Old Testament law and Jesus

A common atheistic objection to the Bible is to the harsh laws found in the Torah, such as laws which demand stoning for premarital sex, executing witches, adulterers and homosexuals and allowing the subjugation and slavery of Non-Israelites. The traditional Christian response is to say that Jesus set aside the Old Testament law. But I was wondering where the Bible says this. And didn’t Jesus say he came to fulfill the law, not to set aside it. What would be your response to this objection?

I don’t know that I would call this the traditional response. My answer is

The law exists to show us the need for a Savior. As Jesus said there is no way to keep the law.

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There are a lot of ways to view the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. They even made one of those counterpoint books about it with five views presented with responses by the others — see here. And that’s not all of the relevant views, even for Protestants, I’m quite sure…

Our pastor preached the sermon on the mount this morning. Literally. He recited it word for word without commentary, asking us to meditate on it. Of course it includes Jesus saying that he came to fulfill the law, and goes on to describe a bit of what that means, and of course that leads to what @Bill_II said in that there is just no way without grace. We sometimes lose sight of how radical Jesus’ teaching is.

I still wonder though… like in what way do laws like this show us the need for a Savior? Exodus 21:20-21 (in NET translation).

20 “If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she dies as a result of the blow, he will surely be punished. 21 However, if the injured servant survives one or two days, the owner will not be punished, for he has suffered the loss.

That is brought up a lot by skeptics and it’s like you can beat your slaves just as long as they survive one or two days is just one example of many OT laws that appear to be just a byproduct of the times and not any divinely given set of laws.

Even with all the bad stuff, The OT laws were a big improvement over the laws of other nations at that time. . Listen to the Christine Hayes lectures on the OT.

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The Law should be understood as that given by God (and Christ), and additions on the administration by Moses to create a nation out of a group of Israel tribes who were Egyptian slaves and servants. The Jews tried to test Christ on the law regarding divorce and He clearly shows that some of Moses’ teachings were given because of Israel’s difficulties. I agree with @beaglelady that even the harsh measures from Moses were often an improvement on that of the many sadistic practices of pagans.

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Slavery in the OT was a terrible thing, and to make matters worse, it was race-based slavery, for Hebrew slaves had to be set free after a number of years. (In other parts of the OT the Hebrews were forbidden to own other Hebrews at all. Go figure.)

For a nuanced approach to this dilemma, I recommend the excellent article “Why Did the Torah Allow Servitude?” by Shimon Bakon, which appeared in the Jewish Bible Quarterly. It might be available online.

The author discusses how Hebrew slavery was much more humane than the slavery practiced in the rest of the ancient world. The laws of the Torah begin with laws concerning the treatment of slaves (in contrast with other ancient codes of law). A slave of the Hebrews taken prisoner had to be redeemed, just as a freeman would be. And so forth.

But slavery, any slavery, is still inhumane and a human rights abuse. We shouldn’t sugarcoat it. Is there any way out of this mess?

The article summary offers a clue:

"Israel’s experience, from slavery to freedom, had an incalculable impact on the
nation’s religious and ethical legislation. It also shaped the nation’s character
as it fought, albeit unsuccessfully, against the empires of Assyria, Babylonia,
Greece, and Rome.
The question still remains: why did the Torah pemiit servitude? The institution
of slavery was deeply entrenched from ancient to recent times. Following
the lead of Maimonides, that "it is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme
to the other," the Torah promulgated certain basic rights for the slave, ensuring
his decent treatment, in the hope that this unfortunate practice would eventually
disappear once and for all."

Maybe we should think of it like this: if we suddenly banned all tobacco products and tobacco cultivation, the result would be economic and social chaos. A better way must be found to get rid of this scourge.

The United States ultimately banned slavery as did most other Western Countries earlier. Women obtained the ability to vote long after men. Laws preventing mixed race marriages were finally overruled in the 1960s. I don’t think the potential for economic or social chaos can always justify the continuance of past practices, particularly around human ethics.

Many of the Jewish traditions/laws surrounding dress, food and behavior were likely established to support a distinctly Jewish identity while living among many other cultures. I don’t see why a rejection of slavery would’ve been a bridge to far for a culture that already took pains to stand apart.

I am struggling to find the answer myself, but read the article summary again. Sometimes there are unintended consequences in the ways we choose to make changes that are well-intended and the right thing to do. Witness all the countries that went from a right-wing dictator to an even worse communist dictator.

This is a similar problem I have with the Church of Latter Day Saints changing their position on the status of African-descendants in the church. Initially, “through a vision” it was communicated that their ability to rise to any level of the church was limited by race. Decades later, through yet another vision, all positions were made available to people of African descent. The justification for the status change was attributed as being necessary to God’s plan at a particular time.

My problem is (perhaps a naive assumption) that “objective morality” should apply at all times. We know that Old and New Testament passages were used to justify slavery in Christian lands for centuries after the Roman Empire had fallen. One significant caveat was that many thought slavery of fellow Christian believers should be ‘verboten’, though that was far from universally accepted. For non-believers there was more of an ‘open season’.

Freeing people from slavery is not as easy as it might appear. Scientific American had an article on the difficulties in freeing modern slaves in India. One man was redeemed from slavery but eventually sold himself back into it. Why? He was unable to shake his slave mentality and became extremely anxious about how to cope with things like feeding himself or paying taxes. As a slave, he never had to worry about all that.

At the end of the day I do believe that God wants all people to be free. The story of the Exodus from slavery is one of the most important themes of the Bible, and Christians see it also as as deliverance from the bondage of sin. And we are all made one people through Christ. Reading between the lines of Philemon, we can see that Saint Paul really wanted him to set his runaway slave free. N. T. Wright believes that Paul set a time bomb on the institution of slavery.

btw, slavery in different forms is still a widespread scourge.


Sure. But I don’t understand why would this be a problem for the children of Israel, the tribes of humans favored by God. How would it have started and even allowed under their religion in the first place? Note that treatment of non-Hebrew slaves was distinctly different than that afforded Hebrew slaves.

Interesting, as we are all slaves to something it seems. We tend to balance freedom with security in society today as well, as more security affords less freedom, more freedom tends to result in less security in our society and government, as well as when rock climbing. We have to strike a balance that we can live with (hopefully.)

In Christianity, we are secure in Christ, but to outsiders, have traded behavioral freedom for that security, though from the Christian perspective we trade slavery to sin for freedom from sin. Perspective makes a big difference.

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I think you are probably right on that point. Levitical laws do seem to have similarities between Mesopotamian codes of law, such as the Codes of Hammurabi (sometimes verbatim), Ur Nammu, and Ashura which are too similar to be a coincidence. Something like beastiality is different however. The Hittites were the only Ancient people I know of to have prohibited it, and even then, they were awfully specific, whilst the Hebrew Bible flat out prohibits it with no given exceptions.

With some things you are correct, I gave the above example, that the Biblical writers knew that beastiality was wrong, they also at least acknowledged slaves as people, unlike the Code of Hammurabi, where they are clearly worth less than a free man. But on other things though, Mosaic law seems harsher. I know of no other Ancient Near Eastern people to have practised stoning (do correct me if I am wrong), or to have executed men for homosexuality (again do forgive me if I am wrong), although the Assyrians did castrate soldiers for homosexual intercourse, and it was generally frowned upon as effeminate behaviour. (I’ll try to avoid discussing homosexuality too deeply, since it is a controversial topic)

Again, listen to the Christine Hayes lectures on the OT. They’re on YouTube. Invest the time for studying.

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The LDS treatment of people of color stems from them their belief that blacks fought less valiantly in the pre-existence. For that reason they were denied the priesthood. But this is a terrible slur against blacks , since all males (white ones, anyway) are ordained to the priesthood at the age of 12 in the LDS church. Founder Joseph Smith wasn’t a racist, but his successor Brigham Young certainly was.

The timing of their prophesies always seemed suspicious to me. Restrictions against blacks in the priesthood were lifted in the 1970s, when they were facing heat for racism. And polygamy was abolished when Utah trying to obtain statehood. Curious.

And exercising some forms of behavioral freedom can put people in greater bondage or even kill them.

This is all I found which referenced one 1973 paper:

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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