Book review: Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application
Roy Gane, professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern languages in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, has done a great service for contemporary readers grappling with the intricacies and, sometimes, strange logic of biblical legal texts permeating the Old Testament.
Gane highlights important points in the introduction of the volume. He correctly notes that post–New Testament Christian tradition has tended to isolate the Ten Commandments as the only “moral law” (xiii) and has overlooked divine wisdom in other law bodies. Combine this with the ostensible lack of relevance for some types of laws (e.g., laws dealing with agriculture or the Israelite sanctuary) and the number of obscure (or even disturbing) laws completely foreign to most western readers (e.g., the levirate marriage law in Deuteronomy 25:5–10), and there is a good rationale to invest time for careful reading. Gane’s main purpose was to demonstrate the relevance of Old Testament laws, place them in the stream of divine revelation, and highlight the important principles contained in them.
The book has been divided into four major parts. Part 1 (3–57) introduces key issues to readers, including relevance for New-Covenant Christians and the authority and underlying principles of Old Testament law, as well as its purpose. Gane suggests that God’s character was revealed by these laws and sees divine love for humanity as the underlying model (40). He also proposes that the echoes of ancient Near Eastern laws in biblical law reflect a conscious adaptation and careful synthesis that focuses on God’s character. As an example, he cites assault laws found in the second millennium b.c. Code of Hammurabi that bear some similarities but differ at important intersections, such as not making any class distinctions (cf. Lev. 24:22). Biblical law underlines equality of individuals before the divine Lawgiver, regardless of their standing in society.
Part 2 (61–133) offers a general introduction to law types and collections in the Old Testament, highlighting distinct legal formulations (such as unconditional, or apodictic and conditional, or casuistic, law). He also describes the distinct historical contexts helping to illuminate these laws. “Biblical laws express or encapsulate values and principles that transcend cultures,” writes Gane, “but God did not give them in a cultural vacuum” (105). Very often, modern readers fail to properly understand the historical context in which a particular law emerged or functioned. This context helps one to understand more appropriately the bigger concern (or underlying principle) of the law.
Part 3 (137–235) offers a way of applying Old Testament laws to Christian life (distinguishing between direct and indirect applications and continuity versus discontinuity). Gane suggests a moderate position between the extremes of continuity and discontinuity that focuses on values and principles expressed in the law (173), something he calls “Progressive Moral Wisdom” (197– 218). He lists five major steps a modern reader should take before attempting to apply biblical law: (1) analyze the law by itself; (2) analyze the law within the system of Old Testament laws; (3) analyze the law within the context of its historical situation; (4) analyze the law within the process of Redemption; and (5) relate findings regarding the function of the law to modern life (218). Gane then applies his Progressive Moral Wisdom method to Exodus 23:4 (“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again”).
Part 4 (239–397) focuses on the values of Old Testament laws, dedicating significant space to the discussion of values contained in the Ten Commandments. Gane also highlights the importance of social justice and theodicy in the body of legal Old Testament texts and reviews the significance of six often-discussed laws (forbidden mixtures, prohibitions regarding the cutting of one’s hair and flesh, tithing, dietary restrictions, the prohibition of sexual intercourse during menstruation, and homosexual activity and marriage). The final part of this section suggests a number of underlying values for ritual laws, including the central place of God in human life, the importance of worship, the removal of sin, the assurance of reconciliation with God, and the notion of holiness. Since much of my own writing has focused on biblical ritual and ritual texts, I would have wished for more engagement with this important biblical genre.
Gane has done an excellent job offering sound methodology, careful (and often very detailed) interpretation, and relevant deduction focusing on values and principles. In some cases (not always providing the rationale) Gane decided to include the relevant research history of a particular topic, which tends to lose some nonspecialists. Overall, the volume comes highly recommended for tackling a difficult topic, the willingness to ask tough questions, and the ability to look beyond minute details to the big picture involving underlying values and principles. A very detailed table of contents and several indexes make this volume even more user-friendly. Every pastor who reads the Old Testament and preaches from it should take the time to dig into this valuable volume.
—Reviewed by Gerald A. Klingbeil, DLitt, research professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
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