Many years ago, I became acquainted with Rousas Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law. By then, I had grown in the conviction that the whole Bible (not just the New Testament) is God’s word for his people, and that all of it is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). But how does this work itself out in regard to the minutiae of Old Testament laws? I appreciated Rushdoony’s commitment to working that out in detail. It demonstrated a healthy desire to be obedient to all God’s requirements of his people, while acknowledging that Christ’s fulfillment, though not abolishment, of the “law and the prophets” (Mt 5:17), changes the way in which particular Old Testament laws make claims upon us in the new covenant. I did not become a “theonomist” (or Christian reconstructionist) of the sort that was worked out by people like Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, in line with Rushdoony’s earlier work, because I have a different perspective on the nature of God’s rule in this time of the “not yet,” and on the ways in which Christians should seek to further God’s reign in state and society. But I continue to believe that there is value in our seeking to understand why God made particular demands of his people under the Mosaic covenant, with a view to discerning whether and how those demands should affect our own lives as Christians.
I took a crack at identifying hermeneutical principles to aid us in discerning the universal moral absolutes in Scripture, in an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (36/2 [June 1993]: 189-207, reprinted in Didaskalia 18/1 [Winter 2007]: 5-29.). I have juat placed a pdf file of “Toward a Hermeneutic for Discerning Universal Moral Absolutes” in my “Publications” section.]
This discernment process is no easy task, and sometimes we simply scratch our heads about things God required of Israel, so that we are at a loss to know how, if at all, such commands demand our own obedience. One such command is God’s prohibition of the wearing of clothes in which wool and linen are woven together (Deut 22:11). Is there some thing God is asking of us as new covenant believers? Are we supposed to avoid polyester and wool/cotton blends in our clothing now? In a helpful post, Lois Tverberg asks, “Why on earth did God make such an odd prohibition?,” and she admits that she used to roll her eyes at this one. But her explanation of the reason for this command, in its context, is helpful.
In its ancient context, though, the law had a perfectly logical reasoning. Both the priestly garments and the tabernacle weavings were a combination of wool and linen. The priest’s white undergarment was linen, and the brightly colored vestment was wool. So it was prohibited for laypersons to dress in the same way.
Other prohibited mixtures had the same rationale. For instance, no one but the priests could blend together aromatic spices to make the combination used in anointing oil (Exodus 30:33). The distinctive fragrance would mark whatever it anointed as holy, set apart for God’s special purposes.
Why? Because the Israelites were fresh from a polytheistic world and still half-convinced that pagan gods would answer their prayers. They were strongly tempted to set up their own private D-I-Y shrine to offer a few sacrifices on the side. So they were barred from duplicating certain items used in worship.
Tverberg goes on to discuss the tension that we might then experience from the fact that common Israelites, not just the priests, were instructed to wear tzitzit in Numbers 15:38.One of the strands of these tassles “was dyed with tekhelet, the blue dye that was used in the high priest’s robe and the tabernacle covering,” given that “wearing tassels was a sign of nobility, and the blue dye suggested priestly status.” Furthermore, in the first century, these tassels were made of wool blended with linen.
The reason that Israelites wore wool and linen together in the tzitzit was because they realized its message. God’s goal was that they would be a “nation of priests” — representing the true God in how he wanted the world to live. Every person was to have this mark of priesthood. In their tassels, they were all priests, even if they were prohibited from imitating them otherwise.
This is a fine example of the sort of care with which we need to attend to God’s commandments, as we seek to obey them appropriately in our own context. Now, we are all members of a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:1-9), called to both privilege, service and holiness. This “general office” does not rule out the appointment of people to “special office” in the church, but it shapes the nature of our relationships in a very significant way, though somewhat differently than before the unrepeatable work of our great High Priest.