Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 1: Prefatory Playfulness

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1 – Prefatory Playfulness

I think it is high time to post a series of ruminations on the relationship between Old Testament law and New Testament ethics. There simply are so many mistakes to be made and mishaps to muddle through on this subject, not to mention the myriad of simply sincere disagreements. And there are so very many attendant and related issues. In fact, the wide significance of the subject is such that one could suppose that it touches on all of Scripture, and perhaps on all of life.

Old Testament Law & New Testament Ethics

This scale of significance can be downright off putting. It would be a sign of hubris to suppose that one has figured out all the issues, solved all the problems, and mastered all the implications. It would be worse still if one supposed not only that but also that one was able to persuade all people of these profound truths.

What I would like to offer are some observations and suggestions for your consideration. But I do beg your patience: I’ll leave comments on for this series of posts simply, though most are likely to be disregarded. Time is short. There is much to be done in life. And I really want to avoid the inevitable horde of but what abouts. On this subject, as on none other save perhaps eschatology, does one find conversation partners blurting “but what about” with such haste, rapidity, and regularity. I imagine that a number of but what abouts will be addressed in due course, anyhow, but I’d like to keep the relevant material in the posts and not in an unwieldy wake of comments. So, again, I’ll beg your patience on that front.

On Beginning

There are ways we could begin our study. One could begin, for instance, at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, and even if that would seem less imaginative to some readers. Even so, this would place us at an historical time prior to Sinai, prior to Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel. We would find ourselves at a time even prior to the divine institution of circumcision. And do you know where in the Bible circumcision is first commanded? Book and chapter? 

In fact, in Genesis, we would find ourselves in a period where no one is said to have observed Sabbath but God alone. (And there actually isn’t a “go and do thou likewise” in Genesis 2.) And do you know where it is recorded that the Hebrews are first commanded to observe a Sabbath rest? Again, book and chapter? 

Nevertheless, in Genesis, prior to Sinai, prior to Moses, we would find Mr. Melchizedek, a priest, a king, of Salem, and Abraham, a tithe-giver, as well as people making sacrifices, and a noted distinction between clean and unclean animals (see Genesis 6-9), though without any noted limitations regarding which kind of animals one may eat. It can all seem just so very perplexing.

Now, indeed, Genesis, the book of beginnings, the first book of Torah, is a book filled with wondrous stories, many of which are far too short to satisfy all our questions. Perhaps even right here there is something worth taking on board. The Hebrew term torah, which we tend to translate as law, is perhaps first, foremost, and best to be understood as instruction. Yes, instruction. And what better way to instruct people than with stories, complete with villains and victims, with moral exemplars who are as flawed as common humans, providing illustrations of what is commended and what is condemned, and of a wide variety of conundrums in which humans may find themselves (or into which they may get themselves).

(This reminds me of how perplexed I get when I encounter the Christian pablum, especially in the form of bracelets, WWJD? What would Jesus do? Well, most of the time he simply wouldn’t have gotten himself into your mess. So I’m not sure where you’re supposed to take it from there, except perhaps to yet another acronymic moral muddle. Now, where were we. Yes, stories.)

Stories, instruction, even instructions (noting the plural), comprise the bulk of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, the Torah. It is all too common, however, to suppose that torah simply means law, and thus laws, and thus commands, and especially prohibitions — and particularly the thou…shalt…nots. Some pure (albeit divine) negativity. And thus there is a contemporary prejudice against laws, especially divine laws, and thus against divine instructions, the very instruction offered to us by our Creator. It is what it is.

Words

So, we could begin with Genesis, but I’d rather not, at least not here at the beginning of the series. We’ll return to Genesis soon enough, mind you. We simply must. But we find ourselves now at a different time, in a different place, facing different issues. We find ourselves in nation-states, a somewhat modern rendition of Babel. The world is divided, and even our nations can be divided. There are the ever-present culture wars that encroach over everything, turning festivities into fracases and fractricides, pulling families to pieces, making enemies of friends, and bruising all our hearts (assuming we have one).

It can be so very difficult to hold to distinctively Christian convictions when the culture round about us is in such a hurry to run from God. What are we to say? How are we to act? Should we simply be silent and let our actions speak for us? Is that our calling, the calling of a mime? (Not that I have any fundamental aversion to mime’s mind you.) If so, if we are called to mime, then one could only hope that the message might come through. And what would be our message, anyhow? And how in the world would the message ever get through?

“In the beginning was the Cosmic Mime,” we read in the book of First Impressions, chapter 14b (see, Second Opinions subsection 327*12.f; Hesitations, Appendix 4; and 2 Clichés, pretty much everywhere). No, that just won’t do. God is not mute. In the beginning God spoke (Genesis 1). In the beginning was the Word (John 1). Indeed, if nothing else, when we read the Bible we find that God is not content to be silent. His care, his concerns, his commendations, and even his condemnations are pronounced. Pronounced, yes, spoken, declared, enunciated. Words. Words. Words. And thus the Bible is a huge book, running at least at sixty-six books long (though there are those who would protest at such limits).

Despite God being a God of words, many people object to there being any such words from God — if they suppose that there is a God. After all, how could there be just one way to worship God? After all, do you really suppose that God would choose a particular and peculiar people to be his people, leaving out all of the rest? (Note to self: It doesn’t go so well for those so-called chosen people, if one takes into account what we read of them in the Old Testament, and what we know of Israelites since the first century, and as we even look at the embattled State of Israel today. What’s to complain about in not being chosen?!)

Beginning with God’s Words

Okay, we’ve been enjoying a bit of a stream of consciousness so far. It isn’t for naught. I’ll just say that. Nor is it simply some sustained snark, neither merely an irritating articulated alliteration. I’ll say that too. Then I’ll say that following (with “say” here meaning “write,” where “write” here means “type” — just to be clear).

  • God is communicative, and even creates creatures in his image who also are communicative. God is intent to communicate to us, though we may deny, reject, or misunderstand that communication (or add to it, saying that our additions also are God’s words).
  • God need not, and did not, provide all of his instructions at one time. God is the ultimate authority. In other words, it is possible that God would command or prohibit certain things only for a timetemporarily. (We’ll come back to this and other thoughts in the future, Lord willing.) Thus it is imperative that we listen to his words. He is the ultimate authority.
  • God is interested in human welfare, as seen in his desire to provide instruction(s). God’s Torah, his instructions, largely is composed of stories, narratives. These are verbal, even literary means of shaping us. With ears to hear, these stories may cultivate in us the very affections and aversions of God. As made in his image, we are intended to reflect him.

In the next post we’ll develop some of these or other thoughts and look at some specific issues and passages. Until next time.

Quest…ions

Oh, you’re still here. Well, let me give you some ideas about what I’d us to discuss in future posts. (I used the term “discuss” here metaphorically, since I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your but what abouts.)

  • If God issues a command, does it have to be an everlasting command? In other words, can a divine command have an expiry date?
  • If God gives a command to Israel, does that mean that it applies to all other nations as well? If not, how might know?
  • Why distinguish between clean and unclean animals? Was it for health purposes? Or was it to avoid eating our closest pets or the crunchy creatures of the sea?
  • Why cut off foreskins? What?! Isn’t that a tad bit aggressive?!
  • Did you know that clothing of mixed fibers is more durable? But, what about that?
  • Under the old covenant, what were the obligations of gentiles who lived in the promised land?
  • Was Abraham a gentile before he was circumcised? Isn’t that possibly just offensive to suggest?
  • Are elect angels circumcised too? (I knew you were wondering.)
  • Are getting tattoos and trimming one’s beard (assuming one can grow something properly termed “a beard”) just simply abominable, sort of like having sexual relations with your sister or even eating shrimp?
  • Since Christians are not under law but under grace, why keep the Old Testament in the Bible anyhow?
  • Would it be wrong if an Israelite found a dead cat, for her to sell that cat to a non-citizen residing in the promised land? I mean, for a profit and all? Or would she simply have to give it away to some foreigner? Or bury it? A roadkill restaurant? Okay, I’ll stop.
  • Since Christians are under grace, what’s the big deal with bad ol’ scary sin? Aren’t all sins equal anyhow? “Hell yes!,” some might say.
  • Dude, shouldn’t you not be judging? Who are you to judge? And who am I to ask you who you are to judge the ones who are asking those judging not to judge the judgers?
  • Isn’t it know more sin and not no more sin?

Well, these are but a few of the serious inquiries we’ll touch on as the series unfolds. Lord willing, the series will unfold. No promises, mind you, just good intentions.

1 – Prefatory Playfulness
2 – Love and Leviticus 
3 – Practice and Priorities
4 – Abominations
5 – Ritual Impurity
6 – The Ten Commandments

 

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4 thoughts on “Old Testament Law and New Testament Ethics – 1: Prefatory Playfulness

  1. I read your post, and I thought, “What would Jesus do?!” No, not really. But that was hilarious! I’m currently reading books that attempt to suggest ways to be spokespeople for the Kingdom to a culture that is wanting to listen less and less. One is called ” I Once Was Lost”, with a subtitle of something like “Evangelism to a Post-Modern World”. It describes five thresholds that post-moderns need to pass through on their way to belief: 1) Trusting a Christian, 2) Curiosity about the gospel, 3) Desire to change, 4) Genuinely seeking truth, and 5) Committing oneself to the Truth. All thresholds involve words, but they suggest to not offer a firehose when one asks for a cup of water. The other book I’m reading with my church Community Group is “Total Church”. In it, the authors show through biblical exegesis and practical experience that inviting outsiders to experience genuine community creates a platform from which the gospel mechanics (words) really make sense.

    If you get the chance to peruse these, I’d love to see how these ideas might get tossed into the discussion for good measure! i don’t think this becomes a “but what about..,”. Do you?

    • No, perhaps not a “but what about.” I’m familiar with “Total Church,” but have not read it. My reading list currently is very long (though it is ever tentative). If I do get around to reading these items, perhaps I’ll post some thoughts. In the meantime, I’m keenly interested in getting some more thoughts posted about OT law and NT ethics. I just feel a bit compelled right now. Cheers!

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing more in this series! Here’s my 2c worth to some of the questions:

    If God issues a command, does it have to be an everlasting command?

    — not if it was given an expiry date or the nature of it was temporary. But yes if it is called eternal, throughout your generations, o if it goes with commands not to listen to anyone in the future who teaches to leave it.

    If God gives a command to Israel, does that mean that it applies to all other nations as well? If not, how might know?

    — no, because God was specific enough to direct it at Israel while including non-Israelites in things like the Passover

    Why distinguish between clean and unclean animals? Was it for health purposes? Or was it to avoid eating our closest pets or the crunchy creatures of the sea?

    — I’m looking forward to hearing more about this. My view so far is that unclean animals were known about at least as far back as Noah, and it seems that only clean animals were offered to God. Much of the covenant of Moses was about identifying intimately with God (eg, the sabbath – He rested so they rest). Also, in order to eat meat it had to be offered as a sacrifice. So if the only meat you can eat is part of an offering and you can only offer clean animals, then you can only eat clean animals.

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