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Holiness versus Legalism

If you’ve been reading TSR for very long at all, one of the themes I often come to is that of God’s holiness, goodness, and righteousness, and how they are surprisingly dynamic, unpredictable and even in some ways, wild. I also explored the idea that God interacts with humanity as a single organism, growing to maturity as a race, not just with individuals. Under this paradigm, the Old Testament, with its Mosaic Law, is essentially God’s version of “don’t play in the street,” “don’t stick things in the electrical socket,” “clean your room,” “don’t color on the walls,” “eat your vegetables,” “mind your manners, please, thank you,” and so on.

I proposed that Christ’s incarnation and the birth of the church was in some ways, our bar mitzvah, or ‘coming of age.’ The rules are lessened and independence increased. This has lead to a wide range of approaches by Christians, from those that largely ignore the Old Testament and the Law to those who largely follow its dictates, well, ok, religiously.

I am currently following a reading plan that will allow me to read the entire Bible in a year. (I’ve done this sort of thing several times over the years, and this is the second year in a row in recent history.) It is good for me because I do get to read the whole thing, and it helps me be disciplined to do so daily. Currently, I am in Leviticus, the third book of the Mosaic Law, and where most of the minutiae are given. So it has been interesting to read it in light of the above perspectives.

Much of the Law we now know is for their protection—the dietary restrictions, the health and safety rules about various diseases and unhealthy situations, and so on. It led to the Jews being healthier, safer, and therefore easier to prosper. Other laws are moral, but even there, most are meant as protection from threats that would not be obvious to people back then. Then there are the ceremonial laws on how to do sacrifices, what the priests’ tasks were, and so on. I know that many of them functioned to keep them aware of their sin nature and the need for a redeemer. As such, they point to Christ’s coming and Redemption (one of the other major TSR themes). Fine.

But there are still some doozies. I know many of those are given with reasons along the lines of ‘because I am a holy God,’ so I conclude that they created a hyper awareness in some way that as God’s people, the Jews were to be different than the other nations, to be separate, called to something higher, even if they didn’t make much sense. There are other laws that I simply don’t get. Why is it that a woman is unclean for a week after giving birth to a boy, but two weeks after a girl?

The idea of uncleanness after birth makes some amount of sense—it gives the woman a chance to heal up before her husband has sex with her again—being told that he’ll be ceremonially unclean if he does, when you live in a deeply religious society like that, and that you’ll have to sacrifice the finest in your flock to atone for it, can be a good motivator to keep the hormones in check for a few days. I also suspect there is something deeper than merely giving the mother a break during a stressful and busy time, but I haven’t studied what that might be.

However, why the gender difference? Given that there are so many GOOD reasons for most of the other laws, leads me to conclude there must be one here too. I just don’t get it. Similarly, most sacrifices must be a male, but some are specified to be a female. Why? The males I interpret to point to Christ, so what about the females? Again, I am fully confident that it is far from arbitrary, and I look forward to learning someday. (Maybe you know and can educate us all—leave a comment!)

So, what? As Christians, we have been given freedom to live in a relationship with God in and through Christ. He calls us friends, and His bride. Yet, that is not done in a vacuum, but in the very context of the Law that Christ fulfilled on the cross. The purpose of the Law was to train us in God’s character, just as our parents raised us in a certain way as children, so that when we have the freedom to act, we do so within the context of our upbringing. If we individually are not taught those ways, then it is difficult to live in a manner consistent with God’s character.

Thus, learning and studying and understanding the Law is a healthy thing for those free from it by the blood of Christ. On the other hand, hopefully we have moved past the stage where we need to be reminded not to write on the walls or clean up our room, and we have the maturity and collective wisdom to apply those principles in a more sophisticated way to other problems and issues that arise in our new-found freedom.

But we cannot apply knowledge and wisdom we do not have.


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