(This post is Part 2 in a series on “Understanding Weird Parts of the Bible”, read Part 1 “Old vs. New Covenant” here) The foundational understanding we need when approaching any part of the Bible is to figure out “What part of this text is the divinely inspired, authoritative message that can be applied in all cultures at all times?” (i.e. how do I apply this today?), which is separate from the question of, “How was this text applied in the time and context in which it was written?” For some texts, this is easy to do because the text itself spells it out very easily for us. For other texts, it is much more difficult to discern which part is the ancient application and which part is ours, which is where many denominational disagreements appear. The good news for this particular blog post is that the Bible is very clear about the promises of the old covenant, and it’s very clear that the way they applied these texts when they were written is not the way we are to apply them today. The reason there is confusion today is because people approach the text uninformed, which is the result of lazy scholarship by their teachers and leaders, or even the purposeful ignoring/hiding of the texts that point this distinction out so that a more convenient interpretation can be had.
Where does the old covenant come from and why doesn’t it apply to us?
- God promises Abraham that a nation (specifically, land and offspring) will come from Abe’s bloodline (Abe is 75 years old with no children). See Genesis 15:4-7 (also Genesis 12:1-7) for this specific promise.
- Genesis 15:8-21 demonstrate a Royal Grant Covenant being made between God and Abraham. (The smoking firepot is God’s presence) This type of covenant was common in ancient culture. The passing between a cut up animal meant “may what happened to this animal happen to me if I break this covenant.” This was God’s unconditional promise to Abraham that he would give him descendents and land.
- Genesis 17 shows a Suzerain-vassal Covenant made between God and Abraham. This was a conditional promise made between God and Abraham’s descendents that if they obey and follow God (and specifically, use the outward sign of circumcision to show this inward identity reality), he will be their God and will continue to bless them. Suzerain-vassal Covenants were common in the ancient world, made between a big king (the Suzerain) and a small king (the vassal).
Key question you need to ask at this point: Did God make these promises to ME or to ABRAHAM?
- Next we see God re-establish with Moses (~650 years later) the covenant he made with Abraham, but this time the Law (Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, & Deuteronomy) is added, showing what it looks like to follow God within this covenant, see Exodus 19-24, specifically 24:3 & 7-8 where the people agree to this covenant/contract.
Key question you need to ask at this point: Did God make these agreement with ME or with MOSES and the ancient Israelites?
It is crystal clear in Scripture that God made these promises with Abraham and Moses and the people, and they with him. It is lazy scholarship to read the laws within the old covenant and teach that they apply to us today. Here’s why: the Bible tells us not to! The Bible tells us with crystal clarity that we are not under the old covenant, but have a new covenant in Jesus. See Hebrews 8:6-9, 13. See also: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 9:1, 9-15; & Luke 22:19-20. A great example is the book of Galatians, where the Galatian church was trying to impose the Law on new covenant Christians and Paul heavily chastises them for doing so.
In 2013 terms, it’s like this: God and Bob sign a landlord/renter contract together. Bob agrees to pay God $500/month in rent and God agrees to bless Bob with keeping the house safe and well-maintained. Within this rent contract, Bob also agrees he will mow the lawn, not have any pets, and not smoke in the house.
I find a copy of this contract. I begin teaching everyone that they all owe God $500/month, they all need to mow their lawns, they all need to get rid of their pets, and they all have to stop smoking in their houses. What’s wrong with this picture?
This is why the old covenant doesn’t apply to us. It’s not our contract. We never signed it, and God never signed it with us. Abraham did. Moses did. Bob did. We didn’t.
We cannot use lazy scholarship (really just lazy reading) to misinterpret these texts. It says at the beginning of the Old Testament loud and clear, “These laws are for Moses’ people only!” and it says at the end of the New Testament (Hebrews and also Galatians, etc.), “These laws were for Moses’ people, not for you!” But then when we decide to simply open up our Bible in the middle randomly and start reading these laws, we pick some out and tell people they need to start doing them. No. No. No.
Other posts in this series:
- Understanding Weird Parts of the Old Testament: Old vs. New Covenant
- Why the old covenant is still God’s Word to us and why it is still useful for teaching, rebuking, and correcting (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:16)
- Richard Dawkins: God commanding Old Testament Wars, Genocides, Infant Killings???
- Why the entire Bible matters, even if Rob Bell says it doesn’t
- Why the Weird Old Testament Laws Ever Existed
Still to come:
- How misunderstanding the old covenant versus the new creates an unbiblical health-and-wealth / prosperity message today.