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.
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.