For many years the traditional approach to interpreting the Old Testament law has been to emphasize the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. Moral laws were defined as those that dealt with timeless truths regarding God’s intention for human behavior. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a good example of a so-called moral law. Civil laws were those describing aspects that we normally see in a country’s legal system. These laws dealt with the courts, economics, land, crimes, and punishment. An example of a civil law can be found in Deuteronomy 15:1: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” Ceremonial laws were defined as those that dealt with sacrifices, festivals, and priestly activities. For example, Deuteronomy 16:13 instructed the Israelites to “celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress.”
Under this approach, these distinctions between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws were critically important because this identification allowed the believer to know whether or not the law applied to them. Moral laws, according to this system, were universal and timeless. They still applied as law to Christian believers today. Civil and ceremonial laws, however, applied only to ancient Israel, not to believers today. This system has been helpful to many, providing a methodology whereby texts such as “love your neighbor as yourself” can still be claimed as law for the Christian while all of the texts dealing with sacrifices and punishments can be dismissed.
However, in recent years many Christians have become uncomfortable with this approach. First, the distinctions between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws appear to be arbitrary. There is no such distinction in the text. For example, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is followed in the very next verse by the law, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (19:19). Should we see verse 18 as applicable to us but dismiss verse 19 as nonapplicable? The text gives no indication whatsoever that any kind of interpretive shift has taken place between the two verses.
In addition, it is often difficult to determine whether a law falls into the moral category or into one of the others. Because the law defined the covenant relationship between God and Israel, the law, by nature, was theological. All of the law had theological content. The question, then, becomes, “Can a law be a theological law but not a moral law?”
For example, consider the commandment in Leviticus 19:19, “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” One of the central themes running throughout Leviticus is the holiness of God. Part of this theme is the teaching that holy things must be kept separate from profane or common things. While we may not understand all the nuances of the command against mixing cloth material or mixing seed, we do know that it relates back to the holiness of God. Indeed, all of the laws relating to separation appear to connect to the overarching principle of God’s holiness and separation. So what kind of law would Leviticus 19:19 be? Civil? Unlikely. It is unrelated to the needs of society. Ceremonial? Perhaps, although the law does not appear to apply to ceremonies or sacrifice. The way the Israelites planted seed and the way they wove cloth had theologicalsignificance to it. How can this not be a moral issue?
Another good example of a law that is difficult to classify with this system occurs in Numbers 5:11–28:
11Then the Lord said to Moses, 12“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—15then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminderoffering to draw attention to wrongdoing.
16“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. 17Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—21here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.” 23“‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.’”
The passage describes how a woman suspected of adultery is to be tried by the priest. Surely adultery is a moral issue. Is this law, then, a timeless universal for us? To determine guilt or innocence, the priest makes a suspected adulteress drink some bitter water. If she gets sick, she is guilty. If she does not get sick, she is innocent. Should this be practiced today?
In our opinion this traditional approach to understanding Old Testament law is too ambiguous and too inconsistent to be a valid approach to interpreting Scripture. We simply do not see a clear distinction in Scripture between these different categories of law. The vagueness of this distinction thus makes us uncomfortable about using such a distinction to determine whether a particular law is to be obeyed or can be ignored. We also question the validity of dismissing the so-called civil and ceremonial laws as not being applicable. All Scripture is applicable to the New Testament believer.
We maintain, therefore, that the best method of interpreting the law is one that can be used consistently with all legal texts. It should be one that does not make arbitrary nontextual distinctions between verses and their applicability. The traditional approach to interpreting the law will, no doubt, continue to be a standard methodology for many Christians. It is a method with a long history, and it is a method we should respect. However, in the pages that follow we suggest an alternative approach to the Old Testament law—one that can help us to be consistent in studying and applying the Old Testament law.