Does Ritual Law Exist? – Part 3
by Paul Blake
In Part 1, it was explained that scholars have essentially rejected the “categories of law” such as ritual, moral, civil, etc. In Part 2, a survey of Scripture revealed that the terms ritual, ceremony-ceremonial, civil, and moral are seldom used in Scripture. When they do show up, they are almost always used differently than how they are understood today. Now here in Part 3, we will examine three additional insights. First, the penalties do not flow with a ritual-moral categorization. Second, were the ritual laws abolished? Third, the fear of the Lord must be upon us when discussing whether to abolish laws.
The “moral” laws are supposedly the commands given to all mankind. The moral sins are supposedly worse than breaking a “ritual” law. However, moral laws were not necessarily punished with the highest penalties. Authors have noted that bans on stealing and lying had lesser penalties (Lev. 6:1-7, etc.), with a lesser penalty being something other than the death penalty. Why would there be a lesser penalty on stealing? This does not flow with the basic logic of higher penalties on moral laws and lesser penalties – or no penalties? – on ritual laws.
Converse to the penalties for stealing, the death penalty was instructed for laws that seem more like “ritual.” Aaron’s priestly garments were commanded to be worn under the penalty of death (Exodus 28:35, 43), and the priests were to wash with water, so that they will not die (Exodus 30:20). Clothes and washing seem to be ritual laws, yet worse than stealing? Regarding the sacrificial system, a non-Levite who comes near shall be put to death (Numbers 1:51), and a non-priest who comes near shall be put to death (Numbers 3:10). Being in a “different family” seems to be more of a ritual law than a moral law. Finally, breaking the Sabbath brought the death penalty (Ex. 31:12-17), raising the unanswerable question as to whether Sabbath is a moral or ritual command.
In summary, to impose a categorization of moral (higher) and ritual (lower) does not seem consistent with the penalties in Scripture.
Potential Abolishment of Ritual Laws
Were certain laws abolished and thus no longer applicable? If so, which ones were abolished? Traditional views that ritual law was abolished are difficult to support. Polhill noted: “The boundary between ritual and ethical law is not always distinct.”1 To abolish ritual law would require a clear indication as to which laws were actually rituals. Which laws belong in which category? Obviously, there will likely never be any scholarly agreement on which laws are “ceremonial” or “moral” or “ritual” or “civil” since the Bible does not tell us. Thus there will never be any agreement on which laws may or may not have been abolished. This is a major problem with the moral-ritual categorization.
Fear of the Lord – Right vs. Wrong
The Torah functioned as the definition of right and wrong, a topic our generation is thoroughly confused about. If we approach this subject of ethics with a predisposition that changing the definition of right, wrong, and sin is no big deal, then we have ultimately missed the greater context of the Torah as well as Yeshua’s offer of forgiveness of sins.
Any interpretation of Yeshua’s teaching, Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), would need to be approached with the fear of the Lord. If His intention was to change the definition of right, wrong, and sin … then this would need to be clear … presumably crystal clear. Since He offered forgiveness of sins, He indeed would have needed to be clear about what was sinful.
The weaknesses of the moral-ritual categorization, now exposed as substantially weak Scripturally and rejected by scholars in this discipline, provide an opportunity to revisit the Scripture from a fresh perspective. In Part 4, an alternative will be provided.
1. John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Acts, vol. 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 331.