The Perfect Imperfection of the Mosaic Law, and the New Covenant

The Mosaic Law is not a universal moral code applicable to all people at all times.

If you read through the Torah, you will find verses that seem morally repugnant to our modern sensibilities. For instance, the death penalty is applied for what seem to us like minor offenses. Israelites were allowed to keep slaves. The Mosaic Law is also clearly paternalistic, subjecting women to second class citizenship.

This is just a start. Skeptics like to point these things out as they criticize the Bible. They claim that Scripture is full of immoral ideas. Christians try to find explanations that soften the criticism, claiming that we need to understand the cultural context and what was actually meant. Skeptics claim Christians twist the plain meaning of the text to avoid obvious conclusions.

Could it be that both skeptics and defenders of the biblical text are right? That is the position that is taken in the video by Inspiring Philosophy: The Imperfect Mosaic Law.

We have to admit by our modern standards the Torah contains some instructions that are morally distasteful. We could try to explain them away. We could take the view that our modern morality is wrong. We could take the view that the Bible is simply written by Ancient Near Eastern men, that there is no God, and that the Bible is unreliable as a moral code.

Most of the these options assume that the Mosaic Law is/was meant to be a perfect and universal statement of God’s moral code. Perhaps, though the Torah was never meant to be a perfect, universal moral law to be applied to all people in all times.

The video describes some subtle and some not-so-subtle clues that support this view in various places. One such clue is the way Jesus viewed and applied the Law.

In Matthew 19, for instance, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus with a question on divorce. They referenced the Law of Moses, which allowed men to divorce and send their wives away and asked Jesus who would be a man’s wife in heaven if he divorced and remarried several times. Jesus responded, to their chagrin, that Moses allowed men to divorce their wives only because of the hardness of their hearts, adding, “but from the beginning it was not so”. (Matt. 19:8)

Jesus is saying, here, that God only allowed divorce in the Mosaic Law because the people were stiff-necked and stubborn (hard of heart). Perhaps, God allowed it because the people of Israel were not in a cultural, moral or psychological position to receive the full instruction of God at the time.

We don’t know for sure, but the interesting point is the way Jesus viewed the Mosaic Law as a kind of “compromise between God and Israel”. God apparently softened and calibrated the provisions of the Law to accommodate the cultural norms, attitudes and expectations of the people at the time.

The statement by Jesus suggests that the people were not open to what God intended from the beginning, so God revised the terms for them. Why would God do that?

I have often thought that the Bible demonstrates a kind of progression in the relationship between God and man, more or less. I don’t mean this in the sense of a formal doctrine. Whatever we call it, there seems to be a recognizable element in Scripture of a growing, unfolding revelation of God to people.

Scripture has an arc to it. From the creation of the world, to Adam and Eve, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the first Temple, and second Temple and forward to Jesus and beyond, Scripture has a progression. There is a “sweep” to Scripture that is as important to recognize as any particular passages.

Thus, I believe the video is correct that the Mosaic Law is not meant as a legislative moral code to be applied to all people at all times. The Law was given to a particular people in a particular time, but it fits into the progression of revelation of God who is working with people to reveal Himself in ways that they can understand and in ways that are are able (or willing) to receive.

And this is key: God is doing these things while protecting the character of free agency He gave to people created in His image. His overarching purposes require that we be allowed to engage Him and participate in this progression on our own accord using the agency He gave us.

As I have often speculated, this is because God is love, and God desires a reciprocal, loving relationship with us. Love does not coerce. Love does not demand or impose itself uninvited. Love requires freedom both ways in the relationship.

Some of the passages that are most repulsive to us may be nothing more than the Ancient Near perspective of people through whom God was revealing Himself. These passages are colored by their limited understanding at the time and the limits of God’s revelation to them bounded by that understanding.

The descriptions of God’s wrath, jealousy and harsh dealings, are the descriptions of people who lived in a harsh world filled with arbitrary and capricious gods. God was distinguishing Himself to these people in the midst of the world as they knew it, and He could only take them so far in their understanding.


He also engages with these people in the context of covenant relationship. The relationship comes first. God engaged people in a two-way commitment, which is the context in which God is acting in the history of people who have, in turn, engaged Him.

One key to God’s character in this relationship is His faithfulness to the promises He makes. No matter how wicked, evil and determined the people are to walk in their own ways, God never abandons them. Though he warns them and even metes out judgment on them, as they understand it, God is always ready and quick to receive them back if/when they turn back to Him.

The way Jesus viewed the Mosaic Law is instructive and provides key information about the covenant relationship between God and man. We tend to read the Mosaic Law like a prescriptive code laying down universal rules for all time and all people, but that isn’t the way Jesus viewed it.

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Jesus, Justice and Bruised Reeds

God’s justice is characterized by His preference for mercy.

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:18-21 ESV)

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4) that Jesus fulfilled according to the Gospel of Matthew. They are echoed in the baptism of Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke and said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)

Of particular note to me is the statement that Jesus came “to proclaim justice to the Gentiles”, and he will “bring justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope!” For the past two years, I have read through the Bible from start to finish focusing on the theme of justice (among other things).

The theme of justice is everywhere in scripture when you look for it! Justice is particularly embedded in the messianic prophecies and promises. The coming, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus is all about righteousness and justice.

I believe that modern Americans have a warped view of what justice means, biblically. We tend to view justice as retributive and punitive. Justice in a popular sense tends to mean people getting their just desserts, but that isn’t what we see in Scripture.

The prophets warned God’s people about two main things: idolatry and failing to do justice. Obeying God’s commands fit more or less into these two broad categories of worshiping God alone and doing right by people.

These are the two great categories of the ten commandments. Thus, the law is summed up this way: love God and love your neighbor.

When God executed judgment on His people in the OT in keeping with the warnings spoken by the prophets, He always did so in hope that His people would turn from their wicked ways. Judgement as a subset of justice was redemptive. It’s aim was to guide people back to right relationship with God and to each other.

Overarching God’s justice is His preference for mercy, because His ultimate desire is for relationship with us. He desires also that we would have healthy relationships with each other (love your neighbor) in the same way. A right relationship with God and with our other human beings (and the world we live in) is the essence of what it means to be righteous and just.

Continue reading “Jesus, Justice and Bruised Reeds”

God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us

God promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.

In the service this morning, the message was about Joseph. As often happens, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. The depth and nuance and intricate tapestry that is Scripture often works that way.

I will get to the point, but first, I need to build the backstory. Most readers know of Joseph, so I will be brief. Joseph was the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the famous son of Abraham. Abraham was the man of faith to whom God gave the following promise:

“Go from your country [land] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV)

I added the emphasis and will come back to it. In the meantime, we need to recall that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, who were jealous of him. They plotted to kill him and left him for dead in the bottom of a well.  He was “rescued” by a passing caravan that sold him into slavery in Egypt.

We could say much about the story of Joseph, but I want to fast forward. Joseph’s life teetered on the edge of utter desperation. He experienced a series of very high highs and very low lows. God ultimately blessed Joseph and elevated him to the second most powerful position in Egypt because of Joseph’s faithful use of the gifts and wisdom God gave him.

Many years after his brothers left him for dead, Joseph superintended a massive grain storage plan for Egypt that positioned his “adoptive” country to weather a long, severe famine and provide food for all its people and other nations besides. That same famine prompted his brothers to travel to Egypt when they were on the verge starvation and desperation.

When they arrived and got inline to buy grain, they had no idea they were appearing before their brother, Joseph. Joseph asked them to go back to Canaan and bring his father, Jacob, back down to Egypt with them.


Joseph’s brothers, his father and the whole tribe returned to Egypt. When they returned and finally realized the powerful man who sent them for their father was Joseph, they were ashamed, and they feared retribution against them for their betrayal, but Joseph was gracious, and he gave them favorable living conditions until Jacob died.

This is the point of the story that was addressed in the service today. Joseph’s brothers were fearful that he still held a grudge after Jacob died and would pay them back for their betrayal. (Gen. 50: 15) They didn’t immediately go to Joseph. Instead, they sent a message to Joseph containing instructions to them from their father to say to Joseph: “’I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’” (Gen. 50: 17)

Much could be said about the fact that they sent their father’s instructions to them, rather than their own, heartfelt message to their brother, Joseph, but this story isn’t about them. It’s about Joseph.

Joseph wept upon receiving the message. When his brothers finally come to him in person and offered themselves as slaves, Joseph said this (which is the launching point for the real import of what I have to say today);

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” (Gen. 50:19-21 ESV) (Emphasis added)

Continue reading “God’s Plans Are Bigger than We Often Perceive, and He is Working Them Out Sometimes Despite Us”

Justice in Messianic Prophecy

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him;  he will bring forth justice to the nations.

I have written much over the last two years on the subject of justice in Scripture. I don’t think I have done the subject justice (pun intended), so I continue to find the rights words, the right perspective and seek better understanding of God’s heart for justice as it is revealed in Scripture.

John the Apostle tells us that God is love, and the Psalmist says that justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne. Certainly God’s love, justice and righteousness are closely intertwined.

When Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in the temple and said it was fulfilled by him in the presence of the people who heard him, the passage he read was full of images of justice (Luke 4:18-19 (reading from Isaiah 58:6; 61:1-2)):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The reading from the Isaiah scroll is a theme to which I return often

We could read this passage to mean that Jesus came to preach to those who are poor (in spirit), to proclaim liberty to the captives (in spirit), recovering of sight to the (spiritually) blind and to set at liberty those who are oppressed (spiritually). I don’t think that is an inaccurate way of interpreting what Jesus said. Jesus often used figurative language for spiritual realities and principals.

It isn’t the only way to read those words, of course. Indeed, throughout the rest of his life, Jesus healed people, gave sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, set free those who were oppressed, raised people from the dead and met the physical needs of people as he traveled around preaching the good news.

Thus, I believe Jesus meant those words to have dual meanings. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people. We might even say he was primarily concerned with spiritual well-being, but he met people at the point of their physical circumstances and conditions.

Listen to the testimonies of people, and you will find the spiritual and the physical are intertwined. Jesus still meets people at the point of their circumstances and physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

The physical needs and difficult circumstances (perhaps) a metaphor for the more critical and ultimately more important spiritual infirmity, but they are a reality that elevates and underscores the need for more holistic resolution. Without the difficulties in our lives, we might never perceive the need for that resolution

Many are the people who only want the physical healing and not spiritual healing. At the same time, the physical infirmities of a person can be so overwhelming and demanding that a person can hardly recognize the spiritual need.

Regardless of the interrelationship, Jesus addressed both the physical needs and spiritual needs of people. Justice and righteousness are God’s foundation. They are front in center in the Messianic message that foretold the coming of Jesus:

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him;  he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”

Isaiah 42:1‭-‬4 ESV

Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham was a promise to all the nations (Gen. 12:2-3):

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Embedded in Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy was this promise to Abraham: “he will bring forth justice to the nations…. he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law”.

Justice is a theme that runs through the prophets and is directly and intimately connected to Messianic prophecy. We see the Messianic character of justice in Jeremiah also:

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 33:15-16 ESV

Jesus, of course, has become our righteousness, as the prophet foretold. He also executes justice. Justice, in the biblical sense, is not simply punishment or retribution. Justice is redemptive. It goes hand in hand with righteousness. As followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in righteousness and justice as components of the Messianic purpose of God.

On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

Continue reading “On the Willows There”