|The Ascent to Mt. Sinai|
Many groups have appeared recently teaching that every believer must obey the Law of Moses. The whole Bible is God’s Word, right? So therefore, they say, every Christian should obey the whole Bible. Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? They often refer to Num. 15:16: “There will be one law (torah) and one legal decision for you and for the stranger (ger) who is staying as a stranger among you.” Since the Hebrew word torah can refer to the whole Law of Moses, and since “stranger” (ger) refers to non-Jews, this verse can certainly appear to say that the Law (the Torah) of Moses is for every believer, even for non-Jews.
But if it were really that simple, why did this become a subject of controversy in the New Testament? Why did the first generation of believers call a council to deal with it in Acts 15? Why did the apostle Paul get upset when Gentile believers began to obey the Law of Moses? “You are released [estranged, divorced] from Messiah, whoever is made righteous by Law; you have forfeited grace” (Gal. 5:4). There must be more to it than that.
What led them to this conclusion, a conclusion very similar to the decision of the New Testament many years earlier?
Let’s start with that verse in Num. 15:16. Taken by itself, the verse can appear to be speaking about the Law of Moses in general. But the Hebrew word torah does not always refer to an entire code of law like the Law of Moses. Very often it refers to a particular, individual law. Which is it in Num. 15:16?
The verse appears at the end of some detailed instructions for making sacrificial offerings (Num. 15:1-16). These offerings were to include not only the meat of the sacrifice, but also a specific amount of grain, oil, and wine.
These instructions were addressed to “the sons of Israel” (Num. 15:2; “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them…”). This is repeated near the end of the section: “Every native [ezrach, referring to the Israelites] will do these things in this way to present an offering by fire” (Num. 15:13).
But in the next verse, these instructions for Israel are extended to include Gentiles: “And if a stranger [a Gentile] stays as a stranger with you [i.e. temporarily], or one who is among you for your generations [i.e. permanently], and he makes an offering by fire of soothing fragrance to the LORD; in the same way that you do, so will he do” (Num. 15:14). Here the instructions for sacrifice are extended to two groups of Gentiles, both of whom are living in Israelite territory.
This is clarified in the next verse: “The congregation will have one statute (chuqah) for you and for the stranger who stays as a stranger [among you], a perpetual statute (chuqah) for your generations: the stranger will be like you before the LORD” (Num. 15:15). Here Moses says that this one statute (chuqah, a particular instruction of the Law), will apply both to the native and the stranger.
The section then ends with Num. 15:16: “There will be one law (torah) and one legal decision (mishpat) for you and for the stranger who is staying as a stranger with you.” Here the word torah is equated with a single legal decision (mishpat or judgment), which refers to the statute (chuqah) described earlier concerning sacrifices. This clearly indicates that torah is being used here to refer to a particular law rather than a body of law. It is not the whole Law of Moses that applies to all Gentiles, but this particular statute to certain Gentiles. This was also the understanding of the rabbis and the church leaders in Acts 15: that only a few specific parts of the Law of Moses are intended for Gentiles. (See for example Num. 15:29, which even more clearly uses the word torah in a limited context.)
A careful reading of the Law of Moses shows a deliberate distinction between statutes intended only for Israel and the very few that were also directed to Gentiles. Among those that applied to Gentiles were the prohibition of murder (Lev. 24:21, 22), of sexual immorality (Lev. 18:26), of idolatry (Lev. 20:2), of blasphemy (Lev. 18:21, 24:16), and of eating blood (Lev. 17:10).*
* Others included: purification from contact with the dead (Num. 19:10), observance of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), prohibition of leaven during the Days of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:19), instructions for sacrifice (Lev. 17:8, 22:18,25; Num. 15:14-16, see above), uncleanness from certain types of dead animals (Lev. 17:15, Deut. 14:21), recompense for injury (Lev. 24:19-22), recompense for killing an animal (Lev. 24:18-22), redemption of Hebrew slaves in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:47 ff.), being cut off for defiant sin (Num. 15:29,30), flight to a city of refuge for an unintentional murder (Num. 35:15), eating what grows of itself in the sabbatical year (Lev. 25:6), gleaning of the field if poor (Lev. 19:10, 23:22). Gentiles living within the gates of Israelite cities were also required to rest on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10, Deut. 5:14), celebrate the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:11,14), and hear the reading of the Law every seventh year (Deut. 31:12). Several of these were no longer relevant after the 1st cent. AD when the Temple had been destroyed.
The most important of these were grouped together by the rabbis to create the seven Laws of Noah. "The descendants of Noah [Gentiles] were commanded seven precepts: to establish courts of justice, to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, robbery, and eating from a living animal [an animal that still has blood in it; see Lev. 17:11]" (Sanh. 56a). These were considered, and are still taught by Judaism today, to be God’s law for Gentiles.
This result was anticipated by the New Testament in Acts 15 when the early Christian leaders, gathered in Jerusalem, required Gentiles who believed in Jesus to "keep away from the impurities of the idols, and sexual immorality, and what is strangled and blood" (Acts 15:20). In addition to these things, of course, they were required to keep the whole of the teaching of Jesus, which included other laws, such as the prohibition of murder (Matt. 5:21,22) and the prohibition of theft and lying (Matt. 19:18). But as for the Law of Moses, only these three things were required.
So is the Law of Moses required for everyone? The Bible, the early Church, traditional Christianity, and traditional Judaism all agree that only certain specific parts of the Law of Moses are intended for Gentiles. The rest is an exclusive covenant that God made with the Jewish people. What is the purpose of that exclusive covenant? It’s a foreshadowing of the New Covenant in Messiah: “For the Law, having a shadow of the good things about to come, not the very image of those things, is never able to make those coming near perfect by the same sacrifices that they offer continually year after year” (Heb. 10:1). Without the Law, we would not know who Messiah is or what he came to do. But because of the Law, we understand God’s purpose, which is fulfilled in Messiah. “Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
Now, in Messiah, there are two distinct groups of believers: those “from the circumcision” (Jewish) and those “from the uncircumcision” (Gentile; Rom. 3:30, 4:9-12, 15:8-9; Gal. 2:7,12; Eph. 2:11; Col. 4:11). Each has a different calling (1 Cor. 7:18-20). Each provides an important witness to the truth of the gospel. Rather than usurping the calling God has given to the Jewish people, let us maintain our testimony as Gentiles to the mercy of God for including us in his plan of salvation.
“Us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles, as he also says in Hosea, ‘I will call those who were not my people, “my people,” and her who was not loved, “beloved.” And it will be in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” there they will be called sons of the living God”’” (Romans 9:24-26 quoting Hosea 2:23 and 1:10).