Rules, rules, and more rules: Understanding OT rules makes NT rule even more significant

Surely you know the feeling when you read something and it strikes you as such an evident piece of truth you wonder why in the world you haven’t realized this before.  I certainly am finding this as I continue working through the Bible reading plan.

This morning the statement was buried in the study notes of the Wesley Study Bible.  Right there on page 96 in reference to 21:23-24:

Jesus turns this negative formulation into a positive way of living through his principle “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you: (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Of course that statement does not jump out to you without an understanding of the context.

The reading for today is Exodus  chapters 21-22, and this was 21:23-24:

23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

That particular section of the day’s reading is one I have struggled to rationalize in my own mind.  I just could not understand how that form of restitution made any sense, but I have heard so many people reference it in a wide range of circumstances—not just today but throughout history and throughout all cultures.

Well, my reading did cover much more of the context, and I really think it helps to read more, Exodus 21:12-27:

The Law concerning Violence

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

Now, that reading expands the broader picture, but the study notes still play a major role in better understanding and as I read through them for the chapters 20-23, I realize again the purpose of the OT study.

In the Judeo-Christian culture, the Ten Commandments are familiar as the Law of Moses and the commandments are recognized as they have been taught, retaught, published in written form and in artistic form in all types of mediums.  But here is the proverbial rest of the story. . . 

The Ten Commandments are followed in Exodus by a set of laws.  These laws are referred to as The Book of the Covenant.  These statutes were written to tell the Israelites how they were to live, but in the study notes there is another key statement on page 96:

These laws specify what it means to live corporately in faithful obedience to God’s covenant in response to God’s gracious acts of deliverance, guidance and protection (Exodus 1-18). 

Today as we read the OT and the NT separating our current culture from ancient culture is difficult.  I challenge anybody that reads the Bible literally, as though it was written for the global community in which we now live, to explain how the examples and the specifics can possibly be appropriate today.

Last week I researched a bit about reading ancient literature.  I had another epiphany in my understanding as I read through an article on the website,, that popped up when I googled ancient literature.

Consider a few of these statements from the section subtitled “The Truth in Literature”:

  • “. . . [tales regarded as myths today, such as Homer’s work]were then considered as true and sacred as any of the writings contained in the Judeo-Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran are to believers.  Designations such as fiction and non-fiction are fairly recent labels applied to written works.
  • “The ancient mind understood that, quite often, truth may be apprehended through a fable about a fox and some unattainable grapes.  The modern concern with the truth of a story would not have concerned anyone listening to one of Aesop’s tales; what mattered was what the story was striving to convey.

What I am learning through the study, using study notes and other research, is that the rules of the OT were made to guide the Israelites to develop into a model community of faithful people who were in the midst of a chaotic world filled with all kinds of myths and religions.  

Remaining faithful was a major effort.  Think about how we often discuss the effect of peer pressure in today’s society.  Peer pressure is a force that can be used for positive, but all too often is a negative force.

Parents work hard to raise their children to be independent of negative forces often presented to them by peers.

Adults find themselves swayed into opinions and/or behaviors by the peers around them.  The results could be positive, but what gets reported are the times that the negative results of peer pressure cause damage—especially violent damage.

When Jesus Christ began his ministry, the world was filled with all the negative influences that existed throughout ancient history and continue yet today.  When I read that particular study note:

Jesus turns this negative formulation into a positive way of living through his principle “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you: (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31).

I finally understood the necessity of the OT list of rules after rules after rules.  I am so thankful that the simplified version that Jesus presented is the one law that I need to evaluate my actions.

With the problems I have in memorization, I find Jesus’ law manageable.  If I had to memorize all the OT rules, and the additional rules that continued to be added by all the religious leaders throughout human history, I am afraid I would have failed or at the least would have been afraid to leave my home for fear I would mess up one of the laws—especially since punishment could be so severe.

Please join in prayer:

Dear forgiving and faithful Father,

Thank you for making the ancient laws so much easier to understand—not only by sending your son Jesus Christ, but by all the work of scholars throughout history.  

Thank you, too, for opening my mind to learn from the OT and the NT so that I may also live a life that models faithfulness.

Guide me in my words and my works so that I can live and share with others the truths of your unending love.  –Amen

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