How should we treat Old Testament law?

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?

Leviticus is rarely read or used by Christians, unless we’re trying to make a case against same-sex relationships, premarital sex, or abortion. I do think a case can be made that the Bible prohibits each of these, but we need to situate it in a more robust engagement with the entire book of Leviticus. No one I know avoids wearing clothing woven from two kinds of material, even though Leviticus 19:19 prohibits it. If that command is obsolete but the command against same-sex unions is still in effect (Lev 18:22), then we need to explain why. That’s not a topic I address directly in my book, but I hope my book lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive engagement with questions like these. 

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.

Thanks very much Carmen. I look forward to reading your book when it is out!

You can pre-order Bearing God’s Name in the US; it will be available on the UK site in due course. And Carmen’s thesis is available from Eisenbraun’s.

In the meantime, you might also be interesting in Philip Jenson’s Grove booklet How to Interpret Old Testament Law.

If you enjoyed this article, do share it on social media, possibly using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

27 thoughts on “How should we treat Old Testament law?”

  1. Two paragraphs stand out from this interview with Carmen Imes:

    “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.”

    “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. ”

    Amen and Amen.

  2. Great post. Could I suggest more posts like this one. Thank you.
    It’s a refreshing change to look at the old covenant(s) and the continuity and discontinuity in the new, based on the character of God, his goodness, purposes, promise- keeping and holiness and gracious rescue, redemption of a people for himself and subsequent gracious law giving in the face of rampant idolatry. A refrain throughout scripture, old and new, in different ways is, “I will be your God and you will be my people” eg
    Here is a sample from this site:
    Genesis 17:8
    Verse Concepts
    “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

    Exodus 29:45
    Verse Concepts
    “I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.

    Leviticus 26:45
    Verse Concepts
    ‘But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.'”

    Ezekiel 14:11
    Verse Concepts
    in order that the house of Israel may no longer stray from Me and no longer defile themselves with all their transgressions Thus they will be My people, and I shall be their God,”‘ declares the Lord GOD.”

    Zechariah 8:8
    Verse Concepts
    and I will bring them back and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.’

    2 Corinthians 6:16
    Verse Concepts
    Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.

    Hebrews 8:10
    Verse Concepts

    Jeremiah 32:38
    “They shall be My people, and I will be their God;

    Ezekiel 11:20
    Verse Concepts
    that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God.

    Ezekiel 37:23
    Verse Concepts
    “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols, or with their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they will be My people, and I will be their God.

    Jeremiah 7:23
    Verse Concepts
    “But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’

    Jeremiah 31:33
    Verse Concepts
    “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

    Ezekiel 37:27
    Verse Concepts
    “My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.

    Jeremiah 31:1
    Verse Concepts
    “At that time,” declares the LORD, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be My people.”

    Revelation 21:3
    Verse Concepts
    And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them,

    Exodus 6:7
    Verse Concepts
    ‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

    Leviticus 26:12
    Verse Concepts
    ‘I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.

    Revelation 21:7
    Verse Concepts
    “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

    Jeremiah 11:4
    Verse Concepts
    which I commanded your forefathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, ‘Listen to My voice, and do according to all which I command you; so you shall be My people, and I will be your God,’

    Jeremiah 30:22
    ‘You shall be My people, And I will be your God.'”

    Ezekiel 36:28
    Verse Concepts
    “You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.

    Psalm 50:7
    Verse Concepts
    “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God.

    Psalm 81:10
    Verse Concepts
    “I, the LORD, am your God, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

    Isaiah 41:10
    Verse Concepts
    ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’

    Ezekiel 34:31
    Verse Concepts
    “As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,” declares the Lord GOD.

    Exodus 20:2
    Verse Concepts
    “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

    Isaiah 41:13
    Verse Concepts
    “For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’

    Isaiah 43:3
    Verse Concepts
    “For I am the LORD your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place.

    Ezekiel 20:5
    Verse Concepts
    and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “On the day when I chose Israel and swore to the descendants of the house of Jacob and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I swore to them, saying, I am the LORD your God,

    Ezekiel 20:7
    Verse Concepts
    “I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’

    Ezekiel 20:19
    Verse Concepts
    ‘I am the LORD your God; walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and observe them.

    Ezekiel 20:20
    Verse Concepts
    ‘Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.’

    Zechariah 10:6
    Verse Concepts
    “I will strengthen the house of Judah, And I will save the house of Joseph, And I will bring them back, Because I have had compassion on them; And they will be as though I had not rejected them, For I am the LORD their God and I will answer them.

    Leviticus 11:45
    Verse Concepts
    ‘For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.'”

    Leviticus 22:33
    Verse Concepts
    who brought you out from the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am the LORD.”

    Leviticus 25:38
    Verse Concepts
    ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

    Numbers 15:41
    Verse Concepts
    “I am the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the LORD your God.”

    Ezekiel 34:24
    Verse Concepts
    “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD have spoken.

    Hosea 12:9
    Verse Concepts
    But I have been the LORD your God since the land of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, As in the days of the appointed festival.

    Hosea 13:4
    Verse Concepts
    Yet I have been the LORD your God Since the land of Egypt; And you were not to know any god except Me, For there is no savior besides Me.

    Joel 2:27
    Verse Concepts
    “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, And that I am the LORD your God, And there is no other; And My people will never be put to shame.

    Joel 3:17
    Verse Concepts
    Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, Dwelling in Zion, My holy mountain So Jerusalem will be holy, And strangers will pass through it no more.

    Genesis 17:7
    Verse Concepts
    “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.

    At the very least the all of the themes, allusions, echoes, types, anti-types wrapped-up in the meta-narritives, big-picture views of continuity and discontinuity of old and new,of the totality of scripture would go some way to dispelling neo- Marcionism in the church, which gives rise to, or sustains, deism and subjective relativism in interpretation and lives lived, discipleship.

  3. I’d always suspected that Moses and Aaron were Sephardic and now the picture confirms it.

    A good post (like the one on love in the NT) which actually informs our teaching / preaching work – thank you.

    • Yes I’ve often wondered what might be the modern equivalent of leaving the edges of the fields …. It needs to be something that allows people to work for their bread though. I do wonder about the modern encouragement of greater efficiency, which usually means that fewer people are employed. It may work in the short term, but of course those unemployed people end up on benefits, which are then paid for by the “efficient” firms (and all the rest of us) through taxes.

  4. “…adopting the entire law or dismissing all of it, or cherry picking what we like…”

    I don’t think people are cherry picking what they like, and those dismissing all of it or adopting all of it are a vanishingly small minority. Overwhelmingly, most Christians interpret the Law of Moses through the lens of New Testament teaching.

    “By saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
    “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the Law or by your believing what you heard?”
    “Avoid sexual immorality.”
    “Neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”
    “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
    “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
    “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.”

    The small selection above shows that the distinction between ceremonial, civil and moral is not “rather artificial” at all but a quite reasonable conclusion from reading the New Testament.

    • A good corrective comment. There are continuities and discontinuities within a schema of salvation history (promise and fulfilment). Since the Epistles continue to cite the Decalogue it is valid, but the real question concerns the Sabbath.
      Paul also made ‘midrashic’ use of some of the laws, e.g. on not muzzling a threshing ox or in his words on ‘leaven’. A spiritualised reading of the OT laws is certainly validated to some degree by Paul and by Jesus. One can easily imagine how the Orthodox Churches (for example) would handle this. They see the institutions of the Law prefiguring the Church and the Aaronic priesthood the Christian ministry. now offering ‘bloodless sacrifices’. If we find this unpersuasive (as I do), then we must make the case. I am often conscious of the fact that for a long time after the birth of the Church, non-Christian Jews outnumbered Christians and the right interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was a lively issue in the second century and beyond. Think of the dialogue of Justin Martyr with Trypho the Jew.
      Reformed Christians have typically spoken of the ‘third use of the Law’ as a guide to society (but not theonomous legislation) as a way of affirming that ‘all scripture is … profitable for teaching.’

  5. John makes an excellent point. I find it slightly distasteful that an author makes a sweeping negative generalisation about the evangelical church to highlight the need for her book. I’m sure her book will be useful at a popular level in the way that Chris Wright’s book, ‘Old Testament Ethics for the People of God’, was at a more academic level. I have met the very small minority who overemphasise the law and celebrate Jewish festivals but most sermons I’ve heard on the Old Testament law in fairly diverse evangelical contexts, treat the law in a similar way to the way Dr Imes describes. This is not surprising because I’m sure most theological colleges where preachers are trained take such an approach – this was certainly the case in Moorlands College where I trained ten years ago. So unless she has some evidence, for example, by way of a wide ranging survey, it would have been better to avoid the negativity.

    • Good point. The real Marcionites are those who imagine that opposition to modern sexual mores could only be based on following Leviticus- and then the shellfish argument follows. I did hear once of a small group of Adventists in an Italian village led by an autodidact who concluded they had to keep all the Mosaic Law and the upshot was that most became Jews (but some at least declined to be circumcised!) and most emigrated to Israel.
      I recommend reading Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho from c. AD 135 to see how Christians then debated about the Law with Jews. Justin’s short answer is the Mosaic Law is certainly not permanent in every respect but is followed by prophetic promises fulfilled in Christ and baptism.

  6. Thank you. It is good to read something which is not peddling antinomianism.

    I have a couple of puzzled points: the 10 commandments stand out for being precise and practical; so why should one commandment be metaphorical by comparison – what does it mean practically to ‘bear’ God’s name? There are so many varieties of Christian expression that it becomes unclear what obeying that commandment should really mean.
    And in support of the traditional view (which is very practical and measurable), why in international culture is there such foul disrespect shown to the Name; whether the ubiquitous OMG, or the more disgusting profanities involving Jesus and Christ? Why are no other religious figures or appellations other than Christian ones used in this way unless the product of the hatred of God in the human heart (which keeping the Royal Law of Jesus deliberately counters)?

    • Hi Peter.. “why should one commandment be metaphorical by comparison – what does it mean practically to ‘bear’ God’s name?”

      Is this so different from Paul’s “ambassador” or Jesus’s “Let your light so shine before men…”? It’s quite practical surely.

      • Hello Ian, thanks for replying.
        The two examples you give do have a practical application, but are open to wide interpretation in what that exactly means. The commandments are very clear in what they expect or what they prohibit – I guess that is the difference.

        • Peter, This is a good question. I’ve just released a study of metaphor in the Decalogue and Covenant Code more generally, showing that it is very widespread. (“Metaphor at Sinai” in BBR 29.3) In other words, metaphor is not unique to this command, but is ubiquitous in biblical law. As for the vagueness of this command, I would say that it is broad, not vague. Israel is to live as God’s people, representing him in every aspect of their lives. The rest of the law fleshes out the ways that this is to be done.

  7. Jesus did only what He saw the Father doing and He taught in parables so that seeing they wouldn’t see. Where did Jesus get this? I believe He got it from the Law; He saw the Law as a series of parables to show us the Father. The only way to understand the parable is to think about how to apply it to your own life.

    The Law was not intended to save, but it was intended as a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.”

    It is the birthright of the Jew to obey the Law, but Gentiles are not born under the Law. We were not in the loins of those who stood at the foot of that mountain and declared “We will do everything the LORD has said.” We are not obligated to the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenant–only the Adamic and Noahic covenants.

    Yet the Law is an amazing schoolmaster.

  8. I understand that the Torah can be translated as The Teachings, so I sometimes refer to it as The Lord.
    My upbringing understood that when Jesus said be came to fulfill the Law, that was understood as him obeying all the laws, rather than understanding that He was fulfilling the expectations of Messiah that the Jews found in Torah and The Prophets, with the transfiguration symbolising that it is Jesus we should listen to rather than Moses (Torah) or Elijah (The Prophets).
    I agree that while we should not follow Levitical cauistic law slavishly, we should also use it in the light of Jesus’ teaching. John goes so far as to have Jesus provide a Pentateuch of discourses corresponding with the number of books in the Torah.

  9. “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.

    Im not sure that is how I understand that. Is John not contrasting Jesus who has brought grace, with the law which only stands to condemn us? I dont think he means ‘grace upon grace’ = the law, then Jesus, just different types of ‘grace’.


  10. Paul is clear about the value of the law in convicting us of sin.

    Romans 3:20
    no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

    He cites Abraham in ch 4 as an example of someone declared righteous through faith apart from the law.

    The law is there entirely to show us how far we fall short of God’s standards, whether we are Jew of Gentile. We cannot live up to “be holy, as I am holy.”

    This then leads us to an understanding of our need for Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to us.

    Romans 3:21-24
    21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

  11. No doubt the book addresses previous scholarly consideration of the commandment. According to Richard Friedman (The Disappearance of God, p 138) the common understanding of modern scholarship as of 1995 was that if one invoked the name when swearing an oath, one must take care to keep the oath. Being a review and affirmation of the Law, the Sermon on the Mount (mentioned in the interview) arguably discusses the meaning of Ex 20:7, given that Lev 19:12 is itself a paraphrase of the commandment.

    • Steven, my published doctoral dissertation is a full-length refutation of other interpretations and a defense of this one (Bearing YHWH’s Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue [Eisenbrauns, BBRSup 19, 2018]). I merely summarize those conclusions in ‘Bearing God’s Name,’ so for the full argument you’ll need to consult the dissertation.

  12. “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”
    “ He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
    Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! (2 Corinthians 3:6-12)”
    Does the author consider that a ‘negative thing’ to say about the law? If so, what misunderstanding of the law does she consider Paul is ‘pushing against’?

    Phil Almond

  13. Very small side point, but still relevant : the not wearing mixed fibres was good common sense hygiene wise. The long standing and wide spread tradition in many cultures is to wear a washable lighter fabric under garment under a less washable but warmer outer garment. Often linen under wool. If you mix them you have a garment that will get washed much less often and will allow for much greater proliferation of parasites and infections.

    Therefore using this verse to prove that Leviticus is outdated or not is not the best one.

  14. A further minor point that came to me on rereading this excellent article.

    I had a thought recently about coveting. It’s always puzzled me as at the level of just being envious of something that someone else owns it seems different from the other commandments and yes, “just” a heart issue.

    However I was observing the behaviour of our 2 dogs. The least dominant one was lying on something and the other decided she wanted it. She stood there, a bit too close, clearly in eye line until the less dominant complied and reluctantly gave up the coveted position. The more dominant is capable of getting the less dominant to concede almost anything just by staring or standing too close for comfort. I’ve never seen any actual violence between them yet the power relationship is clear.

    I’ve come to believe that coveting has more to do with coercion and power relationships than just heart desire.

    • And thinking on it it’s still a common practice in some Middle Eastern cultures that if you admire something that someone else has they are honour bound to give it to you which can be a blessing too of course – the pleasure of giving and sharing, but that of course is different in essence from coveting and pressurising in the same way that taking without asking may be acceptable and a sign of trust within families or people who are close but outside those boundaries becomes stealing etc


Leave a comment