What Was the Law & Why Did God Give It?

The Old Testament Law series (post #1)

A chicken and an elephant were locked in a cage together. The chicken turned to the elephant and said, “We need to set a few ground rules. First, let’s not step on each other.”

Rules. Like it or not, they are a part of life. There was even a rule way back in the garden of Eden: Don’t eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, God doesn’t call His rules by that name. Instead, He calls them “commandments” or “laws.”

With this post we begin a short series on God’s greatest rule book, the Old Testament Law. If you’ve done much Bible study, spent a fair amount of time in church, or heard your share of preaching, you’re probably vaguely familiar with the term “the law.” The problem is that most people, even most Christians, are just that, vaguely familiar with it. Many of them know just enough about it to be dangerous. That’s why a series like this is needed.

The law also goes by the titles “the law of Moses” and “the Mosaic law.” Those two descriptions stem from the fact that God gave the law to Moses atop Mount Sinai to give to the nation of Israel. What many people don’t understand is that the law was not just one rule or even a short list of rules. To the contrary, it was a lengthy, complex body of rules, regulations, restrictions, and rituals. Still, though, it can rightly be thought of as a single unit.

By the Jewish way of reckoning, there were 613 specific commandments (rules, laws) in the law. There is no singular Old Testament passage in which all 613 of these are recorded. To find them all, you have to study multiple sections of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The law was given exclusively to the people of Israel. As evidence of this, in Romans 2:11-16 the apostle Paul describes Gentiles as being “without law” and Jews as being “in the law.” He does point out, though, that when a Gentile’s conscience causes that Gentile to live out the moral principles of the law, that Gentile shows the work of the law written in his or her heart.

The opening section of the law was the listing of the famous Ten Commandments. We find it in Exodus 20:1-17. Not only did those Ten Commandments serve as the beginning of the law, they also served as its moral center. God wrote those Ten Commandments upon tablets of stone for Moses, but the rest of the law wasn’t written upon stone.

Theologians typically divide the law into three main parts: the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial. First, as I said, the Ten Commandments served as the moral part. Second, the ceremonial part was dominated by all the rituals and rules regarding the various offerings (some blood, some bloodless) the people of Israel were to offer up to God. Those laws, along with all the laws concerning Israel’s priesthood, regulated Israel’s worship life. Finally, third, the judicial part featured all the laws that had to do with humans doing harm to each other. Under those laws, major offenses were death-penalty crimes while lesser offenses merited a wide ranging scope of punishments other than death.

For the record, I should probably mention that the Jews didn’t use this three-fold division to break down the law. What they did was divide the law’s 613 commandments into twelve families of commandments. Those twelve families were then subdivided into twelve additional families of positive commandments and twelve additional families of negative commandments.

But why did God give the law to Israel? Well, there were at least three reasons, and I’ll name them as the conclusion to this opening post of the series. Here goes:

  1. Any nation needs a set of laws to keep its citizens in check, restrain evil, and thus promote the advancement of its society. The newly formed nation of Israel, having just come out of its bondage in Egypt, was certainly no exception.
  2. The law was a perfect vehicle for showcasing the mind of God on a long list of subjects. The law evidenced His priorities, established His standards, and made clear His opinions of specific behaviors.
  3. God intended for the law to be a “mirror” through which the Jews could view their conduct as either sinful or holy (James 1:23-25). In this way, He wanted the law to be a teaching tool that provided them with a knowledge of their sin and their need for a Savior who could provide forgiveness for their sins (Romans 3:20). In regards to salvation, the law was an all-or-nothing proposition because breaking one part of it equated to breaking the entire unit (James 2:8-11). So, as the Jews tried to keep the whole unit perfectly, and inevitably failed to do so somewhere along the line, God wanted them to learn firsthand that they were sinners who could not “work” their way into His kingdom. This is why the apostle Paul called the law a “tutor” to bring the Jews to Christ (Galatians 3:21-25). 
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