Why were the Old Testament Laws so Cruel?

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A big portion in the first five books of the Old Testament (Torah) were laws given by God to the Israelites.  Many people, including me, would have questioned why these laws were so cruel, when compared to the New Testament or laws of our modern days.

I found this excellent article of “Why Are The Torah’s Commandments So Cruel?” written by “One For Israel”, a Hebrew-speaking Bible College in Israel.  I think it has the best explaination out of all the readings regarding this topic that I have read before. I like to give you a summary of it (a cut down version).  Please read the full article if you have time.

Capital punishment by stoning!? By hanging!? By burning at the stake!?

To the modern readers, the maximum penalties in the Old Testament may seem cruel, barbaric or primitive. During the time of the OT (Old Testament) no one would took laws and regulations seriously unless the breaking of those laws were punished by death. We’re talking here about a time where parents would burn and eat their own kids. Israel’s lifestyle was very much influenced by the cultures and nations around them. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land they subconsciously brought with them a significant part of those pagan traditions. Therefore, the laws of the Bible were given in a historical, cultural and social context. Thus, the highest penalties in the Bible are strict so that those barbarians without culture would “see and fear.”

“That they may see and know, may consider and understand…” (Isaiah 41:20)

Ancient codes of conduct

The laws of the Torah has a strong similarity with the laws of other ancient nations that surrounded the people of Israel. This proves that the law of Moses did not come to Israel out of nowhere. Rather, God based the laws of the Torah on laws they were already familiar with. Among these were the laws of Ur-Nammu from Mesopotamia, the laws of Lipit-Ishtar of the Isin of Sumeria, the laws of the Acadian Eshnunna, Hammurabi of Babylon, and the codex of the Hittites. God has gradually lifted His people from the inferior morals of idol-worshiping, evil cultures by starting to restrict customs and methods of punishment.

God has also begin to teach Israel forgiveness, mercy and compassion. Concepts that were not really known back then. For example, while Egyptian and Hammurabi’s law demanded the amputation of hands, tongue, nose, breasts or ears, in similar cases the laws of the Torah limited the judge. The maximum sentence was no more than 40 beatings in the most severe case.

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A temporary compromise

However God’s ideal is not reflected in the law of Moses. It was only a temporary compromise and the first step and the foundation God laid in order to pull us out of the moral swamp. Therefore, God first put up fences to set boundaries against ancient culture where things like rape, slavery and revenge were socially acceptable.

Example 1

Take as an example how God limits revenge. In ancient cultures, it was very common to take revenge. If someone cut out your eye, you should take revenge, cut out both of his eyes? But the law of Moses has limited your revenge: you are not allowed to stab him to death, as revenge. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. This commandment has limited the scope of retaliation.

Example 2

Another example is how God commanded better relations with rebellious slaves. Coming out of Egypt as slaves, the people of Israel were used to being completely humiliated. And therefore, we treated our slaves in the same way. We would beat them without mercy, sometimes to death. God limits that and commands that whoever needs to punish his slave has to make sure that the slave is able to work again within two days after being punished. Again, these examples are not the moral ideal of God. They are only the first step in pulling Israel out of the moral swamp in which they lived.

The ultimate standard of God is that we don’t take revenge at all. And that we do not have slaves in the first place.

Example 3

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)

In ancient times men divorced their wives for any stupid reason. The law acknowledged that the woman is the weaker vessel and therefore needs to be protected, especially in ancient times. For this reason, the law commands a restriction on the husband and allows divorce only in cases of adultery or fornication. But the initial and perfect standard of God was already mentioned a lot earlier in Genesis 2.

“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7-9)

The ideal in a marriage is that two different people become one. In Matthew 19, Jesus explained to the rabbis that because of their hard hearts Moses allowed divorce. That means that in the law of Moses God compromised his perfect standard because of the hardness of our hearts.

The ultimate solution

The law of Moses cannot change the human heart, nor was that ever its purpose
The law of Moses can only hold back the selfishness and evil that is in the heart. The law is like a fence. Its purpose is to oppose our sinful nature and set boundaries to our actions. It keeps our depraved nature from hurting others.

But Jesus, the Messiah, has fulfilled the mission. He presented the answer to the problem of the human heart, and taught us the ultimate morals of God: Grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, sensitivity, empathy, thoughtfulness, pardon, generosity, and the most extreme expression of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

But God in his love did not just make nice words. He acted. He healed lepers, served the sinners, loved his enemies and in the end he even allowed us to humiliate him, degrade him and to reject him. Even unto death on a cross, He gave himself for us as a sacrifice.

Summary

God raised up for himself a nation, Israel. A people composed of a group of individuals who were stuck in a swamp, when it came to morals and society since they were deeply influenced by the immorality and cruelty of the pagan nations around them. God gave the law of Moses in order to meet the people of Israel where they were. To slowly get them out of that swamp, to limit their traditions and minimize their lack of morals, in order to bring them out of the dark into the light. Up until the incomparable climax, the coming of the Messiah.

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