Rev. Brian Schwertley on the Judicial Laws of the Old Testament

Brian Schwertley

A third category of biblical law is the judicial law. The judicial or civil laws of the Old Testament contained a body of laws for the ancient nation of Israel. There are civil laws which applied only to the nation of Israel. There are also civil laws which are moral case laws. These case laws are based upon the Ten Commandments and are moral in character, and as such, are binding on all nations, in all ages. Laws that reflect God’s moral character are as binding and perpetual as the Ten Commandments themselves. The moral case laws flesh out the Ten Commandments. They apply the various commandments to different situations. For example, the command “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13) involves more than just murder. The moral case laws that apply the sixth commandment to society set forth rules: to protect life from accidental death and injury (Deut. 22:8); to protect society from dangerous, incorrigible criminals (Deut. 21:18-21); to protect citizens from hatred and personal vengeance (Lev. 21:18-21), and so on. These laws are moral; they are applications of the sixth commandment. To ignore the case laws, or to argue that the case laws are no longer binding, is to gut the moral law. It is, in a sense, a severe limiting of the Ten Commandments themselves, for they were always intended by God to be a summary of the moral law.

The continuing validity and necessity of the civil laws is plainly seen in the case of sexual immorality. The authors of the New Testament presuppose the continuity of the Old Testament moral case laws when they discuss sexual ethics. “Paul appealed to the extra-Decalogical prohibition against incest (1 Cor. 5:1). The case law against homosexuality was upheld in the New Testament (1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18)…. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is a generalized requirement of sexual purity which includes, among other things, the duty to avoid incest, homosexuality, and bestiality (cf. Lev. 20:11-16). If the judicial case laws are now set aside, then the New Testament has a conception of sexual purity different from the Old.”  The fact that bestiality is not condemned anywhere in the New Testament proves that the apostles assumed the continuity of the Old Testament moral case laws. If one argues that bestiality is prohibited by the New Testament injunctions against sexual immorality (i.e., fornication), then one has implicitly accepted the validity of the Old Testament moral case laws, for one is using Old Testament moral case laws to define “sexual immorality.” Laws regarding rape, seduction, homosexuality, prostitution, incest, indecent exposure, and so on are carefully delineated in the Old Testament case laws. To disregard these laws is to make it virtually impossible for a modern state to have a just, biblical system of judicial law.

Much of the misunderstanding and refusal to recognize the moral case laws as binding stems from the fact that a number of the judicial laws have indeed been abrogated. The judicial law not only contained case laws that applied the Ten Commandments to the family and society, they also contained some laws that were local and temporal, that were never meant to apply to the nations outside of Israel. For example, the New Testament teaches that the land of Canaan was but a type of the believer’s citizenship in heaven (Heb. 11:8-16). The kingdom of God has been taken away from the Jewish nation and given to the church (Matt. 21:43). Therefore, laws regarding political loyalty to Israel and defending Israel with physical means are not applicable today. Laws which dealt specifically with the land of Israel (e.g., the laws of jubilee, the cities of refuge) also do not continue. The judicial law contained regulations designed to protect the lineage of the coming Messiah (e.g., levirate marriage and the requirement to keep plots of land within family bloodlines); with the coming of Jesus Christ, these laws are no longer necessary. These laws cannot even be applied to modern Israel; the documents proving family lineage and proper succession of family plots were destroyed in A. D. 70 by the Romans. Other aspects of Old Testament Jewish society that were never intended to be binding on the Gentile nations are the Jewish form of civil government, the location of the capitol, the organization of the military and the method of tax collection (many Theonomists include the method of execution). The judicial laws of Israel have ceased, except those laws which teach abiding universal moral principles.

Some believers attempt to circumvent the moral case laws by arguing that these laws applied to a culture far different from the one which exists today. While it is true that our culture is different from ancient Israel’s, the moral principles which underlie the case laws can and should be applied to every society. For example, the Israelites were commanded by God to put a parapet or fence on their roofs, “that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it” (Deut. 22:8). Few Americans have patios on their rooftops as did the ancient Israelites, but many do have balconies or swimming pools that need to be fenced in the same way. The moral case laws continue, but need to be applied to modern situations. Would Christians argue that it is permissible to leave the railing off balconies in high rise apartments because such a regulation is only discussed in the Old Testament?

The only alternatives to applying the principles of the moral case laws to nations today are: 1.) to argue that all law is relativistic and conditioned by culture; 2.) to assert some sort of natural law theory in which sinful man is free to ignore the clear, inspired precepts of God and instead reason from nature; or 3.) to attempt to derive our own moral case laws from the Ten Commandments and the moral laws repeated in the New Testament. This would mean that the inspired, infallible moral case laws of the Old Testament would be ignored, while fallible sinful men attempt to formulate their own case laws from the general moral commands. History has shown the repeated failure of these alternatives.

Does God’s law apply today? Are civil governments obligated to apply the moral law, including the moral case laws, toward modern society? Are Christians obligated to follow the moral law as a guide to sanctification, or are they simply to follow the Spirit’s leading in a subjective, mystical sense? We live in a time when the church (both Evangelical and Reformed) has to a certain extent an arbitrary, schizophrenic view of God’s law. Many Fundamentalist churches teach that the whole Old Testament law has been abrogated by Jesus Christ. Yet in the battle against secular humanism, it is not uncommon to hear Fundamentalists quoting from the Old Testament case laws in order to stem the tide of anti-Christian statism. Many of those in Reformed and Presbyterian circles like to think of themselves as anti-Dispensational champions of God’s moral law. Yet many, if not most, of those in Bible-believing Presbyterian circles do not believe that the moral case laws found in the Old Testament civil law and their accompanying penal sanctions apply to modern nations. Many have also accepted the idea of religious pluralism (i.e., equal status for atheism, Satanism, Buddhism, Islam, Arminianism, etc.), and believe that the civil government does not have the right to uphold the first table of the law (i.e., punish open heretics, blasphemers, rank idolaters, etc.). The only way to have a biblical understanding of God’s law is to examine the passages of Scripture which discuss the place of God’s law in the New covenant, and the relation of Christians to that law. We believe that the Bible teaches that God’s moral law and the moral case laws “of the Old Testament are still binding on society in the New Testament era, unless annulled or otherwise transformed by a New Testament teaching, either directly or by implication. In short, there is judicial and moral continuity between the two testaments.

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