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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 8

3. The "restraining" rather than "ideal" Mosaic legislation as part of Scripture's redemptive movement and warm moral impulse.

The new atheists tend to view OT ethical considerations in a static manner-a one-size-fits-all legislation for all nations. They fail to note the unfolding "redemptive-movement" of God's self-revelation to his people even within the OT.[82] As we read the Scriptures, we are regularly reminded of an advancing, though still-imperfect, ethic on the surface while various subterranean moral ideals (for example, the divine image in all humans, lifelong monogamous marriage, and Yahweh's concern for the nations) continue to flow gently along. Yahweh redirects his people morally, theologically, and spiritually to move beyond the mindset of surrounding cultures. As we have seen, he does not, on the one hand, completely abolish ANE problematic, socially-accepted practices as slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, and the like. On the other hand, Israel's laws reveal a dramatic, humanizing improvement over the practices of the other ANE peoples.

Let us revisit the case of slavery, going into a bit more detail here. Slavery is not prohibited outright. There are certainly negative aspects to it such as the possibility of limited beating of slaves (which, if severe, was punishable), the favoring of Israelite slaves over foreign slaves, and so forth. Yet Mosaic legislation simultaneously expresses the hopeful goal of eradicating slavery-a theme of Deuteronomy 15-while both diminishing the staying power of slavery in light of the exodus and controlling the institution of slavery in light of the practical fact that misfortune in a subsistence culture could reduce anyone to poverty and indebtedness.[83] Indeed, God's reminder to Israel of her own history exposes the reality of this institution as less-than-ideal. God had redeemed Israel from slavery to become his people (Exod. 20:7), and his redemptive activity was to be a model for Israel's conduct within society-however miserably she happened to fail at this: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exod. 22:21). Even more poignant is Exodus 23:9: "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." Indeed, the command to love a stranger as oneself is rooted in the fact that "you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). The new atheists overlook or avoid these strong undertones, which help sow the seeds of slavery's own destruction.

What is more, the three main texts regarding slave legislation (Exod. 21; Lev. 25; Deut. 15) reveal a morally-improved legislation as the text progresses. Some might argue that these texts are hopelessly contradictory. Christopher Wright (in response to Gordon McConville) persuasively contends, however, that we should give the final Pentateuchal editor(s) the benefit of the doubt, who would certainly have been aware of these differences but kept all of these texts in place; this suggests a possible reconciliation or rationale for doing so. Wright sees Deuteronomy "modifying, extending, and to some extent reforming earlier laws, with additional explicit theological rationale and motivation." He goes so far as to say that while Exodus 21 emphasizes the humanness of slaves, even the ancient Israelite would recognize that Deuteronomy 15 was in tension with earlier legislation. So, to obey Deuteronomy "necessarily meant no longer complying with Exodus." This point serves to illustrate the "living, historical and contextual nature of the growth of Scripture."[84] Reflecting upon the wider canonical framework reminds us that we should not focus on one single text alone. Indeed, Genesis 1-2 remind us of God's creational ideals that were clouded and distorted by human fallenness.

We have something of a parallel scenario in the patriarchal laws of primogeniture, which are subtly undermined in the OT. Despite male-favoring Mosaic legislation at various points, we see another side in Numbers 27:1-11. The daughters of the deceased and sonless Zelophehad appeal to Moses against the male-favoring inheritance laws in light of women's particular circumstances. Moses takes this matter before Yahweh, and the daughters' appeal is granted. We see Yahweh's willingness to adapt ANE structures when humans seek to change in light of a deeper moral insight and willingness to move toward the ideal. Even earlier, various OT narratives subtly attack the laws of primogeniture as the younger regularly supersedes the elder (Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph/Judah over Reuben).[85] In this biblical sampling, we have a subversive and more democratic ethic that, though not ideal and in places overlapping, is a drastic improvement over cuneiform law.[86]

When we get to the NT, Jesus-and we could add Paul-points us beyond a static interpretation of various OT requirements to the moral, redemptive spirit underlying the text. He considers Sabbath laws in terms of what benefits humans (Luke 13:14-16; John 7:22-4). He appeals to OT narratives such as David's taking the priestly showbread when he and his men were hungry (Mark 2:24-7). He observes that even priests "break" the Sabbath yet are exempt from censure (Matt. 12:5; John 7:22). He emphasizes the inner condition of the heart over a strict kosher diet (Mark 7:18-23)

To sum up here, the Law of Moses contains seeds for moral growth and glimmers of light illuminating a clearer moral path. Yes, God prohibits the worship of other gods and the fashioning of graven images, but the ultimate desire is that Yahweh's people love him wholeheartedly. Love cannot be reduced to the restraining influence of laws, and enjoying God's presence is not identical to simply avoiding idols.[87]


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