It has been a while since the last instalment of Myth Busters. On that occasion we looked at whether the law was nailed to the cross in the way that many modern day preachers have a tendency to declare. Their motivation for such a stand point is usually out of a misunderstanding of a single verse in Paul’s letter to the church at Colosse. I don’t believe that people actually teach it out of falsehood. But, in addressing that particular misunderstanding, I left myself with another question – one that I have been pondering ever since. The question is whether or not we are still subject to the Law.
It seems to me that much of what we believe comes by way of what you might refer to as conventional wisdom. That is to say, that the collective ideas a group of believers has on a subject such as the Law is usually dependent upon the traditional approach that their denomination or particular brand of Christianity promotes. For example, if I were part of a Hebrew Roots or Messianic church movement, then people around me would be more inclined to follow certain aspects or rituals which are found contained within the Law, than if I were a part of the Anglican Communion, who have their own traditions. I, however, belong to no movement or denomination. In fact, I belong entirely to God, and try as hard as I can to follow what Yeshua (Jesus) said, with the help of the Holy Spirit, rather than any other men. Of course, just by saying that, I am encouraging you to stop reading this blog and turn to God’s Holy Spirit for the answers, thus making the need for this blog obsolete! Feel free to leave at any time.
Still reading? Good. Let’s get to it. Let’s take a look at what the Bible actually says about the Law; the reasons it was given in the first place; and what it means for followers of Yeshua today.
Right. First, a qualifying remark. I am intending to dispel the myths currently (and traditionally) associated with what we know as the Law. This means different things to Hebrews and Christians, but I will hopefully explain why it shouldn’t. I don’t intend to criticize any one for their beliefs. I simply intend to show what the Bible says about the Law and explain some of the myths in plain English.
This subject has actually troubled me somewhat, particularly in the last year or so. I felt challenged by God about 18 months ago to start looking again at the life of Yeshua from a Hebrew perspective. All my Christian life I had looked at Yeshua through the lens of other people’s ideas and concepts, and it tinted my view. When I started to look at Yeshua from the perspective of what it would have been like to be a Hebrew man in 1st century Isra’el, I came to realize that so much of what I believed was worthless. I had to teach myself to forget it all the conventional wisdom I had learned, and learn instead from the Holy Spirit Himself. What was opened up to me was a greater understanding of why the Law was given and the significance of the Law itself in the person of Yeshua. It was a bit like being through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole, if you get my meaning. I suddenly saw all of the Law in a new light and was completely captivated by it all.
I can tell you now that what troubled me was just how easy it is to get drawn into all the rituals and traditions of the Hebrews. It is truly fascinating and enchanting. I found it very easy to get drawn into a new mindset in which I could see why following these man-made rituals and traditions could make anyone believe that righteousness could be found in them. It took a while for the Holy Spirit to remind me that righteousness could never be achieved or attained by following any written code. Righteousness is a gift from God alone and is only given to us when we trust in Him, both in terms of faith and deeds. My point is that it troubled me just how attractive the rituals and traditions of ancient (and modern) Judaism can be. They all appear shine a light upon Yeshua, but we must remember that it is actually the other way around – it is the light of Yeshua that shines, not the deeds themselves.
So, I set about, in my own slow and dithering way, of seeking God, on and off, about what the Law means today, and just how much of it (if any at all) I should observe. What follows is merely what I have learned so far. I am quite sure that there is much I still have to learn on the matter.
When people refer to the Law, it is generally accepted that they are talking of the 613 commandments contained within the first five books of the Bible. These five books are known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Torah. The word Torah literally means instruction, although it has other meanings, by implication, in Hebrew culture. These 613 commandments were given by God to His servant Moses during a 40 year period between Moses returning to Egypt, the land of his birth, and his death on the east side of the river Jordan. God spoke and Moses wrote down what He said.
That is what is commonly accepted as being the Law: 613 commandments, or mitzvot, – 365 negative commandments, and 248 positive. Now, I don’t know about you, but to talk of it in this way just seems to come across as more than just a little legalistic. But that’s what the Hebrews do, and so all believers who follow after tend to stick to that same tradition. My problem came when I realized that God hates legalism. It is only man who tries to quantify what God said in this way. God doesn’t. He would have us learn to love Him and rely upon Him totally. When we do, there is no need for any law.
The truth is, if we treat every instruction which God gave as a single commandment, He said a lot more than 613 things. A whole lot more. So, let’s go back to the beginning, because it wasn’t always like it was in Moses’ day, and nor did God intend for it to stay that way.
Rather than looking at the Law as 613 Do’s and Do Not’s, let us start by looking at everything that God said as instruction. And when I say instruction, I mean useful, practical advice that was tailored to each specific set of circumstances which man found himself in. For example, God’s first instruction to Adam after He had formed him from the dust on the ground was this:
“And Yehovah Elohim commanded the man saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil not eat of, for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die.” ” [Genesis 2:16-17 direct Hebrew translation]
So, you can see from the example that it was good advice for Adam. Eat what you like but watch out for that one there – it will kill you. Just like what we might say to our own children today in a garden full of fruit trees and bushes – the raspberries, blackberries, and grapes are all good, but the Belladonna will kill you. God’s instructions, or commands, were always for our good. They were never designed to be restrictive. That’s just what man has made them into.
Of course, when Adam and Eve did eat the fruit of the tree, God had to change His advice. He couldn’t allow them both to remain in the garden because the Tree of Life was there, so He banished them both. Note, however, that before He did, He must have taught them about animal sacrifice and that innocent blood could atone for sin. The text in Genesis doesn’t actually state this anywhere until much later, but we know that God Himself clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins (Genesis 3:21), so it follows that He must have killed the animals to start with. If God taught Adam this principle, Adam would surely have taught his children, and they their children. We see that after the flood, Noah built an altar and made sacrifices (see Genesis 8:20). We also know that Abraham and Job, who is believed to have lived in the same era, both used animal sacrifice as a way of atonement long before the Law of Moses was given.
It is clear from a close reading of the book of Genesis in particular, that the head of the household acted as the family priest. This practice would have continued long into their time in Egypt. However, over the four hundred years or so in Egypt, when they found themselves enslaved, it was clear that they became influenced by Egyptian religious practices. The incident with the Golden Calf after they left Egypt is proof of this. Their enslavement had hardened their hearts towards Yehovah. So, by the time Moses arrives and leads them all out of bondage and reminds them of the promises which Yehovah made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they needed a whole new set of advice and instruction from God.
Now, in exactly the same way in which God tailored His initial instruction to Adam so that it related to his surroundings – the garden, when God gave Moses instructions to give to the Hebrew people in the desert, they were specific to life in the desert. This, when you think about it, was a gargantuan task. It is estimated that between 1.6 and 2 million Hebrews and their livestock crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the desert of western Saudi Arabia, around Mount Sinai. The instructions which God gave to Moses to tell the people was practical advice for such a large movement of people to get along with one another in such a barren place. But…(and there’s always a but), just like Adam and Eve rebelled against what God had said, so too did the Hebrews. As a result of their many rebellions, they were forced to wander the wilderness for forty years until the rebellious generation had all died out.
We can find all the instructions God gave through Moses whilst they wandered around in the desert in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Then, at the end of the time in the desert, when the generation whose hearts were so hard that they rebelled against God, rather than trusting in His good advice, had died, God gave Moses more instructions. This time, they were pertinent to life in the Promised Land.
Before I discuss the book of Deuteronomy, I need to make clear that what I am about to say is likely to be contentious. I am just trying to piece together the history of what we call the Law in the light of what the Scriptures actually say on the matter and upon my understanding of the nature of Yehovah. My conclusions will be seen as contentious. That is not my intent. That is just how other people who subscribe to their own denomination’s set of conventional wisdom will react to what I am saying.
Because of the wording of certain verses in the book of Deuteronomy I believe it is prudent to treat the entire book as something separate from the four other books which make up what is known as Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. Traditionally, the Hebrews, have referred to the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, collectively as The Law or Torah. And, it is true that the entire 613 commandments can be found in those books. However, I have come to a place where I believe that what is contained in the book of Deuteronomy actually supersedes the instructions found in the four previous books of Moses. Let me explain why.
The book of Deuteronomy contains Moses’ farewell to the people whom he had led from the captivity of Egypt. In it are a series of addresses that Moses delivers in which he recaps some of the events of the previous forty years; reviews some of the Law or instructions contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; reaffirms Isra’el’s covenant with Yehovah; and speaks of some new instructions that weren’t contained in those three previous books. But…as I mentioned earlier, there is some wording which, to me, indicates that what Moses recorded in Deuteronomy is to be treated differently from the previous instructions. Here’s why:
Moses frequently refers to the instructions that he gives in Deuteronomy as ‘these commandments which I am giving you today‘, which implies that there is another law other than the one he was speaking of. Then there is the matter of tense. All that Moses delivers to the Hebrews is spoken in the present tense, implying that he is speaking of something that is being given as he speaks. It is as if Moses is giving the Hebrews a new set of instructions which God has tailored specifically for the new situation they are about to find themselves plunged into – that is, the Promised Land. Much of what he says throughout Deuteronomy is talking about what they will face, both good and bad, in the Promised Land. The new instruction which appear exclusively in Deuteronomy are all for a more settled life, rather than the nomadic life which they had been used to for the past forty years. I’m going to encourage you to have a good, slow read of Deuteronomy so you can see what I am talking about. There are so many examples of Moses talking of commandments (or instructions) which are being ‘given today‘ that it is hard to come to any other conclusion that what Moses gave the Hebrews in the book of Deuteronomy is, in fact, a new version of the Law and one which makes the things he doesn’t mention, obsolete.
Perhaps you can now see why I mentioned it might appear to be contentious?
With the books of Leviticus and Genesis set to one side for the moment, the instructions or commandments contained in Exodus and Numbers are made up of every day advice such as is seen in the Ten Commandments; instructions regarding feasts and sacrifices; and rules for desert, transient living. Once the Hebrews crossed the Jordan there would be no need for any of the rules for desert living, because they would no longer be living in a desert. Moses recaps the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy because they are the foundation stones of living in harmony with one another and before God. And the feasts and sacrifices part were also included because they are to be observed ‘for all generations‘.
Leviticus, as its name suggests, is a book made up almost exclusively of rules for the priests and Levites who would serve before God. They had different rules from the rest of the Hebrews because they were sanctified before God to serve Him. They were to have no inheritance in the Promised Land, but were to serve God continually. Moses had no need to repeat all of their instructions in Deuteronomy because it didn’t matter where the priests and the Levites were – their job remained the same.
Genesis is extensively a history of the nation of Isra’el and the nations which surround her. There is very little what people refer to as Law in it.
What Moses was actually doing in the book of Deuteronomy was explaining what instructions they should continue to observe, and what else they needed to observe once they crossed the Jordan. And remember, Moses wasn’t crossing with them. His task was complete by then. He died a few days after giving them a new and condensed version of the Law. God showed Moses exactly what the Hebrews would need once they crossed the Jordan into the land He was giving them. In exactly the same way any father today would give advice to their teenagers when they are about to embark on overseas travel. It was good advice which if they were careful to observe in exactly the way in which God showed them, then things would go well for them.
I am sure, by now, you will be wanting some more proof than the tense in which Moses spoke to convince you of what I am suggesting. Fine. Here’s some other things to consider:
When we read the phrase ‘The Book of the Law‘ elsewhere in the Bible we are inclined to freely accept this as referring to the five books attributed to Moses. However, there is a verse in the book of Nehemiah that suggests that assumption may not be right.
In chapter eight of Nehemiah we find the account of Ezra reading the ‘Book of the Law of Moses‘, which took him from dawn (or first light) until midday. Now the text tells us that this took place in the seventh month, and on the first day of the month. For us, that is mid-September. The sun rises in Jerusalem in mid-September between 6:15 and 6:30am, which tells us that it took Ezra around five and a half hours to read the ‘Book of the Law of Moses‘. Of course, that would have included breaks one would imagine. Now here’s the problem with assuming that Ezra read out the entire five books of Moses: In total that comes to around 125,000 words (Genesis 32,000; Exodus 26,000; Leviticus 19,000; Numbers 25,000; and Deuteronomy 23,000). Approximately. Conversational talking speed is usually measured (today) at 120 words per minute. But, because this was a solemn occasion and Ezra was reading the words of God, my guess is that he spoke at a rate of around 110 words per minute. Perhaps even slower when you consider a break for a drink or to change a scroll.
Speaking at a rate of 110 words per minute, nonstop, it would take almost 19 hours to read all five books of Moses out loud. However, if Ezra were to read just the 23,000 words found in Deuteronomy (nonstop) at 110 words per minute, without breaks, it would take around 3.5 hours to complete.
And there is something else there too in Nehemiah, which also appears elsewhere in the books of Kings and Chronicles – they refer to the ‘Book of the Law of Moses‘ in the singular. Surely if they were referring to the five books of the Law, they would use the plural ‘books‘?
So, none of this is conclusive proof, I know. My reading of Deuteronomy as being a set of instructions drawn from existing and new commandments specifically for the purpose of godly living in the Promised Land is, however, somewhat strengthened by what it says in Nehemiah. And the math doesn’t lie. I can well imagine that when Ezra started reading from Deuteronomy that the conviction of the Holy Spirit was strong as he read each commandment and the Israelites realized their own shortcomings. Surely that would have brought about enough pauses to stretch Ezra’s speech to 5.5 hours?
You might, by now, be wondering exactly what all of this means in terms of being subject to the Law today. Well, it was important to look firstly what we actually mean by the Law, or rather by the term the ‘Book of the Law of Moses‘, in order to see what the Law looked liked in Yeshua’s day. You see, I am inclined to think that we have been looking at the Law in a very man-like fashion for centuries. I don’t believe that God intended for us to look at any of it in this way. I think what we call the Law was never meant to be called that. That is the name our rebellious hearts have given it. Everything I know of the nature of God is that He is loving and merciful. We are to consider ourselves as His children. Surely it follows that if we are His children, then He will talk to us; advise us; and instruct us in the same way a good and kind father would to his children here on earth?
With that in mind, perhaps I can suggest another way of looking at God’s commandments? Perhaps we should think of them entirely as good advice? Take a look at what He says to Joshua just after the death of Moses and the giving of the instructions in Deuteronomy:
“Only be you strong and very courageous that you may observe to do according to all the law that commanded my servant Moses; do not turn from it to the right hand or the left to the end that you may prosper wherever you go. Do not depart this book of the law from your mouth, but you shall meditate therein day and night to the end that you may observe to do according to all that is written in for then you shall make your way and then you shall have good success.” [Joshua 1:7-8 direct Hebrew translation]
Does that sound like a mean and restrictive God to you? To me, it sounds like a loving father saying to His son that if he listens to everything that is said to him, things will go well with him in all that he does. And, my own experience is teaching me that when I stop and seek God’s advice in my day to day life, when I do as He leads me, frequently the outcome is much better than my simple brain could have ever envisaged.
By now, if you are not convinced by my argument and the evidence which I have presented, then there is little point in you reading any further.
However, if you are so inclined to bear with me just a little longer, you will see that your patience will be rewarded.
If we look at God’s instructions, which have come at various times and in many ways, as good advice for living in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, then things will go well for us. If, however, we look exclusively at the 613 commandments which are considered as the Law and try to fulfil them as a means by which righteousness is attained, then we are lost. That is self-righteousness.
Perhaps you might look at it all like this: In the beginning God spoke to Adam. Adam rebelled and God spoke again. In His mercy, what God said that time was to help Adam and his descendants get through life with the burden of sin. Then, because of 400 years or so of being in Egypt, the Hebrews were hardened towards what God was saying. Because of the hardness of their hearts God had to speak ever so clearly to them. He had to set strict boundaries and requirements. He had to discipline them, just as He still disciplines His elect today. By the time the rebellious generation had died off in the desert, those who were left didn’t need as strict rules, and so God gave Moses a revised, and softer version of the Law. This is what we find written in Deuteronomy. (The word Deuteronomy, by the way, means Second Law). After they crossed the Jordan and they fell under the influence of the nations in Canaan and their false gods, Yehovah gave them a series of judges who ruled over them until they demanded a king. They chose Saul, but God chose David. We see in David a man who realized that the Law was not to be observed for the aim of achieving righteousness, but instead as good advice and guidance whilst the people learned to love God with all their hearts. When they did, the Law had no power over them.
Then, after David, Solomon falls back into religious ways and is swayed by false gods. The kingdom divides and war is never far away. Their failure to understand the true heart of God’s instructions leads them into exile and captivity once again. When they return, they read the Law and realize the true extent of their apostasy. Sadly, their repentance doesn’t last long. By the time Yeshua comes, it is once more about religion. Sacrifice over obedience, instead of the other way around.
So, Yeshua comes and delivers God’s final set of instructions for holy living. A new, even softer version than what Moses brought forth in Deuteronomy. (It is worth noting that when Yeshua quoted from what scholars call the Law, it was almost exclusively from Deuteronomy, which adds further gravity to my argument). A way to prepare us for the New Covenant where God’s commandments will be written on our hearts and not on tablets of stone. In the same way in which what Moses said in Deuteronomy cancelled out parts of the Law previously given, so too did what Yeshua said during His ministry cancel out and update parts of the Law which were no longer required. When you look at just what Yeshua said, all that remains from the original Law is the true heart and spirit of what God had always intended. Advice for lives of holiness. The Way. Yeshua is God’s final instruction to mankind.
What Yeshua did was to show us God’s advice for the next part of the journey. The need for the sacrificial system was done aware with at Calvary, so that part of the Law was now obsolete. His advice, which is found in the gospels, is for the lives we lead between now and eternity. The deeper our love for God, the less power the Law has over us.
And those disciples of His got it. That is how they lived – free of the Law; the man-made rules. Of course, every now and then they would come across a congregation of believers whose hearts were hard and their faith small. Then God would tell Paul (or another apostle) to give them some strict guidelines until their hearts softened towards God. I believe that the letters to the church at Corinth are examples of this.
This is how God still works today.
Are we still subject to the Law? Yes, depending on the hardness of our hearts. If our hearts towards God are soft then His words will fall as seeds and produce a mighty harvest in us. If they are hard, He will discipline us with boundaries and instructions until we are soft enough to love Him.
Against love, there is no law.