The following principles are important for interpreting and understanding the judicial laws of Moses.
The scriptures were breathed by the Holy Spirt. We do not know how they were written down, and we do not know how involved Moses was in the process of recording God’s law, but that does not matter, because the Holy Spirit was at work. He got the stuff that he wanted recorded into the books of Moses. This provides our principle of interpretation. The best way to understand the judicial laws of Moses is to seek what the Holy Spirit is saying.
The judicial laws must be interpreted through the lens of Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching Jesus. His life ministry was a full and complete revelation of the character of God. The gospels will help us understand how God’s laws should be interpreted and applied. Even Moses would not have fully understood what he received from God, because he did not know Jesus.
The Old and New Testaments were both inspired by the same Holy Spirit, so they will be consistent with each other. Jesus never repudiated the judicial laws, so they must contain a message that is consistent with his gospel. If they seem to be inconsistent with the New Testament, then we have misunderstood them, or the translators have mistranslated them.
We must not use the behaviour of the Israelites to interpret the judicial laws. They had been slaves in an empire ruled by a cruel dictator and in their new land they were surrounded by evil and violent nations. Therefore, their behaviour often fell short of God’s standard. We cannot take their behaviour as normative, because it was often immoral, not God’s will.
Archaeological information from the surrounding nations is not very useful for interpreting the judicial laws. Some of these nations will have copied God’s law, because they recognised his wisdom, but they are controlled by principalities and power who hate God, so they will have distorted it. For example, the practices of the Babylonians will not provide many insights into the meaning of God’s law.
Hebrew is not a precise language like Greek. The words are sparse, and can take many meanings. Hebrew is a very old language, so the meaning of many Hebrew words is uncertain. We should choose the meaning that is consistent with the New Testament.
We cannot rely on the interpretations and translation of Jewish scholars, because they have a tendency to justify Israel’s history of violence and war. This causes them to cast a violent shadow over the law. The Israelites frequently rejected the Holy Spirit, so that often misunderstood God’s law. Their interpretations are unreliable, because they often choose the harshest possible meaning of a passage, whereas we need one that is consistent with the gospel. We have a huge advantage in understanding the judicial laws of Moses, because we can read them with the insight of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus.
The Jews were scattered among the nations for a couple of millennia, and were controlled by the laws of those nations, so they had no need for the judicial laws. In this situation, it was more important to maintain their cultural distinctiveness, so they tended to focus on the cultural markers, such as sabbath and diet, and ignored the judicial laws, because they did not need them. Not surprisingly, they were gained more expertise on the former than the latter.
Christian translators have tended to copy the Jewish translators, because they assume that they have a better knowledge of Hebrew. Unfortunately, their translations are often tinged by the cruelty and violence, because they did not know Jesus.
Most Christian translators and interpreters of the Old Testament have focussed on pushing a distinction between law and grace. They have been content to make the Old Testament seem harsh and cruel, because it makes the gospel look better. They do not understand that the law is grace and has a different objective from the gospel.
I will often push the boundary of the meaning of some well-known passages. That is deliberate, because I am translating and interpreting them in a way that is consistent with the gospel. I believe that is the best way to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying. (More in Government of God.)
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