The Nature of Biblical Law. The usual Hebrew term translated as “law” is tora [h’r/T]. Tora [h’r/T], used 220 times in the Old Testament, more specifically means “instruction.” Our English term “law” usually brings to mind the norms of society as enforced by the state. The Old Testament, however, often presents moral admonitions that are hardly amenable to state enforcement (e.g., Exod 20:17 ; 23:4-5 ); is silent about state enforcement ( Exod 21:2-6 ); or specifies God rather than the state as the enforcer ( Exod 22:21-27 ). In addition, the label “law” seems inappropriate for certain ceremonial instructions.
Biblical civil laws differ from the “positive law” of modern jurisprudence, which tries to legislate in exhaustive detail. Biblical laws are insufficiently comprehensive to be considered a “law-code, ” but served as paradigmatic illustrations (not rigid rules) of justice that a judge could apply or modify according to circumstances. For example, whereas capital offenses state the maximum penalty for certain crimes, extenuating factors could lead a judge, legitimately, not to execute the offender. This is stated explicitly in the case of murder ( Exod 21:12-14 ), and is implicit elsewhere. Thus, although Exodus 21:15 states “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (NASB), it would be absurd to apply this rule to an angry toddler.
Many biblical precepts are expressed as broad principles without legalistic detail. For example, “work” is prohibited on the sabbath yet is never defined legally. This ambiguity, which allowed for some flexibility, was considered a liability by Pharisaic Judaism. In an attempt to make sure the command proper was never violated, the rabbis created secondary, rigid rules which, if followed, would theoretically prevent a person from ever violating the biblical command itself. This was known as “putting a fence around the law.” Such nonbiblical rules (e.g., the sabbath day’s journey) are prescribed exhaustively in the Talmud, but this burdensome “tradition” is contrary to the spirit of biblical law ( Matt 15:3 ; 23:4 ).
An important law is the lex talionis, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” ( Exod 21:22-25 ; Lev 24:19-20 ; Deut 19:15-21 ), which is sometimes misunderstood as a barbaric justification of personal vengeance and maiming. On the contrary, it expresses the just principle that judicial punishments should fit the crime, thereby limiting permissible punishment. One who is responsible for the loss of another’s eye deserves, in principle, to give up his own eye. In practice, however, the offender ordinarily would placate the aggrieved party by paying an amount proportional to the degree of the maiming to substitute for the infliction of literal talion. Note how such “ransoming” operates in Exodus 21:29-30, and how literal talion fails to occur in 21:18-19 and 21:26-27 where it might be expected. The availability of ransom seems to be so prevalent that it must be explicitly prohibited to exclude it ( Num 35:31 ). Jesus, in accord with Leviticus 19:18, teaches patient suffering instead of the misapplication of lex talionis for personal revenge ( Matt 5:38-42 ).
Legal Corpora in the Old Testament. The laws (traditionally 613 in number) are concentrated in certain passages in the Pentateuch. Some of these are given special names.
The Decalog was given at Mount Sinai ( Exod 20:1-17 ) and repeated in Moses’ sermon over forty years later ( Deut 5:6-21 ). The formulation in the Decalogue (the traditional “thou shalt/shalt not”) is apodictic, that is, unqualified; God as King imposes demands upon his subjects. These commandments represent the minimum moral and religious requirements for those in covenant relationship with God.
The Book of the Covenant ( Exod 20:22-23:33, ; partially repeated in 34:10-26 ) consists of cultic, humanitarian, and civil regulations. Most of its civil regulations follow the casuistic formulation of cuneiform laws: “If X happens (protasis), then Y will be the legal consequences (apodosis).”
Deuteronomy has many regulations. Chapters 5-11 emphasize the general requirement to obey God; chapters 12-25 offer specifics in various areas of life (worship, festivals, officials of the theocratic state, manslaughter, warfare, sexuality, etc.). The structure of Deuteronomy follows that of second-millennium covenant treaties in which the laws correspond to stipulations within the covenant. The topical units of chapters 12-25 are arranged according to the order of the Ten Commandments.
Cultic laws concerning the tabernacle, sacrifices, priests, ritual purity, festivals, and ethical and ritual holiness (especially in sexual and social matters; cf. Lev. 18-26, the so-called Holiness Code) are scattered throughout Genesis through Numbers, Leviticus consisting almost entirely of this kind of material. Some call these laws the Priestly Code on the dubious assumption that they once existed as an independent collection.
Biblical and Cuneiform Laws. Scholars commonly compare biblical civil laws with contemporary laws found by archaeologists in the ancient Near East. Extrabiblical laws include those by Ur-Nammu of Ur (ca. 2112-2095 b.c.), Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (ca. 1925 b.c.), some ten Sumerian Laws (ca. 1800 b.c.) of unknown provenance, the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1800 b.c.), the Laws of Hammurapi (ca. 1750 b.c.), the Edict of Ammisaduqa (ca. 1650 b.c.), Middle Assyrian Laws (ca. 1100 b.c.), Hittite Laws (before ca. 1200 b.c.), and Neo-Babylonian Laws (seventh century b.c.).
Biblical civil laws resemble extrabiblical laws in topics covered and formulation. For example, cases of striking pregnant women resulting in miscarriage (presumably an unusual circumstance) occur in HL 17, Sumerian Laws 1-2, LH 209-214, MAL A 21, 50-52 as well as Exodus 21:22-25. There are general parallels with laws on slaves and goring oxen, and in one (but only one) case, a cuneiform law’s reading is identical with a biblical one: LE 53 and Exodus 21:35. The parallels are insufficient to suppose biblical laws were simply borrowed from ancient Near Eastern ones. On the other hand, the parallels seem too close for chance. It is best to say that the Bible shows awareness of extrabiblical laws and often deliberately chooses type cases from such laws on which to make moral comment. Where an existing law is just, the Bible can happily adopt it (e.g., Exod 21:35 ). Accordingly, comparison with cuneiform law is useful; nonetheless, the contrasts with cuneiform laws are usually more telling than the similarities.
These contrasts reflect differences in ideology between Israel and Mesopotamia. Cuneiform laws are overwhelmingly secular whereas the Bible freely mixes moral, civil, and cultic laws, and more often includes religious motivations for compliance. It is true that Hammurapi receives authority to rule from the god Shamash, but Shamash is custodian of impersonal cosmic truth that Hammurapi uses to make his own laws that are only indirectly attributable to deity. In the Bible, however, the laws are directly from God; Moses is only a mediator. Biblical law is designed to educate the public, to mold the national character, and to glorify Yahweh as a just lawgiver; cuneiform laws are meant to glorify the kings who created them and lack pedagogic application, being placed in a temple outside public view in a script (cuneiform) only academics could read.
Contrasting ideology is reflected in biblical law’s setting limits on the authority of kings ( Deut 17:14-20 ), cuneiform laws reflect the unlimited authority of the king. Biblical laws elevate human life over property to a greater degree than do cuneiform laws. Hence, cuneiform laws required up to thirtyfold restitution for theft and the execution of the thief who could not pay (LH 8, 265; HL 57-59, 63, 67, 69); biblical law limits restitution to no more than fivefold and prohibits the execution of a thief ( Exod 22:1-4 ). Similarly, cuneiform laws make no sharp distinction between cases involving an ox goring a slave, and that of an ox goring an ox, both being property (LE 53-55); biblical law deliberately separates these cases ( Exodus 21:28-31 Exodus 21:35-36 ), expressing by its structure the ideology that cases involving humans are of an entirely different category than those involving animals.
Cuneiform law agrees with biblical law in condemning murder, adultery, and incest (LH 1, 129, 157); however, biblical law differs by making many religious sins, so-called victimless crimes, and crimes against family capital offenses.
“Law” and “Covenant.” All biblical laws are placed in the context of God’s covenant with Israel. Covenant, not law-keeping, establishes a relationship, just as signing a contract, rather than doing the specified Job, establishes an employment relationship. The covenant in Genesis 15 was not established by “law” but by God’s gracious offer accompanied by Abram’s faith (although he later in some sense kept “the law, ” Gen 26:5 ). Nor did Israel establish a relationship with God by keeping “law.” The commandments are given to a people who are already “saved” ( Exod 20:2 ) through a covenant relationship based on God’s gracious love and despite Israel’s lack of merit ( Deut 7:7-9 ; 9:4-6 ). “Legalism” that makes “law-keeping” a means of salvation is not taught in the Old Testament.
The role of law is to administrate the covenant. Laws prohibit things destructive to a relationship with God (e.g., worshiping other gods). The law gives direction to what a loving response to God should be, and tells how to reap the full benefits of the relationship. Viewed from one perspective, the promises formalized by covenant were unconditional; but from an individual’s perspective, benefits could be forfeited by disobedience. Disobedience does not automatically invalidate a covenant, any more than a husband’s rudeness to a wife he vowed to cherish invalidates his marriage covenant. Yet disobedience mars the relationship, and may reduce its benefits. In the desert a whole generation of Israelites forfeited their covenant benefits (the promised land) through disobedience, yet the covenant continued.
The Law under the New Covenant. The New Testament’s statements about Old Testament law are difficult to harmonize. On the one hand, some New Testament statements indicate that under the new covenant the whole law is in some sense abrogated ( Rom 6:14 , “you are not under law” Rom 10:4 , “Christ is the end of the law” ). Direct application of cultic laws is clearly excluded in the New Testament. Food laws, circumcision, sacrifices, temple, and priesthood have been superseded ( Mark 7:19 ; 1 Cor 7:19 ; Hebrews 7:11-19 Hebrews 7:28 ; 8:13 ; 10:1-9 ). Christ has abolished in his flesh the commandments and regulations that separated Jew from Gentile ( Eph 2:15 ). Dispensationalism concludes from these statements that Christians are under no Mosaic laws, not even the Decalogue, but are instead under the law of Christ ( Gal 6:2 ; 1 Cor 9:21 ).
On the other hand, the law cannot be altogether invalid since the New Testament affirms its abiding applicability. “All Scripture is useful” ( 2 Tim 3:16-17 ), including Old Testament laws. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it ( Matt 5:17-20 ). The law is the embodiment of truth that instructs ( Rom 2:18-19 ). It is “holy” and “spiritual, ” making sin known to us by defining it; therefore, Paul delights in it ( Romans 7:7-14 Romans 7:22 ). The law is good if used properly ( 1 Tim 1:8 ), and is not opposed to the promises of God ( Gal 3:21 ). Faith does not make the law void, but the Christian establishes the law ( Rom 3:31 ), fulfilling its requirements by walking according to the Spirit ( Rom 8:4 ) through love ( Rom 13:10 ). When Paul states that women are to be in submission “as the Law says” ( 1 Cor 14:34 ) or quotes parts of the Decalogue ( Rom 13:9 ), and when James quotes the law of love ( 2:8 from Lev 19:18 ) or condemns partiality, adultery, murder, and slander as contrary to the law ( James 2:9 James 2:11 ; 4:11 ), and when Peter quotes Leviticus, “Be holy, because I am holy” ( 1 Peter 1:16 ; from Lev 19:2 ), the implication is that the law, or at least part of it, remains authoritative.
Part of the problem is that not all the “laws” are of the same order. Jesus designates justice, mercy, and faithfulness as “more important” matters in the law ( Matt 23:23 ). A similar distinction was made by the prophets who indicate that cultic observance was less important than treating people decently, and ritual without repentance was ineffective. That these cultic regulations were, even in the Old Testament, considered of secondary value, prepares the way for their elimination in Christ.
Covenant theologians have traditionally divided laws into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. Moral laws (e.g., the Decalogue), based on the unchanging character of God, are eternally binding. Civil laws (e.g., Exod. 21-23), although they may illustrate moral law, were limited historically to the theocratic state of Israel and are not binding on the church. Ceremonial laws (e.g., sacrifices) were intended to prefigure Christ, and ceased to be applicable upon his first advent. A problem with this approach is that the categories “moral, civil, and ceremonial” are artificial. There is often a mixture of these categories: the ceremonial sabbath among “moral” laws ( Exod 20:8 ), ceremonial food regulations among “civil” laws ( Exod 21:28 ; 22:31 ), “moral” motivations in civil laws ( Exodus 22:21 Exodus 22:26-27 ) and in cultic laws ( Exod 20:26 ). There is considerable subjectivity in labeling laws as “moral, ” “civil, ” or “ceremonial.”
Another approach is that of theonomy or Christian reconstructionism. Theonomists wish to work toward a theocratic state where Mosaic civil laws can again be instituted into modern society. However, this approach takes insufficient account of the new theological and cultural setting of the new covenant. Some laws became impractical and unenforceable if applied literally even in Old Testament times. The Year of Jubilee regulations, requiring the return of property to original families every forty-nine years, seem never to have been enforced as law because (among other reasons) by the time Israel controlled the land, there were no records of the original owners. Moreover, although Jubilee was a practical solution for a tribal, agricultural society, this model would already be somewhat antiquated under Israel’s urbanization during the monarchy, and is certainly impractical in modern, mobile, urban societies. Some laws assume the existence of conditions such as debt slavery ( Exod 21:2-11 ), specific species of animals ( Exod 29:22-fat ; tail sheep ), or the climate of Palestine (feast held at end of harvest season, Lev 23:33-39 ), which make these laws inapplicable in other cultural environments. Some laws seem tied to the specific theological context of the Old Testament. The death penalty for cultic offenses was based on the special holiness of Israel with the tabernacle of God among them. Violation could bring immediate wrath upon the people. However, the church is not a nation, and does not camp around the tabernacle.
Usage of Old Testament laws suggests that biblical authors sought out and applied the inherent religious and moral principles in the laws even when changed historical, cultural, and theological settings made literal application inappropriate. Ezra applied a law prohibiting marriage to Canaanites, who had ceased to exist historically, broadly to marriage with non-Canaanite foreigners, because in that situation the same principle (marriage to foreigners leads to religious assimilation) applied, even though the letter of the law could not ( Ezra 9:1-2 ; cf. Deut 7:1-5 ).
The New Testament writers also apply the principles in the law. From Deuteronomy 25:4 (“Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain”), Paul derives a principle that workers ought to be rewarded for their labors and applies that principle in the case of Christian workers ( 1 Cor 9:9-14 ). In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, this time in parallel with a saying of Jesus ( Matt 10:10 ) as if both are equally authoritative. Likewise, the principle of establishing truth by two or three witnesses ( Deut 19:15 ), originally limited to courts, is applied more broadly to a church conference ( 2 Cor 13:1 ). The principle that believers are not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers is derived from a law concerning the yoking animals ( 2 Cor 6:14 ; cf. Deut 22:10 ).
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 13, Paul affirms on the basis of Leviticus 18:29 that incest, a capital offense in the Old Testament, is immoral and deserves punishment. A person practicing incest in the church must be excommunicated to maintain the church’s practical holiness. Paul maintains the law’s moral principle, yet in view of the changed redemptive setting, makes no attempt to apply the law’s original sanction.
The Law and the Christian Today. Mosaic law is of value for the Christian in several ways.
The Law Prepares Sinners for the Gospel. No one can receive eternal salvation by works of the law ( Ga 2:16 ) because none perfectly keeps the law ( Rom 3:23 ), and violation of any part of it makes one guilty of the whole ( James 2:10 ; cf. Rom 2:25 ; Gal 3:10 ). Instead, salvation is a gift obtained by faith, not works ( Rom 4:4-5 ; Eph 2:8-10 ; Php 3:9 ). Nonetheless, the law was meant to lead us to Christ ( Ga 3:24 ). It makes the sinner conscious of sin ( Rom 3:20 ; 7:7 ; 1 John 3:4 ). It provokes and incites rebellion ( Rom 5:20 ; 7:13 ), thereby making one fully accountable before God for violation of God’s moral requirements ( Rom 3:19 ; 4:15 ; 5:13 ; 7:8-10 ). By this means, the law shows sinners their need for a mediator to redeem them from the law’s condemnation ( Ga 3:13 ). Hence, the law is an essential prerequisite in preparing sinners for the gospel.
The Law Is a Guide for Christian Living. The believer, through the Spirit, keeps the righteousness requirements of the law ( Rom 8:3-4 ), following the principle of love which is the fulfillment of the law ( Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14 ; Mark 12:31, ; cf. Lev 19:18 ). As the New Testament use of Old Testament laws shows, the moral aspect of the law continues to define proper and improper behavior for Christians. Old Testament laws supplement New Testament morality by addressing some issues not directly treated in the New Testament. God’s commandments were intended to bring life ( Rom 7:10 ), and the promises of life associated with the law remain applicable ( Eph 6:2-3 ; cf. Exod 20:12 ).
The Law Is of Value for Jurisprudence. Law, when enforced by the state, serves to restrain evildoers ( 1 Tim 1:9-10 ). Biblical civil laws, although not directly applicable under the new covenant, are at least suggestive for improving modern jurisprudence. The Bible treats theft and manslaughter as torts against the victim (or the victim’s family) rather than crimes against the state, and requires monetary restitution to the victim’s family rather than imprisonment or fines to the state. This is arguably superior to the modern system where victims often get nothing, and where incarceration is ineffective for rehabilitation and extraordinarily expensive. The capital offenses in the Bible are suggestive for what crimes might legitimately be permitted as capital offenses for today (e.g., intentional murder), and crimes that should never be capital offenses (e.g., crimes of property).
The Law Points Typologically to Christ. The laws foreshadow Christ typologically in many ways. Moral and civil laws reflect the righteousness of Christ and his kingdom, while the cultic laws emphasize his holiness. The tabernacle prefigures the presence of Christ among his people; the sacrifices foreshadow the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The priesthood anticipates Jesus’ priestly function. The whole cultic system with tabernacle, sacrifices, and priests prefigures union with Christ through the atonement. The penalties in the law anticipate Christ’s judgments; the annihilation of the Canaanites anticipates the judgment of hell. Commands concerning occupying the promised land anticipate the future kingdom of God, heaven and the blessings in Christ himself. Joe M. Sprinkle
See also Command, Commandment; Decrees; Ordinance; Requirement; Statute; Ten Commandments
Bibliography. G. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics; W. S. Barker and W. R. Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; H. J. Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus; D. A. Dorsey, JETS 34/3 (Sept. 1991): 321-34; H.-H. Esser, NIDNTT2:438-51; M. Greenberg, Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, pp. 3-28; idem, Studies in Bible: 1986, pp. 3-28; idem, Religion and Law, pp. 101-12, 120-25; H. W. House and T. Ice, Dominion Theology: A Blessing or a Curse?; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics; idem, JETS33/3 (Sept. 1990): 289-302; G. E. Mendenhall, Religion and Law, pp. 85-100; Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law; V. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses; R. J. Rushdooney, The Institutes of Biblical Law; R. Sonsino, Judaism33 (1984): 202-9; J. Sprinkle, A Literary Approach to Biblical Law: Exodus 20:22-23:19.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave’s Topical Bible
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[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith’s Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. “Entry for ‘Law'”. “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”.