Should you stone your children to death when they curse you? (Lev. 20:9)
Dr. Laura Schlessinger is an observant Orthodox Jew and a US radio personality who gives Torah-based advice to people who call in to her radio show. The following response is an open letter to Laura Schlesinger—saturated with sarcasm—that went viral on the Internet.
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 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 other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
2. 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?
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness—Leviticus 15: 19–24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord— Leviticus 1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5. 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, or should I ask the police to do it?
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination— Leviticus 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there “degrees” of abomination?
7. 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?
8. 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?
9. 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?
10. 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). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev. 24:10–16). Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, 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.
This letter raises the question: though we know that the Law is spiritual (Rom. 7:14), aren’t the laws in the Torah primitive? Well, in a sense, yes!
Let’s jump a few thousand years back to the time of the ancient Near East, a culture and mindset completely foreign to ours today, whose social structures are badly damaged by the Fall. Within this context, God raises up a new nation with new laws to live by, in order to create a new culture for them. In doing so, He adapts His expectations to a people whose attitudes and actions are subject to influence by the pagan nations around them. These laws aren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all peoples everywhere at all times. They are specific to that people with their specific needs in that ancient era. As we saw earlier, the Old Testament considers the Mosaic Law to be inferior, looking toward a future and better covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). It’s not that the Mosaic Law is bad and therefore needs to be replaced. The Law is good (Rom. 7:12), but it is only a less-than-ideal temporary measure. It is in fact a compromise on God’s part.
Take for example God’s ideal for marriage—a monogamous union joining husband and wife as one flesh (Gen. 2:24). When God is dealing with Israel, a nation of fallen humans affected by their surroundings in the ancient Near East, God’s ideals are distorted and forgotten. Therefore, God is on the move to restore His ideals through this small new nation. The laws of Moses are a first step in that process.
Let’s take a look at where God chooses to show up. Where? He chooses a fallen culture of patriarchal structures, primogeniture, polygamy, warfare, slavery, and other fallen human and social behaviors, which God allows temporarily to exist because of the hardness of the human heart. As Jesus states in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” We could apply this passage to all the “weird laws” in the Torah, such as those brought up by Dr. Laura’s sardonic letter-writer. The bottom line is, God meets Israel where they live. “Because of your hardness of heart” God through Moses permits slavery, patriarchy, warfare and on and on. “But from the beginning it was not so.”
The laws of Moses are not ideal nor universal. The New Testament acknowledges that God put up with inferior social and human behavior, that “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25). Previously, “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
God works with Israel’s human fallenness, while taking them with baby steps toward His holy ideal. Therefore, the Sinai legislation makes moral improvements without completely overriding the social structures of their Ancient Near Eastern cultural context. At the same time God seeks to show them a higher ideal. As one professor of biblical studies 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.” Hebrews 7:18 states, “A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect).”
God, loving and gracious as He is, brings about moral improvement and a movement toward restoring the Genesis ideals. In fact, comparing Moses’ laws with those of Israel’s ancient neighbors, we see dramatic moral improvements over the barbarian practices of the other surrounding Near Eastern nations and cultures.
So when we come across stories such as Joshua 10:22–27, where Joshua hangs the corpses of five Canaanite kings on trees all day, we don’t have to explain them away or justify them. Joshua’s actions remind us of the moral condition of the culture of his time. They also remind us that God can use heroes such as Joshua within their context and work out His redemptive purposes despite their shortcomings.
An Example of Progress: Slavery
Taking a “bird’s eye view” of humanity’s progress across the timeline of the Scriptures, we can see how the status of slaves, for example, gradually changes from degradation to a restoration of human dignity.
In ancient Near Eastern culture, treatment of slaves is brutal and demeaning. Slaves do not have the value of other human beings. They have no rights and are subject to corporal punishment and are even put to death without regard for their humanity.
Moses’ laws regarding slaves, while far from ideal, bring a big improvement over the ancient Near Eastern culture: punishments are limited. There is a more humanized attitude toward slaves. Runaway foreign slaves are given refuge in Israel (Deut. 23:15-16), versus being put to death as they would be in the surrounding cultures. We should also point out that slavery in the Bible never approximated American slavery, with its denial of full personhood.
The New Testament provides further improvement over Moses’ laws: Christian slaves in the Roman Empire are considered equal to their masters in the body of Christ (Gal. 3:28). Masters are to take care of their slaves, and slaves are encouraged to seek freedom (1 Cor. 7:20–22).
God’s ideals are already in place at creation, but God accommodates Himself to human hard-heartedness and the social structures of a fallen world. The ancient Near East displays a deviation from these ideals. Incremental “baby steps” are given to Old Testament Israel that tolerate certain moral deficiencies while encouraging Israel to strive higher: toward a new and better ideal.
This was Chapter 10 of our new book “Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus” – get it now!