Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).
Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.
In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.
The Laws of Moses were given to a people who had been slaves in a foreign land for 400 years, and were now being moulded into a new nation. The Law is not there to restrict the Israelites’ freedom, it is God’s gift to them to help them live in harmony and build a successful society. Also, as God’s chosen people, they need special instruction on how to worship God. So most of the laws are focussed on teaching the nation how to interact with each other and with God.
But even with that proviso, there are a few laws which seem a little odd. There are two more things that we need to understand about the function of the Law:
Firstly, as God’s people, chosen to be set apart for Him, it was important that the Israelites did not become corrupted with the religious practices of other nations.
The principal concern in this regard was keeping them separate from the influences of Canaanite religion, which was rife in the country to which God was leading them. Canaanite religious practices centred around worship of Baal, the god of thunder and fertility, and the bringer of rain; and Asherah (also called Athirat), who was the mother – and also consort – of Baal. (Another of the regulars in the Canaanite pantheon was Anat, the virgin goddess of war and strife, who was both wife and sister of Baal). A large part of Canaanite religious practice involved trying to increase fertility by bringing together objects associated with Asherah and those which represented Baal, so that their “sympathetic magic” would simulate Baal having sex with Asherah and thus increase the harvest.
Kinky, I know. But the point of this whole deviant diversion is that the laws which seem most arbitrary to us are ones like “Don’t wear clothes made of wool and linen” (Deut. 22:11), or “Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 34:26). The modern response to those passages is, respectively, “Why not?”, or “Why on earth would anyone do that in the first place?”. In each case, the principle behind those sort of injunctions is all about avoiding the idolatrous Canaanite religious practices centred on Baal and Asherah.
Secondly, the laws are not like a modern penal code; they are not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, they function paradigmatically, by giving examples of the kind of behaviour that God wants from His people.
This is why the Israelites are instructed, for instance, to “Build a parapet around the roof of your house” (Deut. 22:8). The custom among the Near Eastern civilisations was for guests to sleep on the roof of the house (which was flat), and the instruction here is to make sure that they may do so safely without worrying about falling off if they roll over in their sleep. It is a paradigmatic example of the kind of concern for others that God wants us to show. Instructions about leaving gleanings in the field (Lev. 19:9-10) are an example of offering welfare and charity to the poor and destitute, but they also illustrate a principle of charity that is equally relevant even if we are not farmers.
For a more thorough treatment of reading the Law in context, I strongly recommend Chapter 9 of How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.