How to Read the Old Testament (Part 2-The Constitution)

In the last post (click to read) we discussed the difficulty of harmonizing the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. We mentioned that throughout history there have been a few main ways to attempt to reconcile the two sections of the Bible that seem to be at odds on many points. Basically there is the Jewish way, the Gnostic way and the Christian way. The Jewish way says that Jesus was a teacher of the Law of Moses. The Gnostic way says that the Old Testament was written by an inferior god. And the Christian way says that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures.

The heart of the Old Testament is the Law of Moses. So in order to understand how the Old and the New Covenants can be reconciled we should start with an understanding of the nature of that Law. In this post I will just throw out some various ways of looking at the Torah (i.e. first 5 books of the Bible).

We The People

The Constitution of Israel

In Genesis 12 God promises Abraham that he would make his descendants into a great nation. And he was going to use that nation to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. The first aspect of this promise points to the creation of the nation of Israel. The second aspect points to the coming of Messiah and the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.

From chapter 12 Genesis follows the history of Abraham’s family through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and his twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. We learn through the narrative about Joseph just how the children of Israel came to live in the land of Egypt. Then at the beginning of the book of Exodus we read that in a short time the descendants of Jacob became slaves in Egypt. This lasted for about 400 years until God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage. He did this by bringing great judgment on Egypt. Eventually the descendants of Israel were a free people on the other side of the re-flooded Red Sea. It is here where the promise to Abraham starts to take shape.

To create a nation there are a few things that are needed. There must be a leader (king, prophet, president, etc.). In Israel God took the role of King and Moses was established as his prophet. A nation also needs a land to call its own. God promised that he would lead them to inherit the land of Palestine if they would keep his covenant. This brings us to another thing every nation needs, a constitution. Every nation begins with persons making an agreement (of one form or another) with one another to be a nation. In this case God made a covenant with the descendants of Jacob that they would be his people and he would be their God. In most nations of the time the people had a primary god (along with many others) that they would give homage to. They believed that as long as they pleased their god(s) they would be given victory and blessings. The God of Abraham made it clear that for Israel there were to be no gods worshipped except him.

This covenant, like all covenants, laid out the contractual responsibilities of both parties entering into the agreement (i.e. covenant). So in the Law, which is better understood as a contract between God and Israel, we see what God expects the children of Jacob to do in order to fulfill their side of the deal. And it also spells out exactly what they can expect God to do on his side. They are told that if they keep the stipulations of the covenant then they will always dwell safely in the land that he has promised them. If they do not keep up their part of the bargain they can be sure that he will spew them out of the land like lukewarm water from his mouth.

Let me stop here and make a few observations. It is important to see that the Law of Moses doesn’t promise heaven or warn about hell. The afterlife played no role in the Old Covenant because it was a national covenant, between the Creator and one particular nation. The promises dealt with things like fruitful crops and victory in war. And the warnings spoke of things like barrenness and exile from the land of promise. (Deut. 29-30)

The so called “prosperity gospel” mixes the promises of the Old Covenant with the commands of the New. They say that if we place our faith in Christ then God will cause out barns (i.e. bank accounts) to be filled to abundance. Islam makes the opposite error, by mixing Old Covenant commands with the promises and warnings of the New. They tell us that if we faithfully abstain from foods like pork and other such earthly commands then we can expect to dwell in paradise (if God so decrees, that is). And if we are so bold as to eat a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich we can expect our stay in hell fire to be extended, maybe indefinitely.

These two false religions give us a clear example of what can happen if we fail to understand the earthly nature of the Old Covenant and the heavenly nature of the New. Because many fail to make this distinction, many today make erroneous statements like “America is, or once was, a Christian nation.” Such statements imagine that the kingdom of God is of this world and that things like the American revolutionary war actually advanced the kingdom of God on earth. But Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world otherwise his disciples would fight. Paul said we wrestle not with flesh and blood. Never does the Bible say, “No taxation without representation.” Instead Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and Paul writes, “Submit to the governing authorities,” and “Honor the king!”

The Old Covenant was a national covenant made between God and Israel. Its regulations, promises and warnings were all meant to produce the “great nation” that God promised Abraham. The hyper-grace movement makes the mistake of thinking that the Old Testament commands were somehow given so that those who do them could earn entry into the “kingdom of God.” They fail to realize that they were given for those who were already in the “kingdom of Israel.” This misunderstanding causes them to say, “Now, in the New Testament we don’t have to earn our way to heaven by obeying any commands, instead we just have to believe in order to go to heaven.” they don’t understand that God’s salvation has never been earned by obedience as though God is indebted to those who obey.

The modern Judaizers (Hebraic Roots Movement) fail to admit the national nature of the Torah and seek to apply it in all nations at all times. For them the “kingdom of God” is ruled by the laws that founded the “kingdom of Israel.” In their mind, if a government were to be established according to the Torah, then that would be an outpost of God’s kingdom built upon God’s laws. This ignores the spiritual and eternal nature of the kingdom of Christ, who is seated in heavenly places at the right hand of God. Not as an earthly Levitical priest, but as a priest forever in the order of Melchizidek.

The first thing we must understand about the Law is that it was given as a covenant between God and the nation of Israel. It was given in order to make them into a special nation through which God could bring the Savior of the world. First and foremost the Torah is a contract between God and particular nation. This is why it is called a covenant.

Other Aspects of the Torah

Besides a king, a land and a constitution, a nation also needs a distinct culture. American culture is built around principles like the right of every individual to have life, liberty and the chance to pursue happiness. But Israel only had a vague memory of their culture. They had passed down the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, but in other areas they were more Egyptian than anything. Since the children of Israel had lived in Egypt for so long they had absorbed the customs of that nation. This fact can been seen clearly when they cry out for the food of Egypt or make the golden calf to worship. God wanted to give them a specific culture to call their own.

Al the nations at that time worshipped various gods. Some of these gods were related to fertility, others to the weather or the stars. God wanted Israel’s culture to be centered on the fact that there was one Creator of heaven and earth, and that this creator had redeemed them out of bondage to serve him. They were given various feasts to celebrate to acknowledge that it was the Creator God who had delivered them from bondage (i.e. Passover, etc.). They were given a calendar that revolved around the phases of the moon, not to glorify the moon, but to recognize that the Creator had placed the sun, moon and stars in their places. They were told to reenact what God did on the 7th day of creation every 7th day in order to remember that they were a people that belonged to the Creator of heaven and earth.

This culture was part of the covenant that they as a nation were given by God. It was one of the ways that he made their nation great. It is similar to the way the New Covenant people of God celebrate their Passover through the Lord’s Supper. By this act the New Covenant people reenact their deliverance, not from Egypt, but from sin and death through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Or the way the New Covenant people of God celebrate the first day of the week in order to remember that they follow the Redeemer who has created the new creation through his resurrection from the dead.

The great nation that God promised Abraham he would create also needed a religion. Of course this religion was centered on the Creator and his presence among his redeemed people. So it was centered on the Tabernacle of Moses and eventually on the Temple in Jerusalem. What made each of these holy was the ark of the covenant that was placed in the inner most room and was the resting place of God’s manifest presence.

Many religious rules were put into place in order to regulate how people would approach God’s presence. This included various laws about things that should be considered ceremonially clean or unclean. Certain diseases and bodily functions were considered unclean and would make people unsuitable for entering the Temple/Tabernacle. On top of this God showed the people his redemptive nature in providing for cleansing through various ritual sacrifices. And of course God established a system of priesthood to organize who exactly was qualified to offer these cleansing sacrifices.

A great nation would also need social laws to determine how society would function. This included things like the appropriate way to treat a slave, divorce a wife or keep people from random revenge killings in the case of accidental manslaughter. Along with these social laws came rules about how to establish a judicial system; this included rules about what kind of testimony would be accepted in various types of cases and what punishments were to be meted out. Without such laws the nation that God was creating could not function properly.

Included in all of this were some basic moral principles that can be extrapolated from the social law. These principles were sometimes stated quite directly as we see in the commands “Do not steal” and “Do not murder.” But in commands like, “Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading out grain” we can find the simple principle of kindness and mercy, even in relating to animals. It is these basic principles that give us a shadow of the universal nature of the New Covenant Law of the Spirit in Christ.

Conclusion

In order to understand the Old Covenant we need to understand it as a contract between God and the nation of Israel. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation. He fulfilled this promise by redeeming the people of Israel out of Egypt and then organizing them into a nation through the commands of the Torah. This national constitution established them into a nation by giving them a culture, a social legal system, a moral compass and a religion. This contract was given with promises of blessing for obedience and warning of judgment for disobedience. The character of both the blessing and the judgments were of a natural and earthly nature. The main clause was that if they obeyed the covenant they would remain safely in the land of Canaan, but if they disobeyed they would be cast out.

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