Lesson 2a: The Moral Teaching of the Mosaic Covenant

In the Old Testament God (Dt 30) entered into a Covenant with the Jews to witness him as the One Creator and offered them the choice of the "Way of Life" or the "Way of Death."

God said to Israel, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him" (Dt 30:19-20).

Thus the Way of Life is that which leads to true and lasting happiness because it is in conformity with the design given to his creation by a wise and loving Creator. We must remember that the laws of the Old Testament were essentially directed to preparing the Chosen People for the coming of Jesus. Originally Israel had the crude and even brutal morality of the surrounding nations and had to be led to a higher morality step by step, and even then resisted this Law and disobeyed it. If we understand this gradual education of Israel by God we will not think of Old Testament Laws as merely "do's" and "do not's" but truly as a Way of Life. They are life affirming and a rabbi once said to me that a pious Jew wants to live long so that he can perform more mitzvoth or duties of the Law, because each is an act of love and worship of God. If one reads Psalm 119 one will get a sense of this wonderful spirituality. The Psalmist says "I find joy in the way of your decrees more than in all riches" (v.14).

The Way of Life was given to the Jews in the Torah (Instruction) or Old Law centered in the Ten Commandments. Thus the whole of the Old Testament is unified by the concept of the Covenant (Testament) between God and his Chosen People and their obligations under this Covenant to witness to the One God to all nations is summed up in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17 and Dt 5:6-21). The many other moral, ritual, and judicial commands scattered through the Pentateuch have as their purpose to assist in the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments. These Commandments, therefore, are the key to interpreting the whole Old Testament. The hope for a Messiah that grows clearer and clearer in the course of Old Testament history and prophecy is for an Anointed King, Prophet, and Priest who will finally help the people truly fulfill this Covenant. The theme of Wisdom that is also prominent in the Old Testament identifies "Wisdom" (personified as a Woman) with the order God has given to Creation and the Law that he has given to his people to help them know and conform to that order. Thus all creation becomes a praise of the wise and loving God.

The Ten Commandments were specified for the Jews in (1) moral laws; (2) ritual laws; (3) judicial laws. These had a long historical development, the tendency of which was to make them more and more just and specific. The moral laws are essentially the Ten Commandments. The judicial laws provide an order suitable for the Jewish People as a nation so that it can carry out these moral laws and give witness to other nations. The ritual or ceremonial laws are essentially symbolic (like sacraments of the New Testament). Their purpose is help the Jews develop a virtuous way of life in accordance with the moral commands, but they also have prophetic significance looking forward to the days of the Messiah. For example, the prescribed sacrifices taught the Jews to keep the first three commandments of reverence to God but they also mysteriously symbolized Jesus' Sacrifice on the Cross. Hence, though Christians no longer practice the judicial and ritual prescriptions they still have a deep spiritual meaning for us.

The dry prescriptions of the Law are given vivid life by the narratives of the Bible, both the historical ones as in the Pentateuch along with Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Maccabees, but also by what are probably edifying semi-fictional narratives, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Jonah, and Job. As Jesus was to use fictional parables, so these stories help us to understand the Way of Life and why departure from it is a Way of Death.

The Law was also enriched by the Wisdom Literature which besides Job, already mentioned, are Psalms, Proverbs, Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), The Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach, that express in poetry or proverbs the rich moral experience of the Chosen People and praise the Creator and his Way of Life as a guide to true happiness. In reading these we should take into account that they are poetry and pithy sayings, often with a touch of humor or satire, and are not to be taken too literally. Rather they express attitudes and feelings, sometimes with rhetorical exaggeration, that help us appreciate the beauty of right living and the ugliness and folly of the Way of Death.

Therefore it is a mistake to think of much of the Old Testament as boring and irrelevant to our present life. It is also a mistake to attempt to apply it to present life without taking account of the fact that, for the Christian, the Old Testament must always be read in terms of the New Testament. Scholars often object to this because they are concerned, and rightly so, with understanding these texts in their original setting. That is necessary and useful but it is incomplete since these books of the Old Testament are not just ancient texts. They are the living word of the living God given for all people and all time and hence their ultimate theological meaning cannot be separated from the ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ. For example, as we read the Psalms it is helpful to first see them as they were read by those who wrote them, but ultimately we must read them as Jesus' own prayers. Thus on the Cross Jesus recited Psalm 22. It is by loving what Jesus loves and hating the sin that Jesus hates, because it is an injury to God's creatures, that we come to think and act as he does.


  1. Finish Brown, 101 Questions.

  2. Begin, Roland Murphy, 101 Questions on Biblical Torah.


  1. What do you understand by "the Way of Life and the Way of Death?"

  2. Can you explain how the Ten Commandments sum up all the rest of the moral Torah?

  3. How do the narratives of the Bible illustrate the Law?

  4. What is Wisdom Literature? Give examples of how it supports the Law?

  5. What are some moral teachings in the Book of Tobit? If this book is, as many scholars think, a fictional short story, how can it teach morality?


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