Law,  Old Testament

The Purpose of the Old Testament Law

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.

photo of books of law giving its purpose

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.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

3 Comments

  • ronald salinas

    the law was also a school master teaching us that we have a sin nature. many unbelievers ask why is there slavery, caananite genocide , stoning rebellious teens…..? many christians try to answer by watering it down etc. when a good answer is ” the law “. Law brings bondage, death, curse..to the first Adam, who was told not to partake of the tree of knowing good and evil . Good news is the law and prophets point us to Christ, grace and truth.

  • Michael Roe

    Great summary Peter and especially the last point about reflecting creation principles.

    Are you planning to do a post on the role of the OT Law in the life of the New Covenant believer? I would enjoy reading your thoughts on that.

    God bless brother.

    • Peter Goeman

      Good to hear from you Michael. I am planning on putting something together on that. This will probably be a fairly lengthy series of Law posts. Not sure where the OT Law in the New Covenant will fall, but it is coming :)

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