Of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), a large proportion is legal code. Leviticus in particular focuses on a lot of “do this” and “don’t do that”.
When reading these codes, you must remember that they were the “Law of the Land” and not simply moral codes we can allegorize at our convenience. You are quite literally reading the legal code of Israel.
Exodus-Numbers contain a number of laws that are quite similar to other legal codes we know from the late Bronze Age (13th-11th century BCE) while Deuteronomy is more in tune with Iron Age Palestine (7th century BCE). Deuteronomy is essentially a reiteration of the older code in a different context, probably done during the reign of the Judahite king Josiah.
There are also smaller portions of legal code contained in books like Ezra-Nehemiah, although these are Babylonian and Persian codes, not Hebrew ones.
How do we read these law codes? First and foremost, we read them as what they are – ancient laws. They are not meant to form our legal opinions today, and they certainly cannot be picked apart for convenient proofs of a position.
The law codes include some pretty extreme things – like executing children for disobedience (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and being allowed to rape a teenage girl as long as you compensate her father (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 – that we definitely do not practice today. They also contain some pretty good advice – don’t eat undercooked meat, put a rail on staircases – that we can accept as just common sense.
How do you read law codes?
That’s a great question.
Too often, we try to over spiritualize everything in the Bible because – well, it’s in the Bible. The law codes are exactly what they sound like they are. We can read them and appreciate them as a window into the lives and well-being of the people of Israel.
On a second level, we can read them and see that some of the imagery in the law codes was consciously fulfilled in Jesus’ life. He “fulfilled” the Law, completing the images that it left half-explained. A good key to reading the Law is to read the book of Hebrews. It is a very Jewish book of the Christian Scriptures, drawing connections throughout the Law to Jesus himself.