Morality and the Old Testament Law: Seven Quick Points

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When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that we need the Bible to have moral knowledge. God himself, not the scriptures, is the ground of morality, right and wrong, good and evil! The apostle Paul was quite clear: a person can know deep moral truths even if they have never heard the scriptures.  Romans 2 and 1 Corinthians 5 . (Note that these passages also assume that unbelievers often obey the moral law when those who know the scriptures do not!)

The point of the moral argument is not that atheists cannot have moral knowledge or a moral code. Rather, the concern is that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. To illustrate, I might know that positrons exist by reading a few science textbooks. But because I am not a trained physicist, I cannot explain why they exist.

Still, some might argue that the Christian scriptures contain too many strange and apparently uncivilised commands; surely a good God could not have inspired them? Surely a good God would have inspired something like the UN Declaration of Human Rights; why would we consider the Old Testament law codes to be inspired when they contain so many strange, bizarre and draconian commands?

1) First, the Old Testament laws need to be read in a narrative context. The Bible tells the story of God’s saving activity. Briefly, God calls a people; then that people receive a messiah who will deliver the rest of the world. The law was not given, then, to turn the Israelites into morally perfect, enlightened civilization. No set of laws could accomplish that! The human hearts must be renewed from within; it cannot be reformed by enforcing a set of laws established on high.

No set of laws can create a utopia because we mostly prefer rebellion to obedience, darkness to light. The law is not meant to be a blueprint for a perfect society; it is important, rather, because it is has a crucial role in Israel’s story. It brought Israel into a deeper covenant with God; marked Israel out as a separate and special people; taught Israel about the Holiness of God; taught Israel to depend on God; set the nation of Israel on a path that God would use for his purposes;  and prepared the way for God’s messiah.

2) Second, the Old Testament needs to be read in its historical context.  We can then see how God directed Israel on to a better path. It is not only that the heart of the law is to love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself.  We should note the similarities between the Old Testament law and  other ancient Near Eastern “law codes”, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.  We will then see the striking improvements made by the law given to Israel.

For example, there is no concern for the immigrant in the Hammurabi code. Also, if someone was building a house and it collapsed and killed a child, then the builder’s child was also to be killed. There is nothing like that in the Old Testament laws. God takes a people by the hand, taking them on a path from the norms that they are used to, and have lived with for generation, to a better and higher moral vision.

3) Third, when we study any ancient literature, we have to evaluate it in its own culture and context, not ours. We need to understand that ancient law codes did not function like modern law codes:

 In numerous studies of a range of legal situations, little correspondence has been shown between the provisions in the law collections and contemporary practice. Furthermore, no court document or contract makes any direct reference to any of the formal law collections. From such an absence of linking evidence, some scholars have concluded that the law collections had little or no impact on the daily operation of legal affairs. (M Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor SBLWAW 1995)

4) Fourth, reading the law in its historical context, we realise that ancient  law codes functioned as value systems or social visions; they did not set out exceptionless precepts . The punishment in the command illustrated the gravity of the crime; it did not follow that this punishment should be carried out in every (or any) instance. The  Old Testament gives many example of faithful judges and Kings (the early Solomon, for example, or Josiah); there is no record of these men ruthlessly executing trespassers or Sabbath breakers.

“The covenant system was more important as a value system, and as a value system it called for responses of various sorts, among them listening, observing, being holy and obeying.” John H Walton Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament (Apollos 2007) p298-301

5) Fifth, when we read the Old Testament law in its historical and social context, we recognise that ancient Near Eastern society did not have a modern penal system! Bureaucrats did not take written records of legal precedents; prisons,in the modern sense, did not exist. Ancient laws were tough, to ensure that society remained orderly. The death sentence is often mentioned to illustrate the gravity of the crime; it also shows the people just how much power resides in the elders who judged them.

In Exodus 20–23 …many of its rules are similar to the expectations expressed in other Middle Eastern documents, such as the “law code” of Hammurabi, who was a great Babylonian king a few centuries before Moses. I put “law code” in quotes because it was no more a law code than the ones in the Torah. It was not a statute book, a basis for the practice of law in Babylon, but a statement of the way society ought to operate, or of some concrete examples of the principles Hammurabi claimed to be committed to. John Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone SPCK. p. 87

6) Sixth, we need to read the law in its canonical context. That is, the books of the law should not be read in isolation. The bible is a collection of books which interpret each other. The law was to be read alongside the prophets and the books of wisdom. Therefore, all the laws were meant to be applied with wisdom, mercy and compassion. Indeed, the prophetic tradition challenges the heartless application of God’s law. The elders who applied the Old Testament laws had much more scope for interpretation and application than contemporary officials. Better a wise judge than a wise law.

“…material like Hammurabi’s stele imposed no obligations on society or on the courts. It did not represent at any level the “law of the land…This assessment is confirmed by the fact that it does not serve as a reference in the judicial system, which is illuminated for us through thousands of court documents.Courts operated by wisdom, a sense of fairness, a knowledge of traditions, a knowledge of the King’s decrees, and experience in the administration of justice. Citizens understood their obligations by means of living in society and being taught customs and traditions in the home. This being the case, numerous other literary sources contributed to the understanding of how one ought to conduct oneself in society.”John H Walton Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament (Apollos 2007) p298-301

7) Seventh, and finally,the law must be read for its theological message. Strange as it may seem, the law was given to reveal our inability to keep itThe Old Testament laws were never intended to be God’s final word on right and wrong: Jesus spends most of the Sermon on the Mount outlining the heart of the Old Testament; a deeper, more challenging set of commandments focused on the heart and not ritual purity or outward conformity.

If an individual, never-mind a society, could not keep the laws of the covenant with Moses, what chance do we have of keeping Jesus’ command to love God and one another perfectly? One of Scripture’s central messages is that humanity is so fallen that we are unable to keep God’s commands.  The sheer act of disobedience delights us. The more perfect the command (eg. “love your neighbour as yourself”) the more stubborn our resistance. So we need to be forgiven and transformed. The law, above all, reveals our need for salvation!

The purpose of the law is to reveal human sin so that it will be clear that there is no hope in human being. The law puts us to death so that life is sought only in Christ and him crucified .Tom Schreiner 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law p84


Paul Copan Is God a Moral Monster (Baker: 2011)

John Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone (SPCK 2010)

David T. Lamb God Behaving Badly? (IVP: 2013)

Gary E. Schnittjer Torah Story (Zondervan: 2010)

Tom Schreiner 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Kregel: 2010)

John H Walton Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament (Apollos 2007)


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