In a prior post, I mentioned that the Law needs to be read in its narrative context. In addition to being sensitive to the narrative context, we also need to evaluate the purpose of the Old Testament Law as it is portrayed in the Old Testament itself. This is an important first step in helping understand the differences that we see between the Old and New Testaments.
The Law was never a means of salvation
First, we need to adimently reaffirm that the Law is not portrayed as a standard for salvation. It is common for people to accuse dispensationalists of believing the Law was the means of salvation for Israel. I have spoken against this on multiple occasions, but if you are looking for an in depth treatment on the subject, John Feinberg wrote an excellent article on salvation in the Old Testament.
Additionally, as I argued previously, the gift of the Law after the Exodus shows it was not a legalistic standard to earn God’s favor. Also, believing that OT saints were saved by keeping the Law is completely antithetical to Paul’s argument in Romans 4. Paul argues very clearly that Abraham (the premier Jew) was saved by faith prior to good works (cf. Rom 4:9-10). It seems evident that one cannot argue the purpose of the Law was to achieve salvation.
The Law was not exhaustive, but regulative
When thinking through the purpose of the Law in the OT, observing the brevity of the Law is important. What I mean by the phrase, “not exhaustive, but regulative,” is that the Law did not attempt to cover every situation possible. The assumption built into the Law is that the mature individual will be able to utilize the principles built into the Law to apply to other situations.
For example, the situation of Ruth seems to be slightly different than the laws concerning a Levirate Marriage (Deut 25). However, it seems as if the Levirate marriage law and laws concerning the redeemer (Lev 25) were both being applied to Ruth and Naomi’s situation. This exact situation is not covered by the Mosaic Law. Yet, Naomi and Boaz knew from study of the Law how to handle the situation. The elders also gave their agreement to the resolution.
The intent of the Law was never to cover every single situation (if you think about it, that’s actually impossible). Rather, the Law was the foundation for how Israelites were to think about the world in which they lived. The Law provided the foundation for how to think about justice, mercy, and love. Some situations were complex, but the Law provided a paradigm through which to discern appropriate action.
The Law was a reflection of God’s character
One of the greatest contributions of the Law is the revelation of God’s character. This is beautifully encapsulated in the repeated admonition for Israel to make themselves holy, “for I am holy” (Lev 11:45).
A beautiful portrayal of this would be the end of Exodus where God comes to dwell with Israel’s camp in the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-38). Notably, the text makes sure we know that nobody (not even Moses) was able to enter (v. 35). Thus, one of the big questions is, “How can Israel have God in their midst?” Leviticus gives the answer to that question, describing who God is and what the cost is for fellowship with Him.
The Law was an application of creation principles
This is an essential point to make, but often missed in discussions on the Law. The Law was given to Israel so that they could live out creation truths among the nations. When Israel would walk obediently to the Law, the other nations would say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut 4:6b).
Israel was tasked with being a representative of God’s created design to the watching world. Thus, part of the function of the Law was to give Israel a template for how to live, following God’s creative design. This link between the Law and creation is examined in more detail in this article.