A friend recently asked on social media, “How do you treat the old law?” This article goes over my answer. Some Christians will have other answers*, and in other cases I will basically be echoing what Christians have said for many years. Am I just wasting your time? What original thought do I have to add? I think the apple-wood smoked bacon thing is at least memorable and hopefully insightful.
According to Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.
However, it seems that by fulfilling the law he in some places altered it so severely that it almost seems like pieces of it were abolished. Is it a contradiction that fulfilling the law changes the meaning of the law? I don’t think so. If the law and the prophets are like a recipe, then we can appreciate how apple-wood smoked bacon fulfills that recipe while at the same time being very different in flavor and substance compared to raw wood and uncooked pig meat.
What is the new law? It’s simple enough to quote and fairly easy to understand, unlike much of the Old Testament: Matt 22:37-39 and elsewhere, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Imo, the NT evolves the OT by bringing it to a higher standard, not a lower one. For example, even mental lust is a sin under the NT, while only actual physical adultery is a sin under the OT. Here are a couple instances where the NT evolution seems to remove a law, but imo it is in fact elevating the law:
- Jesus performed healing miracles on the Sabbath. According to OT he should be killed for this, but in reality his actions are a greater reflection of love in this instance than non-action would have been.
- Jesus makes all food clean to eat, saying it’s not what goes in your mouth that makes you unclean but what comes out (Matthew 15:11). At first it seems like he’s just liberalizing the law, but on second thought you can see that he is simultaneously liberalizing and elevating the law.
Homosexuality is a case where an activity is categorically condemned in both the NT and OT*, however we need to keep in mind that Biblical Homosexuality is often not the same as what people in common conversation or even academic debate are referring to. In my reading of the Bible, homosexual attraction is not sinful and you might even be able to argue God places such attraction within us. Biblical homosexuality is physically having sex with another person of the same gender, and it’s a subset of the general sin of having sex with anyone you aren’t married to. Biblical marriage is always heterosexual*.
As an aside, the hate coming from some groups against LGBT is not OK. The fact that someone sins doesn’t mean they should be hated. That doesn’t help anyone. Quite the opposite, Christians are supposed to love everyone. Homosexuals, like all people including myself, are just another flavor of sinner and we are all need Jesus.
As for slavery, that’s really a whole other convo, but I’ll make 3 quick notes:
- Exodus condemns the kidnapping and sale of people under penalty of death. Biblical slavery is nothing like American slavery. Biblical slaves didn’t work on Sabbath and weren’t allowed to be injured. Generally, they were much better treated than their contemporary Greco-Roman slaves, Egyptian slaves, etc.
- OT slaves basically came in three varieties: Debt slaves, war slaves, and sexual slavery. None of these practices were ever required, they are simply regulated if and when they take place. I don’t really see the Bible as advocating for these either.
- Debt slavery was in some ways a cool thing I think we should bring back. Caveat: Probably many Christians disagree with me here. Anyway, with debt slavery you decide to become a slave in order to have all of your debts erased. While you are enslaved you work six days per week, you’re fed, clothed, housed, and educated. You are released at the next Jubilee, or after a maximum of 7 years. If you are injured while on the job you get to go free.
- War slavery seems kind of lame to me, but I’m not a fan of war in general. At the same time, if the Nazis attacked the US and lost, then the US took Nazi survivors as slaves under the conditions previously described, this might have been a better outcome than the death or long prison sentences (I think it was always life? Not sure) that they historically received.
- Sexual slavery includes female war slaves and arranged marriages. As with all slavery, I don’t take the Bible to be advocating for any of this, but I do read it as regulating it when it happens. Women captured by Israelite armies could be adopted as wives, but first they had to have their heads shaved and undergo a period of mourning. Arranged marriage also seems super weird to me, although I think virtually every civilization back then practiced it, and some do even today. This is another case where arranged marriage isn’t recommended, but it’s regulated when it happens. I’m not sure outlawing it would have been any better. Song of Sol. 3:1-5 in some ways describes an ideal marriage. In it, a woman seeks “the one my heart loves.” I’d like to think that when arranged marriage happens it doesn’t necessarily exclude love, and that an ideal marriage always involves love. The OT also provides for the cancellation of an arranged marriage.
- What about the NT? The NT says about slaves “if you can gain your freedom, do so.” The OT forbids handing over a runaway slave. If a slave master injures a slave, again, even in OT, he is required to be set free, or compensated instead if the slave agrees. Nachmanides argued that it was a biblically commanded duty to liberate a slave who had been harmed in this way.
*Some individuals and even a few whole denominations may not agree with my interpretations here, but I’m happy to quote scripture and explain my reasoning. Gay marriage and even gay clergy are allowed in some denominations.