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The Interpretive Journey

We introduced the Interpretive Journey to you in unit 2. Earlier, we learned how to use the Interpretive Journey to interpret Old Testament narrative. As we have been maintaining, our approach to the Old Testament law should be similar to our approach to Old Testament narrative. Look back through this material and quickly review the Interpretive Journey. It gives us a consistent, valid approach to interpreting the Old Testament law. It also allows us to apply the same method to all passages dealing with the law.

The Old Testament Interpretive Journey is presented below, followed by a discussion of how to use it to interpret and apply the Old Testament law.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical
audience?
Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences
between the biblical audience and us?
Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in
this text?
Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with
the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or
qualify this principle, and if so, how?
Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today
live out this modified theological principle?

Now let’s walk through the process of using the Interpretive Journey to interpret and apply Old Testament laws.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Using the observation skills you developed earlier in the course, read carefully the text you are studying and observe as much as you can. Remember that the Old Testament law is part of a larger narrative. Read and study it as you would a narrative text. Identify the historical and literary contexts. Are the Israelites on the bank of the Jordan, preparing to enter the land (Deuteronomy)? Or are they back at Mount Sinai just after the Exodus (Exodus, Leviticus)?

Has the law you are studying been given as a response to a specific situation, or is it describing the requirements for Israel after they move into the land? What other laws are in the immediate context? Is there a connection between these laws? Probe into the nature of the particular law you are studying. Try to identify how this particular law relates to the old covenant. Does it govern how the Israelites approach God? Does it govern how they relate to each other? Does it relate to agriculture or commerce? Is it specifically tied to life in the Promised Land? Now determine what this specific, concrete expression of the law meant for the Old Testament audience. Identify clearly what the law demanded of them. Do not generalize in Step 1, but be specific to their town.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Determine the differences between us today as Christians and the Old Testament audience. For example, we are under the new covenant and not under the old covenant as they were. Thus, we are no longer under the law as the terms of the covenant. Also, we are not Israelites preparing to live in the Promised Land with God dwelling in the tabernacle or temple; we are Christians with God living within each of us. We do not approach God through the sacrifice of animals; we approach God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We live under a secular government and not under a theocracy, as ancient Israel did. We do not face pressure from Canaanite religion, but rather from non-Christian worldviews and philosophies. Most of us do not live in an agrarian society, but in an urban setting. What other differences can you note?

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

Behind the expression of the meaning for the original audience lies a theological principle. Each of the Old Testament laws presents a concrete, direct meaning for the Old Testament audience, a meaning tied up with the old covenant context. But that meaning is usually based on a broader universal truth, a truth that is applicable to all of God’s people, regardless of when they live and which covenant they live under. In this step we will cross over the bridge and ask, “What is the theological principle that is reflected in this specific law? What is the broad principle that God has behind this text that allows for this specific ancient application?”

Remember that in developing this theological principle we must use the following criterion:

  • The principle should be reflected in the text.
  • The principle should be timeless.
  • The principle should correspond to the broad theology of the rest of Scripture.
  • The principle should not be culturally tied.
  • The principle should be relevant to both Old Testament and current New Testament audiences.

In legal passages, these principles will often be directly related to the character of God and his holiness, the nature of sin, or concern for other people.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

Now pass through the New Testament with the theological principle and filter it through the New Testament teaching regarding the principle or the specific law being studied. For example, if you are interpreting Exodus 20:14, “You shall not commit adultery,” your theological principle will relate to the sanctity of marriage and the need for faithfulness in marriage. As you pass into the New Testament, you must incorporate Jesus’ teaching on the subject. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus states, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus has expanded the range of this law. He applies it not only to acts of adultery but also to thoughts of adultery. Thus, the commandment not to commit adultery for us becomes, “You shall not commit adultery, in act or in thought.”

There is also something of a culture barrier with regard to the commandment on adultery. In the Old Testament culture, girls married at a very young age. There was little opportunity for premarital sex. The major sexual temptation for that culture was extramarital affairs. Our culture, however, has both temptations, and both fall into the category of violating the sanctity of marriage and faithfulness in marriage. The expression of the principle for today’s audience, therefore, should address both categories of temptation and challenge to marriage sanctity (premarital and extramarital sexual relations). The expression of this principle for us, therefore, is something like this: “Do not have sexual relations outside of marriage, in act or in thought.”

Remember that this step develops a concrete expression of the theological principle for today’s Christian audience. This concrete expression should be one that is broad enough to address an entire Christian community or church, but one that is specific for New Testament believers today.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this modified theological principle?

Take the expression developed in Step 4 and apply it to specific situations that individual Christians encounter today.

Example 1: Leviticus 5:2

We will now take a look at two examples of how we might use the Interpretive Journey to interpret and apply specific Old Testament laws. We begin with Leviticus 5:2:

If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt. . . .

The action required to correct the unclean status in this verse is described later in Leviticus 5:5–6. Thus, we should also include verses 5–6 with our study of verse 2:

5. . . when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. 6As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

The broader context of Leviticus deals with how the Israelites are to live with the holy, awesome God dwelling in their midst. How are they to approach God? How should they deal with sin and unclean things in light of having the holy God living among them? These verses fall into the smaller literary context of the unit comprised by Leviticus 4:1–5:13. This unit deals with purification offerings–how to make oneself pure again after becoming ritually unclean. Leviticus 4 deals primarily with the leaders; Leviticus 5 focuses on regular people. Leviticus 5:2 is declaring to the Israelites that if they touch any unclean thing (dead animals or unclean animals), they are defiled. This is true even if they touch it by accident. As part of their unclean status, they are unable to approach God and worship him. In order to be purified (made clean), they must confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or a goat for a sacrifice (5:5–6). The priest will sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they will be clean again, able to approach and worship God.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Remember that we are not under the old covenant and that our sin is now covered by the death of Christ. Also, we have direct access to the Father through Christ and no longer need human priests as mediators.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

The theological principle behind these verses is the concept that God is holy. When he dwells among his people, his holiness demands that his people keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they fail and become unclean, they must be purified by a blood sacrifice.

Note that this principle is reflected in the text of Leviticus 5:2, 5–6, but it is much more general than the concrete expression found in the text and described in Step 1. Also, this general principle takes into account the overall theology of Leviticus and the rest of Scripture. It is expressed in a form that is universally applicable to both Old and New Testament people.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

As we cross into the New Testament, we must examine what the New Testament teaches on this subject. God no longer dwells among us by residing in the tabernacle; he now lives within each of us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. His presence, however, still makes demands of holiness on us. He demands that we do not sin and that we stay separate from unclean things. But the New Testament clearly redefines the terms clean and unclean. Look at the words of Jesus in Mark 7:15, 20–23:

15“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them. . . .

20He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

In other words, we who are under the new covenant are not made unclean by touching dead animals. We become unclean by impure thoughts or by sinful actions. The text in Leviticus also stresses that the individual is unclean even if he or she contacted the unclean item by accident. This principle does not appear to change in the New Testament. Sinful actions and thoughts that are unintentional, if there are such things, still make us unclean.

The new covenant has also changed the way that we as God’s people deal with sin and uncleanness. No longer do we bring a lamb or goat to atone for our sin and to restore us to clean status. Now our sins are covered by the sacrifice of Christ. The death of Christ washes away our sin and changes our status from unclean to clean. Confession of sin, however, is still important to us under the new covenant (1 John 1:9), just as it was under the old covenant.

Thus, a concrete expression of the theological principle for today’s New Testament audience would be: Stay away from sinful actions and impure thoughts because the holy God lives within you. If you do commit unclean acts or think unclean thoughts, then confess this sin and receive forgiveness through the death of Christ.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this modified theological principle?

In Step 5 we try to identify specific individual applications of the expression we developed in Step 4. There are numerous applications possible. One application, for example, would be regarding the issue of Internet pornography. Many Christians now have easy access to pornographic material in the privacy of their homes or dorm rooms. This text teaches us that the holiness of God, who dwells within us, demands that we lead clean lives. Viewing pornography falls clearly into the category that the New Testament defines as unclean. Such action is a violation of God’s holiness and hinders one’s ability to approach and worship or fellowship with God. Therefore, we are to stay away from Internet pornography, realizing that it makes us unclean, offends the holy God who dwells within us, and disrupts our fellowship with him. However, if you do fall into this sin, you must confess the sin, and through the death of Christ you will be forgiven and your fellowship with God will be restored.

There are other applications possible. What about greed? Envy? Slander? Take a look at your own situation. What unclean things are in your life?

Example 2: Deuteronomy 8:6–18

Is the Interpretive Journey making sense to you? Are you able to follow the procedure in the example above? Will you be able to apply this method to other passages? Let’s look at another text, Deuteronomy 8:6–18, just to be sure that this method is sinking in.

6Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. 7For the Lordyour God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Remember that these interpretation steps must be preceded with a thorough observation step. Don’t forget to observe, observe, and observe! Study the context. Study the words. Observe some more.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Israel must continue to obey the commands of God. As they enter the Promised Land, they must not become proud, thinking that they are the ones who have brought about the blessings of the Promised Land rather than God. They must not forget that God is the source of blessing and that he is the one who delivered them from Egypt.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

We are not under the old covenant. Also, we are not about to enter the Promised Land and to receive the material blessings of the Promised Land.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

God’s people should obey God. We must not become proud and think we are the ones responsible for the blessings we receive from God. We must always remember God and how he has delivered us.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

Obedience to God is still stressed, but the New Testament shifts the focus from law obedience to obedience in following Christ. Jesus also stresses obedience to the “new command,” that of loving each other (John 13:34). Pride and the attitude of self-sufficiency are condemned in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament. Blessings in the New Testament, however, tend to be spiritual, rather than material (Eph. 1). Finally, God does not deliver us out of Egypt, but he saves us from sin through Jesus Christ. All of the blessings we receive flow out of our relationship with Christ. We must continue to follow Christ and his commandments. We must never think that we have produced the blessings in our lives; all the fantastic blessings in our lives are from God, flowing out of our relationship with Christ. We should always remember God and praise him for saving us in Christ.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this modified theological principle?

There are several ways in which success or blessings in a Christian’s life can produce pride, leading to a memory lapse regarding who is actually responsible for the blessing. If one succeeds in business, for example, the temptation is to think that he or she is the one responsible for the success, rather than God. Affluence can be a real danger today in leading us to forget God. Likewise, students who are smart and do well in school are prone to credit themselves for their success rather than to realize that God is the one who has provided them with the brains and background that enables them to succeed. All of our real blessings in life come from our relationship with Christ.


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