It is interesting to observe that the New Testament Epistles and much of the Old Testament Wisdom literature have a function that closely parallels the case laws of the Torah. This observation helps us see that the contemporary approach to exegesis that attempts to adduce universal principles from Biblical texts misses the point of their unique form. That is, such a position treats every text as if it would have been more accurately communicated as isolated legal or theological propositions (“do not murder,” “God is good”). In order to see this deficiency in contemporary hermeneutics, I want us to consider the OT “case laws” and their parallels to other Scriptural texts and then consider the implications this has for interpretation.
A case law can be defined as specific legal judgement intended to give examples of the application of more general laws. For example, “you shall not murder” does not tell the reader what constitutes murder and what the penalty should be for different degrees of “murder,” for this there are case laws.1 Consider Exodus 21:12-14,
12“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
This is a series of case laws that explicate what “you shall not murder” means and how transgressions of this law should be punished. There is a distinction made between premeditated and spontaneous killing: both are punishable, yet only premeditated murder earns the death penalty. These correspond to the North American distinction between Murder 1 and 2. There are also laws explaining the consequences of “manslaughter” or criminal negligence resulting in death (e.g. Ex. 21:28-32).
Case laws were essential to properly understand and apply the Ten Commandments in the personal and political life of Israel. It is essential to note that the case laws cannot be replaced by the Ten Commandments: each one implies one of the commandments yet says more than that commandment does on its own. It gives an authoritative application of it: both the case law and the law are equally authoritative, the difference being the particular nature of the case law and general nature of the law.
The Case Law Function of the Epistles and Writings
It is significant to observe that the New Testament epistles and some of the Old Testament wisdom literature (the Writings) serve a similar function. In both cases, specific circumstances are given as an example of how Scripture governs specific behaviour. Consider, for example, the book of Job. The Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms have much to say about God’s goodness and sovereignty, especially in times of trial and despair. Job takes these truths and embodies them in specific story about a man who loses everything. It illustrates the nature of wisdom in light of brutal realities, the sovereign goodness of God despite horrible circumstances, the nature of foolish counsel, and the response of the righteous to God’s providence. Instead of listing these things in the form of proverbial sayings or theological statements, it unpacks them over many chapters of narrative and poetic reflection on a man’s experience of suffering and the counsel he receives from his friends.
Like the case laws, it takes the general theological and ethical truths of Scripture and particularizes them, gives them flesh and bones so that the reader might learn how they apply in his or her own life. The Epistles do this even more evidently. The New Testament gives instructions to the churches facing the real circumstances of life in the World. Instead of merely repeating the beatitudes and the Ten Commandments, Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors apply these general instructions to specific circumstances. For example, Jesus tells His disciples that they will face persecution but should find joy in this (Matt. 5:3-12); Paul, James, and Peter all make specific applications of this truth to the circumstances facing the churches (Rom. 5:2-5, Jam. 1:2-4, 1 Pet. 1:6-7). Paul also makes specific applications of the laws against adultery and immorality to the circumstances of the church in general and to those of specific believers (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6:12-20, 7:1-40).
All these examples are very similar to the case laws: they embody in specific circumstances truths taught elsewhere in Scripture, giving specific examples of what they look like lived out. Though not being “joined with a prostitute” (1 Cor. 6:16) has always been implicit in the nature of sexual union (1 Cor. 6:16) and the law against adultery (Ex. 20:14; Matt. 5:27-30), examples such as those given in Leviticus and by Paul in the letter to the Corinthians are essential for our understanding of these implications.
As with the case laws, the specific examples given in the epistles and in Job are necessary for appropriately understanding and using the more general laws given in Scripture. Furthermore, like the case laws, the specific examples cannot be reduced to the principle they embody: they are themselves authoritative. This is important as we consider the application of the specific moral instructions found throughout Scripture but also has significant ramifications for contemporary interpretive approaches.
Case Laws and the Application of Scripture
What we have just seen has significant ramifications for contemporary approaches to interpreting the Bible (to hermeneutics). Many otherwise fantastic resources on preaching and Biblical interpretation espouse of a view of interpretation that seeks to identify a single propositional truth in each Biblical text. Such an approach says that each text (however defined, the ambiguity here is evidence of the view’s inadequacy) contains a single propositional truth (that is, a general statement of truth). The goal of interpretation is to discover this propositional truth and then apply it to our present context. I have elsewhere argued that this is a philosophically and theologically problematic idea,2 yet our study here has revealed another problem.
The point of case laws, those found in the Torah and the analogous literature in the rest of Scripture, is not to restate in a memorable way propositional legal or theological truths, as the above position would claim.3 Each expression of more general truths is itself an authoritative exposition and application of the general truth. Our question, therefore, should not be “what general truth does this text convey” but “how does this text give authoritative guidance for similar situations or help me better understand God and His commands.” Because the case laws are themselves authoritative, their decisions are binding on identical and analogous situations.4 They also shed light on the meaning of the laws and truths they reflect and so can be used to come to a better understanding of how the more general teachings of Scripture apply to situations not discussed in Scripture.
My point is this: to reduce the different texts that function like case laws to propositional statements is to lose the very thing that differentiates them from the Ten Commandments and other similar texts. If we take seriously the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, we cannot just dig for general truths but must heed with due reverence the whole counsel of God, including its authoritative applications of the truth about God and His ways.
2 Cf. J. Alexander Rutherford, “Towards an Evangelical Hermeneutic: A Critique of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics (1982)” (Teleioteti, December 2016), https://teleioteti.ca/resources/technical-papers/.
3 It should be observed that it is arbitrary to end such abstraction at general propositional truths, for it could be argued that these are themselves particular applications of a more general truth. All legal statements collapse into the statement, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” It could also be argued that this collapses further into the statement “YHWH is Holy,” for God’s very being sets a moral precedence of the creation. Further, since holiness is essentially a description of all that God is, one could maybe replace “YHWH is Holy” with “YHWH is.” However, one could abstract even further, for the Divine name is itself a word that indicates that God exists, so “YHWH is” could be abstracted to “YHWH.” However, it should be clear at this moment that such abstractions are not helpful: “YHWH” does not tell us more than “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Though the former statement implies the latter, we need an authoritative exposition of these implications. Propositional statements are only an example of such authoritative expositions.
4 One needs, of course, to mind the differences in context when it comes to applying the Old Testament laws to a New Testament people. As the re-constituted people of God, we need to consider how the Old Testament legislation meant to legislate Israel, the people of God as a nation, applies to the people of God who have no nation state with civil governance but are exiles in a foreign land (the World).