The Threefold Division of the Law in the Old Testament

The threefold division of the Old Testament law into moral, ceremonial, and civil laws is not a recent invention, but is taught by the Old Testament itself.
Covenant Theology
Law
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Note: This post is a summary of a section of "The threefold division of the law," by Jonathan F. Bayes, which we highly recommend.

Below is a list of scripture passages in the Old Testament that support the threefold division of the Old Testament law into moral, ceremonial, and civil/judicial laws.

1 Samuel 15:22, Hosea 6:6, Proverbs 21:3

1 Samuel 15:22 - “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
Hosea 6:6 - For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Proverbs 21:3 - To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

In these verses, we learn that there is a distinction between the moral and ceremonial law, and that the moral law is superior to the ceremonial law.

The "burnt offerings" and "sacrifices" are the ceremonial law.

"Obeying the voice of the Lord," "steadfast love," "the knowledge of God," and "righteousness and justice" are the moral law.

Proverbs 21:3 is probably also referring to the civil law in its use of the word "justice." Because the civil law is an application of the moral law, this verse teaches that the moral and civil law are superior to the ceremonial law, which is a shadow and type of Christ.

Isaiah 1:11-17

11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.

Here, we learn that God calls the sacrifices and burnt offerings of the Israelites as useless because the Israelites are not obeying His moral law and its application in the civil law.

Instead of giving more sacrifices and burnt offerings, or obeying the ceremonial law, God tells the Israelites to "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's case," or to obey the moral and civil law.

Isaiah 43:22-24

22 “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
23 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,
or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
24 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.

Here, God distinguishes between "sacrifices" and "burnt offerings," or the ceremonial law, and "sins" and "iniquities," or the moral and perhaps civil law in that the Israelites are engaging in sins of a social nature. The "sacrifices" and "burnt offerings" alone are not sufficient to please God—they need to be coupled with moral and civil obedience.

Jeremiah 6:19-20

19 Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people,
the fruit of their devices,
because they have not paid attention to my words;
and as for my law, they have rejected it.
20 What use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba,
or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable,
nor your sacrifices pleasing to me.

Here, we see that the Israelites are being punished because they have "rejected" God's law. The "law" here does not refer to the ceremonial law because verse 20 tells us that the Israelites are obeying the ceremonial law in that they are giving "burnt offerings" and "sacrifices" to God.

However, because the Israelites are not obeying God's moral and civil laws, the Israelites's obedience to the ceremonial law is not acceptable to God.

Amos 5:22-24

22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Here, the Israelites's obedience to the ceremonial law, their "burnt offerings and grain offerings" and "peace offerings," are worthless to God because they are lacking "justice" and "righteousness," or obedience to the moral and civil law.

Micah 6:6-8

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Again, we see here that the moral and civil law—"to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"—is distinct from and superior to the ceremonial law—"burnt offerings."

Psalm 40:6-8

6 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

The Psalmist here says that God cares less about obedience to the ceremonial law—"sacrifice," "burnt offering," "sin offering"—than He does about His people "delight[ing] to do [His] will," and having His law within their hearts.

Conclusion

The Old Testament is clear that the ceremonial aspects of the law are inferior to the moral aspects of the law and their civil applications. God cares less about obedience to these ceremonial laws than He does about obedience to the other, moral and civil, laws.

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