The Division of Old Testament Law

It seems clear from both testaments that there is a division among Old Testament laws.

We often hear that “the Law” is a unit, that all of it is moral, and that if any of it is abrogated, then all of it must be. While the issues involved in this dispute among sincere brothers in Christ certainly require more than a simple blog post, I offer the following short critique of those views which teach that Old Testament law is monolithic and without any divisions.

 

Are believers in Christ required to obey any part of Old Testament law? Both Dispensationalists and proponents of New Covenant Theology, or Progressive Covenantalism, as one version of it has come to be called, simply say “no.” In their view, the laws of the Old Testament are fulfilled and abrogated in Christ. Believers are only required to obey the “law of Christ,” which is taught in the commands of the New Testament alone. That’s a simple hermeneutic that draws a sharp line between the testaments and tells believers they don’t have to obey any Old Testament law. One of the major problems with this perspective is that New Testament authors seem to assume the authority of the Old Testament in matters of certain kinds of law. Another problem is that in spite of objections to the contrary, the Old Testament doesn’t treat all of its laws the same way either. We often hear that “the Law” is a unit, that all of it is moral, and that if any of it is abrogated, then all of it must be. While the issues involved in this dispute among sincere brothers in Christ certainly require more than a simple blog post, I offer the following short critique of those views which teach that Old Testament law is monolithic and without any divisions.

Old Testament

1. Old Testament laws are divided into categories. Deuteronomy 4:13-14 says, “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land you are going to possess.” Notice that the “Ten Commandments” (lit. ten words) are distinct from the other designations of Old Testament law: “statutes” and “rules.” Similarly, Moses writes, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes, and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you” (Deut 6:1). These three kinds of laws: commandments, statutes, and rules, overlap in their semantic range, but they are not identical. Commandments (mitsvah) are “codes of law;” statutes (hoq) are “ordinances;” rules (mishpat) are “case laws.” Therefore, it’s far from correct to say the Old Testament does not divide its laws into various categories.

Furthermore, the order in which God gave the law in the book of Exodus implies the distinctivenesss of the Ten Commandments. God gave the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Then in Exodus 21-23, God reveals the civil laws. And then beginning in Exodus 25, God provides the ceremonial laws about the tabernacle. Thus, the Ten Commandments stand alone as distinct and primary, while all other laws in the Old Covenant are subsequent to them.

2. The Ten Commandments were revealed in a unique way. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai with loud thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud, and a “very loud trumpet blast” (Ex 19:16). No other laws were revealed this way. It was a striking and emotional experience for those who were there. God wanted it to be memorable. He intended the Ten Commandments to stand out in the minds of His people above all other laws. He wanted to impact their senses so that they would never forget the distinctive importance of these ten words. Furthermore, only the Ten Commandments were spoken by God to the whole congregation (Deut 4:12-13). The other commands were spoken through Moses.

3. God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger. Exodus 31:18 says God gave Moses “tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” The other laws were written by the pen of Moses. The Ten Commandments were engraved on “stone” to communicate that they are fixed and permanent. God wrote the rest of the old covenant laws through Moses on paper.

Read More