Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: How to Recognize Distinctions in the Law

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Answering Hebrew Roots
Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Christian Ethic – Part 3: The Law of Moses – Section 2: How to Recognize Distinctions in the Law

Because of a steady stream of teaching from their leaders, people who are in the Hebrew Roots movement often cannot see the biblical categories that the laws and commands found in Scripture fall into. It is a common refrain that “the distinctions between moral, ceremonial, and civil law is not in Scripture, and are just a man-made doctrine”. This assertion is stated with complete confidence, and also with no Scriptural support. One could just as easily say, going off this, that “the rejection of distinctions within the Law between moral, ceremonial, and civil, is not found in Scripture. It is a doctrine of men.”

Saying something “isn’t in the Bible” is a very popular way to make your case, but the problem with it is that it can often be refuted rather simply when it turns out that it is in the Bible. The issue at hand is whether Scripture makes the distinctions between different types of law: some moral, come ceremonial, and some civil.

Let’s start with what the Hebrew Roots apologist gets right. It is certainly true that there does not exist one uninterrupted passage that lays out these specific categories and which laws fall within them. The conclusion that the categories do not exist, however, is one that does not follow. There are many doctrines Christians believe today that are similar. Many Hebrew Roots believers will say, for example, that, in the future millennial kingdom, the sacrifices of the temple will be reinstated. But there is no Scripture that says this. The “thousand years” they refer to is found in only one chapter in the Bible, Revelation 20, and it does not mention sacrifices. They have to put disparate passages together to get this idea. While I disagree with this interpretation of the millennium, I understand that there is a desire to put various passages together into a coherent whole.

It should be noted, as another example, that the Law of Moses itself is not something we find all laid out in exactly one place. Within the Torah, there are passages containing law, mixed with passages containing narrative. If a Hebrew Roots believer criticizes the fact that you have to bring different passages together to see the distinctions, you can reply that they can’t give you one uninterrupted passage that contains the whole Law.

Distinctions Mean a Difference

In future articles, I will be digging deeper into the different types of law to show how Scripture treats them differently, but for now, I just want to make a simple case that it does, in fact, treat them differently.

When the Torah Observer repeats this “doctrine of men” error concerning the Law, it is important to realize that this view comes with implications. We might ask then, if there are no distinctions, then are all the laws the same? In fact, if there are no distinctions, the only consistent answer is to say, yes, they are all the same. There is no middle ground. There is no way for the Bible to treat laws differently if they aren’t, in fact, different. However, if they are not different, then the Torah observer has a big problem with Scripture, because it demonstrably does treat them differently.

In the Old Testament, the differences come out in several places.

Samuel makes this point to Saul when Saul breaks the law concerning sacrifice.

1 Samuel 15:22

Then Samuel said,

“Is there as much delight for Yahweh in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as there is in obeying Yahweh?
Look! To obey is better than sacrifice;
to give heed than the fat of rams.

Saul did indeed disobey concerning a sacrifice, but Samuel takes it further, saying that obedience is better than sacrifice in general. This is a principle. But if there are no distinctions in the law, and there are commands to sacrifice, how can one say obedience is better than sacrifice, when sacrifice is obedience? It only works if there are laws that are more important to obey than sacrificial laws.

It is notable that David, writing a Psalm after his terrible sin of adultery and murder, makes some interesting points about the Law.

Psalm 51

4 Against you, only you, I have sinned
and have done this evil in your eyes,
so that you are correct when you speak,
you are blameless when you judge…

16 For you do not delight in sacrifice or I would give it.
With a burnt offering you are not pleased. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

David knows that his sin cannot be removed with sacrifice, but goes beyond this to say that God does not delight in sacrifice. For David, a broken spirit and contrite heart are superior to sacrifice. But, when you consider the Law, where does it say this? Where does it place the condition of the heart above the sacrifices commanded in the Law? It isn’t laid out so clearly. Is David guilty of creating a doctrine of men by speaking of his heart as more important than an aspect of the law? Of course not. David simply recognizes that his moral stance before God is more important than any sacrifice. There is, here, a distinction in the law.

In the Prophets, after Israel begins to think that their sacrifices, feasts and Sabbaths are enough to please God when they are full of idolatry, we have still other examples of distinctions being made. At the beginning of Isaiah, we have a poem of judgment that points out some of this rather starkly.

Isaiah 1:11-15

11 What is the abundance of your sacrifices to me? says Yahweh.
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fattened animals
and I do not delight in the blood of bulls
and ram-lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked for this from your hand:
you trampling my courts?
13 You must not continue to bring offerings of futility,
incense—it is an abomination to me;
new moon and Sabbath, the calling of a convocation—
I cannot endure iniquity with solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become to me like a burden,
I am not able to bear them.
15 And when you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not be listening.
Your hands are full of blood.

Listen to the way God describes His disposition toward Israel’s acts of worship. He has “had enough” of burnt offerings, they “must not continue” to bring them, as they are “an abomination”. New moons, sabbaths, He “cannot endure”, and He “hates. He “will not be listening” to their prayers.

This is all stated in the context of Israel’s sin, and how their disobedience in other areas has made these things detestable to God. But why? What do offerings, feasts, sabbaths, and prayer have in common? These are all part of the religious worship of Israel. Religious observances, when done by people who are unrepentant of their other sin, are detestable to a holy God. Are these religious observances commanded? Yes, so they are a part of the Law. However, God actually hates it when people keep these while ignoring other laws.

Is this something that is true of all laws? No. Does God ever say He detests when people show justice and mercy? No. Doing actual good to others is a different kind of law than religious observance. One is always accepted. One is not. I wonder if there are any good words we could use as a handy label for these different kinds of laws?

Jesus Makes Distinctions in the Law

Like the prophets before Him, Jesus also makes distinctions, highlighting ways that some laws are greater than, and supersede other laws. He doesn’t just do this by putting the Torah above man-made traditions, as many Hebrew Roots teachers insist. Often, Jesus takes aim at actual parts of the Torah to show that there are hierarchies in the Law that the Pharisees were conveniently forgetting. One way He does this is by discussing situations where someone is stuck, and cannot keep both of two laws at the same time.

John 7:21-24

21 Jesus answered and said to them, “I performed one work, and you are all astonished. 22 Because of this Moses has given you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses would not be broken, are you angry with me because I made a whole man well on the Sabbath? 24 Do not judge according to outward appearance, but judge according to righteous judgment!”

Here, Jesus points out that the law about circumcising a boy on the eighth day is greater than the law about the Sabbath. He does this to point out that, when the Jews are accusing Him of being a lawbreaker regarding the Sabbath, they are hypocrites, because they already recognize that it is more important that the circumcision happen on the eighth day, even if it is the Sabbath, than to slavishly keep the Sabbath and break the other law.

Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck off heads of grain and eat them. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Behold, your disciples are doing what it is not permitted to do on the Sabbath!” 3 So he said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those with him, 4 how he entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the presentation, which it was not permitted for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple violate the sanctity of the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! 7 And if you had known what it means, ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus makes several points here. First, in response to the accusation of breaking the Sabbath by plucking grain to eat right then, Jesus points out that they have no problem with David eating the bread that was for the priests when he was hungry. So mercy regarding hunger is greater than the bread in the Temple.

Next, He points out, and we must not miss Jesus’ actual words, that the priests in the temple “violate the sanctity of the Sabbath”, and yet they are “guiltless”. Jesus points out here that the law concerning the offerings in the Temple is greater than the law concerning the Sabbath.

The Son of Man, as Jesus points out, is “greater than the temple”. The temple, He just pointed out, is greater than the Sabbath, and Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath”. And did you see, once again, the echo of what we saw in the Old Testament? “I want mercy and not sacrifice”. Mercy is part of the Law that God is never displeased with on account of other sins. Mercy, which is expressed in this case by means of food picked, prepared, and eaten, is greater than any of these religious laws, regarding either the Temple or the Sabbath.

Matthew 23:23-24

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees—hypocrites!—because you pay a tenth of mint and dill and cumin, and neglect the more important matters of the law—justice and mercy and faithfulness! It was necessary to do these things while not neglecting those. 24 Blind guides who filter out a gnat and swallow a camel!

By now, this should be getting to be expected. The giving of tithes and offerings to the temple, which, again, is a religious act of worship, is not as important, as what Jesus calls the “more important matters of the law”, which are “justice and mercy and faithfulness”. And, exactly as God did when speaking through Isaiah, Jesus gives this distinction the appropriate level of importance by calling the Pharisees “hypocrites”, “blind guides”, and describing their error as akin to straining out a small insect from their tea, and they missed a whole camel in there!

This is how obvious it is supposed to be to us that there are different kinds of laws, and some of them are so much more important than others that we would be “blind”, to use Jesus’ language, to forget justice in our efforts to seek to obey all of these religious regulations.

Moral, Ceremonial, Civil: Dispelling Hebrew Roots Myths

As we have seen, it is a myth that the Scriptures do not make distinctions between different kinds of laws. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, all the laws which are denigrated in some way–whether by God saying He “hates” the performance of those laws, or by being spoken of as being lesser than the more important laws–are religious observances. They are sacrifices, Sabbaths, feasts, festivals, tithes, and prayers.

Now, the more astute among you may have noticed that I just wrote “prayers”. As we saw in Isaiah, prayers were among the things God said He wouldn’t listen to. Prayers are religious observances, like sacrifices or feasts. This shows something that few seem to understand in the debate surrounding Hebrew Roots theology. The distinctions between moral, ceremonial and civil laws are not the self-same distinctions that determine what laws are required today. The distinctions have another purpose.

And before we jump straight into discuss these categories, let’s look at one more passage, to throw one more wrench into the works.

Numbers 35:11-12,22-28

11 you will select for yourselves cities for your cities of refuge, that a killer who has killed a person unintentionally can flee there. 12 The cities will be to you a refuge from a redeemer, so that the killer will not die until he stands before the community for judgment.

22 “‘Or if in an instant he shoved him, not in hostility, or threw something at him without intention, 23 or with any stone, without seeing it dropped on him so that he dies, while he was not seeking his injury, 24 then the community will judge between the striker and between the blood avenger according to these ordinances. 25 The community will deliver the killer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the community will restore him to the city of his refuge to which he fled; and he will live there in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with holy oil. 26 But if the killer surely goes out of the territory of the city of his refuge to which he fled, 27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the territory of the city of his refuge, and the blood avenger kills the killer, he will not be guilty of blood 28 because he must live in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the killer will return to the land of his property.

What do moral, ceremonial, and civil mean when talking about laws? Generally, people say that moral refers to that which is eternally right and wrong for everyone in every society, ceremonial are the religious rites and regulations, and civil are the punishments that the national leaders are to give based on specific crimes. This is a rough sketch.

Now, which of these categories does the passage above fall into? It is obviously moral, since it is regarding killing someone. It is obviously civil, since it outlines the way things should go if someone kills someone accidentally. It is obviously religious or ceremonial, since the time during which the accidental killer must remain in the city of refuge is until “the death of the high priest”. Indeed, if you study typology, you can see some deep symbolism here regarding the death of the high priest.

The law, however, has aspects that fall into all three of the categories we are talking about. Indeed, many of the laws are given in just this way. “If someone does X, here’s how it is to be handled” As it turns out, this is a much more efficient way of communicating the laws than starting with a “thou shalt not”, and then later saying, “Now if someone does the thing they “shalt not”…”

So, in a sense, the Torah Observer is right if he points out that there isn’t a divine “index” of all the laws, neatly categorizing them into three areas. However, the Torah Observer has reached the wrong conclusion. He has concluded that the lack of such an index proves that the distinctions don’t exist, and this is just childish nonsense.

Do some of the laws concern how the civil authority is supposed to punish crime? Yes. Do all of the laws concern punishment? No. Punishments may be associated with a law when broken, but the law that says to rest on the Sabbath is not the same law as the one that talks about how to punish the lawbreaker who doesn’t rest on the Sabbath. So, it is incontrovertible, and really, uncontroversial, that some, and only some, laws are given as instructions to the civil authority on how to punish lawbreaking. That is all civil laws are. Maybe you don’t like the label. Fine. That doesn’t change the fact that these laws exist and fall into this category.

Do some laws concern the religious life of Israel? Yes. Do all of them? Yes and no. There is a sense, biblically, that everything is religious. But there are, no doubt, some things that are both religious also and something else. The civil laws were religious in the sense that they come from God and when an Israelite leader justly executed them, He was obeying God. However, they are also an expression of justice that deters others from crime and create more harmony in the lives of the people. So, are there any laws that are solely religious? Yes. The fact is, the activities God has detested when people do them while ignoring His other Law fall into this category. Sabbaths, new moons, feasts, tithes, sacrifices, and prayers, along with many other things, fall into this category as well. They are religious activities, top to bottom.

What is also true of these religious laws is that, when discussing them, God frequently describes them as having the purpose of making Israel unique among the nations. Consider that for a moment. God never commanded, in the Torah, for all nations to become Israelites. He never commanded Israel to go out to the nations and teach them to obey all the laws of the Torah. If God says that a law has the intention of making Israel unique, then that law, by definition, is not a law the other nations are expected to obey. Otherwise, how would that law make Israel unique?

Do some laws concern basic goodness, as reflected in the character of God? Yes. There are laws that God does expect all the nations to obey. Read the many judgment passages directed to nations other than Israel. Note what kinds of laws they are guilty of breaking. You see a lot of shedding of innocent blood. There are laws that all people everywhere are expected to keep, and when they don’t, they bring judgment down upon themselves, regardless of their nation or heritage.

Finally, do some laws fall into more than one category? Absolutely. We saw that regarding the cities of refuge, but consider this as a possibility. What if all the civil laws are really just a subset of the moral laws? In other words, is there any reason for us to reject that the civil laws are just moral laws, aimed at governments instead of individuals? Some Christians are “Theonomists”, which basically means they believe that the Law of God is still in effect, with a focus on civil laws. In other words, they see it as the standard by which all other laws should be written. If they’re right, then we can’t, as individual Christians, keep those laws, since the power to keep them lies with the state, but we can, insofar as we have power to affect the state, advocate that God’s laws be enacted into a nation’s laws. Another interesting consideration for another time.

When we talk about these distinctions going forward, remember that Scripture is clear as well. These distinctions in God’s law exist. God wrote the Law that way. They cannot be ignored by ignorant declarations that they are a doctrine of men. As we’ve seen, they are Biblical, which renders those ignorant declarations to be what they actually are, doctrines of very ignorant men.

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