The Bible Project

The Purpose of The Law - Law E1

Episode Summary

Welcome to our first episode looking at laws in the Bible!

Episode Notes

Welcome to our first episode looking at laws in the Bible!
In part 1 (0-4:00), Tim explains how this set of conversations will be different than the previous podcast episodes that looked at biblical law (the first two episodes of this podcast).
In parts 2 and 3 (4:00-17:45 and 17:45-35:00), Tim and Jon discuss ancient law vs. modern law. They talk about the importance of biblical law, but how these laws often cause hang-ups for modern readers. Tim notes that for centuries, interpreting biblical law has been a major point of debate among Christians, Jews, and everyone else.
In part 4 (35:00-end), Tim explains a debate over the number of laws in the Old Testament Torah. Some say there are 611 commands; others say 613. So which is it?
This is one small but significant example that illustrates how important interpreting the law was in Israel. Here’s a glimpse into the debate to give you a fuller picture.
A few centuries after Jesus, rabbis still firmly held to both views. The main disagreement came down to two passages where a commandment could be implicitly read. Consider:
Exodus 20:1, “I am Yahweh your God” = Believe that Yahweh exists.
Deuteronomy 6:5, “Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one” = Believe that Yahweh is one.
Yet even though the number of laws in the Torah can be debated, early rabbis recognized the ability to “reduce” many laws to just a handful that fully captured the spirit of the law. A famous passage illustrates this in the Babylonian Talmud (one of the primary sources for interpreting Jewish religious law and theology). It states:
Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses.
David reduced those commandments to eleven. (Psalm 15)
Isaiah reduced them to six. (Isaiah 33:15-16)
Micah the prophet reduced them to three. (Micah 6:8)
Isaiah again reduced them to two. (Isaiah 56:1)
Amos reduced them to one. (Amos 5:4)
Habakkuk further reduces to say, “But the righteous shall live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)
Throughout the episode, Tim highlights differences in the law. For example, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 (both presenting the Ten Commandments) talk about the Sabbath in slightly different ways.
Or consider another instance, where Moses gives two different commands about how to prepare the Passover. Should you roast it or boil it? According to Exodus 12:8-9, you should roast it and not boil it. But in Deuteronomy 16:6-7, Moses tells the people to boil it.
These problems we see in the law are more than just ancient interpretation. To modern readers, some of the laws seem noble and inspiring, while others seem odd, primitive, or even barbaric.
We encounter all three of these examples in two adjacent chapters in the Torah:
In Leviticus 19, we read about God’s command to leave the extra gleanings of the harvest for the needy and stranger. God shows his care for the least of these.
A few verses later, we find laws about tattoos and beard etiquette. Weird!
One chapter later, we read the command that “a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:27)
Now these laws leave us feeling a tension around how to understand the idea of “biblical authority.” What does obedience to the laws of the Torah mean? Do we obey all of them, some of them, or none of them?
This issue has caused many conflicts in both Jewish and Christian history. For example, what is a Jew supposed to do about sacrificial ritual laws when the temple is destroyed in 586 B.C.? Or for a follower of Jesus, how do these laws relate to us as the messianic new covenant family?
We see that Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) So what can Paul mean when he says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4) Yet Paul still quotes from the Ten Commandments in places like Ephesians 6:1-3.
Overall, Tim makes the case that the law presented to us in the Old Testament is not a “code” in the same way modern readers often think of a law code. Instead, we see how Moses, the prophets, Paul, and even Jesus handled the laws. Each held a deep respect for the underlying meaning and ideals presented by the law to the people of God. Though times and customs changed, God’s law served as a bedrock of guiding ideals to help the people of God (both then and now) live in such a way as to love God and love neighbor.

Thank you to all our supporters!
Visit our website: thebibleproject.com
Show Produced by:
Dan Gummel
Show Music:
Defender Instrumental: Tents
Pilgrim Instrumental
Roads by LiQWYD
Skydive Loxbeats
Show Resources:
Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, vol. 17a (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 120–122.