In my last post entitled Embodied Principles in the Old Testament, I spoke about the authority of the OT to provide practical insights into godly living today. This can be accomplished through a process of deriving principles from the Law and then finding specific applications today for those general principles. Laws which seem irrelevant can find relevance by newly embodying principles from the Law.
As I mentioned in my first post, this process of extrapolation is not new. Jesus “summed” up the Law with the two overarching principles of 1) Love God and 2) Love neighbor as yourself. The Law addressed particular items that would contribute to and promote love.
Even in the Old Testament itself, this process would have been employed in Israel to some degree. This can be seen when the Old Law is contrasted with contemporary laws. Today, in the United States, there is a tendency to heap law upon law to address every possible situation. It takes libraries to contain the ever-increasing federal law and all its statutes. The OT Law made no attempt to be exhaustive. It may seem to have many laws compared to the New Testament, but it must be remembered that the OT Law functioned as both a civil and a religious law. In comparison to our civil law, the Hebrew law code was extremely brief.
The OT laws functioned pardigmatically or as models of behavior. They were often given as casuistic or case law, giving a specific situation with the punishment to follow. The specific items addressed were intended to encompass other similar situations as well. Consider the following example in Exodus 22:1.
When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft…
The law specifies what to do with an ox or a sheep, but it could clearly be applied if another animal or object was stolen. The point is that the thief shall make restitution for the object (plus pain and suffering?).
This is a fairly simple illustration, but it shows the flexible nature of the law. There would be a need to extrapolate principles and find analogies between specified laws and similar situations. Judges in Israel would have helped make many of these determinations, but all Israelites were expected to make connections and use analogy to address the circumstances of life.
Additionally, some laws in the OT were given in a more general sense, and they were intended to serve as large, encompassing principles. After all, the summary that Jesus provided of the Law in Matthew 22:37-40 actually came from the Law (“love God” comes from Deut. 6:5 and “love neighbor as self” comes from Lev. 19:18). The Ten Commandments served a similar function, providing more specificity than the love commands, but still addressing big picture, principle-based items.
Another need for finding principles, making analogies, and identifying concrete applications came as the Israelites found themselves in very different circumstances, including pilgrims in the desert, residents in Canaan and foreigners in Assyria and Babylon. Specific laws may address one situation and not the other ones. Analogies would have been employed to use the Law in a different context.
The OT Law provides a fascinating study in the concept of law and the way it functions. It was of divine origin and provided guidance and direction for the people of God to live according to his expectations. It required diligence on the part of the Israelites as they engaged the Law, considered God’s heart, and sought to live faithfully. It did not spell everything out so they could robotically or blindly follow it. It was meant to engage their hearts and encompass their entire lives.
Douglas Stuart has a helpful article in his commentary on Exodus in The New American Commentary series, and many of the thoughts in this post came from his article. Sorry to disappoint you if you thought I might be original. See “Excursus: The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law”, p. 442-445.