Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Are the Hebrew Scriptures Barbaric?

Skeptics denigrate the Old Testament in a number of ways. The atheist Richard Dawkins termed the God of the Old Testament a “Genocidal Maniac.” Others take issue with the Mosaic Laws, claiming that they are barbaric, citing the punitive requirement of an:

  • Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:24-25)

In support of their position, they cite Jesus, who they claim had revised this primitive and embarrassing legal code:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Mat. 5:38-41)
However, it seems apparent that Jesus is not correcting the Mosaic Law but rather its abuse within 1st century Israel. For one thing, the conclusion that Jesus was correcting Moses’ law violated everything else He had taught. He had started His Sermon on the Mount with a warning:

  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Mat. 5:17-18).
We are therefore constrained to interpret what follows, not as the abolishing of the Law, but as the correcting the abuse of the Law.

Had Jesus instead prefaced His remarks by saying, “It has been written,” then a case could be made that He was correcting the Law. However, He instead prefaced His remarks with, “You have heard that it was said.”

In contrast, instead of, “You have heard that it was said,” He responded to the Devil’s temptation by unequivocally citing Scripture:

  • Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
In all of His corrections in the Sermon of the theology of His day, Jesus never uttered, “It is written!” Besides, He clearly affirmed the necessity to live according to “every word that comes from the mouth of God” – the very thing that the Torah always asserted. After having insisted that man must live by “every word,” it’s simply unreasonable to suppose that, in the next chapter, He was disposing of many of these words.

Also, had He been teaching against the Mosaic Law, He would have been brought up on capital charges. However, such charges were never brought against Him.
What then was Jesus teaching against? In order to understand this, we first have to examine the “eye for an eye” principle in its original context:

·         Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.  And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Exo. 21:24-27)

After presenting the “eye for an eye” principle, Moses provides some examples of how it should be applied. If a slave-owner knocks out a tooth or an eye of a slave, the Law didn’t require that the owner would have his eye or tooth removed, according to a literal erroneous interpretation. Instead, the principle was to be applied more figuratively – the slave would go free!

Rather than being barbaric, this principle required that the penalty fit the crime! It represented an advancement over the legal codes of Moses day that often imposed the death penalty upon a thief stealing a sheep to feed his family.

To what then had Jesus objected? To the abuse of the Law! It seems that the powerful had appropriated an “eye for an eye” to justify personal revenge. They had hijacked a sound principle of public justice for private use.

We have a way of “seeing” those things that justify our case. If we want to prove that the Bible is barbaric, it is easy to construe it that way. Many do! However, it requires more effort to understand this ancient collection of writings in the way that they were originally intended.

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