If you start reading the Bible from the beginning, you will get about halfway through the second book, Exodus. You will come to a bunch of ancient laws. “Thou shalt do this… Thou shalt not do that…” These laws are all written in the literary style we call “prose discourse”. They are found all over the second, third, fourth, and fifth books of the Bible. There are over 600 laws. Since reading ancient law code is not something and your friends do a lot, odds are you going to struggle. So let’s talk about how to read the law in the Bible. The first thing to remember is that the Bible is not a behavior manual with a complete list of what to do and not to do to make God happy. Right. The Bible is an epic narrative. But in the story, God does tell people what to do. For sure. The story begins with God’s plan to rule the world through humans who will trust him and live by his wisdom. Here we find the first divine command in the Bible “Do not eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, because the day you do, you will die.” But the humans take the authority, know and define good and evil for themselves, and it is not good. It leads to a world of violence and death. They are exiled from the garden. Okay, so this was the first “law” in the Bible? Well, it is the first divine command. It invites people to trust God and live by his wisdom So, while it is not part of the laws given to Israel, it does foreshadow them. Because those too are invitations to trust God’s wisdom. So when do the laws of Israel come? Okay, here is the story. Israel is enslaved in Egypt. So God saves them and then invites them into a covenant relationship, like a marriage. The laws make up the terms of that covenant. So, do we get a catalogue of all these laws that God gave Israel? Actually, no, we do not get all of the laws, only examples. These have been strategically placed in between stories about how Israel keeps violating the laws. So, I am supposed to see that Israel is no different than the humans in the garden. They do not trust God or live by his wisdom. Right. So, it leads to another round of tragedy, violence and death. And it ends in exile. So, while the laws are good and show God’s wisdom, they also expose Israel’s inability to be God’s faithful partners. I am following. But when I read the laws, I find a lot of strange stuff, like not allowing clothing to be made of two different fabrics. How does that show God’s wisdom? Okay, it is important to realize that many of these laws are ancient ritual symbols that set Israel apart. That is, made them holy. Some laws made Israel distinct from neighboring nations. Other laws kept them away from things that in their culture symbolized death, disease, and moral corruption. Okay, but what about all of the ritual killing of animals? Sacrifices were also ritual symbols but connected people to God. Since you, a mortal, cannot ascend up to God’s presence in the heavenly temple, a blameless animal that was offered could go up in your place, covering for your failures, so you can know you are accepted by God. I see. But not all of the laws are ancient rituals. Some of them are just about being a good person and treating others well. Yes, but these laws are not just about being good. They are about justice, which is a big deal to God. On the first page of the Bible, we learn that every human is made in God’s image and is worthy of dignity. These laws apply that ideal in Israel’s day. In fact, these laws still underlie many of the concepts of justice and equality that we take for granted. But some of the laws do not seem just. Like laws that allow for slavery. Well, if you look at those laws in their ancient cultural context, you will see that God is working with Israel as he finds them, pushing them towards justice. So slavery is not abolished, but it is undermined. For example, Israel was supposed to reenact the exodus liberation by releasing slaves and forgiving all debts every seven years. This was revolutionary in the ancient world. Alright. What about all the laws about Sabbath rest on the seventh day and all the seven day feasts? I mean, what is up with all of these sets? These laws about sacred time are all connected to the first creation narrative in Genesis. God brings order out of chaos in six days that each have a clear beginning and end. But when you get to the seventh day, it has no end. That is because it is pointing to the ideal of humans partnering with God in his rule and rest. All of these seven-day feasts are rituals that symbolize humanity’s true purpose and future. Okay. So all of these laws given to Israel can fit into those basic categories. Yes, and each category expresses a core ideal of God’s wisdom. The laws show how those ideals should be applied in the culture of ancient Israel. But, as the story makes clear, Israel failed at fulfilling the law, over and over. How is God going to get humans to trust his wisdom? Well, Moses and the prophets after him trusted that one day, God would transform the human heart so people can be faithful covenant partners who trust his wisdom. That brings us to the story of Jesus. Jesus said he came to fulfill the law. Right. He was the faithful covenant partner that Israel and all humanity was made to be, but has failed to be. Jesus lived by the divine ideals underlying the laws. And he taught that the laws are all fulfilled when you love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would come and transform his followers so they, too could live this way. So when followers of Jesus read these laws today, we need to remember they were given to Israel in their ancient cultural setting. You could not follow many of them even if you tried. But, what you can do is see God’s wisdom in the laws. Right. And trust that God’s Spirit can guide you to follow that wisdom as you learn to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.