If you read any of the ancient near east (ANE) codes such as Hammurabi's Code of Laws there is a strikingly similiar severity in the widespread use of capital punishment. This gives a similiar feel to reading the Mosaic laws.

Although the Mosaic laws differ substantially in their higher status and justice, for example rights given to slaves, the Mosaic laws still use capital punishment equally, if not more severely, than the ANE laws. For example, what would seem as a small religious infraction in a post-New Testament influenced culture, such as 'gathering sticks on the Sabbath', the Old Testament strictly mandated group stoning of the criminal (Numbers 15:32)! This might even seem 'severe' and even raise an eyebrow from Hammurabi's people.

The question I ask then is: 'Under an infallabillity of scripture belief, does this widespread and frequent use of capital punishment in ANE & Mosaic laws attest to an innate recognition of God's wrath under the Old Testament economy, or God's tolerance of cruel societies that coincidentally happened to steer towards a more merciful paradigm after the New Covenant? Or something else?'

Related more general question: Mosaic Laws derived/related to ANE laws?

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  • 1
    Could you please specify a specific denomination or ask for a trans-denominational answer in your question? If you want something trans-denominational, I'll leave my answer as-is. Otherwise, I might be able to make time to add to it with a specific denomination's take -- if I know it. – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 14:59
  • @svidgen - I think your answer is good as is and the question does not really have to be denominational. You can revise if you like but due to the depth of the subject matter even great answers like yours will not necessarily be fully accepted by an OP. I decided to put my own answer in as a supplement. I think both answers supplement each other well. They provide a good spectrum of the subject with a goal to preserve the infallibility of scripture. It is an interesting subject and I appreciate your have thought deeply about it. I am sincerely impressed. Cheers. – Mike Jan 23 '13 at 15:36
  • Ok. I asked because there are certainly some denominations that would, as a corollary to their general approach to scripture, unequivocally reject my answer. And, if you happened to be looking for an answer from one of those denominations, there's a good chance the bulk of my answer is irrelevant and wrong. – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 15:50
  • Have you defined what you mean by "infallibility of scripture" anywhere? It seems like you're painting yourself into a corner of literalism. – kurosch Jan 23 '13 at 16:34
  • @kurosch - When I use the term 'infallibility of scripture' - I simply mean a belief in 2 Peter 1:20. I simply mean the bible is not made up but is actually God's word. In this case it means when God said someone would be stoned, he actually did say that. If this is what you mean by 'literalism' then yes, you are correct. I am taking the Bible literally and request answers that do the same. – Mike Jan 24 '13 at 13:22

Here are some interpretive options that are valid in Catholicism as well as many other, but not all, Christian denominations.

Firstly, we don't need to rule out the possibility that the OT laws in question are perfectly just. But, we also know that God prefers mercy to justice; justice is the bare minimum. And, we can see this concept in Jesus' explanation of the similarly questionable OT divorce law:

1 He set out from there and went into the district of Judea [and] across the Jordan. Again crowds gathered around him and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2 The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. 3 He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” 5 But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. 7 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” 10 In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:1-12)

In brief, God's OT commandments favored justice over mercy to accommodate the spiritual deficiencies of the culture. However, mercy is better than justice. And even in the NT, the OT law is still affirmed and accepted to some extent, but living according to the Holy Spirit, which is governed more by mercy than justice, is strongly preferred.

In the case of particular instances wherein God commands something that is seemingly harsh, wrathful, or less than the NT ideal of mercy, we approach one of two ways.

Option one. Recognizing that God's general commands (Mosaic Law) "meet people where they are" and allows for our hardness of hearts, we can reasonably assume that God's individual commands are likewise. When God speaks, he always meets us at our current spiritual state and will always mandate something better than we'd do on our own, but not so great than we'll think God is a joke and ignore Him. (More or less.)

Option two. We recognize that understanding written scripture requires a contextual lens, a basic understanding that Christ crucified is the heart of scripture, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. With the contextual lens in particular, you don't need to assume a precisely historical read in these cases. And the relation of all scripture to Christ crucified then sheds light on the intended meaning of these types of passages. So you can assume one of a few basic scenarios (two of which I can recall!):

  • When Person X is recognized to be a sinner and can be rightfully put to death according to the law, God commands their death in that specific case. The literal account may not be, "according to the law" but rather "God said." And while this may seem dishonest to us, it's not necessarily untruthful either. It's simply "connecting the dots" in a sense.
  • God calls Person or Persons X "abhorrently sinful." God says, "have nothing to do with Person or Persons X on account of their behavior. Remove them from your presence." In OT contemporary literature, this might have been recorded is a more extreme and graphic retelling -- "God said, kill the sinner." And it's important to note, this isn't an infringement on the infallibility of scripture, which is not always, if ever, meant to fit into the genre of history. Rather, when the OT says, "God said kill sinner X," it often doesn't matter whether this is a literal retelling; the point is, the sin of sinner X is extremely terrible, and probably damning if serious action isn't taken.

Option three. We recognize, particularly in a more literal interpretation, that God is omniscient and omnibenevolent. As such, God may sometimes recognize a person's or people's relationship with Himself has become so endangered that he must take or mandate seemingly wrathful or lethal action to communicate the severity of the situation. In such cases, one could assume that God, in his perfect knowledge, knows that such actions are absolutely necessarily to save some or all of those involved without infringing on their free will. (The inspiration for this option is from Mike's answer. And as Mike's answer reminds us, the orientation of Mosaic Law to God makes adherence to Mosaic highly special and important in the "legal" arena.)

  • Although your previous answers about ANE laws was excellent, sorry but I do not feel the same at all about this one. God personally took the initiative to ensure that the person picking up sticks was publicly stoned. I believe it was a just law and related to covenant theology. It was not something he tolerated, he promoted it himself. Cheers. – Mike Jan 23 '13 at 5:28
  • @Mike It's certainly a less in depth response. That said, I think the answer is really this simple, if I understand the question correctly. There's no reason that God would mandate in accordance with the peoples' weakness in general (Mosaic Law) and not in particular (specific cases to specific people). – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 5:38
  • hmmmm...ok. I will see what else is posted..but good hit in the general case arguments. – Mike Jan 23 '13 at 6:05
  • @Mike I've made an addendum for you. Hopefully speaks more to what you're asking now. – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 6:26
  • +1 - I do not personally accept this argument as fully preserving the infallibility of scripture (at least as I believe it) I think God 'increased' the severity beyond the cultural norms, the people were reluctant to put people to death when it was justly commanded. However the answer is consistent with your general assumptions, clear, more defensible than many possible positions and basically a high quality answer, so I must at least upvote. – Mike Jan 23 '13 at 9:23

The stoning of the Sabbath breaker is a good example to show how the laws of Moses were very different from ANE laws, as well as different from the New Testament economy:

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36, NIV)

Notice the people did not have a desire to kill the man, which the Lord 'tolerated'. Instead they did not have a clue until 'the Lord said'.

There are a few reasons why this new form of severity under the Old Testament was suitable in the context. First, under the Law God intended fear and dread to restrain external sins as a prisoner, while increasing the inward desire to do so. The entire purpose of the Law was to make aware of sin and smash self-righteousness. In this way the Law led to Christ. Second, as the culture of the time had severity for things largely related to preserving one's possessions in pure secular concern, Israel needed to learn that laws of righteousness related to loving God (the first tablet) was more important and therefore the transgression more serious than sins of human social life (the second tablet).

Although mercy and love is made prominent as 'the greatest' from the beginning and not something that started in the gospel, their was no example of such love and mercy to weigh the scales against the natural fear and guilt under law until Christ exhibited its meaning in his death and redemption of sinners. This naturally has had its effect on the world's secular culture which has moved away further and further from the severity of ancient Laws. (Some Muslim countries who refuse to ponder the New Testament still seem to be lagging in this regard as they still maintain some principles of ancient laws).

Therefore the original severity of the laws of Moses 'may have' partly been tolerating the vicious nature of man as codified in ANE laws, however its additional pointedness and even more severity on religious respects for Jehovah arises directly from the divine word with no influence from without. Just as more mercy was found for the poor and the slaves in God's laws, compared to man's, so more severity and punishment was found in God's laws for disrespecting him, then in man's laws. In addition this severity in the cruelty of man's heart is arguably not separable from man's own hateful and angry sense of his own self under the guilt and condemnation if sin. As sinful man feels the sentence of death in his own conscience, he is more willing to inflict death on others.

As we arrive at the gospels, where the meek and mild Jesus lays his life down for his sheep, we truly enter a new era for both the church and the world under its new enlarged light. The truth is the ANE laws are basically irrelevant to the laws of Moses. Their aims are different, their values are ultimately man centered and godless. Although they do display some conscience and a dim reflection of God's laws in them, they are incredibly inferior poor. The primary reason why many of these laws 'seem' similar on the surface is that they address similar lifestyles with similar legal needs. The similar cultures needed to apply similar judgments between conflicting neighbors over similar controversies. The Laws of God put God in the center with a promise of a future and better covenant. The ANE laws, while protecting the powerful and rich with 'an eye for an eye', provide no future hope and no reverence for God.

  • +1 This touches on the missing/forgotten option 3 from my answer, with added insight into the deeper purpose of Mosaic Law over other forms of law, be they ANE laws or otherwise. If you don't mind, I'll very briefly take some inspiration from your answer and add an option 3 to mine: namely that sometimes God sincerely just needs to lay the smack down. – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 15:42
  • Honestly, I wish I could +1 again, just for the distinction you're making between Mosaic Law and other law. Incredibly important distinction. And something we're likely all taught at some point; but something that certainly wasn't anywhere near the top of my mind. – svidgen Jan 23 '13 at 15:53
  • @svidgen - cool, add option 3. cheers – Mike Jan 23 '13 at 23:01

There is one point of difference between the Mosaic law and ANE laws which I feel needs to be more fully explained. Whereas modern people look at "an eye for an eye" as being severe, in fact it was more fair than the laws in force at the time. It was stating that the punishment could not be more severe than the crime warranted. Example: a common punishment for theft (still found in Sharia law today) was cutting off the offender's hand. If nothing else, that cut down (no pun intended) on the number of repeat offenders! However, Mosaic law called for restitution, with a penalty added, to make the victim whole again. There is also an element of mercy that is not found in ANE law. Example 1: under Mosaic law the poor have a right to eat. Most people know that they were allowed to glean in the fields (Deu. 24:19-21), but few are aware that anyone could go into a neighbor's field and eat his fill (Deu. 23:24-25; they did not, however, have the right to carry anything away). Jesus' disciples did this in Luke 6:1-2. The Pharisees did not condemn them for theft, but for "harvesting" on the Sabbath. Example 2: an offender to be beaten could not be given more than 40 stripes so he was not humiliated (in practice the Jews never gave a full 40, so they would not exceed that number through a miscount; Paul received the "40 stripes save one" 5 times [2 Cor. 11:24])

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    Hi Robert - Welcome to c.se! I think all your observations are very true. On one hand their is more mercy, and prevention of revenge. This does not quite lead to an exact answer of the question, but it is very good observation. You might want to squeeze it into two comments under my question as showing 'extreme' is in some ways not that extreme. Cheers. Oh ... also suggest as you are new read Q&A – Mike Jan 30 '13 at 14:23

'Under an infallabillity of scripture belief, does this widespread and frequent use of capital punishment in ANE & Mosaic laws attest to an innate recognition of God's wrath under the Old Testament economy, or God's tolerance of cruel societies that coincidentally happened to steer towards a more merciful paradigm after the New Covenant? Or something else?'

We can see an illustration of the tolerance of God up to a point with the flood. This is also demonstrated with the promise of the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham only after the sins of the Amorites (Canaanites) reached a set level.

Genesis 15:16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

The Roman army knew that to control conquered territories, they needed harsh laws. This is because the natural man (without the indwelling Holy Spirit) will cause all sorts of trouble without the fear of lethal consequence. We see the exercise of this restraint in the near riot in Ephesus.

Acts 19:40 For we are in danger to be called in question for this day's uproar, there being no cause whereby we may give an account of this concourse.

The collective effect of Christianity called Western Civilization has proven to be un-transferable without Christ. Whenever democracy is given to Christ-less people, chaos ensues.

The secular mind mistakenly sees in Western Civilization the evolution of man to a more noble and civilized state. He sees education, welfare and the political condition of democracy as tools that achieve this progress.

When a brutal dictator is removed from Germany, things get better. When a brutal dictator is removed from Iraq, things get worse.

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