Ever get bogged down trying to read the laws recorded in the Old Testament (Exodus, Leviticus, etc…)? John Sailhamer has some helpful advice and encouragement about how to read these passages of scripture. First, he lists four principles to remember when reading the law:
- The laws are part of the narrative technique.
- The laws are a sign of Israel’s failure.
- The laws show why God gave the law to Israel.
- The laws are a collection of “just” decisions.
Under #4, he gives some really helpful advice:
The laws are a collection of “just” decisions.
The laws in the Pentateuch provide an exemplary collection of “just” decisions to help inculcate a spirit of justice in the reader’s heart. Perhaps the most important reason for the Mosaic law in the Pentateuch is to serve as a textbook on justice. By reading and reflecting on these examples of “just” decisions in particular and specific contexts, one gains a sense of that justice as it occurs in specific cases. To be sure, the laws in the Pentateuch are only particular and specific examples within actual ancient contexts. They are not mere abstractions that can be applied to everyday, or contemporary, settings. They are actual examples of God’s specific decisions in the past. As such, the laws in the Pentateuch show what divine justice looked like in actual situations. The goal of reading such laws was likely not to strip them of their context in order to uncover an embedded principle. Although there may be a place for that, the goal was to allow the narrative context to disclose an insight into the way God sees our tangled lives. The laws do not answer the question “What should we do in cases like this?” but rather the question “What did God think about specific cases like these and how, or what, can we learn about justice from him?” In some ways, what Walther Eichrodt once said about Israelite law in general applies here to the Mosaic law:
If we are seeking to define the distinctive character of the Mosaic law…then attention must first be drawn to the emphasis with which the entire law is referred to God…Israelite law on the whole contents itself with applying a few basic dicta fairly freely over and over again. These dicta are, however, inculcated as the divine will and thus impressed on the heart and conscience. Application to individual concrete instances is then left in many cases to a healthy feeling for justice.
Thus, the Pentateuch is intended to be the object of meditation and reflection (cf. Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2; Mal 4:4). It teaches, by concrete example, what justice (mispat) and righteousness (sedaqa) are. Hence, the Pentateuch is written not for the Sinai covenant, but for the new covenant (Jer 31:31-32; cf Deut 4:60. Unlike the Sinai covenant, in the new covenant the law was to be written on the heart. God’s people were to have a new heart (Ezek 36:26). The Spirit of God was to remove their heart of stone and give them a new heart, one that would obey and seek to follow God’s will. The law was to be written on the heart in the same way it was written on the pages of the Pentateuch: example by example. The Spirit of God was to use the Word of God to write his will on the heart of the reader. The Pentateuch therefore is a book much like Proverbs. One can read it and find there a healthy sense of what is right and good as well as what is not good. Justice is imprinted on the heart by reading and meditating on its words. This is illustrated in the admonitions of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2. The source of wisdom is meditation on the Scriptures, which includes its laws.
The way to gain wisdom and a sense of what is right and just from the Pentateuch is to read it as wisdom, looking for an accumulation of the sense of what justice looks like in concrete and qualified situations. Just as one becomes wise by reflecting on the examples of wisdom in Proverbs, so one becomes good and just by reflecting on the laws of the Pentateuch.
John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, pg. 560-562