Sunday, May 13, 2012

A fair hearing for moral objections against the Torah

I've written about moral issues in the Torah before. I've written about the good, how the Torah was in some ways ahead of its time, and in some ways better than the laws we have now. Some issues I've discussed at more length, like the question of slavery, since that issue definitely deserves more visibility than some of the smaller questions. But once you get through the big, high-visibility issues, there remains a collection of small issues that, cumulatively, make people wonder about the laws in the Torah. This is a brief round-up of things of that nature, more a collection of examples than an exhaustive list, meant to show the type of objections that are often felt by Christians against the older Torah laws. Some would simply answer that these laws are not binding on Christians. But that's almost the point, really; if we thought they were good laws without qualification, wouldn't we voluntarily bind ourselves to them simply for the sake of their goodness? And so we find ourselves still wondering about those laws. For instance:
  • Ban on eating shellfish and other dietary laws. I have never heard anyone suggest that the Jewish dietary laws harm anyone or are immoral. I have also never heard anyone suggest that the Jewish dietary laws help anyone live a more godly life, more just or honest, more filled with love of God or neighbor. They seem arbitrary. Many suggest that the arbitrary-sounding laws had a use in their own time and place. Many Christians have taken Jesus' comments to mean that the kosher-diet laws are not an essential matter of morality, when he commented that whatever food entered the mouth did not make someone unclean, as it went into the belly and passes on out. The early Christian Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) also did not see the dietary laws as binding on Gentile Christians.
  • An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This law is found repeatedly in the Torah; it is also found in the older Code of Hammurabi. We can easily look down on earlier people as barbaric, but we still don't have a good solution for what to do when one person causes irreparable harm to another, such as blinding him in one eye. The ancient law may have accomplished one good thing: It would make people far more careful of whether they caused an irreparable injury to another person in a fight. It is a law that we may mock as barbaric, but it would have had a civilizing effect on people who actually were barbaric. This particular part of the Torah was singled out by Jesus for comment when he spoke of confronting evil in more peaceful and constructive ways.
  • Death penalty for crimes in which nobody died. While we may dislike the law of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", that law does have this much to say for it: the punishment fits the crime. The Torah calls for the death penalty for murderers, for those who had taken a life, and the punishment there does fit the crime. But it also calls for the death penalty in a variety of other crimes in which nobody died. There are several offenses like this; one example is that those who commit adultery were condemned to death. Again, when the crowds brought an adulteress to Jesus to see if he would approve if they executed her by stoning as they intended, he instead turned the question of judgment back to them and invited whoever was without sin to cast the first stone -- which, famously, saw each of the accusers turn around and walk away.
  • Animal sacrifices. There is a certain mercy in a person who is worthy of death being permitted to offer a substitute. There is even some measure of genuine purification when a person joins in condemning the evil that they themselves have done. But back in the day when the Jewish Temple still stood, there was ritual animal sacrifice daily. The annual Feast of Atonement called for a large number of animals to be sacrificed. The laws about atonement from guilt and sin, about dedication of children and so forth would have seen a steady stream of animals brought to be sacrificed. Christians see, in Jesus, the end of the ancient animal-sacrifice practices. In the Letter to the Hebrews, an early Christian writer called attention to the sheer endless number of sacrifices, and called that as a witness that the end goal of purifying us from sin was never in fact accomplished in that way, or the day would have come that the sacrifices could cease -- and mentioned that the means of sacrificing animals could never have actually accomplished that goal.
  • Guilt or innocence determined by odd tests. In general, the Jewish justice system called for establishing facts on the testimony of witnesses. But with the suspicion of marital unfaithfulness, where there would not be two or three witnesses other than the people involved, there was another test for guilt or innocence. It involved a curse being written down, the writing washed off into a cup of water, and the person under suspicion drinking the water and inviting that curse to take place if guilty. Was there something harmful in the water, and it was presumed that God would act to save the innocent? Or was there nothing harmful in the water, and it was presumed that God would act to punish the guilty? Or was it more like a Solomon's test, where the innocent and the guilty would identify themselves by their reactions? I wouldn't want to comment on it too much without knowing how it was supposed to work. But that's a problem in itself: If it's a system of justice, shouldn't everyone know how it works?
While it may be a relief to Christians that such laws are not binding on us, it does leave us wondering: What were those laws meant to accomplish in the first place? What does it say about the Torah that it contains laws of that nature? And if the Old Testament is eternally perfect, the question goes beyond explaining why it contains laws like this; the question is also why Jesus himself had a direct role in why we no longer observe a number of them.

No, I'm not really leaving it there. And finishing with rhetorical questions is definitely not meant to imply that there are no answers. I'm finally getting back to my series on "controversies", and this is some groundwork towards the controversy about the moral authority of the Bible. Comments are always welcome; I just wanted to make sure everyone understood that this is a piece of a larger series, and not meant to be my own last word on the subject.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for not leaving it there.

There are also the laws against mixtures, such as Leviticus 19:19, which seem to be to illustrate how God and idol worship don't go together. But prohibiting mating animals (plants, too?) of different types, which is one of the mixtures prohibited, would have probably prevented the Israelites from getting the advantages of hybrid vigor.

Also, was breeding mules a violation of this? There are a couple of cases of mules being mentioned in the OT, such as 1 Kings 1.