Q&A: New Testament Applications of Mosaic Law

New Testament Applications of Mosaic Law

Question

I was wondering what the spiritual (i.e. New Testament) meaning of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 was. My goal is to translate the letter of the law into the spirit of the law.

Answer

The "spirit of the law" was to be followed in the Old Testament just as it is in the New Testament. When it was written, the "letter of the law" represented a particular manifestation of the spirit of the law, but even in its original setting a simplistic interpretation and application of the letter of the law was not generally a good thing. That is, even in its original context, following the letter of the law sometimes violated the spirit of the law. This is one reason the Bible provides so many examples of how to apply particular laws in specific circumstances.

For example, "you shall not murder" may also be read as "you shall not kill." The same Hebrew word ratsach (the verb "kill" or "murder") may apply both to murder and to unintentional manslaughter (e.g. throughout Num. 35 it identifies both murderers and manslaughterers). Moreover, the commandment does not even answer the question "Whom?" It does not tell us if we must refrain even from killing animals; it does not tell us if we must refrain from killing people even in war; it does not tell us how the state can carry out capital punishment without violating this law. Rather, the law gives us vague parameters that we must clarify elsewhere.

Because the letter of the law is frequently quite vague, the application of the spirit of the law to real life was not always easy to determine in its original context, just as it is not always easy to determine in our modern context. One significant problem is that the Old Testament often tells us the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law, so it is frequently difficult to determine the spirit of the law with precision.

When we attempt to determine the spirit of the law, we must begin by looking at the letter of the law in its original settings, including its cultural setting, its setting in redemptive history, its relevance to the specific individuals to whom it was given, and its literary context. Once we determine these settings, and consider the law in the context of the Bible's theology as a whole (including any biblical comments on and examples of the law), we are then in a better position to figure out the spirit behind the law.

Once we have determined the spirit of the law, we must then determine how our settings in life resemble and differ from those of the original audience, how redemptive history has changed since the writing of the law, and how we as individuals resemble and differ from the original audience. Knowing these similarities and differences helps us figure out how to manifest the spirit of the law in our own lives. As Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr., is fond of saying, "Facile imitation always leads to misapplication."

So, what about the law in Deuteronomy 22:6-7? These verses state: "If you happen to come upon a bird's nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days." This law seems to be somewhat similar to the law in Leviticus 22:28 regarding animals sacrificed to God: "But, whether it is an ox or a sheep, you shall not kill both it and its young in one day."

Unfortunately, the Bible does not offer us any examples of how this law was applied. The law does not seem to pertain to any particular stage of redemptive history, nor to any particular social or cultural context. Some of the surrounding laws seem similarly directed toward compassionate stewardship over people and animals, so we are somewhat encouraged to read the law as an instruction to respect animal life by not destroying both a hen and her chicks (or more broadly mother and offspring) in one fell swoop. Perhaps the law might also be a statement against the greedy devouring of more resources than actually needed for food (compare Num. 11:31-34). Probably, we would be safe to assume that even in the original context, taking both a mother bird and her chicks would have been acceptable if there were no other food available, and if taking just the young would not have provided sufficient sustainance (compare 1 Sam. 21:1ff.; Matt. 12:3-4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4).

Also, the law speaks to nests that are found, rather than to nests that are kept in a domestic setting, but it is hard to guess whether or not this is a relevant piece of the puzzle. Perhaps the law did not forbid taking both hen and chicks (or more broadly mother and offspring) when these animals were plentiful, as in domestic situations, but only when they were more rare. Or, it may be that the law was intended to preserve animal species in some way, perhaps in accordance with God's covenant with the animals in which he promised not to obliterate them utterly as he had done in the flood (Gen. 9:1-17).

As you can see from these comments, it can be very difficult to know how to apply some of these laws. Given the Bible's interest in respecting and preserving animal life, I suspect we are to understand the law as protection for the animals, perhaps particularly from human greed. If this is the correct understanding of the law's intent, then probably the best way to apply the law in our modern situations is to respect and protect animal life (especially from our own greed and mistreatment), not by holding all animal life as sacred, but by managing our animal resources with care and compassion, and being careful to respect them in the way that God does (e.g. Gen. 9:1-17; Jonah 4:11). How we manifest this principle in our lives will vary significantly depending on our circumstances.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.