The Old Testament Laws in Their Ancient Context

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The Old Testament laws, especially those given as part of the Sinai Covenant, are sometimes difficult to understand and are therefore engaged less fruitfully. Yet we have psalmists declaring, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” (Psalm 119:97 NIV). One of the reasons we perhaps struggle with understanding their meaning and significance is because we lack the ancient context in which they were written.

In this Seven Minute Seminary video, Dr. Craig Keener works through other ancient law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, and highlights both the similarities and contrasts with the biblical law. These parallels may help us begin to understand their significance for the people of God. One key difference between the Israel’s laws and those of its neighbors is that it refuses to take class into account when holding people morally accountable. This and other keys point to the importance of Israel reflecting the holiness of its God, Yahweh.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Israel relates to its ancient neighbors in the Near East, consider Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer’s Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study (Encountering Biblical Studies). This handbook includes primary sources for reading the actual texts of Israel’s neighbors. They include texts spanning over 2,000 years and treat topics such as creation accounts, cultic rituals, prophetic oracles, and more. As you engage these texts, you may likely be surprised by the similarities to biblical accounts, but will also come to appreciate the uniqueness of Israel among its neighbors. Learn more about the resource here.

Many of our favorite quotes from the Old Testament, which have become spiritual platitudes, receive richer and truer meaning when listening to the culture and history of in their original setting. While many struggle with the text of the New Testament, the Old Testament is even further removed in time and culture from the 21st century. That gulf of geography and history can only be overcome by careful attention to the original culture of the biblical texts. With literary, historical, and cultural information, this resource helps readers of the Bible understand the theological meaning and significance of the Old Testament. Get your copy of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton.

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Craig Keener is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has authored over 17 books, four of which have won book awards in Christianity Today. His IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament has sold more than half a million copies. He and his wife, Dr. Medine Keener, reside in Wilmore, KY.

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