My last post discussed morality as viewed through our current societal lens. I talked about how we have all been tainted by notions of consequentialism – we often view the exact same action in a different moral light based on the outcome of the action. I believe that it is this consequentialist mindset which prevents modern readers from grasping the goodness of the extreme judgment we find in the Old Testament.
While death for such a seemingly trivial action as breaking the Sabbath appears cruel and harsh, this conclusion is based partly on our failure to understand the heart and its wretchedness, as well as a failure to consider the value of the one being offended. To work on the Sabbath was to denounce a system God had specifically set up for his people. It was telling God that his structure wouldn't work. Beyond this sin flying in the face of God's direct command, it also marred the man-God relationship. Part of the Sabbath's point was for man to not only be rejuvenated in rest, but to do so in reliance on God. The reason God's children could take a day off work, or a year with leaving a field fallow was because God was the provider and sustainer. The ability to rest was directly tied to trust. Furthermore, the Sabbath was a day that God set apart for humans not only to rest in trust, but to participate in active worship and thanksgiving for his provisions. More than some random command to consecrate a day of the week, it was a command that centered around trust, faith, health and well-being, worship, reverence, obedience, community, love, and so forth.
Beyond this, the Sabbath was also about the preservation of a society and the upholding of man's value. The Sabbath cycle was more than just a day of worship. God also set up Sabbaths for crops, for slaves and indentured servants, and for property. The Sabbath of Sabbaths - the Jubilee - was the culmination of all things made right - loans forgiven, property restored to families, indentured servants released from their obligation, fields left for the poor to glean, etc. The Sabbath concept of rest and trust was the greatest example of love and restoration, where the poor were helped and families made whole - regardless of their ancestor's actions and/or circumstances. It was intended to prevent societal upheaval, economic and social disparity, poverty, and hunger. It should have forced altruism to always be in the forefront of one's mind. It should have prevented bad lending practices and snowballing greed and monopolies. More than anything, the Sabbath was about love and community, first heavenward, then outward.
But of course Israel did not follow the Sabbath very well. In fact, the prophets in the Old Testament condemn Israel again and again for their misdealing with the poor and needy, their lending practice, and their corruption. Israel often failed to keep the Sabbath, and may have never kept the Jubilee. When Israel's ultimate judgment and exile came, it was largely due to their injustice. God harshly condemns Israel for their social atrocities, speaking through his prophets about the terror that befalls Israel as judgment. Israel's cities will be destroyed. Israelites will eat their own children while their cities are besieged. Israel will be slaughtered. And all of this because ideas have consequences. Calling the institution of the Sabbath a burdensome joke of an idea and throwing it off for one's own affairs failed to see God's wisdom in the day of rest. As God did very frequently in the Old Testament, he set up a landmark to be ever before his people whereby they would constantly dwell on his goodness, provision, love, grace, mercy, etc. When Israel put God out of their presence, keeping the outward actions of the Sabbath and its sacrifices but throwing off the heart of it, they heaped up for themselves judgment that God was willing to exact. This is why the prophets frequently link Israel’s suffering and exile to their breaking of the Sabbath.
Ideas and motives are the driving force of actions and the consequences of those actions. When God created a provision in his law for the execution of an individual who broke the Sabbath, it was because such an action was performed from a heinous idea. The idea says we are better than God. We are better than our fellow man. We need to obtain things for ourselves. Mercy is overrated. Who needs community? I AM. Breaking the Sabbath set man and his selfish desires up as God. Man became the sustainer and determiner. Such an idea, fostered in the society of Israel, lead to great injustice, a great lack of mercy, idolatry, and significant unrighteousness. It is what lead to the writing of the famous Micah 6:8 - "He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?" It is the idea that ultimately lead to God's extremely harsh judgment of Israel.
So with God’s Sabbath law and harsh judgment as one example to keep in mind, what can we observe about biblical justice as we read through the Bible?
The first thing we need to notice about Old Testament justice, is that it goes far deeper than the basic commandment. It is very different than other religious texts in this way, and very different than our consequentalist laws and rules today. The Bible is typically far more concerned with one's heart and ideology than with outward action. While our laws today are heavily saturated with consequentialist notions, the Ten Commandments are saturated with heart intent. Even the laws God gave which appear to be focused on specific action are intended to have the weight of intent behind them. In fact, Samuel says it best when he chides Saul for the disobedience that invoked God's judgment against him: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." Many times we see the prophets laugh at the motions their people are going through in sacrifice, as if it is this rote, meaningless action that is what's important rather than the heart behind the action. Did you really think God is going to honor a sacrifice you purchased using the money you extorted from the poor? God is not concerned with motions, but with the heart. The same consequence may result from two different sacrifices – the death of a lamb. But it is the intent and heart behind the action that determines whether the sacrifice was valid. God is not a consequentialist.
Throwing off consequentialist ideology also helps us to have a clearer view of the actions God takes in his creation. Just as men who performed "right actions" were wicked sinners because of their heart, so we see that God at times performs actions that may normally be considered "evil," but are in reality good things in God. For instance, we see the BIble call God a "jealous" God. We normally understand jealousy to be a sinful action, yet we recognize that for an individual to have a jealous love for their spouse can be a very good thing. It is a protective love of a relationship that is rightfully sacred. This can certainly be overdone, but one would find a spouse who is indifferent towards an affair as immoral, for one who does not burn with fire for their wayward spouse must not truly love what has been committed to them in covenant. Jealousy, at times, can be a more moral action.
We can see the same thing occurring in the Old Testament when God passes judgment on humans and takes their lives. While we would say that the taking of life is almost always evil, there are times when such a thing is warranted. This is definitely the case when God, the creator and judge, decides to take life. When we throw off consequentialist notions that say an action is judged by what directly results, and take a biblical approach that focuses on much deeper principles, we can see that many difficult Old Testament passages are only difficult because of our consequentialist assumptions.
The second thing to notice is that God is just as harsh with his own children as he is with those on the outside. It's hard to familiarize yourself much with the Bible and come to the honest conclusion that God is a genocidal maniac who blindly blesses those who are in the in-race or group. The same judgment befalls his people, and sometimes an even worse judgment is passed. We see this in several of the prophets, and particularly in Lamentations 4 where Israel is given a far worse judgment than Sodom.. We also see God reaching out to absolutely abhorrent, immoral groups (e.g. Ninevah) despite God's followers advocating their destruction. God loves mercy and grace, but he is also a God who must uphold justice - regardless of who commits the crime. Even in the New Testament where we tend to focus more on the grace and mercy side of things, that grace and mercy did not come without a price. While it is given to believers freely, it was obtained through the willing sacrifice by the perfect son of God. All have sinned and all are worthy of death. Justice will always be exacted. There is no favoritism.
That brings us to a third aspect which is important to understand about Old Testament justice. The consequences given out under Old Testament justice were very fair. If unfairness is ever levied against it, it should only be that the Old Testament often did not mete out justice in extreme enough measure, as God understood that without provisions being made for leniency, everything would be destroyed without redemption. Many have issues with the theocratic justice in the Old Testament because they perceive the consequences of sin as unfair. It is too harsh to condemn someone to death for such a trivial thing as breaking the Sabbath. But as I hope I've already shown, sin goes far deeper than the outward action itself. By the time sin manifests itself in a more apparent or tangible form, it has already been festering for quite some time in the heart. But beyond the depths of sin's roots in the heart, there is also a much greater depth to sin's offense in a relationship. When one sins against a fellow man, he is placing his own value above another's - one who has inestimable worth. It is debasing the worth of another. But as all sin is also against an infinitely valuable God, sin breaks the man to God relationship, and declares the value of God as being less than the value of the individual. Just as our modern courts often determine the severity of consequences based upon the harm and injustice done to the offended party, so it is with sin. It is why Michael Vick served less time than if he would have run a human fighting ring, and why a Gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo was shot to preserve the life of a boy. The value of an individual often determines what force is used and on whom. The party we offend when we sin is the infinitely holy, infinitely valuable, infinitely worthy God. What punishment would be appropriate but death and eternal separation from the relationship?
Fourth, sin is very serious. Nobody really understand how serious it truly is. But better than any other document or moral code, the Old Testament upholds the seriousness of sin and best preserves the value of man and the value of God. While most today scoff at the Old Testament as a moral code for a deluded and barbaric people, the critics themselves are the ones who throw human value and dignity away. The Old Testament shows us that when we offend another human being, and especially when we offend God, our crimes are often worthy of death. Most today are focused on the rights of the criminal being put to death, yet fail to consider what crime and sin are. If crime and sin are humans elevating themselves, using another (human or God) as an object for gain or viewing them as an object that hinders, all criminals and sinners are guilty of denying the inestimable and infinite worth of man and God. They have committed a great offense. Instituting death for such things says that man and God are so worthy of being valued, that the only just, appropriate response to an offense that devalues such things is one's very life.
As an analogy, imagine that a woman has her wedding ring stolen. When the robber is caught, he has already sold the ring. The woman seeks for $50 in damages from the robber. At this point, we could come to one of two conclusions. Either the wedding ring that was stolen had little value (e.g. it was a cheap metal with a fake diamond), or the ring lacked the esteem of it’s owner (e.g. the woman despised what the ring symbolized since she now hates her husband). The compensatory amount reflects either the intrinsic value something has, or the value ascribed to it by others. It is the same with moral justice. The compensation required for transgression is based on the value of the one offended.
To look at it another way, it is helpful to understand that every action one performs is morally neutral in and of itself. Walking is morally neutral, but walking on private property without permission is not. Firing a gun is morally neutral, but firing it at an out of season animal or at an innocent human is not. The moral weight of any action lies not in the action itself, but in the person towards whom the action is directed or influences.
For God to require one’s life for transgression against God or another man upholds the extreme value of both. Failing to punish the transgressor with death does not increase the value of the convicted, but rather devalues the offended. And in turn, when the value of man is lessened, it ends up lessening the value of the transgressor as well. Sin, then, is serious, and its seriousness lies largely in who we are offending. To take judgment lightly results in the devaluing of that which is very valuable.
Fifth, this Old Testament justice is not obsolete. The value of man and the value of God have not changed. Sinners and offenders of such value are still worthy of death. However, we would be ignorant and arrogant to apply such justice without understanding it in light of the New Testament. Through the revelation of the New Testament it is clear that while the Old Testament law is not obsolete, it's intention was to show us first that God is holy beyond our comprehension, and second, we are depraved beyond our comprehension. Holiness is so far above us, and we are so far below being perfect, that following such laws is absolutely impossible. Our hearts are wicked and deceitful, and even where our actions look good, our intentions are often not (see the Pharisees of Jesus's day). The non-ceremonial Old Testament law still applies to us today in terms of its expectation. Jesus even shows us how the expectation in the heart of the law is harsher than the code that is written on the surface. Don't just avoid murder and adultery - avoid hate and lust. While this understanding of the Old Testament's applicability to today should spur us on to obedience, the clarification in the New Testament should temper our application of justice. We know that we are all sinners in need of a savior, and to apply the law to its letter would mean the condemnation of us all. God intends to show us through the Old Testament law that our actions run deeper than we know, that our hearts are more evil than we know, that our intention to do evil is very serious, and that we need a savior to free us all from the bondage of sin. God will eventually exact perfect justice, but we err if we attempt to do the same. We must administer justice with serious self-examination, humility, mercy, and reverence. Punishing one who could just as easily be us - but by the grace of God - is a weighty endeavor that should not be taken lightly.
Sixth, critics seem to overlook the prerogative of God when making claims of injustice. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. God does not owe any human a sustained life. Not even a sparrow dies without God's direct hand or allowance, and the same is true of every human death. God can choose to exact our punishment and curse of death at any point and be perfectly just. For God to bring about the deaths of individuals by whatever means he chooses is completely his prerogative. He is the maker and sustainer of life and can determine life as he wills.
Finally, the Old Testament was written in a different language and culture. One of the biggest claims levied at the Old Testament justice is that of its genocidal nature in the conquest of Canaan. Israel supposedly committed a great evil against the Canaanites as they sought to eradicate a whole people group by God's decree. The first problem with this is the claim of attempted genocide itself. Genocide means eradicating a people group for being a particular people group. However, God's command to expel the Canaanites from the land was one founded in judgment for sin, not on being a particular people. The Canaanites were a people who were truly saturated in the most despicable evils - the worst of which was the sacrifice of their children to their gods. This wasn't simply a practice of stabbing their children through the heart on an altar, but involved placing living children inside metal idols where they could be slowly flayed alive - their skin melting off their bones. This was a culture God said he was allowing to store up for themselves great condemnation, as he allowed them to do more and more evil for about half a millennium. When God's judgment came, as with Sodom and Gomorrah, there was likely not an innocent soul to be found in the land. And even if there were, we know that our culture has lost notions of collective judgment upon peoples and nations that were present in the Old Testament. To assume that we know better about the more "pure" justice of individual consequences is assuming quite a lot, and is a relatively new spin on morality. The nation of Israel experienced such collective judgments themselves, both with conquests and exiles. On top of this, God's prerogative to sustain or take life means that any life taken was legitimate. While there could be a number of functional reasons God would take the life of children (e.g. Spreading of diseases from Canaanite debauchery, prevent passion for revenge later in life, their great-great-great grandchild would be a cruel dictator, or their life would alter the course of history from God's ultimate plan) - it is completely God's prerogative.
But beyond the importance of recognizing the justice of judgment that was meted out to Canaan, it's also important to understand that the Old Testament was written in a style the Ancient Near East would have recognized. It was filled with hyperbole. When everyone was wiped out - including men, women, infants, and sheep - that may not have been true in the straightforward sense that we read it. It was typical language used for the day to say that there was a great victory, as today we may say "we killed the other team," "we annihilated them," etc. This can be seen both in the checking of archaeological facts (e.g. some of the cities conquered we know were Canaanite military outposts which wouldn't have contained women or children). We can also see this truth by looking at the Bible itself. We see that Joshua mentions certain people groups being completely wiped out, yet we see the return of these peoples only chapters later. How is that possible unless the "utter destruction" is hyperbole? We see the same thing happen in I Samuel, when the Amalekites are utterly wiped out, yet we see their return later. We have to carefully understand the language and time in which the Bible were written, and we have to be aware of our own cultural biases that are not necessarily correct.
To pass judgment on Old Testament justice without doing due diligence is disingenuous argumentation against a very complex and revolutionary system. The Old Testament law breaks through institutions, demanding justice for all peoples, upholding human dignity and value, providing for a society to enjoy rest and rejuvenate, and setting up a system that - if followed - prevents institutionalized poverty and aristocracies. It's a system we're still trying to figure out how to implement today, as our society moves closer and closer to socialism. We recognize the desire to provide for everyone, but can't figure out how to do it. What nobody seems to realize is that such a system already exists, but it requires the searching of one's own heart and the pushing back against our human bent towards evil that stems from the deepest intentions and desires of our heart. It requires that we understand true morality, and that we are willing to face the fact that we all deserve true justice. But nobody wants to face such a truth - a truth that carries huge implications for the way we live our life, and bow our knee. Sin is rooted within us and will be ever before us. It is not something that any political system can fix. We are in need of a savior. We at the individual level are in need of change. It starts with each one of us, not with them.