The “Curse of the Law”

A casual reading of Galatians 3:10 can give the impression that any attempt to apply an Old Covenant principle, such as keeping the Sabbath, into one’s life leads to an automatic curse. Therefore the solution most commonly proposed is to completely avoid doing anything that comes from the Old Testament law, unless Jesus specifically commands it.

Is Paul really telling Jewish believers to go reject every Torah-based principle they learned growing up? Is he telling Gentile believers to avoid every appearance of Torah-observance? Or is he really just putting the Jewish anti-Gentile zealotry of his day into biblical perspective?

In Galatians 3 Paul explains that current obedience to the Old Covenant law does not bring retroactive forgiveness of past sin. Nor does an attempt to enter into Israel’s Sinai Covenant automatically bring the blessings promised within it.

Paul also notes that the law was intended to show all human beings that they are sinners. The law becomes a kind of beginning-point toward understanding our need for a saviour. It was designed to be a warning flag about our condition before God and our need for a change of mind, heart and soul.

What Paul doesn’t explain directly is why “relying on the law” automatically brings a curse. The answer to that question requires an understanding of the place the law in ancient Israel.

This code functioned within a social contract that was entered into between Israel and their God, Yahweh. This social contract is what is usually referred to by Christians as the Old Covenant. The Law and the Covenant are not necessarily the same thing. The Law forms part of what are sometimes called the “stipulations” of the covenant.

This covenant contained specific blessings for obedience to the stipulations and specific curses for disobedience. These curses are the ones Paul is referring to when he says that anyone who wants to “rely” on that law are under a curse. The curse and its ultimate results are specified in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The ultimate result is mentioned in vs. 65-67,

“Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods–gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”–because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see. 68 The LORD will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.” (NIV version)

The “curse of the law” was ultimately to result in a national disgrace unparalleled in history. It was to result in ejection from the promised land, life under Gentile domination, and sporadic persecution that would make life hazardous and uncertain under Gentile rule. The people of this broken covenant would be in constant danger of loss of possessions and loss of life in a hostile world. In other words, the “curse of the law” is a national punishment involving permanent personal uncertainty and danger to its citizens under foreign domination.

Comedian Jerry Lewis put the situation in a humorous way when he presented Bob Hope with a certificate making him an honorary Jew. As he presented it, he told Bob that this certificate entitled him to two thousand years of retroactive persecution.

The Apostle Paul was telling Gentile believers the same thing, but he was no comedian. The Israelite nation was already living under the curse that irremediable disobedience to the covenant law entailed. The attempt to enter into a covenant relationship with God through circumcision into the nation of Israel entitles you to enter into the judgment already pronounced by God Himself against that people for violating the covenant.

There was no provision within the covenant itself for repairing the covenant relationship once the disobedience reached the point of no return.

God does not leave them entirely without hope, however.

Once the scattering takes place, the only hope is for God Himself to gather the people of the nation once again in a second exodus. This hope was promised for a time after all these curses had taken place (Deut 30).

Jesus Christ came to gather His people from all nations into an inheritance that will last forever. This gathering is predicted to include Gentile believers. The gathering continues through His disciples and continues until His return to bring them into that inheritance.

In the meantime, just what constitutes an attempt to enter into the “Old Covenant”? What does it mean to “rely” on the law?

Was it wrong for Jesus’ disciples to continue to worship in the Temple area?
Was it wrong for Paul or Jewish disciples to participate in the vow ritual at the Temple (Acts 21: 17-26)?
Was it wrong for Jewish disciples to be “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20)?
Was it wrong for Paul to worship in synagogues as he preached Jesus Christ?
Was it wrong for Paul to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1-4)?

The answer to all of the above seems to be a resounding “no.” There seems to be something going on in all of those cases that does not fall under the category of “relying on the law.”

The distinguishing characteristic that seems to bother Paul is the attempt to become retroactively righteous by starting to keep the law that has already resulted in Israel being cursed. In other words, relying on covenant-law observance to undo one’s sinful nature is a non-starter.

On the other hand, grateful recognition of forgiveness in Jesus in a new, Spirit-empowered life seems to allow lifestyle choices that include many things found in the Old Covenant law. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the Old Covenant law also includes many commonsense principles common to human societies around the world.

I don’t think I need to be worried that I am somehow under the “curse of the law” if I choose to refrain from eating pork products or choose to memorialize Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return on festival days mentioned in the Old Testament. These are choices I can make for myself, but not for other believers.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
This entry was posted in Faith, gospel, Religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The “Curse of the Law”

  1. James Pate says:

    Thanks for this post. It seems to resemble N.T. Wright’s view on the curse of the law, but it also brings other things into the discussion, such as the church being a community that emerged after the curses had run their course, in a return from exile sort of way.

    My question is this: Do you think that the Judaizers thought that Christ paid the penalty for our sins? I think of that passage in Galatians where Paul says that the Judaizing Galatians started with the spirit, but they are ending with the flesh.

    • John Valade says:

      Your very good question forces me to dig deeper, as always.

      Speculating about the reasoning of people who lived 2000 years ago is risky business, but here goes: They probably did believe Christ paid the penalty for our sins, but, as Jews, they may have thought that they must live according to the Sinai/Deuteronomic covenant in order to remain in a right relationship with God. Failure to live up to that calling would then cause God to reject them again. I think they misunderstood the intent of the law during captivity. It was to remind them of a better way of living that only God could bring them back to in another exodus.

      This misunderstanding was probably caused by an overly simplistic reading of Deuteronomy 30, to the effect that obedience to the law is required in order for God to restore the fortunes of Israel. Even if that reading is correct (which I doubt), applying that reading to Gentile believers takes it to a way different level than the original intent.

      What Deuteronomy 30 seems to be saying instead is that what is needed is a heart that would obey God’s commands in whatever form is appropriate under the circumstances in which they found themselves (such as slavery or exile). Some things could be done and others could not be done under exilic circumstances. Daniel’s life and work seems to be a good example of how to live in exile with a heart to obey God’s commands.

      I think Paul is saying that both Jewish and Gentile believers are given a heart to obey God’s commands, but that does not require Gentile believers to first become Jewish converts in order to exercise that heart. Gentile believers exercise their obedience in ways appropriate to their Gentile circumstances outside of Israelite captivity, while Jewish believers exercise their obedience in ways appropriate to their status under Roman subjugation.

      This is consistent with Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 7:17-24 that they remain in whatever circumstances they found themselves in when they were called.

      I won’t claim that this is the only possible answer to your question, but I hope it helps. Please let me know if I missed the point of your question and I’ll try again.

  2. So how should we live in light of this tension What does it look like to live in a place that is not our home.

    • John Valade says:

      Sorry for taking so long to post your comment and reply. It has been a very busy and challenging few weeks for me and my family.

      Jesus gives us His answer in His famous Sermon on the Mount. We live, as far as possible without going contrary to God’s will, in peace with our neighbors. We do good works to help others freely, without worrying about whether it is for friend or foe. These things are actually consistent with what Jeremiah wrote in a letter to his Jewish bretheren in Babylonian captivity, recorded in Jer. 29:1-14. In the midst of a message of hope for the exiles he says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, fir in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

      Jesus, of course, goes much further in his instructions, but there is a consistency in His approach with prior biblical teaching about living in exile from the Promised Land.

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