Lesson 5: The Old Law

The Old Law was given to Moses and Aaron directly by God on Mount Sinai. It was a definitive step in the preparation of the community for the coming of the Messiah. God founded the community of Israel which is not a civil community in the Old Testament, but a "people of God", a populus Dei (ST, I-II, 100, 5, ad corp). Moses and Aaron aided God in the establishment of this community. The kingdom of Israel is the Church in shadow. There are three principal authorities in this kingdom: the priest, the prophet and the king. Each expresses some aspect of the Old Law to the people. The kingdom of Israel is not really a theocracy, but a hierarchical community with God Himself as the rector.

The divine positive law on which this community is founded is far superior to the human laws, which govern ordinary human states. This is well expressed in the verses of Psalm 19. "The law of the Lord is perfect", i.e. it allows not filth of sin, as opposed to human law. "It revives the soul", i.e. it is directed to both interior and exterior acts, as opposed to human law. "The rule of the Lord is to be trusted", i.e. it is completely truthful and reliable, as opposed to human law. "It gives wisdom to the simple," i.e. it lifts humanity to a divine and supernatural end.

The precepts of the Natural and Human Law are not enough because man is destined for a higher end than this world. Therefore the Divine Positive Law or Revealed L aw is necessary. This law exists in two stages: the priesthood of Levi (the Old Law) and the priesthood of Christ (the New Law). These two laws are not different species of law. The Old Law is the same species of Law as the New Law, i.e. Divine Positive Law. The purpose of both laws is the same: charity and grace in the life of the Holy Spirit. These two types are distinguished as imperfect to perfect in relationship to this goal. The Old Law instructed people like children. The New law instructs people like adults.

Children need many commandments because they have not interiorized the values of the laws. They are encouraged to the practice of good by material punishments and rewards. According to the people at the time of Christ there were 623 precepts of the Old Law. 248 were commands and 365 were prohibitions. This was because the people were like children with respect to the life of grace. The common good of the Old Law is reflected in material and earthly promises. For instance, when Job is finally vindicated at the end of the book of Job, he receives back two fold from God the material goods he had lost. This is because the men of the Old Law could not have understood him receiving only spiritual promises even though the meaning of the book is that one can lose all material goods and as long as one has not lost God, one has not lost his humanity. The promises of the New Law are spiritual. They are heaven and the Vision of God together with the Grace, Virtues and Gifts necessary to arrive there.

The relationship of the Old Law, the New Law and the Vision of God could thus be schematized in this way:


Human Law is only sufficient for guiding man to certain ends in this world, but not to the Ultimate End which is heaven. The Old Law goes beyond both the Natural and Human Law and prepares man for his ultimate destiny, the Vision of God. God Himself founds a community of divine election by means of the Old Law from those who have common descent from Abraham. Angels promulgate the Old Law (Cf. Gal. 3:19). This shows that in itself it is a gift from God. The Old Law establishes a new community, which has heaven itself as its end. The Old Law unifies two aspects of God, which are necessary for the coming Redemption in which Christ will open the gates of heaven: God as author of nature and as Father of Jesus Christ. For this reason the primary precept of the Old Law is monotheism.

The Natural Law gives us the inclinations by which we are generally morally obliged to do good and avoid evil. The Old Law presupposes these principles and restates them as a specific preparation for the holy people of God from which the Messiah will come. This restatement and application is the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue.

For this purpose the Old Law had three sorts of precepts. The first were the general Moral precepts, which this law shared with the Natural Law. These are the Ten Commandments considered in general. The second was the application of these precepts to the worship of the one God of monotheism, which God Himself demanded to make the community consecrated to Himself. These are called the ceremonial precepts and they are contained in the first three commandments, which respect the correct attitude of man towards God. These are usually called the First Table of the Law because the Law was by Tradition given on two tablets to Moses. The third kind of commandments respects the actions, which befit a holy people towards man. These are called the Juridical Precepts and are usually referred to as the Second Table of the Law. They comprise the last seven commandments. So there are three sorts of precepts in the Old Law: Moral, Ceremonial and Juridical.

In both tables the Moral precepts are identical with the Natural Law. When Jesus says, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets," (Matt. 5:17) he is referring to the Moral precepts. The Moral aspect is implemented in Israel with very special ceremonial and juridical precepts which are characteristic of their society alone and now have been superseded by Christ in the society of the Church.

The Israelite community formed by God Himself has a special relationship to Him. The whole people was consecrated, the laity by circumcision, the priests by ordination. The Ceremonial Law as found in Exodus and Leviticus especially had to be punctiliously observed. This Ceremonial Law included everything from the observance of feasts in the Temple to laws governing the purification of foods and vessels in everyday life. The people showed their consecration by living these everyday rituals. God shows in this that He is not only the Creator of each person, but also the Founder and Ruler of the community. The Israelites acknowledge God as the rector by these practices.

The external practices are ordered to an interior formation. Charity as the love of the Holy Spirit and faith as embraced in the Holy Spirit are the first principles of the Old Law. The founder of the community demanded that the exterior rituals reflect these interior states of mind. Because Israel is a commonwealth of God, the prophets must constantly remind Israel of this. The Ceremonial precepts have both a literal and a figurative meaning. The figurative meaning is more important than the literal. God founds civil society indirectly through nature. God founds Israel and her successor the Church directly. Jesus reproves the Jews of his time repeatedly for emphasizing the literal meaning of the Ceremonial Precepts over the figurative. The cleansing and purification of the vessels, the Sabbath rest, for example merely prepare the people for the moral purification and rest in God which the Messiah will bring with grace.

The Ceremonial Precepts are applied in the Juridical Precepts. The Juridical Precepts are basically found in the book of Deuteronomy. These laws are very unusual in their constant emphasis on mercy towards others while applying justice as well. "Beginning with the Old Testament, all kinds of juridical measures (the jubilee year of forgiveness of debts, prohibition of loans at interest and the keeping of collateral, the obligation to tithe, the daily payment of the day-laborer, the right to glean vines and fields) answer the exhortation of Deuteronomy: 'For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, "You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land"'" (CCC n. 2449).

The meaning of the Juridical Precepts is therefore just the opposite of the Ceremonial Precepts. In them the literal meaning is more important than the figurative. Jesus often reproves the Jews of his time for trying to reduce the mercy towards others demanded by the Law of God to mere human casuistry and thus excusing them from any real practical charity. The figure the Juridical Precepts present of the kindness of the future eschatological kingdom is much less important and urgent than the present demands of virtue in the practical actions which the Israelites were to perform in everyday actions.

God, our Creator and Redeemer, chose Israel for himself to be his people and revealed his law to them, thus preparing for the coming of Christ. The Law of Moses expresses many truths naturally accessible to reason. These are stated and authenticated within the covenant of salvation (CCC n. 1961).

The Old law is the first stage of revealed law. Its moral prescriptions are summed up in the Ten Commandments. The precepts of the Decalogue lay the foundations for the vocation of man fashioned in the image of God; they prohibit what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor and prescribe what is essential to it. The Decalogue is a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God's call and ways known to him and to protect him against evil:

"God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts" (CCC n. 1962).


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top