Capital punishment by stoning!? By hanging!? By burning at the stake!?
Sometimes to the modern reader the maximum penalties in the Old Testament may seem cruel, barbaric or primitive. On the other hand, our system of punishment in modern day western society would be regarded as weak, too soft and ridiculous in the eyes of those living in the ancient Middle East. During the time of the OT no one took laws and regulations seriously unless the breaking of those laws were punished by death. Just remember, we’re talking here about a time where parents would burn and eat their own kids. You surely have come across articles about too soft sentences of only a few months in prison for people who destroyed somebody else’s life as a result of rape or something similar. The reactions often sound like this: “A crime like that should be punishable by death so that in the future others wouldn’t dare.”
The shoe thrower example
Here’s another example where some years ago, during a debate in an Israeli court, a man threw one of his shoes over the judge’s head. The severity of the punishment he received surprised the whole nation:
“Three years in prison for the one throwing his shoe beyond Dorit Beinisch. ‘Such an incident must not occur ever again. Thus, to make an example (that they would see and fear) the severest possible punishment is applicable…’ – Judge Feinberg about his decision.”
Modern legislation took this principle, “that they may see and fear,” from the OT.
“That they may see and know, may consider and understand…” (Isaiah 41:20)
Thus, the highest penalties in the Bible are strict so that those barbarians without culture would “see and fear.” Israel’s lifestyle was very much influenced by the cultures and nations around them. And therefore, the laws of the Bible were given in a historical, cultural and social context. God did not create a people for himself out of nothing, on a tabula rasa (blank slate). Rather, he took a group of people whose style of relationships, behavior, and ways of relating to each other were all influenced by foreign, perverse and barbaric cultures that as we will see later on were especially evil and cruel. An example: Today’s rabbinical tradition took on all kinds of habits, ceremonies and pagan traditions, like prostrating on graves, talismans, the Hamsa, the lighting of candles, reincarnation, astrology, fortunes and more. In the exact same way, other pagan traditions were passed on to our nation because of the contact with other people groups. For this reason, when the people of Israel entered the Promised Land they subconsciously brought with them a significant part of those pagan traditions.
How did things get so bad in the first place?
In a second we will have a closer look. But first, a little introduction. After the creation of the world things went bad pretty fast. Adam and Eve failed their first mission. Instead of ruling over creation, the snake, representing Satan the deceiver and seducer, seized authority over them when he managed to incite them to rebellion against God. As a result, God, who until then walked with them in the Garden of Eden, cast them out.
The following chapters in Genesis continue to describe humanity’s decline. In them we are witnesses to the first murder and the increase of evil within man’s heart. It comes to a peak during Noah’s time. God wipes out most of humanity and starts anew. This should teach us that we are the origin and the cause for the evil in the world. In these chapters, we meet a new main character: Noah.
But Noah also fails. And a new cycle of humanity’s decline starts, which arrives at its climax in the tower of Babel. This time, God decides to disperse the people. And again we meet a new main character.
This time it’s Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham is a turning point in the OT story. Until then, there was only decline. But now, Abraham and his descendants succeed and prosper. And God decides to bless Abraham and gives him the promise that from one of his descendants blessing will come to all peoples and nations. It is through him that the solution for our depraved morality will come. This descendant will fix the problem of the human heart, its sin and rebellion.
The prophets and kings expected him, hoped for and prophesied about him, the one who in all of the OT received different titles and names. Today, we know him under the well known term “the Messiah.”
The Messiah will be the greatest of all…
… greater than the forefathers, and greater than Moses.
By the way, the Sages also acknowledge this saying:
“All the prophets prophesied about nothing else but the Messiah.”
We will get back to the Messiah. This was just the introduction.
Ancient codes of conduct
Whoever reads the laws of the Torah will notice that there is a strong similarity between the law of Moses and the laws of other ancient nations that surrounded the people of Israel. This proves that the law of Moses did not come to Israel out of nowhere. Rather, God based the laws of the Torah on laws they were already familiar with. Among these were the laws of Ur-Nammu from Mesopotamia, the laws of Lipit-Ishtar of the Isin of Sumeria, the laws of the Acadian Eshnunna, Hammurabi of Babylon, and the codex of the Hittites.
And why are these laws similar to the ones Moses received? For two reasons:
- First of all, every human culture needs to deal with authority and judgment, thefts, murder and revolt. In other words, they need to deal with the human heart. A rotten heart that loves revenge and revolt. Therefore, man needs laws and limits. Otherwise, if we ignore those rules and everyone does whatever he wants, then we are capable of stabbing each other in the back over a parking space.
- The second reason is that in his mercy God approached the people of Israel just as they were, in terms of morality. And, as we need to confess, they were not in a very good place. And then he slowly pulled them out of this moral swamp.
Gradually, he lifted our people from the inferior morals of idol-worshiping, evil cultures to a stricter, more rigorous and higher morality by starting to restrict customs and methods of punishment.
But next to that God also began to teach Israel forgiveness, mercy and compassion.
Concepts that were not really known back then. For example, while Egyptian and Hammurabi’s law demanded the amputation of hands, tongue, nose, breasts or ears, in similar cases the laws of the Torah limited the judge. The maximum sentence was no more than 40 beatings in the most severe case.
But thankfully enough, we’ve come a long way since then.
Step by step God continued to give our people new revelations according to which the moral and ethical standard was raised.
It’s important to understand that God’s ideal is not reflected in the law of Moses.
The law of Moses was only a temporary compromise compared to God’s actual standard
So where’s the ideal? You can see it in the first two chapters of Genesis, before Adam and Eve rebelled against God. The law of Moses was only the first step and the foundation God laid in order to pull us out of the moral swamp. It was a compromise on God’s side because of the depraved human heart that thrives in a civilization without understanding. Therefore, God first put up fences to set boundaries against ancient culture where things like rape, slavery and revenge were socially acceptable.
Take as an example how God limits revenge. In ancient cultures, it was very common to take revenge (also still today in many cultures). Yossi cut out your eye? Take revenge, cut out both of his eyes. But the law of Moses will limit your revenge. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. This commandment not only taught Israel moderation, equality and justice, it also limited the scope of retaliation. Now you can’t cut out both of Yossi’s eyes as revenge. Another fight with Yossi? And this time you broke one of his teeth? Good news! He’s not allowed to stab you to death, as revenge. Another example is how God commanded better relations with rebellious slaves. Coming out of Egypt as slaves, the people of Israel were used to being completely humiliated. And therefore, we treated our slaves in the same way. We would beat them without mercy, sometimes to death. God limits that and commands that whoever needs to punish his slave has to make sure that the slave is able to work again within two days after being punished. Again, these examples are not the moral ideal of God. They are only the first step in pulling Israel out of the moral swamp in which they lived.
The ultimate standard of God is that we don’t take revenge at all. And that we do not have slaves in the first place.
We will get back to God’s ultimate moral standard.
Step by step God pulled our people out of the swamp
Until about 1500 years later when in the New Testament Jesus the Messiah again presents to us God’s ultimate standard. This time we will look at the concept of marriage as an example.
“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’
He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.'” (Matthew 18,3-6)
First of all, Jesus explains God’s ultimate ideal: Marriage is a lifelong commitment. As opposed to the rabbinical tradition you can’t just get rid of your wife because you think she’s not as pretty as she once was. Or to leave her when she’s sick. You are committed to her, and she to you until death. But the Pharisees challenged Jesus.
“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7-9)
In ancient times men divorced their wives for any stupid reason. The law acknowledged that the woman is the weaker vessel and therefore needs to be protected, especially in ancient times. For this reason, the law commands a restriction on the husband and allows divorce only in cases of adultery or fornication. But the initial and perfect standard of God was already mentioned a lot earlier in Genesis 2. This is the same chapter that Jesus quotes to the Rabbis who tested him.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
The ideal in a marriage is that two different people become one. Jesus explained to these rabbis that because of their hard hearts Moses allowed divorce. That means that in the law of Moses God compromised his perfect standard because of the hardness of our hearts.
Jesus also rebuked them for not even knowing the law of Moses and for breaking it, since the law allows divorce only in cases of fornication or adultery. But the rabbinical tradition as a matter of fact allows husbands to divorce their wives if their cooking is not good anymore, if the gap between her breasts is too big, or for any other selfish reason. But that is a topic of itself. We dedicated this video to the exclusion and status of women in the rabbinical tradition.
Jesus refers to all those who dishonor and ignore the limits of the law when he said:
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 5:19)
That means that if someone decides to break these laws and do whatever he wants like divorcing his wife because she gained weight, stealing when no one is watching, or stabbing someone over a parking space — he is one of “the least” in God’s eyes. Meaning, one who is last. In this verse Jesus presents to us God’s ultimate moral standard. Guys, until today you thought that it’s forbidden to cheat on your wife?
“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
Do you remember how revenge was limited?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
In other words, when you are ready to take revenge for something bad done to you, you better stop and forgive instead. Otherwise it will turn into a never-ending cycle of bloodshed. And the bitterness will eat you up from inside.
Darkness cannot be cast out with more darkness.
Peace is not established through hate and revenge. But through forgiveness.
The law of Moses cannot change the human heart, nor was that ever its purpose
The law of Moses can only hold back the selfishness and evil that is in the heart. The law is like a fence. Its purpose is to oppose our sinful nature and set boundaries to our actions.
The law keeps our depraved nature from hurting others.
Just like an animal that has rabies will be put in quarantine so that it can’t harm others.
The quarantine keeps it from harming others, at least for a while. But the quarantine won’t heal it. The antidote, the medicine, is the Messiah. The Messiah came to change and renew our hearts. When you have the medicine you can get out of quarantine. The law of Moses was only the first step in pulling the human race out of the moral, pagan and idol-worshiping swamp, by limiting punishments, revenge, exploitation, brutality and humiliation. In other words, it put us in quarantine.
But Jesus, the Messiah, fulfilled the mission. He presented the antidote, the answer to the problem of the human heart, and taught us the ultimate morals of God.
Grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, sensitivity, empathy, thoughtfulness, pardon, generosity, and the most extreme expression of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
But God in his love did not just make nice words. He acted. And just like God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he is walking with us in the character of the Messiah, bringing things to a full circle. He gave us an example of God’s love. He healed lepers, served the sinners, loved his enemies and in the end he even allowed us to humiliate him, degrade him and to reject him. Even unto death on a cross.
The blameless Messiah gave himself for us as a sacrifice. That’s perfect love.
Like a parent who is willing to give his own life for the life of his children. Let’s sum things up with the following illustration: Think of a dirt road that with the passage of time was turned into a gravel road and eventually became a highway. When it was still a dirt road you could only walk on it. But when it became a gravel road you could travel on it with chariots pulled by horses or donkeys. And in the end, after becoming a highway, people can travel on it in fast vehicles. Now, striving to be under the more primitive laws of Moses’ time is like traveling on a major highway, riding a donkey.
So no matter whether you strive to follow the rabbinical tradition or the Muslim Sharia law the time has come to move on. Whoever would like to continue and expand on this topic, follow the link to find more videos and articles referring to the law of Moses and its commandments.
God raised up for himself a nation. A people composed of a group of individuals who were stuck in a swamp, when it came to morals and society since they were deeply influenced by the immorality and cruelty of the pagan nations around them. God gave the law of Moses in order to meet the people of Israel where they were. To slowly get them out of that swamp, to limit their traditions and minimize their lack of morals, in order to bring them out of the dark into the light. Up until the incomparable climax, the coming of the Messiah. By the way, just look around you, the laws of the well-advanced nations in the west, like the US and countries in Europe, are all based on the teachings and acts of Jesus and the writings of the NT.
Here in Israel, there are those who insist on living in the past. And there are those who moved on and adopted the progress and enlightenment that Jesus brought to this world.
By the way, at the following link you can watch a video on how Jesus influenced our world, something that today we mostly take for granted.
And what about you? Do you live in the traditions of the past?
Or did you move on? With Jesus.
Eitan's professional background is in "Multimedia Design and Visual Communications" working for various secular advertising agencies in Tel-Aviv.
Eitan is the producer of:
1) I MET MESSIAH (Jewish testimonials).
2) Answering Rabbinic Objections to Jesus.
Follow Eitan's public updates on Facebook: