Law,  Old Testament

The OT Law in Its Narrative Context

All too often we read sections of Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy without being sensitive to the surrounding narrative context. We need to remember that God’s giving of the Law on Mount Sinai was within a specific narrative, and we should understand the Law in light of that narrative. When we do so, we come away with the following observations.

photo of narrative marker

The narrative context shows the Law was not a legalistic standard to earn God’s favor.

There is no reason to think Old Testament believers were saved by keeping the Law. In fact, when we look at the placement of the Law in the narrative, we see that God had already delivered Israel out of Egypt. The giving of the Law (e.g., Exod 19–24) took place after God had already demonstrated His saving relationship with Israel by delivering them (e.g., Exod 12–14). The Law was a precious gift to Israel to help them live within the corporate relationship to God that already existed.

The narrative context highlights the Law as a display of God’s character in a way not possible through narrative alone.

The narrative context certainly describes who Yahweh is, but it is an insufficient revelation. The Law heightens our awe through contrasting a holy God with the nation of Israel. We always knew God was different than Israel, but the Law gives an objective standard by which we can gauge the holiness of God.

This idea of laws reflecting character has parallels in the ANE. For example, the Code of Hammurabi begins by explaining the background of Hammurabi, and how his relationship with the gods and his devotion to righteousness and justice gives him the right to give law. In other words, Hammurabi’s laws reflect his own character inasmuch as it reflects his standards of righteousness and justice. Similarly, the Mosaic Law functions uniquely within the context of Israel’s Exodus as an educational tool to observe the character of the one who gives the laws—Yahweh, God almighty.

The narrative context shows the Law is inherently a part of the Mosaic covenant.

By being sensitive to the narrative context, we observe that the Law is bound to the Mosaic covenant. That the Law demonstrates an intrinsic connection with the Mosaic covenant is evidenced by its reference to living in the Promised Land. Just as many of the laws were concerned with how to sanctify the nation in order to dwell with a holy God, many of the laws within the Mosaic covenant deal with Israel’s dwelling in the land of Canaan.

For example, both Exodus and Deuteronomy contain laws about Israel living in specific geographical locations and Israel’s obligation to drive out the current inhabitants (Exod 23:31; Deut 9:3). Similarly, the laws concerning the cities of refuge (Num 35; Deut 19) assume Israel is living in specific territories. In general, many of the laws within the legal sections assume the operation of the Mosaic covenant in Canaan.

This last point is very important, for if the narrative context of the Old Testament Law clearly links the Law with the Mosaic covenant, then if the Mosaic covenant is done away with, we would expect the dissolution of the Law as well.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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