Why did God give the Israelites an imperfect Law?

Leviticus 25:44

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.

Deuteronomy 21:15-16

If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.

Psalm 119:151, 152, 160

Yet you are near, O LORD ,
and all your commands are true.
Long ago I learned from your statutes
that you established them to last forever...

All your words are true;
all your righteous laws are eternal.

Hebrews 8:7, 13

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another...By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

In order for people to do what's right, they must know right from wrong and must be able to do what's right. However, we aren't able to do what's right on our own; we need God's help. The law given to the Israelites did to some extent give them concrete ethical teaching: they were to love God, love their neighbors, etc. But this was not the entire purpose of the law. The law was intended to make the Israelites aware of their own sin and of the fact that they couldn't obey the entire law, i.e. that they could not earn a place in heaven through their own merits or hard work,1 and therefore needed to rely on God. The law also foreshadowed the forgiveness God provided through Jesus' sacrifice.2

How are we to understand Psalm 119 and its praise of the law? The law was perfect in that it perfectly accomplished what God intended it to do: convict the Israelites of sin and provide a framework for understanding Christ and what his sacrifice accomplished. It was not, however, meant to be the final and complete set of God's instructions to mankind. It didn't provide a way for ordinary people to be saved from punishment when they failed to obey it, but saving people was something God wanted to accomplish.

Even given the purpose of the law, the question remains: why did God allow the Israelites to do some things that were wrong? Why didn't he openly specify everything that a perfect person would do and not do?

One possible answer is that God knows how hard it is for us to realize that we need him and can't earn our way into heaven. For many (and perhaps all) people, the only way to learn this is to try to do things on their own and realize they can't. The law allowed the Israelites to do just that, by providing a finite set of rules which they would accept as attainable and attempt to follow. If the law attempted to describe absolute moral perfection, the Israelites would have realized it was impossible for them - but this would not cause them to realize they needed God. Instead, they would have complained that God was being unreasonable and refused to even try. This was the reaction of most people when Jesus explained what true moral perfection was,3 and the Israelites were not any more virtuous than the average person.4

While some things the Israelites did under the law were wrong, God in his mercy overlooked them for the sake of bringing about his larger plan of salvation. He didn't overlook them forever, though; these wrongs were ultimately dealt with through Christ's substitutionary punishment.

Finally, one should note that although the law allowed some things such as polygamy, divorce and slavery, God had provided the Israelites with teaching which pointed to the higher moral standard. As Jesus himself pointed out,5 the creation account in Genesis 2:23-24 indicates that marriage is to be lifelong and monogamous. Similarly, the command to love everyone, including foreigners, as oneself6 was an indication that slavery was not part of God's ideal. (For more on these issues, see the related articles below.)

Related articles


1. Rom 3:10-20 (Back to article)
2. Heb 10:1-12 (Back to article)
3. Mt 19:9-12, Lk 18:18-27 (Back to article)
4. Mt 19:8, Dt 9:6 (Back to article)
5. Mt 19:3-8 (Back to article)
6. Lev 19:33-34 (Back to article)

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