Some summaries of parts of the Bible get repeated so often that they are rarely questioned. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a preacher (or a Christian most likely repeating a preacher) assert that “there was no way that Israel could obey the laws of the Old Testament—there were just too many of them!” Sometimes it will be recalled that there were 613 laws, followed by a chuckle and the assertion that nobody could possibly remember that many laws, much less obey them all. Then the sermon moves on to far firmer ground, speaking of how Jesus came to obey the law where we all inevitably fail.
I confess that I groan a bit when I hear this reason given for why Israel couldn’t obey the law. Though it might appeal to the side of us that is intimidated by the details of the book of Leviticus, on examination it isn’t convincing. To invoke a biblical idiom: “you have heard that it was said that the Old Testament had too many laws to possibly be obeyed, but I say unto you that the number of laws had nothing to do with it!”
You have heard that it was said that the Old Testament had too many laws to possibly be obeyed, but I say unto you that the number of laws had nothing to do with it!
There certainly is some complexity to the law. Numbering the laws at 613 is a traditional Jewish numbering from the third century AD, but it isn’t straightforward to say how many laws there are. There are the famous Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, but even these have been numbered in at least two different ways. Then there are the case laws of Exodus 21-23, the regulations and laws that fill the book of Leviticus, and the reiteration of the bulk of the law in the sermons of Moses that make up the book of Deuteronomy. Sometimes deciding what is itself a distinct law and what’s an aspect of another law isn’t straightforward. But let’s accept that the number is 613.
That might sound like a lot. However modern nation states like Australia have a far more (and far more complicated) laws than Israel had, governing a broader range of areas of life. And yet citizens of Australia expect to basically understand what our nation’s laws permit and forbid, and we fully expect to be able to obey the law. Ultimately the number of laws has little to do with how difficult they are to obey.
That said, the conclusion that the “too many laws” sentiment is getting at is true: human beings are unable to obey the law of God. But the number of commandments isn’t the reason why. In fact, one aspect of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees was that they made “obeying the law” far more complicated than it really was (Mark 7:9-13; Luke 11:46).
The Real Problem
The reason the law can’t be obeyed is that human beings have sinful desires that overrule our desire to obey God. And that’s on occasions when we want to obey. Often we don’t even try. The problem isn’t one of not being able to work out how to obey so many laws. It’s that deep down we don’t want to. Our hearts are often inclined to seek the fulfilment of other desires besides the desire to please God. That’s why there never was a sinless human being until Jesus came. That’s why Jesus obeyed the law for us. That’s why Jesus, by his Spirit, gives us new hearts that want to obey him and which gradually learn that the way of obedience to God is the way of true joy.
The reason the law can’t be obeyed is that human beings have sinful desires that overrule our desire to obey God. Our hearts are often inclined to seek the fulfilment of other desires besides the desire to please God.
Modern Christians look at the book of Leviticus and the denser sections of Exodus and say “I could never work out all this stuff!” That’s ok, you wouldn’t need to. If you were part of a faithful Israelite community then you would have been raised on that law. You would not only have been taught it from an early age, but it would have been embedded into your entire way of life. Moses even told Israel to put it on their door-frames so that they would see it continually (Deuteronomy 11:19-21). You would also have teachers to instruct you whose job it was to understand all those laws, how they relate to one another, and how they relate to all of life’s various practical situations. It really wouldn’t have been that difficult for a guild of Jewish scholar-teachers to work out how the individual laws of the Old Testament fit together and to instruct the people in how to obey them. The real challenge is having a people of God who desire to obey.
Praise God for the work of his Son whose obedience to the cross won our salvation, and for his Spirit who renews our hearts to obey day by day!