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The prevailing prejudice against Scripture is that the Old Testament portrays a violent God of a violent people and is filled with narratives recounting horrendous events with disreputable people playing major roles. Is the Old Testament ethical? Here are some reasons why it is.
It was ethical enough for Jesus. Jesus accepted the truth and ethical validity of the OT (“the Scriptures”) in His own life, mission, and teaching. His noted “you have heard that it was said … but I tell you” (see Mt 6–7) sayings don’t contradict or criticize the OT but either deepen its demands or correct distorted popular inferences. “Love your neighbor” meant “Hate your enemy” to many in Jesus’ day, even though the OT never says any such thing. Jesus reminded His hearers that the same chapter (Lev 19) also says, “Love the alien as yourself,” extending this to include “Love your enemy.” Jesus thus affirmed and strengthened the OT ethic.
Narratives describe what happened, not what was necessarily approved. We assume wrongly that if a story is in Scripture it must be “what God wanted.” But biblical narrators dealt with the real world and described it as it was, with all its corrupt and fallen ambiguity. We shouldn’t mistake realism for ethical approval. Old Testament stories often challenge us to wonder at God’s amazing grace and patience in continually working out His purpose through such morally compromised people and to be discerning in evaluating their conduct according to standards the OT itself provides.
The conquest of Canaan must be understood for what it was. This event, rightly, is troubling to sensitive readers. We can’t ignore its horror, but some perspectives can help us evaluate it ethically.
- It was a limited event. The conquest narratives describe one particular period of Israel’s long history. Many of the other wars that occur in the OT narrative had no divine sanction, and some were clearly condemned as the actions of proud, greedy kings or military rivals.
- We must allow for the exaggerated language of warfare. Israel, like other ancient Near East nations whose documents we possess, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality.
- It was an act of God’s justice and punishment on a morally degraded society. The conquest shouldn’t be portrayed as random genocide or ethnic cleansing. The wickedness of Canaanite society was anticipated (Gn 15:16) and described in moral and social terms (Lev 18:24; 20:23; Dt 9:5; 12:29–31). This interpretation is accepted in the NT (e.g., Heb 11:31 speaks of the Canaanites as “those who disobeyed,” implying awareness of choosing to persist in sin—as the Bible affirms of all human beings). There’s a huge moral difference between violence that’s arbitrary and violence inflicted within the moral framework of punishment (this is true in human society as much as in divine perspective). It doesn’t make it “nice,” but it changes the ethical evaluation significantly.
- God threatened to do the same to Israel—and He did. In the conquest God used Israel as the agent of punishment on the Canaanites. God warned Israel that if they behaved like the Canaanites, He would treat them as His enemy in the same way and inflict the same punishment on them using other nations (Lv 26:17; Dt 28:25–68). In the course of Israel’s long history in OT times, God repeatedly did so, demonstrating His moral consistency in international justice. It wasn’t a matter of favoritism. If anything, Israel’s status as God’s chosen people, the OT argues, exposed them more to God’s judgment and historical punishment than the Canaanites who experienced the conquest. Those choosing to live as God’s enemies eventually face God’s judgment.
- The conquest anticipated the final judgment. Like the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the flood, the story of Canaan’s conquest stands in Scripture as a prototypical narrative, or one that foreshadows what is to come. Scripture affirms that ultimately, in the final judgment, the wicked will face the awful reality of God’s wrath through exclusion, punishment, and destruction. Then God’s ethical justice will finally be vindicated. But at certain points in history, such as during the conquest period, God demonstrates the power of His judgment. Rahab’s story, set in the midst of the conquest narrative, also demonstrates the power of repentance, faith, and God’s willingness to spare His enemies when they choose to identify with God’s people. Rahab thus enters the NT hall of fame—and faith (Heb 11:31; Jms 2:25).
An eye for an eye is remarkably humane. Unfortunately this phrase sums up for many what OT law and ethics are all about. Even then they misunderstand that this expression—almost certainly metaphorical, not literal—wasn’t a license for unlimited vengeance but precisely the opposite: it established the fundamental legal principle of proportionality; that is, punishment mustn’t exceed the gravity of the offense. The rest of OT law, when compared with law codes from contemporary ancient societies (e.g., Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite), shows a remarkable humanitarian concern, especially for the socially weak, poor, and marginalized (the classic trio of “the widow, the orphan, and the alien”). Israel’s laws operated with ethical priorities of human life above material property and of human needs over legal rights. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus (who clearly endorsed the same priorities) could affirm that He had no intention of abolishing the Law and the Prophets but rather of fulfilling them.
Exodus 20:8–11 How are Christians obligated to “remember the Sabbath day,” or seventh day of the week? May a Christian work on Saturdays? The fourth commandment is unique among the Ten Commandments in containing both ceremonial and moral elements. It establishes a key element in a religious calendar, designating one day in seven as holy. But it is also moral, directing people to be imitators of God in His rest from the work of creation, and to use His gift of time for sacred purposes. Because it can be taken in both a ceremonial and moral sense, this commandment became a center of controversy in Jesus’ ministry, and continued to be so in the history of the church.
Jesus violated first-century Jewish ceremonial customs regarding the Sabbath (Mt 12:10–13; Lk 13:10–17). He also defended His disciples when they violated the Sabbath customs (Mt 12:1–8), even though OT law mandated the death penalty for those who worked on that sacred day (Ex 31:14–15; 35:2). The apostle Paul likewise de-emphasized the need for Christians to maintain Jewish customs related to the calendar (Rm 14:5; Col 2:16). At the same time, Jesus was careful to keep the moral aspects of this command, stating that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt 12:12). Jesus saw beyond the ceremony to the sacred use of time. Every day, but especially the Lord’s Day, is to be used to accomplish the work of God.
Should Christians use Saturday as their day of worship? Before the coming of Jesus, Jews used the seventh day as a sacred day of rest, and of prayer and study of the scriptures. However, the first day of the week could also be a special day of worship during the annual Feast of Tabernacles (see Lv 23:36). In honor of Jesus’ resurrection, which occurred on the first day of the week, early first-century Christians made that day their regular day of worship (see Acts 20:7; 1 Co 16:2), calling it “the Lord’s Day” (see Rev 1:10). At the same time, the NT makes it clear that Christians are not bound to rigid rules regarding days for worship (see Rm 14:5–6). It is vital for Christians to gather regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), but many interpreters believe that no day of the week is inherently better than another for doing so.
Exodus 20:12 The Bible consistently teaches that we should honor and obey our parents (Lev 19:3; Dt 5:16; Pr 23:22; Mt 15:4; 19:19; Mk 7:10; 10:19; Lk 18:20; Eph 6:1–2; Col 3:20), following the example of Jesus Himself (Lk 2:51). At the same time, we are taught to make God our highest authority, esteeming Him above any earthly authority, including parents (Mt 10:37). On those rare occasions when one must choose to reject parental authority in order to obey God, family conflicts will be inevitable (see Lk 12:51–53). In spite of the tension and potential consequences, it is necessary to follow God’s way (Acts 5:29). Although Jesus speaks of hating our parents (Lk 14:26), the expression does not mean what we mean by “hate”; it means simply to avoid making them the highest authority in our lives.
Exodus 20:13 Should we never kill people, or simply not commit murder? According to the Bible, death was not part of God’s original plan for humanity but became part of the human experience as a result of humanity’s sin (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rm 5:12; Heb 9:27). All human beings are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27) and therefore all human life is sacred and to be treated with special respect. At the same time, the law of Moses sanctions the taking of human life as a penalty for certain serious crimes committed against persons or God (Gen 9:6; Ex 21:12–17; 31:14–15; 35:2; Lev 20:2, 9–16, 27; 24:16–17, 21; 27:29; Nm 35:33; Dt 13:5–9; 21:21; 22:21). The NT implicitly affirms the right of governmental authorities to impose the death penalty (Rm 13:4). The Bible’s prescription of the death penalty in certain circumstances is aimed at preventing greater evils from occurring, and thus preserves the principle of the sacredness of human life. Murder, the unauthorized taking of human life, is clearly what this command prohibits.
Exodus 20:14 If adultery is always wrong, why did God command a prophet to marry a promiscuous wife (Hs 1:2)? The prophet Hosea was not given permission to commit adultery, he was told to marry a woman who would be unfaithful after their marriage. The prophet’s experience with his unfaithful wife became an object lesson in Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness toward God. Adultery, or sexual intercourse with another person’s spouse, is always condemned in the Bible (Gen 20:3; Lev 18:20; Dt 5:18; Pr 6:32; Mt 5:27–32; 19:18; Jn 8:3–11; Gl 5:19; 2 Pt 2:14). It was considered a crime so serious that it warranted the death penalty (Lev 20:10; Dt 22:22).
Exodus 20:15 For a discussion of stealing, see note on 3:22.
Exodus 20:16 Strictly speaking, this commandment applies to perjury during a legal proceeding, and not to speech in general. Nevertheless God, who is Himself the Truth and speaks only the truth (Ps 119:160; Jn 1:14; 17:17) expects people to tell the truth (see note on Ex 1:19). Yet the Bible records an instance where the Lord caused, or permitted, false prophets to lie (1 Kg 22:23). That passage reflects the OT writers’ tendency to attribute all things to God, recognizing that events could occur only if the Lord permitted them. King Ahab had hired false prophets to spread lies supporting his personal ambitions, and these prophets conveniently proclaimed messages in the Lord’s name that agreed with the king’s desires. The Lord permitted them to do what they were determined to do, to provide Ahab with the lie he wanted to hear—and which led to his death (1 Kg 22:34–37). In this way God allowed a disobedient man to bring judgment upon himself.
Exodus 20:17 If God commanded people not to covet other peoples’ property, why did He have the Israelites take the land of Canaan away from its inhabitants? Israel’s conquest of Canaan was not to be based on the people’s desire to take land owned by other people. The land was given by God as a gift to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but it could only become theirs when the time for judgment against its inhabitants had come (Gn 15:16). Israel’s invasion of Canaan and the destruction of its residents were not acts of covetousness but acts of divine judgment against the sinful culture of the inhabitants. Israel’s possession of the land would also be based on their obedience to the Lord, and they would lose the land if they strayed too far from God’s will for them (Dt 28:15–68), as the events of history reveal (2 Kg 17:6–23).
Exodus 20:24 In this verse the Lord asks Israel to make a sacrificial altar of earth, but the instructions of 27:1, 6–8 refer to bronze and wood. These passages need not be seen as contradictory. The transportable altar made of bronze and wood was box-shaped and hollow. Possibly a layer of earth was placed in the bottom before sacrifices were offered on it. The surface on which the sacrifice was laid would have been earthen, not bronze or wood. The earth could have been easily removed to lighten the altar for transporting to another location.
Exodus 20:24 The narrative of events after Israel came out of Egypt is filled with instructions about burnt offerings and sacrifices, yet in Jr 7:21–22 God appears to deny giving Israel such commands during that period (see Am 5:25). The contradiction is more rhetorical than substantive. In Jr 7, God contrasts wholehearted obedience to the Lord (Jr 7:23) with the mere performance of outward ritual (Jr 7:22). God did not want Israel to put observable activity ahead of inner devotion to Him.
This same literary device of expressing a complex concept in abbreviated fashion is found in Hs 6:6, a passage that suggests that God does not desire sacrifices (cp. Am 5:21–22). God commanded sacrifices, but wanted them to come from people who could back up their commitment to God with a life of merciful concern for others.
Exodus 20:26 Ascending the altar on steps would expose the sacrificial area to the underside of the priest’s clothing, and possibly to his private parts. This was considered an affront to the Lord.
Exodus 21:2, 7 Some have suggested that these verses contradict the command in Lev 25:42, which forbids selling Israelites as slaves. However, the rules set forth in Lev 25 do not prohibit Israelites from becoming slaves. Instead, they regulate situations in which Israelites had to sell themselves to other Israelites in order to pay debts. Israelites who became slaves had to be given rights and privileges normally associated only with hired workers
Exodus 21:7–11 Was a female who became a slave always a slave, or was she to be set free after six years? The instruction of Dt 15:12 appears to provide a different guideline for the treatment of a female slave. Jewish commentators and others have suggested, however, that the regulations reflect different situations. If a slave woman was used as a sexual partner she was not to be set free, but must be given a lifetime of proper care. If she served in any other capacity, she was to be emancipated after six years.
Exodus 21:10 Polygamy, like many other sins including divorce, is an expression of the hardness of people’s hearts and is contrary to God’s will (Mt 19:8). God’s ideal from the beginning was for one man to marry one woman, and for the couple to remain in an exclusive sexual relationship for as long as both partners were alive. Biblical evidence for this is found in the fact that God created woman as a uniquely suitable helper for one man—Adam (Gn 2:18–24). When the pair disobeyed God, they could no longer implement many aspects of God’s plan for human life. Because of sin conflict, oppression and death became part of the human landscape. People’s sinful nature often leads to sexual misconduct. As in the case of Lamech, the first recorded polygamist (Gn 4:19), men will be inclined to take multiple sexual partners for themselves.
The law presented here and in other laws in the Torah is not meant to condone polygamy. It is not an expression of God’s ideal, but a concession to humanity’s hardheartedness. The law recognizes the male’s sexual inclinations, but seeks to limit the injury to women that could result; all wives must be given adequate food, clothing, and intimacy. Far from approving of polygamy, the law of Moses discourages it by placing high demands on anyone who chooses this option, and it preserves the essential rights of polygamy’s potential victims.
Exodus 21:20–21, 26 The Bible does not condone slavery any more than it condones polygamy or divorce. Instead, it establishes humane limits for an existing, evil system. Slavery had long been a feature of human society. The Israelites were always to remember that they themselves had been the victims of this practice for an extended time (Gn 37:28, 36; Ex 1:8–14) as slaves in Egypt (Dt 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). Accordingly, Israelite slave owners were to treat their slaves in a fair and charitable manner. They were to be given a day of rest every week (Ex 20:10) and, as beings created in God’s image, were expected to attend religious festivals (Dt 12:12, 18; 16:11). Israelites who were slaves were to be treated with special benevolence, and to be released after six years (Ex 21:2; Dt 15:12) or in the Year of the Jubilee (Lev 25:40–41), whichever came first. Female slaves who became wives to their owners or owner’s sons were to be treated with all the respect and rights of a regular wife (Ex 21:8–11). When an Israelite’s term of slavery had ended, he was to be given a gift (Dt 15:13–14). If slaves were physically abused by their owners, they were to be granted immediate freedom (Ex 21:26–27) and, unlike animals, the killing of a slave constituted a crime (v. 20).
Through these measures the law of Moses made it clear that slaves were to be treated as persons with God-given rights and standing before God. Furthermore, slavery for Israelites was to be a temporary state, not a lifetime condition. The law of Moses laid the groundwork for the eventual demise of one of the most demeaning institutions in human society.
Exodus 21:23–25 Does the Bible teach that people should retaliate, or that they should “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:38–39; Lk 6:27–29)? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasted a popular interpretation of the law of Moses with His own teachings. In doing this He was not saying that OT law was wrong, only that his adversaries’ way of applying it to situations was wrong; by emphasizing the letter of the law they had missed its true intent.
The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” passage did not require people to pay someone back for a wrong done to them. Its purpose was to establish limits for retaliation. The most one could do in response to knocking out a tooth was to knock out the other person’s tooth; a person could not be killed for injuring someone’s eye. As Jesus pointed out, a person who was wronged by another could choose not to retaliate for what had been done to him. Often such a response would be the best way to deal with the problem. In every case, it should be the first option considered.
Exodus 21:29 For a discussion of capital punishment, see note on 20:13.
Exodus 21:29–30 This passage indicates that the person responsible for the death of another might be able to ransom his life; Nm 35:31, on the other hand, suggests that the death penalty could not be commuted. Biblical commentators have long noted that these two passages complement, rather than contradict, each other. The passage teaches that a person whose negligence caused someone else’s death would have to be punished, but their life might be spared. The passage in Numbers directs that anyone who has willfully taken someone else’s life must be executed.
Exodus 22:25 Is it permissible to charge interest on loans? Charging interest was the normal practice in ancient western Asia. In Babylon people were permitted to charge 20 to 50 percent interest on loans of silver bullion or food. The OT also permitted Israelites to charge interest on loans made to non-Israelites (Dt 23:20), though the rate for such loans was not specified. But when it came to lending to fellow Israelites, the Lord’s people were to follow a different standard: interest was not to be charged on such loans. It seems that God was teaching His people not to profit from the hardship of their brothers and sisters.
Exodus 22:29 For a discussion of whether sons should be given to the Lord or redeemed, see note on 13:12–16.
Exodus 23:7 If the Israelites were not to kill the innocent, why were they ordered to kill Canaanite children (see Dt 7:1–2; 20:16–17)? This verse is part of a larger section that provides guidance to judges when trying cases in Israel: in courts of law the innocent were not to be punished. But the elimination of entire cultural groups as punishment for long-term institutionalized sin was not considered a legal matter. It was an issue of divine judgment following centuries of unacceptable conduct. God ordered the Israelites to eliminate cultures that had institutionalized despicable sin. Canaanite cultures were steeped in a religion that was polytheistic, idolatrous, and highly immoral. As part of their religious corruption, those cultures permitted human sacrifice and practiced cultic prostitution (worship of their “gods” involved intercourse with women attached to their temples). All of this cultural perversity was offensive to God and was to be brought to a complete end when the iniquity of the inhabitants of Canaan was complete (Gen 15:16).
Exodus 23:10–11 The produce of the Israelites’ land was to be left for the poor and the animals, but it could also be eaten by the landowner’s family during the seventh year (Lev 25:6). The landholder was to be considerate of the needs of the poor. They, too, must be given access to the food needed to sustain them. To assure that there would be enough food for all in the seventh year, the landowner and his family were to stockpile surplus grain from the previous year (Lev 25:21–22).
Exodus 23:20–23 Did the Angel of the Lord lead the Israelites through the desert, or was it God (Dt 8:2; Ps 136:16)? The biblical answer seems to be that God led His people through His angel. For further discussion of the close connection between God and the Angel of the Lord, see note on 3:2.
Exodus 24:9–11 If God is invisible (Jn 5:37; 1 Tm 1:17; 6:16), how could Moses and the elders see Him? The Bible states that no one has ever seen God directly (see Ex 33:20; Jn 1:18). Yet the Bible records a number of theophanies, or appearances of the Lord or the exalted Christ (e.g., Gn 12:7; 15:1; Is 6:1; Ezk 8:1–4; Acts 9:3–6; Rev 1:12–15). It is not easy to determine, from the biblical descriptions, whether such events are inward “visions” or outwardly visible events. The fire that Moses saw in a bush (Ex 3:2–4) and the sacred cloud that was filled with the presence of God (13:21) are instances of visible manifestations that were, nevertheless, indirect and obscured by “unapproachable light” (1 Tm 6:16). The theophany described here, which was experienced by the elders of Israel as well as by Moses and the priests, must be of the same order. Alternatively, this incident may refer to an appearance of God’s divine representative, the Angel of the Lord. For further information on the connection between the Angel of the Lord and God, see the note on 3:2.
Exodus 25:3 The Hebrew word for bronze is translated “brass” by KJV and other versions published prior to the middle of the twentieth century. However, “brass” is inaccurate. Bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, was widely used in the ancient Near East. Brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, was not available in ancient western Asia. Bronze is what Israelites were to give as an offering for the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings.
Exodus 25:10 For a discussion of when the ark of the covenant was constructed, see the note on 37:1–10.
By Christopher Wright
The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)