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Understanding the Laws of Moses -
Some Principles to Help Us

As a follower of Jesus Christ, how should I understand the laws that I find in the Law of Moses - the Torah, the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament? Which apply to me, and how? Which apply to society?

Those were questions that the early church had to address, and we still need to address them today. Especially as Western society, in which I grew up, increasingly rejects and distances itself from Biblical laws. Even though the purpose of Law-as-a-whole is to show or tell us how God intended us to live (rather than to make people good inside), as Paul argued, I am still left with the question for each individual law, "How should I understand this law?"

Here are some principles I try to follow in trying to interpret the individual laws in the Law of Moses. Each is expanded in the second part below, with extra guide questions. I trust you find them useful.

In More Detail


What is the principle that makes this law important? The first principle of understanding the Law of Moses is to try to understand principles behind each law.

Some see the laws as the requirements of an inscrutable Deity, which have to be followed to the letter because we cannot understand that Deity's reasons for giving them. I disagree. I see the laws as expressions of the way the Living God, Yahweh, Creator of the heavens and earth, designed temporal reality to run for its benefit and blessing. Jesus was clear that we should see the principles not just the statements of law; for example the principle of hatred behind the law about murder.

So I try to discern, for any law, the principles that lie behind it, and of which it is an expression. What does God want or hate? I try to work out why each law is meaningful, and how it fits in the overall Plan of God.

The remaining principles help me do this.

Culture and Context?

To what extent is this law of the culture of the time rather than for today? Rather than being directly applicable today?

To what extent was the law designed for that particular context?

I try to avoid both errors of:


For what reasons might this law be beneficial? Especially in relation to other laws. Here are some possibilities, though there may be others:

Also, take into account how the law might be beneficial in the culture of the time and also today, though perhaps in different ways. Take into account that some of the benefit might be especially to help them be God's people.

Important: Many laws have long-term benefits rather than short-term effects. The long-term effects of law are usually the more important.

For God's People?

Is this law specifically for God's people, rather than for all people? As explained in more detail elsewhere, God wanted a people who would represent Him. Representation involves three things; does the law help in any of them:

Laws about the construction of the Tabernacle and the priestly equipment are obviously laws for God's people - and His people at that time in that context. Laws about general justice might apply to all.

Those that apply to God's people: consider to what extent they still apply today, and if so whether differently.

For All People?

To what extent is this law applicable to all humanity?

This question links with that of to what extent each law is for God's people. Many of God's laws are expressions of how God intended the whole of humanity to live.

Especially for Christians, it is relevant in deciding to what extent should we try to impose any law on, or recommend the law to, the society in which we live?

(This depends on what we believe our place in the world is to be: to be 'aliens' in a hopeless godless world, or to try to bring about societies that work according to the way God wanted humanity to live. I tend towards the latter, but these principles here can inform my application of that so that it becomes nuanced rather than harsh.)

In thinking about these, be aware of other parts of Scripture.

Example: We place great emphasis on bring faithful Yahweh as our only God, and think this is applicable for all people. Yet there is a curious and little-known verse that "To the nations He gave the gods, but to his people He gave Himself". Moreover, if we look at the beginning of Amos, we find that the reasons God condemns His people is because they forgot Him and forgot justice, but the reasons He condemned other peoples does not include this. So, does this mean that to worship only Yahweh is a law for His people, or is it for others too?

To resolve such question it is useful to take into account the benefits of the laws.

Harmony of Law?

How does this law fit in with all others?

"The law is one," wrote James. The entire set of laws is intended to work together to form a society and world that runs as God intended, for blessing and shalom. So, for each law, I try to take all other laws into account.

Here are some questions that might be helpful to ask:

Note: Try to find support from laws in the same giving. If I can find a law in Deuteronomy that supports one in Exodus does not truly support it; it merely repeats it. However, if a law in Deuteronomy seems to oppose or modify a law in Exodus, then that is something to take into account seriously. Look for those.


What was the outcome of this law? What was the reaction to the way people applied it?

The following guides are specially useful:

Two Renderings

How does this law appear in the first and second givings? 'Deuteronomy' means 'Second Law'. In this, Moses gives the law a second time.

My Life

How should this law apply in my life? At all levels: personal, group, community, society, world.

It is too easy to discuss the laws in the abstract. Yet God intended the Law to be a guide to what was right and wrong. It is only when I live the law that I can be said to truly understand it.

I try to avoid both errors:

These questions are to be applied at all levels: in my personal life, in the lives of those around me, in the life of the community and society and world in which I live. At each level, I might find a different answer. It is helpful to consider other principles, especially those related to benefit and culture.

In general, I must not let the law of Moses - or any other law - 'bully' me. Nor must I ignore it, since it is given to indicate by God how life was intended to be lived, and what brings shalom especially in the long term.

To help me work the Law of Moses out in my life, at all levels, it is helpful to try to understand the principles behind each law. This brings us full circle: Principle.

See Also:

This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 17 September 2014. Last updated: