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I’ve had posts in the past about odd, weird, or disturbing laws that are found in the Old Testament. See the posts listed HERE. As Christians, we should have some way of explaining these odd or troubling laws because they can be used to discredit the Bible or mock Christianity. There is not a “slam dunk” answer to every concern, but there are reasonable explanations and talking points that shed light.

To summarize a couple points from previous posts…One is that all laws are written within a certain time and culture, and reflect that time and culture. If laws were sent back or forward in time by a 1,000 years between 2 places, people on both ends would find certain laws to be strange or troubling. To make sense of certain things, we must take the time to understand the cultural and historical situation. Another point is that certain Old Testament laws that seem unethical to us may actually be softening or mitigating harsh aspects of the culture at that time.

But for this post today, I wanted to share excerpts from 2 books about the underlying purpose of Old Testament law and you will see the light it sheds.

The first is from The Mission of God by Christopher J.H. Wright. Leviticus 19:2 says “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” God is holy and God called his people to be holy as well, distinct from the other nations around them. In a section of this book about the practical dimension of holiness, Wright shares this:

“The practical task of holiness had two dimensions. It had a symbolic dimension, in which Israel gave expression to their distinctiveness from the nations through a complex system of clean and unclean regulations regarding animals, food, and other daily eventualities. It is important to recognize this (national distinctiveness from the other nations) as the underlying rationale for the clean-unclean distinction. There are various ways in which the specific categories and what was included in them may be explained from an anthropological perspective. But the theological explanation given in the text for the system as a whole is that it represented the distinction between Israel and the nations.” – page 373, bold added

That may or may not be as helpful to you as it was to me, but it shed light for me about the underlying purpose for certain laws. We may be searching for other types of rationale, and complicate things in our quest for understanding, missing the theological point.

Here is an excerpt from another book that highlights how some cultures today understand and relate to certain Old Testaments laws in a way that we in western nations do not. This is from the book: The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings. Billings shares that he taught at a theological school in Ethiopia for a year, and it helped him grow in his understanding of how to interpret the Bible.

“Our students came from various regions and tribes of Ethiopia, and each tribe had its own code of food taboos. Remaining faithful to that code was part of a person’s self-identification with his or her tribal identity. The Old Testament dietary laws made a great deal of sense to those students: they saw them as laws given to Israel by God as a way for Israel to remember they were God’s chosen people. I discovered that many Christians from my home culture in the United States did not know how to make sense of those dietary laws: they either ignored them, or they saw them as cryptic guides to healthy eating. As in many cultures in the ancient Near East, my Ethiopian students knew that food taboos were not about healthy diets. Those cultures used dietary laws to express cultural differentiation: other cultures may eat camels, and there may be nothing biologically wrong with eating camels, but that’s not what our people do.

While my Christian students did not keep kosher (in light of the Council of Jerusalem’s decision in Acts 15), they were able to have deep insight into the Old Testament narrative of God’s people through their own cultural practice of dietary taboos. Even though all foods are now ‘clean’ for those in Christ, my students had a strong sense of how dietary laws are still operative for Christians: we are called to be a holy people, set apart from the world for God’s purposes. We should live in a way that distinguishes us from those around us.”Β  – pages 117-118, bold added

Again, the underlying point was for Israel to be distinct from the nations around them in order to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for them to be a light to the nations – and bring salvation through Jesus the Messiah to the entire world. Likewise today, Christians should live in a “distinct way” from the world around them, and that will look different for us than in the ancient Near East culture, as we share Jesus with the world and await the second coming of our Lord.

I hope you also see the importance of proper Bible interpretation. Before we can apply something to our lives today from Scripture, we need to take the time to understand the original context. Pulling things out of context can create not only misapplication, but unfairly make the Bible look ludicrous.

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