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Interpreting the symbolism of the law

and its moral teaching

To cultivate the art of this close-focus reading is really the purpose of this study. It thus brings us at once face to face with the very problems which confronted Israel. How shall we understand what we read? To us, as to them, the allegorical character of the Law comes as a challenge to our powers of spiritual discernment: They, in order to behold those "wondrous things" contained within it, had first to decipher and translate its symbols into plain language. So have we; and it is precisely this which constitutes the peculiar difficulty of our study.

Our path as we proceed is strewn with pitfalls. So much in the first place depends purely on interpretation. Secondly, because of the peculiar idiom* [an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements ] of the Law, the process of interpretation has to be largely intuitive, thus dangerously subjective. 

Thirdly, intuition varies so considerably from person to person that a solution which commends itself to some as clear and conclusive strikes others as being fanciful and inadmissible. At every stage in our study we are all alike in danger both of seeing too much in the Law and of seeing too little.

Our difficulties therefore are considerable. An initial error of interpretation can have the gravest consequences. If we assign a false meaning to any given symbol and then proceed to interpret other related symbols in terms of that first mistake, confusion will increase at every stage. The actual decipherment of the symbolism must therefore be undertaken with the utmost caution.

The only safe technique to adopt is one which allows of the periodic testing and retesting of the validity of each interpretation which suggests Itself.


The following are the actual principles which will guide us as we endeavour to convert the symbolism of the Law into that plain moral instruction which it was meant, in the first instance, to give to Israel.

1. It shall be axiomatic [self evident], throughout, that the idiom of the Law has a rational and consistent basis.

2. No interpretation which commends itself on the grounds of inherent probability shall be adopted (except tentatively) for that cause alone.

3ยท Only if the Law happens to yield no clues to the meaning of a symbol shall such clues be sought elsewhere in Scripture.

Law and Grace Ch 2