Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Palm Beach, Florida
The New Atheists and the Old Testament: A Brief Overview
Today’s “new atheists” are not at all impressed with the moral credentials of
the Old Testament (OT) God. Oxonian Richard Dawkins thinks that Yahweh is truly
a moral monster: “What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their
lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should
bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest
Dawkins deems God’s commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to be “disgraceful”
and tantamount to “child abuse and bullying.” Moreover,
this God breaks into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with
a rival god,” resembling “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind.”
Add to this the killing of the Canaanites-an “ethnic cleansing” in which
“bloodthirsty massacres” were carried out with “xenophobic relish.” Joshua’s
destruction of Jericho is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of
Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”
To make matters worse, there is the “ubiquitous weirdness of
the Bible.” Dawkins calls attention to the moral
failures and hypocrisies of various biblical characters: a drunken Lot seduced
by and engaging in sexual relations with his daughters (Gen. 19:31-6); Abraham’s
twice lying about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:18-19; 20:18-19); Jephthah’s foolish
vow that resulted in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11);
and so on.
Another new atheist is Daniel Dennett. He declares that the “Old Testament
Jehovah” is simply a super-man who “could take sides in battles, and be both
jealous and wrathful.” He happens to be more forgiving and loving in the New
Testament, but Dennett wonders how such a timeless God could act in time or
answer prayer. Dennett adds, “Part of what makes Jehovah
such a fascinating participant in stories of the Old Testament is His kinglike
jealousy and pride, and His great appetite for praise and sacrifices. But we
have moved beyond this God (haven’t we?).” He thanks
heaven that those thinking blasphemy or adultery deserves capital punishment are
a “dwindling minority.”
A third new atheist is Christopher Hitchens. He voices similar complaints. The
forgotten Canaanites were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for
the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.”
Moreover, the OT contains “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic
cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we
are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured
Finally, there is Sam Harris. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he sets out
to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most
committed forms.” Harris boldly asserts that if the
Bible is true, then we should be stoning people to death for heresy, adultery,
homosexuality, worshiping graven images, and “other imaginary crimes.” To put to
death idolaters in our midst (Deut. 13:6, 8-15) reflects “God’s timeless
wisdom.” In The End of Faith, Harris, referring to
Deuteronomy 13:7-11, notes that the consistent Bible-believer should stone his
son or daughter if she comes home from a yoga class a devotee of Krishna. Harris
wryly quips that one the OT’s “barbarisms”-stoning children for heresy-“has
fallen out of fashion in our country.”
Harris acknowledges that once we recognize that slaves are human beings who are
equally capable of suffering and happiness, we’ll understand that it is
“patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.”
A few pages later, Harris claims we can be good without God. We do not need God
or a Bible to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. We can know objective moral
truths without “the existence of a lawgiving God,” and
we can judge Hitler to be morally reprehensible “without reference to
These are the charges made by the new atheists. Are they fair representations? I
shall argue that they are not. Though certain OT texts present challenges and
difficulties, navigating these waters is achievable with patient, nuanced
attention given to the relevant OT texts, the ancient Near East (ANE) context,
and the broader biblical canon.
A Nuanced Response to the New Atheists
The new atheists are certainly rhetorically effective, but I would contend that
they have not handled the biblical texts with proper care, and they often draw
conclusions that most Christians (save the theonomistic sorts) would repudiate.
And this judgment is not the refined result of some post-Enlightenment moral
vision, but the biblical writers themselves point us toward a moral ideal,
despite the presence of human sin and hard-heartedness. These new atheists give
the impression of not having the patience for careful, measured replies, yet
this is exactly what is required. John Barton warns that there can be no “simple
route” to dealing with OT ethics. Bruce Birch
considers OT ethics as something of a “patchwork quilt.”
Thus, it calls for a more subtle and cautious approach than the new atheists
I hope to set in order some of this untidiness. I have attempted elsewhere to
address at a popular level various OT ethical questions-slavery, the Canaanite
question, “harsh” moral codes and “strange” Levitical laws, Abraham’s offering
Isaac, the imprecatory psalms, divine jealousy, divine egotism, and so forth.
So I shall intentionally skip some of these specifics except for illustrative
purposes. My chief object is to outline a nuanced response to the new atheists’
charges in order to discern the powerful moral vision of the OT. While
acknowledging the drastically different mindset between ANE and modern
societies, we can overcome a good deal of the force of the new atheists’
objections and discern the moral heart of the OT, which is a marked contrast to
the new atheists’ portrayal. Indeed, a number of the moral perspectives within
the Law of Moses (for example, laws regarding restitution or gleaning to aid the
poor) can offer insights for us moderns. One more thing: At the risk of overlap
and potential repetition, I have tried to make subtle differentiations in my
A. The Law of Moses is embedded in a larger biblical metanarrative that helps
illuminate ethical ideals in ways that mere law-keeping cannot.
1. The Sinai legislation integrated into the broader Pentateuchal narrative.
In his Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics, Robin Parry points out the
mistake of treating the Mosaic Law as a legal code while completely ignoring nonlegal narrative texts that surround it. The absence
of such narratives is glaringly apparent in cuneiform ANE Mesopotamian law codes
such as Hammurabi. The Mosaic covenant (Exod. 20-Num. 10) is incorporated into
the Pentateuch’s larger narrative of God’s dealings with the patriarchs and then
the people of Israel. Additionally, if Christ is the end of the Law, both its
fulfillment and its terminus (Rom. 10:4), then we have an even wider canonical
context available to assess OT ethical concerns.
We should not be deceived into thinking that the biblical narrative comes to a
sudden halt at Sinai. The Mosaic legislation is embedded in and surrounded by a
broader narrative framework that continues after the Israelites move on from
Sinai. This fact should inform our perspective on
moral codes in the Pentateuch, as we shall see. In other words, God instructs
Israel not by laying down laws or principles but by telling stories of real
people as they relate to their Creator and Covenant Maker.
2. Motive clauses rooted in history.
Also unlike the Code of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian law codes are the
various “motive clauses” in the Sinaitic legislation that ground divine commands
in Yahweh’s historical activity. For example, the first commandment with a
promise is: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long . .
.” (Exod. 20:12). Indeed, the prologue to the Decalogue affirms God’s saving
activity in history: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of
Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me”
(Exod. 20:2-3). Or, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy . . . for in six
days the Lord made heaven and earth . . . and rested on the Sabbath” (Exod.
20:8-11). Such motive clauses would be most plausibly situated in Israel’s
redemptive, storied setting.
Israelites are commanded to imitate Yahweh, who acted in history and, in doing
so, set a pattern for them. By contrast, cuneiform laws such as Hammurabi are
never motivated by historical events: “unlike biblical laws, no cuneiform law is
ever motivated by reference to an historic event, a promise of well-being, or .
. . a divine will.” In other ANE codes, the law is
given by human kings and monitored by gods. Unlike kingship in the ANE, Yahweh’s
rule did not require an earthly human representative. 
Thus, within the biblical narrative, laws are personally revealed by Israel’s
There is an obvious apologetical point here: God’s activity in
history-particularly in Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt-largely
generates the motivation for Israel’s own treatment of slaves, foreigners, and
the underprivileged within its borders. Without this historical context, it is
hard to account for such an emphasis.
3. Narrative moral insights and moral exemplars as more fundamental than legal
Richard Hays writes of the NT that “the narratives are more fundamental than any
secondary process of abstraction that seeks to distill their ethical import.”
That is, we gain insight into, say, the more abstract commands or guidelines
found in the New Testament (for example, epistles or the Gospels’ teaching
sections) by observing what takes place in these historical narratives. They
serve as illustrative material for teaching sections. Recently, Richard Burridge
has forcefully argued this point: The four Gospels present Jesus’ life and
deeds, not merely his teachings, in the Greco-Roman genre of biographical
narratives or “lives”-bioi or vitae-to inspire mimesis (“imitation”) in the
reader. The same pertains to the Acts of the Apostles.
Evangelicals have tended to overlook theological themes embedded in its
historical narrative, privileging the “clearer” theological instruction of the
epistles. However, as Craig Keener and Max Turner have noted, Luke is certainly
attempting to give theological instruction throughout his Acts narrative.
Likewise, OT historical narratives often present role models in action who make
insightful moral judgments, show discernment, and exhibit integrity and passion
for God-aside from the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom books, which also
provide moral illumination. According to John Barton, the OT ethical model
incorporates the imitatio Dei, natural law, and obedience to God’s declared
will, and we see narrative undergirding and permeating
each of these themes. Brevard Childs observes that the Torah’s legal material is
consistently intertwined with narrative, thus providing “a major commentary
within scripture as to how these commands are seen to function.”
Unlike the new atheists, we should not approach the Law of Moses as a holiness
code detached from its broader narrative and canonical context-as though this
legislation offers an ultimate ethic with nothing further to consider.
And while Christians can rightly criticize negative moral exemplars and actions
with the best of the new atheists, we should also recognize commendable
characters and their virtues well-Abraham’s selflessness and generosity toward
Lot (Gen. 13) or Joseph’s moral integrity and sexual purity as well as his
astonishing clemency towards treacherous, scheming brothers (Gen. 39, 45, 50).
Or consider race (remember Dawkins’s “xenophobic” charge). Yes, the Pentateuch’s
legal code in places does differentiate between Israelite and non-Israelite
slaves (for example, Exod. 12:43, where non-Israelites are not to partake in the
Passover); it grants remitting loans to Israelites but not to foreigners (Deut.
15:3); it allows for exacting interest from a foreigner but not from a fellow
Israelite (Deut. 23:20); Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the sanctuary
(Deut. 23:3). To stop here, as the new atheists do, is
to overlook the Pentateuch’s narrative indicating God’s concern for bringing
blessing to all humanity (Gen. 12:1-3). Even more fundamentally, human beings
have been created in God’s image as co-rulers with God over creation (Gen.
1:26-7; Ps. 8)-unlike the ANE mindset, in which the earthly king was the
image-bearer of the gods. The imago Dei establishes the fundamental equality of
human beings, despite the ethnocentrism and practice of slavery within Israel.
Indeed, another Pentateuchal narrative, Numbers 12, gives an insightful
theological perspective about race. Moses marries a black African woman-from
Cush/Ethiopia, which was south of Egypt and under Egyptian control at that time.
The term “Cushite” is mentioned twice for emphasis. Aaron and Miriam are very
upset about this marital arrangement-perhaps a power struggle because a new
person has entered into the circle of leadership. Despite the objections by
Moses’ siblings, Yahweh resoundingly approves of Moses’ marriage to a black
woman, highlighting his approval by turning Miriam’s skin white!
As we move beyond the Pentateuch, the same themes continue. Stories illustrate
ethical living with role models who live wisely, show graciousness, and make
remarkable sacrifices: three of David’s mighty men who exhibit loyalty and
self-sacrifice, risking their lives to bring him water from Bethlehem (2 Sam.
23); David’s refusal even to touch Saul despite the opportunity (1 Sam. 24);
Abigail’s wise handling of a troublesome situation (1 Sam. 25); and so forth.
These narratives also inform us that Israel’s kings, no matter how powerful, are
not above God’s law: Nathan confronts David about his murder and adultery (2
Sam. 12); Elijah challenges Ahab’s murder of Naboth (1 Kings 21); Uzziah is
struck with leprosy for assuming priestly prerogatives (2 Chron. 26). And even
more importantly, Israel’s story reveals a God who stoops and condescends,
working faithfully to fulfill his promises despite his people’s faithlessness.
Their defiance is especially clear at the golden calf incident (Exod. 32).
Israel, whom Yahweh embraces as his covenant bride, cheats on him while still on
the honeymoon! Dennett’s charge of “jealousy” is misguided. God responds out of
hurt and anger-a reaction we should rightly expect when such betrayal takes
place. Yet God repeatedly “remembers” his covenant and his promises. He helps
Israel be fruitful and multiply, bringing blessing to the nations, delivering
his people from slavery and death. Yet we also see Yahweh’s consistency in
carrying out his threats to do to Israel what he has done to other nations (Num.
33:56; Josh. 23:15).
As we read the OT narratives, we detect a clear Ethos (a moral environment or
atmosphere), as Eckart Otto affirms, rather than an Ethik (mere moral
prescriptions). These stories and role models in the
OT canon remind us that lawcodes and rule-following are inadequate. Rather, we
see in them a spirit directing Israel to higher moral and spiritual ground.
4. The dangers of moving from “is” to “ought.”
It is a commonplace that OT authors are reticent to make moral judgments in
their stories. When the new atheists draw assume
Scripture’s moral deficiency based on patriarchal trickery, Mosaic murder, or
Davidic adultery, they miss the point of the text. David, for instance, is not
being portrayed as an exemplum but as a mixed moral bag-similar to Greek
tragedies in which the hero has his deep flaws. In John Barton’s words,
David is not an exemplum but a person like ourselves, who illustrates the
difficulties of the moral life not by what he teaches but by what he does and
is. . . . The story of David handles human anger, lust, ambition, and disloyalty
without ever commenting explicitly on these things but by telling its tale in
such a way that the reader is obliged to look them in the face and to recognise
his or her affinity with the characters in whom they are exemplified.
We could add how OT narrative writers subtly “deconstruct” major characters such
as Gideon or Solomon by exposing their questionable leadership qualities and
their spiritual compromise.
While the new atheists are correct in pointing out moral flaws and horrendous
actions of OT characters, they often imply that “if it’s in the Bible, it must
be approved by the author.” Yet we see from 1 Corinthians 10 that many of
Israel’s stories involving stubbornness, treachery, and ingratitude are vivid
negative role models-ones to be avoided. The OT’s “is” does not amount to
“ought.” (Christopher Hitchens’s remarks about “the ungrateful and mutinous
children of Israel” is quite right!) OT descriptions are not necessarily
normative. Moreover, the hero status given by the OT to Abraham, Moses, David
(and echoed in the NT) is rooted not in their moral perfection but more so in
their uncompromising dedication to the cause of Yahweh and their rugged trust in
the promises of God rather than lapsing into the idolatry of many of their
B. We must allow the OT ethical discussion to
begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.
1. Taking into account the harsh, cruel conditions of the ANE.
According to Bruce Birch, we moderns encounter a certain barrier as we approach
the subject of OT ethics. Simply put, the ANE world is “totally alien” and
“utterly unlike” our own social setting. This world includes slavery, polygamy,
war, patriarchal structures, kingship, ethnocentrism, and the like. His advice
Any treatment of the Hebrew Bible with regard to ethics, especially as an
ethical resource to contemporary communities, must acknowledge the impediment
created by the simple fact that these texts are rooted in a cultural context
utterly unlike our own, with moral presuppositions and categories that are alien
and in some cases repugnant to our modern sensibilities.
The new atheists miss something significant here. They assume that the ANE
categories embedded within the Mosaic Law are the Bible’s moral pinnacle. They
are, instead, a springboard anticipating further development-or, perhaps more
accurately-pointing us back toward the loftier moral ideals of Genesis 1 and 2
and even 12. These ideals affirm the image of God in each person, lifelong
monogamous marriage, and God’s concern for the nations. The implications from
these foundational texts are monumental.
2. Incremental “humanizing” steps rather than a total overhaul of ANE cultural
As I shall develop further below, we should not view the OT as offering an ideal
ethic for all cultures across the ages. Rather than attempt to morally justify
all aspects of the Sinaitic legal code, we can affirm that God begins with an
ancient people who have imbibed dehumanizing customs and social structures from
their ANE context. Yet this God desires to draw them
in and show them a better way:
if human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of
choice, then the “better way” must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise
their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.
To completely overthrow these imbedded ANE attitudes, replacing them with some
post-Enlightenment ideal, utopian ethic would simply be overwhelming and in many
ways difficult to grasp. We can imagine a strong resistance to a complete
societal overhaul. Think of the difficulty of the West’s pressing for democracy
in nations whose tribal/social and religious structures do not readily
assimilate such ideals. Or even if a structure like slavery is eradicated, this
does not mean that the culture’s mindset will be changed along with it. Consider
how antebellum racial prejudice was not erased by abolition and the North’s
victory over the South. Prejudice would take new forms such as
separate-but-equal (Jim Crow) laws and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
As Alden Thompson argues, God is incrementally “humanizing” ANE structures
within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and
women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.
So when Joshua kills five Canaanite kings and hangs their corpses on trees all
day (Josh. 10:22-7), we do not have to explain away or justify such a practice.
Rather, this reflects a less morally-refined condition. Yet such texts remind us
that, in the unfolding of his purposes, God can use heroes such as Joshua within
their context and work out his redemptive purposes despite themselves. Indeed,
we see a God who endures much rebellion and moral decline throughout the time of
the judges and during Israel’s monarchy, when idolatry was commonplace and
religious reforms were rare. Even later on when the Jews returned from Babylon,
Nehemiah was properly appalled by Jews opening themselves up to idolatry by
marrying foreign wives (for example, Neh. 13, esp. v. 25). Throughout the OT, we
see a God who is actually quite patient as he seeks to woo and influence a
stubborn, idol-prone people. God’s legislation is
given to a less morally-mature culture that has imbibed the morally-inferior
attitudes and sinful practices of the ANE.
According to Birch, we should acknowledge rather than ignore or downplay
morally-objectionable practices and attitudes within Israel such as
patriarchalism, slavery, ethnocentrism, and the like. He adds a crucial point,
however: none of these practices and attitudes is “without contrary witness”
elsewhere in the OT. The new atheists gloss over any
“contrary witness,” focusing only on the morally problematic. However, closer
examination reveals that Scripture itself (rather than twenty-first-century
critics) has the resources to guide us regarding what is ideal and normative and
what is temporary and sui generis in the Bible.
John Goldingay urges us to appreciate the tension between the ideal and the
actual-between the high standards God desires from his covenant people and the
reality of dealing with a sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE
3. Contrasting the moral improvements of the Mosaic Law to ANE law codes.
Certain collections of cuneiform law exist. These include the laws of Ur-Nammu
(ca. 2100 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur); the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (ca.
1925 BC), who ruled the Sumerian city of Isin; the (Akkadian) laws of Eshnunna
(ca. 1800 BC), a city one hundred miles north of Babylon; the laws of Hammurabi
(1750 BC); and the Hittite laws (1650-1200 BC) of Asia Minor.
There are certainly many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic law
and various ANE law codes. These include legislation regarding perjury and false
witnesses (cp. Deut. 19:16-21), death penalty for murder (cp. Exod. 21:12), a
husband’s payment for false accusation of adultery (cp. Deut. 22:13-19), payment
for injury to an ox while renting it (cp. Exod. 22:14-15), and so forth. One of
the laws of Eshnunna (�53) is nearly identical to Exodus 21:35: “If an ox gores
an(other) ox causing its death, both ox owners shall divide the price of the
live ox and also the meat of the dead ox.”
Such similarities should not be surprising. For instance, we observe that the
book of Proverbs utilizes and adapts various sayings and maxims from the
Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Another example of
strong ANE influence is the structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty
between Yahweh and Israel; this is patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite
suzerainty treaties-with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and
witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh
is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain;
also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cp. Deut. 30:19-20).
In all of these examples, no one is denying ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic
Law, but we have no wholesale adoption either.
How then does the Mosaic Law differ from ANE legal texts? We can observe general
disparities between cuneiform laws versus biblical laws: (1) secular laws versus
religious cultic-ceremonial ones; (2) laws made by kings (not gods) versus laws
from God mediated through Moses; (3) laws to glorify kings versus laws to
glorify God and to instruct (torah = “instruction”) people and shape a national
character; (4) laws reflecting king’s unlimited authority versus laws limiting
the king’s authority (for example, Deut. 17:14-20); (5) property crimes
punishable by death if a thief cannot pay (up to thirty-fold) versus property
crimes not being capital offenses but limited to five-fold restitution or
indentured servitude (not death) for those who cannot pay; (6) offenses against
slaves as on the same level as property crimes (for example, oxen) versus
offenses against slaves as persons of value; (7) religious sins not typically
capital offenses versus a number of religious sins as capital offenses-idolatry
(Deut. 13:6-9), false prophecy (Deut. 18:20), sorcery (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy
(Lev. 24:10-23), Sabbath violations (Num. 15:32-6). We could also add that
Israelite law is far more concerned about “the sanctity of life” than
Mesopotamian law. Because of Yahweh’s covenant with
Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh’s unique
covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Thus their violation
was a serious matter that would undermine Israel’s very identity.
What specific improvements could we highlight? Regarding slavery, Christopher
Wright declares: “The slave [in Israel] was given human and legal rights unheard
of in contemporary societies.” Mosaic legislation
offered a radical advance for ANE cultures. According to the Anchor Bible
Dictionary, “We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat
slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their
masters.” Kidnapping a person to sell as a slave was
punishable by death: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found
in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21:16; see also 1 Tim.
1:10). This biblical prohibition presents a marked repudiation of the kidnapping
of Africans that ushered in the era of more recent Western slavery. Yet the new
atheists seem given to blur any such distinctions. While other ANE cultures may
too have prohibited kidnapping, the Mosaic Law stands out in sharp moral
contrast to their standard extradition treaties for, and harsh treatment of,
runaway slaves. Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway
slaves [�16]). Israel, however, was to offer safe
harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16).
Indeed, Hebrew slaves were to be granted release in the seventh year (Lev.
29:35-43)-a notable improvement over other ANE law codes.
Furthermore, masters had to release them from service with generous provisions,
all conducted with the right attitude for the slave’s well-being as he enters
into freedom: “Beware that there is no base thought in your heart . . . and your
eye is hostile toward your poor brother” (Deut. 15:9). The motivating reason for
all of this is the fact “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the
Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deut. 15:12-18,
esp. v. 15). The overriding goal in Deuteronomy 15 is that there be no slavery
in the land at all (vv. 4, 11). Gordon McConville calls this “revolutionary.”
Another marked improvement is in the release of injured slaves themselves (Exod.
21:20-1). This is in contrast to their masters merely being compensated, which
is typical in the ANE codes. Elsewhere in the OT, Job recognizes that he and his
slaves have the same Maker and come from the same place-their mother’s womb
(Job. 31:15). Later in Amos (2:6; 8:6), slavery is again repudiated. Thus,
Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris notwithstanding, such improvements-or
pointers back to Genesis 1:26-27-can hardly be called “a warrant for trafficking
in humans” or treating them “like farm equipment.”
We can mention the inferior sexual morality of the ANE. We are familiar with the
Canaanite qedeshot-the female and male cult prostitutes (cp. Gen. 38:15, 22-3; Deut.
23:18-19; also Hos. 4:14). A number of ANE cuneiform laws permitted activities
that undermined the family’s integrity and stability by allowing men, for
instance, to engage in adulterous relations with slaves and prostitutes. The
laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Lower Mesopotamia (1930 BC) take for granted the
practice of prostitution (for example, ¶¶27, 30). In Hittite law (1650-1500 BC),
“If a father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not
an offence” (¶194). Hittite law even permitted bestiality: “If a man has sexual
relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence” (¶200a).
Not only do we find morally-inferior cuneiform legislation, but its attendant
harsh, ruthless punishments. Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of
Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: “These dreadful laws are notable for
the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the
Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.”
For instance, Hammurabi’s code stresses the centrality of property whereas the
laws in the “Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 21-23) consider crimes against persons
to be far more weighty.
For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut
off (��192, 194, 195, 205). One punishment involved
the accused’s being dragged around a field by cattle. Babylon and Assyria (as
well as Sumer) practiced the River Ordeal: when criminal evidence was
inconclusive, the accused would be thrown into the river; if he drowned, he was
guilty (the river god’s judgment), but if he survived, he was innocent and the
accuser was guilty of false accusation. Besides
punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted
the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between one hundred
and two hundred strokes. In fact, a one-hundred-stroke
beating was the “mildest form of punishment.” Contrast
this with Deuteronomy 25:1-3, which sets a limit of forty strokes for a
criminal: “He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him
with many more stripes than these.” The reason? So that “your brother is not
degraded in your eyes.” Furthermore, in Babylonian or Hittite law, status or
social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime whereas
biblical law holds kings and priests and those of social rank to the same
standards as the common person. The informed
inhabitant of the ANE would have thought, “Quick, get me to Israel!”
Our interlocutor might ask: What about Scripture’s emphasis on lex talionis-an
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is this not a brutal retribution? First,
an investigation of the Pentateuch’s lex talionis texts (Exod. 21:23-5; Lev.
24:17-22; Deut. 19:16-21) reveals that, except for capital punishment (“life for
life”), these are not taken literally. None of the examples illustrating “an eye
for an eye” calls for bodily mutilation, but rather just (monetary)
compensation. Brevard Childs comments on the uniqueness of this approach: “Thus
the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance and was far from being
a vestige from a primitive age.” Second, this
principle served as useful guide for exacting proportional punishment and
compensation; this was designed to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate acts
4. The increased complexity and stringency of Mosaic regulations in response to
The historian Tacitus (AD 55-120) wrote of Rome: “The more corrupt the Republic,
the more numerous the laws.” Consider how a rebellious
child will often need external rules, severe deadlines, and close supervision to
hold him over until (hopefully) an internal moral change takes place. Rules,
though a stop-gap measure, are hardly the ideal.
Something similar happens in the Pentateuch. While the new atheists would
consider the Mosaic Law to be ruthless and strict, there is an aspect to it that
accommodates a morally-undeveloped ANE cultural mindset. Another dimension of
this harshness seems to be a response to the rebellious, covenant-breaking
propensity of the Israelites.
John Sailhamer has argued that God at Sinai desired to have not some priestly
elite as mediators, but all the people of Israel to approach him as priest-kings
(Exod. 19:6) God wished that the entire nation would come to meet him at the
mountain. but the people resisted this, pleading rather for Moses to go up in
their stead. Even so, God’s initial Sinai legislation was an uncomplicated code
for the people (Exod. 21-23)-and another simple code for a priestly order that
would now be formed (Exod. 25-31:18). Yet in light of Aaron’s failure as high
priest in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32) and of the people’s worship of the
goat idols (Lev. 17:1-9), God responded by clamping down and tightening the
restrictions on the priests (Exod. 35-Lev. 16) and the Israelite community (Lev.
17:10-26:46), respectively. He gave both groupings more severe and complex laws to
follow. These strictures-a “yoke,” Peter called them,
“which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10)-were not
God’s ideal. Israel asked for it.
|SINAI NARRATIVE: EXODUS 19-LEVITICUS 26|
|Narrative||Exodus 19:1-25: Initiating a covenant with simple stipulations, God intends to
meet with Israel on the mountain as a “kingdom of priests” (v. 6). The people
agree to it (v. 8) but then refuse to draw near to God (vv. 16-17). They tell
Moses to represent them. (Thus, a tabernacle and priesthood will be needed.) The
people’s fear is observed from a divine perspective.
|Ten Commands||Exodus 20:1-17: The giving of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Covenant Code
(Exod. 20:22-23:33) in response to the people’s fear.
|Narrative||Exodus 20:18-21: The people’s fear described as from their own perspective. So
the groundwork is being laid for a tabernacle (Exod. 25-31)-those who are “far
off” must be brought near to God.
|Covenant Code||Exodus 20:22-23:33: Idolatry prohibited and simple offerings of praise and
sacrifice as the basis of Israel’s relationship with God, as in the patriarchal
|Narrative||Exodus 24: The covenant reestablished at Sinai.|
|Priestly Code||Exodus 25-31: The tabernacle (with priesthood) providing for the people to meet
|Narrative||Exodus 32-34: The failure of Aaron/the priesthood in the golden calf event
(chap. 32). God shows grace and compassion (chap. 33), and the covenant is
renewed (chap. 34).
(Directed to the priests)
|Exodus 35-Leviticus 16: More laws needed for the priests.|
|Narrative||Leviticus 17:1-9: The failure of the people, who worship the goat idols.|
(Directed to the people)
|Leviticus 17:10-26:46: More laws needed for the people. The covenant is renewed
again; God says he will remember his people despite future disobedience (Lev.
This scenario appears to be exactly what Jeremiah 7:2 suggests: “For in the day
I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or
command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave
them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people; and you
will walk in the way I will command you so that it would be well with you.”
Galatians 3:19 emphasizes much the same thing: “Why the Law then? It was added
[to the initial, simple covenant] because of [the people’s] transgression.” The
Law-a temporary rather than permanent fixture-would give way to a new covenant
under Christ (Gal. 3:22).
So, although Israel and all humankind still needed the redemption that would
eventually come through Christ, God still desired a simpler form of worship with
the entire nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6). Israel,
however, would forfeit this for something much more severe and complex.
5. Differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel’s
We can go beyond the Pentateuch, though, to survey the entire OT, observing the
various ethical obligations that arise at each stage of Israel’s history. John
Goldingay’s Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament proves
to be a helpful guide here, furnishing an illuminating study of the historical
contexts or stages of Israel’s unfolding story and the different ethical
responses each calls for. These corresponding ethical responsibilities suggest
that we not turn these particular required responses into timeless moral
truths-even though the OT does furnish us with permanent moral insights as well.
Goldingay presents the very simple progression: Israel moved from being an
ancestral wandering clan (mishpachah [Gen. 10:31-2]) to a theocratic nation (am
[Exod. 1:9; 3:7] or goy [Gen. 12:2; Judg. 2:20]) to a monarchy, institutional
state, or kingdom (mamlakah [1 Sam. 24:20; 1 Chron. 28:5]), then an afflicted
remnant (sheerith [Jer. 42:4; Ezek. 5:10]), and finally a postexilic
community/assembly of promise (qahal [Ezra 2:64; Neh. 13:1]).
Along with these historical changes came differing ethical challenges. For
example, during the wandering clan stage, Abraham and the other patriarchs had
only accidental or exceptional political involvements. And even when Abraham had
to rescue Lot after a raid (Gen. 14), he refused to profit from political
benefactors. Through a covenant-bond, Yahweh was the vulnerable patriarchs’
protector and supplier.
Then after Israel had to wait over four hundred years and undergo bondage in
Egypt while the sin of the Amorites was building to full measure (Gen. 15:16),
God delivered them out of slavery and provided a place for them to live as a
nation-“a political entity with a place in the history books.” Yahweh had now
created a theocracy-a religious, social, and political environment in which
Israel had to live. Yet she needed to inhabit a land, which would include
warfare. So Yahweh fought on behalf of Israel while bringing just judgment upon
a Canaanite culture that had sunk hopelessly below any hope of moral return
(with the rare exception of Rahab and her family)-a situation quite unlike the
time of the patriarchy.
Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have
been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command.
Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the
incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of
Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to
the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make
political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that
wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the
Canaanites themselves. Third, the “obliteration
language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed
all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such
language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land:
“For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which
remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and
they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to
drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the
typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.
Fourth, the crux of the issue this: if God exists, does he have any prerogatives
over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should
have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life
as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God
and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to
give us seventy or eight years of life. As philosopher Charles Taliaferro
If there is a robust sense in which the cosmos belongs to God, then God’s moral
standing from the outset is radically unequal to ours. . . . Arguably our rights
[to, say, property or privacy or even life] are at least hedged if the ownership
of God is taken seriously. Being thus beholden to God would not seem to entitle
God to create beings solely to torment them, but if life is indeed a gift from
God which no creature deserves . . . , then certain complaints about the created
order may be checked.
That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through
Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in
Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What
then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed
Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons.
Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the
women were far from innocent. (Compare seduction of Israelite males by Midianite
women in Numbers 25.)
What then of the children? Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into
the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent
culture. But what of terrorized mothers trying to protect their innocent
children while Israelite armies invade? Here, perhaps a just war analogy might
help. A cause might be morally justified (for example, stopping the aggression
of Hitler and Japan), even if innocent civilians might be killed-an unfortunate
“collateral damage” that comes with such scenarios. Furthermore, the infants and
children who were killed by the Israelites would, in the afterlife, come to
recognize God’s just purposes, despite the horrors and terrors of war. They
would side with God in the rightness of his purposes-even if it had meant
temporary terror. This is precisely what the apostle Paul said elsewhere: he
considered his own hardships and suffering-which included being beaten, stoned,
imprisoned, shipwrecked, and the like (2 Cor. 11:23-7)-to be “momentary, light
affliction” in comparison to the “eternal weight of glory” that “surpasses them”
(2 Cor. 4:17).
Let’s turn back to Goldingay. Enduring insights derived from the wandering clan
stage include the commitments of mutual love and concern and the importance of
reconciliation in overcoming conflict. We see a people in between promise and
fulfillment, dependent upon God who graciously initiated a covenant and then
calls for full trust as he leads and guides through unforeseeable circumstances.
At the theocratic stage of Israel’s history, enduring insights include
acknowledgment that any blessing and prosperity comes from the hand of God, not
as a right but as the result of grace. The people of God must place their
confidence in God rather than themselves or their holy calling. They must
remember that “it is the rebellious nation that cannot exist in the world as the
theocracy because of its sin.”
These are an example of how Israel at different stages of development faces
various challenges that require distinct responses. However, the biblical
narrative presents permanent insights for the people of God that rise above the
historical particularities and the sui generis. Goldingay, urges us to
appreciate the tension between the ideal and the actual-between the high
standards God desires from his covenant people and the reality of dealing with a
sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE environment.
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).
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.”
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? For one
thing, despite the practical problems of polygamy, Wenham suggests it was
permitted perhaps because monogamy would have been difficult to enforce.
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,
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).
King Solomon in particular is guilty in this flagrant act of disobedience (1
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). The mutuality of an
exclusive marriage was the general expectation, 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.
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.
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
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.
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. 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.”
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). 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
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.
4. The seriousness of sin and the sovereign prerogatives of Yahweh.
Like Narnia’s Aslan, Yahweh, though gracious and compassionate (Exod. 34:6), is
not to be trifled with. The new atheists seem to resist the notion of Yahweh’s
rightful prerogatives over humans precisely because they seem uncomfortable with
the idea of judgment in any form. Yes, Yahweh begins
with the thus-and-so-ness of life in the ANE, graciously accommodating a sinful
people surrounded by sinful social structures in hopes of directing them towards
the ideal. Deuteronomy regularly notes the radical
sinfulness and stubbornness of Israel, not their moral superiority over other
nations. In 9:4-13, Yahweh reminds Israel that their inheriting the land is not
by virtue of their own “righteousness” or “uprightness” but rather because of
the other nations’ “wickedness.” After all, Israel is “a stubborn
people”-indeed, “rebellious” ever since they left Egypt. God must reveal himself
with holy firmness-at times, fierceness-to get the attention of these rebels,
not to mention the surrounding nations.
The new atheists consider Yahweh to be impatient, jealous, and easily provoked.
In actual fact, God endures much rejection from his people. God is often
exasperated with and hurt by his people, asking, “What more was there to do for
My vineyard [Israel] that I have not done in it?” (Isa. 5:4). Again: “How I have
been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their
eyes which played the harlot after their idols” (Ezek. 6:9). And again: “I have
spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way
which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually
provoke Me to My face” (Isa. 65:2-3).
Thus when Dawkins accuses God of breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his
chosen people flirted with a rival god”-as “nothing so much as sexual jealousy
of the worst kind”-he seems to show utter disregard for the significance of the
marriage covenant-and, in particular, this unique bond between God and his
people. Israel had not simply “flirted” with rival gods, but had cohabited with
them, going from one lover to another, “playing the harlot” (cp. Ezek. 16 and
23). Hosea’s notable portrayal of Israel as a prostitute-not a mere flirt-is far
more serious than Dawkins’s casual dismissal. The appropriate response to
adultery is anger and hurt. When there is none, we rightly wonder how deeply and
meaningfully committed to marriage one truly is.
5. The repeated call to imitate Yahweh’s character and redemptive activity as
capturing the OT’s ethical spirit and providing an abiding moral norm.
Brevard Childs remarks that OT ethics is not a mere cultural phenomenon of
mimicking ANE cultures. Rather, it offers judgments and wisdom based on the
context of a divine-human covenant relationship and the human response to God’s
character-an imitatio Dei. God’s holy character
becomes a norm for Israel: “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev.
19:2). In addition, his redemptive activity serves as a model for the people of
Israel to follow: “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows
His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for
the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).
Likewise, in Deuteronomy 24:18, Yahweh tells his people: “But you shall remember
that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from
there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” This is the chief reason
Israel was to show compassion to the poor, the stranger, the oppressed; Israel
was in a similar position while enslaved in Egypt, and Yahweh repeatedly reminds
Israel of his partiality to the dispossessed.
The model of Yahweh’s character and saving action is embedded within and
surrounding Israel’s legislation. This is what Christopher Wright calls a
“compassionate drift” in the Law. This drift cannot be reduced to a moral code,
but involves something far deeper:
protection for the weak, especially those who lacked the natural protection of
family and land (namely, widows, orphans, Levites, immigrants and resident
aliens); justice for the poor; impartiality in the courts; generosity at harvest
time and in general economic life; respect for persons and property, even of an
enemy; sensitivity to the dignity even of the debtor; special care for strangers
and immigrants; considerate treatment of the disabled; prompt payment of wages
earned by hired labour; sensitivity over articles taken in pledge; consideration
for people in early marriage, or in bereavement; even care for animals, domestic
and wild, and for fruit trees. . . . it would be well worth pausing with a Bible
to read through the passages in the footnote, to feel the warm heartbeat of all
Along these lines, Mignon Jacobs notes an OT “theology of concern for the
underprivileged.” Yahweh’s character and activity
provide God’s people-indeed, all humanity-with a clear moral vision.
In their zealous preoccupation with the negative in OT ethics, the new atheists
neglect this repeated undertone in the Law of Moses itself-Yahweh’s gracious,
compassionate character and his saving action.
6. The planned obsolescence of the Mosaic Law and its fulfillment in Christ.
A final consideration for our discussion is the self-confessed “planned
obsolescence” for national Israel and the Mosaic Law. Although Sinai makes
significant advances over surrounding ANE cultures, the Law is not viewed as the
final word. A new covenant will come, in which the Law is written on the heart-a
covenant bypassing the old one and incorporating the nations as the people of
God (for example, Jer. 31; Ezek. 36-7). In the words of N. T. Wright, “the Torah
is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside-not because it was
a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose
had now been accomplished.”
Robin Parry reminds us that if we allow that the Christ-event is part of the
plot line, then we are obligated to allow it “cast its significance back onto
our understanding of earlier texts.” The broader
canonical context of the NT sheds light on OT legal texts and further draws out
the creational designs and the “compassionate drift” found in OT texts. Yet we
cannot forget that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves reveal a moral development
and a dynamic ethical response to emerging situations. (For instance, the
killing of the Canaanites, which is limited to Joshua’s generation, stands in
sharp contrast to Israel’s duty to “seek the welfare” of Babylon where it was
exiled [Jer. 29:7].)
Again, in their own right, OT texts provide us with enduring, normative
perspectives about human dignity and fallenness and with moral insights
regarding justice, faithfulness, mercy, generosity, and the like. Indeed, Christ
is often reaffirming this by normatively citing OT texts about loving God and
neighbor or calling Israel back to live by God’s creational designs rather than
However, given an enlarged canonical perspective, the OT anticipates a further
work that God achieves in Christ. Hebrews reminds us that he brings a “better”
and more substantial fulfillment out of the OT’s “shadows.” He fully embodies
humanity’s and Israel’s story. So if we stop at OT texts without allowing
Christ-the second Adam and the new, true Israel-to illuminate them, our reading
and interpretation of the OT will be greatly impoverished.
I would like to draw a few strands together here by revisiting the comments of
our “new atheist” friends.
A. Naturalism’s foundations cannot account for ethical normativity; theism is
better positioned to do so.
Though Dawkins accuses Yahweh of being a moral monster, one wonders how Dawkins
can launch any moral accusation. This is utterly inconsistent with his total
denial of evil and goodness elsewhere:
If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . .
. are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good
fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention . . . . The
universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is,
at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind
In The Devil’s Chaplain, he asserts: “Science has no methods for deciding what
is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society.”
If science alone gives us knowledge, as Dawkins claims (actually, this is
scientism), then how can he deem Yahweh’s actions to be immoral?
Furthermore, Sam Harris’s attempt to “demolish the intellectual and moral
pretensions of Christianity” is quite ironic for a several reasons. First,
contrary to assertions by the new atheists, who view biblical theism as the
enemy, it has historically served as a moral compass for Western civilization,
despite a number of notable deviations from Jesus’ teaching across the centuries
(for example, the Crusades, Inquisition). In fact, a number of recent works have
made a strong case that biblical theism has served as a foundation for the
West’s moral development.
Second, despite the new atheists’ appeals to science, they ignore the profound
influence of the Jewish-Christian worldview on the West’s scientific enterprise.
Despite naturalists’ hijacking the foundations of science as their own,
physicist Paul Davies sets forth the simple truth: “Science began as an
outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists . . .
accept an essentially theological worldview.”
Third, the new atheists somehow gloss over the destructive atheistic ideologies
that have led to far greater loss of human life within one century than
“religion” (let alone “Christendom”) with its wars, Inquisitions, and witch
trials. Dinesh D’Souza notes this “indisputable fact”: “all the religions of the
world put together have in 2,000 years not managed to kill as many people as
have been killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades. . . . Atheism,
not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history.”
Fourth, while we can certainly agree with Harris that we can know objective
moral truths “without reference to scripture,” we are left wondering how human
value and dignity could emerge given naturalism’s valueless, mindless,
materialist origins. If, on the other hand, humans are made in the divine image
and are morally constituted to reflect God in certain ways, then atheists as
well as theists can recognize objective right and wrong and human
dignity-without the assistance of special revelation (Rom. 2:14-15). But the
atheist is still left without a proper metaphysical context for affirming such
moral dignity and responsibility. And despite Harris’s claims, naturalism seems
to be morally pretentious in claiming the moral high ground, though without any
metaphysical basis for doing so. No, biblical theism, with its emphasis on God’s
creating humans in his image, is our best hope for grounding objective moral
values and human dignity and worth.
B. The new atheists ignore the sui generis status of Israel’s theocracy.
Dawkins is concerned about those who “bossily try to force the same evil monster
(whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.” Those who scare Dawkins scare me
as well. Despite theonomists and Manifest Destiny Americans who may press for a
“return to Christian America,” such positions are a misrepresentation of
Scripture, which opposes any theocratic utopianism for Christians in this fallen
world. National Israel’s theocratic status, however,
was unique, short-lived, and unrepeatable, and her political role and identity
as God’s people in redemptive history came to a dramatic end in AD 70.
An interethnic (Jewish-Gentile) community in Christ has emerged as the true
Israel (cp. Rom. 2:28-9; 1 Pet. 2:9). For Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris to
assume that a consistent Christianity is essentially theocratic is out of touch
with Scripture’s emphasis on Christians as resident aliens, whose ultimate
citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:11). The
nonnationalistic, multiethnic church-the new Israel-is now called to live as
salt and light in this world, revealing by lives of love, peacemaking, and unity
that they are Christ’s disciples (John 13:35).
C. The new atheists wrongly assume that the OT presents an ideal ethic, while
ignoring the OT’s redemptive spirit and creational ideals.
Despite Dawkins’s surprising hostility towards religious belief, he has
something of a point when he mentions the “ubiquitous weirdness” of the OT.
Similarly, Hitchens refers to OT authors as “crude, uncultured human animals.”
The Christian can agree that aspects of the OT reflect a problematic and
more-primitive ANE moral framework, which Israel had assimilated. Rather than
idealize it, though, we should look to certain fixed creational considerations
such as the image of God and committed monogamous marriage to inform us as we
navigate the OT’s challenging waters. Genesis 1-2 undercuts ANE structures
approving of racism, slavery, patriarchy, primogeniture, concubinage,
prostitution, infant sacrifice, and the like.
So Harris’s claim that the OT represents “God’s timeless wisdom” is a gross
misrepresentation. While the Mosaic Law represents marked moral improvements
over other ANE cultures, it still permits but regulates imbedded negative
patterns due to the hardness of human hearts.
The new atheists repeatedly attack the biblical witness for what it does not
endorse. Christians can readily acknowledge that the OT text itself is not
claiming an ideal or ultimate ethic. So we can, with Daniel Dennett, “thank
heaven” that those thinking blasphemy or adultery deserves capital punishment
are a “dwindling minority.”
For references to this article, click here.