Perhaps the fact that it is catalogued under "Humor and Entertainment" should tell us how to rightly appreciate A. J. Jacobs's best-selling 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In the course of a fascinating year, Jacobs tries to obey literally the 700-plus commands he finds in the Bible—including stoning an adulterer, offering an animal sacrifice, and upholding all the jots and tittles of the Old Testament law. Clearly, taking the Bible literally does not always mean taking it seriously.
More recently, Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans undertook her own experiment in "living biblically" by following for a year all the Bible's passages about women's behavior. A Year of Biblical Womanhood is Evans's subversive way of revealing that no one—not even the most conservative Christian—takes the whole Bible literally, and that to do so is both impossible and silly.
Both books, while unfortunately mocking in their own ways, nonetheless underscore some persistent misunderstandings about the Bible:
How the Bible has come to us. Scripture is placed within the context of ancient cultures in the Middle East. It comes dressed in all the particularities of history and geography, which God took seriously when he spoke to us through various people who lived in them. To treat all of Scripture as if it were written directly into today's world is to imagine that God himself thought the world would never change and that we could just keep on obeying all the rules. That is absurd, as we shall see.
How laws function in society, then and now. Sometimes laws are like statutes—expressed in general principles. Sometimes they are cases or precedents from which judges draw principles that can be applied to different situations. Sometimes laws reflect a whole culture's way of thinking about life.
The Old Testament laws are like all of these. They exemplify how God wanted certain kinds of situations to be handled. They embody values and objectives, on the assumption that people would understand how to extrapolate from a particular case to a general principle and apply that to new situations. So to take all of the Old Testament laws at face value is to misunderstand their original intent in the first place.
How commands can function in relationships and communication. If I hear someone on the street shout, "Freeze! Put your hands behind your head!" I need to know two things. First, who is shouting? If it's a police officer—someone whose authorized command I need to submit to—then yes. Second, is he addressing me? Likely the answer is no. It's addressed to the guy who just robbed a street vendor and is running away. So the command has authority because of who gave it, but it is not addressed to me in that moment. It claims my respect—I should not break the law in that way either—but it does not claim my compliance.
Next time you come to London, ask your taxi driver if he is obeying the law. Doubtless he'll answer, "Yes, Guv."
Then ask him, in that case, where his bale of hay and bag of oats are located. Remind him of the English law, never repealed, that requires London-licensed hackney cabs to carry those items for the horses that originally pulled them. Clearly he stands accused of not literally obeying the law. But he will probably retort, "You can't be serious." We all understand that an ancient law passed in the days of horse-drawn transport no longer applies to vehicles with engines. Mind you, it does embody a principle about how to care for a working animal, and that remains relevant—we'll come back to that.
In the same way, common sense tells us that when Paul commands Timothy to "endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ," that is a command that I should seek to obey whenever I face hardship like Timothy. It transfers to me in principle. But when Paul commands Timothy, "Come before winter, bring my cloak, and especially the parchments," we know that is a local, particular command, meant for Timothy only. The idea that all the imperative statements in the Bible should be taken literally, as if they all apply to me, is a nonsensical way of handling Scripture.
Old Testament law: Why is it there?
What we usually mean by "Old Testament law" comes from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The word Torah does not really mean "law" in the sense of legislation. It means "guidance." And the Torah guides its original recipients, and us, by setting the laws and commandments within the framework of a story.
Before we get the Ten Commandments, we get the story of Creation, the brokenness of our sin and rebellion, and the wonder of God's redemption, displayed in the Exodus of the Israelites. So the law was given to a people who not only knew that story, and knew the God who stands behind it, but who had lived it as well. God gave his law to people who had already experienced his grace, his love and faithfulness, his great act of salvation. Obeying the law was never a way to earn God's salvation, but the right way for redeemed people to respond to God's salvation when they had experienced it (Ex. 19:3–6; Deut. 6:20–25).
And God gave Israel his law in order to shape them into a society that would reflect God's character and values in the midst of the nations—what we might call a missional motivation (Lev. 18:3–4; Deut. 4:6–8). The Israelites were to be distinctive by living in God's way, the ways of personal integrity, economic and social justice, and community compassion. The law was not a set of arbitrary rules to keep God happy. It was a way of life, a way of being human, a culture in a particular time and place, to show what a redeemed people under God looks like.
To imagine that "living biblically" means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God's grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.
Old Testament law: What's in it?
Every society follows different kinds of law—constitutional, criminal, civil, and so forth. So also in Old Testament Israel. There's an old tradition that divides Old Testament law into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. It has some value, but it can result in people saying, "I only need to pay attention to the moral law and can ignore all the rest." But that doesn't seem to fit with Paul's affirmation that "all Scripture" is authoritative and useful (2 Tim. 3:16–17, emphasis mine).
To fill the picture, we need to recognize that the ancient Israelites had at least the following kinds of law.
Criminal laws: Offenses against the foundations of the society itself, meaning against God and the covenant. Most of those were sanctioned by the death penalty, indicating how seriously the Israelites took any behavior that threatened the nation's relationship with God. All the capital offenses in Israel are linked, directly or indirectly, to one of the Ten Commandments.
Civil laws: Disputes between citizens over land, property, damages, compensation, animals, and so forth. Many of the case laws fall into this category.
Family laws: Parents, rather than courts, dealt with most of these matters, such as inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Only if something went beyond the power of parents to control did it come before the elders.
Religious or cultic laws: All the regulations concerning sacrifice, priesthood, festivals, offerings, cleanness and uncleanness, and so on.
Compassionate laws: We would hardly call these "laws" at all, but the Torah has many of them, such as how to treat the poor and needy, the homeless, those without families or land, debtors, ethnic minorities, and immigrants.
The point is that on one hand, all of these kinds of laws were intended for Israel's society and not directly for us. They are culturally specific and limited. Yet at the same time, as Paul says, all of the laws were "written for our instruction" and are "useful" for us. So we should not find ourselves asking, "Which of these laws do I have to obey, and which can I ignore?" Rather, we should ask, "What can I learn from all of these laws about how God wants me to live and how he wants his people and society at large to live?" Not, "What rules do I have to keep?" but rather, "What kind of relationship do I need to cultivate with God and live out among others?"
Why don't we keep all the laws?
Obviously we don't obey all the Old Testament laws—law such as avoiding clothing made of mixed fibers, stoning to death people who cheat on their spouses, and refusing to eat seafood without fins or scales. Indeed, many of the laws we simply can't obey, because they would break the laws of our own time. For example, we cannot obey the Old Testament laws about how to treat slaves as owning a slave is now illegal (though the biblical laws about slaves have plenty to teach us when we note how unique they were in the ancient world). History has moved on. God knew it would.
But just as well, we should never say, "Oh, we don't bother with those things because they are just Old Testament rules." There are principled reasons why Christians not only need but also should not observe certain Old Testament laws simply as written. And regarding two kinds of law, the New Testament itself provides those reasons.
The sacrificial laws: The New Testament makes it clear that the religious system of temple, altar, animal sacrifices, priesthood, and the Day of Atonement has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ through the Cross and Resurrection. He has accomplished once and for all what that great system pointed toward. The Book of Hebrews stresses that, whether we are Jewish or Gentile believers, we must not go back to that system, because we already have all that it represented through Christ's sacrificial death and ascended life in the presence of the Father.
The food laws: The distinction between clean and unclean animals and foods was symbolic of the distinction between Israel as God's holy people and the Gentile nations (Lev. 20:25–26). In the New Testament, that separation is abolished in Christ, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Through the Cross, God has made the two cultures one new humanity. And as Peter discovered through his vision in Acts 10, before going to the home of the Gentile Cornelius, what God has called clean should no longer be called unclean. Today some Messianic Jewish believers choose freely to observe the kashrut regulations as a mark of their Jewish community and cultural identity. But in their unity, believers are free from food laws.
But just because we no longer keep these laws literally does not mean they can't teach us anything. We are called to present our bodies as a living sacrifice in the service of God. We are called to offer the sacrifice of praise. We are called to cleanness of life in a corrupt world. In fact, if we are tempted to mock Jewish fastidiousness over kosher food in the kitchen, we might ask if we have any sustained commitment to the moral and spiritual distinctiveness that the New Testament upholds.
We can find principles even in Israel's civil laws to apply today. The urban Christians in Corinth did not see oxen grinding corn in their city houses. But when Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he took an Old Testament law about allowing working oxen to be fed from the product of their labors (Deut. 25:4) and applied it to Christian workers in Corinth. He sees a principle in the case law—originally meant for the benefit of animals—and applies it to working humans. The principle: Work deserves reward. Later he applies another commandment about how manna was to be collected (totally irrelevant to Corinth, you might think), and applies it to the principle of equality between Christians (1 Cor. 9:8–10; 2 Cor. 8:13–15). These are biblical examples of creative application of biblical laws in nonliteral, but very appropriate, ways.
How do we find the principles?
The best way to derive principles from the Old Testament law is to ask questions. All laws in all human societies are made for a purpose. Laws happen because people want to change society, to achieve some social goal, to foster certain interests, or to prevent some social evil. So when we look at any particular law or group of biblical laws, we can ask, "What could be the purpose behind this law?" To be more specific:
● What kind of situation was this law intended to promote or to prevent?
● What change in society would this law achieve if it were followed?
● What kind of situation made this law necessary or desirable?
● What kind of person would benefit from this law, by assistance or protection?
● What kind of person would be restrained or restricted by this law, and why?
● What values are given priority in this law? Whose needs or rights are upheld?
● In what way does this law reflect what we know from elsewhere in the Bible about the character of God and his plans for human life?
● What principle or principles does this law embody or instantiate?
Now we won't always be able to answer these questions with much detail or insight. Some laws are just plain puzzling. But asking questions like these leads us to a much broader and deeper grasp of what Old Testament laws were all about: forming the kind of society God wanted to create.
Then, having done that homework as best we can, we step out of the Old Testament world and back into our own. Ask the same kind of questions about the society we live in and the kind of people we need to be, and the kind of personal and societal objectives we need to aim for in order to be in any sense "biblical."
In this way, biblical law can function sharply as a paradigm or model for our personal and social ethics in all kinds of areas: economic, familial, political, judicial, sexual, and so on. We are not "keeping it" in a literalist way like a list of rules. But more important, we are not ignoring it in defiance of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. We are studying and using it as guidance, light for the path, in the joyful way of Psalms 1, 19, and 119.
What would Jesus and Paul say?
A. J. Jacobs tried it for a year. The rich young ruler said he had done it all his life. Jesus' response might have been the same: "You need to follow me and get your priorities right. Seek first the reign of God in all of life." Even the law itself expresses key priorities (e.g., Deut. 10:12–13). The prophets put social justice way above religious rituals (1 Sam. 15:22; Hos. 6:6). Jesus agreed, telling those who were meticulously keeping the jot-and-tittle rules that they had forgotten the bigger picture—namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). And he concentrated all the law in the twin first and second commandments, love for God and neighbor. Paul took the same view (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:13–14).
But Paul went further. To those who imagine that "living biblically" means keeping all the rules you can possibly find in the Bible, I think he would say, "You haven't understood the first thing about the gospel. The Good News is not, 'Here are the rules, see how many of them you can keep.' " Instead, I believe he would say, "Here is Jesus. See what God has done for you through him."
The good news is that the God who created the world has kept his promise to save the world. He has done it through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we can be part of the story that ends in a new creation, with Christ reigning as king. The good news also is that once we have entered that story by repentance and faith, God gives us his Spirit, precisely so that "the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4).
There is plenty that we can learn from Old Testament laws that can still usefully guide our ethical and missional thinking and action. The Torah was always intended to do just that. But the heartbeat of Christian life and freedom is not keeping all the rules. Instead, it is living as people whose whole life and character are shaped by God's Word in all its Christ-centered fullness, becoming more like the Christ we trust and follow, and bearing the fruit of God's Spirit. That's living biblically.
Christopher J. H. Wright is international ministries director of Langham Partnership, founded by John Stott, and lives in London. He has written several books and commentaries on the Old Testament, including Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (InterVarsity Press) and The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Zondervan).
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