Types of Law in the Bible

From my first post in this series exploring law in the Bible, I have stressed the complexity of the topic and therefore the need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what it is, how it works, and most importantly, what God expects of us. I observed four types of law in scripture. Moral law, legal code, covenant and narrative. In this post I will further refine these categories, elaborate on them and show how they fit together in scripture.

Law is basically authoritative instruction concerning human behaviour i.e. rules. Even though the Bible is not a rule book it obviously does contains rules. Whenever we see laws or rules in the Bible they are usually presented in one of three ways. It is either a narrative, a contract or a code of some kind. The most easily recognizable type of them all is the code.

What I mean by code is simply a set of do’s and don’ts of which there are many in the Bible. The most famous example of legal code in the Bible is the Law of Moses, which according to traditional Judaism consists of 613 commandments. Whether they are legal, societal, moral or ethical, codes are easy to identify because they are usually stated as commands to be obeyed. These commands are either internal or external. Internal law governs the internal environment, that is, the thoughts and desires of a person’s heart, an individual’s character. It deals with private things only seen by God and the individual. External law on the other hand governs a person’s external environment, that is, how a person acts and behaves in public. Internal and external codes are found in every human society. Cultural values are examples of internal law. Constitutions are an example of external law. External codes are dependent on internal law. For example ethics is based morality, that is, a person’s behaviour (external) is determined by their values (internal.)

The next form of law found in the Bible is the contract. In the biblical worldview, law ultimately comes from God and is given among humans to follow. Therefore no matter what law it is, there are at least two persons involved, the one who gives the command and the one who obeys the command. On account of the relational nature of law it works by agreement. A contract is a binding agreement between two or more parties. In the Bible the most important contracts are the covenants between God and humans, the most well-known being the Old and New Covenants. Beyond the biblical record, laws in every human society work by social contract. People collectively agree on certain obligations to one another and decide to live by them. In that setting the law giving authority is the society itself to which individual members are to obey. Authority figures in that society, whether it is a parent or a police officer, are simply representatives or agents of societal law. Even moral laws must come from a transcendent source. Law defines how two volitional beings can mutually coexist. Therefore, it is always implicitly or explicitly contractual.

The third type of law in the Bible which is a harder to notice is the narrative. People do not often think of stories as things that tell you what to do or what not to do. Stories are not only capable of being prescriptive (or prohibitive) but also being authoritative. A classic example is the cautionary tale, an account of someone doing something that causes trouble. In many instances it is more effective than only saying “don’t do…” because it tells you how the rule came about and the consequences of disregarding it. Stories supply the reason behind commands whiles faithfully transmitting the command, making them highly instructive. We learn things through stories, informing the way we live and see the world. As I usually say, narratives form a crucial part of our worldviews because humans are inherently story telling creatures. In the Bible the Mosaic code is set within the backdrop of the story of God calling Abraham and his family to be a blessing to the world. Every command YHWH gives his people is geared towards that narrative goal. The preamble of the Ghanaian constitution is “In the name of the Almighty God, We the People of Ghana…” That premise makes sense only within the context of the larger narrative of the history of the Ghanaian people including British colonial rule, independence and the subsequent governments we have been under.

The three categories of law that I have presented are not independent of one other but they organically overlap and mesh with one another. A good example of this interrelatedness can be found in the principal command of the Torah.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. – Exodus 20:2-3 ESV

We have a contract between an authority who is God, and the Israelites who are to obey him, expressed through a codified command to monotheism that makes both internal and external demands, legitimised by the narrative events of the Exodus. We have story, contract and code all with in this single command which serves as the preamble for all Israelite law. Even the first phrase, “I am YHWH your God” potentially contains all the elements of the three types of law. God is by definition the creator of the universe which invokes the creation narrative of Genesis 1. It takes a volitional being to appreciate that statement and every single contract requires volitional beings. Being God makes him the chief authority and since he has made the world for certain reasons, he can issue imperatives that his human creatures must obey. In the biblical worldview this forms the divine the basis for all codes whether legal, societal, moral etc. All types of authority and power are ultimately God given.

Even though they are interrelated there is a hierarchy. Code is subject to contract and contract is in turn subject to narrative. This creates a dynamic relationship within law. If a code, for instance, does not serve the interests of society it can be changed. Governments can and do create or modify legislation in order to reflect society’s needs and desires. However, societal contracts are shaped by the worldview narrative of the people. When the people of the Gold Coast saw themselves as their own people instead of British subjects, the march for independence began and they gave themselves their own law. This also means sometimes there is tension between the spirit and the letter of the law, its aims and how it actually functions.

For example legal codes are sometimes concessionary, that is, they permit certain things even though within the larger legal framework they are undesirable or not ideal. Tobacco companies for instance are taxed highly and smoking is generally discouraged or limited by governments. The laws of the land are there to protect citizens yet they cannot violate the freedoms it guarantees them, even if they are harmful or deadly like smoking. A biblical example of concession is slavery. It is permitted for various socio-economic reasons but is never approved since the chief narrative of the Jewish people is that of a slave freeing God. Governments tend to regulate things they cannot stop. With these instances we can gather that for law to be useful it cannot be inert. It needs to react vibrantly to real world situations. This concept plays a very important role in the biblical picture of law.

There are two overarching types of law in the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Even though they both consist of the categories I have outlined, the shape and content of each differs. We must be careful not to mind the false caricatures of their relationship. It isn’t the law versus grace. E.P. Sanders in his seminal work Paul and Palestinian Judaism described Judaism as a “religion of grace.” There is law and grace in each but we need to understand the form they assume. I previously described law as active, a living organism. Contrary to popular notions, the Old Testament was not as static and monolithic as the stone the Decalogue was etched in. This of course does not mean that it was interpreted and applied purely subjectively. Yet there was a certain degree of flexibility. Funnily enough, what really drew my attention to this was a lecture on Islam.

Andy Bannister, a member of RZIM who has a PhD in Islamic studies, was explaining in a YouTube video that the Quran is primarily an ancient oral text. It was not the first time I had heard this. What was different is that he cited the Ten Commandments as an example of an oral text. Deuteronomy, which means ‘second law’ has a slightly different phrasing to what is found in Exodus 20. This is typical of oral societies where the written word serves the spoken word. In today’s literate world where we put such premium on exact verbal reproduction, we sometimes find it hard to recognize the same thing is being said when it is rendered differently. We are often sticklers for inconsequential pedantic details. This led me to reconsider what the Law was really about, paying closer attention to the themes, principles and aims it espoused.

No law is absolutely comprehensive, stating exactly what you should do in every conceivable circumstance. You therefore need to equally recognize the spirit as well as the letter of the law to navigate through the murky greys of real life. Even in countries with written constitutions like my own, the concept of legal precedence for instance, is a very important guiding principle in judicial decisions. In the Law of Moses, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a good example in the Bible of how new precedents can create new commands that preserve the integrity of the law (Numbers 27:1-11.) Within any functioning legal system, there is potential for some degree of change and adaptation. We therefore need to examine the changes that resulted in the Old Testament becoming the New Testament. The hierarchical categories of law that I have outlined in this article serve as a guide in exploring the differences.

Firstly, when we read things like “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) or a “change in the law” (Hebrews 7:12) or it being “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13), it is not a wholesale rejection of the Old Testament for the New. The word which adequately sums up the association between the two is “reformation” (Hebrews 9:10.) Reformation implies there is both continuity and discontinuity between the testaments. It also suggests the original aims for God giving the Torah for whatever reason could not be fulfilled under the old covenant. The purpose of any reformation or restoration is to return to the original intent. This is precisely the line of thought in Hebrews. The New Testament is therefore in a truly Biblical sense a fulfilment of the Old. To clearly appreciate the aims of God’s law and how those goals are met, we must turn to the category of narrative.

Stories are excellent vehicles for conveying the meaning of things and events. The biblical canon is founded on a controlling narrative of events in space-time i.e. how God has acted within the course of human history. The primary narrative of scripture is found in Genesis. (I have explored this in more detail in other posts but here is a quick summary.) God created the world and made humans to be his image bearers, representing his character, glory, wisdom and rule in creation. Adam, the first representative of humanity, failed in this task and so did the rest of the human race continually. God then conferred the Adamic mission on Abraham.

From creation we move to the Exodus which is the central narrative of the Old Covenant. There God rescues the Israelites in fulfilment of the “covenant of promises” he made to their forefather Abraham. He becomes their God and they his people. The nature of event in the narrative that formed Israel meant the Law of Moses had a focus on external requirements. He literally separates them from the other nations so the divine selection of the Jews and their distinction from Gentiles is a fundamental feature of Judaism. Circumcision, the Torah, dietary laws, the sacrificial system, the Temple, the land etc. were all symbols representing and reinforcing their uniqueness. These are in Romans is described as “outward and physical.” Combined with the sinfulness of human nature, it created the problem of superficial obedience without any real internal commitment. The prophet Isaiah said “their lips honour me but their hearts are far away.” Israel’s story was therefore chequered with many failures in staying faithful to YHWH their God.

From Exodus the Israelite kingdom is formed in the attempt to fulfil the Genesis mandate establishing his divine rule and worship on earth through humans. Unfortunately they fail repeatedly like the rest of humanity, eventually resulting in exile as a consequence of their apostasy, even though they were repeatedly forewarned by the prophets. Israel was paradoxically both a part of the problem and the divinely ordained solution. Hebrews (as well as the rest of the New Testament) explains that because of human limitation i.e. the “sinful” “weakness of the flesh”, the Law of Moses was never designed to be a permanent solution. It was rather to fully take into account these human problems and play a necessary albeit limited role in the ongoing saga of how God is fulfilling his good original purpose in creation.

The story proceeds from genesis to exodus, kingdom, exile, and finally return. Israel was looking for true restoration, the prophetic fulfilment of the ancient story under the leadership of the Messiah. These expectations were brought to a climax in and through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s true Messiah. This is the gospel message which is the central narrative of the New Testament. The Messianic event was the climax of the ancient story of the people of Israel and the turning point of human history. It has so radically altered the word that it has resulted in a new creation emerging through the old, a renewal of the entire cosmos.

In the development of any story, the initial conditions do not remain the same but they change until the conclusion is reached. The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ crucial mission redefined the nature of God’s law. Instead of the separation we find at the Exodus we find participation and inclusion in the Gospel. This the mystery Paul speaks of in Ephesians. There is a fundamental change in the controlling narrative is. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross brought together Jew and Gentile, reconciling them both to God, creating a new contract between God and man. On account of this new union, the old physical external symbols and markers of distinction have to be set aside. This prompts a change in focus from external to internal law. Not that there are no external codes for the New Testament believer to observe and everything is subjective. The resurrection resulted in a new man with new appetites empowered by the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. All who receive the good news participate in this new internal reality of the Holy Spirit.

New circumstances require a new law. At each level in the categories of law, narrative, contract and code, there are significant differences in the testaments. Instead of the Exodus, ritual sacrifice and the Mosaic commandments, we have the Gospel, resurrection and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Since the New Testament is the pivotal fulfilment of the Law, it shows similarity and dissimilarity with the Old. This means it either abrogates, modifies or supersedes the Old. This is consistent with the theology of new creation which is not the rejection of the old but rather renewal. The New Testament is actually a renewed testament.

Next post ⇒ Living Law


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