Monday, June 04, 2012

Questions about the relevance of the Old Testament Law

A widely circulated letter falsely attributed to Dr James Kauffman and addressed variously to Dr. Laura and George W. Bush poses several rather sarcastic questions about the relevance of Old Testament law to modern society.  I don't know if anyone has ever answered these questions online, but if they haven't, I've answered the questions below for the benefit of anyone who has seen his letter and is curious about how to apply Old Testament law to modern society.

The important thing to note throughout is that in Jesus Christ, the purpose of much of the Old Testament law is accomplished and therefore no longer necessary. This is not true of the entire law, however. For example, the Ten Commandments are not superceded - we still are not to murder, steal or commit adultery. But many of the questions below relate to laws that are superceded (even though they may be based on principles which are still valid). If you would like to know more specifics about to what extent the laws and the principles which they instantiate are still relevant today, feel free to ask me, and I'll do my best to provide the answers.

My answers to the questions are in blue italics below
Dear Dr. Laura: 
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination ... End of debate. 
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them. 
1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are from neighboring nations. 
A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians? 
Answer: Since slavery was commonplace in the ancient world, laws were made to regulate it rather than attempting to abolish it. However Paul, in his letter to Philemon, essentially abolished any religious underpinnings for slavery by telling Philemon that he should welcome Onesimus, his runaway slave who had become a Christian, back as a brother and treat him as a friend. Though it took many centuries for the implications of this teaching to make themselves fully felt, it was a foundational motive for the abolition of slavery.
2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? 
Answer: See the answer to the previous question.
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24.
The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
Answer: Jewish law spoke extensively about uncleanness because God was teaching the people about his holiness and they needed to learn that we need to be made clean before we can approach him. However the kind of cleansing we need is the spiritual cleaning that is accomplished by Jesus Christ through his work on the cross as we place our faith in him. When Christ died, he fulfilled the primary intent of all of the Jewish laws regarding cleanliness, so they are no longer needed. However some of them can still be profitably followed for pragmatic reasons. This one, for example, had the practical purpose of restraining a man from trying to have sex with his wife during her period, a restraint which still might be desirable.
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
Answer: Like the Jewish laws about cleanliness, the laws about sacrifices pointed to the sacrifice that Jesus would ultimately make on our behalf. Once he died for our sins, the animal sacrifices were no longer needed to pay for our sins, so it is no longer necessary to sacrifice a bull for that purpose. As for smiting one's neighbor, see the discussion on the next question. 
5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death.Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
Answer: Old Testament law requires that in capital cases that there be two witnesses of the crime, so he must not kill the man himself, but must take it before a court with another witness to the event. If the man is convicted, the witness will be required to throw the first stones.
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?
Answer: His friend is correct. The violation of dietary laws did not call for capital punishment while violating other kinds of laws did. But while there may be practical reasons for not eating specific forbidden foods (such as pork, which until recently in modern countries transmitted several kinds of diseases), as moral laws, the dietary laws were superceded by Jesus when he declared that people were made unclean not by what went into them (the food they ate) but by what came out of them - sinful words and behaviors. However the law against homosexuality was never superceded, and Paul emphasizes in Romans 1 that disordered sexual desires are a foundational consequence of our rebellion against God.
7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here? 
Answer: Similarly to the laws about cleanliness, this law was intended to remind the Jews that God is perfect and nothing that is flawed will survive in His presence. Jesus, in his death and resurrection, made a way for our flaws to be made right. His healing ministry was also a pointer in this direction, for one day he will heal all the hurts and flaws of his people and everyone who belongs to him will stand before God in heaven completely clean and perfect. So by faith in Jesus those with physical defects of any kind can now approach the altar without fear.
8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27.How should they die?
Answer: This was never a capital crime, so talk of the death penalty here is absurd. Rather it was a command not to imitate the dress and style of the pagans around them, and no different in intent than prohibiting school children from wearing gang clothing on school campuses today.
9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
Answer: See the discussion of the cleanliness laws above.
10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16.Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
Answer: The question of mixing crops and fabrics is too complex to handle here, but the issue of blasphemy is simply a matter of societal survival. To blaspheme is not simply to say swear words, but to speak evil about or wish evil upon God - sort of like a teenager saying that she wished that her mom would be raped and have her purse stolen. When your community depends for your wellbeing on God, this is not the kind of thing you should say to or about him, and could result in punishments that would imperil the entire community. The threat of capital punishment was intended to protect the whole community from the consequences of making these kinds of statements. As for sleeping with one's inlaws - does anyone really think it is a good idea for a woman to have sex with her son-in-law or a man with his mother-in-law?
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I'm confident you can help.
Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

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