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Reinterpreting the Law, Violence and Nationalism of the OT

The law of the OT was intended to serve a negative object lesson. This finds its clearest expression in Paul. To begin, Paul interpreted Jesus’ death on the cross largely in sacrificial and substitutionary terms. On the cross, Paul believed, Jesus suffered the full curse of the law on our behalf. Because of this saving act, all who simply exercise faith in Christ and who therefore live by the Spirit are “justified” before God, apart from the law.

In this light, Paul came to understand that the law could not have been intended by God to make people righteous before God (Gal 2:16). Had that been the case, the cross would not have been necessary. To the contrary, in the light of the cross, Paul came to believe the law must have been given precisely because it cannot make us righteous. To be sure, Paul continued to believe the law was “good” and “holy,” in and of itself (Rom. 7:12). But while it can reveal sin, it lacks the power to free us from its power. Hence, God’s ultimate purpose in giving the law can only have been to reveal God’s wrath by exposing, condemning and even increasing sin (Rom. 3:19-21; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 7:5). He even described the law as “the power of sin” (1 Cor. 15:56) and argued that all who attempt to live by the law are under a “curse” (Gal. 3:10) and in bondage to “the elemental spiritual forces of this world” (Col. 2:20). In this light it’s no wonder that Paul grew enraged toward any hint that compliance with any aspect of the law (e.g. circumcision) was a precondition for being rightly related to God.

At the same time, the very inability of the law to make one righteous before God serves a good and necessary function, according to Paul, for it positions us to discover for ourselves the truth that we cannot on our own be made righteous before God. It reveals our need for a Savior. Hence Paul teaches that before we could trust in Christ, we needed to be “held in custody” and “locked up” under the curse of the law. The law was thus “put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:22).

Now that we know who God truly is and the true way of relating to him, “we are no longer under the supervision of the law, ” no longer under “a curse,” and thus no longer subject to the “elemental forces of this world” (Gal. 3:23-25). The law, for Paul, serves primarily as a negative object lesson to drive us to Christ.

While there are certainly traditions embedded in the OT that arguably anticipate Paul’s perspective on the law, one would never infer that God was engaging in a strategy of negative pedagogy simply by reading the OT itself. Indeed, Paul’s perspective arguably contradictions sections of the OT that celebrate the law and that are predicated on the assumption that people can be rightly related to God by this means. It was only in the light of Jesus’ cursed death on a cross that Paul was able to reinterpret the chief significance of the law as a negative object lesson.

I propose that this view of the law can be applied to nationalism, and violence in the OT because the three are inextricably woven together. We have grounds for applying Paul’s view of the law as a negative object lesson to these latter two concepts as well. Hence, if the law should be viewed as a divinely intended negative object lesson in the light of the cross, I submit that the nationalism and violence of the OT should be so understood as well. If God gave the law precisely because it could not work and in order to demonstrate that it could not work, I submit we should discern a similar negative pedagogical strategy behind the OT’s nationalism and violence as well. And if the law-oriented covenant was given to lead us to a covenant that is not law-oriented, I submit we should accept that the nationalistic and violence-prone dimensions of the OT covenant was given precisely to lead us to a covenant that was free of nationalism and free of violence. In short, if Jesus’ Incarnation, life and ministry, which culminates in the cross, reveals God’s true character and will, then we must understand everything that is contrary to this character and will in the covenant that leads up to it as a divine strategy of negative pedagogy.

Photo credit: blondinrikard via Visual Hunt / CC BY

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