Should believers in Jesus follow the “weird and primitive” laws of Moses? Why did God gave the Torah anyways?
Someone posted an “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” on the internet.1 Dr. Laura Schlessinger, of course, is the Jewish author and (until recently) radio talk show host who offers practical advice about relationships, parenting, and ethical dilemmas based on Old Testament principles. Here’s part of that letter, which is saturated with sarcasm:
Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them:
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
- Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Leviticus 11:6–8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). . . .
I know you have studied these things extensively; so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.
The Law of Moses: Inferior and Provisional
When we journey back over the millennia into the ancient Near East, we enter a world that is foreign to us in many ways. Life in the ancient Near East wouldn’t just be alien to us—with all of its strange ways and assumptions. We would also see a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall. Within this context, God raised up a covenant nation and gave the people laws to live by; he helped to create a culture for them. In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures. As we’ll see with regard to servitude, punishments, and other structures, a range of regulations and statutes in Israel reveals a God who accommodates. Yet contrary to the common Neo-atheists’ caricatures, these laws weren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all persons everywhere. God informed his people that a new, enduring covenant would be necessary (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). By the Old Testament’s own admission, the Mosaic law was inferior and future looking.
Does that mean that God’s ideals turn up only in the New Testament?
No, the ideals are established at the very beginning (Gen. 1–2). The Old Testament makes clear that all humans are God’s image-bearers; they have dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. And God’s ideal for marriage is a one-flesh monogamous union between husband and wife. Also, certain prohibitions in the law of Moses against theft, adultery, murder, and idolatry have enduring relevance. Yet when we look at God’s dealings with fallen humans in the ancient Near East, these ideals were ignored and even deeply distorted. So God was at work in seeking to restore or move toward this ideal.
We know that many products on the market have a built-in, planned obsolescence. They’re designed for the short-term; they’re not intended to be long-lasting and permanent. The same goes for the law of Moses: it was never intended to be enduring. It looked forward to a new covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). It’s not that the Mosaic law was bad and therefore needed to be replaced. The law was good (Rom. 7:12), but it was a temporary measure that was less than ideal; it was in need of replacement and fulfillment.
Though a necessary part of God’s unfolding plan, the Sinai legislation wasn’t God’s final word.
Incremental Steps toward the Ideal
How then did God address the patriarchal structures, primogeniture (rights of the firstborn), polygamy, warfare, servitude/slavery, and a number of other fallen social arrangements that were permitted because of the hardness of human hearts? He met Israel partway. As Jesus stated it in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” We could apply this passage to many problematic structures within the ancient Near Eastern context:
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted servitude and patriarchy and warfare and the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way.”
They were not ideal and universal.
In the New Testament, Paul assumes that God had been putting up with inferior, less-than-ideal societal structures and human disobedience:
- Acts 17:30: Previously, God “overlooked the times of ignorance” and is “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.”
- Romans 3:25: God has now “demonstrate[d] His righteousness” in Christ, though “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”
Like two sides of the same coin, we have human hard-heartedness and divine forbearance. God put up with many aspects of human fallenness and adjusted accordingly.
So Christopher Hitchens’s reaction to Mosaic laws “we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals”, actually points us in the right direction in two ways.
First, the Mosaic law was temporary and, as a whole, isn’t universal and binding upon all humans or all cultures. Second, Mosaic times were indeed “crude” and “uncultured” in many ways. So Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions. God “works with” Israel as he finds her. He meets his people where they are while seeking to show them a higher ideal in the context of ancient Near Eastern life. As one writer puts it, “If human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the ‘better way’ must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.”4
Given certain fixed assumptions in the ancient Near East, God didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for. He moved incrementally. As stated repeatedly in the Old Testament and reinforced in the New Testament (such as Hebrews 7:18), the law of Moses was far from ideal. Being the practical God he is, Yahweh met his people where they were, but he didn’t want to leave them there. God didn’t banish all fallen, flawed, ingrained social structures when Israel wasn’t ready to handle the ideals.
Taking into account the actual, God encoded more feasible laws, though he directed his people toward moral improvement. He condescended by giving Israel a jumping-off place, pointing them to a better path.
As we move through the Scriptures, we witness a moral advance—or, in many ways, a movement toward restoring the Genesis ideals. In fact, Israel’s laws reveal dramatic moral improvements over the practices of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s act of incrementally “humanizing” ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.5
So when we read in Joshua 10:22–27 that Joshua killed five Canaanite kings and hung their corpses on trees all day, we don’t have to explain away or justify such a practice. Such actions reflect a less morally refined condition. Yet these sorts of texts remind us that, in the unfolding of his purposes, God can use heroes such as Joshua within their context and work out his redemptive purposes despite them.
And, as we’ll see later on, warfare accounts in Joshua are actually quite tame in comparison to the barbarity of other ancient Near Eastern accounts. So rather than looking at Scripture from a post-Enlightenment critique (which, as we’ll see later, is itself rooted in the Christian influence on Western culture), we can observe that Scripture itself acknowledges the inferiority of certain Old Testament standards. The Old Testament offers national Israel various resources to guide them regarding what is morally ideal. God’s legislation is given to a less morally mature culture that has imbibed the morally inferior attitudes and sinful practices of the ancient Near East.
Note too that common ancient Near Eastern worship patterns and rituals—sacrifices, priesthood, holy mountains/places, festivals, purificationrites, circumcision—are found in the law of Moses. For example, we find in Hittite law a sheep being substituted for a man.6 In his providence, God appropriated certain symbols and rituals familiar to Israel and infused them with new meaning and significance in light of his saving, historical acts and
his covenant relationship with Israel.7 This “redemption” of ancient rituals and patterns and their incorporation into Israel’s own story reflect common human longings to connect with “the sacred” or “the transcendent” or to find grace and forgiveness. In God’s historical redemption of Israel and later with the coming of Christ, the Lamb of God, these kinds of rituals and symbols were fulfilled in history and were put in proper perspective.
The Redemptive Movement of Scripture
- The ancient Near East displays a deviation from these ideals in fallen social structures and human hard-heartedness.
- Incremental steps are given to Old Testament Israel that tolerate certain moral deficiencies but encourage Israel to strive higher.
The Old Testament isn’t affirming relativism—that was true in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament. God’s ideals were already in place at creation, but God accommodated himself to human hard-heartedness and fallen social structures. Half a loaf is better than none—something we take for granted in the give-and-take of the political process in the West. In otherwords, the idea that you can make progress toward the ideal, even if you can’t get there all at once, is a far cry from relativism. Rather, your eye is still set on the ideal, and you’re incrementally moving toward it, but the practicalities of life “on the ground” make it difficult to implement the ideal all at once.
Likewise, the Sinai laws were moving in the right direction even if certain setbacks remained.
As we progress through Scripture, we see with increasing clarity how women and servants (slaves) are affirmed as human beings with dignity and worth. Let’s take slaves, for instance:10
- Original ancient Near Eastern culture: The general treatment of slaves could be very brutal and demeaning, and slaves were typically at the mercy of their masters; runaway slaves had to be returned to masters on pain of death.
- Old Testament improvement on ancient Near Eastern culture: Though various servant/slave laws are still problematic, the Old Testament presents a redemptive move toward an ultimate ethic: there were limited punishments in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern cultures; there was a more humanized attitude toward servants/slaves; and runaway foreign slaves were given refuge in Israel.
- New Testament improvement on Old Testament: Slaves (in the Roman Empire) were incorporated into the body of Christ without distinction from masters (Gal. 3:28); masters were to show concern for their slaves; slaves were encouraged to gain freedom (1 Cor. 7:20–22). Note, though, that the Roman Empire had institutionalized slavery—in contrast to the Old Testament’s humanized indentured servitude. So the New Testament writers had to deal with a new setting, one that was a big moral step backward.
- One site with this letter is www.thehumorarchives.com/humor/0001065.html. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956), 207. N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 181.
- Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 33.
- Ibid., 32.
- Hittite Laws §167. See Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).
- See Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).
- Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 43.
- William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001). _Copan_MoralMonster_WW_djm.indd 238 9/28/10 10:59:43 PM 239
- Modified from chapter 2 in Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. I am aware that not all evangelicals agree with Webb’s approach. See, for example, Stanley N. Gundry and Gary Meadors, eds., Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
- Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), chaps. 8–10.
- R. T. France, “From Romans to the Real World,” in Romans and the People of God, ed. Sven K. Soderlund and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 245.
- This section is slightly adapted from chapter 3 in John Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
- Hitchens, God Is Not Great, 101.
- John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 73.
- See Daniel Block, “Will the Real Gideon Please Stand Up? Narrative Style and Intention in Judges 6–9,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 (1997): 353–66; and J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1–11,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no. 2 (2003): 149–74.
- John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
- See, for example, Paul Heger, “Source of Law in the Biblical and Mesopotamian Law Collections,” Biblica 87 (2006): 325–29.
- K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003); James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and the more popular James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel/Lion, 2008); and Iain Provain, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).