In Part 1, I discussed that although in Christ we are no longer under the Law, the Law still has value for us when we pursue the moral principles that stand behind its specific injunctions. In this part, I want to make the point that, to a certain degree, that was always the correct way to read the Law. That is, that the Mosaic Law was not written like a modern legal code that is to be followed according to the letter, but laid down principles to be followed according to the spirit. For example, consider Deuteronomy 22:23-27,
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.
This law teaches that the guilt of an engaged woman who sleeps with another man depends on whether or not she consented to the act (not as obvious in ancient times as it is to you now). One factor to be considered by the judge in determining whether she consented is the location where the crime takes. However, let’s not be so foolishly simple as to take this law to mean that location is the only factor that determines the woman’s consent. Rather it is establishing a principle, a surprisingly liberal one, that unless the woman’s consent can be demonstrated, it must be assumed that she was innocent. She is not to be assumed guilty with the burden of proving her innocence, but she must be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Deuteronomy 22:23-27 doesn’t say, “innocent until proven guilty” in so many words, but that is exactly what it teaches. And that principle derived from this text then has wide application far beyond the circumstances described.
This process of reading a fairly specific law and deriving a principle that has wider application would not have been strange to Paul, who cited Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,” as proof that ministers of the gospel have a right to be supported by the flock to which they’re ministering. Paul explains that the principle of the law is that “the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop,” and so he concludes, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)
Consider also Ahimelech who broke the Law by giving David bread that was reserved for the priests. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) Apparently he judged that in this case a deeper principle of the Law was at work, that of ensuring the basic needs of his fellow Israelites. And although strictly speaking he violated Leviticus 24:9, the principle of distinguishing between things holy and things common was upheld throughout, and Jesus approved of his action. (Mark 2:25-26)
All of these examples and others tend to the same conclusion, that the Law is not a set of exact rules to be followed robotically, but a picture of godly life and a just society that needs to be understood deeply in order to be applied accurately.