Is the Old Testament As Bad As Atheists Say It Is?

The Old Testament law is sometimes used by atheists and skeptics as a bludgeon against faithful Christians. How can you believe the Bible is the Word of God, the taunt goes, when it says that homosexuals and sorcerers should be stoned? How could a loving God command that children who curse their parents be put to death? How can the Bible be OK with slavery?

Such criticism brings to mind the story about Thomas Jefferson, who reportedly went through the four gospels and cut out any verses he didn’t like or thought were irrational. Non-believers often go through the same process in reverse: they carve out all the verses and stories that seem to throw a bad light on Christian faith—especially when it comes to some of the more draconian or seemingly trivial Old Testament laws.

One approach is to respond head-on—and there is certainly good scholarship and apologetics literature out there to help you. But another response is to turn the tables on your atheist friend. Because it turns out there’s a heck of a lot in the Old Testament law that would pass as liberal, even progressive, by modern standards. In pointing out these compassionate commandments (listed below) you should be able to at least neutralize the criticism. But hopefully you’ll also pique the curiosity of your friend—so that instead of dismissing the Old Testament, he dives in to learn more.

Loan Forgiveness: We hear a lot these days about people who can’t pay their debts—homeowners whose mortgages are under water, unemployed students who default on their college loans, and so on. In ancient Israel, loans were required to be forgiven in the seventh year. There wasn’t any getting around this—Deuteronomy 9:15 specifically forbids lenders from stepping up the collections process as the seventh year approaches.

Due Process for Criminals: The Torah provided limited due process rights for accused offenders. For example, someone who committed involuntary manslaughter could not be killed by the relative of the victim before his case went to trial. Also, court decisions had to be on the basis of evidence from two witnesses—perhaps insuring against the subjective decision-making that tends to happen during witch hunts.

Giving to the Poor: Israelite farmers were to refrain from reaping the “very edges” of their fields, leaving them for the poor, the stranger, and the fatherless. The same went for any sheaves of corn accidentally left behind or any grapes that fell to the ground in their vineyards. Israelites also had to make interest-free loans to the poor in their midst to support their most basic needs.

Restrictions on Wealth: The Mosaic law imposed all kinds of restrictions on wealth acquisition by Israelite kings—the closest thing they had to today’s corporate executive. Kings were specifically commanded to not have “a great number” of horses or wives. They were also barred from accumulating “a vast amount of silver and gold.” As one commentator notes: “Immense riches are seldom possessed even by kings, without the oppression of their subjects, and great danger of falling into extravagance.” CEO pay caps anyone?

Protecting the Environment: Ever hear of scorched earth policies? Today the phrase is commonly used as an idiom for any activity that is totally destructive, but it comes from the military practice of obliterating anything that might be useful to the other side—bridges, factories, even crops and water sources. It’s a timeless military tradition that’s been used from Viking marauders to Sherman’s legendary “march to the sea” in the Civil War to Saddam’s burning of the oil fields in Kuwait.

But the ancient Israelites were not allowed to do this. Here’s what Deuteronomy 20:19 has to say on the matter: “When thou hast besieged a city a long time, and hath compassed it with bulwarks, to take it, thou shalt not cut down the trees that may be eaten of, neither shalt thou spoil the country round about with axes: for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee.”

Anti-Predatory Lending: In the wake of the real estate crash and the financial crisis, we’ve heard a lot about the evils of predatory lending. It’s an issue that was not lost on Moses or the ancient Israelites. Instead, the Mosaic law had safeguards against abusive and exploitative practices. Lenders could not take interest in advance or let interest accrue from a relative in need. In fact, they were not allowed to charge any interest at all—a commandment that’s repeated at least twice.

There seems to be some debate about whether the Old Testament text condemns any interest at all or just excessively high interest rates. Part of the problem has to do with the changing definition of usury. The word traditionally meant lending at interest; now it refers to abusive or exploitative interest rates. Comparing different versions of the Bible offers some insight on how translators understand the text. The Douay–Rheims Bible, which dates back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century uses the word usury in its translations of Leviticus 25:36-37 and Exodus 22:25. However, the more contemporary translation of the New American Bible, the online version used by the USCCB, drops the word usury from its translations. Instead, Leviticus 25:37 simply states: “Do not give your money at interest or your food at a profit.” Similar unequivocal language is used in Exodus. This would suggest that the original meaning in the Hebrew is anti-any interest and that as the meaning of the word usury has narrowed, it has lost its usefulness as an accurate translation of the Hebrew. (Yet a further wrinkle: Deuteronomy 23:20-21 does allow interest loans to foreigners, so the prohibition seems focused on the poor and fellow Israelites.)

Relief from Military Duty: The ancient Israelites were commanded to go to war against the seven Canaanite nations, but the Torah also had a big exemption for a certain category of young men. Anyone who had just become married had a year to stay at home and “rejoice with his wife.” He was also exempted from any other public business, according to Deuteronomy 24:5. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides expands the exemption his authoritative list of Old Testament commandments: he says it would have been granted not just to newlyweds but also anyone who had just built a house or planted a vineyard. It’s an ancient rule that certainly hits home for those couples immediately separated by deployments during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Worker Rights: Abusive employment practices were curbed by laws mandating timely payment of wages and rules against treating servants “harshly.”

Refuge for Slaves: Slavery was legal in some instances, but the ancient Jews also were obligated to harbor slaves who had fled from their masters. One commentator writes, “The promised land was thus declared a land of liberty, to encourage poor slaves to embrace the service of the true God, and to flee from the slavery of the devil, and from the society of those who adored him in their idols.” There were other restrictions on slavery as well. For example, a “beautiful” woman who was captured in war could not be later sold into slavery.

The Original Weekend: Let’s not forget that even though the modern-day weekend emerged out of the labor union movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was God who first declared the Sabbath a day of rest. This was a twofold commandment: work was expressly prohibited and rest was explicitly required. And this applied not just to a head of a household, but also to his children, his servants, his livestock, and any foreigners living with him. It doesn’t seem like there were any exceptions: even work during the harvest season was frowned upon.

 

What emerges is a better-rounded picture of ancient Israelite law and society. Yes, it was harsh and punitive. But also, like the God it worshiped, it was incredibly generous and caring towards others, especially the poor and powerless.

It’s true that ultimately there’s no way of getting around the fact that in many ways the ancient Israelites were instructed to be far harsher on sinners then we could ever imagine today. Given that there were more than 600 commandments—some even dealing with such seemingly mindless issues such as the fiber make-up of clothes and guidelines on bowl movements during military expeditions—the possibility of achieving holiness by following the law in such a society seems quite hopeless. One way or another, you were eventually going to cross the law.

And that’s actually the whole point. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8: “Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death. For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.”

So whenever someone protests the harshness or hopelessness of the Old Testament laws, the ultimate answer has to be Christ. Christ came to redeem sinners condemned to death. He came to free those enslaved to sin and worldly concerns. He opposed the Spirit of God to those obsessed with the letter of the law. And He promised a heavenly inheritance for the poor and persecuted on this earth. So, far from being an obstacle to faith, the Old Testament laws actually lead right to the gospel message.

Of course, as the above list demonstrates, well before the birth of Christ, God’s love and compassion was already shining through the storm clouds of sin and suffering.

Scripture References

Loan Forgiveness: Deuteronomy 15:1, 9

Due Process: Numbers 35:12, Deuteronomy 19:15

Giving to the Poor: Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19, Exodus 22:25

Restrictions on Wealth: Deuteronomy 17:16-17

Protecting the Environment: Deuteronomy 20:19

Anti-Predatory Lending: Leviticus 25:36-37, Exodus 22:25, Deuteronomy 23:20-21

Relief from Military Duty: Deuteronomy 24:5

Worker Rights: Leviticus 19:13, 25:39, 43

Refuge for Slaves: Deuteronomy 23:15, 21:10-14

The Original Weekend: Exodus 16:29, 20:10, 23:12, 34:21

*Commentary references are from Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary.

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • JMC

    One might also point out the process of “inculturation:” Life in general during those times was harsh and hopeless; additionally, before the Commandments were given to Moses, we see mention of the Israelites having “household gods,” i.e., idols. I have always seen the relaxing of laws and definitions of the words used in those laws in terms of a society “growing up” as a child does: Rules are stricter for a very small child who has not yet learned the use of reason; as the child grows in understanding and maturity, the rules are relaxed. I remember using that explanation when the prohibition against eating meat on Friday was changed, and my cousin wondered if that didn’t indicate that the “supposedly” infallible Pope had made a mistake in the past. Being only children ourselves, neither of us yet understood the differences between the laws of God and the laws of the Church, the latter of which can be changed, and I explained the change to her in the very terms expressed above. (I was the third of five children and had already seen the relaxing of rules in the case of my older siblings.) I have since found it a useful argument when debating with some atheists. It is also of use in dealing with fundamentalist Christians who try to condemn women for wearing trousers. Some of them actually think twice when you tell them it’s the *intent* that counts, not the actual clothing – not to mention the reaction you get when you remind them that in Old Testament times, it was women who wore pants and men who wore “dresses” – i.e., the tunics and robes that were men’s wear at the time.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/I7KVNVBMERHZVGOYYMHSKDL6EY TracieH

    I think the problem is the claim that many Christians make that the Law represents a perfect moral law, since it was given to the Hebrews by a presumed perfect moral being. If someone hands me a research paper, and says it contains no errors, that claim can be countered if only one error is found in the paper. It doesn’t matter if all of the other points and facts in the paper are correct, the original claim that it is perfect has been destroyed by the single mistake. If the skeptic is attempting to counter the claim that the Bible is a perfect “Word of God,” without error, and that this Law represents the mind of a perfectly moral being, then it only takes the inclusion of one “draconian” law to show that claim is invalid. Pointing out some of the other laws are not horrible does not save the claim.

  • Jon T

    Have you ever heard the term “cafeteria Christian”? How do you reconcile yourself to the horrible laws in the OT, especially in the way it shows the nature of your god?

  • bob42

    People are free to pick and choose portions of their Bibles that suit them. But at that moment, they surrender any claim that the book is the inerrant or sole author of morality, and admit, willingly or not, that they are more moral than the God that they claim wrote or inspired its writing. .

  • Stephen Beale

    Thanks for the comments. @TracieH In my article I do not describe OT law as “a perfect moral law” although one could say that. But by “perfectly good” I don’t think anyone, any Christian, at least the vast majority, means that every society at every time should adopt
    every letter of the OT law. I think one could say it was perfectly good in that time and place – this goes to the excellent point about culturation made by another commenter. As to the points I do make, I don’t posit a cost-benefit analysis and argue that all the seemingly good aspects of OT law outweigh the seemingly bad ones. All I say is that it’s a simplistic and false stereotype that OT law is “draconian.” Some are quite clearly not so. The reality is much more complex. That’s all I really argue for here. How to reconcile it all, how to interpret it, is not something I really delve into, but I do hint at some possible solutions near the end of the piece.

  • Joe

    But showing that a few of the laws were forward thinking compared to other cultures of the time doesn’t fix that a perfectly moral god gave a set of laws that any person today could rewrite and improve with a few minutes thought. I’ll leave the first two or three alone, fine, but in the grand scheme of things replace the sabbath rule and coveting, with say, don’t own slaves at all, don’t have sex with someone against their will. There, an even better Ten Commandments, and I’m sure we could keep improving them more.

  • Joe

    I should add that the slavery rule wouldn’t work in their time, as it conflicts with the laws that god supposedly gave to Moses that expressly allowed them to own slaves.

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