Understanding Biblical Genres: Law

Today’s post in this series on understanding the literary genres of the Bible is going to talk about Law, or Commandments. This is one that’s particularly challenging to talk about as a Christian, since Christian revelation ends up marginalizing the Hebrew Bible’s legal stipulations. There has, therefore, been a lot of misunderstanding among Christians about how the Law operated, what it meant in ancient times and, especially, what it continues to mean for Jews today. And so today, I’d like to — as much as possible in a blog post — try to untangle this a bit and answer the following questions: What was the Law? How did it relate to other law codes of its cultural milieu? How has it been interpreted and applied by the Jewish tradition throughout history? And how does the teaching of the New Testament relate to it?

First, it’s important to define our terms. While ‘the Law’ can be a direct gloss for the Hebrew term ‘Torah’ and refer to the first five books of the Bible as a whole, as a literary genre, law refers specifically to the roughly half of the Torah that is comprised of explicitly legal material. Law includes the Ten Commandments and the later expansions from Exodus through Deuteronomy that add up to 613 commandments in total that made up the religious and civil law code for ancient Israel. The Biblical Law shows remarkable similarities with other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, but also Akkadian and Ugaritic codes. The lex talionis (’an eye for an eye’), the laws around man-goring oxen, and even the Sabbatical years all have direct parallels in the legal codes of ancient Israel’s neighbours. At the same time, Biblical Law has a particular interest in setting Israelites apart from their neighbours. Along this line, it insists on the worship of the God known as YHWH alone, and prohibits specific religious practices of their neighbours, particularly idolatry. So the Law as it has come down to us reveals the Israelites to belong to their cultural milieu, while also desiring to set them apart from it.

The Law is framed as a vassal covenant, a treaty formalizing a relationship between a powerful political entity and a weaker one, in which both parties had rights and responsibilities. This attitude towards the Law, which prevails within most of the Hebrew Bible, can be summarized by Deuteronomy 30:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

The Psalms and Wisdom Literature, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, again highlight the importance of the Law, here as the ultimate revelation of God’s Wisdom and a source of blessing. The only real tension we see about the Law within the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the Prophets. But they aren’t criticizing the Law as such, but calling attention to the unequal ways it was being applied. This is what’s happening with Isaiah’s famous lines, What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (1.11) and “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (58.6). Isaiah is not saying the fasts or sacrifices commanded in the Law are bad but that these rituals are only part of what’s expected; the moral and ethical precepts of the Law are just as important as the ceremonial ones. It does no good to perform piety while neglecting to care for the marginalized. You can’t pick and choose what parts of the Law you’re going to obey.

Obedience to the Law has always been prized in Israelite and later Jewish religion, but the problem the prophetic critique brings out — that people tend to prefer some aspects of the Law over others — has never really gone away and so there has always been a significant amount of diversity in what different groups have understood obedience to the Law to look like. By the time of Jesus, for example, the Sadducee party was primarily concerned (like those Isaiah criticized) with the commandments surrounding worship and the proper functioning of the Temple. The Pharisees, by contrast, were concerned with the minute details of the Law, building in buffers so as not to risk accidentally breaking commandments. But, as their conflict with Jesus shows, this tendency could similarly blind them to the bigger ethical principles within the Law: “You tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23.23).

Overall, I think it’s fair to say that while Judaism has always prized obedience to the Law, for the most part, it has not prized a passive obedience to the Law. From the beginning, there seems to be a sensibility that encourages active participation, wrestling with the text, and wrangling with one another and God in understanding how to apply it. There is some evidence of this in the Bible itself. As we saw back in February, the book of Numbers recounts a story of women who challenge God on a certain Law and God acknowledges that their challenge is just and makes provision for them (Numbers 27). And, as we’ve seen a few times over the past year, Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God includes eunuchs and Gentiles, two groups which are excluded or marginalized in the Law. This shows that there was already space for questioning within the tradition. But the clearest example of this value on active engagement with the Law is seen in the fact that the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is essentially a compilation of arguments and debates among ancient rabbis about how to apply the Law. As one contemporary rabbi writes:

The Torah is black fire upon white fire, which bears specific and different meanings depending on the living-reading-observing community. In the first century the schools of Hillel and Shammai differed greatly on many issues and often had completely opposing interpretations. The rabbis clamed that ‘both these and those are the words of the living God’ [(Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)]. If two opposing understandings of Scripture can both be the wrod of God, there must be no final reading of any verse. All verses in the Torah are pregnant with multiple meanings, some on the surface, others more deeply hidden, and some yet unborn.*

He concludes: “Questions are a hallmark of Jewish spirituality.” And perhaps this is the best way to think about the place of the Law in Judaism: it is to be obeyed and lived to be sure, but it is to be lived as a set of questions, not a set of answers. The answers are for the community of with to wrestle with and discover in ever-evolving ways. To this day, it is different answers to these questions, rather than theology, which differentiates different Jewish denominations and traditions.

For us as Christians, the Law presents a different set of problems, not the least of which is that the New Testament doesn’t offer a clear teaching about it. Jesus claimed he was not about abolishing the Law, but fulfilling it, saying: “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5.17-18). But that said, he got into trouble for breaking the letter of the Law surrounding Sabbath observance, and at times even contradicted the Law (see especially his “You have heard it said … but I say to you…” teachings.) What Jesus seems to be advocating is a movement away from the Law as something external, but something internal, like what Jeremiah talked about with his prophecy of the day when the Law would be written on the hearts of the faithful (Jeremiah 31.33). He opposed the whole idea of ritual purity and impurity, insisting that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles’” (Matthew 15.11). Essentially, Jesus radicalizes the Law, making it about the heart of God that lies behind the commandments rather than the Law itself. And so, he pushes the limit of the law far beyond what even the Pharisees promoted, saying that to be angry is just as much a problem as murder, and to lust after another person’s spouse is as much a problem as committing adultery. It’s as though if the Pharisees constructed fences around the Law to prevent them from doing wrong, Jesus wanted to go back to the blueprints of the Law in order to do right. It has often been suggested that Matthew’s Gospel is structured as a ‘new’ Law, spending far more time on Jesus’ teachings than the other Gospels, and organizing them into five major discourses, parallel to the five books of the Torah.

Like Jesus, Paul too claims not to be undermining the Law, writing, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3.31). But at the same time, he insisted that a) obedience to the Law is not enough to attain righteousness, b) the Law is no longer the basis of our covenant with God, and therefore c) the Law is no longer to define the boundaries of the community of faith. (This last count was a source of controversy until Peter, a leader of the more conservative faction, had a vision in which God told him to eat non-kosher foods and was then summoned to preach to a Gentile household.) Paul goes so far as to call the Law a ‘nanny’, whose job was to bring the faithful safely to school and back until they came of age (Galatians 3.24 — often this is translated as ‘teacher’ or ‘disciplinarian’, but the word paidagogos referred to a slave who would escort children to school). It’s hard to see how exactly Paul intended to ‘uphold the law’ when he robbed it of its primary uses within the community of faith. It’s no surprise then that, while there remained Jewish Christian communities for a couple hundred years in the Middle East, the main streams of Christianity quickly left the Law behind as a relic of an old age. Since the main way of interpreting the Bible in early Christianity was to read it through the lens of Christ, the Law became primarily a way of foreshadowing the teaching of Jesus. Later, the Law took on a decidedly more negative connotation in the Reformation, with Martin Luther’s famed (and false) dichotomy between ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’, and sadly this idea has remained common in much Protestant Christianity and has led to widespread misunderstanding of Judaism, both ancient and modern. Because, of course, no Jew would ever oppose Law and the good news of God’s grace, for they understand the Law to be a gift from God, not a set of chains from which they would want to be freed.

So where does that leave us today when approaching the Bible’s Legal texts as Christians? I think it requires a bit of nuance. The most important thing is that the Law is not definitive for Christian identity or ethics. It can most certainly guide and shape how we think about moral questions, but we ought to follow Jesus’ path and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, embody the heart behind the commandments. (As someone I know once put it, we are not to read the word of God but become living words of God.) We must also remember that our covenant with God operates on different grounds and has different promises: Specifically, we are not involved in a land-based covenant and forgetting that has always led to very bad fruit in the world. At the same time, we should in no way disrespect or denigrate the Law. Doing so both distorts the teachings of Jesus and insults the continued faithfulness of the Jewish community, which rightly understands the Law as a gift from God.

* Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men, 78-79.

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