Part 3: Life in the Ancient Near East and in Israel

Chapter 6: God’s Timeless Wisdom?

Many people cite various verses from the Old Testament Law as examples of unethical commands. They then assert that the Bible cannot be God’s timeless, ideal ethic, since many of its laws are morally inferior to our contemporary moral knowledge. Although we need to be careful about assuming that our time and culture is the standard by which other cultures should be judged, there is some insight in the critics’ complaint: the Old Testament Law is not God’s timeless, once-for-all moral legislation. In fact, the Bible itself says so! God’s ideals are found in Genesis 1-2, but then after the fall of mankind into sin, God begins to work incrementally to lead people to higher and higher moral standards. Many of the Old Testament laws were designed to bring people of Israel to higher moral ground than they previously occupied — and higher than the cultures around them — but they were only half-way houses, not the final destination.

Jesus explained that divorce fell short of God’s creation ideal for marriage, but divorce was regulated in the Law because of the hardness of people’s hearts. Yet, that divorce legislation was never meant to be a universal, ideal standard. It was given to protect people from even worse abuses, and it was a step towards a better ethic than the people had been practicing before the giving of the legislation. There are also many narrative events in Scripture where people do wicked things — these events, however, are to be taken as negative rather than positive examples of behavior. In other words, not everything Abraham or David did were recorded in Scripture as positive things worthy of imitation. Unfortunately the New Atheists will often point to a biblical story as proof that the Bible endorses such behavior, when in fact it does nothing of the kind. Through law and example (both positive and negative), the Old Testament moves people from a lower to a higher ethic, but the ultimate ethic awaits the new covenant and Jesus Christ.


Chapters 7-8: The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws? 1-2

God chose the nation of Israel to be his special, covenant people. He called them to be completely devoted to him and to be different from the rest of the world. One of the ways that he taught them that all of life was to be devoted to him was by giving them laws that governed their diet, clothing, hairstyles, and many other seemingly mundane realities. The major point, however, was that every aspect of their life had to be lived in consciousness of God’s goodness and grace that he had given them. God also taught his people that they must be pure and holy. To do so, he used object lessons about physical cleanness and purification to teach about the necessity of internal cleanness and purification of the heart. In the Law, cleanness was associated with life, and uncleanness with death. In living with rules that regulated cleanness and holiness, the people were taught to be close with God in everything, and thus find life. The perennial danger was that his holy people would stray from him and pursue the wicked ways of the world, so God gave many proscriptions about mixing categories and kinds — these were designed to remind his people to be separate and to be wholly devoted to him.

The Law contains a long list of animals, birds, and aquatic creatures that are classified as clean or unclean. The unclean species are ones that do not conform to the standard features of their class or sphere (e.g. eels live in the water, but they do not have fins and scales like fish, which are the standard for water dwellers; therefore, fish are clean and eels are unclean). Through regulating their diet this way, the kosher food laws were teaching the importance of being pure and conforming to one’s proper sphere: for Israel, this reinforced the idea that they were to be clean, holy, and devoted exclusively to God. Animals that were killers were also unclean. Animals that were deformed were not acceptable for sacrificing to God. God required perfection. He also required that the people recognize the special nature of life as his gift — this led to many ritual laws concerning sex and blood. In the end, these laws taught Israel to be fully reserved for God, and they also taught Israel that nobody could be holy enough to live in the presence of God apart from forgiveness and grace. These laws were never given to be permanent, universal law — Jesus himself declared all foods clean — but they were important in teaching about holiness and the character of God.


Chapter 9: Barbarisms, Crude Laws, and Other Imaginary Crimes?

The Old Testament contains many laws that prescribe corporal or capital punishment for a variety of offenses. These sound very harsh to modern ears. In comparison to surrounding cultures, the Mosaic Law was a much gentler, progressive body of legislation. Nevertheless, it still fell short of God’s creation ideals, and it was never meant as a timeless ethic. People were punished harshly when their behavior was purposeful, high-handed, and could have consequences that destroyed the community. This applied to incorrigible people who would destroy their families, or to people who completely rejected God and sought to get others to abandon him, too. The lex talionis (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) legislation was given to teach that the punishment was to be proportionate to the crime. Compared to surrounding cultures, this law was humane: it curbed excessively harsh punishments. The penalty of capital punishment showed how highly human life was valued: it was lex talionis applied to murder. The Law was pro-life and protected life. Those with disdain for life forfeited their own. Child sacrifice was forbidden. Even unborn children were recognized as persons and protected by law.


Chapters 10: Misogynistic? Women in Israel

Chapter 11: Bride-Price? Polygamy, Concubinage, and Other Such Questions

Many critics of the Bible accuse God of being misogynistic. Yet in Genesis 1-2, men and women are created with equal value and in partnership with each other. After the fall into sin, God gives the Law to help protect women. Israel’s law actually improves the standing of women compared to the surrounding cultures. It also points forward to a higher ethic. The culture of the Old Testament was completely patriarchal. Fathers and husbands had the responsibility of providing for their wives and children. This was not oppressive, especially when the creation account recognized the equality of women. It was, however, a feature of culture, and God met the people where they were, working incrementally to bring them to a higher ideal. Historically, Israel had many powerful and influential women leaders. In the Law, women were provided equal protection with men. Certain laws were given to ensure that men could not punish their wives for suspected adultery: there had to be due process. Levirate marriage laws seem strange to us, but they were given so that women and their property were protected in Israelite society. Women were not permitted to serve as priests, but this was not because of any inferiority (it is worth noting that most men were not permitted to be priests either). Many religions had sexual rituals between priests and priestesses, so only having male priests prevented this from happening.

The Old Testament records incidents of polygamy, but it never endorses it. If a man took more than one wife, every wife had to be given her rights. Whenever there was a polygamous marriage, every wife was protected by law. The creation ideal was monogamous marriage — polygamous relationships were assumed after the fall into sin, but they were never encouraged. The records of polygamous marriages also shows that they were often far from ideal and generated all kinds of problems. God showed his people the proper example: he took one wife (Israel) and cared for her. Men did not buy wives for a bride-price: in fact, the bride-price was kept by the wife’s family as security in case of the husband’s death or divorce. It also showed that the prospective husband was very serious about making a binding commitment to the woman. Laws dealing with rape offered strong protection for women. Even in war the Israelites were forbidden to rape women (something that was commonly practiced by other cultures). The Law showed more respect for the status of women and offered them more protection than other law codes.


Chapters 12-14: Warrant for Trafficking in Humans as Farm Equipment (I-III)

  1. Slavery in Israel
  2. Challenging Texts for Slavery
  3. Slavery in the New Testament

It is a mistake to equate the American slave trade with the indentured servitude of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, slaves worked to pay off debts, trading their labor for the money they received. Some people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, trading their life’s work for adequate housing, food, and other necessities. Many Israelites became slaves because of poverty, but there were many laws that helped the poor, and even once an Israelite became a slave, the law stipulated that they must be released after a certain period of time. Laws also protected slaves from abuse. The Law required that periodically debts must be forgiven and slaves set free as a result. Israelite slaves were considered people and brothers, not inanimate farm equipment. Unlike other law codes, the Old Testament code applied to both slave and free. Although the Old Testament ethic wasn’t ideal, it did represent a significant advance for slaves and others who fell into debt.

Masters were not above the law when it came to how they treated their slaves. If they killed their slaves, they would be executed for their crime. If they seriously injured their slave, the slave was given freedom and his debt was wiped out. This is an extremely progressive stance compared to other law codes. Far from masters being able to break up families of slaves, laws protected slaves and their families, and made it possible for them to stay together. The Law even penalized those who took sexual advantage of slaves. The Law also mandated kindness and fairness towards foreigners in the land. Again, the Old Testament ethic wasn’t ideal, but both Israelite and foreign-born slaves received much more humane treatment than in other places.

When we come to the New Testament, we find that the presupposition that all people are created in God’s image, and that in Christ all demographic, sociological, and ethnological categories — including slave and free — are transcended. Paul put masters and slaves on the same spiritual footing, answerable to their common Master in Heaven. Kindness and mercy were urged. Rather than telling slaves to rebel (which would have been futile), the Apostles subversively undermined the heart of Roman slavery by telling Christian masters to treat their slaves in light of their common bond in the Lord. In the case of Philemon and Onesimus, Paul interceded for Onesimus and insisted that he be welcomed as a brother. Paul did not overthrow slavery entirely, but he used his apostolic authority to ensure that Christian masters and slaves would fellowship together in Christ, treating each other accordingly. In the end, all believers were equally servants of Jesus.


Chapters 15-17: Indiscriminate Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing?

The Killing of the Canaanites (I-III)

Perhaps the most difficult question in Old Testament ethics concerns the command to exterminate the Canaanites. Due to the sensitivity of the issues involved, it is extremely important to understand the context of the command. The Canaanites did not just worship innocent idols in their own homes — their religion was part of their worldview and radically affected their lives. They imitated their gods, and this led to sexual immorality, incest, wanton violence, and even child sacrifice. God finally — after centuries of patiently waiting for them to change their ways — decreed that their civilization needed to be destroyed. He used Israel as the means of executing this judicial verdict. The issue was never race: it was their incorrigible violence, blood-thirstiness, flagrant sexual evil, and child sacrifice that brought judgment against them. Israel’s law required kindness and help for foreigners — the destruction of the Canaanites was something altogether other than racism and ethnic cleansing. God punished them for their grotesque wickedness, and in doing so, he also revealed his superiority over the gods they worshiped. Since so many of their wicked ways were tied to the character of their gods, this was a sign from God that the Canaanite deities were not worthy of worshiping and imitating.

The books of Joshua and Judges reveal that the language concerning the total destruction and annihilation of the enemy is highly rhetorical. The same accounts will say that the enemy was completely annihilated, and then describe fighting them again at a later time. Such rhetoric was commonly used in other cultures, and everyone knew that it was not meant to be taken literally. What God wanted with the Canaanites was for their civilization to be destroyed: this could happen by breaking their strength and driving them out of the land (which did not require the death of every last Canaanite). In fact, the language of total destruction was not only rhetorical, it was applied to enemy leaders and military outposts rather than civilian towns. Israel was instructed to kill every man, woman, and child, but in military outposts there were no women and children — it was rhetoric for victory. The idea that the Israelites annihilated huge cities full of defenceless women and children is inaccurate. Furthermore, Canaanites who accepted the Lord were saved. The goal was to drive away a wicked group who were Israel’s enemies and who preferred their corrupt gods over the Lord. Archaeological evidence confirms that there was very little destruction as the Israelites infiltrated the land.

Holy wars do not set a pattern for Israel to continue to follow throughout its history; Israel never tried to apply the holy war concept to non-Canaanite nations. In fact, God promised in the Old Testament that non-Israelite nations will be absorbed into his covenant people and welcomed into his family. It is important to remember that the Canaanite civilization was incredibly depraved, and although very few women were killed, those who died were not innocent of great evil. God’s overall plan was for Israel to be a blessing to all nations, but in order to protect Israel’s relationship with him and to ensure that they could show God to the world, the Canaanites had to be removed so they couldn’t corrupt Israel with their depraved practices and detestable gods. God is strong, holy, and cannot be tamed. His hated of sin and his wrath against it are justified, and he doesn’t have to excuse our wickedness. We are not in a position to see exactly how the warfare against the Canaanites fits into God’s purposes and plan. What we can see, however, is a God who sent his Son to die in our place. God’s great grace, mercy, and love displayed in Christ is sufficient for us to trust him, even if we do not understand everything God has done.


Chapter 18: The Root of All Evil?

Many people today are asserting that monotheism generates violence and that religion is the root of all evil. Those who suggest such things conveniently overlook the fact that atheist governments have persecuted monotheists. There are many wars and conflicts that have nothing to do with religion. What is needed is more of the right kind of religion: what is needed is the full expression of the Christian values of love, peace, and unity. For those who ultimately want to reject God, God grants them what they desire — hell is not a torture chamber; it is a place where people choose to sequester themselves from God.

It is also common for people to point out violence in the church history, notably during the time of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Often these events are used to connect Christianity with the same type of violent core that justifies Islamic jihad. Although these critics usually ignore the many good things Christians have done in history, it also needs to be pointed out that the Crusades contradicted Christ’s message. Far from being examples of Christianity, they stand as examples of an anti-Christian nature. There are also significant differences between the Crusades and jihad. The Crusades were conducted for a very limited time in the history of the church, and they stand against the essence of Christianity. Jihad has been part of Islam since its inception, is continuing today, and is part of Islamic doctrine.