The Old Testament: God Operating on Human Terms?

Some time ago, in pondering the apparent inconsistencies between the way God operates in the Old and New Testaments, I began wondering whether the covenant with Moses might be a case of God operating on human terms in order to demonstrate the futility of a solution intuitive to humanity. As a parallel case, consider the appointment of Saul as Israel’s king: The people wanted a king “like the other nations,” so God gave them Saul, a physically impressive man who was, at first glance, superficially humble; what they ultimately got, however, was an egotistical coward with poor leadership abilities and poor spiritual discipline. Yet in the midst of this failure, God prepared David, the kind of king Israel actually needed (courageous, passionate for God, and able to receive correction), to succeed his failed predecessor. (David was far from perfect, of course, but leaps and bounds better than Saul, and he established the royal line from which Christ ultimately came.)

Turning back to the old covenant of Moses, I can’t help but notice that it has many characteristics which appear basically desirable to humanity, even if we take issue with specific laws: Salvation is earned on the basis of works (obedience and sacrifice), the primary focus is on life in this world, righteousness is defined by a comprehensive list of simple “dos” and “do nots,” and the religious system is supported by a social system in which the faith is universally accepted by society and passed across generations. By contrast, fundamental to the Christian faith is acknowledging mankind’s inability to deliver itself from sin, while life in the intangible hereafter takes precedence over the here-and-now, righteousness is defined by principles (ex. love God, love your neighbor as yourself) that are often difficult to translate into practical action, and the faithful are taught to expect rejection from society and family members.

A major reason why I’ve come to think that the system of the old covenant might show God catering to human intuition is my observations of Christians in the modern day and throughout history. Despite Christ’s emphasis that His kingdom is not of this world, Christians throughout history have tried to shape societies into systems in which they can live comfortably while the system does much of the hard work of instruction and outreach for them. Rather than have our faith challenged and strengthened by opposition, we often default to establishing or migrating to societies in which everyone accepts our beliefs (or at least respects them as the social norm). We are eager to establish rules and methods in how we should conduct ourselves (just look at how people responded to books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye), pursue material prosperity under the banner of “enjoying God’s blessings,” and easily fall into the trap of measuring righteousness by our deeds and accomplishments. This kind of behaviors strikes me as antithetical to the teachings of Christ and more in line with a worldly way of thinking.

Am I on the right track, or am I missing something here?


@MicahB Intriguing question. I think that the answer is that God had a purpose for the Old Covenant - it was a tutor that led us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). In addition, if we read the OT carefully, we see that righteousness has always come by faith, love God and love neighbor were woven into the law and true repentance has always been from the heart.

Jesus did say in Matthew that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts, so there is a sense in which the law was pragmatic - it was given in light of human weakness. We did not yet have the Spirit to regenerate our hearts.

Matthew 19:8 - Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.

Do any of these thoughts help you process your question? Christ grant you wisdom. Look forward to further discussion.

God Had a Purpose for the Old Covenant - His Timing was Intentional

Acts 17:26-27 - From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Galatians 4:4-5 - But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Love God and Love Neighbor Were Part of God’s Law

Deut 6:4-9 - Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Lev 19:18 - You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Salvation Has Always Been By Faith

Genesis 15:6 - Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Romans 4:13-14 - It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath.

A Repentant Heart has Always Been What Pleased God

Psalms 51:16-17 - You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.


I am aware that concepts fundamental to Christianity are rooted in the Law (indeed, much of Christ’s ministry was devoted to digging these fundamentals out of the rules, regulations, and traditions that had come to bury them). I guess what I’m getting at is this: In general, the Law seems to represent a system in which morality is instituted from the top down, whereas Christianity works from the inside outward; the former establishes a community of faith based primarily on ancestry and culture, whereas the latter is disconnected from both and calls people of all nations to love and serve the Lord. It seems to me as though many of the failings of the Church are rooted in Christians trying to revert to the top-down system of the Old Testament. Is it possible that we have misunderstood the message of the Old Testament, which demonstrates the consistent and inevitable failure of such a system (which prioritizes changing laws over hearts and minds)? Could it be that God’s intention (at least in part) was to demonstrate the necessity of a system that prioritizes the transformation of the heart, in order that we would have an illustration (often ignored) of how NOT to spread His kingdom?

@MicahB You should check out Andy Stanley’s book ‘Irresistible’ - he says very nearly the same thing, but a bit more nuanced. We are doing a book study right now.

I do not think the Old Covenant was purely based on ancestry - Ruth and Rahab joined - and Naman was baptized (so to speak). The temple had a ‘court of the Gentiles’, so that all nations could come.

So while on the one hand I agree with you that the law shows us our sin without providing an ultimate way of dealing with it, I do not think that the law was nearly as legalistic and culturally rooted as the Pharisaic interpretation of it.

I do not know exactly how to put it into words - but it’s a yes and no kind of thing. Yes, the law was always a tutor to lead us to Christ. No, the law was not a bad thing - Jesus said as much - He came to fulfill it and not do away with it. So I think there is some nuance that is needed here…

I’m not suggesting that the Old Covenant was purely based on ancestry (hence my choice of the word “primarily”), but there’s no denying that ancestry is a significant area of interest in the Old Testament (where genealogies abound), whereas the only genealogies in the New Testament (at least that I can recall) are those of Christ. In any case, it seems that by Jesus’ time, the Jewish faith had largely abandoned the idea of being a “nation of priests” and become ingrown, hence the conversion of the Gentiles’ court into a marketplace.

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@MicahB There is certainly no question that by Jesus’ day things had gotten quite off track, with the focus being on external observance, the laws of man rather than the law of God and ancestry rather than justice and worship from a sincere heart. I think ancestry mattered partly because that is how the priesthood was determined.