Sound Hermeneutics for the Old Testament

by Max Andrews

The Old Testament is a vastly misunderstood text of Scripture. Many atheists love to point to OT passages and denounce them for some reason or another. Likewise, many [liberal] Christians do the same or simply dismiss many OT passages. In my experience, most misunderstandings about the OT pertains to thee 613 commands in the OT Scriptures. For some reason, and I think due to a lack of understanding and bad exegesis, much of the OT law is dismissed. I’ve never actually come across an atheist who makes an objection to some OT passage whilst offering any exegetical argument or evidence. My intentions are to educate the ignorant pertaining to OT hermeneutics so Christians and non-believers alike may learn how to properly handle the text in an intellectually responsible fashion.

Here are a few [obscure] texts:

You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. Ex. 34.26b

You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. Lev. 19.19b

You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. Deut. 22.12

We consistently violate OT laws.

You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. Lev. 19.32

And the pig, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. Deut. 14.8

We seem to ignore some and embrace others.

But you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Lev. 19.18b

You shall not murder. Ex. 20.13

And you shall not commit adultery. Deut. 5.18

How do we decide which laws to keep and which to ignore? Should we ignore any? Which are valid today? Which are not valid today?

“Many Christians today make this decision based merely on whether a law seems to be relevant. Surely this haphazard and existentialist approach to interpreting the Old Testament Law is inadequate.” –Daniel Hays

The traditional approach: The Tripartite Law

  1. Moral
  2. Civil
  3. Ceremonial

1) Moral Law: Those that deal with timeless truths regarding God’s intention for human ethical behavior. (e.g. Love your neighbor as yourself.)

2) Civil Law: Israel’s legal or governmental system: land, criminal justice, economics, etc. (e.g. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. Deut. 15.1)

3) Ceremonial Law: deals with festivals, sacrifices, and priestly activities. (e.g. Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Deut. 16.13).

Concerning the Tripartite approach, the distinctions are of the utmost importance. It’s the only method of knowing if law applies today or not. Moral laws would be universal and the civil and ceremonial laws were only for Israel. However, these distinctions are purely arbitrary. The categories are man-made. The OT does not distinguish the law this way:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. (Lev. 19.18-19)

Where is the contextual shift? Which laws go into which category?

Because the Mosaic Law defined the covenant relationship between God and Israel, it was by nature theological. All of the Law had theological content. –Daniel Hays

Leviticus has a central theme/motif of God’s holiness. The chapter begins with: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”

-Holy things and profane things must be kept separate.

-God’s holiness is central

In fact all of the Levitical laws regarding separation seem to relate to the overarching principle of God’s holiness and the separation required because of that holiness. –Daniel Hays

Consider the following passage:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance. “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the LORD. And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.‘ “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar. And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children. “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity. (Num. 5.11-31)

Adultery is a moral issue, right? Is this law timeless? If we don’t do this, are we saying adultery is not a moral issue?

The Sabbath: moral, ceremonial, or civil? Clearly, it’s a part of worship, so ceremonial? Does its placement (within the ten commandments) automatically make it moral and universal? Then the ten apply and nothing else? Then we couldn’t claim Lev. 19.18: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is more problematic for those who say they keep it—they don’t! Going to church is not Sabbath keeping. Day One and Day Seven cannot be substituted (Num. 15.32-36).

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.“ And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Num. 15.32-36)

Breaking the Sabbath resulted in death.

A second problem, aside from the arbitrary distinctions within the Tripartite approach, is interpreting legal material in a narrative fashion. This traditional approach fails. Too often we pick laws out of their narrative contexts. From Genesis 12 to 2 Kings 25, the law is part of the theological narrative of God delivering his people from Egypt and giving them the Land. Isolation leads to distortion.

Considered Exodus 1-19 in which God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt through powerful works.

  • The call of Moses
  • Powerful encounters with Pharaoh
  • Egyptian plagues
  • Escape through the Sea
  • Journey in the desert for three months
  • At Sinai, Israel called into a covenant relationship

Ex. 20—the Ten Commandments. Ex. 21-23—Legal material: 20.18 begins the narrative and at the end of the legal section (Ex. 23), the people respond… Ex. 24.3b “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Leviticus is actually painting a picture with a backdrop in the narrative (Lev 26:46; 27:34; 16:1) see also 8:10, 14, 31; 9:1, 8; 10:2). Numbers and Deuteronomy also follow this pattern.

Following the arbitrary distinctions, interpreting legal material in a narrative fashion, there is another problem: the Tripartite approach overlooks the laws’ theological context.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine. Ex. 19.5

The Israelites agreed to the terms of the Old Covenant (24.3) and Moses sealed the Old Covenant in blood (24.8). The Mosaic Law is tightly tied to the Mosaic Covenant. The Old Covenant is closely associated with Israel’s conquest and occupation of the Land. The OC is not geographically neutral and the OC is not neutral. The OC was a specific manifestation of eternal principles for a certain people, during a certain time period, in a certain place, during a certain agreement (covenant). Additionally, there’s an extremely close connection between the Land and the Covenant.

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. (Deut. 4:1)

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Deut. 4:5)

And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess. (Deut. 4.14)

Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time. (Deut. 4.40)

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it. (Deut. 6.1)

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. (Deut. 8.1)

You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess. (Deut. 11.8)

These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. (Deut. 12.1)

Concerning the OC being closely associated with Israel’s conquest and occupation of the land, there are two aspects: the possession of the Land and the presence of the Lord in the Temple. The Land was lost in 587 BC and the Lord’s presence left the Temple (Ez. 10). After the exile, things were never the same; the blessings of Deut. 28 were never realized.

Concerning the conditionalited of the OC: Obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings curses. Deut. 281-14 states that blessings follow obedience and vv15-68 states that curses follow disobedience.

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deut. 30.15-18)

The Mosaic Covenant is no longer a functional covenant. This covenant has been done away with (Heb. 8-9). Heb. 8.13—In speaking of the New Covenant, he makes the first one obsolete and what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Since the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete, laws are part of an obsolete covenant. Gal. 3.24-25—“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Paul never distinguished between moral, civil, and ceremonial; he just saw “Law”—a united law.

Mt. 5.17: “Law and Prophets” refers to the entire OT; Jesus wasn’t doing away with all of Scripture, he was fulfilling it. Mt. 11.13: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” The entire OT was prophecy, pointing to Christ. “Fulfill” in Mt. 5 means “to set out something’s true meaning.” This is in relation to prophecy. Jesus was not saying that Christians have to keep the whole OT law.

Jesus fulfilled all the righteous demands of the Mosaic Law. However, the law changes by his fulfillment of it; just as all prophecy changes when fulfilled. Some laws were restated (Mt. 19.18-19). Some laws were modified (Mt. 5.31-32). Some laws were made stronger/intensified (Mt. 5.21-22; 27-28). Others were changed significantly (5:33-37, 38-42, 43-47). Some were totally abrogated.

Jesus neither said the whole law was gone, nor that all had to be kept: “the meaning of the Law must be interpreted in light of His coming and in light of the profound changes introduced by the New Covenant. –Daniel Hays

How ought one approach the OT law?

An appropriate approach will:

  1. View all of the OT as God’s inspired Word
  2. Does not rely upon non-textual categories
  3. Places the laws into their narrative contexts
  4. Maintains the theological context of the laws
  5. Corresponds to NT teaching

Principlism: What did the law mean to the original audience?

What is the historical and literary context of the alw? Where were the Israelites when the law was given? At Sinai? On the banks of the Jordan? In the wilderness? Was the law a response to a particular historical situation, a story, that had just been told? Was it intended for after they entered the Holy Land? Are there connections between this law and the laws around it? Was the law related to their relationship with other people or with God? How connected was it to the land?

A second facet of principlism: What are the differences between the initial audience and believers today?

What is the theological and situational differences between audiences? We are under a different covenant. We are not Israelites preparing to enter the Holy Land nor are we agreeing to the Mosaic Covenant. We don’t approach God through animal sacrifices. We are not under a theocracy.

A third aspect of principlism: What is the universal principle underlying the text?

Dig deep for the universal principle. Each law has a timeless principle (specific or general). Each law was a manifestation of God’s eternal character; but, underlying it is the eternal principle based on God’s eternal, unchanging character. This principle will be timeless, universal, and applicable to people of God everywhere.

Guidelines for this:

  1. The principle should be reflected in the text; develop it from the text, not fantasy
  2. It needs to be timeless
  3. It needs to conform to the theology of the rest of Scripture
  4. It cannot be bound by culture
  5. Apply it to the Old and New Covenant believers—Usually this will be related to: a) the character of God, typically his holiness, b) the nature of sin, c) issues of obedience, d) concern for other people.

A fourth facet: find the New Testament teaching that matches with the principle. Remember that these are interchangeable and you need to go back and forth. The principle should be filtered through NT teaching. When the OC was abrogated, it ceased to function for Christians as law. But, when the NT repeats a command from the OT, it continues.

But this validity and authority as a command comes from the New Testament and not the Old Testament. –Daniel Hays

Example: The Mosaic Law forbade adultery. Jesus expanded this to thoughts about adultery: lust. Now adultery and lustful thoughts are condemned.

A fifth aspect is to apply the new, modified principle to life today.

Deut 25.4 is quoted in 1 Cor 9.9. Paul uses this OT law, which wouldn’t have been considered a “moral” law in the traditional approach, and utilized it for his teaching. He was using this law paradigmatically or analogically. If oxen shouldn’t be muzzled while working, surely preachers of the gospel shouldn’t be. The underlying principle was that workers deserve their pay. That fits 1 Cor 9 and is the underlying principle to Deut 25.4.

Here is an example of a proper, hermeneutically sound exegesis of an OT passage: Leviticus 19.26-28.

A special credit and thanks to my Hermeneutics professor, David Croteau, for this material, taken from my class and lecture notes.


2 Responses to “Sound Hermeneutics for the Old Testament”

  1. Thanks for this. I also notice that even Christian side step the OT, especially the ones where the Israelites are commanded to kill other nations. I appreciate WLC for tackling the issue.

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