Legal Foundations: The Framework of Law
by Gerald R. Thompson
The Bible As Law
Having examined a number of basic legal inferences which may be derived from a reading of the Bible, the next task is to inquire as to the general use of the Bible as a basis for deriving substantive rules of law. This examination will begin by looking into whether the Bible is exclusively a religious book or speaks solely to spiritual matters, and whether the Bible has any laws of universal applicability today. Specific attention will also be given to the extent which the Mosaic law is a basis for substantive legal rules today.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE OF LAW
A biblical perspective of law encompasses the whole revelation of God with respect to law. Thus, it includes rules of morality and religion, as well as those of civil conduct. Yet, as the preceding discussion of jurisdictional law indicates, the rules of morality and religion (which are not humanly enforceable) can be legally distinguished from the rules of individual conduct which human institutions can enforce. The ability to separate religious law from civil law is a great benefit to any perspective of law.
A biblical view of law is not merely religious.
One of the benefits of jurisdictional law is that it lays the foundation for religious and intellectual freedom. Another great benefit of jurisdictional law is that an exposition of biblical perspective of law can be compartmentalized. That is, an inquiry of biblical law can be focused on either religious or civil law. In this work, for example, no attempt is made to examine the laws of internal governance of the Church, regulations of redemption and worship, or to detail the laws of religious faith and doctrine. These things are capable of being done from a legal perspective, but they are not for any reason necessarily involved in an examination of law from a biblical perspective. These matters are simply one aspect of the subject of biblical law, not its genesis or point of origin. Consequently, there is no basis for concluding that all law from a biblical perspective is necessarily religiously grounded, that it is more religious than any other legal philosophy, or dependent upon religious belief.
God as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. One of the familiar “trinities” concerning God is that He is the great Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of mankind. These attributes of God are relevant to an understanding of the distinction between laws of the Bible directed toward redemption (religion) and those of creation (civil application).
God as Creator. God is the Creator of all that exists, including the physical world, all humanity, and the laws which govern them all.
- In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. [Gen. 1:1.]
- For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created by Him and for Him. [Col. 1:16.]
God as Sustainer. God did not merely create the world, give mankind life, and then forever detach Himself from His creation. Rather, the existence of the earth and the continuation of life utterly depend on God’s sustaining power, without which life would cease. In a sense, law is the sustaining power of God, because it governs the entire creation, holding it together as a continuing reflection of God’s will.
- And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. [Col. 1:17.]
- “Surely, God will not act wickedly, And the Almighty will not pervert justice. Who gave Him authority over the earth? And who has laid on Him the whole world? If He should determine to do so, If He should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath, All flesh would perish together, And man would return to dust.” [Job 34:14-15.]
God as Redeemer. The Bible portrays God as the great Redeemer of mankind since the creation of the world.
- Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself, And spreading out the earth all alone.” [Isa. 44:24.]
- For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men . . . looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. [Titus 2:11,13-14.]
Redemption law defined. Not all laws in the Bible pertain to religion. Even though a biblical perspective of law is entirely founded on the existence of God, the belief that a Creator God exists is itself not a religious belief. In other words, mere belief in the existence of God will not bring any person into covenant relationship with the Savior or effect their personal redemption or salvation. The demons (fallen angels) believe in God, but this does not redeem them. Further, all men know of God’s existence through what has been made, but this knowledge does not save them either.
- You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. [Ja. 2:19.]
- For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [Rom. 1:21.]
“Redemption law,” as used herein, refers to the law which governs the redemption of sin, personal salvation, individual piety, and the fellowship of believers within the Church. In other words, redemption law is that part of the law revealed in the Bible which pertains peculiarly to God in His redemptive capacity or to people in response to God as Redeemer. Redemption law is therefore inherently religious, because it pertains to matters of the heart and mind, and those acts which are governed exclusively by the law of love.
- If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. [Ja. 1:26-27.]
Redemption law applies to the areas of life covered by God’s reserved jurisdiction. That is, redemption law is not part of the law enforceable by people, but governs those duties owed solely to God, which He alone can enforce.
- That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. [Virginia Bill of Rights, Sec. 16.]
Creation law defined. “Creation law,” on the other hand, is not religious or sectarian, and since this is the case, it applies to everyone, not just the religiously faithful. The basis for this assertion is simple: not all people are redeemed by God, but all people are created by God whether they believe it or not. Accordingly, all people are governed by the laws of God which apply to all of creation and His laws which apply to all of the creatures we call human beings.
The definition of creation law (as used herein) is not limited to the law of nature, or the will of God impressed upon the creation, however. It also includes those covenantal law frameworks which apply to every person on the face of the earth.
The law of nature. The law of nature, of course, applies to every person simply because every person is a creature of the Creator whose conduct must conform to the Creator’s will.
The divine covenants of universal applicability. Of the covenants which are part of the divine law revealed in the Bible, two are applicable to every person today, namely, the Adamic covenant and the Noahic covenant. This conclusion of law rests on certain assumptions of biblical anthropology, namely: 1) Noah and his three sons were all descendants of Adam [See, Gen. 5:1-32]; 2) the great flood of the earth resulted in the death of every person in the world except for Noah and his family (8 persons) [See, Gen. 7:21-23]; and 3) everyone on the earth today is a descendant of Noah and his three sons. Since the terms of the Adamic covenant applied to Noah and his sons as descendants of Adam, the terms of both the Adamic and Noahic covenants apply to every person who has lived since the time of the great flood, including everyone alive today.
Creation law, therefore, applies to every human being. Acknowledgment of, assenting to, or compliance with, creation law is not a pre-condition to its applicability. Law is mandatorily imposed by God, not volitionally adopted by man. Covenants may be binding on us as descendants whether we personally assent to them or not. Hence, to recognize the legal effect of such law and covenants is nothing more than acknowledging reality for what it is. And, to do so is not a religious act, or an exercise of religious faith.
The Law of Religious Tests.
This distinction between redemption law and creation law is an important one in the history of the United States. For a time in our nation, particularly in the several states, redemption law was made civilly enforceable after the pattern of England. These civil laws were eventually repealed, but in so doing, the biblical foundation of law in America was not thereby removed. In other words, America was founded on the creation laws revealed in the Bible, and to some extent, on the biblical redemption laws as well. When the latter were removed from our laws, the former remained unaffected.
Early American documents. In the early settlement and founding of America, it was common for the colonies/states to provide, in their governing documents, for the civil recognition of various aspects of redemption law. Thus, it was often provided that the holding of public offices was contingent on the professing of specified religious tenets.
- It is ordered, sentenced and decreed . . . that the Governor be always a member of some approved congregation. [Fund. Orders of Connecticut (1639), Sec. 4.]
- AND that all Persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other Persuasions and Practices in Point of Conscience and Religion) to serve this Government in any Capacity, both legislatively and executively. [Penn. Charter of Privileges (1701).]
- That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this State . . . and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion. [Const. of Maryland, November 3, 1776, art. XXXV.]
U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution, in contrast to the then existing state constitutions, prohibited the use of religious tests as a pre-condition to holding public office. It further prohibited Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion (laws pertaining to the governance of religious adherents in their capacity as such) or the free exercise of religion (laws pertaining to God’s reserved jurisdiction). In essence, the U.S. Constitution eliminated redemption law (or religion) as a basis for federal laws.
- [N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. [U.S. Const., art. VI., cl. 3.]
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. [U.S. Const., amend I.]
The federal constitutional clauses have been judicially applied to the states in such a way that religious tests are now forbidden at the state level as well. [See, Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), and McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978).]
Significantly, art. VI, cl. 3, which contains the above prohibition of religious tests, contains a requirement that all public officers at the state and federal levels, “shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution.” Thus, the swearing of an oath, which presumes acknowledgement by the swearer of the existence of God, must not be legally equivalent to a religious test. Rather, imploring the deity in swearing an oath must be viewed as an aspect of creation law, otherwise, it would be “religious.” In this way, too, the constitution evidences that it is possible to eliminate redemption law as a basis for civil laws, yet retain God’s creation law as a basis for those same civil laws.
The religious dilemma. The law of religious tests presents a dilemma for those who maintain either that a biblical perspective of law is inherently religious, or that the Bible is a book which speaks exclusively to religious and sectarian matters.
Modernly, there is a uniform expression of law regarding religious tests at the state and federal levels. Religious tests cannot lawfully be used as a basis for participation in civil affairs, nor can civil laws pertain to the governance of religious adherents in their capacity as such or to matters within God’s reserved jurisdiction. That is, our nation has rejected religion as the basis for our system of government and its laws.
One could respond by arguing that the law of religious tests, etc. expressed in the U.S. Constitution and/or by the U.S. Supreme Court is wrong, but one need not make this argument to show the relevance of the Bible to America’s legal affairs. The rejection of religion as a basis for civil law is not “anti-biblical” if it is understood to mean solely that our laws are not based on redemption law.
Whether the religious laws of the Bible are a proper basis for civil laws today raises the question of whether the United States is, or should be, a theocracy or have an established religion. This issue is examined in the next chapter. At this point, it is enough to note that it is possible to argue for the laws of the Bible as a basis for modern civil laws without advocating that America is or should be a theocracy or have an established religion.
The Bible as a legal textbook.
The Bible is not merely a religious book, because not all things in the Bible pertain to redemption law. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Bible contains legal rules of universal applicability respecting such things as the nature of law, the rights of individuals and families, limitations on civil powers, the jurisdiction of civil laws, the legal relation of social institutions, etc. Consequently, the Bible is a source book of fundamental law and, as it were, a legal textbook. Furthermore, the Bible is competent legal authority in America as part of our organic laws.
UNIVERSAL BIBLICAL LAWS
Having established that the creation law of the Bible applies to all people, it now remains to discover the terms of that law. Since the discussion in preceding chapters relating to the nature of law, covenants and jurisdiction is primarily an exposition of the law of nature, those rules will not be further reviewed here. Rather, the present purpose is to examine more closely the covenantal provisions of law which have universal applicability to all people.
First, it will be helpful to establish an interpretational framework for all of the divine covenants, which can then be applied to interpreting the Adamic and Noahic covenants specifically. Thus, these two covenants are not to be interpreted by any methodology unique to them alone, but consistently with all the other covenants. The divine covenants may apply to different people, but this does not color the legal analysis. A proper interpretation of each divine covenant requires a uniform interpretational framework for them all.
Rules of Interpretation. The basic interpretational rules for all divine covenants are:
1. To the extent a principle or rule of law is rooted in the biblical account of creation, it is a part of the law of nature and applies to all mankind, because it reflects the will of God impressed upon all creation, of which mankind is a part.
2. To the extent a legal principle or rule is not a part of the law of nature (i.e., rooted in the biblical account of creation), its applicability is limited by the covenant of which it is a part. According to the law of nature concerning covenants, a covenant can be binding only on the actual parties to the covenant and their descendants.
3. To the extent a specific provision in any divine covenant verbalizes some aspect of the law of nature it is binding on all people, not necessarily because the covenant is binding on all people, but because the law of nature applies to everyone even without the covenant. A divine covenant may verbalize rules from the law of nature, but this neither limits the application of those principles to the parties bound by the covenant, nor expands the applicability of the covenant to anyone other than the parties and their descendants. It simply restates them.
A principled approach. Consequently, a single covenantal provision may embody multiple legal principles or rules, some rooted in creation, some applicable by virtue of the covenant itself, and others which are no longer applicable. There is no legal or logical rule which requires any given verse of scripture to exclusively state a principle reflective of the law of nature, or applicable only to people bound by the covenant, without allowing for the possibility that it may contain elements of both. The job of sorting these elements out and the task of interpretation is quintessentially a legal exercise.
The Adamic covenant.
When God created Adam and Eve, He related to them verbally, speaking to them in the garden of Eden. During that time in Eden, Adam and Eve received authorization to carry out a dominion of the earth according to God’s plan.
Adam and Eve were empowered to act as God’s vice-regents in ruling over the earth, in what is commonly known as the “Dominion Mandate.” The Dominion Mandate is actually a grant of authority to carry out dominion of the earth in two principal ways: 1) the bearing of children; and 2) ruling over and subduing the earth (including animals).
- And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” [Gen. 1:28.]
God also authorized mankind to eat from the vegetation of the earth.
- Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” [Gen. 1:29.]
After the Fall, God modified the means by which mankind would exercise dominion by cursing the ground, but this did not revoke the dominion authority. However, the curse did add a new element to man’s existence: death.
- Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, `You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” [Gen 3:17-19.]
The Noahic covenant.
After the flood receded and Noah, his family and all the animals had left the ark, God covenanted with Noah and his family. This covenant contains one promise and three grants of authority.
One of the most well known promises of the Bible is that God would never flood the earth again. This promise and its sign, the rainbow, were part of the Noahic covenant.
- “And I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth. . . . I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.” [Gen. 9:11,13.]
The first grant of authority was a restatement of the portion of the dominion mandate relating to bearing children. After God had killed every one else on the earth because of their wickedness, Noah and his family may have needed a reminder to repopulate the earth, notwithstanding that their descendants may fall into the same kinds of wickedness that prevailed before the flood.
- And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. . . . And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” [Gen. 9:1,7.]
The second grant of authority related to the eating of meat. Before the flood, people were authorized to eat only plants yielding seed and fruit bearing trees [See, Gen. 1:29.]
- “And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” [Gen. 9:2-4.]
The third grant of authority related to capital punishment. Prior to the flood, no one was authorized to inflict capital punishment [See, Gen. 4:15.].
- “And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.” [Gen. 9:5-6.]
APPLICABILITY OF THE MOSAIC LAW
One of the most thorny issues confronting anyone developing a biblical perspective of law is how to discern the applicability of the Mosaic law. The present effort will employ the legal rules and interpretive principles explained earlier in an attempt to chart a methodical course through this difficult area.
The most significant feature of the Mosaic law is the fact it was enacted as the legal code to implement God’s divine covenant with ancient Israel. The Ten Commandments are commonly understood to be the Constitution (or legal framework) for ancient Israel under this covenant. Thus, it is impossible to separate the Mosaic law from its context as the legal code of a specific nation designed to implement a real world national government. When interpreting the Mosaic law, we must always keep in mind that it was never intended to be, nor actually was, a law given for all people or nations.
Some traditional approaches. We are not without precedent in endeavoring to discern the applicability of the Mosaic law, of course. Many scholars and commentators have gone before us in examining this subject. However, many modern efforts at interpretation have not approached the matter as primarily a legal inquiry, treating the whole question as a matter of theology. This is a mistake. The nature of the Mosaic law is that it is a legal code, therefore, its interpretation is quintessentially a matter of legal interpretation.
The Mosaic law is simply not applicable. Legal writers – I am speaking now of historic writers, not necessarily contemporary folks – are fairly uniform, when they address the subject. As you can see from the dates of writing, this is not exactly recent news.
For no positive law whatsoever can oblige any people but those to whom it is given. “Hear, O Israel,” sufficiently restrains the obligations of the law of Moses only to that people. John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).
Among all peoples there is one to which God vouchsafed to give laws in a special manner; that is the Jewish people, which Moses thus addresses [quoting Deut. 4:7]. Similar are the words of the psalmist [quoting Ps. 147:19-20]. … An ordinance, in fact, is not binding upon those to whom it has not been given. But in the case under consideration the ordinance itself declares to whom it was given, in the words: Hear, O Israel,’ and everywhere the covenant is spoken of as made with the Jews, and they themselves are said to be chosen as the peculiar people of God. Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. 1, Ch. 1 (1625).
Thus, when the authors of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) did import wholesale many of the capital punishment provisions of the Mosaic law into the law of that colony, it was a colossal mistake. Their desire to conform their government to the will of God was no substitute for a proper interpretation of the scriptures, again proving the rule that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Still, I confess being left unsatisfied with the historic legal response, for it fails to ask whether there is anything yet to be learned from the Mosaic law which would benefit the non-Jewish peoples of the world. It also fails to address, though it can hardly have been even a potential matter of concern back in the 17th century, the question of how the Mosaic law still applies to Messianic Jews (i.e., Christ following Jews) today. Granted, the Mosaic law does not apply to Gentiles, but what about our Jewish friends? Is there not the least bit of curiosity as to the extent they should obey that ancient law?
The Mosaic law has ended. One approach to the matter is to say that the Mosaic law has simply terminated, in whole or in part. This approach often posits that the Church covenant superseded or repealed the Mosaic law – if not entirely, then at least the ceremonial law. Still others hold that the Mosaic law terminated (wholly or partially) when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. However, this approach fails to recognize that each of the divine covenants is irrevocable and perpetual, including Israel’s covenant. Thus, the Mosaic law has some continuing covenantal applicability. In addition, it also continues to reflect many enduring principles of the law of nature. It helps to keep in mind that the Bible never expressly says the Mosaic law has ended, and all interpretations that lead to such a conclusion are based solely on inferences.
The Mosaic law has been merged. A second approach argues for the existence of “continuity” between Israel’s covenant and the Church covenant. This view assumes the Church covenant fulfilled or subsumed the Mosaic law. It is based on the premise that the Church has replaced Israel as the chosen people of God going forward. The end result is that most adherents regard the ceremonial law as having been obsoleted by the high priesthood of Christ. However, this approach ignores the legal rule that a covenant, even a divine one, is binding only on the parties who assented to it and their physical descendants. And, the fact is, the Mosaic law was never given either to Gentiles or to the Church. In other words, Israel’s covenant and the Church covenant can never be merged. Neither can Israel as a nation be merged with the Church – they are two completely different kinds of entities.
The Mosaic law has been modified. A third approach regards the applicability of the Mosaic law as depending on the degree to which various laws are mentioned in the New Testament. This approach is based more on expediency, than any legal or covenantal principle. One common approach is the “repealed unless repeated” (R&R) scheme, in which the provisions of the Mosaic law are presumed repealed unless expressly repeated in the New Testament scriptures. Another common scheme is known as “mandatory unless modified” (M&M), which presumes that the specific provisions of the Mosaic law are presently binding unless expressly modified in the New Testament.
This approach completely disregards the manner in which covenants and laws originate, and how they are altered. Divine laws and covenants only arise when God speaks in a legislative capacity, using direct words like, “This shall be a statute for you throughout your generations.” To alter any statute of this nature would require God to use similar direct words announcing, “This statute shall be changed as follows.” However, God never uttered words of amendment.
Further, the Mosaic covenant was specifically consented to by the people of Israel three times. In order for the covenant to be amended in any way, it would also require the Jews – as a whole – to consent to the changes. Again, this has never yet occurred. Divine laws and covenants can only be changed the same way human laws and covenants can be changed. You can’t change laws and covenants based merely on circumstances, or on the way future writers comment on them.
An interpretive framework proposal. First and foremost, it is my intention to propose an interpretational scheme which reflects: 1) the Mosaic law was only ever given to (and binding upon) the Jews; and 2) the Mosaic law is tied to a divine covenant which is eternal, not temporary. Secondarily, I wish to determine the extent to which any universal principles may be gleaned from the Mosaic law, which well may apply to all nations.
The Mosaic covenant is often regarded as having three legal components, which have been recognized for centuries by a wide variety of biblical and legal commentators.
[T]he well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law . . .. [Calvin, IV Institutes, ch. XX, ¶14.]
Note: Although Calvin is quoted here, he is not cited for the purpose of constructing a “Calvinistic” interpretive framework. Rather, his views are illustrative of views widely held. As Calvin said, these divisions were “well known” even in his time – he did not invent them (actually, they came from Aquinas). Thus, the interpretive framework which is here proposed is not merely that which Calvin stated, but rather the “legal rule” which follows each of his statements.
The moral law. According to Calvin, the moral law is the law which commends us to love God and to mutually love one another.
The moral law . . . is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. . . . [I]t is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men . . .. [Calvin, IV Institutes, ch. XX.]
Legal rule. The eternal moral law is none other than the law of nature applicable to all men today. Many of the Mosaic laws were simply applications of the law of nature to specific situations. To the extent these laws are rooted in the nature of the creation, they still apply to everyone today.
Ceremonial Law. Calvin regarded the ceremonial law as the tutelage of Israel which foreshadowed Christ.
The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were the childhood of that people, until the fullness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures. [Calvin, IV Institutes, ch. XX.]
Legal rule. The ceremonial law is primarily the law pertaining to the Levitical priesthood and the system of sacrifices and religious rituals it administered. The ceremonial law never has applied to any Gentile people or nations, as the covenant by which it was delivered applied solely to the nation of Israel. As to whether it has any continuing viability for Jews today, see the discussion below.
Judicial law. The judicial law was described by Calvin as certain forms of justice and equity delivered to the polity of Israel.
The judicial law, given them as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly. [Calvin, IV Institutes, ch. XX.]
Legal rule. The judicial law is the law peculiar to the national polity of Israel as a theocracy. A legal theocracy is where God is the civil head of the nation and an actual party to the civil covenant. No other nation in history has been a theocracy in this sense. Thus, the theocratic laws of ancient Israel do not apply to Gentile nations.
Not wedded to a three-fold division. I don’t want you to conclude from this discussion that these three divisions of the Mosaic law are etched in stone by the hand of God. I can just as easily argue for a five-fold division of the law: 1) ceremonial (laws pertaining to sacrifices and offerings, and atonement); 2) priesthood (ordinances for the regulation of the priests, Levites, and the temple or tabernacle); 3) theocracy (laws pertaining to Israel as a separate nation, its polity and land divisions, and later on the throne of David); 4) common laws (laws pertaining to contracts, private and public wrongs (torts and crimes) and how to love one’s neighbor); and 5) moral laws (those which are founded in creation and are eternal, including religious laws such as idolatry and blasphemy). Then we still have to sort out the kosher food (dietary) laws, the feast days and sabbaths, and sanitation laws to see if they fit in any of the previous categories, or whether they are separate additional categories.
But the fact is, to a very large extent, these divisions are artificial and irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many sub-categories we divide the Mosaic law into, all we really want to know are: 1) whether the Mosaic law as a whole applies to Gentile nations (answer: no); 2) what aspects of the Mosaic law are rooted in creation and therefore indicate eternal principles binding on all people and nations; 3) what parts of the Mosaic law are peculiar solely to national Israel; and 4) for the benefit of our Messianic friends, what obligations to the law of Moses they are still bound to observe as Jews.
Subdividing the Mosaic law for analytical purposes is merely a tool to help answer these questions – the actual subdivisions are not really that important. Covenantally speaking, the Mosaic law is a unitary whole, without subdivisions. God never divided His laws for Israel into separate categories. Which is yet another reason why it is impossible for anyone to say with confidence that the ceremonial law (as an example) has been obsoleted. The ceremonial law, as such, is not really a separate body of laws – so how can it be split off from the rest and declared to be terminated?
The Covenantal Applicability of the Mosaic Law.
The Mosaic law, as a matter of covenant, was never obligatory upon any nation other than ancient Israel. This is because a covenant is binding only on the parties who assented to it and their physical descendants. Since the original parties to Israel’s covenant were the Israelites, only Jewish descendants could ever have been covenantally bound by the Mosaic law. All Gentile people today, by definition, are not descendants of the ancient Israelites. However, this does not mean that the Mosaic law is legally irrelevant to modern nations. It merely means that in construing the terms of the law, we must look for those rules rooted in creation, which are part of the law of nature applicable to all people.
Historically, commentators have recognized that the Mosaic law is not binding on the gentiles as a matter of covenant obligation. Here, I remind you of the quote from John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration quoted a few pages back. And let us also consider Calvin:
The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. . . . [T]hose things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws. [Calvin, IV Institutes, ch. XX.]
In addition to his earlier quoted remarks, Hugo Grotius wrote:
[W]e conclude that we are bound by no part of the Hebraic law, so far as this is law of a special kind. For, outside of the law of nature, the binding force of law comes from the will of him who makes the law; and it is not possible to discover, from any indication, that God willed that others than Israelites should be bound by that law. There is, then, no need of proof that in respect to ourselves this law has been abrogated; for a law cannot be abrogated in respect to those on whom it has never been binding. But for the Israelites its binding force was abrogated in respect to rituals, at least, the moment the law of the Gospel began to be promulgated, as was clearly revealed to the chief of the Apostles (Acts 10:15). It was abrogated also in regard to other things, after the Jewish people, th[r]ough the fall and devastation of their city, which was destroyed without hope of restoration, ceased to be a nation. [Grotius, Law of War, at 33-50.]
Thomas Jefferson referred to the book of Exodus as “laws made for the Jews alone.” [T. Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, Esq., January 10, 1814.]
Though the non-applicability of the Mosaic law to Gentiles is clear, I must admit to having recently adjusted my position on the continuing viability (or non-viability) of the Mosaic law insofar as it relates to the Jewish people. My position for many years was this: 1) the moral law is eternal and binding; 2) the theocratic law is suspended until such time as Jesus returns to sit on the throne of David and the kingdom of Israel is restored in the promised land; and 3) the ceremonial law is abolished. I claimed Heb. 7:12 as the basis for regarding the ceremonial law as abolished: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
However, subsequent investigation led me to realize that per Ezekiel 43 & 44, the altar, priests, Levites and animal sacrifices will be reinstituted in the Millennial era – again solely for Israel and not for any of the Gentiles. Plus, I ran into a number of scriptures suggesting rather strongly that certain elements of the Mosaic law – even some aspects that can be considered ceremonial in nature – are eternal and therefore could not have been abolished.
Thus, Israel is to observe the Sabbaths in perpetuity. Exo. 31:16; Lev. 24:8. The land promised to Abraham is to be Israel’s possession forever. 1 Chr. 16:15-18; Ps 105:7-11. The throne of David will never end. 2 Sam 7:16; 2 Chr 21:7. Israel is God’s chosen people forever. Exo 19:5-6; Deu. 7:6-10. Even the priesthood and the priestly portion are eternal. Num. 18:19; 25:12-13.
As far as the Gentiles are concerned, Heb. 7:12 is to the same effect – the introduction of the priesthood of Melchizedek through Christ barred any part of the Levitical system from becoming part of the Church or the new covenant in Christ. But for the Jews, the ceremonial laws are eternal – though they are suspended in part until such time as the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. Further, when these ceremonial laws are revived in the Millennium, they will be modified somewhat.
The Mosaic law as a “broken covenant.” Here I must address the claim that the Mosaic law has ended because it is a broken covenant. Let me first concede that the Mosaic covenant has indeed been broken.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.” Jer. 31:31-32.
But what is the significance of this broken covenant? When a persons “breaks” a law, what does that mean? Say you drive over the speed limit and get a speeding ticket. You have broken the law, and now you must pay a fine. But what happens to the traffic law itself? Because you have broken (i.e., violated) the law, is the law itself now altered, suspended or terminated? No, of course not. It continues unchanged. The operation of the traffic laws do not depend on whether you keep (obey) them, or break (violate) them. Your actions of non-compliance do nothing to the existence of the traffic laws.
So to say that the Mosaic law is a “broken covenant” is to say nothing more than Israel, as a nation, has violated the terms of the covenant. But what of the covenant itself? Has it been altered, suspended or terminated? No – it continues unchanged. Israel can do nothing, by its own conduct or volition, to alter, suspend or terminate God’s covenant with them. The covenant is eternal, notwithstanding Israel’s non-compliance. Israel’s compliance is, in fact, irrelevant to the question of the status of the covenant.
So what things actually change the status of a law? As for traffic laws, only the actions of the legislature – not individual drivers – can actually change the laws. Similarly, as for the Mosaic covenant, only the lawgiver of the nation (i.e., God, as per Isa 33:22) can change the covenant. So the covenant continues unchanged unless God acts legislatively to change it. And, I suggest, there is nothing in scripture to suggest that God has acted legislatively to change the Mosaic law. Just the opposite, in fact – all the evidence points to an eternal duration, not a temporary one.
“Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers.” Jer. 33:20-21.
Thus, when Zechariah recites that, “And I took my staff Favor, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples” (Zec 11:10), this cannot possibly be taken as a reference to the Mosaic covenant. After all, the Mosaic covenant was not made with “all the peoples.”
Moral law – Examples. That is, the law of nature applicable to all men today. First up – the Ten Commandments.
Other gods. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” [Ex. 20:3.] This commandment is rooted in creation because there is only one Creator of the universe, hence, there is only one God. All gods other than the Creator are false.
Idols. “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” [Ex. 20:4.] God made people, and people make things. Here is the law of nature: nothing can be created which is either equal to or greater than its creator. Thus, men will never become gods, much less can anything made by men be a god. Only the uncreated Creator is God.
God’s name. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” [Ex. 20:7.] The right of naming something belongs to its creator. Since God is uncreated, only He can name Himself. That means His name is holy and all people are to respect that name, to neither profane it nor utter it in vain.
Sabbath day. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” [Ex. 20:8,11.] The law of the sabbath is rooted in the creation of the world in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh day. Clearly, the sabbath was not invented for the first time at Mt. Sinai.
Honor parents. “Honor your father and your mother.” [Ex. 20:12.] Contemporaneous with man’s creation, God commanded man to be fruitful and multiply. Parents have a natural right to command those children which they have procreated. To honor one’s parents is merely to honor the family order instituted by the Creator.
Murder. “You shall not murder.” [Ex. 20:13.] The law of murder must have pre-existed the Ten Commandments. Otherwise, Cain would not have been guilty of murdering Abel, and God would not have told Noah to execute future murderers. Thus, the law of murder must be part of the law of nature (i.e., pre-dating Cain and Abel).
Adultery. “You shall not commit adultery.” [Ex. 20:14.] God made man male and female, and also instituted the marriage relation at the time of creation. To avoid adultery honors the marital relation instituted by God.
Stealing. “You shall not steal.” [Ex. 20:15.] The Dominion Mandate, issued contemporaneously with man’s creation, includes authority to “subdue the earth.” But God never intended this authority to be exercised communally – rather, He gives to men their own property. Stealing dishonors the dominion God has given to someone else.
False witness. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” [Ex. 20:16.] Accusations spoken falsely dishonors a fellow vice-regent of God, whom God has made equal. A false accusation is an attempt to exercise unwarranted dominion over a fellow human being.
Coveting. “You shall not covet.” [Ex. 20:17.] Coveting concerns a person’s heart attitude respecting property and possessions belonging to others. It is the antecedent of murder, adultery and stealing – improperly desiring (or despising) the life, spouse or property God has given to another.
Other examples of the eternal moral law.
Sexual immorality. See, Lev. 18:6-23.
Authority within the family. See, 1 Cor. 11:2-16.
Even the Gospel is revealed in nature. See, Rom. 10:17-20, citing Ps. 19:4.
Ceremonial law – Examples. The controlling rule is this: the priesthood of Melchizedek through Christ barred any part of the Levitical system from becoming part of the Church or the new covenant in Christ. The following are examples of ceremonial laws under the Mosaic covenant:
Human Priesthood. The Church covenant was inaugurated by Jesus’ death on the cross and the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. [See, Mat. 27:50-51.] This had the legal effect of opening access to God directly through Christ, thereby bypassing the Levitical priesthood and every other potential human priesthood (or gatekeepers). Thus, for the Church, the priesthood of Melchizedek via Christ operates exclusively, eliminating all forms of human priesthoods, whether descendants of Levi, Peter or anyone else. [See, Heb. 7:12; 8:1-13; 10:8-10.]
Trappings of the Levitical priesthood. All the essential elements of the Levitical priesthood are also rendered completely inapplicable to the Church and to Gentiles, including without limitation: any class of persons set aside for full-time religious work; any positions in the Church being tied to genealogy or physical ancestry; animal sacrifices; physical rituals intended to produce atonement or a covering for sins; prohibiting any religious workers from owning property; exempting any religious workers from general laws applicable to everyone else (i.e., benefits of clergy); a physical temple, house of worship or house of God; temple structures including an inner sanctum, a narthex and an altar; special clothes that can only be worn by certain persons; tools and instruments that can only be used by certain persons; ceremonies that can only be performed by certain persons; and so on. All these things are part and parcel of the ceremonial law of Israel.
The Levitical tithe. Tithing under the Mosaic law was inextricably bound to the nature and existence of the Levitical priesthood: 1) But for the animal sacrifice system, there would have been no Aaronic priesthood; 2) But for the Aaronic priesthood, the Levites would not have been set apart to assist the priests; and 3) But for the Levites being set apart, no tithes would have been instituted. [See, Num. 18:1-7,21-24.] Consequently, apart from the Levitical priesthood, tithing cannot exist, and does not exist in the Church or for Gentiles.
Judicial law – Examples. I earlier noted that the judicial law is that aspect of the Mosaic law related to Israel as a theocratic polity. I regard the judicial law of Israel as having these primary components:
“Non-mixing” laws by which Israel was to be a people set apart.
Intermarriage. The command not to intermarry with the Gentiles living in or near the land of Israel, nor to follow after the gods worshiped by those people. [See, Deut. 7:1-8. Also see, Josh 23:7.]
Mixing fabrics, etc. The command not to wear clothing made of two materials is symbolic of the ethnic and spiritual purity which the Israelites were to maintain. [See, Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:11.] Similarly, the Jewish custom not to eat milk (or cheese) and meat together in the same meal, based on the command not to boil a goat in it’s mother’s milk. [Exo. 23:19; 34:26; Deu 14:21.]
Religious crimes. The infliction of capital punishment for offenses against God was unique to Israel, because only in that nation would an offense against God also be an offense against the civil ruler. [See, Ex. 31:14-15 (profaning the sabbath); Ex. 19:12-13 (profaning the tabernacle); Lev. 24:16 (blasphemy); Deut. 17:2-7, Ex. 22:20 (idolatry); and Lev. 20:27, Ex. 22:18 (spiritism and occult practices)].
Israel’s throne. Laws relating to the throne of Israel, including the Davidic covenant. [See, Deut. 17:14-15; 2 Sam 7:1-29.]
Land of Israel. Laws relating to the land of Israel which was promised through Abraham, confirmed through Isaac and Jacob, and anticipated in the Mosaic law. [See, Gen. 17:7-8; Num. 34:1-12.] This land, as the unique possession of Israel, reflected the fact that Israel was the unique possession of God. Thus, the land laws of the Mosaic law reflect the theocratic nature of the nation, including the command that the land could not be permanently sold [Lev. 25:23], the law of the Jubilee [Lev. 25:8-17], and the command that the land could not be transferred from one tribe of Israel to another. [Num. 36:7-9.]
Sabbath laws. Although the Sabbath principle of observing a week of seven days and resting on one day each week is a universal precept, the punishment of offenses for violating the Sabbath is unique to the polity of Israel.
Implications for Messianic Jews.
Moral laws. Moral laws, being the eternal laws of nature, still apply to the Jews because such laws apply to all men.
Ceremonial laws. To the extent ceremonial laws are tied to the temple in Jerusalem, such laws are suspended until such time as the temple is rebuilt and restored. In other words, the animal sacrifices and many of the grain and other offerings under the Mosaic law were specifically directed to be carried out in the tabernacle or temple located in Jerusalem. The Jews are not commanded, nor are they free, to offer sacrifices elsewhere. Failing the existence of a temple in Jerusalem, such rituals simply cannot be carried out.
Admittedly, ceremonial rituals not required to be performed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem are to some extent capable of being observed by Jews today. Thus, for example, many Messianic Jews still observe Sabbaths, feast days and rituals, and the like. Whether these observances are actually required outside the land of Israel however, is another question.
Judicial laws. The Davidic covenant is perpetual, but until the throne is restored by Christ at His coming, it is not currently in operation. We know this aspect of the law was suspended because Jesus, as the Son of David, is the sole heir of David eligible to sit on the throne (i.e., he terminated the lineage of David for purposes of the throne). Mat. 1:1. Plus, currently Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father, rather than sitting on David’s throne. Heb. 1:2-3.
All laws dependent on the theocratic polity of Israel are also suspended, such as the land laws (ownership parceled out by tribe – which divisions were obliterated long ago), the Sabbath Year, the year of Jubilee, cities of refuge, and very likely the laws of criminal punishment, including all capital laws. These laws were designed solely for the Jewish homeland, and until the throne of David is re-established in that homeland, they are of no effect for Jews living elsewhere in the world. They also do not yet apply to the modern state of Israel, which by no means has restored either the theocracy nor the monarchy. [See. Lev. 25.]
I see no impediment to the continued observation of the anti-mixing laws. However, the capital punishment laws of the Mosaic covenant in particular, and even perhaps the criminal punishment laws in general, probably require the reinstitution of the monarchy before they can be fully implemented again.
Nevertheless, those aspects of the judicial law relating to the traditional common law subjects of contracts, property (except for the land laws), torts and crimes, all hold great promise for real usefulness in Gentile nations today. I say this with two caveats in mind. First, the key is to find those laws and legal principles based on natural equity or justice, which is to say, laws which can be traced back to creation and the law of nature. Second, while the law of nature tells us what behaviors are right or wrong, it does not specify any punishments. Therefore, the judicial laws of ancient Israel may be instructive in showing us what things are right or wrong, but the punishments attached to the Mosaic laws are to be disregarded, for the most part.
The judicial laws are also fertile grounds for illustrating various principles of constitutional law, such as the nature of a constitution, the separation of powers, the law of enumerated powers, principles of federalism, etc. The judicial laws are also instructive as to the general limits on civil authority, the nature of republican government, and changes to the form of government. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because many of the Mosaic laws never were, and never could be, applicable to Gentile nations, does not mean there is little or nothing to be learned by studying them.
What about other aspects of the Mosaic law?
Kosher food laws. I regard the dietary laws (See Lev. 11:1-47) as part of the “make the people of Israel set apart” laws, and an aspect of being “God’s own possession.” However, these laws, as opposed to laws concerning the throne and the monarchy, are not incapable of keeping at the present time. For many modern Jews it is customary to observe these dietary restrictions, and I see no downside in their observance.
Note: for Gentiles, we are under the general dietary constraints of Gen 1:29 (plants yielding seed and tree fruit with seed), as well as Gen. 9:3-4 (every moving thing, but consume no blood).
Feast days and observances. The feast days (See, Lev. 23:1-44) are in many respects inextricably tied to either the physical altar (which does not exist) or to being present in the Promised Land, and are therefore (I would argue) not required to be observed by Jews today. Nevertheless, many Jews observe the feast days, and this is even common among Messianic Jews.
However, from a legal perspective, we must ask whether there is such a thing as substantial compliance as far as the laws of God are concerned? How can the feast days be kept in part, and have that count as obedience? For example, the Feast of Firstfruits is expressly predicated on the condition that “When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest ….” (Lev. 23:10). How can this feast possibly apply in Europe or America? Or take the Feast of Booths, where God commanded that “All native Israelites shall dwell in booths.” (Lev. 23:42.) Who is a native Israelite (except a Jew living in the land of Israel), and why would non-native Jews feel bound by such a command?
The Mosaic covenant is perpetual. I would be remiss if I did not point out that several aspects of the Mosaic law, including some ceremonial components of it, are expressly declared to be eternal.
Examples. Exo. 31:16; [Cf. Lev. 24:8] (Sabbaths); 1 Chr. 16:15-18; Ps 105:7-11 (the land promised to Abraham); 2 Sam 7:16; 2 Chr 21:7 (throne of David); Exo 19:5-6; Deu. 7:6-10 (Israel’s as God’s chosen possession).
Levitical Priesthood. Even the Levitical priesthood is perpetual. Num. 18:19; 25:12-13. See, Eze. 44:9-14 regarding the Levites generally, and Eze. 44:15-31 re: the Levitical priests specifically, and the religious (sacrificial & ceremonial) services each will render in the Millennium.
* Ver. 2.6. Copyright © 1993-2020 Gerald R. Thompson. All rights reserved. Used by permission. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.