I’ve been studying the Parasha (portion of scripture) for this week, which is called Mishpatim (“Judgments” or “Ordinances”) and is from Exodus 21:1 – 24:18. As I studied, an issue came to my mind that I have discussed scores of times with various people and with groups.
There is a view of the Law, associated mostly with Reformed tradition but also widely held by many as a simple “solution” to the problem of the Law. What do I mean by the “problem of the Law”? I mean that the Law is supposed to be good, since God gave it, but it is also allegedly obsolete. So how can it be good?
One way of harmonizing these irreconcilable notions is to say that God gave a Law with three kinds of commandments: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The civil and ceremonial laws were only for Israel and were only temporary. The moral law remains valid today. This is also a way to understand what Yeshua was saying in Matthew 5:17 (a troubling passage demanding an explanation which will still abolish the Law though Yeshua said not to). Sorry for the sarcasm.
Note that subdividing the Law into three categories is historically the solution of Reformed Christianity and is not exactly the same as the Lutheran view, the Catholic view, or the widely held Dispensationalist view. The Dispensationalist view, which I will not discuss today, is that the entire Law is abolished. Usually Dispensationalists see the commandments of the New Testament as the New Law (the Law of Christ)–this despite the fact that the New Testament is a collection of biographies and letters, not a legal corpus!!
Well, back to the Reformed view–that the Law has three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial.
How do we decide which of God’s Laws are moral and which are ceremonial and civil (and thus obsolete)? The answer: we decide if the laws make sense, seem permanent, and seem moral to us.
Now, there is a problem with this. It assumes that morality is greater than God. I have many friends who are Reformed (even five-point Calvinists) and, let me tell you, these are intelligent people. So let me appeal to your intelligence if you are a Reformed Christian (Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, etc.)–this process of deciding which of God’s laws are moral is judging God. It is saying that morality precedes the Godhead (and maybe even the decrees of God–that’s for you serious Calvinists out there).
What I mean is this: if right and wrong are categories independent of God, then God is not the source of right and wrong. Right and wrong are standards by which we may judge God’s Law, and thus, God.
Let me put it another way. If God says, “Hey, Israel, don’t eat pork, shellfish, or creepy-crawly things,” then who are we to say, “That’s only ceremonial and we don’t have to do it”? If God says it, it is immoral to disobey. Morality is not a standard independent of God. God decides what is right and what is wrong.
Let me use another angle. The Sabbath is a great issue. Reformed Christianity has a history of interpreting Sunday as the Sabbath (the New Testament changed it, don’t you know). Let’s just allow the day-change for a moment for the sake of argument. Here is my point: many Christians feel the Sabbath is a moral issue and many other Christians feel it is irrelevant to morality (thus, it must be “ceremonial,” since it seems irrelevant). So, see what happens when you decide to judge God’s Law? How do you know if you are right? If you are at McDonalds eating a cheeseburger after Sunday church, are you sinning? (Most Christians who believe Sunday is the Sabbath seem unaware that God forbids buying and selling–Nehemiah 13:15).
My point is simple: the Law (Torah) of God cannot be subdivided into these three categories. The truth is far more complex–but we lack time and space to delve into it all here. Perhaps future posts…
Well, I’ve gone on quite long. I will paste some more information below, things from Parashat Mishpatim that led me to think of posting this in the first place. You need read further only if the subject interests you.
Consider how the Torah mixes commandments without any division or separation:
Exodus 23:9-11 You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt. “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.
Vs.9 is clearly a moral issue (not oppressing foreigners), but it is immediately followed by what many would call a ceremonial regulation (letting the land have Sabbaths). The Torah makes no distinction. Furthermore, this raises a philosophical question: what makes something wrong? Is right and wrong defined by God or does it define God? If God defines right and wrong, then isn’t it just as immoral to violate a Sabbath year as it is to oppress and stranger?
Are the Torah Laws Irrelevant in the New Covenant?
In the Dispensational view of the Torah, all of this covenant is now obsolete after the coming of Yeshua. Only commandments repeated in the New Testament are valid for Yeshua followers. Yet consider laws that are not repeated in the New Testament, but which very obviously continue to reflect God’s will, such as:
Exodus 21:33-34 If a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall become his.
This law concerns responsibility for the property of others. The New Testament does not address such situations. Does this mean that God’s commandment is invalid for Yeshua followers? Shouldn’t we be responsible for damage done to the property of others through our neglect?
Food for thought from the Torah . . .