Reading Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: How Does the Law Fit into the Picture?

“You are not the boss of me!”

Let’s face it. None of us like to be told what to do, but without rules and laws life would be chaos. Imagine driving in a place where there were no speed limits or other rules governing our behavior when we got behind the wheel of a car. We would be lucky to survive!

We observed earlier that the Torah is filled with law, including the Ten Commandments and the case law that flows from it. When Christians today think about law in the Bible, we often think it isn’t relevant for our lives. It’s so easy to think of Leviticus as a quagmire of ancient rules, or to get lost in the numbers of Numbers. After all, we are saved by grace, not by keeping the law. We don’t earn our salvation; it is given to us. We wrongly think that this is what makes the New Testament different than the Old Testament.

God saved his people by his grace in the Old Testament. They didn’t earn their way to a special relationship with God. After all, Abraham “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (genesis 15:6), which is Paul’s banner passage to prove to those who insist that we have to earn our salvation that salvation is only by God’s grace (for example, romans 4:2–3; galatians 3:6). Paul also points back to the choice of Jacob rather than Esau to receive the covenant promises to prove that relationship with God does not “depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (romans 9:16). Not only that, but note what God says immediately before giving Israel any law: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (exodus 20:2). God didn’t require that they obey the law to earn deliverance from Egypt; he rescued them and then called them to a life of obedience.

God wants his New Testament people who are saved by grace to live in a lawful way through the power of the Spirit. The law, after all, expresses God’s will for how his people should live their lives.6 And this is true not just for the Old Testament people of God but also for Christians today. We don’t earn our salvation or even maintain it by keeping the law, but we do demonstrate that we actually have faith by living in a way that honors the One who saved us; and we honor him by living the way God created us to live. Yes, Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (galatians 3:6), but it was because of his willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah that God grants the fulfillment of the promises of Genesis 12:1–3, “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son” (22:16). In the New Testament, James points back to this story in order to illustrate that “faith by itself, if is not accompanied by action, is dead” (james 2:17). In Galatians, while Paul speaks against those who believe we earn our salvation by keeping the law, he urges us “to walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16) and to “keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25) by demonstrating in our lives the “fruit of the Spirit” (5:22).

What Is the Law?

God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve broke this first law and thus introduced sin and death into the world (see Paul’s comments in romans 5:12–21).

Though God punished Adam and Eve for their rebellion, God did not destroy his human creatures. He pursued them! As we commented above, God wanted to reach the world through Abraham’s descendants. Thus, when he saved them (by grace) from Egypt, he gave them the law so that they might live in gratitude according to his will.7 God gave them the law—the expression of his will—on Mount Sinai (exodus 19–24). The law begins with the Ten Commandments and the case laws8 follow. Other case laws are found in Leviticus (chaps. 1–7; 11–27) and Numbers (for example, 15:7–21; 27:1–11). In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the second generation of Israelites of the Ten Commandments and introduces more case laws before they enter into the Promised Land (deuteronomy 5–26).

There are a lot of laws in the Torah! Indeed, according to one count there are 613 laws in all.

How Are We to Think of These Laws?

The Ten Commandments are statements of general ethical principles. Take the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” (exodus 20:13) as an example. This clearly prohibits all illegitimate taking of human life. However, it raises the questions: Are there legitimate reasons for taking life? What are they? (After all, the law allows for certain divinely commanded wars and the death penalty.) Here is where the numerous case laws come into play. As the name implies, the case law gives specific cases to help Israel understand how the Ten Commandments apply to actual situations. So when you’re reading through these sections of the Bible you are seeing God, who is holy and loving, describe what a flourishing human community looks like in a sin-scarred world. The laws prescribe how Israel was to get as close to God’s original creative intentions for human living as possible.

One quick example comes from Leviticus 19:33–34: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord.”

While it may not be immediately obvious, this case law is an application of the sixth commandment prohibiting murder understood through the lens of the tenth commandment that prohibits coveting. The tenth commandment makes all the commandments a matter of the heart. Jesus recognized this when he reminded his hearers that those (contemporary teachers of the law) who restrict the sixth commandment to only murder do not understand the intent of the law, which also prohibits hatred, anger, and mistreatment of others (matthew 5:21–22). In the case law of Leviticus 19:33–34, the mistreatment of immigrants is prohibited. Not only is Israel to refrain from hating them, they must love them and treat them like those born in Israel. They are not to be like the Egyptians who mistreated them.

If you look at them closely, all the case laws of the Torah are applications of the Ten Commandments to specific situations within Israel’s culture. The Old Testament people of God were to obey all these laws. But what about Christians? Are the laws now irrelevant?

Not according to Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (matthew 5:17–18, see also vv. 19–20).

Notice the laws are still relevant for our observance until they reach their fulfillment. As every New Testament reader knows, Jesus fulfilled many of the laws of the Old Testament so that we don’t observe them like God’s people did during the Old Testament period. Many of these laws are what we call ceremonial laws, laws that had to do with the religious practices of Israel. One clear example is the law of sacrifice. We don’t offer sacrifices today because Jesus is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system (hebrews 7:27).

Remember too that the foundation of the law is the Ten Commandments and that the case law applies the Ten Commandments to specific situations that are tailored to the time period of the Old Testament. That means our focus should be on the Ten Commandments, and our question should be, how do the ethical principles of the Ten Commandments apply to our lives today? (Often the Old Testament case laws help us figure that out.)

As an example, let’s go back to the case law from Leviticus 19:33–34 that instructs God’s people to love and not mistreat foreigners who have moved into Israel. While we might debate immigration policy, one thing is perfectly clear. When foreigners come into our country, we should love them and certainly not mistreat them—no matter their country of origin.

The law, most clearly the Ten Commandments, expresses God’s desire for how we are to live. As Christians, we are saved by God’s grace, and in response our hearts yearn to please the One who has given us such a gift. We please God by living, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, as closely as possible to the way he created us to live.

That said, Paul reminds us that now that Christ has come the law is no longer our guardian (galatians 3:25). We live in the Spirit and follow the law of Christ that teaches we are to love God and our neighbor (matthew 22:37–39). As we follow Jesus’s law of love and live in the power of the Spirit, we fulfill the law.9