When it comes to knowledge of the Bible, the Old Testament is both better known and less understood than the New Testament. The Old Testament has some of the best known stories in Christianity, such as the tale of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale. That said, most Christians are not as familiar with the Old Testament as they are with the New Testament. They know some of the Psalms, portions of the writings from the prophet Isaiah and some of the better known Old Testament stories. That said, many Christians do not bother to delve deeper into the Old Testament, and its laws. The majority of Christians find it almost painfully boring to read through the laws laid out in Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers. As such, they tend to skip over those sections of the Good Book or only skim them. The laws are boring to read since the vast majority of people do not care about when an ancient Israelite farmer was or was not held responsible for their ox goring a person, and as most Christians do not think of themselves as following or needing to follow the Old Testament laws, omitting them from a close reading of the Bible is seen as acceptable. This, however, is a mistake. The Old Testament laws remain important today, and Christians are likely following them more closely than they realize.
The first mistake most people make when they think about Old Testament laws is limiting their mental image of the laws to the purity code laid out in Leviticus. Purity codes are religious laws and norms that deal with what is ritually clean and unclean. The phrase is normally used to describe foods that are taboo, but it can be extended to include handling sacred objects, childbirth and burial of the dead. Many religions practice purity codes. Judaism, of course, continues to follow the Old Testament laws. Muslims place foods and actions on a spectrum that consists of five categories. The categories are “haram” or forbidden, “mukruh” or disapproved of, “mubah” or neutral, “mustahabb” or recommended and “wajib” or obligatory. Religions outside of the Abrahamic tradition also practice purity codes. Hindus, for example, do not eat beef. Jains avoid anything made with animal parts entirely, and many Buddhists are vegetarian.
The Old Testament laws certainly focus on the purity code quite a bit, but they go far beyond that. They deal with basic morality, define the sacred and lay out how holy people should live their lives. While Christ makes it clear in the New Testament that Christians do not have to worry about whether or not they eat shellfish or mix meat with dairy, the basic morality that underlies the entire faith and is implied in Jesus’ every word should be considered important by Christians. In fact, Christians do still pay close attention to that morality, they simply do not always speak of it as part of the Old Testament laws. Christians follow the Ten Commandments, and those were the most basic and essential of the Old Testament laws.
In addition to laying out the moral basics that underlie Judaism and Christianity, the Old Testament also provides direction and advice for situations that the New Testament does not explicitly describe. While most people do not need to know if they should be worried about their neighbor demanding recompense for an escaped ox trampling their field, a little more direction than “love thy neighbor” is sometimes necessary when it comes to dealing with complex human interactions. In fact, the New Testament itself both references the Old Testament numerous times and is written in such a way that assumes familiarity with the Old Testament. If one did not know why the prophets were important, they would ascribe no significance to the fact that Jesus appears to be the fulfilment of their prophecies.
The Old Testament laws also teach Christians about the history of their faith. No Christian with any sense would deny that the Christian faith grew out of Judaism. As such, the Old Testament records the early history of what would come to be called the Christian faith. The laws in the Old Testament, while perhaps not as interesting to read as descriptions of the battles of David or the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan, contain information that is just as interesting and important from a historical perspective. The battles and tales of kings undoubtedly shaped later history, but the laws of the Old Testament describe the concerns and habits of ordinary people. The average Israelite was not concerned about which son succeeded David unless a disagreement sparked a civil war or the chosen heir was particularly weak or cruel. What the average Israelite was concerned about was how to handle their idiot neighbor who failed to keep their animals penned up properly and so ruined everyone else’s crops. The Old Testament laws that deal with such situations show that such concerns were common and important enough to need to be enshrined in official law. They make it clear what ordinary people worried about, and how they were likely to respond. After all, laws are not made to prevent behavior that no one expects to happen. Even baffling, common-sense laws, such as making it illegal to bathe in public fountains, exist because someone was stupid enough at one point to strip down and try to take a shower in the fountain in the town square.
The Old Testament laws may not be of a great deal of interest to many Christians, but that does not make them less important. They offer a window into history as well as create the underlying morality and understanding that allows Christians to make sense of the New Testament. There is a reason that the Old Testament has always been included in the Christian Bible, and it was not simply because the clergy wanted to be carrying a bigger book.