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January 25, 2012 / Daniel

Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...

This week I’ve been wrestling with Galatians 3:12 and Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5.  This is a quite challenging example of the OT in the NT.  Paul writes, “The Law is not of faith, but “the person who does these things shall live by them.”Two questions stand out to me about the text.   What does Paul mean by  “the Law is not of faith”?  How does Leviticus 18:5 support this argument?
Here are some possible answers.

1) The Law is not a “faith-based” system.  It’s a merit-based system.  Leviticus 18:5 makes Paul’s point.  The Law promises eternal life to those who obey God’s commands.  However, no one can obey God’s commands to perfection.  So, this promise is hypothetical.  If you could obey the Law perfectly, you could earn eternal life by your works.  But you can’t.

Problems:  This is a really bad reading of Lev. 18:5.  In its original context, Lev. 18:5 does not offer a hypothetical alternative way of salvation.  Lev. 18:5 is written to people already in covenant with God.  God rescued Israel from Egypt based entirely on His own free grace.  Israel had nothing to offer God (Deut. 7:6-8).  Lev. 18:5 offers the blessings of covenant to obedient covenant members.  “If you obey the terms of covenant, you will enjoy a good life within the land.”

Another problem with this interpretation is that the assumption that the Law requires perfect obedience.  However, Scripture gives several examples of individuals who kept God’s law (Gen. 26:5; 2 Kings 23:3, 25; Luke 1:6).  This suggests that the Law required “sufficient obedience,” not perfect obedience.

An additional problem is that this creates a contradiction with the OT Law (cf. Romans 10:5-13).  On the one hand, the Law tells me that I can earn my salvation (Lev. 18:5).  But on the other hand, the Law tells me that the Law is easy to follow.  All that is required is faith (Deut. 30:11-14).

2)   The age of Law is not the age of Faith (Joel Willitts).  This interpretation treats the terms “law” and “faith” as tags for two different time periods (cf. Gal. 3:23).  Gal. 3:12a draws a stark contrast between these two dispensations.  Paul uses Lev. 18:5 to support this stark dichotomy.  This approach focuses on how Lev. 18:5 is developed throughout the rest of the OT (Ezekiel 20:25 and Nehemiah 9:29).  In these passages, Nehemiah and Ezekiel point to Lev. 18:5 to explain why Israel was in exile. Since the nation didn’t obey God’s commands, they did not enjoy the good life.  Instead they were cursed.  They were taken into exile.

Problems:  This approach is attractive to me.  But I still have some nagging doubts about it.  For instance, this doesn’t seem to be the natural way of taking Gal. 3:12a.  Why read these terms as tags for two different dispensations?  Another difficulty is the reading of Lev. 18:5.  It relies too much on the trajectory of Lev. 18:5 within the rest of the OT.  Would have Paul’s audience picked up on this?

3) The Law is not a substitute to faith.  The Law is not the way into the covenant.  Rather, it only serves to regulate life for the Jewish people (James Dunn). This interpretation holds to a positive view of the OT Law.  The book of Galatians argues that Gentiles should not have to observe the Law.  Why because the works of Law are not an alternative to faith.  The Law is not the means of entering into covenant with God.

Lev. 18:5 supports Gal. 3:12a by showing us the Law’s proper function within Israelite society.  God offered covenant blessings to Israel if they obeyed His commands. If they didn’t, they would not enjoy those blessings. So, Leviticus 18:5 is not about entrance into the covenant.  It’s about your identity within the covenant.   Law observance is what separated Israel out as a nation.   Following these commands means not doing what the Canaanites and Egyptians do (Lev. 18:4).   Paul argues that the Law is not an alternative to faith.  It is not a substitute for faith.  In other words, the Law is not the way into the covenant.  It regulates life of covenant members.  It distinguishes the Jews from their Gentile neighbors.

Problems: Would this interpretation help Paul counter the Judaizers?

Which interpretation makes the most sense to you?  Why?

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  1. Jim Hamilton / Jan 25 2012 4:26 pm

    Did you consider this essay?

    “The One Who Does Them Shall Live By Them: Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12,” Gospel Witness (August 2005), 10-14.

    PDF online here:

  2. Daniel / Jan 25 2012 4:55 pm


    Thanks for sharing your article. I will certainly consider it. I’m really not satisfied with any particular interpretation right now.

    Do you think that Paul uses Lev. 18:5 in a similar way in Romans 10?



  1. Paul’s Use of Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10 « Anchor for the Soul
  2. James Dunn on “Being In Christ” « Anchor for the Soul

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