Yesterday, we briefly saw how the law of Moses was not the first time that God had given instruction to His people. Instruction had been a part of every covenant up to that point. And it’s pretty clear that these instructions did change and develop from one covenant to the next.
For example, when Adam and Eve were pure and sinless and the only two people on planet earth, all they needed to know was to have babies, subdue the earth, and eat from every tree except for that one (Genesis 1:28, 2:16-17).
When God confirmed His covenant with Noah, the situation had changed: sin was in the world. And so while God did repeat many of the same commands originally given to Adam, He also gave new instruction: Noah was allowed to kill and eat animals, but was warned not to eat blood or to kill other humans (Genesis 9:1-7).
At each of these points, the instruction God gave His people was what they needed to know, at their specific spot in history, in order to fulfill their mission and have a right relationship with God and with each other.
And so the law God gave through Moses was the particular instruction that the nation of Israel needed at their particular setting in history. They were a nation living in the Bronze Age in a predominantly agricultural society, and so we’re not surprised to see that many of their laws had to do with things like farming and community life in that kind of a society. Loving one another, at that spot in the story, required knowing what to do when your neighbour’s donkey was injured under your care (Exodus 22:10).
Further to this, Israel had a particular mission to fulfill: they were to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) in the midst of some very corrupt cultures. And so in order to fulfill this covenant mission, they needed to stick out and be different from the nations around them. Many of the laws God gave Israel were designed to help them think and to act this way.
For example, “You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). Laws like this, rather than being silly and arbitrary, reminded the Israelites that they were separate and distinct from the nations around them, and trained them to think in those kinds of categories.
Thus, the law was an expression of the unchanging righteousness of God for Israel in their particular setting. And the reason why New Testament Christians are allowed to wear cotton/polyester blends isn’t because God’s righteousness has changed, or because the rules he gave to Israel were silly. Rather, it’s because our setting has changed.
We live in a different covenant, in which the death of Christ has made things “clean” which were once considered “unclean” (Acts 10:9-16). We also live in very different time in history and have a different mission. Christians don’t all live together in one country; instead, we have been sent out into all the nations. We don’t fulfill our mission by being culturally different from the people around us, but rather by becoming culturally like them wherever possible (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). It’s our good works which should make us stick out (1 Peter 2:12), not the fabric content of our clothing.
These issues can be difficult to figure out, and that’s why we were given the New Testament. It helps us understand how to learn from the Old Covenant law while living righteous lives at our place in the story. I’m looking forward to exploring these ideas more this upcoming Sunday, and I hope you are too.