God’s Law: too Harsh?

Critics of the Bible sometimes argue that at least some of God’s commandments are very harsh and unloving.  In particular, they often cite examples of Old Testament laws pertaining to penalties for certain crimes.  Adulterers could receive capital punishment (Leviticus 20:10).  Doesn’t that seem harsh by today’s mentality?  Or consider the stoning of rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21:18–21).  Doesn’t that seem just a bit extreme?  Moreover, the Bible seems to endorse slavery in a number of places (Exodus 21:2).  “How archaic!” says the critic.  “We all know that slavery is morally wrong!”  How are we to make sense of those aspects of God’s law that seem very harsh?

First of all, there is something very ironic about the critic having a moral criticism against God’s law.  Apart from God’s law, the critic has no basis for any kind of objective moral code.  His subjective feelings about morality are arbitrary and cannot logically have any objective binding force on others.  The critic is standing on the Christian worldview (to get justification for absolute morality) in order to criticize the Christian worldview (the very basis for morality).  God is our Creator and Judge; He alone sets the rules for our behavior.  It is God’s law that defines morality.  It is therefore impossible for God’s law to be immoral.  God’s standards will always measure up to God’s standards.

But what about the Christian who does understand that morality stems from the nature of God but is still uncomfortable with certain biblical laws?  Consider the Christian who says, “I know that God is good.  But that commandment seems to me to be too harsh.”  There are two possibilities here.  First, it may be that the person has misunderstood the law.  Many of God’s commandments have certain qualifications that make them not nearly as severe as we might first infer from a cursory glance.  Let’s look at two examples of this.

The stoning of rebellious sons is one such Scripture that makes some Christians uncomfortable.  Many people imagine this to be too harsh because they have ignored the qualifications that the Bible itself gives.  They imagine a little child mouthing off to his parents, and then being killed for it.  But this isn’t at all what the Bible teaches.  First of all, the law applied to sons, not children.  It appears to refer to young adults who were still living with their parents.  From context (Deuteronomy 21:18) we can see that this penalty of stoning was not for a single action, but was for someone who had been punished many times (“when they chastise him”) and yet still continued in disobedience (“he will not even listen to them”).  It was for someone who was constantly drunk and disobedient (Deuteronomy 21:20), someone who was continually cursing (Exodus 21:17) and even physically attacking (Exodus 21:15) his own parents.  For such an evil individual, God instructed him to be delivered to the city authorities for public execution.

Such an action is very serious, and it was meant to be.  The public execution of such an individual was supposed to act as a deterrent to others (Deuteronomy 21:21—“and all Israel will hear of it and fear.”)  How many such executions would people have to see before they got the point?  Interestingly, I cannot find any Scriptural references to this punishment ever having been actually implemented.  Perhaps it was, but my point is that it seems to have been uncommon.  Just the threat of this penalty apparently acted as an effective deterrent.  It was an extreme penalty for the most extreme, continuous rebellion of the most evil and violent young men.  And it was only to be used as a last resort to protect society from unrestrained violence.  Proverbs 19:18 states “Discipline your son while there is hope, And do not desire his death.”

The biblical model of slavery is another very misunderstood principle.  Perhaps some of the confusion comes from the history of slavery as it occurred in the United States; that type of slavery was not biblical.  The Bible never condones racial or brutal slavery—the kind that was experienced in our nation.  However, the Bible does indeed endorse a type of “slavery.”  And when we read the relevant Scriptures in context, we see that it is quite different from what many people think.  Biblical slavery was designed to help a financially irresponsible Israelite get out of debt and become a responsible worker.  Here is how it was designed to work:

Those people who were very financially irresponsible, and had accumulated so much debt that they could not possibly pay it off, could request to become the slave of a wealthy individual (Leviticus 25:39; Genesis 47:19).  If the wealthy individual agreed, he would pay off all the person’s debts and provide for him, and then the servant would work for the individual for some period of time apparently proportional to the amount of debt (Leviticus 25:50) but not to exceed seven years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12).  When the period of time had expired, the servant was set free, and the wealthy person was required to give him enough start up supplies so that he could begin his own business (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).  The Israelite slave was to be treated respectfully (Leviticus 25:43) and was immediately granted freedom if mistreated (Exodus 21:26–27).

It’s really a very generous system.  Help a financially irresponsible person to become responsible by (1) paying off his debts and providing for him, (2) training him by having him work for a period of time, (3) giving him sufficient startup capital to start his own business.   It’s not quite what most people think, is it?  I would suggest that the biblical system is far superior to our modern welfare system.

So misunderstandings of God’s law may account for some of the discomfort.  But then again, some Christians may say, “Yes, I do understand those qualifications.  But it still just seems to me to be too harsh.  I think that all slavery is wrong.  And no one should ever receive capital punishment.”  We will deal with this in the next entry.

4 Responses to God’s Law: too Harsh?

  1. David lane says:

    My apologies for posting this in the wrong thread. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive my transgression upon this thread.

  2. taka no mi says:

    ” Biblical slavery was designed to help a financially irresponsible Israelite get out of debt and become a responsible worker. Here is how it was designed to work:”
    that law only applied to the hebrews , the bible says you can still treat and own non-jews as property
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MFmC6BD1B4

  3. the_ignored says:

    Lisle
    First of all, there is something very ironic about the critic having a moral criticism against God’s law. Apart from God’s law, the critic has no basis for any kind of objective moral code.
    Ignoring again every other religious and superstitious belief under the sun and just blindly assuming again that xianity is the accurate religion…

    [Dr. Lisle: I have yet to find a religion, aside from Christianity, that can rationally account for objective, universal morality. If you think there is one, go ahead and make your case. Of course, this would only work if you accept that religion as true. Otherwise, this is just a red herring.]

    His subjective feelings about morality are arbitrary and cannot logically have any objective binding force on others.
    So the entire xian moral code is “might makes right”?

    [Dr. Lisle: It is hard to see how you could have drawn that conclusion. We are morally obligated to our Creator because He is our Creator. In the Christian worldview, we have a very good reason to behave according to the rules our Creator has made for us. In the secular worldview, we’re just chemical accidents. What one chemical accident does to another is morally irrelevant.]

    Biblegod can (in theory) assert his control over all of us, so that’s how the xian version of morality is “logical”?

    [Dr. Lisle: God is in control of the universe. But He allows us to rebel against His decrees if we so chose, and He will allow us to reap the consequences of such sins, if we continue in them without repenting. In the secular worldview, there can be no such thing as justice or morality. When baking soda reacts with vinegar, it is neither “right” nor “wrong.” It just is. Chemistry does what chemistry does – without freedom of choice.]

    How’s about giving a

    [profanity removed. Profanity/vulgarity is not permitted on this site and may result in users being banned.]

    about others welfare? Caring about the hurt that others may go through?

    [Dr. Lisle: Certainly we should care for others – they are made in the image of God. And God has commanded us to care for others (Mark 12:31). But if people are just chemical accidents, then it makes no sense why we should care for them. Do you care for a mud puddle? It’s a chemical accident too. Your concern for others is commendable; but it only makes sense if Christianity is true.]

    Oh right, that’s just subjective.

    [Dr. Lisle: It’s not just subjective (in your worldview), it is irrational. Why would you arbitrarily care for some chemical accidents, while simultaneously not caring for others – like a mud puddle?]

    [vulgarity removed.]

    Xians don’t have any “objective” moral code: If you can say, as Josef has, that NOT killing babies would be immoral if god were to tell you to do it, a la Susan Smith, yet still proclaim that you are “pro-life”, you do not have a consistent moral code, much less an “objective” one.

    [Dr. Lisle: It seems that you don’t know what “objective” means. “Objective” means that it is not relative to the person, but applies to everyone equally. In the Christian worldview, morality is objective because it is exactly the same for everyone. Namely, we are to do what our Creator instructs us to do. It really isn’t that hard to grasp.]

    When you say things like “what god does is good by definition THAT is subjective morality right there.

    [Dr. Lisle: It seems that you don’t know what “subjective” means. “Subjective” means that it is relative to the individual subject – like a person’s favorite color. Any morality that stems from the biblical God cannot be subjective because God is sovereign over the universe; hence what is “right” for me is also “right” for you.]

    A true system of objective morality would have god not doing things (ie. baby-killing) because it is wrong in and of itself.

    [Dr. Lisle: This is an irrational view. It would place a moral standard above a sovereign God – but if something is above God then He wouldn’t be truly sovereign. And that morality could never be justified – namely WHY is something considered “wrong in and of itself”?]

    (you know, taking the victims’ perspective into account here?) If something becomes “good” just because some being SAYS it is, then it’s just subjective. Subjective to the whims of this being.

    [Dr. Lisle: God is not just “some being.” He is the sovereign Lord of all that is, and is our Creator to whom we are morally obligated. Moreover, God isn’t whimsical (Malachi 3:6). Since His decrees are necessarily universal by the nature of His being, morality that stems from God is necessarily objective.]

    Not that hard to understand.

    [Dr. Lisle: I wouldn’t have thought so either. But you continue to confuse these basic issues.]

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