Law of Moses from another time but for all time
Ridley College's Andrew Judd reflects on the Law of Moses.
By Andrew Judd
May 7 2020
Perhaps it is time for Christians to admit that the Law of Moses is an embarrassing irrelevance, and stop reading it altogether in church.
That’s what some popular preachers are saying – echoing no doubt the unspoken position of many around the world (many congregations would baulk at the thought of a sermon series on Numbers).
It’s also a grave error. The ancient church rightly condemned Marcion’s hubris in exempting Christians from Moses’ instruction. It is historically naïve and spiritually lethal to try holding on to Jesus’ teaching while jettisoning the Bible he preached from. Love thy neighbour, surely the most famous of Jesus’ teachings, is of course straight out of Leviticus 19:18! Indeed, it’s hard to think of a New Testament ethic that isn’t built on Torah.
Thankfully, it is also an error which our Anglican heritage provides a bulwark against. Article 7 concludes:
Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.
This paragraph, introduced in 1563, is a unique among the reformation documents. Our English forebears took Scripture especially seriously. Its threefold division into moral, civil and ceremonial goes back at least until Origen; arguably to the Jews’ post-exilic reckoning with the destruction of the state and temple.
Tutored by Article 7, Anglicans cannot reject Torah – the instruction of Moses – as irrelevant, nor allegorise it into cute otherworldliness. But we don’t observe every cultic provision either, as if such reconstructionism were even possible after the temple’s destruction.
Instead, Anglicans reckon seriously with our historical continuities and discontinuities. The God who demanded holiness from Sinai is the same God who we meet in Jesus Christ and who dwells in our midst since Pentecost. We do not live as Iron Age Israelites; nevertheless the world we live in has the same basic moral realities baked into it from the beginning: God is still holy, broken promises still destroy relationships, and human lives are still intrinsically valuable.
Article 7 establishes that all the laws are relevant, but not relevant in the same ways. The ceremonial laws were only ever a shadow of what Jesus has now accomplished on our behalf. Moses prohibited pork; Jesus declared all foods clean (Matthew 15:11). The urgent necessity of holiness when God is in our midst hasn’t changed (1 Corinthians 5).
The civil laws were binding upon those living in the Kingdom of Israel, but the church is not the state. Even if I lived in Moses’ day, as a Gentile I wouldn’t have been expected, or invited, to obey every law. In Leviticus only three commands are explicitly addressed to foreigners: those regarding sexual immorality (18:26), child sacrifice (20:2) and blasphemy (24:16). Like overheard marriage vows, I may admire the first covenant but I am not a party to its stipulations.
Torah is precious and relevant to me, not as regulations, but as revelation. It reveals the contours of our world’s moral landscape and the character of the God we worship. Some of these principles are urgently needed in today’s political discussions. Exodus and Deuteronomy are full of positive obligations to care for the poor and the stateless. Leviticus teaches respect for others (Leviticus 19:3) especially the disabled (19:14). It demands that rich and poor, foreigner and native-born, be treated consistently by the legal system (19:15, 34). Compare Moses to the Akkadian Law of Eshnunna, or the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi: it is striking in its ancient near eastern context how idiosyncratically the Bible insists that all lives are equally value – regardless of sex or social status.
Theologians quibble with the article’s simple sketch. Things are, of course, more fiddly when you get down to details. Is the law against adultery moral, civil or spiritual? Few of us would doubt the enduring virtue of fidelity, but adultery is also a ceremonial issue (making the man unclean, Lev 19:20), and a civil concern (as regards the appropriate punishment: Lev 20:29). Torah never entertains the modern fiction that the moral, ceremonial and civil aspects of life can be compartmentalised.
Yet, as thumbnail sketches go, the article’s threefold division remains a precious gift of our tradition. To be Anglican is to recognise the enduring brilliance of the Law, and stubbornly continue to sit at the feet of Moses.
The Revd Andrew Judd is Associate Lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College.
This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA).