So, what does Luther look for in Moses?

Part 5: Guidance in the Pentateuch. Re-reading Moses with Luther.

The provocative “Judensau is displayed outside on St.Mary´s. It too is very much in the lime-light and contemporary controversies – way beyond the limits of old Wittenberg.[1] Luther as translator of the bible, worked in a team of specialists and experts. They were following the “Wittenberg way” (Kolb 2008) of doing theology – very much in line with “mutuum colloquium et consolatio fratrum” (Dingel 2014, 766).  The hermeneutic drive involved linguistic finesse, translation skills, encyclopedic detail, theological expertise and also a touch of editorial and artistic genius – never mind consistency, musicality, grammar and being in touch with local society and way beyond.[2]  For Luther the Christological cornerstone has highest priority – and that as formulated in the first and foremost article of our faith in the “Justification by faith alone”. This held sway way beyond grammar, language, historical critique and contextual criteria etc. Looking at Holy Writ without this Christological bias was bound to end in the sticks[3].  Whoever read the Bible with other glasses (“looking eyes”) – e.g. as a secret code (“The Tetragram”/Holy Name) for some occult message like the Jewish Cabbala did, was going to end up blank as if looking up a pig´s annus.  That´s no way to go.

Luther´s introduction to the OT in his bible translation of 1545 (1523)[4]. This is basically a guide on “Why read the OT?” and what to expect in it.

First of all, ML emphasizes the need to read it diligently for not only have we our Lord´s command[5] and clear apostolic instructions[6] to do so, but “it is a public preaching and proclamation of Christ, set forth through the sayings of the OT and fulfilled through Christ.” (Luther, Prefaces to the OT. 1961, 236).

Here You will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds in Lk.2,12. (i.e. the Christmas narrative ebd)

ML then marks the entire OT emphasis on the divine Law – and that in the theological use of revealing sin and accusing the perpetrators (usus elenchticus):

(The OT is) a book of laws, which teaches what men are to do and not to do – and in addition gives examples and stories of how these laws are kept or broken – just as the NT is gospel or book of grace and teaches where one is to get the power to fulfil the law. Now in the NT there are also given, along with the teaching about grace, many other teachings that are laws and commandments for the control of the flesh – since in this life the Spirit is not perfected, and grace alone cannot rule. Similarly in the OT too there are, beside the laws, certain promises, and words of grace, by which the holy fathers and prophets under the law were kept, like us, in the faith of Christ. Nevertheless, just as the chief teaching of the NT is really the proclamation of grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins in Christ, so the chief teaching of the OT is really the teaching of laws, the showing up of sin, and the demanding of good. You should expect this in the OT. (ebd. 236f)

Subsequently he takes us through book by book – starting off with Moses: “Genesis … is made up almost entirely of illustrations of faith and unbelief, and of the fruits that faith and unbelief bear. It is an exceedingly evangelical book.” (Ebd. 237)[7]“In … Exodus… when the world was now full and sunk in blindness so that men scarcely knew any longer what sin was or where death came from, God brings Moses forward with the law and selects a special people, in order to enlighten the world again through them, and by the law to reveal sin anew.”[8] (Ebd). “The special topic of the third book [Leviticus] is the appointment of the priesthood, with the statutes and laws according to which the priests are to act and to teach the people. There we see that a priestly office is instituted only because of sin, to disclose sin to the people and to make atonement before God, so that its entire function is to deal with sin and sinners.”[9] (Ebd. 237f)The 4th book of Moses (Numbers) proves the worth of the pudding in the eating: “This book is a notable example of how vacuous it is to make people righteous with laws; rather, as St. Paul says, laws cause only sin and wrath.”[10] (Ebd. 238) “In the fifth book [Deuteronomy], after the people have been punished because of their disobedience, and God has enticed them a little with grace, in order that by his kindness in giving them the two kingdoms they might be moved to keep his law gladly and willingly, then Moses repeats the whole law. He repeats the story of all that has happened to the people (except for that which concerns the priesthood) and explains anew everything that belongs either to the bodily or to the spiritual governing of a people. Thus Moses, as a perfect lawgiver, fulfilled all the duties of his office. He not only gave the law, but was there when men were to fulfil it. When things went wrong, he explained the law and re-established it. Yet this explanation in the fifth book really contains nothing else than faith toward God and love toward one’s neighbor, for all God’s laws come to that. Therefore, down to the twentieth chapter, Moses, in his explanation of the law, guards against everything that might destroy faith in God; and from there to the end of the book he guards against everything that hinders love.”

God through Moses gives so many laws “as to leave human reason no room to choose a single work of its own or to invent its own form of worship. For Moses not only teaches fear, love, and trust toward God, but he also provides so many ways of outward worship… that no one needs to choose anything else… Why?… that all their doings may surely be right in his eyes. For if anyone does anything for which God´s word has not first given warrant, it counts for nothing before God and is labor lost…. For obedience, which depends on God´s word, is of all works the noblest and best.” (Ebd.239)[11]

The divine laws are of 3 kinds:

  • Temporal things (like imperial law): for the wicked… prevention rather than instruction.
  • Laws about faith & love, which rule supreme, so that “kings, priests and heads of the people often transgressed the laws boldly, at the demand of faith and love” (Ebd. 240)[12]  
  • Dynamics of obedience to God´s all encompassing law: “A man must at every hour be ready for anything and do whatever the situation requires.” (Ebd.241)

We heard above Moses is the perfect lawgiver.

There is reason in that:

That Moses is so insistent and often repeats the same thing shows also the nature of his office. For one who is to rule a people-with-laws [Gesetzvolk] must constantly admonish, constantly drive, and knock himself out struggling with the people as [he would] with asses. For no work of law is done gladly and willingly; it is all forced and compelled. Now since Moses is a lawgiver, he has to show by his insistence that the work of the law is a forced work. He has to wear the people down, until this insistence makes them not only recognize their illness and their dislike for God’s law, but also long for grace, as we shall show.

“The true intention of Moses is through the law to reveal sin and put to shame all presumption as to human ability” (Ebd. 242)[13]… “He forces and presses sins upon them (the people) in heaps.” (Ebd.243)[14] “These laws of Moses were given not only to prevent anyone from choosing ways of his own for doing good and living aright…but rather that sins might simply become numerous and be heaped up beyond measure.” (Ebd. 244)

This is good and necessary (“meet, right & salutary!”), because it drives away our “blindness and hardened presumption” (that we can fulfil God´s law!) Human nature is terrified, finds neither trust/faith, fear/love to God nor love or purity towards its neighbor – instead unbelief, doubt, contempt and hatred to God… evil and evil desire: “Death is instantly before its eyes, ready to devour such a sinner and to swallow him up in hell… I am rejected by God…The devil has me; I can never be saved. This is to be really cast into hell (1.Co15,56) ” (Ebd.243)

“The good law of God thus makes us recognize and feel our wickedness, and sigh and long for the aid of divine grace in IX” (Ebd. 244). When IX comes the law ceases, especially the Levitical law which, as has been said, makes sins of things that in their nature are not sins. The Ten Commandments also cease, not in the sense that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases sin [Rom. 5:20] by the Ten Commandments, and sin is no longer the sting of death [1 Cor. 15:56]. For through Christ sin is forgiven, God is reconciled, and man’s heart has begun to feel kindly toward the law. The office of Moses can no longer rebuke the heart and make it to be sin for not having kept the commandments and for being guilty of death, as it did prior to grace, before Christ came. (Ebd.)[15]

The Law has 3 kinds of pupils. Those, who:

  • Hear & despise it (cf. Ex.32,19: Dancing around golden calf)
  • keep it without grace (Ex.34,34f: Can´t see Moses; Hypocrites)
  • Understand the intention of the law & it´s impossible claim

There sin comes to power, there death is mighty, there Goliath’s spear is like a weaver’s beam and its point weighs six hundred shekels of brass, so that all the children of Israel flee before him unless the one and only David—Christ our Lord—saves us from all this [1 Sam. 17:7, 24, 32]. For if Christ’s glory did not come alongside this splendor of Moses, no one could bear the brightness of the law, the terror of sin and death. These pupils fall away from all works and presumption and learn from the law nothing else except to recognize sin and to yearn for Christ. This is the true office of Moses and the very nature of the law. (Ebd.245f)

God promises another prophet – like Moses (Dt.18,15-19)

  • The noblest saying & heart of all in Moses: Points us all to IX/grace
  • Old Testament (2.Co.3,14) versus New Testament (1.Co.11,25)
  • And the other books of the OT? ML answers: “They are nothing else than what Moses is. For they all propagate the office of Moses; they guard against the false prophets, that they many not lead to works, but allow them to remain in the true office of Moses, the knowledge of the law…” He continues:

They hold fast to this purpose of keeping the people conscious of their own impotence through a right understanding of the law, and thus driving them to Christ, as Moses does. For this reason they also explicate further what Moses says of Christ, and furnish two kinds of examples, of those who have Moses right and of those who do not, and also of the punishments and rewards that come to both. Thus the prophets are nothing else than administrators and witnesses of Moses and his office, bringing everyone to Christ through the law. (Ebd 246)  

Luther concludes by pointing briefly to the spiritual meaning of the Levitical Law and the priesthood of Moses (Ebd. 247) Due to time and space constraints – and because it should be expounded by a living voice – ML restricts himself to pointers only but emphasizes again that “Moses is a well of all wisdom and understanding, out of which has sprung all that the prophets knew and said. Moreover even the NT flows out of it and is grounded in it…” (Ebd).

[1] The federal high court in Magdeburg has just recently referred the matter back to the regional court in Halle in their ping-pong game of avoiding controversial verdicts. I wonder too, whether this matter has pushed P. Block to more peaceful quarters surrounding the Women´s Minster in Zürich, CH:   

[2] Cf. Von Meding Pg. 362f;

[3] Auf dem Holzweg vgl. Heidegger.


[5] John 5,39

[6] 1Ti.4,13; Ro1,2f; 1Cor15,3-4;  2.Ti.2,8;

[7] “In his first book [Genesis] Moses teaches how all creatures were created, and (as the chief cause for his writing) whence sin and death came, namely by Adam’s fall, through the devil’s wickedness. But immediately thereafter, before the coming of the law of Moses, he teaches whence help is to come for the driving out of sin and death, namely, not by the law or men’s own works (since there was no law as yet), but by “the seed of the woman,” Christ, promised to Adam and Abraham, in order that throughout the Scriptures from the beginning faith may be praised above all works and laws and merits.“ (Ebd) 

[8] “He therefore organizes this people with all kinds of laws and separates it from all other peoples. He has them build a tent, and begins a form of worship. He appoints princes and officials, and provides his people splendidly with both laws and men, to rule them both in the body before the world and in the spirit before God.” (Ebd)

[9] “For this reason too no temporal wealth is given to the priests; neither are they commanded or permitted to rule men’s bodies. Rather the only work assigned to them is to care for the people who are in sin.” (Ebd)

[10] “a test is made as to how well the arrangement operates and how satisfactory it is. This is why this very book says so much about the disobedience of the people and the plagues that came upon them. And some of the laws are explained and the number of the laws increased. Indeed, this is the way it always goes; laws are quickly given, but when they are to go into effect and become operative, they meet with nothing but hindrance; nothing goes as the law demands.” (Ebd)

[11]Every law of God is good and right [Rom. 7:7–16], even if it only bids men to carry dung or to gather straw. Accordingly, whoever does not keep this good law—or keeps it unwillingly—cannot be righteous or good in his heart. But human nature cannot keep it otherwise than unwillingly. It must therefore, through this good law of God, recognize and feel its wickedness, and sigh and long for the aid of divine grace in Christ.“ (Ebd.244)

[12] cf. Jesus in Mt.12,11; Mk.2,25f

[13] Gal.2,17; 2Co3,7; Ro3,20: “By law no one is justified”; 7,7: “Through the law comes nothing more than knowledge of sin”; 1Co15,56: Law is the sting of death; 2Co3,7: Office of Moses is a dispensation of sin and death. 

[14] “For unbelief and evil desire are in their nature sins, and worthy of death. But to eat leavened bread at the Passover [Exodus 12–13] and to eat an unclean animal [Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14] or make a mark on the body [Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1], and all those things that the Levitical priesthood deals with as sin—these are not in their nature sinful and evil. Rather they became sins only because they are forbidden by the law. This law can be done away.“ (Ebd.243)

[15] Cf 2.Co3,7-14.

Read more here: So, what should Christians look for in Moses? (Part 6 Guidance in the Pentateuch. Re-reading Moses with Luther)

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Bibel und Übersetzung, Histories, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Theologie, You comfort me + and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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