By Chaplain Mike
“Then [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, NASB)
“…Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” (Genesis 26:5)
“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’” (Numbers 20:12)
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One of the great themes of the New Testament is that of salvation by grace through faith. This theme is often developed in the context of theological conflict, of apostles like Paul with Jewish opponents of Christianity, false teachers (sometimes called “Judaizers”) who were trying to impose Jewish practices on Gentiles for inclusion in the faith, or with Jewish Christians who were trying to work out the implications of faith in Christ as Messiah.
These conflicts often boiled down to a discussion on the relationship between “faith” and “the works of the Law.”
This is a huge subject and it cannot possibly be developed in a single blog post. All I want to say today is that this debate about how people become part of God’s community, maintain good standing in that community, and relate to others in that community is not a New Testament issue alone.
In fact, part of the Gospel message that the Old Testament (for our purposes here, the Torah) presents is that inclusion in true covenant relationship with God is by faith and not by works of the Law.
I believe that the Pentateuch is in agreement with these NT affirmations: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,” (Rom 3:20, ESV), and “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
The Torah: A Two-Part Biography with an Introduction
In order to understand how it is that the Old Testament affirms the way of faith and not the Law, we need to step back and take a look at the big picture of the Torah. The five books of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) may be divided into three basic sections:
- Section One: stories of the “Beginnings” — early stories that introduce God and prepare for the choice of Abraham and his family to restore God’s blessing to the world. (Gen 1-11)
- Section Two: the Patriarchal stories — stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that lead their family to settle in Egypt. (Gen 12-50)
- Section Three: the Moses/Israel stories — stories of Moses’ life, the exodus, journey to Sinai, covenant at Sinai, giving of the Law, wandering in the wilderness, sermons on the plains of Moab as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. (Exodus-Deuteronomy)
Section one is introductory, for the story of Israel starts with the call of Abram in Genesis 12.
That leaves two main biographical sections in the Torah. At first glance they are quite imbalanced. The stories of Abraham and his family end with Genesis. The remaining four books cover only the lifetime of Moses! However, if you were to remove all the laws, and directions for building the Tabernacle, and boil down Exodus-Deuteronomy to just its narratives, the patriarchal stories and the Moses stories would take up about the same amount of material.
Furthermore, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Exodus 1-18 (the first two-thirds of Moses’ life) occur before the giving of the Law. Thus Abraham and the patriarchs are portrayed as people of faith who lived without the Law, and Moses is a person who lived part of his life without the Law and part of his life under the Law.
John Sailhamer discusses this organization of material in the Torah:
The early chapters of Genesis (1-11) play their own part in providing an introduction to the whole Pentateuch; they stress the context of “all humanity” for both the patriarchal narratives and those of Moses. The Moses material, for its part, has been expanded with voluminous selections from the Sinai laws in order to show the reader the nature of the Law under which Moses lived.
…The chronological framework of Genesis…and the virtual freezing of time in Exodus-Deuteronomy…suggests a conscious effort to contrast the time before (and leading up to) the giving of the Law (ante legem) with the time of Moses under the Law (sub lege). Abraham lived before the Law and Moses lived after it was given.
• The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 66
Let’s stop and summarize here.
- The Torah has an introductory section followed by two biographical sections.
- The two main characters in the biographical sections are Abraham (and his family) and Moses (and Israel)
- The Abraham stories are about walking with God before the giving of the Law. This is also true of the first part of the stories about Moses and Israel (Exodus 1-18).
- The rest of the Torah — the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — describe life under the Law.
- As we will see, the author wants to draw a contrast between life before the Law and life under the Law.
To do this, Sailhamer looks at two key texts that reflect on the lives of Abraham and Moses and evaluate them.
Abraham, Faithful Law-Keeper
The first is Genesis 26:5 — “…Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”
This is a very interesting text! The list it gives, describing God’s requirements, is a common description of the Mosaic Law, the commands given by God in the Sinai covenant (see Deut 11:1, for example). How can it possibly be said that Abraham kept this Law? Previous narratives in Genesis stress his faith, but here it says directly and clearly that Abraham is credited by God with having kept the law — the same law given to Israel through Moses.
Reading the Abraham stories, one does not find indication of an intentional strategy to portray Abraham as a Law-keeper. There is no hint that God revealed these laws to him ahead of time, nor do the narratives present him as specifically observant. We might suggest that the “laws” of Gen 26:5 are more general ethical precepts, and that all this verse is saying is that Abraham was a good person according to standards understood through general revelation, but that does not ring true when these terms are used consistently of various laws of the covenant.
No. Abraham is counted a righteous person by God in terms of laws that would only be revealed and given later. He kept the Law. And it appears that the author wants us to see Abraham as a supreme illustration of what it means to “keep the Law.”
He is telling us that if we likewise want to be counted righteous by God, fulfilling the requirements of his Law, we should be like Abraham. What did Abraham do? He BELIEVED God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Abraham lived a life of faith. He trusted God. He was therefore counted just in terms of God’s righteous laws. It was not by actually doing the works of the Law, living under the Law and keeping its commands, that Abraham received God’s commendation as a righteous man. It was because of his faith.
Ultimately “keeping the Law” means “believing in God.” Live a life of faith and it can be said that you are keeping God’s Law.
Moses, Exiled by Unbelief
The second text is Numbers 20:12 — But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”
This is from the story of Israel at Kadesh, in the wilderness. They complained to Moses about lack of water, Moses and Aaron fell before the Lord, and God told them to speak to the rock and water would gush forth. They gathered the people together, Moses spoke harsh words of rebuke to the people, struck the rock twice, and water came forth to satisfy their thirst.
Then comes our verse. God says that Moses and Aaron failed to believe him in this incident. Was it because they struck the rock rather than speaking to it as God commanded? Was it because they spoke harsh words to the people instead? Was it because of bad attitudes, anger or rage? Why is Aaron included in God’s rebuke? The text is sparse and inconclusive. It merely says that God’s evaluation of Moses and Aaron in this situation is that they failed to believe him and failed to treat him as holy before Israel.
However, what is clear is that this unbelief carried a harsh penalty. Moses and Aaron would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. After all they had experienced, they would not be allowed to enjoy God’s good gift of the land. They would experience, as it were, exile from Canaan, the land of milk and honey.
This is but the climax of a long season of failure after failure since the people had gathered at Mt. Sinai. Before the giving of the Law, they had believed in Moses, and Moses and Aaron had worked signs and wonders, and though Israel sometimes behaved in childlike ways, they trusted God and followed their faithful leadership to the mountain where they entered into the covenant with God. However, at Mt. Sinai and throughout the forty years that followed, they struggled to exercise faith and live faithfully. Time after time their faith grew weak and failed. From the Golden Calf incident, to this event at Kadesh, nearly the entire generation proved faithless.
Including, at the end, Moses himself.
Faith, or the Works of the Law?
Thus, the Torah in its big picture presents us with this contrast:
- The way of vital and growing faith apart from the Law, as exemplified by Abraham.
- Or the way of weakening and failing faith under the Law, as exemplified by Moses.
John Sailhamer summarizes:
The narrative strategy contrasts Abraham, who kept the Law, and Moses, whose faith was weakened under the Law. This strategy suggests a conscious effort on the part of the author to distinguish between a life of faith before the Law (ante legem) and a lack of faith under the Law (sub lege). This distinction is accomplished by showing that faith and trust in God characterized the life of God’s people before the giving of the Law, but after the giving of the Law faithlessness and failure characterized their lives. Abraham lived by faith (Gen 15:6), in Egypt the Israelites lived by faith (Ex 4), they came out of Egypt by faith (Ex 14:31), and they approached Mt. Sinai by faith (Ex 19:9). After the giving of the Law, however, the life of God’s people was no longer marked by faith. Even their leaders, Moses and Aaron, failed to believe in God after the coming of the Law.
• The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 77
If this reading holds up, and I think it does, then it shows that God, from the very beginning of Scripture, is encouraging the way of faith, and not the way of Law-keeping as the way of righteousness before God and in the world. Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11), who teaches us that “the just shall live by faith.” Moses, on the other hand, is the father of the Law covenant that ultimately cannot justify (Galatians 3:11), cannot give life (Galatians 3:21), and ultimately leads only to a curse if one trusts in its efficacy (Galatians 3:10).
Now, to be sure, the Apostle Paul does not reject the Law as without purpose or usefulness. Galatians 3 affirms its purposes in the history of salvation, disciplining, protecting and maintaining Israel’s identity until the birth of Abraham’s Seed. In Romans 7, Paul further explains the necessary role of the Law as that “holy, righteous and good” standard that reveals sin and leads to Christ. However, we cannot, must not count on the Law for our acceptance or standing with God. We may not use the Law’s practices as “boundary markers” to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out” in terms of the true faith, nor may we require others to conform to those practices to be members of good standing in God’s family.
This is GOSPEL truth, taught by the Torah as well as by Paul. The just shall live by faith, not by the works of the Law.
“For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13)