The Old Covenant Law

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God” (v. 12).

- Deuteronomy 31:9–13

Centuries of misunderstanding of the place of God’s law in history and in the life of the new covenant believer have caused a lot of confusion over the way the Law relates to us today. As we trace the biblical understanding of the Torah — the Mosaic law — through the canon of Scripture, we will endeavor to shine light on the subject and develop a true appreciation for this part of the Bible.

Getting a better grasp on the purpose and use of the Law requires us to remember the context in which it was given and read in the old covenant period. Today’s passage describes the reading of the Law that was to take place every seven years when all the Israelites assembled to celebrate the Feast of Booths (“tents,” Deut. 31:9–13). This was not the only time the people heard or were taught the Law, for it was to be a part of their everyday life (6:4–9). Still, the seventh-year reading of the Law to the whole nation was unique in that the people collectively professed their allegiance to the Lord and their countrymen under His statutes, being reminded of their need to “live in submission to their awe-inspiring God,” as Dr. John MacArthur comments (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 238).

Commentators suggest that the Law was to be read at the Feast of Booths for several reasons. First, the Feast of Booths was celebrated at the time of the fall grape (wine) harvest (16:13–15), a time of great rejoicing and feasting. Hearing the Law at this time would help Israel associate it with gladness and celebration, encouraging them to develop a great love for the Law (Ps. 119:97).

Secondly, the Feast of Booths recalled how the Israelites lived as they made their way from Egypt to Israel (Lev. 23:33–43), so having the Law read during the festival would recall the Lord’s great salvation in liberating them from Egypt. This would also help them remember that they owed their status to God’s grace and so should not think they have earned their place in the kingdom through keeping Torah.

Remembering the booths, their wilderness dwellings, should also have reminded the Israelites of the disobedience to the Law that forced them to wander in this wilderness (Num. 14:1–38). This was to tell them they needed rescue from the power of sin, a crueler master than Egyptian slavery (Gal. 3:15–29).

Coram Deo

Seeking the Law as an end in itself leads to legalism. Instead, as we study the law of God, we must remember the history of salvation in which it was delivered so that we understand it was given not to earn God’s favor but to do in gratitude for what He had done (the exodus). Every day we should renounce any efforts to make ourselves right with God by doing the right thing and lean wholly on Jesus — followed up by doing, in gratitude, good works.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 31:14–22
Psalm 119:33–40
Matthew 5:17–20
Romans 7:7–12

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