What is the origin of the Old and New Testament Laws and how can I follow them today?
According to modern Biblical scholarship, the authors of the Old Testament— many authors, writing over a period of several hundred years—put into writing a complex legal code that was developed over time to guide the Hebrew people in settling Canaan and forming a nation. Many of the laws were presented as coming directly from Moses, or from God to Moses, but we are wise to see that as a literary convention, not a specific act of dictation. These were Israel’s words about God, based on its experience of God, not words that God wrote.
Israel understood itself to be a holy nation, unique among all people. The Law of Moses established what made them holy. Thus, they were to eat certain foods but not others; they were to have certain attitudes toward debt and money that were different from other nations’. The Law also reflected the boundaries of their understanding. They were frightened by menstrual blood, for example, so they developed specific rules for menstruation. They were dealing, as well, with the challenge of melding twelve tribes into a single nation, regulating their semi-nomadic life, and transitioning into a more urban culture. The Law addressed those challenges.
As you can see, the specific laws dealt with specific situations, which might not pertain today. The Law’s value to us—as Jesus made clear—isn’t as a legal code, but as a lens for understanding God.
Jesus specifically resisted attempts to make his ministry legalistic. The early Church, therefore, turned to Paul for legal language, even though Paul’s letters were written to address specific questions and not to establish universal codes.
In making the decisions of your life, I urge you to examine deeply the ethics that emerge from the ministry of Moses, the words of the prophets, the teachings and life of Jesus, and the teachings of the apostles. There you will find God’s standards: fairness, compassion, justice, love, community, generosity, self-sacrifice, steadfastness. Living into those standards is more difficult than obeying certain laws, but it also draws you closer to God.