Barbarism and Crude Laws

01 Nov

ANE cultural changeSometimes it is difficult for our Western mindset to come to grips with the ways of the Ancient Near East (ANE)[1]. The problem, at least from a contextual standpoint, is that we evaluate the severity of the Mosaic Law in the light of our Western culture, rather than in the context of ANE traditions. If the new atheists (and those of us who agree with them) would focus on the original context in which the Mosaic Law was given, a new and more positive understanding might develop, rather than merely gaining rhetorical points by dwelling upon the intellectual snobbery motif of the backward ways of the Bible in light of modern Western thought.

It may be a warm, pleasant thought to believe one could take the beast out of this deeply inferior moralistic society, place someone from there into our own modern more civilized culture, and expect he would embrace it with great joy. However, I suspect the exchange would more likely show us that he would exploit our way of life in order to satisfy his own bestial appetites in the same way Mr. Hyde did in Dr. Jekyll’s world. The moral problem God faced with Israel in the ANE culture was met with much the same harshness that existed in Israel’s neighboring societies. The difference lay in God’s work toward a more moralistic and tender-hearted Israel, especially in areas where there was no parallel in ANE culture.

Consider, for example, the son who cursed his father and mother (Leviticus 20:9), or the stubborn and rebellious son who would not obey his parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) both were brought to the elders of the city and were stoned to death. The blasphemer was also stoned to death by the whole community (Leviticus 24:10-14), and the Sabbath breaker was treated likewise (Numbers 15:32-36). Of course, it is laws such as these that the new atheists point out as barbarous and crude and concern what they term imaginary crimes. How can we answer such straightforward and seemingly undeniable accusations?

In the first place one thing not considered by the new atheists is that Israel was a ‘fledgling nation’ and some things had to be addressed immediately and forthrightly. Otherwise, the whole nation would disrespect the new law code, and it would have been anarchy from the very beginning. It should also be remembered that God did not keep on killing Sabbath-breakers and blasphemers. He made examples of the first flagrant violators, and don’t forget that God was considered Israel’s King; he wasn’t to be treated as lightly as the new atheists would like to treat him today. Would any other king in the ANE be able keep the respect of his people, if he didn’t punish those who flagrantly violated his commands? It often seems we are more willing to allow a human king to react harshly to rebels without incurring judgment on our part, but, if God punishes the disobedient, he does so immorally. If God makes a covenant with men, the least we can do is consider his ways in the same manner we consider our own ways—and in this particular understanding, in the light of ANE culture.

If ancient Israel was no better off, morally speaking, than the nations out of which they had come (and how could we ever make a case that they were morally superior), then we need to consider the end of the whole law package that they were to embrace as their national code (constitutional law). The laws concerning clean and unclean, purification and sacrifices etc. were an ever-present reminder of their immoral condition and their need for grace when approaching a holy God. In other words, their present moral state was not good enough. The only righteousness they could possibly point to was their decision to trust God (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7; cf. Genesis 15:6). This alone made them more righteous than their neighbors. If disobedience was allowed, where would their trust in God be seen? If Israel didn’t trust God, in what other way could we possibly say they were different or better off than the nations God intended to judge?


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

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Posted by on November 1, 2015 in apologetics


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