Picture this: Your alarm clock pulls you out of a deep, comfortable, all-too-short sleep on a Sunday morning. You know nothing would feel better than an extra hour or two of rest to help you recover from a busy week of work. Church starts soon, but you start looking for reasons why you should stay home instead.
It’s just one Sunday I’d be missing. Everyone will understand.
I need the rest. It would be foolish to be up and out of the house so early this morning.
God doesn’t care how many Sunday services I make or miss.
I can just watch the service on the livestream from home anyway.
How many of us have been there before?
Individualism—the “Me Monster”—has made the greater good less important than ever.
Nowadays people do what they want to do rather than what they need to do (or what would please God) too frequently. Individualism—the “Me Monster”—has made the greater good less important than ever. The biggest problem with this approach is a lack of submission to God and His Word. It’s funny—even in a time when those who want to follow God have such freedom to live under the law of grace, we still get sidetracked by our own desires so often.
If it’s this hard for us to obey God today, think how hard it would have been to be an Israelite in the Old Testament! People today would probably never be able to handle the laws and lifestyle God established for Israel in the first five books of the Bible. The fact that we as New Testament believers do not have to follow the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is incredible enough, but even aside from sacrifices and offerings, most of us would struggle with the commands with which God charged Moses.
Some of the laws make total sense for believers even today:
• Don’t take revenge (Leviticus 19:18)
• Don’t profane God’s name (Leviticus 22:32)
• Love God (Deuteronomy 6:5)
• Give thanks to the Lord for your food (Deuteronomy 8:10)
• Fear God (Deuteronomy 10:20)
• Keep God’s commandments and walk in His ways (Deuteronomy 28:9)
But some are so foreign to us now:
• Bring your firstfruits to the house of the Lord (Exodus 23:19)
• Don’t add olive oil to a sin offering made of flour (Leviticus 5:11)
• Don’t eat pork or other unclean animals (Leviticus 11:4)
• Bind tefillin on the head and arm (Deuteronomy 6:8)
• Don’t wear clothes made of linen and wool mixed together (Deuteronomy 22:11)
• Destroy the remembrance of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19)
How would you have personally dealt with these unusual laws? And remember, this is just a handful of them. God gave the Israelites tons of laws—613, according to Jewish Law, the Torah. These commands often get one of two reactions out of people hearing them for the first time: 1. “That’s so weird!” or 2. “That’s so strict!”
I suppose in a way they’re right. These rules were intended to be “weird” in the sense of establishing an identity unlike that of any other nation, showing Israel belonged to God. And for that same reason, they can appear strict, as unbelievers might feel the ends (obedience to God) don’t justify the means (laws concerning clothing, food, and sacrifice, to name a few).
One specific verse in Leviticus contains some seemingly odd instructions, yet it perfectly encapsulates the purpose of these laws:
Separating Livestock, Seeds, and Fabrics
As God’s people weren’t meant to mix and become like their pagan neighbors, so did their practices have to reflect that.
Leviticus 19:19 states, “You shall keep My statutes. You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.” Most people would stop reading right there: “What?! That’s crazy!” Sure enough, there’s a great chance the clothing you’re wearing now is made of two different kinds of fabric; and it’s pretty common for farmers to cross-breed livestock and mix seeds. Yet in each of the three examples of the verse a theme of remaining separated is evident. As God’s people weren’t meant to mix and become like their pagan neighbors, so did their practices have to reflect that.
It might feel strange that God chose to include instructions like these in His Holy Scriptures. But they weren’t intended to drive people crazy. God had an overarching purpose for His people in addition to an often-missed added benefit.
1. The laws were meant to separate and sanctify His nation.
You could look at the Old Testament laws like an object lesson a father would teach his children. Their impact went beyond their surface level value. As a father might teach a lesson to show his children he loves them, God used these laws to teach His Chosen People they were special. He had given the Jewish people the unique privilege of being set apart as His nation, and it was their responsibility to act in a manner that reflected God’s character.
As a father might teach a lesson to show his children he loves them, God used these laws to teach His Chosen People they were special.
In the days of Moses when these laws were given, the world population was expanding. Many people groups had grown into organized societies like Israel. But the nations of the world largely lived in rebellion against their Creator. Knowing how frustrating it is when children flagrantly challenge and disobey their parents, you can understand why our perfect, sinless God would be angry with such wicked people.
But God had chosen a people for Himself: the ethnic nation of Israel stemming from the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He specifically called and set apart. To ensure they would not look the same as the other sinful nations, He established these laws in Scripture for them. Though the people could never perfectly obey these laws 100 percent, establishing them as a central part of Israel’s culture and as their moral standard meant creating an identity that would signal to other nations that God was the head of these people.
2. The laws had practical purposes that are helpful today and ahead of their time then.
Many of the Levitical laws had additional purposes meant to keep the Israelites healthy and improve their efficiency. For instance, Leviticus 11 warns the Israelites against touching the carcasses of unclean animals. Not only did the law help them maintain a sanctified status compared to other people, it also kept them from disease. Leviticus 13 outlines how to deal with leprosy and other contagious skin ailments. The priests were to quarantine the infected people for the safety of the rest of the people (sound familiar?). Leviticus 19 includes a command for honoring elders, which not only would separate the Israelites but also improve their communities socially. Leviticus 25 speaks of giving a sabbath of rest to the land, meaning every seventh year the Israelites were to not sow their fields, prune their vineyards, or harvest fruit. This allowed the land to have much-needed rest and replenish the nutrients lost by unending sowing of the same crops in the same field.
While the primary purpose of these laws was to set apart Israel as the Chosen People of the Lord, this secondary benefit makes them stand out, too. By practicing the standards of respect, ingenuity, and healthy living prescribed in these commands, they achieved unparalleled advancements in their day.
Don’t avoid those first few books of the Bible because the context of ancient Israel confuses you. Read them as an opportunity to learn about the people God called and chose. Discover how His instructions for them reflected His holiness and kept them safe. These Jewish laws that seem so abnormal to us are a gift from God to His covenantal people. The better we know them, the better we understand our Lord and the world of our Jewish Savior, Jesus.