How do we apply biblical law to current issues? How do we apply the ancient Hebrew prophets’ call for justice in Israel to contemporary western societies? These questions must be thoughtfully considered because the hermeneutical issues are thorny. Four common approaches will be considered here.
One way of applying biblical law to modern issues and laws is to look for literal correlations between the two. While this way of viewing the Bible is common among very conservative readers of Scripture, this approach is seriously flawed. I think most readers of the Old Testament law, Christians or Jews, will agree that the Sinai legislation of Exodus 20–Deuteronomy 34 constituted the legal code for Israel and not for the U.S.A, Canada, the European Union, or any other country, although Christians will affirm with the apostle Paul that the Hebrew Scriptures were “written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11, ESV) and that God’s word “remains forever” (Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:25), while at the same time concurring with the distinguished theologian Gerhard von Rad that Scripture is “the particular word relevant to a particular hour in history.” Consequently we must be very careful about literally applying ancient Israelite law to the present without fully understanding the setting and context of the passage in question.
First, we must recognize the vast differences that exist between the cultural, economic, and social milieu of ancient Israel three thousand years ago and present western culture. They are not the same, and it is misguided to make one-to-one, literal correlations. For example, a person considered poor by modern western standards would be viewed as very affluent in ancient Near Eastern economies. A poor person in America may not have medical insurance (although he or she may have Medicaid or access to public clinics), but the commoner in ancient Israel (most people were farmers or pastoralists) most likely never saw a doctor in his entire life, and his children neither had checkups nor received inoculations! The same is true when we go from those considered to be impoverished in western nations to the poor in parts of Asia or Africa today. So applying ancient biblical law and the prophet’s message to the modern western context is not a simple task.
A second approach to applying the Bible to current practices is to take seriously the demand for justice found in Israel’s prophets. This appeal is taken by some as a call to fairly apply and practice American law. Martin Luther King Jr., in fact, did this. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King quoted Amos—“let justice roll down”—followed by an appeal to the Declaration of Independence when it refers to “unalienable Rights” and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He rightly pleaded that blacks were not benefiting from the “Rights” guaranteed in the Constitution. Certainly any fair-minded person will agree that the laws of any nation should be consistently and fairly applied to its population.
A third approach is to examine the legal material in the Torah in order to understand the theological or ethical principle behind the Law and use that doctrine to shape or critique federal, state, and local laws. A proponent of this approach is Walter Kaiser Jr. In this model one examines biblical injunctions as a standard and extracts the ethical principle at work in the Torah. Armed with the ethical teaching, one can then assess present-day statutes and legal precedents to correct or adjust the law, and where there are gaps in our laws, biblical law can offer ethical principles and moral guidelines for establishing new laws.
A fourth method insists that one take a more comprehensive view of the teaching of the Bible in theological, social, and economic areas and thereby establish a biblical worldview as a way of evaluating contemporary social and legal issues. A champion of this approach is Christopher Wright. The advantage to this approach is that one can “preserve the objective” of the biblical teaching “but change the context” to any culture or time.9 Thus we are not time-bound as in the first approach.
The literal, proof-texting method of the first approach should be avoided because it is simplistic and naive. Typically those who want to apply biblical law to the western context do so selectively, accepting laws they personally feel comfortable with and rejecting those that create unease. The second approach of only using the call for justice in the Bible to promote “American” or “Canadian” justice certainly has much to commend to a society where the laws themselves are generally equitable but are being ignored for whatever reason. Limiting “justice,” however, to the application of existing law fails to recognize that the Bible can also serve as a moral sounding board for our laws and can serve as an ethical foundation to challenge immoral laws. Certainly we should take the call to justice (social or otherwise) seriously (i.e., apply existing laws), but we must go beyond that.
Where relevant, ethical, and moral principles in biblical law and the application of it by Israel’s prophets can serve as a standard by which to evaluate present-day laws, and where the Law is silent, one can employ theological principles in the Bible to shape new laws in a way that would, in the words of the preamble to the American Constitution, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” This is the contribution that the system promoted by Kaiser can make. What do we do, then, if the Bible is silent on an issue? For example, the Bible does not mention abortion at all as it was not an issue to ancient Israel. One can indeed make a very strong case against taking life in the womb, but this requires an all-embracing biblical and theological argument.
Wright’s model allows one to look for ethical principles in the Bible. However, it is done in a more comprehensive manner by examining the entire canon of Scripture through the lens of the major biblical themes of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. In the following chapters we shall attempt to use this comprehensive approach especially as it relates to the alien in ancient Israel and then see how it might be relevant to the present dilemma facing people who care about national laws and biblical justice too.
 James K. Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).