What is the Point of Hebrew Law?


Who’s that person who makes you groan when they walk up the driveway? Political canvassers, maybe? Where I live, in the green and pleasant land of Northern Ireland, it’s election season. Everyone has pulled their sofas out a little from the wall, ready to be hidden behind when the Shinners or the DUP come scrounging for our votes.

At least when you’re home you can dive under the furniture. Nobody must know you’re in. It’s not so good when you’re caught out in the open, totally defenseless. Jesus – alas and alack – has no sofa to run to for cover when, in Matthew 22, the Sadducees and the Pharisees appear. His perennial adversaries are back, looking about as devious as monkeys in dinner jackets.

They sidle up to Jesus and open fire with a question-bazooka. From the puzzles they pose in this chapter, it’s obvious how wrapped up in their narrow obsessions these two groups are. We know the Sadducees, for example, had a strange intolerance of anyone who preached about resurrection (Acts 23:8; Mark 12:18). Seems an unusual thing to get annoyed over.

One year, my Presbyterian childhood Sunday school gave out an adorable book, If I Could Ask God Anything, as an attendance prize. As I remember the soul-searching questions in the book, which I treasured, I despair how the Sadducees waste an opportunity to put any question to God. I can almost hear the forlorn sound of palms on faces when they rhyme off a hair-splitting, long-winded riddle about what happens after the General Resurrection:

‘In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven [spouses a woman had in life, being widowed as many times] will she be? For all of them had married her’ (v. 28). Oh, how disappointing a question! They could, remember, have asked anything. Although Jesus does give an inspired response which astounds them into silence (vv. 33-34). Their timbers are truly shivered!

Once the Sadducees are done, the Pharisees decide they would like to have a wee go now. So, they huddle together like snow-driven penguins and have a chinwag among themselves to settle on a killer question for Christ. Away they go, happy for Jesus to sit around waiting on them, as if God has nothing better to do that day.

When the Pharisees do reach a consensus, choosing their star spokesman, ‘a lawyer’ (v. 35), to deliver the question, it’s a better one than the Sadducees had – I’ll give them that. Undeniably, the query deserves a spot in that most venerable tome, If I Could Ask God Anything:

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (v. 36). Admittedly, the question stems from the Pharisees’ unhealthy rigour vis-à-vis the law, but in their cross-examinations, they prompt an important answer from Jesus.

Christ’s answer has implications, not least, for studying the Old Testament. If you’ve ever tried reading the Bible cover to cover, you may well have given up when wading through the reams of rules in the Pentateuch. It’s just as engrossing as TV static. After an hour in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, how could anyone be faulted if leaping ahead a few books gradually becomes more tempting?

It’s tedious ploughing through catalogues of regulations when there doesn’t appear to be some higher principle to them. Do the laws God instructed Israel to follow come together with an overarching ethic, or do they not? Really this is what our lovely Pharisees are asking about in the gospel passage.

Our Lord’s answer is yes, yes there is: it’s love. As my friend Erin Burnett writes in her new book, With All Your Mind: Autism and the Church, ‘Christianity and love go together like tea and biscuits. Neither one is complete without the other.’ Amen, sister, on this most eminently Northern Irish of analogies!

Well, then… the big reveal… what is the supreme commandment? ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment’ (vv. 37-38). In other words, love the Lord your God with your whole being.

Originally, this commandment occurs in Deuteronomy 6:5. It’s prominently positioned within the book, rather close to the start of a discourse Moses gives to the Hebrews in the sweltering desert heat. And in imparting all those laws, Moses demonstrates what it is to devote oneself entirely to God.

12/8/2022 8:20:45 PM
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  • Matthew Allen
    About Matthew Allen
    Matthew Allen is a writer and musician based in Northern Ireland. He is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied Theology and Liberal Arts.