In my upcoming course “Finding Moses” I’ll be discussing the final four books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) (for more information, see: Finding Moses – Online Course Covering the Historicity of the Pentateuch – Bart D. Ehrman – New Testament Scholar, Speaker, and Consultant (bartehrman.com).
Apart from the opening chapters of Exodus, these books are not well known to most Christians, even those on fairly good terms with the New Testament. I’ve known many a reader who was determined to read the entire Bible from beginning to end, but who quit early into Leviticus. In part that’s because these books are both hard to understand and difficult to see as interesting when not explained. A huge chunk of them is made up of the laws given to Moses (almost the entire second half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, a good chunk of Numbers, and most of Deuteronomy). How can reading a bunch of antiquated laws be interesting?
Of course, many (MANY!) Christians just love to cherry pick these laws in order to define morality in the modern world, choosing the ones that suit their preferences (e.g., on “homosexuality”) but ignoring most of the others (not just “Sabbath” and eating pork, but tons of others. Wearing a shirt made out of two kinds of fabric is just as forbidden as same-sex sexual relations but, well, that don’t signify any more!) (and why? Hey, it’s “common sense!”) (But if that’s your view, it means the BIBLE is not your guide but your “common sense”) (which, by the way, is a sense that is not entirely common….)
In any event understanding the laws of the Jews is indeed very important, and — spoiler alert — it can actually be interesting with some guidance. And so I’ll be talking about all that in my course.
One of the things I’ll be dealing with is how widely the Jewish law in general is misunderstood by most Christians today (and throughout history). Here is how I discuss the matter in my book, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press).
The Overall Conception of the Law (and Occasional Misconceptions)
There are widespread misunderstandings of the nature and function of the Law of Moses among modern readers—especially within some elements of the Christian tradition. Many conservative Christians think that the Law of Moses is hopelessly detailed and impossible to keep, even though Jews have to keep it for salvation. In this view, it is the Christian gospel that can save people from the condemnation that comes from breaking the Law (which, by its very nature, has to be broken because no one can keep it). Whether or not this view is right theologically, it certainly is not the view of the Law that has been traditional within Judaism. The Law has been traditionally seen as the greatest gift God had ever given his people. Here are instructions from the creator of the universe about how to worship him and how to relate to one another. Nothing could be better.
The Law of Moses may seem extraordinarily detailed to outsiders and in places to be arbitrary and pointless. But every legal code seems extraordinarily detailed and arbitrary to outsiders. Just think of laws that we have in America. Our laws are far, far more complicated than anything in the Hebrew Bible. Just the laws about how to drive cars are amazingly complex and would seem bizarre indeed to someone living in different contexts. Or think of all the laws about what one can or cannot personally consume in terms of, say, liquids, pills, and inhalants. Talk about detailed and seemingly arbitrary!
The Law within ancient Israelite religion, and then later within Judaism, was never meant to be “the way of salvation.” It was never thought that a Jew had to earn God’s favor by doing the Law, and that when she or he failed (as always happened)—it meant being condemned to an eternity in hell. This view very much puts the cart before the horse. In traditional Jewish thinking, salvation has already come to Jews by virtue of their election as the people of God. Keeping the Law was the reverential response to the salvation that God had already provided. People did what God wanted precisely out of gratitude for the favor already showered on them, in loving response to his kind and glorious act of salvation.
This overall conception of the Law is presented in the Law itself, in fact, at the very beginning of the legal section of Exodus—after Israel has reached Mount Sinai, and God begins to speak to Moses— in highly significant and meaningful words:
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you shall obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3-6)
Notice the sequence here: first God saved Israel from their slavery in Egypt and “brought” them to himself “on eagles’ wings.” In response, they are to obey his voice and keep the covenant (which he had already made with them). When they do so, they will become a special people before God, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Failing to do what God demanded, of course, had very serious consequences. But there is nothing in the Law that was outrageously difficult to do—any more than is the case with American laws. It really is not that difficult to refrain from idolatry, murder, and lying under oath, or to slaughter your ox if it gores your neighbor to death.