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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 7

C. The OT canon manifests a warm moral and spiritual tone as well as a redemptive spirit, urging national Israel toward a more noble ideal than is possible through legislature.

1. Distinguishing between the legal and the moral.

In most societies, laws are often pragmatic; they stand as a compromise between the ideal and the enforceable. Critics often make the mistake of confusing law-keeping with ethics. To use contemporary categories, there is a difference between "positive law" and "natural law" (or, "divine intent"). The Mosaic Law is truly a moral improvement upon the surrounding ANE cultures-justifiably called "spiritual" and "good" (Rom. 7:14, 16) and reflective of Yahweh's wisdom (Deut. 6:5-8).[72] Yet it is self-confessedly less than ideal. Contrary to the new atheists' assumptions, the Law is not the permanent and fixed theocratic standard for all nations, world without end, amen. As Gordon Wenham indicates, the OT's legal codes do not express "the ideals of the law-givers, but only the limits of their tolerance: if you do such and such, you will be punished."[73]  

Let us consider polygamy as an example: Why did God not ban polygamy outright in favor of monogamy? Why allow a double standard for men who can take multiple wives while a woman can only have one husband?[74] For one thing, despite the practical problems of polygamy, Wenham suggests it was permitted perhaps because monogamy would have been difficult to enforce.[75] Furthermore, the biblical writers "hoped for better behavior," as the Pentateuch makes clear the ideal that existed at the very beginning (Gen. 2:24-note the singular "wife" as well as "father and mother"). Indeed, Scripture regularly portrays polygamy as an undesirable marital arrangement,[76] and it warns the man most likely to be polygamous-the king: "He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away" (Deut. 17:17).[77] King Solomon in particular is guilty in this flagrant act of disobedience (1 Kings 11:3).

And even if polygamy was tolerated (and, we could add, divorce fairly easy to obtain), this does not negate the ideal of a husband and wife loving and cleaving to each other in a lifelong faithful monogamous relationship set forth at the beginning (Gen. 2:24).[78] The mutuality of an exclusive marriage was the general expectation,[79] and this is precisely what Yahweh models with Israel (cp. Hosea; Jer. 3:18; Mal. 2:16). Biblical writers hope that God's people will recognize and live by this ideal-and be aware that polygamy is a deviation from it.

2. The "hardness of heart" and "forbearance" principles as insights into the status of much Mosaic legislation.

In Matthew 19, Jesus sheds light on matters Mosaic when he comments that the Law tolerated morally inferior conditions because of the hardness of human hearts. Jesus' discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (which deals with a certificate of divorce permitted under Moses) marks moral progress that moves beyond the Mosaic ethic. Jesus acknowledges Deuteronomy 24's limits to permitting divorce due to human hard-heartedness: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way" (Matt. 19:8). Jesus' approach reminds us that there is a multilevel ethic that cautions against a monolithic, single-level approach that simply "parks" at Deuteronomy 24 and does not consider the redemptive component of this legislation. The certificate of divorce was to protect the wife, who would, by necessity, have to remarry to come under the shelter of a husband to escape poverty and shame. This law took into consideration the well-being of the wife, but it was not an ideal or absolute ethic.

The same can be said of God's permitting a strong patriarchalism, slavery, polygamy, primogeniture laws, and warfare that were common within the ANE context: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted slavery and patriarchy and warfare the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way." When challenged about matters Mosaic, Jesus would frequently point to the spirit or divinely-intended ideal toward which humans should strive.[80] God's condescension to the human condition in the Mosaic Law is an attempt to move Israel toward the ideal without being unrealistically optimistic. Rather than banishing all evil social structures, Sinaitic legislation frequently deals with the practical facts of fallen human culture while pointing them to God's greater designs for humanity.[81]

So on the obverse (human) side of the coin, we have the "hardness of heart" principle. Yet on the reverse (divine) side, we have the "forbearance" principle, which is in place up to the Christ-event. God in Christ "demonstrates His righteousness" though "in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed" (Rom. 3:25). Likewise, Paul declares to the Athenians: "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-1). Both the hardness-of-heart and divine-forbearance principles go hand in hand, offering a corrective to the new atheist assumptions that OT legislation is the ideal.


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