IS THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW A BURDEN, IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP?

In the small book “Lies My Preacher Told Me: An Honest Look At The Old Testament” by Brent Strawn (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), the author deals with ten common mistruths concerning the Hebrew Scriptures that many people have. I shared the first mistruth that Strawn dealt with (“the Old Testament is someone else’s mail”) a couple of weeks ago.

Mistruths can be more harmful than lies. Mistruths are like misinformation in this way: they are hard to expose and to set the record straight. Mistruths are thus far more insidious and intractable than a bald-faced lie: they extend their tendrils to all sorts of areas, like the roots of a tree, so that uprooting them is often very difficult (2).

In his book, Strawn deals with the ninth mistruth that “the Old Testament Law is nothing but a burden, impossible to keep.” I am sure that you have heard this. Strawn opens the about this mistruth by relating a conversation he had with one of his in-laws. The in-law said, “I thought Jesus came because we couldn’t keep the law.” The author’s response was, “I think Jesus came because we didn’t keep it.” Strawn notes, “The difference in those two sentences is slight, grammatically, but truly massive, theologically. My in-law thought the necessity of Jesus’ incarnation was related to the inability of people to keep the Old Testament Law: at best the Law was a burden they couldn’t, in the end, shoulder.” (84)

The “Old Testament Law” is generally defined as the first five books of the Old Testament (also referred to as the Pentateuch and Torah). The Pentateuch is composed of more than law; there is narrative, song, and poem. The rabbis identified 613 laws in the Pentateuch, primarily found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

You have probably heard the “613 law” factoid numerous times, and it is usually used to emphasize how oppressive the Mosaic law was. I wonder how many national, state, and county laws each of us has to obey? I am sure that the total is more than 613 (the IRS tax code is probably more than 613 by itself). Yet, somehow we survive and do feel too burdened (the tax may be an exception). More importantly, it is the reality that most Israelites were not responsible for keeping all 613 laws. The vast number of those laws concerned the priesthood and the sacrifices, and the high priest had the most laws to obey.

If the Mosaic Law was unbearable, the Pentateuch never presents it that way: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

The Psalmists did not think of God’s Law as a burden:

Psalm 1:2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 19:7-9 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;  8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;  9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

Psalm 37:30-31 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. 31 The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.

Psalm 40:8 I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.

Psalm 119:1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!

Psalm 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.

Psalm 119:72 The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Psalm 119:92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.

Psalm 119:97 Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

Psalm 119:165  Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.

Psalm 119:174 I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.

The Hebrew Scriptures “never presents the Law as something designed to frustrate the people; quite to the contrary, it is part of the covenant relationship that Israel willingly enters into in grateful response to the prior gracious salvation of God, experienced in the Exodus” (86). Strawn goes on to write, “there is no works righteousness in the Old Testament or Judaism. The Law is thus a measure of grateful obedience offered back to a gracious God. In this way, the Law is a means—a divinely given means—to maintain the relationship with the Lord who saves” (86).

Even after the golden calf disaster (Exodus 32), Israel can be forgiven (Exodus 32-34) and continue as God’s covenant people with God dwelling in their midst (Exodus 33:9-17; 40:34-38). The Law did not call for perfection but grateful obedience. The Law contains provisions for failure within it. “The details about sacrifice, including sacrifice for sin, come in Leviticus 1–7, hard and fast on the heels of “Calfgate” in Exodus, showing the way Old Testament Law accounts for and atones for disobedience. And the very center of Leviticus, itself the very center of the Torah, is Leviticus 16, which concerns the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when everyone gets all of their sins, of whatever sort or severity, forgiven for sure at least once each year. Yom Kippur and the sacrificial system are all part of Old Testament Law, the Law that God gave. If the Law is a burden, it is a burden that the Law itself helps to carry” (89).

According to the Gospel of Luke, there were Israelites who kept the Law. The inspired author of the Gospel describes both Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). In the next chapter, the reader is introduced to Simeon, described as “righteous and devout” (Luke 1:25). The Mosaic Law does not appear to have been a burden to these people.

How did the apostle Paul describe the Law? “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Paul claimed that he kept the Law when he wrote, “as to righteousness, under the law blameless” (Philippians 3:6).

There are several (many) mistruths that have been unwittingly (and sometimes purposefully) passed on by people with good hearts and good intentions. However, good hearts and good intentions do not turn a mistruth into truth.

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