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Don’t Be a Snob to Your Ancestors!

When it comes to the Old Testament, just because modern sensibilities do not like something does not mean it must be false

Jimmy Akin

The Old Testament contains various laws that do not accord with modern sensibilities, which can generate Bible difficulties. There are a number of ways of resolving these. 

First, just because modern sensibilities do not like something does not mean that it must be false. The idea that our ideas today are automatically superior to those of the ancient world reflects a form of chronological snobbery; it needs to be asked whether the modern ideas are the problematic ones. Compared to people in the ancient world, we lead very soft and comfortable lives, and it is reasonable to ask whether some of our views may have consequently become unrealistic or even degenerate. 

Second, we should recognize that many of the laws in question are found in the Pentateuch (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy) and that they thus reflect an earlier stage of progressive revelation. Jesus himself indicated that Moses gave the Israelites some laws only because of the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:5). God was willing to tolerate certain practices among the Israelites for a time, though he ultimately revealed the fullness of his will through Christ. The difficulty caused by a particular law thus may be due to the fact it represents something God was tolerating since the Israelites had not yet reached a more advanced stage of cultural and spiritual development. 

Third, a careful reading of the legal texts shows that, rather than implying an endorsement, the law was actually trying to limit the damage caused in a situation. For example, some have been shocked by the regulations saying what Israelite men should do when they have captured women in battle and wish to marry them (Deut. 21:10-14), but the purpose of this law actually is to restrain what the men would otherwise do and to provide protections for the captive women.  

Thus, the men are not allowed to marry the women immediately. There is a waiting period in which the woman makes herself unattractive and mourns for her parents, giving the man a chance to reconsider (vv. 12-13). The text warns the man who still insists on marrying such a woman that he has “humiliated her” (v. 14), and if he decides to divorce her, then she has the right to go wherever she wants, including back to her own people. He is not allowed to sell her or treat her as a slave. The text thus seeks to restrain the way the Israelites treated captive women. 

Fourth, we should seek to understand the principles on which the laws were based. For example, many moderns criticize harsh-sounding Old Testament statements that speak of taking “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but, properly understood, the passages expressed a principle of justice and sought to promote the common good. 

Three passages mention the “eye for an eye” principle: Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:17-21, and Deuteronomy 19:16-21. The first deals with the case of men who are fighting and accidentally injure a pregnant woman, causing miscarriage. The second deals with a man who attacks and maims another. The third deals with a witness who lies in court to harm an innocent person. In each passage a similar formula occurs: “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:23-25). 

Note that these passages are intended to be used by a court when a crime has been committed. They aren’t instructions telling people to take personal revenge. The point of having a court system is to prevent people from doing that by seeing that justice is done when an innocent party is harmed. 

If people take their own revenge, they may often do so excessively. A person who has been wounded or seen a loved one wounded may kill the perpetrator, for example. Courts and laws exist to keep this from happening. To do their job properly, courts need to be seen as administering justice fairly. If they are too lenient, people may take matters into their own hands. Thus the “eye for an eye” passages. They direct courts to let the punishment fit the crime, which is a fundamental principle of justice. This principle promoted the common good and order of society by discouraging people from taking their own revenge. 

In a world without an extensive prison system, this may have literally meant “an eye for an eye,” though not always. Numbers 35:31 specifies that no ransom can be accepted in a case of murder, suggesting that in lesser cases the guilty party could pay compensation. A person thus might avoid “an eye for an eye” if he provided appropriate compensation to the injured party. 

Justice can also be tempered by mercy in other ways. Thus, Jesus counseled individuals to “turn the other cheek” rather than pressing for “an eye for an eye” justice (Matt. 5:38-39).

This article is adapted from the 20 Answers booklet “Bible Difficulties,” available for sale at the Catholic Answers shop.

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