The Meaning of Law in Exodus (Exodus 19:1-24:18)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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We begin by recognizing that Exodus is an integral part of the whole of Scripture, not a stand-alone legal statue. Christopher Wright has written:

The common opinion that the Bible is a moral code book for Christians falls far short, of course, of the full reality of what the Bible is and does. The Bible is essentially the story of God, the earth and humanity; it is the story of what has gone wrong, what God has done to put it right, and what the future holds under the sovereign plan of God. Nevertheless, within that grand narrative, moral teaching does have a vital place. The Bible’s story is the story of the mission of God. The Bible’s demand is for the appropriate response from human beings. God’s mission calls for and includes human response. And our mission certainly includes the ethical dimension of that response.[1]

The English word law is a traditional yet inaccurate rendering of the key Hebrew word Torah. Because this term is so central to the entire discussion at hand, it will help us to clarify how this Hebrew word actually works in the Bible. The word Torah appears once in Genesis in the sense of instructions from God that Abraham followed. It can refer to instructions from one human to another (Ps. 78:1). But as something from God, the word Torah throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament designates a standard of conduct for God’s people pertaining to ceremonial matters of formal worship, as well as statutes for civil and social conduct.[2] The biblical notion of Torah conveys the sense of “divinely authoritative instruction.” This concept is far from our modern ideas of law as a body of codes crafted and enacted by legislators or “natural” laws. To highlight the rich and instructive nature of law in Exodus, we shall sometimes refer to it as Torah with no attempt at translation.

In Exodus, it is clear that Torah in the sense of a set of specific instructions is part of the covenant and not the other way around. In other words, the covenant as a whole describes the relationship that God has established between himself and his people by virtue of his act of deliverance on their behalf (Exod. 20:2). As the people’s covenantal king, God then specifies how he desires Israel to worship and behave. Israel’s pledge to obey is a response to God’s gift of the covenant (Exod. 24:7). This is significant for our understanding of the theology of work. The way we discern God’s will for our behavior at work and the way we put that into practice in the workplace are enveloped by the relationship that God has established with us. In Christian terms, we love God because he first loved us and we demonstrate that love in how we treat others (1 John 4:19-21). The categorical nature of God’s command for us to love our neighbors means that God intends for us to apply it everywhere, regardless of whether we find ourselves in a church, cafe, home, civic venue, or place of work.