What is the role of the Mosaic Law in contemporary society? This is the first of a series of articles from the Cambridge Papers of the Jubilee Centre which deals with several misunderstandings in our modern-day church and offers a Biblical understanding on why should we still meditate on the Mosaic Law.
‘If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (John 14:15). Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper include the uncomfortable thought that there is an intimate link between love for Jesus and obedience to his commands. His disciples today are not so used to thinking of a connection between love and obedience or between love and law.
Perhaps even more uncomfortably, Jesus took the Torah (the Mosaic law) seriously. He challenged contemporary interpretations of it but he never denounced it. How does Jesus’ attitude towards the Torah square with what appears to be Paul’s teaching that Christians are freed from the obligation to follow the Torah?
Those questions are not theoretical; they are immensely practical. In a heavily indebted economy, is the ban on interest merely a dead letter? Ought Christians to be marking one day in seven as special, putting aside work for the whole day? Does it matter if a man and his niece get married? Is there anything wrong with cross- dressing? Should Christians tithe? Should Christians not eat meat with blood in it?
The argument in this paper is that Christians should still reflect on the Torah, in the light of Christ’s life and teaching, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and learn from it how to make wise decisions about how to love God and to love our neighbours today.
The love of God involves the love of Torah
The Bible is clear from beginning to end that to love God involves seeking to be obedient to God. God invites humankind to participate in intimate communion with him. In the Garden of Eden, God walked with Adam in the cool of the day. God gave Adam commands too. Obeying God would enable Adam to enjoy all the goodness of the Garden of Eden. Adam was called to be obedient to God because that was what was expected of humankind in the relationship of love to God which God wanted Adam to enjoy. This anchors obedience to God within a relational context, as an essential fact about human life.
Loving God means following God’s law, as it has been revealed to God’s people. In the contemporary West, where hyperactive governments are constantly changing the rules, we think of law as specific prescriptions to be considered in isolation. The Torah is far more than that. The Torah is not just a collection of individual rules, nor is it a comprehensive legal code. The Torah is the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which do not just contain Israel’s laws, but also stories which tell Israel who they are as a people, what their God is like, and how they are to live. Israel is to be God’s people (Exodus 19:6). The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic law show them how God’s people ought to behave. For Old Testament Israel, the Torah was God’s law.
The Torah was relational in its intention. Thus, as Jesus taught, the Torah is built around two Great Commandments: the command in Deuteronomy 6:5 to love God and the command in Leviticus 19:18 to love one’s neighbour. The Ten Commandments sketch out for us what those loves look like. They tell us that we love God by giving him our sole allegiance, by not reducing him to images of things in the created order, by not using his name in vain, by setting aside regular time in our week to engage in the conscious worship of him. The Ten Commandments tell us that we love our parents by honouring them, that we love our spouses by being faithful to them, that we love our neighbours at a most basic level by not intentionally killing them, by not stealing from them, by not lying about them, by being content with what we have and not coveting what our neighbours have. This description of what love looks like continues to be indispensable today.
The Torah as a whole provides us with a paradigm, showing what loving God and loving our neighbour would look like in a particular, pre-industrial nation in the ancient Middle East. The written Torah did not aspire to be comprehensive. It provided a narrative framework within which a series of practical examples showed how and how not to live out the love of God and the love of neighbour in a specific social context.
The Torah was a guide for the Israelites, an ethical manual to be meditated upon by the whole community, designed to be capable of application by the people themselves. God’s people were to take God’s commandments to heart (Deuteronomy 6:6). By internalising the Torah, Israel was to learn the ways of the Lord, to discover wisdom and to avoid folly (Proverbs chapters 1–9). Once the Torah is understood as guidance, incorporating binding principles and specific applications, then it becomes easier to understand how the Psalmist could write Psalm 119 as a rhapsody about the importance of meditating on the Torah. The ideal is that a community which lives its law will not need judges to resolve disputes because people will live wisely by the Torah, in shalom with one another.
Much of the remainder of the Old Testament is, however, a sad commentary on how Israel failed to do this. Israel proved to be incapable of loving God and obeying God’s law. What was needed was definitive forgiveness, a new heart (Jeremiah 24:7; Ezekiel 11:19) and a new empowerment to live wise love-filled lives (Jeremiah 32:39).
(The second part will be published next week)
a guest contributor to Cambridge Papers, is a barrister and a theologian. He has completed a PhD on ‘A Trinitarian Theology of Law’.
P. G. Nelson, in ‘Christian Morality: Jesus’ Teaching on the Law’, Themelios 31, 2006, pp.4–17, explores how Jesus insisted on a strict interpretation of God’s will regarding divorce and a radically different understanding of the Sabbath from the rigid pharisaical approach.
Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:25.
A suggested approach to answering these last two questions is available at www.jubilee-centre.org
Christ’s fulfilment of the moral, ceremonial and civil aspects of the Torah is not the subject of this paper. I have explored how he did so in McIlroy, A Biblical View of Law and Justice, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004, pp.122–130.
There is a longstanding debate about the status of the Torah for Christians: see Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser, Douglas J. Moo, Wayne G. Strickland and Willem A. Van Gemeren, Five Views on Law and Gospel, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. The argument of this paper is that a trinitarian perspective re-frames that debate.
Gen. 1:28; 2:17.
This is true in both the Old and New Testaments, though the understanding of God’s law changes. The position taken in this paper is opposite to that of Anders Nygren who, in Agape and Eros, London: SPCK, 1953, argued that the Old Testament revealed a God of law and justice and the New Testament the God of love not law.
On the complexities of the meaning of Torah, see Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice and Society, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2009.
Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, IVP, 2004, pp.65–73.
Deut. 6:6–9; Pss. 19, 119.
J. Burnside, ‘Criminal Justice’, in M. Schluter and J. Ashcroft (eds.), Jubilee Manifesto, IVP, 2005, pp.234–54, at pp.245–36.