Moses is the central figure — besides God, of course — in the the four books of the Pentateuch following Genesis. And those four books have two strands: the historical narrative of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, and the laws given to Moses by God during that time for the Jews to live by. Needless to say, it’s much more straightforward to summarize the historical narrative in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy than the laws therein. What I provide in this post is a brief version of the former, and an essay on the latter.
A word on the title of each chapter. Exodus is the ancient Greek word for “going out” or “road out,” a reference presumably to the Israelites leaving Egypt. Leviticus refers to the Levi, the priestly tribe of the Israelites, and reflects the focus of that book. Numbers refers to the census taken and discussed in the book. Deuteronomy means “second law” and refers to the fact, I think, that it restates many of the laws listed earlier.
Brief summary of the historical narrative
I will use the section summaries from my NIV study Bible, but with occasional additions and a few deletions. The summaries necessarily skip over a lot; I generally accept that, but felt that some famous sections (for example, the golden calf idol and the story of Balaam) had to be mentioned.
Joseph had brought his family to Egypt and protected them there. But after Joseph’s death, as they multiplied into a nation, they were forced into slavery. God then prepared Moses to free his people from slavery and lead them out of Egypt. To help Moses persuade Pharaoh, God unleashed ten plagues upon the land. After the the tenth plague, Pharaoh let the people go: On the night before their deliverance, God’s new nation celebrated the Passover — where God passed over the Israelite homes but took the first born of all the other families.
As Egypt buried its dead, the Hebrew slaves left the country, a free people at last. Pharaoh made one last attempt to bring them back, but the people escaped when God miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea. On the other side, however, the people soon became dissatisfied and complained bitterly to Moses and Aaron about their trek through the wilderness.
The Hebrews traveled through the desert and eventually arrived at Sinai, God’s holy mountain. There they received the Ten Commandments, as well as other laws and instructions for building a tabernacle as a center of worship. But the grumbling a backsliding continued, most notoriously with the making and worshiping by the Israelites of a golden calf idol as they waited for Moses to return from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
The Israelites have arrived safely at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the tabernacle has been completed. The people will spend a great deal of time here as God shows them a new way of life with clear instructions on how sinful people can relate to a holy God. We learn about the holiness and majesty of the God with whom we are allowed to have a personal relationship. After the sacrificial system for forgiving sins was in place, the people were instructed on how to live as forgiven people.
The first seventeen chapters are described as “Worshiping a Holy God” (instructions for the offerings, priests, people, and altar), and the chapters 18-27 as “Living a Holy Life” (standards for people, rules for priests, season and festivals, and receiving God’s blessing).
At Mount Sinai, the Israelites received specific directions for their life-style in the new land that God would give them. A census (hence the name of the chapter) was taken and the second Passover was celebrated, marking one year of freedom from the slavery in Egypt. The people were now prepared to continue their journey to the Promised Land.
As the Israelites approached the Promised Land, Moses sent leaders to spy out the land and its people. But the spies returned with a discouraging report. Only Joshua and Caleb wanted to proceed, but the Israelites had already made up their minds against the move and began to complain: Again, they are always complaining. As punishment for their lack of faith, God condemned them to wander in the desert for 40 years. Even in the midst of this punishment, the people continued to rebel and thus God continued to punish them. But the hearts of the people remained hard and rebellious.
Now the old generation had died and a new generation stands poised at the border, ready to enter the Promised Land. Neighboring nations, however, cause Israel to begin worshiping other gods. Without the timely intervention of Moses, the nation would never have entered Canaan. This part of Numbers includes the story of Balaam, a seer whom the Moabite king tries to bribe into cursing the Israelites, but who (thanks in part due to his recalcitrant talking donkey — it’s complicated) ends up blessing them instead and prophesying their eventual triumph — except he also counsels the Midianites to defeat them by encouraging them to be immoral and promiscuous, for which he paid with his life when they were defeated by the Israelites in battle.
God has led his people out of Egypt and across the great desert. Now they stand ready to enter the promised land. But before the Israelites go into the land, Moses has some important advice to give them. Thus, the book can be divided into four parts: Moses’ first address (what God has done for us), his second address (principles for godly living), his third address (a call for commitment to God), and Moses’ last days.
In the first part, Moses reviews the history of God’s previous care for the people of Israel.
After reviewing the history of Israel’s journey, Moses recounts the Ten Commandments and the other laws given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. He urges them to obey the law and reminds them of the consequences of disobeying God’s laws.
After reviewing God’s laws, Moses calls for commitment, urging the people to honor the contract they had previously made with God.
Realizing that he (Moses) is about to die, Moses commissions Joshua, records the laws in a permanent form, and teaches a special song to the Israelites. Then Moses prepared the people for his departure. Note Moses himself is not allowed by God to enter the Promised Land.
- It’s interesting that, in Exodus, it appears that lying (1:18-20) and maybe murder (2:12) can sometimes be justified. It is also interesting that, in chapter 12 of Numbers, Miriam and Aaron are reprimanded for criticizing Moses’ marriage to a Cushite.
- Chapter 18 of Exodus teaches an important lesson about the need for delegating responsibility.
- What are we to make of the great ceremonial detail in these books? Of course, part of the answer is that it just requires more words to describe how to build a tabernacle rather than to prohibit murder. So there’s no direct relationship between the importance of a passage and how long it is. But I think it’s still significant that God cares about details in how He is worshiped.
- In Exodus 32:14, God changes His mind. And in chapter 14 of Numbers, Moses again talks God out of smiting the Israelites.
- I like Moses’ prayer in Exodus 33:13: “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” And I like it that God gives skill to His artisans (chapters 35-36).
- The end of Exodus in chapter 40 is poetic. The last chapter of Deuteronomy is likewise poignant, and would not have been written by Moses.
- It’s significant that God wants parents to pass down to their children what He has told them (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 4:9). And He tells Moses to write it down (Exodus 34:27).
- It is interesting but maybe not surprising that the Bible contains little in the way of direct apologetics. But this passage in chapter 4 of Deuteronomy comes close:
- Compare Matthew 26:11 (“the poor you have with you always”) with Deuteronomy 15:11 (“the poor will never cease to be in the land”).
Which Pentateuch laws must Christians follow?
The obvious question that arises as we read through the laws laid out in the four Moses books is, Which ones of these are we Christians obliged to follow? It’s immediately obvious that we are not following all of them, and so there’s a felt need to explain this and, if it can’t be explained, either to change our behavior or feel guilty about it. And there’s a reason that Christians have for not always following the laws here, namely that some of them have been explicitly superseded by what’s taught in the New Testament. This explains many of the discrepancies but, as we’ll see, there are others that have to be explained in other ways — and a few that perhaps cannot be explained.
A Jewish lawyer acquaintance of mine described the Christian view of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament by saying we treat the latter as the former’s “pocket part.” What’s that, you say? Well, if you ask then you’re not another old lawyer like me: Lots of law books used to have pocket parts (less so now, I suspect, with the Internet and emails). Consider, for example, the U.S. Code, which is a multivolume collection of all the federal statutes arranged by area of the law. If you had a law library, of course you’d need a copy, but the code constantly changes as Congress changes the laws — repealing some, adding some, amending some. Now, you don’t want to have to buy a whole new set each time a law changes, so the publishers instead would frequently send out “pocket parts,” which were like little paperbacks and fit into a pocket at the back of an original hardbound volume and contained any changes in that particular volume’s part of the Code. Before citing any provision in the original volume, you always had to check and make sure there was nothing superseding it in the pocket part.
So my friend was saying that Christians did not discard the Old Testament; we keep it, but the New Testament contains updated material and, if there are any inconsistencies between the two, then what the New Testament says supersedes what the Old Testament said.
And I think my friend is exactly right. So here is what this approach says about the laws we find in the Old Testament, which are mostly in the four books being discussed in this post.
As summarized in the first part of this post, much of the Moses books is historical narrative. But the law sections of the four Moses books are: Exodus 20-23:19, 34:12-27, and 35:1-3; essentially all of Leviticus; Numbers chapters 3-9, 15, 18-19, and 28-29; and Deuteronomy 4:44-28:68.
So we start with the Ten Commandments, chapter 20 in the 40-chapter Exodus and chapter 5 in Deuteronomy. It’s half on our relationship with God and half on our relationship with one another. It’s hard to find anything to criticize in either one, or to come up with sins that more belong in the top ten than those listed (in a grade-school Sunday school class that my wife and I taught, “Thou shalt recycle” was suggested).
But of course we have to deal with a lot more than the Decalogue. Now, the laws that directly require us to honor God and and no other god, or that forbid us from hurting other human beings, do not concern me here, since it is obvious that as Christians we should continue to follow them. As Jesus said (Matthew 22:37:39), that’s what we’re supposed to do — “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” So what I’m doing in the rest of this post is figure out what to do with laws that don’t obviously fall into one of those two categories.
Diet and Sacrifice
Large sections of these laws (on diet, for example, and on animal sacrifices) have been explicitly superseded by the New Testament (since Peter, for example, was told that he could now eat whatever he liked, and since Christ’s death was the ultimate sacrifice, making other sacrifices unnecessary).
Note that the ban on eating blood is arguably on a different level than the ban on eating certain kinds of meat (see Leviticus 19:26; see also Leviticus chapter 7:26-27). It even makes the Jerusalem Council’s list of forbidden activities (Acts 15:22:29). But I suppose you could argue that what’s forbidden is consuming blood in the context of a pagan rite.
History and Politics
Regarding Leviticus chapter 8, Numbers 18, and other passages that deal with the Levites specifically, the New Testament (see especially Hebrews) teaches that, after Christ, we no longer must have priests or other intermediaries with God, presumably making much of the instruction on priestly rites obsolete. Relatedly, Numbers 5:11-31 has a detailed description of a dubious procedure for ascertaining a wife’s faithfulness, but thankfully the central role of the priest in this rite ought to make it obsolete (the injunction against adultery still stands, of course).
Some laws are fairly read as being tied to a specific problem that God saw confronting the Israelites. For example, He gave detailed instructions about the tabernacle, but the tabernacle was an instrument specific to a people traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land. Once the Promised Land was reached, and especially once other worshiping places were built, the tabernacle instructions became obsolete even for the Jews.
What is said about cities of refuge (Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 4:41-43) also cannot very well transcend its historical context: That system won’t work when the religious authorities are no longer in charge of zoning the country. This is now something of Caesar’s that has to be rendered unto him.
Perhaps somewhat related to both the “priestly” and “historical” categories is how to deal with the various festivals the Israelites are told to celebrate. See, e.g., Leviticus chapters 23-25; Numbers chapters 9, 28-29; Exodus 23:14-19;; Deuteronomy chapter 16. Exodus 12:14-27 and 13:1-16 discuss how Passover is to be commemorated, but note that verses 12:42-49 apply only to Jewish families, so apparently this would not apply post-Christ, and maybe that limitation would apply more broadly; see also Exodus 34:18, 22-23.
Of course we must be careful here. Some would explain away any law they find inconvenient or objectionable as tied to an old-fashioned culture and, therefore, obsolete. I don’t think God would agree.
We must also avoid gleaning a general principle from some specific laws and then using that general principle to discard other specific laws that we think are inconsistent with it. If you glean a general principle that is inconsistent with a specific law or laws, you need to reglean.
This is similar, by the way, to disputes about constitutional interpretation, although it is more common here for the “liberal” approach to make up new laws than for it to discard existing ones. That is, liberals will look at the specific protections in the Bill of Rights and be more aggressive than conservatives in finding “penumbras” that emanate and forbid government actions not actually addressed.
In the Bible context, this seems much less objectionable to me: That is, it is less problematic to say, “God made X a sin, and Z a sin, so I think we better steer clear of doing Y because it seems to be analogous in some way to X or Z or both,” than it is to say, “God may have said that Y is a sin, but He didn’t say that X is a sin or Z is a sin, so He probably didn’t really mean that Y was a sin either.”
I mentioned earlier that the Caesars nowadays have more authority and that some things have to be rendered unto them. But it seems to me that, just because secular law has preempted the way some sins can be dealt with, and may be more lenient with them or even not punish them at all, those things still remain sins. Our criminal laws may punish murder but not Sabbath-breaking with the death penalty, but both remain wrong. When God gave the law to the Israelites, the secular authorities were, likewise, the Israelites, and if anyone was going to punish, say, murder it would have to be them. Again, now there is more that has to be rendered unto Caesar than unto God; Jesus did not say this was a bad thing, necessarily, and in all events He said Christians could recognize that boundary.
And surely there have long been sins that have not been punished at all by earthly authorities, and Jesus certainly must have contemplated as much when he emphasized that our hearts as well as our actions must be pure. That is, he presumably did not expect someone who had committed adultery in his heart to be stoned to death on the spot.
And speaking of adultery, Jesus’ handling of the adulteress in John 8 is instructive, too: Presumably He knew as well as the would-be stoners that as Jews they lacked authority to execute the woman, but He doesn’t say simply, sorry, that’s up to the Romans — all agree that the sin remained even if the secular punishment has been curtailed. (Of course, Jesus also used this incident as an opportunity to teach a broader lesson about the universality of sin.) In other words, the distinction between what was a sin and whether that sin could still be punished the old way already existed under Roman rule.
Purification and Cleanliness
What are we to do with laws that deal with purification and cleanliness (e.g., Numbers 19)? One approach is simply to say, as my NIV study Bible does in a note to the passage on purification after childbirth (Leviticus 12), “Unclean does not mean sinful or dirty.” Or, additionally, we can argue that these rules are somehow superseded by the New Testament. One can point to Christ saying that cleanliness and godliness is determined, both positively and negatively, not externally but internally; the end of the distinction between clean and unclean animals; baptism as the only water ritual left; and so forth. Thus, the chapter mentioned above in Leviticus about purification after childbirth has a sacrifice in part of the process, and verse 3 deals with circumcision, and all this is of course superseded by the New Testament. Similarly, Leviticus 15:30 requires women to make sacrifices (two doves or young pigeons, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering) for atonement after each period.
Or consider chapter 19 of Numbers, which also deals with purification. There’s a reference to this being a a “perpetual statute” (verses 10, 21), but the penalty appears to getting “cut off from the community” (verses 13, 20), suggesting this is more about hygiene than affronting God. It’s also noteworthy that one can violate the cleanliness rules unintentionally (see Leviticus 5:2-3), suggesting that they are about something other than sin as most Protestants think of it. (On the other hand, chapter 4 in Leviticus suggests that other sins might also be committed unintentionally.)
Relatedly, there is the problem of how to deal with Leviticus chapter 13’s rules on treating skin diseases and mildew, and here the issue also arises that human medical and botanical expertise has improved over the past 3500 years. Again, one might treat this as a health-code matter rather than sin. In Leviticus chapter 11, finally, we’re told that touching animals you can’t eat makes you unclean, but it seems fair to argue that this is superseded by the New Testament’s relaxation of dietary restrictions, whatever the general approach to purification is.
Sex and Tithing
A word regarding some of the rules about sex and tithing:
- Sex during a woman’s period is forbidden (Levitus 18:19): This might be put in the “purification” category (see Leviticus 20:18).
- Gay sex if forbidden (Leviticus 18:22).
- Cross-dressing is forbidden (Deuteronomy 22:5).
- Bestiality is forbidden (Leviticus 18:23, and Exodus 22:19).
- Tithing is required at Leviticus 27:30-32; see also Deuteronomy 14:22-29. (But note that Exodus 36:5-6 warns against giving too much.)
I put tithing and the prohibition on some sex, especially gay sex, in the same category, since both are rules that many folks today don’t like but which, like it or not, do not seem to me to be anachronistic in the way other provisions discussed above are, nor are they superseded by the New Testament. I’m not going to quote chapter and verse here, but I’ll just say that those who think that the Bible doesn’t prohibit gay sex make unpersuasive arguments, and will also note that this is one sin that is not only not repealed by the New Testament, but restated in it more than once. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, with at least a general requirement to provide financial support for the church (see Luke 21:1-4; Mark 12:41-44). For some this is a bug and for others a feature, but it’s there.
What We’re Left With
So here’s a list of those bothersome laws that would still appear to be fully applicable (i.e., that have not been superseded in some way, such as by the New Testament’s teachings on diet and sacrifice), but are also counterintuitive in some way (i.e., that do not involve affirmatively hurting others or directly affronting God):
- Leave some of the harvest for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10); see also Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Exodus 23:10-11 (leave land fallow every seventh years so the poor and wild animals can live off it).
- Don’t “hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Leviticus 19:13); but this is limited to a hired man who “is poor and needy” in Deuteronomy 25:14-15.
- “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your fields with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). See also Deuteronomy 22:9-11, which doesn’t prohibit interspecies mating but does forbid plowing with a donkey and ox yoked together.
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27).
- “Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Leviticus 19:28).
- In Numbers 15:37-41, we are told to “make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel.” See also Deuteronomy 22:12.
- “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender, charge him no interest” (Exodus 22:25). But my NIV study Bible has a footnote here that says, “Or excessive interest.” And in all events, if the apparent Jew-Gentile distinction here (“one of my people”; see also Deuteronomy 23:19-20) is superseded by the New Testament, then does that mean that now no one can be charged interest rather than that anyone can? See also Exodus 22:26-27 and Deuteronomy 24:10-12 on generally being compassionate in dealing with those to whom you make loans. And then there is the requirement in Deuteronomy 15:1-11 that, every seven years, all debts to Jews (but not to Gentiles) be forgiven. (Verses 4-5 arguably limit this to the context of the Jews being given the Promised Land.). Finally, see Matthew 25:27 (“Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest”).
- “Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). I’m pretty sure I’ve never done that, and I don’t know if this presents a hardship for those who have more dealings with oxen than I do. My NIV study Bible explains that “To muzzle the ox would prevent it from eating while it was working,” and notes the broader applications given it by Paul in II Corinthians 9:10 and I Timothy 5:17, 18.
- “Levirate” marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
- Deuteronomy 25:11-12 (see below: a wife may not touch the private parts of a man assaulting her husband).
- You have to put a parapet on the roof of a new house to keep people from falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8).
- Finally, if you find a bird’s nest near a road, you can take the young birds, but you have to let the mother go (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
What do we do with this list? I’ll note at the outset that it’s rather remarkable that we’re left with a rather short list that, with the exception of Levirate marriage, we could probably live with if we had to. Still, as I said early on, there’s a felt need either to explain our disobedience or else to feel guilty about it.
Explanations are certainly possible. Here’s an example. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 reads: “’If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.'” Now, what is God doing here? Why shouldn’t a wife be able to defend her husband in this way? One answer is to shrug and say, we don’t know, His ways are not our ways, He has His reasons, and we should just acknowledge His injunction (at least asking forgiveness if we decide to disobey it in dire circumstances). But here’s a guess at what He was doing here: He wanted to say never, under any circumstances, is a married woman to touch the penis of another man. Never, no exceptions. And to make this point He gives the example where it would seem most justified — a wife protecting her husband — and says, no, even then, it shall not be done. The husband’s consent, even saving the husband’s life, is no justification. (No threesomes!) He knew that the example he gives would rarely and maybe never come about, so there was no real cost in dramatizing his point this way. There’s apparently no other sin punished by cutting off a hand, further suggesting that there’s something out of the ordinary going on here.
You could probably go through these provisions and try to explain away all of them. There’s some separating going on in the list (plants, livestock, thread), and mightn’t this (in some cases) be analogized to the Jew/Gentile separation, and thus to be obsolete? Cf. chapter 36 in Numbers. That’s a stretch, but you get the idea. We have building codes now, so you don’t have to follow the parapet rule. We have labor laws for workers and welfare for the poor. Blah blah blah. Some rules are easily accepted because they cover situations unlikely to arise nowadays — we don’t deal much with oxen, or run across many roadside bird nests. But we do wear garments and seldom add tassels to them, and we get haircuts and shave all the time.
So maybe it is possible that we will run across some law that makes no sense to us but also cannot be addressed by arguments like those above or any other argument except that we don’t understand what God’s objection could possibly be. And I’m afraid that our mere lack of such understanding is not a satisfying reason to ignore the law. There may be some odd (to us) things we just have to accept. In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, the second book in his space trilogy, God has a rule against anyone spending the night on Venus’s “fixed land”; as I recall, there’s no reason given for this rule, but that doesn’t matter. But look on the bright side: You can buy some tassels with the money you save on haircuts.