Should Old Testament law be of value to Christians, and if so, in what sense? Dr Carmen Imes is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Prairie College in Alberta, Canada, and did her doctoral research on the understanding of the third Commandment ‘You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain’, published as a monograph by Eisenbrauns. She believes that Christians need to rediscover the value of Old Testament law in their discipleship, and has made the case in an accessible form in a forthcoming book with IVP, Bearing God’s Name.
What made you engage with the subject in the forthcoming book?
This book began as my doctoral dissertation under Dr. Daniel Block at Wheaton College. Before I applied, I asked him for ideas of topics that needed work, and this was one that he suggested. The command “not to take the LORD’s name in vain” has been mistranslated and misunderstood for centuries, with major implications for faith communities. It was time to set the record straight. My dissertation was subsequently published with Eisenbrauns in an academic series, but I was not yet satisfied. I wanted to get this message to a much broader audience, and IVP gave me the opportunity to rework my findings for the Church.
What problems do you see in the way that Christians relate to Old Testament law? Why does this matter?
Christians these days tend toward two extremes. A small segment of evangelicals over-emphasize the Old Testament law by celebrating Jewish festivals, circumcising their sons, eating kosher, and following as much of the law as possible. The vast majority of evangelicals go to the opposite extreme—ignoring the law altogether except for the few verses that support their particular cultural agenda. The lack of coherence in this approach is all too evident to a watching world. We appear to be selective legalists who are not at all consistent.
What ‘particular cultural agendas’ do you see being pursued in this way? Are there certain issues where Christians often act legalistically?
At the heart of your argument is the claim that the Third Commandment relates to ‘bearing God’s name’ rather than taking it in vain. Why do you believe this—and what difference does it make?
The Hebrew text is quite clear on this, using the verb nasa’, which means “to lift up, bear, or carry”: “You shall not bear the name of Yahweh in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Our problem historically is that interpreters have assumed this statement makes no sense. How does one carry God’s name? This must be an idiom for something else. Often they land on a prohibition of oaths or magic. However, if we read this command in its literary context, the meaning of the phrase becomes quite clear. We can see the logic by re-reading the entire book of Exodus. Moses is rescued from Pharaoh in Egypt, Moses travels through the wilderness, and then Moses arrives at Sinai, where he encounters God. That encounter is the context in which he learns the name of Yahweh and is commissioned to act on Yahweh’s behalf. Then we return to Egypt and the cycle begins again, this time with the whole nation. Israel is rescued from Egypt, Israel travels through the wilderness, and Israel encounters Yahweh at Sinai. In that encounter, Yahweh commissions the Israelites to represent him to all nations as his segullah, or treasured possession (Exodus 19:5-6).
This is the first of many clues that Israel bears Yahweh’s name, that is, that he has claimed Israel as his own representative. Another clue comes in their role as “kingdom of priests.” Israel’s own high priest is said to “bear the names” of the twelve tribes on his uniform (Exodus 28:29). His apron is literally inscribed with their names. He also literally bears Yahweh’s name on his forehead, wearing a gold medallion that reads “Holy, belonging to Yahweh” (Exodus 28:36-37). The high priest is a visual model of the role the entire nation is to play in relation to surrounding nations. The name he bears literally, they bear metaphorically as a result of election. Yahweh has placed his name on them, as it says explicitly in the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:22-27.
This makes a tremendous difference in how we understand our vocation as covenant members. If God’s covenant people bear his name, we represent him to a watching world. The name command is not solely concerned with how we say the name of God, but rather with how we live. Everything we do reflects on him. We are his Public Relations department. People find out what sort of God he is by watching the character of his people on display. We cannot afford to miss this!
This appears to make a connection with Paul’s language of Jesus followers as ‘the body of Christ’—but also with language in the gospels such as Jesus’ teaching that ‘whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the Father who sent me’ (Matt 10.40). Do you think there is a direct connection between these ideas, or are they different ways of expressing the same theological insight?
I think they both get at the idea of representation, which sometimes uses “name-related” language and sometimes does not. In my book I trace the theme from Sinai all the way to Revelation to show how it makes sense of Israel’s vocation and of ours. One especially clear example is Paul’s commissioning story in Acts 9. The Christian Ananias is very hesitant to go to Paul and pray for him to receive his sight, given his reputation for persecuting followers of Jesus. But the Lord tells him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim [Greek: “bear”] my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16, NIV). Paul’s calling is to bear the name of Christ before the nations. It’s as clear as that.
The commissioning of Israel as a nations of priests in Exodus 19.5–6 is picked up explicitly in the Book of Revelation, and in the New Jerusalem the saints appear to be wearing the name of God on their foreheads just as the high priest did. Does that offer a confirmation of your reading?
Yes, I think it does! What was invisible and metaphorical throughout the Bible becomes visibly apparent in John’s vision. And notice that it’s not just faithful believers in God who wear a name. Followers of the beast are marked by his number on their hand or forehead. Allegiances become visible on both sides.
Ordinary readers are rightly suspicious of anyone who comes along and says ‘You’ve all misunderstood this text: I have the real meaning which no-one knew until now!’ Why should we trust your proposal when we are suspicious of others?
Yes, you should definitely be suspicious of my interpretation! This command has been persistently misunderstood (or too narrowly applied), but not exclusively so. In my dissertation research I found evidence here and there throughout history of this interpretation. Some of the earliest Christian texts outside the Bible (such as the Shepherd of Hermas) connect the name command with baptism. Most recently, Allan Harman (1988), Meir Bar-Ilan (1989), and Daniel Block (2011) have all advocated for this view, but not in a comprehensive way. My doctoral work was an attempt to test it out more thoroughly.
How do you think Christians should be thinking about Old Testament law?
Rather than adopting the entire law or dismissing all of it, or cherry picking what we like, I believe we need to think carefully about our relationship to the Sinai covenant. Laws regarding ritual purity or ethnic distinction have been set aside (see Acts 10-15). Laws about sacrifice are no longer necessary because of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice. Laws regarding moral purity should be the impetus for reflection so that we can contextualize them for our context. What principle or value underlies this law? How might we express that principle or value in our context?
For example, the law that instructs Israelites not to reap to the edges of their field relates to social justice and care for the neighbor. Most of us are not farmers, and even those who are would not be doing anyone a favor if they don’t reap their entire field, since it’s very unlikely that people will come and help themselves to the grain at the edges. So we need to think creatively about how to express this same concern in our context. How can we provide jobs for those in need? How can our generosity stimulate solutions for those without access to capital? In the case of Ruth, Boaz ensures her dignity and protection while working in his fields, going above and beyond what was expected in his day. Ruth was a foreigner without a husband to protect or provide for her. In our context, she’s the equivalent of a refugee or someone who could not pass a background check. Yet Boaz sees her diligence and rewards her with a steady job that will pay the bills.
Are you here suggesting a return to the distinction between what Article VII or the XXXIX Articles calls the ‘ceremonial, civil and moral’ laws? Is that possible given the way that categories of OT law are intermingled?
Not exactly. Those categories are rather artificial, and as you’ve pointed out, the laws are intermingled so that it’s clear the ancient Israelites were not thinking in categories such as these. However, on this side of the resurrection, certain aspects of the law are no longer necessary in the same way. They still teach us about God’s character, but we need not try to do them because their purpose has been met in Christ.
What difference might your argument make in Christian discipleship and in our life as the people of God?
Christians need to rediscover that following Jesus is not just personal. It connects us to a faith community with very public consequences. What we do matters, not just for us, but for all those around us. Who we are is rooted in God’s words to Israel at Sinai. We are his “treasured possession” and a “kingdom of priests,” covenant titles that Peter applies to Gentile believers in 1 Peter 2:9-10. That means we bear his name among the nations.
How does your argument help us to read New Testament language about law and grace?
It is abundantly clear to me that the law was a gift to Israel. It was good news. Moses celebrated it (Deut 4:5-8) and the people signed on willingly (Exod 19:7-8; 24:3). It was never a means of salvation. God had already delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Instead, it was the way to live in freedom as his treasured people. When New Testament authors have negative things to say about the law, I believe they are pushing against misunderstandings of the Old Testament law, not the Old Testament law itself. In their day, the true spirit of the law had been lost. As it says in John 1:16-17, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (NRSV) The law of Moses is the first grace. The gift of Jesus is the second — grace upon grace. If we can recover that, we’ll have a much clearer sense of how Sinai still matters.
Does this relate to the debate around the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’?
Yes, I think it does. A big part of our misunderstanding of what Paul says about the law is because too many of us are still reading it through the lenses of Reformation-era “works salvation.” We also assume that every time “law” is mentioned, the same thing is in view. I think a good model to help us rethink this is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). When he says, “You’ve heard that it was said . . . but I tell you,” his teaching does not digress from the Old Testament law as it was given at Sinai, but rather the Old Testament law as it was understood in his own day. He is not raising the bar beyond Yahweh’s instructions at Sinai by making it about the heart; the Ten Commandments already address the heart. “You shall not covet” is and has always been a heart issue, suggesting that we should read all ten commands as matters of the heart. I hope that my book will help Christians rediscover the gift of God’s law.
In the meantime, you might also be interesting in Philip Jenson’s Grove booklet How to Interpret Old Testament Law.
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