Morality Ch. 3: Focusing on the Purposes behind the Laws

The psalmist loves God’s commands, but they can become a burden when applied wrongly. Jesus criticized Pharisaic stringency, but the church soon started down similar paths.

Rules are useful and good, and the Old Testament law is praised in the Psalms as a sweet source of joy (Ps 119:103, 111). But rules can also be ugly and deadly when they are applied in a legalistic way. The term “Jobsworth” was popularized by Esther Rantzen’s British TV show That’s Life! (1973-1994). The show awarded a weekly “Jobsworth” peaked cap to the most annoying officious person who applied the rule book against all reason, saying, “It’s more than my job’s worth to break the rules.” An example is the inspector at a members-only fishing area who fined a woman for holding her husband’s rod while he attached a maggot to the hook, because only her husband had a license for using a rod.1

The commands of the Old Testament were at the heart of religious life for the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. To be fair, they had a good reason for loving these commands: they wanted to serve God, and seeing that God had given these commands, the least they could do was obey them. Unfortunately, this well-meaning principle led them to invent many new rules, which extended into absurd details. They called these rules a “fence” around the law, because their aim was to make sure that no one ever got close to breaking God’s commandments. However, their new rules sometimes contradicted God’s purposes that lay behind the commands themselves.

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Seven weeks’ vacation

For example, God commanded a day off once a week, which makes fifty-two days a year – over seven weeks’ holiday! But the Pharisees regarded it as a law, not a benefit, so they wanted to make sure that you didn’t accidentally perform even minor work on that day by adding the rule that you shouldn’t carry any tools on the Sabbath. This included anything as small as a needle pinned to your clothes, because you might be tempted to repair a hem on the Sabbath without remembering that this was “work.” The definition of “work” gradually included more and more things. By the first century AD they had a list of thirty-nine categories of work. In Jesus’ day they added the category of “healing,” which included giving medicine or rubbing in ointment. By the end of the century even praying for healing was forbidden as work.

On the Sabbath you couldn’t even rescue someone who’d fallen into a pit – unless they were likely to die before the end of the Sabbath (at least they recognized that saving a life overrides other commands). Even then, you had to pull them out with something like a coat – not with a rope, because this was a “tool.” Falling into a pit was a regular occurrence because many properties had plaster-lined cisterns to store rainwater, which fell heavily but infrequently. Water cisterns had straight, smooth sides and were often very deep – the one found at the Masada fortress is as large as a four-story house! Joseph, David, and Jeremiah all knew what it was like to be stuck inside one that was full of mud (Gen 37:24; Ps 40:2; Jer 38:6), but if it was full of water, you wouldn’t survive long. Jesus asks rhetorically: Which of you wouldn’t help an animal out of a pit on a Sabbath? (Matt 12:11; Luke 14:5). The sad truth is that strict law-abiding Jews wouldn’t even help a human.2

Jesus doesn’t treat the Sabbath as a set of rules; he regards it as a gift from God. He says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God’s purpose was to give us a rest one day a week – for our own benefit. So God certainly wouldn’t want us to come to harm by obeying this law too strictly.

Did Jesus agree with God’s law?

Jesus doesn’t reject the Old Testament law. He actually tells his followers to observe it more strictly than the Pharisees (Matt 5:17-20). But instead of the letter of the law, Jesus identifies the purpose of God behind the commands. And he says that God’s purpose for the Sabbath law was to give people and servants a rest.

Jesus also identifies the purpose behind other laws. For example, behind the law against murder Jesus identifies God’s purpose that we should avoid all hatred (Matt 5:21-26). Similarly, the law against adultery indicates God’s purpose that we should avoid all inappropriate sexual fantasies; the law against wrongful divorce indicates God’s purpose that marriage vows should never be broken; and the law “love your neighbor” was intended to include everyone, even enemies (Matt 5:27-48).

Jesus demonstrates the way in which we should read Old Testament commands. We need to ask what God’s purpose was: Why did God give that command to people in those circumstances? The Old Testament commands were given to the simple, rural community of ancient Israel. They were surrounded by nations with no basic rights for slaves or animals and with detestable religious practices including child sacrifice. Israel therefore needed laws about religious purity, basic human rights, and farmyard hygiene. They also needed harsh penalties because they had no prisons where they could attempt rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, later rabbis continued to ignore what the original purposes of the laws were. They simply reapplied the ancient, rural law code instead of looking for God’s purposes. They decided that flicking a light switch on a Sabbath was performing “labor” because the spark in the plug was equivalent to lighting a fire. And banning the ancient, barbaric practice of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk was extended to mean that you can’t cook any meat in a pan previously used for dairy products.

God’s purposes for humanity don’t change – whatever God wanted in the past is the same as what God wants for us now. Instead of applying the details of the old commands strictly, we need to find God’s purpose, like Jesus did. We should find laws that have the same effect as the original ones. That way, the purpose that God wanted to achieve by those ancient laws will be achieved in the new situations.

Having identified these purposes of God, we must take care not to promote them to an inspired status, because we can get it wrong. Jesus criticizes the Jews for “teaching the commands of men as if they were doctrines [of God]” (Matt 15:9; Mark 7:7, author’s translation). We might be tempted to think that our understanding is so perfect that we can teach our interpretations as if they are God’s words. Priests serving communion in Anglican churches have to wear “a white surplice with sleeves”3 because this was decent dress in the seventeenth century – but such rules have the habit of fossilizing without regard to their purpose. They are based on our conclusions about what God was doing in that society, so we must always be open to a deeper understanding of God’s intentions.

It would be so much easier if God could simply give us a new rule book periodically – one for each culture in the world – so that, like children, we could be told what to do in any circumstance. Jesus speaks of believers as children of God, and the New Testament letters continue using this imagery, but it has limits. Paul and the writer to the Hebrews complains about believers who refuse to grow out of their infancy – they still want baby’s milk when they should be chewing on the meaty bits of Scripture (1 Cor 3:1-2; Heb 5:12-14). God expects us to use our brains as well as our bodies to serve him. However, the church has often fallen into the trap of inventing new rules on God’s behalf to save us the bother of thinking for ourselves.

New Pharisees in the church

The church actually has a worse record than the Pharisees for inventing new rules and enforcing them increasingly stringently. The ancient rabbis emphasized a clear distinction between commands they found in Scripture and those they added in order to reinforce those commands. If you broke a scriptural command, you were liable for a sin offering, but no penalty was imposed if you merely broke a rabbinic command.4 In contrast, the church has made rules that are penalized by excommunication. Paul advised temporary exclusion for the most severe unrepentant sin, for example the person who was sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1-5; 2 Cor 2:6-9). But in later centuries the church prescribed permanent exclusion for many lesser offenses. From the fourth century, church councils published anathemas or curses of excommunication on those who broke church rules. Even today, you can be excluded from the membership of some churches by missing too many Communions or by disagreeing with a particular doctrinal view, such as details about the second coming.

God’s commands in the Old Testament are a precious revelation of God’s purposes for us. They show us how to live, even in the harshest environment, surrounded by degrees of spiritual evil that (thanks to God’s law) have now almost disappeared. Jesus showed us how to apply this revelation of God’s purpose to different circumstances in a new generation. We should look for what God’s purpose was and then find a practice that promotes that same purpose today. God’s purposes don’t change when our society changes, so we should seek to promote that purpose rather than the specific rules that revealed it.

We are now ready to deal with some real-life examples. The previous chapter provided a clear method for discovering whether a rule in the Bible applies timelessly to all cultures or was restricted to a particular time and place. If a rule is changeless throughout the Bible and is also countercultural in at least part of the Bible, we should conclude it is timeless. This chapter has provided a method for dealing with rules that aren’t timeless: we can reinterpret them for today by looking for the original purpose of that rule. This summary makes the task look easy, but we will find two questions keep cropping up:
1. What was the culture at the time that this rule was given in the Bible?
2. What was the original purpose of this rule, which now appears to be senseless?

Both questions often require researching details of ancient history. However, in order to interpret these details, we need to imagine what it was like to live at the time, given what we know about the lifestyle of those who lived then and human psychology. Often the best way to do that is to imagine how we would feel and act if we were in their place. This means that you don’t need to be an ancient historian to make useful contributions in this type of investigation.

1^ See BBC News, “Your Job’s Worth More than You Are” ( and
2^ See, e.g., the rules at Qumran (Damascus Document 11:13-18 = 4Q270 [on p. 177 of]).
3^ Cecil Daniel Wray, A Short Inquiry Respecting the Vestments of the Priests of the Anglican Church and Whether the Surplice or Black Gown Should Be Worn during the Sermon (London: Joseph Masters, 1856) (
4^ E.g., Mishnah Shabbat 6:1-4 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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