I am currently reading through the Bible again, to keep it fresh and allow it to speak into my life and teaching. It is a good thing to do every year to. I am amazed at the astonishing ability it has to speak freshly.
Reading the latter portions of Exodus and Leviticus brought this thought to me, what a job it was to be a priest! The instructions concerning the Tabernacle and its implements, and the complicated Levitical laws would have made priestly living extremely complex. It must have been an astonishingly messy job. In the Middle Eastern heat, constantly sacrificing animals, circumcising boys, and ensuring that the huge array of legal requirements for each sacrifice, the challenge of priesthood would have been extreme. It would have been dirty and smelly, like a meat works. It would have been extremely challenging psychologically, seeking to get things right, to ensure God was pleased with the ministry and sacrifice. To put it bluntly, thank God that Jesus has come and completed this, fulfilled it, so much so, that we are free from these legal requirements. Personally, I can't imagine being a priest in such a system. Hebrews speaks of the futility of this, as priests sacrifice animals day after day; thanks that the High priest has come and the final sacrifice made. I also pondered those who want the temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. If so, this sacrifice system will be renewed with all its butchery. I am not sure how that will go down in a post-modern world.
It also got me thinking of the New Perspective on Paul. One dimension of this is the new perspective on Judaism, arguing that Judaism is a religion of grace and not legalistic righteousness. On the one hand grace is flowing through the OT with God full of compassion, mercy and grace for those who call on his name. Yet alongside this, are these overwhelming laws, with their fine detail of what can be eaten, what sacrifice must be made to please God, with judgement moments indicating that God will render judgement on those who get it wrong, with extreme expectations of the priests etc. So, yes, Judaism is based on the gracious merciful election of God. Yet it is also extremely law-bound and legalistic.
One can imagine a young Jewish person reading the texts of the OT. On the one hand, as they retold and remembered the stories of God's salvation and mercy, they would have been thankful and trusted in this. On the other hand, the strong legalism of the OT would have led many into a legalistic self-righteousness. Sanders view of the OT and Judaism is based on enormous scholarship, but oversimplifies the story grossly. The problem is that, in my view, the legalistic stream in the OT, in the hands of those who are zealous, would inevitably lead to legalism. In the hands of young men, zealous for the faith, concerned to please God, determined to please him, motivated to keep the people pure, would inevitable lead to legalistic living.
Paul lived in the temple era. The temple still stood and Jews sought to please God through sacrifice and correct complex ritual. Since the OT, a raft of Pharisaic requirements were being formed to hedge the law, intensifying the legal expectations of an already strongly litigious system. It is naive to argue that Judaism was a system of grace and mercy and leave it there. Sure, it undergirded Judaism, but both streams stood side by side. Among many of the streams of Judaism in the Second Temple period, with the return of Israel from exile and they under foreign rule, it is certain that running through Judaism was a legalistic tendency.
After all, the NT has this effect on many today, with Christians taking the precepts of Jesus, Paul and others, and turning them into law.
Paul, on finding Christ, looked back on all the writings of the OT and Judaism and saw this in himself. He recognised that, on the whole, he and his people sought righteousness through the law and not through grace and faith. It is likely he did not see this before meeting Christ. But on meeting Christ he recognised this in himself. He realised that in seeking righteousness from law, he was in effect trusting in his own flesh, his ability to please God and live eternally through legalistic righteousness. Not perfection mind you, he lived the sacrificial requirements of the faith. That is the point, the sacrificial and legal expectations would inevitably have made anyone in this system legalistic and seeking self-righteousness. We Christians do the same thing, through works of Christian faith, far too much. Faith and works (in whatever form), to please God for salvation, are antithetical. Works please God, but faith saves. The Judaising problem in Acts and Paul's letters (esp. Acts 15; Gal; Rom; Phil 3), is the first clash of these principles. We cannot save ourselves through any religious system, we are saved by a merciful God if we believe in him genuinely. Paul realised this. That is his greatest legacy to the church perhaps.
I had a recent encounter with a Jew that supports this from today's perspective. A Jewish man around 50 years of age was relaying how his Gentile wife was seeking to become an orthodox Jew. She had been doing so for over 20 years and was still not accepted. She had been studying and doing tests, attending synagogue, living the festivals and Sabbath. Yet she was still not there. His own liberalism was getting in the way. He refused to admit to not driving too far on the Sabbath etc. If he had, her progress would have been sped up. In fact the priest recommended he lie to help her. He told me she was a better Jew than him but was not acceptable. The final thing he said to me drove it home, 'you have to work incredibly hard to be a Jew.'
Now this was said in the modern world where Judaism has liberalised greatly. In the world of Paul and first century Judaism, it is was not so. It was fragmented but running through it was election prerogative, and legalistic expectation. It was not a religion of salvation through perfection, but salvation through election and living out the intense legalistic expectations of the Jewish faith.