Awhile back, I posted a six-part series on law-gospel issues in Rom. 9:30-10:13. One of the most fascinating citations (in both Rom. 10:5 and Gal. 3:12) is Leviticus 18:5: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” Does this passage teach works salvation? What does it mean to “live by them”?
My friend Brent pointed me to an interview that Dr. Jim Hamilton conducted with Dr. Preston Sprinkle on Dr. Sprinkle’s Ph.D. dissertation, conducted at Aberdeen under the guidance of Dr. Simon Gathercole. Dr. Sprinkle is now on the faculty of Cedarville University. Here’s an excerpt:
What question did your dissertation ask and answer?
My dissertation was more of a descriptive pursuit. That is, I sought to describe how early Judaism (200BC-AD100) understood Lev 18: 5 [ESV Leviticus 18:5 “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”], how Paul understood it, then compare the two. I didn’t set out with a conclusion in mind, nor was I seeking to even prove/find a certain answer. I just wanted to understand Early Judaism and its attraction to this verse, and why Paul opposed it without elaboration.
Do you see a distinction between what Leviticus 18:5 means in Leviticus and how it is interpreted later in the Old Testament?
Yes, sort of. The verse is actually very difficult to understand in Leviticus (Anyone who thinks there is a clear-cut meaning has not really understood the issues, in my opinion!) I think that in Leviticus, to “live by them” (18:5) means to enjoy the covenantal blessing of life as a result of doing the “statutes and ordinances” of the LORD (18:3-4).
This would be the general understanding of Ezekiel (20:11, 13, 21), but for him “life” is connected to the dry bones passage in Ezek 37, where the Spirit (of life!) breathes life into the dead nation and brings them back into the land. What is significant in Ezekiel is that Lev 18:5, according to the prophet, focuses on human agency, “which if a person does, he will have life by them.” But this is not how eschatological life is attained. Life comes through divine agency, through the Spirit of life who revives a dead nation. (NOTE: I don’t think Ezekiel is speaking of an afterlife at this point).
Read the whole thing, which helpfully includes comparisons/contrasts between Dr. Sprinkle’s view and those of E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright; Francis Watson, Mark Seifrid, and Seyoon Kim; and Douglas Moo, Tom Schreiner, and Simon Gathercole.