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Law of Moses, vs. the Law of God

Mosaic Law, Old Covenant, Law of God, God's Law, Moses Law, the Law, Pentateuch, Books of Moses, Deuteronomy, God's law today

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It is generally agreed by Christian theologians, that ‘the law’ refers to the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy.  Jews might include the Talmud in the law as well.  Generally in the New Testament when it speaks of ‘the law’ it is referring to the books of Moses or something within those books.  It is the same as the ‘Law of Moses’.  That is, the law that Moses wrote.  This could easily be in distinction to the Law of God, i.e. the law God wrote.  When one understands what ‘the Covenant of the Lord’ is, this is an easy way to identify the two.  

Unfortunately, that probably doesn’t tell us what we really want to know, i.e. “What applies today and what does not?”  For now let’s understand what the Law is.


So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel…..24So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, 25that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying: 26"Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there as a witness against you.” (Deuteronomy 31:9, 24-26)


So what exactly did Moses write in the book he gave the Levites? 


Deu 32:46 “and He said to them: "Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe--all the words of this law.


“This law” that Moses wrote consisted of the law that Moses put before Israel that day.  That day was the first day of the eleventh month just before Israel went into the Promised Land.


Deu 1:1-5 “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the plain opposite Suph, … 3  Now it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the LORD had given him as commandments to them, … 5 On this side of the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this law, saying …


Deuteronomy is mostly a speech Moses gave to Israel just before his death. In this speech he laid out generally what was expected of them in the Promised Land.  His speech was actually in the form of a covenant. 


Ancient covenants consisted of more than just the terms.  Typically there was an introduction that explained why the covenant was being made.  The first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy fill this function.  Among other things towards the end was included the advantages and punishments resulting from compliance or lack thereof and instruction on how the covenant would be perpetuated through the years.


The covenant of Deuteronomy contains all these parts.  The first eleven chapters are generally a summary of the adventures of Israel beginning from the covenant they confirmed at Mt. Sinai.  The actual stipulations or terms of this new covenant start with chapter 12 and go to chapter 26.  Chapter 27:10-28 detail the blessings and punishments that will come depending on Israel’s compliance.  Later chapters instruct how the covenant will be perpetuated.


As part of their compliance Moses instructed Israel to write this law on large stones when they crossed into the Promised Land.  Likely they wrote only the instruction of chapters 12-26:15.  Since they recited the blessings and curses of chapter 27-28 they probably didn’t write those or anything following with the law (Deu 27:11-14).


Deu 27:2-3 "And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime.  3 You shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have crossed over, that you may enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you…”


Joshua 8:30-35 records Israel fulfilling this request.


Josh 8:32 “And there, in the presence of the children of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written.”


So ‘this law’ that Moses spoke that day and wrote in a book became known as ‘the law of Moses’.  It was also known as the ‘book of the Law’ and ‘words of the law’.


Josh 8:34 “And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law.


This doesn’t really fit with the law being the Pentateuch.  Did something change?  If we don’t understand the Law as Moses perceived it can we really understand its function?


Besides Joshua, the Hebrew Scriptures make reference to the Law of Moses in I & II Kings, II Chronicles, Daniel, Malachi, Ezra and Nehemiah.  With one exception, whenever there is a definitive reference from one of these books to something in the Law of Moses the matter can be found within Deuteronomy.  Nehemiah is the exception.  Of course Nehemiah deals with events in Israel after the return from Babylon.  So it covers a time almost 1000 years after the time of Moses.  It is not until that book that there is a clear reference to the Law of Moses that clearly includes material not found in Deuteronomy.


In fact, there are many things in Deuteronomy that require the other books of Moses to sufficiently understand.  Deuteronomy assumes the existence of these other books. 


For instance:  "The priests, the Levites--all the tribe of Levi--shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and His portion.” (Deu 18:1)


In order to know what ‘the offerings of the Lord made by fire’ are or what ‘His portion’ is, we need the book of Numbers and Leviticus.  Keep in mind that Moses didn’t say that he was telling them every detail with which they needed to be concerned.  “… Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the LORD had given him as commandments to them” (Deu 1:3d).  Moses didn’t speak every word he was given, but gave a sufficient overview. 


So technically, as given by Moses, the Law of Moses, the Law, is Deuteronomy or could even be considered roughly Deuteronomy 12-26:15.  It assumed the existence of Moses other books.  Since they were needed to completely understand what Deuteronomy expected, ultimately all the books of Moses were included by the phrase ‘the Law’.


The name ‘Deuteronomy’, was given the book when it was translated into Greek.  Their word ‘Deuteronomion’ is a composite of ‘deutero’ meaning second and ‘nomos’ meaning custom or law (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Arndt & Gringich).  So ‘deuteronomion’ would typically mean ‘second law’.  Some think this became the name of the book because ‘deuteronomion’ is used in Deuteronomy 17:18 in the Septuagint text.  However, this is hardly a pivotal scripture in the book, deserving of the entire book being named in its honor.  It is far more likely that the translators simply translated another common Hebrew reference to this book, ‘mishneh torah’, or second law. 


‘Mishneh torah’ can also designate a repetition or copy of the Torah as in Deuteronomy 17:18.  To make a 'second' of a particular document (this Torah) would certainly imply a copy.  However, if you make a 'second law' this implies an additional law.  It is evident that Deuteronomy is not a repeating of the Sinai torah, but another set of instructions that add a number of things nowhere indicated by the Sinai covenant and sometimes runs contrary to the intent of the Sinai covenant.  Hence, the Jews called it ‘mishneh torah’ and translated it Deuteronomion, ‘second law’.


It is indeed a second law, particularly since the actual terms of the covenant didn’t start until chapter 12.  However, confusion has arisen because it depended on Moses other books.  The Law needed the explanation of the other books.  Israel was expected to live by it all.  Unfortunately, that caused the distinction and special place of the covenant of the Lord to fade from consciousness.  The other books contained both the Sinai law and the additional regulations given after the episode of the golden calf 


The Law was confirmed 39+ years after the Sinai covenant (Deu 1:3, 5).  They called it simply 'the Law' or the Law of Moses (Josh 23:6).  In some cases it clarifies pieces of the Sinai covenant, i.e. Sabbaths.  In other cases it recommends actions nowhere indicated by the Sinai covenant, i.e. centralized temple worship.  In still other cases it runs against the intent of the Sinai covenant, i.e. the designation of a particular tribe as the priestly tribe.  The terms of the Sinai covenant had been fixed and could not be changed (Ex 24:1-8, Gal 3:15).  Since the Creator is proposing a new plan with new regulations for Israel and options for himself, it cannot simply be tacked on to the previous agreement.  A second covenant was probably the only option.


The Hebrew name for Deuteronomy is 'davarim' or 'words'.  It is the ‘words’ or terms of the Moab/Deuteronomy covenant just as the Ten Commandments are the ‘words’ of His covenant (Ex 34:28), which is one with the Sinai covenant (Deu 4:12-13, 23).  This Book of the Law’ referred to in 31:24 was the book of the legal terms of the Law, Deuteronomy.  It contained, “the words of the covenant” (Deut 29:1).  There would be no additional regulations since covenants do not permit that.


Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man's covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it.” (Gal 3:15)


The New Testament agrees with this understanding of ‘the Law’ as well.  The law was given through Moses (John 1:17).  Did not Moses give you the law (John 7:19).  "…the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law" (Heb 7:11).    Also “So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi ..” (Deut. 31:9).  Ultimately even Genesis was included, though we may not always consider Genesis a book full of laws (Gal 4:21-22).  Along with the Prophets, the Law made up the great bulk of what we now know of as the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.   "And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them..." (Acts 13:15ab, see also Mat 5:17, Luke 16:31, 24:44). 


'The Law' did not exist as law before Moses received it, wrote it and it was confirmed in Deuteronomy 26:16-18 and 30:19.  Most of the terms were given to Moses quite a bit earlier and Israel had fair warning as to what would be required (Ex 34:32-34).  The account of Deuteronomy 1 & 29 indicate that the Law was formalized and confirmed as a covenant at the time Moses spoke Deuteronomy, i.e. about two months before Israel entered the Promised Land. 


" These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness... Now it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had given him as commandments to them. … On this side of the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this law" (Deu 1:1a, 3, 5).


Deuteronomy contains the official “words of the covenant”.  This was a new covenant to them.  It was not the Sinai covenant.  


"These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb"(Deu 29:1). 


One thing, besides another thing is not one thing, but two things jointly applicable.  Deuteronomy is, the binding legal document of this, the Moab covenant.  


The Law of God existed from a much earlier time. 


"And the Lord said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? " (Ex 16:28)


"because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws." (Gen 26:5)


"He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Mat 19:8)

The Law of God had been in place for a long time before this law was delivered to the Levites.  The Sinai covenant was confirmed more than 39 years before.  What Moses did with the new law is telling.


Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there as a witness against you (Deu 31:26)

The Law was placed next to the ark containing the covenant of the Lord that had been in place for about 39 years.  It did not replace the covenant of the Lord, but was added as an additional witness against the children of Israel. 

This new law overlapped with the law of Sinai, but it was not the same law.  It was not the covenant of the Lord since it was not placed in the ark that contained the covenant of the Lord.  The Law included additional detail about the Law of God.  This witness is intertwined throughout the books of Moses.  These are things they should have already known based on the covenant of the Lord.  This new law also contained instruction that had no basis in the covenant of the Lord.  


What is our relationship to the Law now?  Understanding the distinction between the Law of God and the Law of Moses is significant.


Earlier as part of the Sinai covenant, God gave additional instruction besides the Ten Commandments that was included in a 'book of the covenant' (Ex 24:7).  This book contained the instruction we have available in Exodus 20:22-23:33  (Ex 20:22, 21:1, 24:3-4).  This was the complete covenant that God established at Sinai.  It was based entirely on His Covenant, the Ten Commandments.  There is nothing in that covenant that required the Levites, a tabernacle or temple, sacrifices or even circumcision.  Those were not from the beginning.  They were included in the Law of Moses, but are not essential to the Law of God.  However, everything given at Sinai with the Ten Commandments is essential to a nation of faith expecting the Creator to provide for them.


It is worthwhile to understand the whole story why a second law was necessary .