The Law: A Bird’s-Eye Tour of the Bible

The first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are called the Law. Look with me at the first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1:

  • In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

This verse is simple and straightforward. It is the basis for all the rest of the Bible. It establishes God’s claim upon us. God has a right to speak to us because He made us. You may object by saying that you believe in evolution. It is not my purpose to argue with you; but it is my premise that only creation can account for the energy, the matter and the intricate design which we see in our universe and in ourselves.

In Genesis 1 God explains how He set the stage for man by creating everything man needed and other things that only man needed. The crust of our earth is filled with oil, diamonds and the ores of every metal. No creature other than man has ever used these treasures. Obviously, God put them here for man alone to use. Genesis 1:26,27 tell of man’s creation:

  • And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

As human beings we are conscious that we are different from other creatures. The most ignorant man towers far above the brightest ape. Why? We were made in the image of God. All of the faculties in which we differ from the animal world are a part of this image. Our thinking abilities, our self-consciousness and our emotions are examples.

Creation remained the way God made it until the fall of the human race in Genesis 3:1-6:

  • Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

If you ask most folks what happened at the fall of man they will say, “Adam and Eve ate an apple they were not supposed to eat.” That makes sin sound very small. What happened was very large. The progenitors of our human race made a basic choice as to which of the two beings who had spoken to them they would obey. Would they chose to obey the God who put them there and said, “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” or would they choose to obey the being who said, “ye shall not surely die”?

Adam and Eve made the wrong choice. They sinned against God for themselves and all of their descendants. As the result of that choice the human race was alienated from God, human nature was corrupted and God’s judgement came upon the race. God’s judgement came on the woman in the words of Genesis 3:16:

  • Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Despite all the progress of medicine, a woman’s pregnancy consists of nine months of assorted trials culminating in a very difficult time.

God’s judgement on the man is described in the words of Genesis 3:17-19:

  • And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Despite our increased knowledge of agriculture, man must still struggle with the ground for a crop. Despite our many labor saving inventions, man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow. Most of us can quit working only when we are ready to quit eating. The continuation of these judgements to the present time demonstrate that mankind is still under the curse which fell on him in the Garden of Eden.

Suppose that you are eating at your table. Your back door opens and a stranger enters your kitchen. He looks like a refugee from an oily machine shop. Without a word of greeting he pulls out an empty chair at your table, wipes his hands on one of your white linen napkins, pulls the meat platter his way and noisily eats a hearty meal Stretching himself he heads for your guest bedroom where he plops down on the white comforter without even removing his shoes. You are irate. He is treating your home as if he owns it. He has no right to do that. Just so, sinful man operates in God’s world with no recognition of God’s ownership and dominion over the world in general and himself in particular.

The first eleven chapters of the Bible are universal. They deal with the whole human race. However, at Genesis 12 the story of the Old Testament begins to follow the Jewish race. We meet a man called Abram, later renamed Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3 tells us:

  • Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

The remainder of the Book of Genesis tells us the development of the family of Abraham and the rest of the Old Testament is the history of the Jewish nation. Gentiles pass through its pages but the record follows the Jews. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, has twelve sons and these sons are the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The key to understanding the importance of Abraham is the truth given in Genesis 15:6:

  • And he believed in the Lord: and he counted it to him for righteousness.

That text tells us that Abraham received righteousness from God in response to his faith. That truth, repeated about Abraham several times, is one of the key points of Scripture. Righteousness is obtained by faith. Remember that. We will come back to it.

When it comes to the Book of Exodus the descendants of Abraham are in Egypt. They began their time in Egypt as welcomed guests but ended it four hundred years later as depised slaves. Exodus is the record of how God raised up Moses as a deliverer and led the Israelites out of Egypt.

God promised to lead the nation back to Canaan where Abraham had lived. That was not far away. However, before heading for Palestine, God led them into the rocky wilderness of the Sinai penisula and gave them His law. These were slave people with no concept of the government of themselves or their new nation. From Exodus 20 through the Book of Leviticus we have the law given, and in Deuteronomy we have it reviewed.

It will help you in reading the Old Testament law to realize that there are three kinds of law. First, there is moral law. This is what is found in passages like Exodus 20 where the ten commandments are given. Take Exodus 20:3-4 and 13-16 as a sample:

  • Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
  • Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

The moral law is permanent because it is an expression of the character of God. Our current generation considers moral law to be only a convenience of society which may be changed by consensus. God, however, will hold every man guilty for violation of His moral law.

The moral law is the will of a holy God. The New Testament in Romans 7:12 remarks that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” We are not dealing with a human law code but with the word of a holy God. Exodus 15:11 states that God is “glorious in holiness”. Perhaps you have driven down the road and said to your spouse, “Isn’t this a glorious day!” By that you mean that the day is just as perfect as a day can be. That is what it means when the Bible says that god is “glorious in holiness.God is perfectly holy – just as holy as it is possible to be. We are not dealing with a God who accepts “not bad,” “good enough,” or “that will do.” God’s holiness requires moral perfection. Nothing else will do.

Second, there is the civil law. Israel had no experience of government so God gave them practical laws by which to regulate themselves. A good example is Exodus 21:28-29:

  • If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.

The civil law was temporary but embodied permanent principles. The idea that a man is more responsible if he knows that his animal is dangerous is still a part of jurisprudence today.

Third, there is ceremonial law. This is what the Book of Leviticus is all about. It is the most difficult kind of law for our society to understand. Let’s take Leviticus 1:2-5 for a sample:

  • Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

When a man desired to approach God about the forgiveness of a sin he had to bring a blood sacrifice. This showed the truth that the wage of sin is always death. The fact that his sacrifice had to be without blemish was pointing to the fact that God’s ultimate sacrifice for sin would be perfect. The man had to identify himself with his offering by putting his hand on its head. This was foreshadowing the fact that man’s salvation was to be arranged through a substitute. The ceremonial law was deliberately temporary. It was a teaching tool to point men to the cross of Christ. We are not expected to keep the ceremonial law today.

The five books of the law end with Israel poised at the brink of the promised land. Moses dies and his understudy Joshua takes his place.