Old Testament laws

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #1

I was reading a bit of Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation , and was intrigued on how he quoted many of the OT laws as if we Christians still live by them. This led me to ask the question, why would God have laws that had to do with killing children who are disobedient (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and to kill people for trying to sudduce you into worshipping other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10)? I guess I maybe could understand the latter, but the former seems a little harsh (but what is my judgment compared to God’s, no sarcasm intended).

(SeanO) #2

@O_wretched_man Regarding the killing of a disobedient child, the articles I read all pointed out the following:

  • the disobedient child was likely endangering the community
  • both the elders and the parents had to agree - this was not a an act of mindless vengeance
  • this is not a young child - it is a young man who has repeatedly disregarded the discipline of his parents and is a danger to the community
  • there is no record of this law being enforced in the Bible
  • the purpose is to preserve the holiness and safety of the community

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 - If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

One thing you have to be careful about when reading someone like Sam Harris is that the worst possible interpretation of a verse may be assumed to be the correct one. These commands were given in a specific context to a covenant community of God that had to be set apart from the world. They were held to a higher standard and the laws were given to address specific situations, not unlike some of the advice in Paul’s letters in the New Testament. When we encounter one of these strange laws, it is best to take time to study all of the various perspectives and not to make assumptions about what the law means without first taking into account context and covenant.

(Tabitha Gallman) #3

This morning my Bible study was in Numbers 15, and ironically I had the same thought @O_wretched_man about the penalty that was presented there. The verses in this chapter are pertaining to a man who was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. The Lord told Moses that the congregation was to stone him to death.

That to me seemed rather severe (and still does), but I like the reminder that JVM made in his commentary. Mr. McGee said, “This is very severe. This makes one thing very clear. The death penalty was the penalty for breaking any of the Ten Commandments. We need to see this to understand what it means that the Lord Jesus Christ died our death for us.”

I can see why many people (including myself) would see these penalties as being way over the top, but @SeanO is there more here in the Old Testament that points to God’s repetitiveness and patience that maybe isn’t revealed to us that may lend to God’s more compassionate side, or is it all part of the reason that when we survey the Cross, we see more of what God did for us on the cross?

(SeanO) #4

@tabby68 Good comments. Yes, I think there are a few things to consider.

  1. Israel was a covenant community - God did not zap Canaanites when they didn’t keep the Sabbath - Israel was chosen - that came with both benefits and responsibilities. Think of Ananias and Saphira in the NT - they were struck dead for lying specifically because they were part of the covenant community. Entering into covenant with God is a serious matter.

  2. God healed Namaan and brought both Ruth and Rahab, non-Israelites, into God’s covenant community. He forgave wicked Israelite kings when they truly humbled themselves. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. When God revealed Himself to Moses, compassionate and gracious were two character attributes He specifically mentioned.

  3. God was trying to teach the Israelites something about His holiness. The very presence of God dwelt in their community, therefore they had to be set apart unto Him. If one person was allowed to break the rules, very likely everyone else would start doing so as well. That is part of the reason God told them not to intermarry with the Canaanites or live among them - God knew peoples’ hearts are very changeable.

  4. God is not safe. Even King David struggled with God’s holiness - consider the case of Uzzah.

I Chronicles 13:9-12 - And when they came to the threshing floor of oChidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. 10 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down pbecause he put out his hand to the ark, and qhe died there before God. 11 And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzza4 to this day. 12 And David was afraid of God that day, and he said, “How can I bring the ark of God home to me?”

Of course, after God started pouring out blessings on the house of the man David took the ark to instead of his own house, David promptly brought it back :slight_smile:

(SeanO) #5

@O_wretched_man Another thing to consider is that God is not a rule book - He is a Person who knows the hearts of all mankind. So when He makes a decision, He is not flipping to Deuteronomy to see what He should do… Many things are taken into account that we may never understand.

In addition, relationships trumped rules in ancient culture. I don’t fully understand the implications, but God also had a covenant relationship with Israel and with each individual. So I think that could play into it as well. Rules do not define reality. I think that is very important.

Relationships Trump Rules - Ancient Culture

It is also possible that while we read this rule as absolute, members of ancient Israelite culture would have considered the relationship more important than the rule. So that if the married couple wanted to leave for a better opportunity at some point and it was best for the master too, they may have done so. On the flip side, the married couple may have desired to honor their relationship with their master… We read this as an absolute rule - in ancient culture it may have been more proverbial and could have been trumped by relationship?

Also, the rules in the Torah were likely given in response to specific situations that had occurred in the community; not unlike Paul’s letters in the New Testament. So that in a different situation this specific law may not have been applicable.

Because Western readers tend to understand relationships in terms of rules and laws, we have a tendency also to understand ancient relationships, including those we read about in Scripture, in terms of rules. (160-161)

In contrast to the modern Western worldview, in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality . (161)

…we have to learn to identify when the Bible is prioritizing relationship instead of rules or laws. | One way to do this is to pay attention to the motivation or rationale a biblical writer offers for a commandment. (174)

(Tabitha Gallman) #6

Thanks @SeanO for those examples. I can see how easy it is for the world to jump to assumptions to say that God is cruel, when in fact, he’s unknown to the world because they don’t immerse themselves in His word.

It was just a few weeks ago that I read the passage about the judgement of Aaron’s two sons for their sin How soon I forgot the same thought that crossed my mind then when I read that passage. I kind of felt the punishment was not justified, and the commentary actually compared the judgement to that of Ananias and Sapphira.

I forget so quickly sometimes what it is God wants me to treasure in my heart. (It’s definitely a lack of discipline on my part when I forget God’s word.) You are right, it’s God’s presence and the fact that He is holy and sovereign that should help me to understand why there had to have been complete obedience and that obedience had to be demonstrated to others.

In reading the scripture that @O_wretched_man asked about in Deuteronomy 21 that could be compared to the lepers that had to be removed from the camp??

It is so true that God’s word is HIs living Word because there is always something to be taken away from the scriptures. I’m thankful for your patience @SeanO if it seems like I’m not “getting it” a lot of times.

This leads me to another question Sean and/or @O_wretched_man. When God judged through the “death penalty” this didn’t mean that the judged lost their salvation did it? JVM mentioned the verse in 1 Cor. 11:31-32 in reference to Nadab and Abihu, and Ananias and Sapphira: “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world”.

(SeanO) #7

@tabby68 Yes, we all forget God’s Word - that is why one of the most frequent commands in the Old Testament is to ‘remember’ and why the Shema in Deut 4:6-9 exhorts us to put God’s Word everywhere - doorposts and gates and house - and to talk about it everywhere that we go. There is an old illustration why a young boy asks his grandfather why they read the same Bible passage so often. His grandfather gives him a pale and ask him to go to the river to fill it with water. The pale had tiny holes in the bottom and by the time the boy got back it was nearly empty. “Why did you put holes in it?” the boy asked. “Because we leak, just like that old pale,” the grandfather said. “So we must daily remember the Word of God if we want to stay full.” We all need to be reminded, no matter how often we’ve heard the Word.

2 Peter 1:12 - So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.

God is so patient with me, I would be ashamed not to be patient with anyone else :slight_smile: It always takes time to learn new concepts.

Honestly, I am not sure about the salvation of those judged by death - I think that is up to God who knows the heart. But I do think we have 2 separate categories of people here:

  1. Those that died even though they committed no wrong - like Uzziah - the text does not say he touched the ark on purpose, which is why David was so upset if I understand correctly
  2. Those who died as a result of disobedience - Ananias and Saphira or the man collecting sticks on the Sabbath or the members of Korah’s rebellion who were swallowed up by the earth

Beyond that I could not really say much. I suspect Uzziah is saved. The others I leave the judgment to God.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #8

Thanks again for your response, @SeanO . In light of your answers, I have a couple of questions:
How would you articulate this all to an unbeliever who has read Harris’ book, and secondly, in your quotes you highlighted this:

in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality.

My question on this is this, in spite of this quote, how did the Pharisees become so legalistic and corrupt? They followed the OT laws exactly, yet, as Jesus said, their hearts where filthy. How did this happen?

(SeanO) #9

@O_wretched_man It would depend entirely on what that particular person already believed / did not believe. It would also depend on what objections seemed the most powerful to them. In my experience, there is not a one size fits all answer. You just need to know the answers as best you can, pray for the Spirit’s guidance, listen well and then have an enjoyable conversation with them. Your attitude may communicate more than your answers. Also, I do not claim to be an expert at persuading hard line atheists - it’s def not my day job :slight_smile:

Regarding relationships and rules, I think (my understanding is admittedly limited here…) that the point is not that the ancients placed no value on rules. Admittedly the quote sounds a bit that way. Rather, I think the point is that if a rule gets in the way of a relationship, the relationship may trump the rule. Kind of like if your friend owned a restaurant and the rule was that a burger cost 8 bucks, but you got one free. In that case, the relationship trumps the rule. The rule was made for a customer relationship - but this is a friend relationship. The rule lives within the context of a relationship.

Now, at this point I have to be very careful. When it came to laws given by God, at least if we look at the Biblical record, the ancients took them very seriously. Transgressing God’s laws could lead to death. But - and this is crucial - we also see that when someone repented from their heart God forgave them - He did not always hold to the letter of the law if there was a change of heart.

And then we come to the two great commandments - love God and love neighbor. All the commandments can be summarized in those two. Well - those are relationships. The rules do not exist for their own sake - they were given to us to preserve our relationship to God, neighbor and in a way even self.

We talked about the man zapped for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, but check out what Jesus says in Mark:

Mark 2:27 - Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

All of the laws were intended to teach us to how to love God and neighbor - they were not meant to be merciless dictates.

But what did the Pharisees do? They bent the rules for themselves by reading them in a wooden fashion because their hearts were twisted. They did not love God and neighbor. They took advantage of the rules for their own gain.

Matthew 15:3-7 - Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites!

So the purpose of the law was to help us live out righteous relationships, but the Pharisees abused the law to take advantage of other people and heap guilt / condemnation on them.

In summary - rules serve relationships - not the other way around. The law was given in order to preserve relationship with God and man - not just for the sake of making rules. The rules are important in so far as they preserve right relationship. So the rules are important, they just aren’t the main thing.

(Tabitha Gallman) #10

@O_wretched_man, @SeanO
I am finally finishing up with Numbers, and as I have mentioned I only have the one commentary (hard copy) that I have been referring to when I have questions: “Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee”. I have to say that I really feel comfortable reading mostly everything JVM writes, but he didn’t comment much on the Inheritance of Zelophehad’s Daughters.

My question came when I read about the “seemingly” problem that the daughters encountered when the issue of marriage came up and what would happen to their tribe’s inheritance should they marry someone from another tribe. It was as if the law had to be amended.

I looked online and found the following Matthew Henry Commentary here:https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/numbers/36.html

“God would have them know that the land being to be divided by lot, the disposal whereof was of the Lord, they could not mend, and therefore should not alter, his appointment. The inheritances must not remove from tribe to tribe (v. 7), lest there should be confusion among them, their estates entangled, and their genealogies perplexed. God would not have one tribe to be enriched by the straitening and impoverishing of another, since they were all alike the seed of Abraham his friend.II. The law, in this particular case, was made perpetual, and to be observed whenever hereafter the like case should happen, v. 8.”

The daughters (or the family heads) seemed to be concerned about the tribe as a whole and this tends to go along with what @SeanO said in his earlier reply:

The last paragraph in the above mentioned commentary reads:

" The conclusion of this whole book, referring to the latter part of it: These are the judgments which the Lord commanded in the plains of Moab (v. 13), these foregoing, ever since ch. 26, most of which related to their settlement in Canaan, into which they were now entering. Whatever new condition God is by his providence bringing us into, we must beg of him to teach us the duty of it, and to enable us to do it, that we may do the work of the day in its day, of the place in its place."

Are there other parts of the law that are perpetual? Is this not reason enough to build upon the law as a reference applying it with wisdom and love? Why else would Jesus say: “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? (Philippians 2:12)

Just as God was preparing the Israelites for the land of Canaan, isn’t he using His word as a whole to prepare us for his Kingdom? as in verse 13: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose”.

(SeanO) #11

@tabby68 One thing that may help you understand the idea of ‘permanent’ or ‘everlasting’ statues prescribed in the Old Testament is a word study of olam. The Hebrews did not have the modern notion of eternity as a timeless state. Rather, they used words that essentially meant ‘for a very long time’. The priesthood of Aaron was said to have ‘perpetual statutes’ (Exodus 29:9), but we know that Jesus has replaced them and they are no longer necessary (Hebrews 7).

עוֹלָם - olam

Hebrew words used for space are also used for time. The Hebrew word qedem means “east” but is also the same word for the “past.” The Hebrew word olam literally means “beyond the horizon.” When looking off in the far distance it is difficult to make out any details and what is beyond that horizon cannot be seen. This concept is the olam. The word olam is also used for time for the distant past or the distant future as a time that is difficult to know or perceive. This word is frequently translated as “eternity” meaning a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is “l’olam va’ed” and is usually translated as “forever and ever,” but in the Hebrew it means “to the distant horizon and again” meaning “a very distant time and even further.” Strong’s: 5769

(Tabitha Gallman) #12

@SeanO, how will I ever recover from my colossal embarrassing mistake here? Once again, I did not fully follow the guidelines before posting. I am so sorry, but also very sorry because I don’t ever want to waste your time or any of the other contributors here on this site.

My error was not fully understanding the reference that I quoted, specifically not knowing what the word perpetual meant. I am grateful my husband let me “bounce around” my thought process because in the end I finally figured out why your @SeanO response didn’t seem to match up to my question.

I finally realized my ignorance when I asked my husband what perpetual means. LOL, I said I thought that the little wooden calendar I used to have that had all the months, days, etc. printed on called a “perpetual” calendar meant always changing. He said, “No, it just meant you never had to buy a new calendar.” (embarrassed) …sigh.

Sorry @SeanO!

What I should have asked is: “Are there any other laws that were amended in the Old Testament?”

(SeanO) #13

@tabby68 No reason to be embarrassed - I probably just misunderstood :slight_smile: Honestly, I could not give you a comprehensive answer, but I could give some perspective. I do not think it is helpful to talk about the law being ‘amended’ necessarily. Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets could be summed up in ‘love God with your whole being’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. So in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, what we see is God teaching the Israelites how to behave with justice and righteousness in a specific situation - how to love these women in this situation. So the law, fundamentally, is about justice, righteousness and love being worked out in life.

The clearest example to me of this kind of outworking of the law in the New Testament is the Sabbath. For example, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, He pointed out that the purpose of the Sabbath was not to harm but to heal. He went back to the purpose behind the rule that had been given. Or when Jesus references King David eating the consecrated bread from the temple. The law did not need to be amended - but its purpose needed to be properly understood.

Mark 2:23-28 - One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Now, this is not the same thing as what is sometimes loosely termed ‘situational ethics’ and denies the existence of absolute morality. There are behaviors that are always wrong - such as idolatry or sexual immorality. But to really apply the law we must understand its purpose - not simply the command. We need to understand the heart of the law to live wisely in the world - not just the letter.

(Tabitha Gallman) #14

Thanks @SeanO. (My husband said that now I shouldn’t ever have a problem remembering what perpetual means, lol.)

I do think these OT stories are for our spiritual growth today as well as for the Israelites even though culturally some situations don’t apply today, but as in this story (like you said: “what we see is God teaching the Israelites how to behave with justice and righteousness in a specific situation - how to love these women in this situation”).

I always approach the OT thinking about God’s attributes of all-knowing, sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscience, so that when I come across a situation where it seems to go against God’s attributes, I get confused. If God is all-knowing, then why didn’t He tell the tribes ahead of time to marry within their tribes if this situation calls for it? Is God silent about certain issues because he wants us to work through problems, think about them and then come to Him? I think so since he is so relational.

@SeanO are we as believers (or non-believers) all taught before we read the Bible that God has certain attributes or is that something that the Holy Spirit reveals to us when we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior? Or can a non-believer read through the OT to discover God’s attributes for him/her self?

(SeanO) #15

@tabby68 Haha - perhaps so. You know, when we look at why God created Adam and Eve - He created them to be rulers - Kings and Queens made in His image from the dust - to rule over the whole creation. I think God wants us as people to grow wise and strong so that we can rule as we were meant to - and part of that is learning to discern good and evil. So yes, I think you’re spot on when you say that God wants us to grow up. He is not trying to give us a rule book - He is trying to teach us to be rulers and priests in His Kingdom. Pretty awesome!

I think we learn God’s attributes by studying His Word and by walking with Him throughout our lives. In my opinion, an unbeliever can know what God’s attributes are, but they do not have the knowledge that comes from experience. An unbeliever can know that one of God’s attributes is faithfulness and steadfast love - but they could never write Psalms 23.

When you read what King David wrote - that is heart knowledge. He does not just know that God is a shepherd - God is His Shepherd. He does not just know that God can give you peace - God has led Him beside still waters and will do so again. There is knowing and there is knowing - and to truly know God we must walk with Him - forsaking all else and trusting Him with heart, body and soul.

Psalms 23 - The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

(Tabitha Gallman) #16

Amen! :slightly_smiling_face:

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #17


But to really apply the law we must understand its purpose - not simply the command. We need to understand the heart of the law to live wisely in the world - not just the letter.

If only the skeptics who point out some of the Levitical laws they don’t like could grasp this truth!

(SeanO) #18

@O_wretched_man Agreed. I think that when someone starts to seriously consider Christ that is a possibility, but when they are still far from God I think issues like the Levitical laws are just an easy way to avoid having to engage in further / serious discussion or thought - at least I have encountered that on a few occasions. But then each person has their own story - so we always need to listen humbly to their reasons.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #19

I’m still reading Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and he LOVES to quote the OT laws as if Christians are still living by it today.

(SeanO) #20

@O_wretched_man Most often I see arguments the laws were pointless in the first place (like not mixing different kinds of thread) or that to be consistent Christians should still practice them today. They fail to recognize that God was trying to teach a huge group of people that just left the pagan nation of Egypt to live a life of holiness (set apartness) from another group of pagan people among whom they dwelled. God knew it would not be easy for them, so He gave them a lot of object lessons. Also, there were three types of law - priestly, civil and moral.

But generally critics (of the Harris variety) have already assumed God does not exist and certainly had no role in these laws. That foundational assumption, when coupled with what appears to be contempt for Christianity, prevents any really meaningful dialogue from occurring. If there was less mockery / contempt I think a more meaningful dialogue could occur.