Stephen on the words of Moses: A Matter of Life and Death

I’ve been reading the Moses story recently and have been struck once again by just how many big and difficult questions his story raises: questions about Old Testament morality, the purpose of the law, its ongoing role in our lives today, the character of God… And so on.

Certainly bits of the story make me wince and Moses’ words and actions raise some difficult issues. But I can’t help but feel that many of the current approaches to the words of Moses are a little too glib and dismissive to really do justice to the serious questions.

It’s quite popular at the moment to argue that the words of Moses we don’t like are:

  • Incompatible with the views of Jesus
  • Misrepresentations of God, misheard by Moses. Or perhaps they are Moses’ own opinions misattributed to God
  • Words that bring death rather than leading to life
  • Words that have no lasting relevance and which we can happily set aside as instructions to a distant era

The problem is that the New Testament seems to say otherwise.

There’s plenty in the Epistles – Paul in particular – that wrestles with the place of the law in the life of the Christian (and Thomas Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law is well worth a read on this). But the verse that challenged me this week was from Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. In one sentence – indeed, one fragment of one sentence – Stephen shattered many of the glib responses we might offer to Moses’ words.

Stephen says that Moses,

…received living words to pass on to us.’ (Acts 7:38)

Let’s break down that sentence, a bit at a time:

  • He received words. One cannot receive that which comes from oneself. To receive requires the involvement of a second party. One cannot receive that which is not given. And if given, by whom? Stephen’s answer: an angel at Sinai, who – as a messenger – presumably spoke on behalf of his sender.
  • He received living words. Not words of death, but words that lead to abundant life (cf. Deuteronomy 32:47).
  • He received living words to pass on. The transmission at Sinai was not for a single generation, or for Moses alone. They were words to be passed on; they had an enduring relevance beyond the place of their initial communication.
  • He received living words to pass on to us. Their relevance was not only for the Old Covenant period. They were not to be passed on for generations and then binned by the end of Malachi. The ‘us’ refers to Stephen and his audience; people living after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events of Easter do not allow us to cast Moses’ words aside; they were intended to be passed down to us.

Now of course, we have to grapple with big questions like why the words were given in the first place, why we struggle with the morality of the OT, what Jesus himself made of the OT, and what role Moses’ words have under the new covenant. (On which, for starters, see this by Derek Rishmawy and this by Andrew Wilson.) We can’t assume that Moses’ words will necessarily function the same way in this phase of God’s story as they did back then.

But big questions deserve big answers and the popular answers prove to be too superficial to be of use. We cannot simply say that Moses’ words were products of his own imagination, bringing death to all who kept them, intended for a limited period and with no lasting relevance. Or at least, we cannot maintain those things and still believe that our view is the same as that of the New Testament church.

This little fragment of Stephen’s sermon denies us such a luxury!

Image: Moses with the Law, by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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