Monday, June 25, 2012

Divine Command Morality, Old Testament Law, and Is God Really Good? Part 2

Divine Command Morality, Old Testament Law, and Is God Really Good?

Part 2

By Lisa Guinther.

Part III. Israel’s Laws compared to the surrounding societies.

When one reads through the various codes within the Law of Moses as given by God at Mt Sinai, without understanding the context of the history and surrounding societies, these rules sound barbaric and ignorant.  Many people point out the example of stoning to death a rebellious teenaged son who talks back to his parents as ignorant and cruel. (see Deut. 21:18-21)

Putting this example into proper historical context, this is an example, not of a rebellious teenager who won’t clean his room, but is an example of the eldest son who is grown, and is “a glutton and a drunkard,” the picture of total insubordination. This is a son who in the words of Copan, “…would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family, He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet.”[1]

Notice that in this case, the parents do not take matters into their own hands, they get help from the civil authorities who deal with it. This is an example of the social responsibility of the entire community.

With that in mind, if we compare judicial punishments of the same type, for example in Deuteronomy is the punishment of being beaten with a rod. (Deut. 25:1-3) In this example a legal matter was taken to court and adjudicated.  The judge watches over the punishment of the guilty party, and the punishment is limited.  When you compare a similar court case in Egyptian law, the guilty party would have received a minimum of 100 “strokes”, and that law permitted up to 200 strokes. This was in many cases, a fatal beating, not merely a punishment.

Another example is the punishment for a thief. Israel’s law demanded compensation from the thief to his victims.  In comparison, the Code of Hammurabi insisted on death to the thief. There was no mercy, no compensation.  This was the case in the surrounding cultures as well.

When you look at the laws of Israel in light of the surrounding cultures, you see a difference; you see a move towards offering an increasing amount of  grace. These laws in Israel emphasized the important of people rather than property, which was a huge improvement over surrounding societies. In the Code of Hammurabi punishments for certain crimes “insisted that the tongue, breast, hand or ear be cut off.”[2] When you compare the laws of Israel to Hittite or Egyptian laws, the moral improvement is obvious. Copan writes,
[I]n Babylonian or Hittite law, for example, status or social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime.  By contrast, biblical law held kings and priests and those of social rank to the same standards as the common person.[3]

Although you read “an eye for an eye” in the Old Testament, was it really? On a surface reading of the rules of “lex talionis” or exacting punishments for damaging another person,  sound the same, yet when one reads more carefully this passage of the Bible, it actually shows a proportionality to the punishments.  Murder is clear, but the other crimes shown are allowing freedom to slaves who were injured, or monetary compensations from the guilty, rather than true “eye for eye” retribution. Copan writes,

The point of lex talionis is this: the punishment should fit the crime.  Furthermore, of the examples given, these were the maximum penalties. The punishments were to be proportional and couldn’t exceed that standard.  Punishment could be less severe if the judge deemed that the crime required a lesser penalty.[4]

I think you can see, what you are reading in the Torah, is case law: adjudicating the ‘worse-case-scenario’ for the judges to know how to mercifully judge cases.

      When you compare this measure of jurist prudence to the Code of Hammurabi you will see that the “Code” only applied to an aristocrat not to a commoner.  And rather than monetary compensations, actual hands, eyes, noses, breasts, and ears were cut off.  There was no mercy.

Part IV. Misogynistic? The Treatment of Women in the Old Testament.

The claim that the God of the Old Testament is restrictive and repressive of women is a charged levied by many people today.  In fact this was one of my own personal complaints that drew me away from the Christian faith years ago.  But in a careful reading to the context based on the movement towards an ideal; taking God’s grace, love and mercy into consideration, what is it that we see in the Bible?

The original ideal presented in Genesis 1-2 point us to God’s ideal view of women as created in the image and likeness of God (male and female). Eve is taken from Adam’s rib [side] (Gen 2:22) a picture of equality and partnership, not one of a superior to an inferior. Marriage is to be a partnership of equals. But as pointed out by Copan, because of the fall and the damage that caused; the laws of ancient Israel “…take a realistic approach to fallen human structures in the ancient Near East.”[5] Copan writes,
God does two things (1) he works within a patriarchal society to point Israel to a better path; and (2) he provides many protections and controls against abuses directed at females in admittedly substandard conditions.  Do we see examples of oppressed women in the Old Testament? Yes, and we see lots of oppressed men as well!  In other words, we shouldn’t consider these negative examples endorsements of oppressions and abuse.[6]

It is also important to remember how many scripture verses warn not to mistreat the widow, orphans, divorced women and the non-Israelite strangers or aliens.  It is important to remember that legally the man and woman both could be considered culpable in adultery cases, which would deny the treatment of women as mere property in a marriage.  The Old Testament law did not require the death penalty for property offences, unlike the Code of Hammurabi, which did.

Historically, within the text of the Old Testament are the examples of powerful women leaders and women shown as examples for men and women to follow:  Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Tamar, Shiphrah and Puah (the Egyptian midwives) Miriam, Debora, Ruth, Naomi, Abigail, Hulda (prophetess to king Josiah) and Rahab!
Copan writes:
When humans sought to change social structures in light of a deeper moral insight and a determination to move toward the ideal, we witness an adaptation of ancient Near Eastern structures.  Even earlier in the Old Testament, various narratives subtly attack the primogeniture arrangement; the younger regularly supersedes the elder: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph/Judah over Reuben.  This biblical sampling reveals a subversive and more democratic ethic; though not ideal, it’s a drastic improvement over other ancient Near Eastern laws.[7]

The next question could be asked, why no female priests?

Before the fall, there is an assumption of male and female priestly duties; which is seen as a foreshadowing of the tabernacle to God. In Exodus all Israel is called to be a “kingdom of priests” however, they refused to go up the mountain. That is where the beginning of a line of male only priests starting with Moses.
But take this one step further:  separation from the other cults surrounding them.

The main reason for no females in the tabernacle/temple is to prevent contamination from the cultic activities of the surrounding religions. (Remember what happened with the “first church of the Golden Calf.) Copan writes,
The religions of the ancient Near East commonly included fertility cult rituals, goddess worship, and priestesses (who served as the wife of the god).  Temple prostitutes abounded, and sexual immorality was carried out in the name of religion.  To have sex with priestesses meant union with the goddess you worshiped.  In fact, sex with a temple prostitute would prompt Baal and his consort Asherah to have sex in heaven, which in turn would result in fertility all the way around—more kids, more cattle, more crops.  Sex was deified in Canaan and other ancient Near Eastern cultures…If we become what we worship, then it’s not surprising that Canaanite religion and society became corrupted by “sacred sex.” Therefore, Canaanite female and male cult prostitutes were forbidden…Israel wasn’t to imitate the nations whose deities engaged in sexual immorality.[8]

In examining the priestly roles, you can break down the divisions this way, 1. Teaching, judicial, administrative, 2. Prophetic and, 3. Cultic (religious ceremonies/rituals) and of these three roles women were only barred from the 3rd as were most men!

      It is important to see that only the Levites were allowed in the cultic role, and then only a few of the Levites were a part of the role of standing between God and the people.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we now, as Christians are to fulfill the original plan for all believers to be a kingdom of priests.

Part V The Language of Conquest: the Massacre of the Canaanites

We have been taught over the years of the conquest of the land of Canaan by Joshua; and we know the story of the “battle of Jericho” and the “walls came tumbling down.” But what actually is being described here?

First let’s look at the language of conquest familiar to the ancient Near East.

Warfare rhetoric was common in all the cultures, some examples are from carved walls and memorial stele, like these examples,
·         Tuthmosis “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally…”
·         Hittite king recorded “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)
·         Ramses II that he “slew the entire force” of the Hittites.
·         Moab’s king Mesha bragged of the Northern Kingdom, “Israel has utterly perished for always” a century before the actual devastation.
·         Sennacherib; “…I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” Of course the Israelites were still there.

Now, with that in mind, when you read in Deuteronomy God’s direction through Moses to “utterly destroy” [haram] the Canaanites (7:2), and then Moses goes on to warn then “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…” (See 7:3-5) So if they are totally obliterated and wiped out, why would God warn not to intermarry with them?

So in the language of utter destruction of the Canaanites, what the emphasis is not so much on people, but of places of religious worship.  The point here is the Israelites were to destroy the Canaanite religion. Ancient Near East war language contained hyperbole as warning to the people to not take on the faults of the people living in the land.

What of the destruction of Jericho?  Was Jericho a large city full of civilians? Was the army of Israel really killing innocent men, women and children?

Jericho and Ai were fortified military citadels not cities. There is no archeological evidence of civilian populations at either site. Jericho was a small settlement of probably one hundred or fewer soldiers. So in the language of destruction, the biblical record is not talking about wiping out of a “city” in our 21st century mind’s eye. Finally, with each circle of the city, the Israelites were giving the solders in Jericho an opportunity to evade the ban.  They could have opened the gates and been saved for possible exile. It would seem that as supported by archaeological finds, that there was not wide spread destruction of the Canaanites. Only three “cities” (meaning citadels/fortress) were actually destroyed: Jericho, Ai, and Hazor.

 But what Copan writes of what seems to have happened is this,
[B]y 1000 BC (during the Iron Age), Canaanites were no longer an identifiable entity in Israel….around this time also, Israelites were worshiping a national God, whose dominant personal name was Yahweh (“the Lord”). An additional significant change from the Late Bronze to Iron Age was the town shrines in Canaan had been abandoned by not relocated elsewhere—say, to the hill villages.  This suggests that a new people with a distinct theological bent had migrated here, had gradually occupied the territory, and had eventually become dominant.[9]

But to return to the Yahweh “war text” and the troubling nature of what is being asked.  What if women and children were killed? As Copan writes, “If our scenario doesn’t cover all the bases, it still goes a long way in providing perspective on what happened and didn’t happen in Canaan.”[10]

Are there texts that trouble us in the Bible? Of course, but if one is troubled by them, do the research to find answers that may not comfort, but at least explain.  Do not ignore them, but face them squarely.  This is true knowledge of God, not a tame spirituality that makes no demands of us or our time.  Copan writes,
If we take God seriously, he will most certainly mess up our lives, make us uncomfortable, and even disorient us.  After all, we can easily get accustomed to our own self-serving agendas and idols.  The atheist has it almost right: humans regularly do make gods in their image.  Yet the biblical God isn’t the kind we make up.  He refuses to be manipulated by human schemes.  He makes us all—including his true devotees—uncomfortable, which in the end is what we truly need to overcome our self-centeredness.  “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) Even so, this God also shows himself to be a promise-making God who is worthy of our tenacious trust, despite the puzzles, discomforts, storms, and even horrors we may endure.[11]

So perhaps we should remember that God extended His grace (unmerited favor) to us by allowing his own Son to die to save us.  Jesus rose from the dead, was seen alive, and we have his words preserved in the Gospels by eyewitnesses to this fact. By holding to the truth of Jesus’ words we can then look back through the Old Testament and see the out-working of God’s grace over time.

 With Jesus as the starting point, we can read the balance of the ancient Scripture referred to as the Holy Bible in a different light.   If we take the time and study through these questions, we will find possible answers to the puzzles that seem to exist within God’s written revelation to us.

My advice to anyone reading the Bible is when you run into a puzzle, an inconsistency, even a horrible command; why not remember that God is love first, then dig in and study and “[b]e diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman...accurately handling the word of truth.” (2Tim 2:15) In the end you will find the answers you are looking for.[12]

[1] Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster. (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. P 91
[2] Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. P 93
[3] Ibid p 93
[4] Ibid p 94
[5] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?  (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. p 102
[6] Ibid p 102
[7] Paul Copan . Is God a Moral Monster (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. P107 Here Paul is quoting research done by Robin Parry’s Old testament Story and Christian Ethics: The Rape of Dinah as a case Study p 68 and also Gordon McConville’s “Old Testament Laws and Canonical Intentionality,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig Bartholomew et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p 263
[8] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. P 108
[9] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker. p 183
[10] Ibid p 188
[11] Ibid p 193
[12]  This is a combination of a talk I presented at First Presbyterian Boulder in 2010, and new material I researched for my philosophy class at CU Boulder spring 2012.  But as always Soli Deo Gloria!

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