Israelite Religion

Strictly speaking our exposition of the Mosaic Covenant is an exposition of Israelite religion. But because the Mosaic Covenant expresses God’s purpose for a nation, Israelite religion is in this sense normative for all nations. So our exposition has been highlighting the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant for today. But since what is normative was applied in the context of ancient Israel as a holy nation, there are elements in the religion that were applicable only within this context. A failure to recognize this has led to misunderstandings that some of the laws are unjust.

Leviticus 17 begins with the requirement that when they slaughter an ox, a lamb or a goat for food, they should do so at the Tabernacle as a Peace Offering. They were then living in tents around the Tabernacle. Recognizing that they were idolatrous in Egypt (Joshua 24:14), this was to ensure they would not fall back into superstition and worship “goat demons” in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 12, which anticipated their occupation of Canaan, removes this requirement, as it would not be practical for them to travel to the Tabernacle (later the Temple) every time they wanted to eat meat (verse 15). Also the stipulation in Exodus 20:24-26 on making an altar for offering sacrifices was only a temporary measure, until the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle. Hence a law may become obsolete even within the Old Testament itself, when the context changed.

This clearly shows that the laws that applied the Ten Commandments in the context of Israel need to be understood in the context they were given. In other words, a law may make sense only when understood within its specific context. If we impose our own context on it, we are doing it injustice. We must bear this in mind in reading the laws in the Old Testament. We now apply this principle by highlighting three thorny aspects of Israelite religion.

Religious Freedom

A superficial reading of the Old Testament may lead one to think that there was no religious freedom in ancient Israel. For if you happened to be born into an Israelite family you were bound by not only the Ten Commandments but also all the laws under the Mosaic Covenant. Under the Mosaic Law, worshipping idols was punishable by death. If you were born an Israelite you had no choice whatsoever but to worship the God of the Old Testament and in the manner prescribed. Or so it seems.

To address this apparent injustice we need to explore an aspect of Israelite religion ignored in Old Testament studies. It is the question of whether an Israelite individual or family could opt out of the religion at will. Since an Israelite who worshipped foreign gods could be put to death, could he opt out?

We have seen that when God presented the Mosaic Covenant to the nation at Mount Sinai they were given a choice as to whether they would be bound by this covenant. The people unanimously chose to do so. So there was religious freedom. The question then arises: what about future generations who did not participate in that choice? Since religion is a matter of personal conscience, why should they be bound by the choice of their forefathers? They did not choose to be born an Israelite to begin with.

It must be recognised that Israelite religion was bound up with a piece of land. God made it very clear that they must observe the Mosaic Covenant in order to enter as well as remain in the Promised Land. In fact, later in their history when they failed to do so despite repeated warnings, they were exiled to Assyria and Babylonia.

This aspect of Israelite religion has a very important implication on the question of religious freedom in the Old Testament. Since their occupation of the land was conditioned upon observing the Mosaic Covenant, any Israelite living in the land is deemed to have chosen to remain in the religion and be bound by the Mosaic Covenant. Anyone who chose to opt out of the religion must also opt out of the land. And there was no law that forbade an Israelite from leaving the land to leave the religion.

The book of Ruth indicates that an Israelite family could easily emigrate out of the Promised Land. In this particular case, they left the land and sojourned in Moab because of a famine and not because of a rejection of their religion. We can be certain that this example of emigration was not unique, as in ancient times people could freely leave their homeland and live in a foreign land (cf. Beckman 2013). Abraham emigrated from Ur to Haran before entering Canaan. And he went to Egypt to escape a famine. Moses, not only left Egypt, where he was born and raised, and lived with the Midianites, he even married the daughter of the priest of Midian. When David was on the run from Saul, he not only lived with the Philistines for a while, he even served in their army.

So an Israelite individual or family who wanted to worship the gods of Moab instead of the God of their forefathers could have freely emigrated to Moab for this very purpose. And the Mosaic Law was not applicable outside of the Holy Land (Vogt 2012: 134; cf. Deuteronomy 4:27-28). If they did not leave the land they were considered to have opted to remain in the religion and were therefore punishable by the relevant religious laws. So the blanket prohibition to worship foreign gods does not imply a lack of religious freedom in ancient Israel.

We are not aware of any religion practised today that is bound up with a piece of land. So it is easy for us to misunderstand the Old Testament on the subject of religious freedom.

Capital Punishment

In our exposition of the Noahic Covenant, we have already shown the reasonableness of capital punishment for premeditated murder, even in today’s context, when it is properly applied. What needs further clarification is capital punishment in the Old Testament for non-murder cases like idolatry and adultery. This seems unjust by today’s standards. How could capital punishment be just for these cases?

We need to look at the matter from two angles. Firstly, the laws were to be applied according to the dictum, “do justice and love mercy.” We saw that in the case of the negligent ox owner whose ox gored a person to death, though the stipulated penalty is death, he could redeem his life with money. This means a stipulated death sentence is to be understood as the maximum sentence for the respective violation. Depending on the mitigating factors, the sentence could be reduced. Only in the case of premeditated murder was it spelled out that the death penalty was non-negotiable (Numbers 35:31), “and this seems to be the force of the Deuteronomic phrase, ‘your eye shall not pity,’ in Deut. 19:13, and by analogy in 13:9 (idolatry); 19:21 (false witness); and 25:12” (Wenham 1979: 285).

We need to consider the two non-murder cases in the above list (idolatry and false witness) where the death penalty was spelled out as also non-negotiable (Deuteronomy 25:12 was not a case involving capital punishment, but the case of a peculiar crime requiring the cutting off of the offending hand). The case concerning idolatry was not just about worshipping foreign gods, but instigating others to worship foreign gods. So it was too serious to deserve mercy. And the case concerning false witness was not just about any perjury, but perjury in a case involving the death penalty, and thus it amounted to attempted murder. Hence, viewed in light of the dictum, “do justice and love mercy,” we can safely conclude that the death penalty was not to be applied indiscriminately.

Secondly, capital punishment in ancient Israel needs to be viewed from the angle that the holy God dwelled in their midst. In our exposition on the Tabernacle we have already considered the meaning and implications of God’s holiness. When God first appeared to the nation at Mount Sinai, He ordered that anyone who touched the edge of the mountain be put to death. For doing so desecrated His holiness. If we have problem with this, it simply means we have not appreciated the holiness of God as we should. And if violating God’s instruction by merely touching the edge of the mountain deserved death, what more violating the Ten Commandments?

But this is in the context of the holy God dwelling in the midst of the holy nation. Even then justice was to be tempered with mercy. Hence the death penalty for offences other than premeditated murder was and is not relevant outside of ancient Israel. Thus, when properly understood, capital punishment beyond murder made sense only in the specific context of ancient Israel as a holy nation.

Sexual Equality

As our exposition on Genesis 1-2 demonstrates, the equality of men and women as human beings made in the image of God is a fundamental teaching of the Bible. But there are some laws that seem to violate this teaching. We will look at three laws that seem to discriminate against women. We will use them to illustrate that, properly understood, such laws did not discriminate against women.

We begin by taking a look at the Fifth Commandment, which clearly upholds sexual equality: “Honor your father and your mother,” which is rephrased as “everyone of you shall fear (obey) his mother and his father” in Leviticus 19:2. Also, as we have seen in the case of the goring ox (Exodus 21:28-32), the life of a man and the life of a woman were considered equal in the eyes of the law. This shows that the basic assumption behind the Mosaic Law is sexual equality. Laws that seem to violate this assumption need to be evaluated in their specific context.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is about a law allowing a man to divorce his wife and writing her a certificate of divorce if “he is not pleased with her because he has found some indecency in her.” Presumably the supposed “indecency” is not adultery as this was covered by a harsher law. The certificate of divorce enabled her to remarry and be taken care of, but the law prohibited him from taking her back if she had remarried and later became divorced or widowed. In the modern context this law seems unjust as it made it so easy for a man to divorce his wife and it said nothing about a woman’s right to divorce her husband.

Jesus has helped us understand this law better when He reaffirmed the Old Testament teaching that divorce is against God’s will right from the beginning, and clarified that Moses had allowed divorce because of “your hardness of heart” (Mathew 19:8). In other words, if Moses had not allowed it, a husband intent on divorcing his wife would still do so secretly if he could, or would abuse her in one way or another. Divorce was thus allowed and regulated for her sake.

Also the husband was forbidden to take her back if she had remarried, even after the death of her second husband. This would have had the effect of preventing a frivolous divorce as well as promoting the recall of a rash decision before the woman remarried (Keil and Delitzsch 1981: 418). Since the law was meant to regulate what would actually happen, there was no need for a provision to allow a woman to divorce her husband. For in a premodern context, a wife wanting to divorce her husband would be unheard of. Even in a modern context, because of a woman’s desire for her husband (Genesis 3:16), she is less likely to want to divorce her husband.

A related law is found in Numbers 5:11-22. If a man suspected, without evidence, that his wife had committed adultery and felt jealous, whether she was actually guilty or not, he was to bring her before the priest. She would go through a “trial by ordeal” by drinking holy water and taking an oath before God. If she was innocent, nothing would happen; otherwise her belly would swell. Compare this with the life-and-death kind of trial by ordeal found in the Code of Hammurabi. A suspected adulteress was to throw herself into the Euphrates. It was assumed that if she was innocent she would survive, if not, she would drown in the river (section 132; cf. section 2).

Hence, seen in its premodern context, the perfectly harmless (if the woman was innocent) trial by ordeal in the Old Testament actually brought justice to women (cf. Ashley 1993: 122-24). It enabled an innocent wife to clear her name and save her marriage. To insist that the husband should not feel jealous without evidence is simply ignoring reality. The question then arises: why was there no similar provision for a woman to put her husband through the test? The obvious answer is that, like in the case of divorce, in their context such a law was not necessary.

Actually an Israelite woman who had adequate evidence that her husband was sleeping with another woman could put him through the test in most cases. All she needed to do was to inform the husband of the adulterous woman about it (unlike today most women then were married, and married young). He could then put his wife through the trial, thereby indirectly putting her partner through the test as well.

In both the laws just discussed, the (legal) rights of men, but not the corresponding rights of women, were spelled out. We have tried to explain that given their context and the fallen nature of men (Genesis 3:16), such cases actually did not discriminate against women. There is a law that provides a broader perspective to matters like this. In the Old Testament, like in other traditional cultures, inheritance, especially agricultural land, was passed down from father to sons. This made sense in an agricultural economy. Numbers 27:1-11 records the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad, who had died in the wilderness without sons. Since daughters did not inherit land, her family would get no land when they entered Canaan.

This seemed unjust even in their context. So Moses consulted God, who stipulated that they could inherit their father’s share of the land, but for practical purposes they should not marry outside their tribe (Numbers 36:6-9). For otherwise their land, which was part of the land allotted to their tribe, would be transferred to the tribe they married into. This stipulation then became law for all cases in the future where a man dies without sons. This example shows that laws that seem unjust in our context made sense in their context. And when it seemed unjust even in their context, adjustments could be made to rectify the problem. It also shows that the laws must be given the benefit of the doubt.

We now look at a law that seems to blatantly violate sexual equality. Numbers 30 is about vows made to God; we have discussed how seriously God views vows. A vow made by a man is binding on him. But a vow made by an unmarried woman could be annulled by her father, and one made by a married woman could be annulled by her husband (the annulment must be made on the day the man heard about it, otherwise the vow would stand). Why the apparent inequality?

Vows to God are usually made out of desperation and are thus costly and are most often made rashly (see verse 8). Most people regret making them, and would not honor them when the crisis was over (see Ecclesiastes 5:1-7). Hence it is a relief to have one’s vow annulled. The phrase “and the LORD will forgive her” is used repeatedly to stress that God would remove the guilt of the non-performance of the vow following the annulment (Ashley 1993: 575). Jephthah would wish his wife could annul his vow (Judges 11:29-40).

It would not make sense for both husband and wife to be able to annul vows. But why was there a need at all for a husband to be able to do so? Vows, being costly, are major commitments that affect the whole family. And as shown in our exposition of Genesis 1-2, a proper understanding of sexual equality means the husband bears the responsibility of having the final say in the family. This law simply applied this teaching. The fact that a vow made by a widow or a divorced woman “shall stand against her” (verse 9) shows that there was sexual equality on this matter. But this “equality” was a responsibility that a woman would be glad to be relieved of.

We have chosen to discuss these three laws not because they could be more easily explained, but because they seem to violate sexual equality more explicitly. Applying the principles used to explain these cases will also clarify the other laws that seem to discriminate against women.

The ground principle has been that we must understand a law in question in its own context. But because we are historically and culturally so remote from the world of the Bible, our access to the specific context is limited. This means, all the more we need to give the laws the benefit of the doubt. One way to overcome (partially) this limitation is to compare and contrast the law concerned with a corresponding law in the surrounding nations. We will likely see that in the context of the ancient Biblical world, the Israelite law was actually just and wise (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).

This principle is most productive with respect to the issue of slavery. Slavery in the Old Testament was of a very different kind than that of modern times. It served a just purpose, even to those who were enslaved (cf. Haas 2003: 780-82). For instance, a member of a family in serious financial need could be sold to meet the need, with the opportunity to be redeemed whenever the means became available. Even if not, the slave would be freed in the seventh year. In our exposition of Exodus 21-23 we saw that the laws governing the treatment of slaves were rather humane, especially when contrasted with those in the Code of Hammurabi.

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