Why was the Old Testament so barbaric_

Why Were The Old Testament Laws So Barbaric?

Do you ever think about the Old Testament and God’s laws found within and think… man this stuff is pretty barbaric?

I mean there is some crazy stuff in there right?

If your child disobeys his parents – stone him to death.

(How did ANY children make it to adulthood!?)

On your period? You are unclean and can’t be around people!

If you have an accident and cause someone to lose their eye – you will get your eye gouged out.

It’s pretty Bronze Age stuff isn’t it. Of course that’s probably because it actually was the Bronze Age.

To understand the way God is interacting with people in this text it’s vitally important we grasp the fact this is not a 21st century post-modern civilization here.

This is a group of people who were surrounded by cultures who sacrificed their children to the gods! In fact, up until recently these people themselves practiced this!

The Code of Hammurabi

Have you ever heard of the Code of Hammurabi?

Probably not. Most people haven’t.

In 1776 BC most of the Mesopotamian world was ruled by the largest empire ever known. The Babylon empire had more than a million people.

This called for some serious order. I mean people had only just a few centuries earlier moved from living in tribes of 150 people to villages and towns of a few thousand. So to create order among a million was a huge undertaking.

So the King Hammurabi issued a set of laws, which he claimed were given to him by the three main gods of the empire, Anu, Enlil and Marduk.

As any good leader knows, a set of rules given “from on high” is one of the best ways to bind a civilization together.

It was called the Code of Hammurabi. Because what all powerful king can pass up naming something divine after Himself (cough King James cough)

Now, I’m not going to go into all the laws. If you are interested you can go read it online. (You have to be really interested though. If you are the person that skims Leviticus and Deuteronomy during your “read the Bible in a year” program you aren’t likely to find this a page turner!)

The key thing I want to mention, is that the law which Moses gave God’s people 200-300 years later, found in our Old Testament, is largely the same set of laws.

So God copied Hammurabi’s law?

Yes and no.

You see Israel would have been very familiar with the Code of Hammurabi. It was the law in the ancient world. It was how everyone set their moral compass. If it was right or wrong it would have been outlined within.

But I’m not saying that God just copied the law because it was right… in fact I’m suggesting he copied it because of quite the opposite.

So let’s look at one group of the laws in particular.

Law 196-199 states:

196. If the superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.
197. If he should break the bone of another superior man, they shall break his bone.
198. If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.
199. If he should blind eye of a slave of a superior man or break the bone of a slave of a superior man, he shall weigh and deliver 1/2 of the slave’s value in silver.

It’s interesting isn’t it?

This is clearly a time in history before people’s parents told them not to run with scissors… losing eyes was apparently way too common!

Joking aside, what’s interesting is that this law about eyeballs being lost doesn’t seem to primarily be about eyeballs. It’s about a very simple caste system.

Putting a price on human life

In the Code of Hammurabi there is a strong caste system in play, the order being:

  • Superior men
  • Commoners
  • Women
  • Children
  • Slaves / Unborn Children

The inequality at play would be quite shocking to us today.

For example, while the eye of a male commoner sixty shekels it is later noted in law 213 that a female commoner’s life is worth thirty shekels. A slaves life was worth twenty.

So if you were a female commoner your life was worth half of your husbands eye. (Talk about equality!) Or if you were a slave you were worth a third of a commoners eye!

Additionally children and slaves were not individuals but property of the parents / owners.

If you accidentally killed someone’s daughter you were not killed in return. No you just destroyed someone’s property. So your property (read: your child) would be put to death to make it right.

If you killed a slave you would have to pay the owner.

Cause someone to have a miscarriage? Pay the owner for the inconvenience.

Pretty crazy right?

Enter Moses

So with this background knowledge let’s look at the law that God gives in the Old Testament?

Well they do not consist of the same hierarchy.

In fact, they deconstruct it. When they talk of an eye for an eye they have no concept of superior man and commoner. They say all (free) men are to be treated as equals.

The concept is saying… your cultural experience may say measure the status of a man and then act accordingly, but God says treat each other as equals when settling such an issue.

The truth is the whole notion of eye for an eye in the Old Testament is much less about eyes and more more about equality and social castes.

At times even (see Ex 21.28-32) mistreatment of women has the same punishment as that of men. However not always, women are still lesser in general than their male counterparts. And of course there are still slaves.

But, if you can forgive the Bronze Age for not abolishing slavery and establishing the woman’s right movement the good news is we are moving forward. (Bear in mind that a few thousands years later and we still hadn’t fixed these issues!)

Where Hammurabi teaches that a slave’s life can be summed up by a certain amount of shekels, the Bible says that any slave who is harmed, even if it’s a broken tooth, should be immediately freed as recompense.

Interestingly enough it even states immigrants are to be treated as equals.

So in the Old Testament we see momentum in terms of what we would consider basic humanity!

Is it up to scratch for 21st century Christianity – of course not… but I’m not so sure that’s something a Bronze Age society was ready for.

But wait… there’s more

Obviously the Old Testament isn’t the end of the story either. You see some young upstart shows up around 27AD or so and started arrogantly correcting the Bible.

He said “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’… but I say… if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The arrogance of this chap, correcting the Bible like that! Who does He think He is?

Oh wait.

It’s Jesus.

God in the flesh.

You know, the guy who gave the first set of rules… which makes the statement “You’ve heard it said, but I say…” kinda funny.

So Jesus comes along and updates this progressive view on equality to something even more progressive.

We go from treating others as equals to treating others as our betters!

We go from responding in kind to not responding in kind (although not responding in kind is not necessarily doing nothing!)

Can you see how God is taking His people on a journey bit by bit?

Can you see that what God has to say is not always the final word on the matter?

Can you see that God might still have some stuff to say today?

It doesn’t stop there

Take slavery for example. We see great improvements in the law of Moses in the treatment of slaves and then also some minor improvements still in the New Testament. But awkwardly the Bible ends a bit early. It ends with slavery still being OK. In fact, this was a major argument for those arguing to keep their slaves as a Christian right almost 2000 years later!

So is God OK with slavery? Is slavery God’s will?

I don’t think so. I think we can say now, on the right side of history, that no, slavery is not God’s will.

So I for one am thankful that God kept up the momentum.

That he didn’t stop talking to us and moving us forward on a more loving path after the last pages of the Bible.

You see the overall meta-narrative of scripture is one of love, grace, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, equality, etc.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we as a species are being lead by Holy Spirit to move further on in these areas. I don’t think God has stopped and I don’t know if He ever will.

After all, Jesus Himself as He planned to leave His disciples said to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Jesus knew people weren’t ready for everything He has for us. He states that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to continue to teach us and lead us into all the truth. This suggest that while everything Jesus said was true, He did not tell us all the truth there is in this world.

We could all use a greater dose of love – God knows this hurting world sure can!

So as we consider the Bible and what it says about certain things, sure, we give it tremendous weight. But we must also read it in light of the meta-narrative. We must read it as part of humanity’s journey and ask ourselves… is there more that God wants to do here? Is God leading us somewhere new, somewhere more loving?

I hope so.

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