its own gods, Babylon had its own gods, and Canaan had its own gods. These gods were essentially in competition with each other. If Egypt conquered Babylon in battle, it meant Egypt’s gods were stronger than Babylon’s. To the point of agriculture, which was the basis for survival (and thus wealth), if a country’s crops grew fertile and their animals produced lots of offspring (a.k.a. wealth), it meant their gods were powerful and their gods were happy with them. It meant their gods were real. It meant other nations should consider converting over to their more real and more powerful god.
If you showed up in Spain and wanted to communicate effectively, what language would you speak? In China? In Russia?
If you were God and you wanted to communicate effectively in the ancient near-eastern world, what language would you speak?
You wouldn’t speak English, and you wouldn’t hand out Bible tracts. You would select (or raise up) a nation as your own and you would make a covenant with them that if they lived out the way you designed them to live, it would draw the rest of the world to a relationship with you, the one true and loving and Almighty God. The only way the world would be convinced of this is if your crops were bigger than their crops, your animals were more plentiful and tasted better, and your army was more powerful than theirs. That’s the language of the world, and that’s the language you speak in order to win the world to you.
So God instructs his people to live set apart so it’s obvious they are different and their God is different, and when the other nations see their big crops and powerful army, they will realize God (Yahweh) is the real and Almighty God. Love your neighbor.
There are of course more specific steps we can take with individual verses to bring further clarity in understanding and application:
Deut. 22:8 When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. —Build this wall on your roof or your neighbor will fall off and die (not very loving!) –SO for today…shovel your driveway and sidewalk, trim your trees, etc. This is loving your neighbor.
Lev. 19:19 Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. —The stronger fiber would tear away from the weaker fiber. Love your neighbor by not wasting your money and resources in this way, so you have resources to share. –SO for today, be a good steward of your money, don’t waste it needlessly, so you can have some to share.
Lev. 19:28 Do not put…tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. –Ancient Near-Eastern cultures would tattoo themselves as part of their worship of idols. If an Israelite had a tattoo, it would communicate that they too worship idols. Not tattooing themselves set them apart. –SO for today, 1. Don’t worship idols (money, sex, materialism, power, TV, etc.) & 2. Set yourself apart in how you live so you can be a light to non-Christians
The “weird laws” of the Old Testament served a great purpose in giving people a rule to live by that would set them apart as well as love the world / their neighbor. Two principles we definitely need to continue applying today.
Other posts in this series:
- Understanding Weird Parts of the Old Testament: Old vs. New Covenant
- Where the old covenant came from and why it doesn’t apply to us.
- Why the old covenant is still God’s Word to us and why it is still useful for teaching, rebuking, and correcting (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:16)
- Richard Dawkins: God commanding Old Testament Wars, Genocides, Infant Killings???
- Why the entire Bible matters, even if Rob Bell says it doesn’t
Still to come:
- How misunderstanding the old covenant versus the new creates an unbiblical health-and-wealth / prosperity message today.