Thursday, September 26, 2013

In what way is the Old Testament Law "No Good"?

While working my way through Preston Sprinkle's new book "Paul & Judaism Revisited," I ran across Ezekiel 20:25--which along with the context says as follows:

Ezekiel 2023 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, 24 because they had not obeyed my rules, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. 25 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, 26 and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the LORD. 

What do we make of this? I the Law of God, in and of itself really no good? What about Psalm 119 and other OT and NT verses where the Law is praised. I mean, the Old Testament Law is the Word of God.

To interpret this passage, my mind immediately jumps to Romans 7 and 8. Specifically:
Romans 7:10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  
Romans 8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Ezekiel is foreshadowing what Paul would say more clearly at a later time. This raises the question: was Paul reflecting on aspects of the Old Testament in his critique of the Law rather than merely understanding the Law in light of Christ? If we reflect on Ezekiel's critique of the Law and Israel's sin (as well as Jeremiah's critic of the nation of Israel) it would seem that the answer is yes [although we could certainly debate and tease out to what degree various influences play on Paul].

Preston Sprinkle concludes:
"Regardless of the meaning of the no-good statues and rules, it is clear that Ezekiel 20:25 was written in response to the threefold repetition of the Leviticus 18:5 quotation. The structure of the no-good laws statement (Ezek 20:25) and the Leviticus 18:5 citations (Ezek 20:11, 13, 21) is nearly identical, showing that the prophet is correlating the former to the latter. In other words, the giving of no-good laws declares that the laws of Moses cannot give life to the nation. Wickedness is etched into Israel's bones, and this prevents torah from giving the life it offers for obedience." (Paul & Judaism Revisted, p63).

Given Paul's theology of the Law as well as his use of Lev. 18:5, it seems that we have a pretty good cause for an instance of intertextuality. Even if Paul does not quote Ezekiel directly, he has absorbed the critique of the prophets to some degree. [it is perhaps plausible that only in his conversion did he fully understand the implications of this OT critic].

The point remains that the problem is not the law per se. But rather the Law when combined with the human condition apart from the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Old Covenant is insufficient without the eschatological climax of the working of God in the New Covenant. The OT Law is 'no good' in the sense that in itself it cannot get the job done. But in the plan and purpose of God, that was never the intent of the Law in itself.

I look forward to continuing to work through Preston Sprinkle's new work.

This post originally appeared on Tim's personal blog "The Voyages". Tim tweets @tim_bertolet

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