In my last post, I discussed how important it is for the Church to read and learn from the Old Testament. This time, I want to say more about how we actually go about doing that.
First thing to keep in mind as you read the OT: it is first. As I described in the previous post, the OT is the first part of a multi-act drama. As with a two-act play, just as we can’t understand act 2 without act 1 — so it is with the Bible. At the same time, we no longer live in act 1.
If there is one key point to keep in mind as you read the OT — whether you are considering OT law or OT history; whether it’s wisdom literature or prophetic pronouncement — it is absolutely essential to remember that you are reading about a time you don’t inhabit.
The good news about this reality is that the work of God has now moved beyond a small patch of land in the Mediterranean world. It means that how they lived, and what they did, must be seen through the lens of what God has done in the New Testament, what God is doing now throughout the world, and what God intends to do for all eternity for all creation. In other words, Act 1 of God’s work must always be seen through the prism of Acts 2, 3, and 4. And living in Act 3 — as we are — we continue to learn from Act 1, while recognizing that much of it is no longer determinative of how we live.
Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind: when reading the OT, keep in mind that there is a difference between principle and practice. Or, to say it another way: the OT is full of important truths that are still true today, but they are truths that we live out differently today.
This idea is especially seen in a chapter like Leviticus 19, which is full of commands and prescriptions. Some are clear, and clearly apply still today: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not pervert justice (verses 11 & 15; all references are from NIV).
Others are less so: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field… (verse 9). Or: Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (verse 13). Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves (verse 28).
I don’t have a field. No one is lying on my porch overnight, waiting for me to pay them. And I’m too much of a wimp, and too cheap, to get a tattoo (to say nothing of what that tattoo will one day look like when my skin is saggy, and seventy years old). But if I take seriously the view that all scripture is useful for instruction (and I do), how do passages like these instruct us?
This is where the “principle vs. practice” idea comes in. Simply put, there is a principle behind each of these commands that is bigger than the practice. To put it another way: the heart of God can be seen in the command, even if the call to action is not the same.
In regard to the field: clearly God is concerned about the poor and the needy. And I should be too, whether it’s with the extra from my field, or my pantry, or my bank account. As for the hired hand: clearly God cares that those who are dependent on their day-to-day wages are treated honestly and paid justly. And anywhere I can help with that — whether it’s in how I tip the single mom who waits on me at Cracker Barrel, or the babysitter who watches my kids, or refugees or immigrants I encounter — I am called to do what is right, following the principles outlined in Leviticus 19.
But what about tattoos? Leviticus 19.28 seems pretty clear: no tattoos. But, once again, it’s helpful to ask: What’s the principle at work here? We see that when we take a wider view — where verse 26 talks about sorcery and divination, verse 27 addresses interesting haircuts, and the first part of verse 28 deals with the cutting of the body on behalf of the dead. When we look at the broader context, it seems clear that in these verses God is forbidding actions that align with some of the pagan practices of the people around them. So, in that day, tattoos must have been a mark of pagan involvement and commitment — perhaps something similar to how circumcision marked a boy as Jewish.
And so, the principle seems clear: don’t mark your body in a way that aligns you with pagan religious practices. These practices also affected haircuts and body markings. The principle behind these practices continues to hold true today, and it should cause all of us to consider what our body, and what we put on our body, demonstrate about our beliefs and our commitments. And so, today, many folks mark their skin to indicate what matters to them. Some even get tattoos to show others their allegiance to Jesus (or, perhaps, Mom, or their wife, or, somewhat embarrassingly, their ex-girlfriend).
And so, if I’m serious about following the principle of Leviticus 19.28, it might mean that in practice I do have a tattoo, but I refuse to engrave myself with a symbol that can be construed to be opposed to the work of God in my life. For that matter, I will also refrain from wearing a certain piece of clothing or an article of jewelry that would indicate my commitment to any principle other than the redeeming work of Jesus.
But how do we know? How do we determine what is good, and what is harmful? How do we determine what practices demonstrate the principle of God’s leadership in our lives? A great guide is actually found in the words in verse 2, which frame the commands in Leviticus 19: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.
This is the key to understanding Leviticus 19, all of the OT — and, for that matter, the NT and the whole of the Christian life. Be holy. That is: Be set apart. Live like God. Let your life and your actions and every part of you show others that you belong to Jesus. Let his Spirit be your guide — leading you, shaping you, loving others through you.
Or: Love God, love others. For, as Jesus himself taught us, this is the whole point of the law. This is the principle that every practice should be built on.