The Narrative Context

The Old Testament legal material does not appear by itself in isolation. This is an important observation. The Old Testament law, therefore, is different in the way it is presented than, for example, a book such as Proverbs. The book of Proverbs appears somewhat in isolation from other texts. It is not connected to a story. There are a few vague historical connections, but the book largely stands by itself within the Old Testament canon. True, it is connected theologically to the other wisdom books (Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs), but the connection is loose and the relationship of Proverbs to the theological history of Israel is vague.

By contrast, the Old Testament law is firmly embedded into the story of Israel’s theological history. It is part of the narrative that runs from Genesis 12 to 2 Kings 25. The law is not presented by itself as some sort of timeless universal code. Rather, it is presented as part of the theological narrative that describes how God delivered Israel from Egypt and established them in the Promised Land as his people.

This is true for each of the books that contain elements of the Old Testament law. For example, the main legal material in Exodus is found in Exodus 20–23. This section also contains the Ten Commandments. But notice the narrative context. The first nineteen chapters of Exodus tell the story of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and their deliverance by the mighty works of God. It describes the call of Moses and his powerful encounters with Pharaoh. It presents the story of the plagues on Egypt, culminating in the visit by the death angel. Next Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and through the sea. The book of Exodus then describes their journey in the desert until, in chapter 19, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, where God calls them into covenant relationship.

The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and the laws that follow in Exodus 21–23 are part of this story. This passage is textually tied into the story of God’s encounter with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. Note, for example, that the Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus 20:1–17, but they flow immediately back into the narrative in verse 18, “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear.” Likewise, God presents numerous laws to Israel in Exodus 21–23, but these are also part of the narrative. They are part of the dialogue between God and Israel, with Moses as the intermediary. Notice the reaction of the people in Exodus 24:3 to God’s presentation of the law: “When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do.’”

The book of Leviticus is likewise painted on a narrative canvas against the backdrop of the encounter with God at Mount Sinai (Lev. 26:46; 27:34). The laws in Leviticus are presented as part of a dialogue between God and Moses. Dialogue is a standard feature of narrative. The book begins, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.” The phrase “The Lord said to Moses” occurs over and over throughout the book. In addition, Leviticus contains numerous time-sequence phrases, an indication of a story-line time movement, another characteristic of narrative:

“Then Moses took . . .” (8:10)
“He then presented . . .” (8:14)
“Moses then said . . .” (8:31)
“On the eighth day Moses summoned . . .” (9:1)
“So Aaron came to the altar . . .” (9:8)
“So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them . . .”
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron . . .”

The book of Numbers picks up the story in the second year after the Exodus (Num. 1:1) and describes the Israelites’ journeys and wanderings for the next forty years (33:38). Central to this book is Israel’s rejection of the Promised Land in chapters 13–14. This disobedience results in the forty years of wandering that the book recounts. At various points during the story, God presents Israel with additional laws. As in Exodus and Leviticus, the laws in Numbers are firmly tied into the narrative material.

The narrative setting for the book of Deuteronomy is in the eleventh month of the fortieth year after the Exodus (Deut. 1:3), just prior to Israel’s entry into Canaan. The place is likewise specified—just east of the Jordan River (1:1, 5). In the overall story, Israel has completed the forty years of wandering that God specified as a punishment for their refusal to enter the land. A new generation has grown up, and God presents them with a restatement of the covenant he made with their parents forty years earlier (in Exodus).

Most of Deuteronomy is comprised of a series of speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites on God’s behalf. These speeches are connected to the narrative because they are tied to the same time and place, and they have a specific speaker and a specific audience, both of whom are main characters in the overall story. Also, the end of the book contains some nonlegal material: the appointment of Joshua as leader (Deut. 31:1–8), the song of Moses (32:1–47), a blessing of Moses on the tribes (33:1–29), and the death of Moses (34:1–12). These events are likewise presented in a narrative setting. Furthermore, the events of Deuteronomy flow right into the book of Joshua, where the story continues without interruption.

The Old Testament law, therefore, is firmly embedded into the story of Israel’s exodus, wandering, and conquest. Our interpretive approach to the law should take this into account. Remember the importance of context that you learned back in chapters 6 and 8. The law is part of a story, and this story provides an important context for interpreting the law. Indeed, our methodology for interpreting Old Testament law should be similar to our methodology for interpreting Old Testament narrative, for the law is contextually part of the narrative.

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