How to use the Bible in Politics 2

What about the Old Testament laws? Like the purity laws or the holiness codes? Can they be used in political discourse? for laws in our land? Are they just passe? If these are God’s laws are they God laws for all time, for all people, in all places?

Richard Bauckham, in his new book, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, ponders the holiness laws for Israel now found in Leviticus 19 (after the jump) as a test case for how to read the Old Testament laws for political decisions today. This is not only a tough text in itself, it is even more delicate to handle when it comes to modern politics. So, bravo for Bauckham!

Again, there are lots of details here, too many to engage, so I will do my best to sample chapter and cull out some illustrations of the points he makes.

First, the principles and illustrations. The key to the chp is v. 2: “be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Note vv. 3, 4, 10, 11, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37. Israel is special, set apart, covenanted to God and to God alone and God is covenanted to them, and to them alone. That’s the point of holiness. Thus, the point of the chp is the full holiness of God’s people in all they do.

What do you think of this principles worked out in illustrations? Does this turn “rules” inside out? How do you think a text like Leviticus 19 can be of use in our political world?

There are plenty of examples and there is a randomness that shows it is a sampling rather than a completeness. They examples illustrate the principle of holiness. There is also here the principle of love of neighbor (19:18), the principle of concern for the marginalized, the principle of avoiding the praxis of the pagans. Etc. This is important to Bauckham: the Torah has major principles which are applied. Thus, the Decalogue is principles, and examples follow for chapters after it. They work out the principles. Judicial cases in the Torah are examples as well. The Torah is not complete.

Bauckham is not keen on the distinction between cultic, moral and civil laws. Gleaning does not illustrate private charity vs. government charity because the distinction between private and public is unknown to the Torah. What is good for one is good for all (except for special laws for priests, etc.). Gleaning is a culturally specific illustration of love of neighbor by providing for those in need. It is designed to protect the poor and to remind the owner that God owns the land — that is, that what we have is not “ours” but God’s.

The church is to seek to live out these Torah principles; and in society but maybe not as a political entity (depending on how much authority is vested in the principles in that society/political state). All of this means we need to see that the Torah of Israel is on its way to the Kingdom of God, and it points to that Kingdom. It attempts to realize God’s will in an ancient near eastern society. The church is not a political entity, and must not seek to be one. Torah then is instructive but not instructions for the church. The church is an eschatological witness to the kingdom as it seeks to live out the will of God for the kingdom.

Bauckham sketches grey hair texts and adultery texts before getting to Jesus’ use of Leviticus 19. Jesus presses utter truthfulness in Matt 5:33-37 as he extends beyond Lev 19:12. Jesus also saw Lev 19:18 as the second great commandment, and this shows Jesus saw the Torah as having fundamental principles and illustrations of those principles. Jesus extended “neighbor” to all humans.

In all, then, Bauckham sees the Torah as having foundational principles, the principles are worked out concretely in a context, and those principles are to be set within a redemptive history aiming at the Kingdom of God. We are to see our place in that history and to live out the kingdom in our time and in our place.

Leviticus 19

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.3 “‘Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.

4 “‘Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.

5 “‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. 6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up. 7 If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. 8 Whoever eats it will be held responsible because they have desecrated what is holy to the LORD; they must be cut off from their people.

9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

11 “‘Do not steal.

“‘Do not lie.

“‘Do not deceive one another.

12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.

15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.

17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

19 “‘Keep my decrees.

“‘Do not mate different kinds of animals.

“‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.

“‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

20 “‘If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. 21 The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the LORD. 22 With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the LORD for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven.

23 “‘When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. 24 In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD. 25 But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the LORD your God.

26 “‘Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it.

“‘Do not practice divination or seek omens.

27 “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

28 “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.

29 “‘Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute, or the land will turn to prostitution and be filled with wickedness.

30 “‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD.

31 “‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.

32 “‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

35 “‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. 36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.

37 “‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the LORD.’”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Amos Paul

    Personally, I think we make a great mistake when we read modern and Western legal understandings into Leviticus and the various Torah texts. Basically, I think our entire conceptual constructs of legal and economic structures carry with them a massive series of assumptions and implications that may not at all have been present for the Jews where this stuff came from.

    I like to read these texts more like poetry. They go through the motions of listing off sins, consequences, offerings–the rules gave spiritual backbone to God’s people and impart various principles. But if we read it like a modern legal code, why on Earth would we have immediate consequences like exile or death listed after a sin–but rules for atonement and forgiveness also listed. How does a dead or exiled man approach the priest? Are the rules imparting ideas beyond the code itself?

    And if someone thinks the text must be read as literally as possible because it’s all we have–it’s not all the Jews had. They inherited a culture full of traditions and understandings which this text was only a *part* of. Moreover, Judaism generally teaches that God gave Moses an oral law alongside the written law which expounded upon and explained this and that. What if this is true? We’d have quite the pauper’s understanding of the text, if so.

  • Sherman Nobles

    It’s helpful to recall that Moses was establishing both religious and civil order for Israel as well as teachings on domestic and personal issues. These are all interwoven in his presentation, though there was a division of authority and responsibility. And it’s important to remember that Jesus fully endorsed the Law, specifically stating that those in the Kingdom who taught it and obeyed it would be great, but those who didn’t would be least. Thus for the Christian politician it would be wise to seek to understand, affirm, and legislate according to the principles that one sees in the Law.

    Concerning the Oral Law, the traditions of the fathers, from what Jesus said it seems He did not affirm these as “authoritative” or even good, speaking sternly against them, saying they even nullified the power of the word of God.

  • Amos Paul


    The oral Torah and stuff like the Talmud, Mishnah, etc. are different things. The Jews themselves professed that their tradition grew and expounded new and additional things. The belief that the Oral Torah was passed down alongside the written does not appear to be spoken of in the NT, although according to Wikipedia, “Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches see the oral tradition as being transformed by Jesus Christ both in content (Mark 7:7–9) and in agency (Matthew 18:18 and Acts 10:14) to become the new Sacred Tradition.”

    I’m not arguing that the history of Oral Torah should be taken just as seriously as the written Torah, but the fact that the Torah comes of out Jewish tradition and that Jewish tradition has considered the Oral Torah crucial to understanding the Torah–ought to sober our reading of it.

  • Sherman Nobles


    The Oral Torah (as later recorded in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc.) does help us to understand the attitudes and the teachings of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. They propose that their teachings go all the way back to Moses, but the Sadducees differed on this; and it seems to me that much, if not most of these teachings arose while Israel was in Babylonian captivity. So they do help us to understand the teachings, debates, values, and attitudes of the Pharisees. But it is helpful to recall that Jesus denounced much of the Pharisees’ doctrine, values, practices, and attitudes. In fact, much of the Sermon on the Mount is devoted to doing so. The repeated phrase, “you’ve heard it said” actually refers to the Oral Law of the Pharisees concering various passages of the written Law. In these Jesus is disagreeing with the Pharisees’ teaching, their Oral Torah, and not disagreeing with the Written Torah. The Pharisees had misinterpreted and misapplied much of thw Written Torah because they did not embrace the Spirit of the Torah!

    For example, the Pharisees had a whole system of oaths that in effect enabled them (so they believed) to lie without breaking the commandment to not bear false witness. Jesus denounced this practice and system of oaths and said that we should be people of integrity, letting our yes mean yes, and no mean no. So understanding what the Pharisees taught helps us understand what Jesus denounced, especially as recorded by Matthew.

  • Amos Paul


    I don’t agree nor specifically disagree with you in that what you’ve offered is *an* interpretation and some historical supposition. I’m not entirely convinced that there was no Oral Torah passed from Moses at all, nor am I entirely convinced that Christ specifically was referring to the Oral Torah rather than the added teachings and interpretations of various groups over the years. “Heard it said,” is it a pretty generic turn of phrase.

    Even if you were 100% correct, understanding ancient Jewish traditions (or, interpretations) of the Torah *should* be important for us since it was given to *them* and not us. Therefore, they necessarily read an entirely different set of implicit assumptions and ideas into the text than we do. Whether it be Christian or Jewish, the Scriptures have never emerged independent of a people group and their traditions. Whether or not those traditions are actually the correct way to interpret the text (or if this a single correct way) is an entirely different matter, but they are certainly important since they are relevant to the composition of the text itself.

  • Chaplain Mike

    I have always found John Sailhamer’s distinction critical though rarely considered. The Torah is not God’s Law but the story of Israel and God’s covenant with them that includes examples of God’s laws. The laws are there to show us God’s wisdom and goodness in providing a good way of life for his people under the Sinai covenant. Thus we read them indirectly as samples from which we can learn not laws that we are bound to obey.

  • DRT

    The post said

    Israel is special, set apart, covenanted to God and to God alone and God is covenanted to them, and to them alone. That’s the point of holiness. Thus, the point of the chp is the full holiness of God’s people in all they do.

    It seems that evangelicals have quite a different idea of holy than I learned and know. Even today in my bible study people keep saying set apart, as something that inspires fear, and in the case of what Scot is saying saying that they are holy because God is only covenented to them.

    But that is not how I use it. Yes yes yes, holy people and holy things are set apart. But that is hardly the whole idea. Holy things and holy people are sacred, consecrated, of special standing in the divine world. Set apart is hardly an adequate representation of that.

    This has real world implications. If I am to say that someone is holy, that means that they are coming close to comforming with the divine. That they are emulating Jesus and they reflect God in our world in a way that is not ordinary. Are they set apart, yes, but they are so much more!

    When God tells us to be holy because he is holy, he is saying that we are to do the things he does because his ways are sacred and divine.

    So Leviticus 19 is showing what it could look like to be holy here on earth. Then Jesus showed us definitively what it looks like to be holy. It is to be loving of others, that is Holy! The set apart way it is used does not capture that. Perhaps my Catholic upbringing is quite different that you all’s…..

  • Sherman Nobles

    Amos @5,

    I agree that understanding the Oral Torah is helpful in understanding how some of the Jews would have understood, interpreted, and applied the Written Torah. As far as distilling from these traditions the original explanations of Moses concerning the Torah, I don’t think that’s possible; and if it was important enough to be passed down, I think it would have been written down.

    Concerning the phrase “heard it said”, it was an idiomatic phrase referencing the Oral Torah of the Pharisees at that time; as you know the Oral Torah continued to expand in the following centuries as other Rabbis added their commentary. I don’t recall off hand the sources I picked that up from, but their case made sense to me. And it certainly fits well its use in multiple places in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is explaining how one’s righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees (Mt.5.17-20), while maintaining full support for the Written Torah. The phrase “you’ve heard it said” certainly doesn’t refer to the Written Torah, for such would imply Jesus disagreed with that which He had just wholly affirmed, the Written Torah.

  • Jason


    You said in another post:

    1. The Bible…is a profoundly political book. The entire Old Testament is about a nation and its politics – how that nation is to live as a political body.

    2. The New Testament is profoundly political — it is how the “political body” of Christ is to live

    3. The very gathering of the Body of Christ is called a “church” (ekklesia), which was a political term in the first century. Our gatherings are political gatherings…

    4. We confess Jesus is Lord… our confession is the most profoundly political action we can possibly do.

    5. We strive to live an entirely different ethic… shaped by the Jesus Creed, and that is in essence a political move

    Yet now you state “The church is not a political entity, and must not seek to be one.”

    I understand that the church is certainly more than political and can’t be defined merely as political but it seemed before that “the church is profoundly political.”

    Can you shed some light?


  • Patrick


    Some of the “you’ve heard it said” comments are NOT referencing Scripture. They are referencing Jewish writings that are not Scripture of Jesus’ era ( Macabees on hating your enemy for example).