Shifting permanence

Trying to catch up on the reading on the One Year Bible plan: I'm
two days behind. That's a point where it's easy enough to catch up but
another day or so becomes hard to catch up. The whole point of this for
me is not to read the Bible in bursts or even to get through the whole
thing in a year, but to develop the lifestyle habit of daily scripture
reading.

I'm in Exodus 30 now and the Lord is giving Moses a list
of very specific laws. In 30:17, he specifies how Aaron and the
priestly caste must wash their feet everytime they come into the
Tabernacle and gives the what else: "or they will die!" Then God makes
the law firm: "This is a permanent law for Aaron and his descendants,
to be observed from generation to generation."

I'm reading a special One Year Bible,
where all of the daily readings are grouped together. There's not too
much commentary and I tend to skip it but the editors did feel the need
to address the laws of the Old Testament head on and asked in one
sidebar "Do we need to follow these laws today?" The answer was yes and
no: "The moral law is still to be followed... The ceremonial laws no
longer need to be followed because of the final sacrifice for since has
been made by Jesus."

God very clearly says in Exodus that the
laws he's giving are permanent. I don't really read much wiggle room in
there. Priests need to wash their feet... and kill a certain number of
lamb every year... and splatter the sacrificial blood around the alter a certain
way and... I know Jesus is the new law, etc., but still it's kind of
funny how literal-interpretation Christians will shrug off a direct and
permanent order from God. It seems obvious that the religious
traditions in the Bible differ greatly, as do the modern lens we bring
to them and the two centuries of shifting Christian practices we've
brought to them.

Does anyone happen to know if there's any religious group still trying to follow the details of the Mosaic Law? I wonder close do certain Orthodox Jewish groups get?

  • Why do “literal-interpretation Chris­tians … shrug off a direct and per­ma­nent order from God”? The answer is that they are Gen­tiles, not Jews, and the Gentile-Christian rela­tion­ship to the laws of Moses is lit­er­al­ly dealt with in three places in the New Tes­ta­ment.

    First, it is addressed in Acts 10:9 – 11:18. Here God uses a metaphor in a dream to declare to Peter that Gen­tiles are accept­able in the Church as Gen­tiles, with­out con­vert­ing to Judaism. Peter fig­ures out the mean­ing of the metaphor only belat­ed­ly.

    Sec­ond, it is addressed in Acts 15:1 – 29. Here we are told how a gen­er­al con­tro­ver­sy arose in the ear­ly Church as to whether Gen­tile Chris­tians should be made sub­ject to the laws of Moses. And we are told the details of a dis­cern­ment by the apos­tles and elders in Jerusalem, under the explic­it guid­ance of the Holy Spir­it, that Gen­tile Chris­tians, unlike Jew­ish Chris­tians, need only be sub­ject to the laws giv­en to Noah.

    Third, it is addressed in Paul’s let­ter to the Gala­tians, who were strug­gling again with this same ques­tion. Paul’s answer was that we are saved, not by per­form­ing the works of the law of Moses, but by faith in Christ Jesus. This is more sweep­ing than the for­mu­la in Acts; it releas­es Jew­ish Chris­tians as well as Gen­tile Chris­tians from obser­vance of the law, so long as their faith in Christ con­tin­ues. (But it also car­ries an explic­it expec­ta­tion that the faith will bear fruit in good works.) This teach­ing explains why, for most of Chris­t­ian his­to­ry, Jews who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty ceased to obey Mosa­ic law.

    “Mes­sian­ic Jews”, who are mod­ern Jews who have accept­ed Christ as the Mes­si­ah, are self-conscious as Jews, not Gen­tiles, and so, ignor­ing Paul’s posi­tion in his let­ter to the Gala­tians, as well as Paul’s state­ment that in Christ there is nei­ther Jew nor Gen­tile, they con­tin­ue to obey the laws of Moses.

    And yes, the Ortho­dox Jews, includ­ing the Hasidim, try to obey those Mosa­ic laws in every lit­tle detail. Wash­ing their feet every time they come into the Taber­na­cle of Meet­ing, how­ev­er, is not a con­cern, since the Taber­na­cle of Meet­ing ceased to exist in the time of Solomon, when it was replaced by the Tem­ple, and the Tem­ple has not been rebuilt since its destruc­tion by the Romans.

    • Thanks Mar­shall, I didn’t real­ize that Acts 15 specif­i­cal­ly divid­ed up which Old Tes­ta­ment laws were still in force. Seems fun­ny that Chris­tians talk about the Ten Com­mand­ments and get so worked up about what Leviti­cus says about homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. Maybe it will make more sense as I keep read­ing.

      And just in case it’s not blind­ing­ly obvi­ous to read­ers: what­ev­er Bible lit­er­a­cy I have comes from iso­lat­ed pas­sages read in var­i­ous bible study groups. Part of the rea­son I’m try­ing to stay the course with the One Year plan is so I’ll have a bit more con­text.

      • Hi, Mar­tin! Nice to hear back from you!

        To clear up a pos­si­ble mis­un­der­stand­ing: Acts 15 didn’t do a divid­ing; it reaf­firmed what was already present in the Old Tes­ta­ment. The rules laid out for Gen­tile Chris­tians in Acts 15:29 dupli­cate those laid out in Gen­e­sis 3 (no fol­low­ing oth­er guides than God; no sex­u­al immoral­i­ty) and Gen­e­sis 9:4 – 6 (no mur­der, and no eat­ing flesh with the life-blood still in it). These were all rules incum­bent on Noah, his clan, and their heirs — which meant, on all sub­se­quent Gen­tiles as well as on all Jews. But there was nev­er any hint any­where in the Old Tes­ta­ment that the Mosa­ic law was meant to apply to non-Jews. Obser­vance of the Mosa­ic law, in fact, was por­trayed as some­thing that sep­a­rat­ed Jews from non-Jews — and it is sig­nif­i­cant that the word the O.T. used for “sep­a­rate” also meant “set apart”, or “con­se­crat­ed”, or (by exten­sion) “holy”.

        The so-called Ten Com­mand­ments are con­sid­ered excep­tion­al because they are not obser­vances of Mosa­ic law, but gen­er­al moral stric­tures, state­ments of what is absolute­ly right and what is absolute­ly wrong. We might note that while they are ten in num­ber in Exo­dus 20:3 – 17 and Deteron­o­my 5:7 – 21, they are twelve in num­ber in Exo­dus 34:14 – 26, and they also appear in incom­plete, or per­haps sum­ma­ry form at Leviti­cus 19:3 – 4,1 – 13, Psalm 15:3 – 5, and Hosea 4:2. This sug­gests to mod­ern schol­ars that the ancient Hebrew/Jewish tra­di­tion actu­al­ly han­dled them in a dif­fer­ent way from the Mosa­ic code — per­haps mak­ing them into lists for lit­tle chil­dren to recite.

        In Exo­dus, anoth­er key dif­fer­ence between the Ten Com­mand­ments and the Mosa­ic law is that the Com­mand­ments are spo­ken to all the peo­ple, not just to Moses. This is con­sis­tent with the idea, in Jere­mi­ah 31:31 – 34, that the days are com­ing when God will write his law direct­ly in everyone’s hearts, and no one will need his neigh­bor to teach him. The Com­mand­ments, then, were con­ceived not as trib­al obser­vances from Moses, but as implic­it uni­ver­sals.

        Thus it should not be all that sur­pris­ing that the ear­ly Chris­tians regard­ed them as in a some­what dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry from obser­vances of the law. They were not a means by which Jews were set apart, but uni­ver­sals join­ing Jews and Gen­tiles in a com­mon path of right­eous­ness.

        Yet even so, the Ten were not orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived as a for­mu­la that Chris­tians all need to recite and hon­or. Paul assert­ed that all the inter­per­son­al com­mand­ments are sub­sumed in the sin­gle injunc­tion to “Love your neigh­bor as your­self” (Romans 13:9 – 10). Matthew and Luke record­ed that Jesus affirmed much the same (Matthew 22:35 – 40; Luke 10:25 – 28). From this point of view, one could for­get about the Ten and focus on the faith, hope and char­i­ty that bear the good fruits.

        What’s hap­pened is that there has been a grad­ual increase in the empha­sis on the Ten Com­mand­ments as Chris­t­ian his­to­ry has pro­gressed. Augus­tine pop­u­lar­ized their use in the cat­e­ch­esis. Calvin, a man obsessed with laws and crim­i­nal pun­ish­ments, hon­ored them as a “whip” to the “stub­born ass of the flesh”. I believe we can thank Augus­tine and Calvin for much of the cur­rent pas­sion for erect­ing copies of the tablets on cour­t­house lawns, post­ing the Com­mand­ments in class­rooms, and the like.

        As for the con­cern about homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, it links to the fact that sex­u­al immoral­i­ty is one of the pro­hi­bi­tions of the Noachic Code, incum­bent on Gen­tile Chris­tians as well as on Jews (Acts 15:29 again). The Bible doesn’t pro­scribe homo­sex­u­al activ­i­ty only in Leviti­cus; Paul repeats the pro­scrip­tion in Romans 1:27, I Corinthi­ans 6:9, and I Tim­o­thy 1:10, and it is also con­demned in Jude 7. The impli­ca­tion, to any­one con­ver­sant with the over­all log­ic of the New Tes­ta­ment, is that it is con­demned because it is a type of sex­u­al immoral­i­ty.

        I under­stand your inter­est in gain­ing more Bible-literacy. But I must con­fess to being a skep­tic of the val­ue of One Year read­ing pro­grams. So many peo­ple start out with Gen­e­sis, and founder some­where in Leviti­cus or Num­bers or Deuteron­o­my among the pro­hi­bi­tions and the begats! Or else they read and absorb things, but learn them out of con­text; they read the Mosa­ic law, for exam­ple, with­out grasp­ing it in the coun­ter­point of the prophets’ cri­tique of priest­ly reli­gion.

        It’s per­haps worth pon­der­ing that when the ear­ly Chris­tians set out to teach oth­ers how to be Chris­tians, they didn’t say, “Start with Gen­e­sis.” They began with “Christ, and him cru­ci­fied”, as Paul put it: in oth­er words, the tri­fold mes­sage of Divine incar­na­tion, Divine humil­i­a­tion, and Divine tri­umph over sin and death. From there, one’s edu­ca­tion went on to the Jesus teach­ings (the “Say­ings Gospel”), the Jesus sto­ry (the Gospels as we have them), and the apos­tolic instruc­tions to the gen­er­a­tions (the teach­ings in Acts and the epis­tles). The Old Tes­ta­ment was trea­sured, but more as back­sto­ry than as any­thing cen­tral. I think there is wis­dom in such an approach.

        Your friend,
        Mar­shall

  • M Kiv­el

    Does any­one hap­pen to know if there’s any reli­gious group still try­ing to fol­low the details of the Mosa­ic Law? I won­der close do cer­tain Ortho­dox Jew­ish groups get?

    Well, I sup­pose in the best tra­di­tion of Jew­ish obser­vance the prop­er answer to a ques­tion is anoth­er ques­tion, “What do you mean by ‘still try­ing to fol­low the details of the Mosa­ic Law?’” 

    Of the 613 com­mand­ments derived from Torah by clas­si­cal rab­binic Judaism, a large num­ber are inac­tive while The Tem­ple is in ruins. Some were only oper­a­tive if one lived in The Land (depend­ing on whose def­i­n­i­tion of The Promised Land you con­sid­ered oper­a­tive), oth­ers were incum­bent only on per­sons of a par­tic­u­lar gen­der, mar­i­tal, or occu­pa­tion­al sta­tus, and still oth­ers were active dur­ing par­tic­u­lar tem­po­ral phas­es.

    Rab­binic Judaism holds all com­mand­ments as of equal impor­tance (hence the ques­tion of “what is the great­est com­mand­ment?” is a non-starter among Jews) and that the idea of cer­e­mo­ni­al vs. moral law is sim­i­lar­ly non­sen­si­cal — God’s com­mand­ments were oblig­a­tory as long as the essen­tial com­po­nents for adher­ence were avail­able to a Jew yes­ter­day or today.

    Final­ly, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that elders, priests, prophets, scribes, then rab­bis, have been under­stood as hav­ing the author­i­ty to define how to define what the mitzvot are in each time and place and how one might deter­mine if obser­vance was or was not accept­able to God and the com­mu­ni­ty.

    It is inter­est­ing to note that while sac­ri­fi­cial laws were sus­pend­ed by the destruc­tion of The Tem­ple, as well, tech­ni­cal­ly, as those that required the exis­tence of The Tem­ple direct­ly or indi­rect­ly to achieve atone­ment, in the 1st Cen­tu­ry AD one of the dif­fer­ences between Rab­ban­ites and oth­er nor­ma­tive Jew­ish groups was the vol­un­tary assump­tion of com­mand­ments that were orig­i­nal­ly com­mand­ed to the priest­hood. So see­ing what com­mu­ni­ties are “clos­er” to the Mosa­ic law is much more com­plex than it might at first seem.…