I used to get so annoyed when my mom would answer my question, “Why?” with “Because I’m your mother.” It seemed like she was ducking my question. I failed to recognize that her answer was the most foundational reason for me to obey. It was a statement of the authority God had given her as a parent. Because of that and the love she had for me, I could trust her.
So when we see the phrase “I am the LORD” twenty-one times in Leviticus 18 and 19, we should recognize it as the most foundational reality for all the commands that follow. It is a statement of authority, of goodness, of faithfulness, and of love so God’s people knew to follow His commands, even when they included a chapter full of laws about sexual practices.
Ultimately, these laws, even the uncomfortable ones, are about God’s desire for His people to be set apart. They are a summons out of pagan practices or sinful tendencies. God wanted a people who stood out from the unclean and impure nations around them as upright, moral, and reflective of His character. God was not being picky or overly particular as He established these laws; He was being holy and calling His people to be the same.
Neither was God’s law a disparate, random selection of commands. God’s guiding principle for His people: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Love was to be the motivating factor and the moral compass of their obedience, fueled by the love of God Himself. Psalm 133 says, “How delightfully good when brothers live together in harmony!” That can only happen because of genuine, God-reflecting love for one another. This was to be the defining characteristic of the Israelite people.
We do not naturally associate “love” with “law.” One seems like something that wells up within us, while the other seems like something that confines and occasionally protects us. But the New Testament calls God’s law the law of love, and Galatians 5 tells us that “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). So the people of God were not called to obey the law and love one another. They were called to obey God by loving one another. This informed their moral code, their sexual ethic, their generosity, their hospitality, and everything else. True, godly love fulfills the law.
It’s easy to read the Old Testament as heavy and burdensome and full of judgment. But that misses entirely the fact that the God of the Old Testament is the same God about whom John says “God is love” (1John 4:8). Love is the heart of God, and it was the foundation of the law too.