Finding Instruction in the OT Law


Is the OT Law beneficial for teaching and practice today? What about laws that do not seem relevant today? Those are excellent questions that should be addressed.

Consider the following example:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God (Lev. 23:22; see also Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-22 and Ruth 2:1-13).

One way to glean lessons from this passage is illustrated with something called the Ladder of Abstraction.

The Ladder of Abstraction basically shows that a law possesses abstract qualities and concrete expressions. The further one goes up the ladder, the more one moves from concrete to abstract. Feeding the poor is more abstract than the concrete action of leaving the edges of the fields, and love for neighbor is even more abstract.

The abstract qualities convey transcultural principles meaning simply that these qualities are more universal in scope, conveying qualities that would be valid across different cultures and times. Biblical laws come from God, and they are rooted in his character. They reveal something about who he is, and what he desires. Furthermore, these qualities honor humanity and find value in people, who are created in the image of God.

As humans, we don’t live in theory or the abstract. We live in reality, within a particular time, place and culture. The Old Testament law considered the particularities of those who received the law and provided instructions for carrying out these important principles. To show love for neighbor and concern for the poor, the Law instructed those harvesting the fields to leave the edges for the poor. This law made sense in the Israelite context, where farming was a way of life. This law was cultural and would not have necessarily made sense in another context that did not practice farming.

So, can we learn something from this seemingly outdated law in the Old Testament? Absolutely! But it will require some diligent thought. Having considered the principle in the law, we must ask ourselves some questions. How can we display love in our context? What can we do to live out the qualities and characteristics of God? How can we help the poor where we live today? These are tough questions that will engage our hearts to possess an active faith that seeks to live out God’s character. These questions will prevent stagnation and inactivity.

Considering principles will also help infuse laws with meaning today. Instead of blindly following an instruction and carrying out the letter of the law, asking these types of questions will help an individual seek to live out the spirit of the law. For example, the speed limit is not just an arbitrary number to follow; it is a limit placed upon drivers in order to promote safety and the welfare of others. If children are close by playing or if weather conditions make the roads dangerous, it would be necessary to slow down for the sake of safety, even if one technically had the right to go a faster speed.

One of the things that I like about the Ladder of Abstraction is that it considers both the abstract principle and the concrete action in the law. Both are important! The principle of a law is important. I think it would have been important for the ancient Israelite to consider why this law was being carried out. The law was not seeking blind obedience but a captivated heart. In like manner, people cannot go about displaying love or kindness without actually doing something about it. Abstract principles must find concrete expressions and real actions to be practiced. You cannot just say you have love in your heart. You have to actually do something about it!

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Gallery | This entry was posted in Ethics, Hermeneutics, Law, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Finding Instruction in the OT Law

  1. Pingback: More Lessons from the Edge of the Field | Theological Sweets

  2. Pingback: Top 11 Posts from 2011 | Theological Sweets

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