Are there Categories of Biblical Law?

[Time for another foray into biblical studies. I thought it might be fun (???) to post some excerpts from previous work I have done at the University of Otago when completing my Master’s Degree in Theology. This is the first such example, slightly adapted from my thesis on the modern role of biblical law.]

One of the issues that will affect the discussion of the continuity of the law’s authority is the question of categories of law. When theologians and biblical scholars speak of categories of law, what is usually in mind is a distinction between moral and ceremonial law. Can we legitimately speak of categories of biblical law, and if so, how do we go about recognising them?

Are there categories within biblical law?

Explicit Categories

According to Walter Kaiser, “The laws of Deuteronomy are best understood as illustrations of the Decalogue, arranged in the same order as the Ten Commandments and stretching from Deuteronomy 5 through Deuteronomy 26.” ((Walter C. Kaiser, “New Approaches to Old Testament Ethics,” JETS 35:3 (1992), 291.)) While this may be generally true and perhaps a useful method of analysis, it is not clear that this is consistently the case. The food laws that appear in chapter 14 are not obviously illustrations of any of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, the scope of the food laws is expressly different from the application of the law generally. For example, Deuteronomy 14:21, “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (emphasis added). According to Calum Carmichael, “It is possible to read this motive clause [i.e. “you are a people holy to Yahweh your God”] as referring not only to this prohibition [i.e. eating an already dead animal] but also to all the preceding food laws (xiv. 3-20).” ((Calum M. Carmichael, The Laws of Deuteronomy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 78.)) Thus, by “food laws” in this context, we are not referring to the prohibition on eating blood referred to elsewhere. I think we must reject Cairns’ claim that in Deuteronomy 14:21 we read that “The prohibition against eating blood… applies to Israelite citizens, but not to sojourners… or foreigners.”1 Cairns makes this claim because animals that are already dead will still have their blood in them. However it should probably be presupposed that resident aliens are prohibited from eating blood, given that the prohibition arises in the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:4) as well as in the Mosaic Law, and the prohibition on eating animals that have died by themselves of old age or disease is not related to the prohibition on consuming blood.

This command makes a clear distinction between Israelites and foreigners. Contrast this with Leviticus 24:17-22

If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. If anyone injures his neighbour, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.

The difference is marked, with the writer going out of his way to stress that whatever you might do in some other circumstances, when it comes to murder you must apply the same rules to foreigners and native. In others cases such as the food law noted earlier, we see that there are some of laws that are not universal in scope. These food laws are a requirement for Israelites, but not for outsiders, or even non-Israelites living in the Israelite community. Cairns offers the following rationale for this kind of two-tier law:

Perhaps the thought may legitimately be extended as follows. Just as the priests refrain from what is permissible to the laity, for the sake of their priestly ministry (Lev. 21:1-4, 10-15), so the priestly people (Exod. 19:6) must subject themselves to a special discipline, for the sake of their priestly ministry to humankind.2

Thus, just as there are some laws that are applied to the priesthood that are not applied to others, there are some laws that applied to Israelites that did not apply to foreigners. I think it is self-evident that this distinction can legitimately be seen as a categorisation by definition.

Implicit Categories

By “implicit categories,” I refer to categories that, if real, enable us to better make sense of certain passages of Scripture. The summary statement of all such implied categorisation is Hosea 6:6a, “I desire mercy rather than sacrifice.” ((While jb^z*-aOw+ would literally read “and not sacrifice,” the context warrants “rather than,” the second half of the parallelism being “and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (tolu)m@ rather than tolu)-aOw+). The thought is not that Yahweh has no desire for sacrifices and offerings to be made, but that justice and mercy are more important.)) If all law is viewed as an indivisible unit, with no distinctions of any kind between ceremonial and moral, such a declaration on the part of God does not make sense. In the prophetic literature especially, the reader gets the unmistakable impression that there is a “kind” of law which in itself is not a demonstration of justice and morality, and which is really an empty farce if it is observed in the absence of justice and morality. Millar Burrows makes the point well:

The priests and Levites, as teachers of the law, were involved with both ethical and cultic practices. Their concern for holiness embraced both moral and ritual purity. Unfortunately this very fact encouraged an assumption that God could be satisfied with formal worship regardless of human relations. Against this the prophets fulminated, voicing the wrath of God himself. In spite of the prominence of ritual in the law, they pronounced sacrifice and festivals futile without justice and mercy, or even as not desired by God at all (e.g., Am. 5:21-24; Hos. 6:6; Isa. 1:12ff.; Mic. 6:6-8; Jer. 7:22f.).3

One can hardly imagine Israel being told that unless they sacrifice correctly, they may as well murder and steal, yet in the passages referred to above, Israel is essentially told that without justice, they may as well not offer sacrifices. I therefore think that Burrows is correct to say that what we are seeing here is the “subordination of the ritual to the moral law.”4 Obviously this entails that there exists such a valid categorisation of law. Such a subordination of one category to the other is found just as clearly in the teaching of Jesus (Matt 23:23-24).

Woe to you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

Why are laws regarding sacrifices and tithing of herbs less important, ultimately, from other laws pertaining to “justice, mercy and faithfulness” and on what basis could we say that the latter are the “more important” matters of the law – unless we posit some scheme of categorisation of law? Blomberg cautions us that “no generalizable distinction between moral law and ceremonial law”5 should be seen here, but even if it is not generalisable on the basis of this text, it surely seems warranted to say that if there were such a categorisation, this text would serve as a perfect illustration of that categorisation.

It is not only in later reflections on the law that such categories are suggested.

First of all, the ceremonial legislation had a built-in warning that it would only remain in effect until the real, to which it pointed, came. This built-in obsolescence was signalled in the text from the moment that the legislation on the tabernacle and its services was first given. It is contained in the word “pattern” found in Exod 25:8, 40. This meant that the tabernacle, its priests, it sacrifices, and its associated ritual looked forward to the redemptive work of the Savior. In the meantime men and women had to be satisfied with that which was only a copy, a pattern, a shadow, a type of the real, the actual, the antitype that was to come.6

We cannot pursue this line of thought further without delving into the question of the continuity of the law, but we can at least note that rather than standards of justice and righteousness, these laws are called patterns of something else, suggesting a clear distinction between this kind of law and laws that are moral standards.

While considering the legitimacy of finding categories of law, it is worth briefly asking – is it a Christian novelty to see the law divided into categories like this? O’Donovan thinks so, claiming that such a distinction within Old Testament law was never suggested until by Justin Martyr, who advocated “a simple twofold distinction between the moral commands, valid for all time, and those which prophesied the coming of Christ.”7 But as C. G. Montefiore explains, this is just not historically accurate.

The Rabbis, we may say, were familiar with the distinction between ceremonial and moral commands, and on the whole they regarded the “moral” as more important and more fundamental than the “ceremonial”… Again, there was some tendency to distinguish “heavy” and “light” commands according to certain punishments or threats… Nevertheless, on the whole the “heavy” commands are the moral commands. The “heaviest” (apart from circumcision) are commands such as the prohibition of unchastity, idolatry, or murder, the honouring of parents, the Sanctification of the Name. The distinction between “light” and “heavy” commands was well known, and is constantly mentioned and discussed.8

Gustaf Dalman corroborates this testimony, describing a rabbinical distinction between “light” and “heavy” commandments. ((Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshuah: Studies in the Gospels, trans. Paul P. Levertoff (London: SPCK, 1929), 64-65, cited in Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 45.)) It is certainly not being suggested here that this rabbinical tradition would agree with the method of classification presented here, only that the idea of classification is not an entirely Christian invention. Moreover, if our exegetical claims here are sound, the text of the law itself seems to suggest some sort of categorisation.

How may categories be delineated?

I have suggested on the basis of several biblical texts some examples of laws that we might call “ceremonial” in nature. I have no intention of seeking to provide an entire (or even partial) catalogue of biblical law according to proper category. But are there principles by which we could present such an exhaustive categorisation?

  1. Scope

I think it is evident already that if a command is given in the law explicitly to a special class (e.g. for an Israelite but not a foreigner, for a priest but not for others), then it is special in some way and not generally reflective of a generalisable moral norm. Such laws pertain to national or covenant uniqueness. They have been called “separation” laws, as they call Israel to self-consciously be different from the other nations.

  1. Pre-Mosaic Teaching

There is a connection between the scope of any given law and pre-Mosaic commands, although to make the connection is to self-consciously adopt a fairly conservative approach to Scripture. It means starting from the position that ultimately God is the author of Scripture, and that Yahweh of the Israelites is the same God who commanded Noah. The “Noahic” covenant contains a number of commands, albeit a small number. Among the divine statements found there we find the following (Gen 9:2-4):

The fear and dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

Here God permits all of humanity to eat any animal, fish or bird, provided they do not eat the blood with the flesh. This reinforces what we see in Deuteronomy 14, where food restrictions apply only to Israelites, and not to foreigners. It makes it all the more clear to us that the food restrictions were limited in scope, and were a special restriction, over and against the general permission that humanity was given to eat any animal.

As an aside, comment should be made on the reference to “clean” and “unclean” animals that Noah was commanded to take onto the Ark in 7:2. I cannot agree with Westermann that this distinction between clean and unclean animals was a reference to “their suitability or otherwise for sacrifice and food” (emphasis added). ((Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion, S.J. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 428.)) Such a view rests on the belief that this is the work of P (the priestly author/redactor) projecting Levitical categories of cleanliness back into a narrative that did not originally contain them. ((Westermann concedes as much on the same page.)) Even if we were to grant this, surely it is somewhat less than flattering (to say the least) to the supposedly extremely meticulous Priestly writer, who pays stunning detail to all aspects of law and purity yet does not notice the apparently clear contradiction he has created between 7:2 and 9:2-3. The prohibition of certain animals is ruled out in 9:2-4, where all animals, fish and birds are given to humanity to eat, on the provision that the blood is not eaten. Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna is correct in saying that “This division [of “clean” from “unclean”] cannot be referring to criteria of human consumption after the Flood, when man was permitted to eat flesh, for no such distinctions are made in 9:2-3. The categories refer only to suitability for sacrifice.”9

A second example of such pre-Mosaic commands might be the connection between the case of Sodom and Gomorrah with the law against homosexual acts of Leviticus 18. Space does not permit an in-depth analysis here of the revisionary exegesis of Genesis 19, and an unsatisfactory summary will have to suffice. The focus of the debate is verse 5, where the men of Sodom tell Lot that he must hand over the men who have come to his house, so that the men of Sodom may “know them.” The Hebrew term udy and its derivatives can be used in numerous ways, occurring 1,058 times, and in fifteen of those cases referring to sexual intimacy. ((G. J. Botterweck, “y*d^u,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (eds), trans. D. Green et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), cited in Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 33.)) Some maintain that this is not the meaning in Genesis 19, but rather it denotes familiarity or friendly acquaintance. Thus, we are told, Genesis 19 presents us not with a case of lustful homosexuals, but rather of people who wanted to get to know Lot’s visitors on a first name basis and befriend them. The city was punished for its wickedness, but not specifically for its sexual sins. ((For what is perhaps the classic presentation of this position, see Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955), 2-5.)) Against such a reconstruction I concur with Hamilton that “This interpretation can only be evaluated as wild and fanciful.”

For when Lot responds by offering his daughters “who have never known (tud) a man” (v. 8), it becomes clear that the issue is intercourse and not friendship. Lot would never have made such an unusual suggestion if the request was only for a handshake and moments of chitchat.10

I conclude with Hamilton and others that Sodom was destroyed because of the prevalence of homosexual activity that took place there. Thus, prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, God judged homosexual behaviour in this world. This suggests that prohibitions against homosexual practice cannot be seen as ritual prohibitions that apply only to Israelites.

On the basis of two cases briefly examined here, food laws and laws against homosexual practice, I suggest two principles that may guide us: a.) When universal permission is given to do an act prior to the giving of the law (e.g. eat the flesh of any animal), we may be justified in seeing this as evidence that the prohibition of the same act within the law may be of a special nature, applying only to Israel. b.) When apparently universal condemnation is directed at certain actions prior to the giving of the law (e.g. eating blood, homosexual acts), we may be justified in seeing prohibitions of these actions within the law as general, not special (i.e. not “ritual”).

  1. Divine Relegation

Where one kind of law is set over and against another kind of law as less (or more) important, or in a way that suggests that one is worthless without the other, I would suggest that a legitimate category distinction may be drawn.

  1. Typological (Redemptive) Function

We live in a post Old Testament age. As Christians we cannot read the Old Testament as though the New Testament did not exist. In a Christian context, for example, who can read of the Passover or the yearly offering of the high priest, and not see the sacrifice of Christ foreshadowed? In many instances of Mosaic Law, typology is at work, “a relationship in which something occurring in the past is a copy or pattern of something of something in the present or future.” The purpose of typology then is to “instruct by presenting a picture rather than data.”11 Laws that govern the priesthood (or perhaps just the priesthood itself), the sacrifice to atone for sin, the temple, along with a whole host of other elements of Mosaic legislation, can be (in fact we would say must be) seen as shadows or types of Christ and his saving work in the New Testament. F. F. Bruce is surely right to say that “It is only in the light of the antitype that the relevance of the type can be appreciated.”12 However, I do not want to limit typology to events or symbols in the past that referred to something in the future (even though they may be such). In their original historical context such laws seem to clearly be “different” from others, serving a distinct function. In the context of explaining the basis on which he sees the law as being divided into moral and ceremonial commands, Bahnsen makes an observation that is relevant to our discussion of this typological function of law:

[C]eremonial laws – or redemptive provisions – reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

To illustrate the difference between these two kinds of law, the Old Testament prohibited stealing as a moral precept, but it also made the provision of the sacrificial system so that thieves could have their sins forgiven.13 Questions arise here that rightly belong to another discussion. If certain elements of the law foreshadow Christ and or serve some other ceremonial purpose while others define and illustrate moral principles, ought we obey biblical laws that are not ceremonial in nature, while acknowledging the fulfilment of typological elements and the expiry of laws that were specifically limited to the nation of Israel? To fully address the implications that might arise under this heading would be to intrude on the issue of the continuity of the law in the New Testament, which will wait for another time.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Ian Cairns, Deuteronomy, International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 142. []
  2. Cairns, Deuteronomy, 143. []
  3. Millar Burrows, “Old Testament Ethics and the Ethics of Jesus,” in James L. Crensahw and John T. Willis (eds), Essays in Old Testament Ethics (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1974), 234. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 346. []
  6. Walter C. Kaiser, “God’s Promise Plan and His Gracious Law,” JETS 33:3 (1990), 291. []
  7. O. M. T. O’Donovan, “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics,” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), 59. []
  8. C. G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teaching (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), 316-317, cited in Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 45. []
  9. Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 54. []
  10. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, 34. []
  11. “Typology” in Allen C. Myers (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 1024, author of individual article not named. []
  12. F. F. Bruce, “Typology,” New Bible Dictionary (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1982, 2nd ed.), 1227. []
  13. Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 136. []

One thought on “Are there Categories of Biblical Law?

  1. I’ve read, Is God a moral monster? by Paul Copan and now a friend of mine put me onto Thom Stark’s, Is God a moral compromiser?

    Your article here has been very relevant in helping me understand some of the issues a little more clearly. Thank you.

    I’ve heard of the distinction between the laws, but wouldn’t have been able to support that understanding until I read this.

    I’m working towards reading *all* your material on Say Hello to My Little Friend/Beretta – it’s just so good!

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