The laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews and difficult territory for Christians. Some Christians won’t touch the statutes with the proverbial long pole—unless (to sound very cynical) some of the laws are suitable to prove a point, and suddenly the laws become God’s eternal word to point out other people's sins.
I’ve an interesting book by a Presbyterian minister, William J. Doorly (1931-2011), called The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Paulist Press, 2002). I took some notes from the book concerning the layers of traditions in the Torah, and scholars’ theories about the laws’ historical origins.
Doorly describes the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile:
The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23)
The Deuteronomic Law Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)
The Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)
Doorly calls attention to the reform of Judahite religion during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC), when the book of the law was discovered in the temple and then the keeping of the law was enjoined (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah’s tragic death, soon followed by the fall of Jerusalem, cut short the reforms, but the work of preserving and editing the laws continued during the exile (586-536 BC). Scholars believe that the law discovered in the temple comprised at least part of the Deuteronomic Law Code. At about this same time, what scholars call the Deuteronomic History (comprising much of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) was written, connecting Josiah and Joshua as heroes of the law, and depicting the Lord as uncompromisingly focused upon the people’s keeping of laws (pp. 1-4).
Doorly notes that the Levitical priests, connected historically to the Shechem/Shiloh area in the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to the Assyrians in 722-721 BC), are associated with “the Deuteronomic circle,” but meanwhile the Aaronic (or Zadokite) priests associated with the temple also compiled laws (p. 4-5). During and after the exile, laws were preserved by both groups and eventually edited into what we now know as the Torah or Penteteuch. (I took some notes on the Aaronic and Levitical priests for my May 18, 2012 post about the biblical monarchy and priesthood.)
The Book of the Covenant contains cultic laws about altars and images, 22 secuar laws about restitution, bodily injury, and property, 20 cultic and social laws (including God’s demand for justice) and finally 6 more cultic laws, including three festivals (p. 12). While not the oldest laws, they may be associated with the reform work of Hezekiah and then were preserved by the Aaronic priests during the exile from the Jahwist and Elohist sources (J and E) (pp. 7-9).
The Deuteronomic Code, much longer than the Book of the Covenant, includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on (pp. 29-30). While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (pp. 32-33).
The Holiness Code contain laws about the slaughter of animals, sexual tabboos, priests, several annual festivals, sabbatical years and jubilee years, and others. Doorly believes that this code was a pre-exilic stroll intended for education of Judahites, separate from the Priestly Code (p. 49).
The Priestly Code is found in Ex. 12-13, 25-30, Lev. 1-7, 10-15, 27, Num 5-6, 9-10, 18, 27-30, and 35-36. This code includes laws about Passover (Ex. 12-13), the tabernacle (Ex. 25-30), offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27), uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36) (p. 65). This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (p. 49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly points out that both the Aaronic and Levitical schools sought to preserve laws in light of their creative rewriting of Israel’s history, with the Levites beginning with the events of Deuteronomy, and the Aaronids beginning with the time of the Exodus (pp. 72-73).
In chapter 6 of this interesting book, Doorly also provides the 613 laws, thus enumerated in the rabbinical tradition and the work of HaLevi and Maimonides. A book from which I took notes for an earlier post---Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997)---also lists the laws but also goes into some detail how the applicable laws (many of the laws can no longer be observed) are interpreted and observed by Jews today.
As I said before, the laws of the Torah are beloved for Jews. In an essay in Torah: A Modern Commentary, Bernard J. Bamberger writes, “The Torah was always the possession of all Israel. It was addressed to the entire people, who were to learn its contents and teach them diligently to their children. A number of biblical passages, in particular Psalms 19 and 119, testify to the love which the Torah evoked and its widespread concern of the people with its teachings” (p. xxix). He goes on to say that Ezra publicly read the Torah in Jerusalem around the year 444 BCE, and a few days later the people agreed to obey its teachings, thus reaffirming the Sinai covenant in that post-exilic time (p. xxix).
We Christians should remember a few things about the Torah. The first is that much of material was not originally meant to be applicable for us Gentiles (Acts 15, Gal. 3:3-5). These 613 laws were first given for Jews to do God’s will and to set them apart as God’s people. The distinction you often hear—the moral laws are applicable for Christians but the ceremonial laws are not—is not a biblical distinction at all, because in the Torah, all of life—worship, legal translations, daily behavior, diet, and so on—are of whole cloth, as it were. In his love, God has given the Hebrews a precious expression of his will. God shares this religious heritage with us Gentiles because of his love (Rom. 11:17-24).
Contrary to a common Christian idea, Judaism has not historically viewed the law as a means of self-justification and self-salvation; the law has been God’s wonderful gift to follow. Paul, however, was adamant that the laws were unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity; even more than the moral law, he stressed the law of the guidance of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Now, we see the law through Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and took the consequences of our law breaking onto himself (2 Cor. 5:21). But Paul upholds the law (Rom. 3:31), to show how Christ’s perfect (law-keeping) life is now a gift of life to us. (10) Arguing thus, Paul stayed within the Torah and went back before Moses to Abraham to show how God’s favor touches people through their faith apart from the law (Romans 4). (Jesus did a similar thing, going prior to Moses to God’s first intentions: Matt. 10:2-9).
The question remains for Christians: how does the law still apply? A classic Christian solution is to view the law in three ways: as a restraint to the wicked (the political use), as the law that brings us to Christ’s salvation (Gal. 3:24, the theological use), and then the “third use of the law,” which is to give content to the love of Christ which we display as we’re transformed by the Spirit (Gal. 6:2).
The concerns for justice and a righteous society are also important aspects of the Torah. My NRSV Harper Study Bible (p. 274) gives a list of “major social concerns of the covenant.” I don't want to copy the whole list because it 's copyrighted, so I encourage anyone interested in the social aspects of the Torah to find this Bible and study the passages cited there. Some of them include:
* Personhood: everyone should be secure: e.g. Ex. 21:16, 26-31, etc.
* No woman should be taken advantage of: Ex. 21:7-11, 20, etc.
* Everyone’s property rights should be secure (Ex. 21:33-36, etc.)
* Everyone should enjoy the fruit of their labors (Lev. 19:13, etc.)
* Everyone is to share produce of the ground (Ex. 23:10-11, etc.)
* Everyone should rest on the Sabbath, including servants and resident aliens and animals (Ex. 20:8-11, etc.)
* Everyone deserves a fair trial (Ex. 23:6, 8, etc.)
* No one should be exploited or oppressed, including the impoverished and disabled (Ex. 22:21-27, etc.).
* Animals well being should be protected (Ex. 23:5, 11, etc.).
How we interpret the laws and their spirit (originating in ancient agricultural and monarchical society) in our contemporary, technological and liberal capitalist societies is the ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation for both Jews and Christians.
In addition to the importance of the text itself, the Torah (both the laws and the narratives) is foundational for the New Testament in several ways so obvious that we take them for granted. One is the righteousness of Christ and his law-keeping life, which I discussed above.
Another way the Torah is foundational for Christians is the idea of the covenant, for now God has extended his covenant to include non-Jews (Rom. 3:29-30).
Still another is the idea of blood for atonement forgiveness of sins (Rom. 3:25). Christ’s blood was shed and now there is no longer need for sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-14).
Still other connections:
* The Creation and New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:1)
* Adam and the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21)
* The faith of Abraham, in some important ways the key to the whole Bible (Gen. 12:1-3, Rom. 4, Heb. 11:8-22)
* The manna in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread (Ex. 16:1-21, John 6:25-40).
* The covenant, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and the Eucharist (Ex. 24:6-9Lev. 7:12, 22:29, Ps. 107:22, 116:17, Amos 4:5)
* The healing serpent and the healing of Christ (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15)
* The condemnation in Deuteronomy of a condemned criminal “hanging on a tree” (Deut. 21:22-23; John 19:31, Gal. 3:13)
* The salvation of Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)
* The role of Moses (Heb. 3:1-6, 11:23-28)
* The priesthood of Aaron (Heb. 7:11-14, 9:1-10:18)
* The “rest” of the Promised Land (Heb. 3:7-4:13)
* The Pascal Lamb (Ex. 12:11; 1 Cor. 5:7)
* The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24:3-8 and the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25.
* The two great commandments (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:28-34, Gal. 5:14).
Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. Any pastor who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is a true shepherd.