“Pointing Our Souls to Him”: Understanding the Law of Moses

Brandon Muirhead, “‘Pointing Our Souls to Him’: Understanding the Law of Moses,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 70–81.

“Pointing Our Souls to Him”: Understanding the Law of Moses

Brandon Muirhead

Both the Jews and the Nephites lived the law of Moses for hundreds of years, but each had a very different response to Christ when He came. The way the Jews and the Nephites received Christ’s higher law reflected their understanding of the law of Moses and its Christ-centered purpose. In Palestine, the Jews misunderstood the law of Moses because they focused too much on the rules of the law. They eventually rejected their Savior when He came. In the New World, the people of Nephi understood the symbolism and intent of the law and immediately replaced the law of Moses with the higher law of Christ. Because they had the priesthood and prophets and lived in a promised land, the Nephites were prepared to accept Christ and His new covenant.

An Overview of the Law of Moses

As the camp of Israel came to Mount Sinai, the Lord desired that all the people come up into His presence. Moses commanded the people to cleanse and sanctify themselves to prepare to enter the Lord’s presence. Sadly, the Israelites were afraid and hardened their hearts, and therefore they missed the great blessings that awaited them. Instead they sent Moses to represent them, and while he was gone they fell into apostasy and idol worship. They were denied the higher law because of their wickedness and idolatry, and instead they received a lesser law designed to prepare them once again to receive the blessings of the fulness of the gospel (see Exodus 19:5–11; 20:19; D&C 84:23–24). This lesser law was the law of Moses. Specifically recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it contained the “divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them [Israel] until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10). It was a complex system that affected each part of Israel’s life.[1]

The law of Moses was not only a temporal law. Governed by the Aaronic (Levitical) Priesthood, the law of Moses was also “the law of carnal commandments” (D&C 84:27) given to Israel to teach them both to remember the Lord and to understand who they were. Paul called the law a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Galatians 3:24). This “preparatory gospel” (D&C 84:26) included faith, repentance, and baptism, as well as performances and ordinances that were, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explained, “directly linked with the future atonement of Christ and were meant to be in every way ‘a similitude of him.’”[2] It was a spiritual law given to redirect and edify the disobedient Israelites.

Latter-day Saints should not view the law of Moses as a tedious, base law full of rules and restrictions. Joseph Fielding McConkie put the law in its correct context: “If Jesus of Nazareth was not the Christ, then the provisions of the law of Moses would still be in effect and all faithful souls would render obedience to it.”[3] The law of Moses was ordained of God and authorized by His priesthood.

Salvation can come only through Christ and His Atonement, and the types and figures in law of Moses pointed to that great event. Every action and law was to remind Israel who they were and whom they worshipped. “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14). Nephi also taught that the law of Moses had been given to prove to his people the coming of Christ (see 2 Nephi 11:4). Salvation was not to be found in keeping the law of Moses. The purpose of the law was to typify the great sacrifice Christ would make to save the world from sin.

Jewish Understanding of the Law of Moses

Although it was clearly given to point souls to Christ, the Israelites misunderstood and lost sight of the purpose of the law. They focused on the law itself and added new traditions, making the law complex and difficult to live. Because of their misunderstanding of the law, the Jews ultimately rejected their Savior. King Benjamin explained this sad situation: “Yet the Lord God saw that his people were a stiffnecked people, and he appointed unto them a law, even the law of Moses. And many signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows showed he unto them, concerning his coming; and also holy prophets spake unto them concerning his coming; and yet they hardened their hearts, and understood not that the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood” (Mosiah 3:14–15).

In Old Testament times, the Jews put their focus on the stipulations of the law, and in so doing were blind to its purpose. Jacob described the consequences of their zeal toward rules and regulations: “Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it” (Jacob 4:14). By focusing too much on the peripheral parts of the law, the Jews were blind to the truth that Christ brought.

Focusing on the physical aspects of the law instead of the spiritual, the Jews began to add new regulations that prevented them from breaking the law of Moses. They called these additions the oral law, or the tradition of the elders. The following explanation of the need for the oral law is one example of aggrandizing the law to govern every aspect of their lives: “[God] tells us to slaughter an animal, but the Written Torah does not tell us how. Are we supposed to slaughter it from the neck or the throat. And with what kind of instrument? . . . The information must then be in the Oral Law.”[4] The oral law added to and weighed down the people under a heavier burden than God intended when He gave the law.

The oral law was created without revelation in an effort to widen and even change the requirements of the law of Moses.[5] By building this figurative fence around the law, the Jews were attempting to safeguard themselves and make it nearly impossible to commit sin. However, in building this barrier, the Jews separated themselves from God and were unable to perceive the purposes of the performances required. They sought meaning and direction in the very jots and tittles of the law—letting the punctuation take precedence over the meaning—but failed to see the true import of their compliance. Thus, these amended rules became a complex and difficult way of life.

As they built this fence around the law, the Jews were doing what Satan wanted. They gave up their moral agency to be governed by the heavy and complex oral laws. Most of the Jews were so far removed from the law that they lost sight of the Savior, Heavenly Father, and the plan of happiness. This is what Satan wanted—a nation so focused on rules that they would accuse Christ, the very giver of the law, of being a rule breaker.

One author describes Israel’s drift away from their God: “Having once had the Lord as their God and King who communed with Israel, they first set him aside in favor of a lesser law, then interposed judges and kings between themselves and him, and finally replaced their Redeemer and his Law designed to point to him with a code of sometimes meaningless practices.”[6] Israel’s self-reliance became its downfall. They waned in their allegiance to God and replaced their devotion to Him with devotion to the law.

The New Testament offers many examples of Jewish leaders actually accusing Christ of breaking the law of Moses, trying to catch Him with the technicalities of their traditions and plotting to kill Him because of misunderstanding. Christ was disappointed in, and even condemning of, the Sadducees and Pharisees because they not only did not recognize Him, but also used their incorrect views of the law to deny His ministry.[7] In response to one of their accusations, Christ exhorted the misguided Pharisees, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. . . . For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me” (John 5:39, 46). They should have seen Christ as their Redeemer, but instead they focused on how often He disregarded their traditions.

Jesus surely kept every aspect of the law, but He did not worry about all of the additions that were not originally part of the law. Elder Holland explains: “We can be certain that Jesus was perfectly obedient to the spirit and the letter of the law of Moses. . . . But he did not feel obliged to abide by the myriad additions, addendums, commentaries, and ultimately false insertions into the law that had been added in more than a thousand years of what was at best uninspired argument and at worst flagrant apostasy. . . . When Jesus was in conflict with the scribes and Pharisees of his day—as he so frequently was—it was over these additions and embellishments of the law of Moses, not the law itself.”[8] The Pharisees and all those who could not see the true meaning of the law “made the commandment of God of none effect by [their] tradition” (Matthew 15:6). Because of their unbelief, they “limited the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41) so that He was prevented from giving them even greater blessings.

Even converts to Christianity in Christ’s time had trouble fully accepting Christ’s new law. The classic example of this in the New Testament is circumcision. Many of these Jewish converts believed that no man could be saved without circumcision and obedience to the rest of the law of Moses. They felt that salvation came through the gospel that Jesus preached in addition to the requirements of the law (see Acts 15:1–5, 24). They did not understand that the law of Moses was fulfilled, and they were now required to live the higher law. “Just as a prophecy is said to be fulfilled when the event prophesied takes place,”[9] the sacrifices and ordinances of the law of Moses were fulfilled when the ultimate sacrifice took place.

Many of the books of the New Testament are epistles, or letters, to the Saints trying to correct the idea that it is required of all men to live the law of Moses to be saved. The books of Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and large parts of several others, including Acts, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, James, 2 Peter, and Jude, deal with the issue of Christ’s commandments superseding Mosaic laws. Paul taught that “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). The works (like circumcision) of the old law would not justify them before God; only the gospel of Jesus Christ would justify them.

Nephite Understanding of the Law of Moses

Unlike their Jewish counterparts, the people of Nephi understood the law of Moses and taught their people to follow it, “teaching . . . the intent for which it was given” (Jarom 1:11). They understood from the beginning that all of the sacrifices prefigured Christ’s great atoning sacrifice and that all of the ordinances were given to bring them closer to their Savior. The law actually served its purpose in bringing the Nephites closer to Christ. “Since Book of Mormon Israel was more faithful to the law (with numerous exceptions, of course), they were led to Christ through their observance of the Law.[10] As the Nephites kept the law of Moses and felt the blessings of obedience, they grew spiritually. Alma described this result when he explained that “the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ” (Alma 25:16). Obedience always builds faith,[11] and the Nephites attained greater measures of faith because they kept the law of Moses as it was meant to be kept.

The Nephites understood from the beginning that the law of Moses was only a temporary necessity that would be done away with when Christ came: “The people . . . were taught to keep the law of Moses until it should be fulfilled” (Alma 30:3). Jarom also describes the forward-looking manner in which the people were taught in his day: “Wherefore, the prophets, and the priests, and the teachers, did labor diligently . . . teaching the law of Moses, . . . persuading them to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11). From the beginning the Nephites looked to the end of the law and the day when it would be fulfilled.

While still keeping the outward performances of the law of Moses, they saw the law in its proper perspective. They knew that eternal life was only possible because of the Atonement of Christ and not through the menial stipulations of the law. Nephi illustrates this attitude beautifully, saying:

For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given (2 Nephi 25:25–27).

The Nephites taught their children to look to Christ—not the law—for salvation. They spoke so much of Christ’s Atonement because they knew it was paramount to all other doctrines. Their sacrifices were meaningful only because of the sacrifice Christ would make. They recognized it as the only event that could save them.

When the Atonement was complete and Christ came to the Americas, the Nephites were prepared to accept this long-awaited higher law because of their attitude toward it. After the destruction following the death of Christ, the righteous Nephites heard His voice proclaiming the end of the law: “In me is the law of Moses fulfilled” (3 Nephi 9:17), and “I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; . . . therefore it hath an end” (3 Nephi 15:5). After this proclamation, the people of Nephi immediately abandoned the law of Moses and adopted the higher law. The Book of Mormon records them living in a united order in peace for three hundred years. Christ brought an end of social, economic, and racial separation, and the people “had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1:3). This new life and law were a gift from heaven, given through Christ’s Atonement.

When Christ commanded them to live the higher law and let go of the old, it was an easy and welcome transition. After 4 Nephi 1:12, there was no other mention of the law of Moses in the Nephite records. The righteous had looked forward for hundreds of years to the day when they would be able to live the fulness of the gospel without the lesser ordinances of the law of Moses. When they finally did, it was said of them that “there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Nephi 1:16). The Nephites no longer lived the dead law of Moses and were overjoyed to embrace the living law of Christ.

Successfully Living God’s Laws

Centuries earlier, when making His great covenant with Abraham, the Lord promised to bless him with a promised land, the priesthood, and posterity. These same three elements enabled the Nephites to keep the law of Moses as it was meant to be kept and allowed them to understand the purpose of the law, which was to turn them to Christ.

Promised land. The Jews were surrounded on all sides by nations that had dwindled in unbelief and taught a false religion in place of the truth. Sometimes incorrect traditions would seep into the Jewish beliefs or customs, and other times the Jews resisted such outside influences. The Pharisees are an example of this resistance. Pharisees emerged in opposition to many Jews who were accepting Hellenistic ideas and views. As a group, the Pharisees responded by heightening the fence around the law, seeking even more conformity to Moses’s code.

The Nephites, however, were isolated from such changes to the Mosaic law. There were neither heathen nations invading, nor idol-worshiping kingdoms imposing their beliefs and practices.

Priesthood. God has given His people prophets and priesthood authority to keep the doctrine and truths of the gospel pure. Due to wickedness and apostasy, Israel had the Melchizedek Priesthood taken away (see Joseph Smith Translation, Exodus 34:1–2). Although the prophets themselves from the time of Moses until Malachi held the Melchizedek Priesthood,[12] the people in general were deprived of the blessings of this higher priesthood.

The Nephites, on the other hand, always had the Melchizedek Priesthood, which was passed down from Lehi through the generations. They had prophets leading them and correcting their erroneous ways. Elder Holland said, “Perhaps one reason the Nephites kept the spirit and purpose of the law of Moses was that they had priesthood and prophets who safeguarded the doctrines.”[13] When false ideas or incorrect beliefs crept in, prophets were able to correct the problems and preserve the true spirit of the law.

An example of a prophet who “safeguarded the doctrines” is found in the story of Abinadi. He confronted a wicked king whose priests claimed to “teach the law of Moses” (Mosiah 12:28) but did not keep it (see Mosiah 12:29). They badly misunderstood the law of Moses and were teaching it to get gain and to build themselves up—the same mistake Israelite priests had made for hundreds of years.

Abinadi taught these wicked priests to “keep the law of Moses as yet” but taught them also that “salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses” (Mosiah 13:27–28). Abinadi ended his great sermon by pleading with the priests of King Noah, who had been teaching the law of Moses but missing the whole point of the law, “If ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come—teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father” (Mosiah 16:14–15). Abinadi corrected their misguided teaching of the law and pointed them to Christ.

Posterity. Because of the traditions that were passed down through the generations, the Jews followed incorrect oral traditions while the Nephites retained the correct spirit of the law. After Moses’s time, the Israelites passed down incorrect traditions, augmenting and amending rules until these false additions became strict laws to the Jews of Jesus’s time. Jesus referred to those who “transgress[ed] the commandment of God by [their] tradition” (Matthew 15:3) as “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). These incorrect practices obscured their view that they failed to see the focal point of their coveted law even as He stood before them!

In contrast, the Nephites were led from the beginning by prophets who knew the true meaning of the law. Nephi understood the law of Moses and its true intent. He was determined to obey the law because he loved the Lord. This is why he hesitated when he was commanded to kill Laban and even “shrunk and would that [he] might not slay him” (1 Nephi 4:10), even though the Spirit had clearly spoken to him.

In this key moment, Nephi realized that the Lord was asking him to break a well-known and serious law, namely “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). He was well aware that if he killed Laban unlawfully, he would be damned. He correctly chose to “obey the voice of the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:18) and learned that revealed law superseded written law.[14] Ironically, Nephi broke the law of Moses so that he could get the law of Moses (the brass plates). He discovered in an unforgettable way that following the Spirit and keeping the direct commandments given by the Lord—even if they seem to go against what has previously been taught—is vital for salvation. As President Thomas S. Monson said, “The greatest single lesson we can learn is that when God speaks and a man obeys, that man will always be right.”[15] Nephi was right because he chose to follow the Spirit and do what the Lord commanded.

Nephi taught his posterity to keep the law of Moses, while always looking forward to Christ, who would come and fulfill the law. He established a tradition of obedience to the Spirit and a focus on Christ. The Nephites lived the law but looked forward to Christ. This tradition was passed down from generation to generation until the day when they actually received their Savior at the temple in Bountiful.

Not only did Nephi establish a tradition of righteous observance of the law, but throughout the Book of Mormon we also see parents teaching their children the gospel (see 1 Nephi 2:16; Enos 1:3; Mosiah 1:2; Alma 36:17; Helaman 5:5). Also, the Nephite people had access to the scriptures and received the words of the prophets soon after they were given (see Jacob 4:6; Mosiah 2:8). The Nephites even learned to read by studying the scriptures (see Mosiah 1:2, 4). This conscientious parental guidance, as well as easy access to the scriptures, enabled the Nephites to understand the law they were required to live, for the scriptures and the law testified of Christ.

Learning from the Past

Today we have the fulness of the gospel as restored to Joseph Smith and other prophets. We, too, have a choice to make about how we will live. We can choose to seek guidelines for every part of our life, give up our agency and, like those who followed Satan in the premortal world, choose not to choose anymore. Or we can seek to be governed by correct principles[16] and decide to “[go] about doing good” (Acts 10:38). We can avoid the desire to be “compelled in all things” (D&C 58:26) and work to understand the spirit of our laws while living the letter of those laws.

By seeing the meaning in the ordinances in which we so often participate, we will also see that “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him [Christ]” (2 Nephi 11:4). We, too, can find meaning in the laws we keep, the covenants we make, and the ordinances we perform. We can follow the prophets and pass on correct traditions by teaching our children truth. By finding Christ in all that we do, the laws and ordinances of the gospel will serve their purpose in “pointing our souls to him” (Jacob 4:5).


[1] For more information on the law of Moses, see Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 434–35; Bible Dictionary, “Law of Moses,” 722–23.

[2] Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 146.

[3] Joseph Fielding McConkie, Gospel Symbolism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 81.

[4] “Oral Law/Written Law,” Judaism Online; www.simpletoremember.com/faqs/Oral_Law_Written_Law.htm (accessed October 10, 2006).

[5] See Stephen E. Robinson, “The Law after Christ,” Ensign, September 1983, 69.

[6] Gib Kocherhans, “Reflections on the Law of Moses: Old Testament Apostasy in Context,” Ensign, June 1981, 18.

[7] See Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 139.

[8] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 147–48.

[9] Robinson, “The Law after Christ,” 71.

[10] Kocherhans, “Reflections on the Law of Moses,” 17.

[11] See McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 264.

[12] See Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 180–81.

[13] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 148.

[14] See Robinson, “The Law after Christ,” 70.

[15] Thomas S. Monson, “Peace in Our Savior,” Ensign, June 2005, 4.

[16] See Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1865), 10:57.