“I don’t agree with some of the things the Bible says.”
“Oh ok, can you give me an example?”
“Well, you know…some of the laws in the Old Testament are pretty offensive.”
“Ok, like what?”
“Well…I haven’t actually read the Bible myself…”
I’d say that’s a fair paraphrase of a common conversation I’ve had with many people. They’ve heard that the Bible is offensive. They’ve been told to believe that God’s laws in the Old Testament are outdated and a violation of fundamental human rights. But they’ve never really investigated for themselves. And often if they have, all that means is they looked up some Internet lists of verses which have either been taken completely out of their context or intentionally misrepresented.
After hearing a variety of people make these kinds of complaints about the Bible, I decided to try and investigate with an open mind myself. I read through the entirety of the Old Testament law from start to finish, reading specifically to understand the laws God gave to the people of Israel and the motivation behind them. I was certainly surprised, that’s for sure. I was surprised at how loving the laws turned out to be. I was actually a little in awe of how different the Old Testament law is from how it is commonly presented in mainstream culture and media. It seemed very clear to me that many people had come to the Old Testament with their mind already made up and then looked for ways to justify their preconceived notions, rather than truly wanting to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Over the last couple of months, we have begun a series investigating common objections against the Old Testament. First, we saw that the claim that God committed genocide in the Old Testament is actually invalid and untrue. Second, we investigated whether the God of the Old Testament is really the polar opposite of the God of the New Testament, and found this claim to be equally as mythologized. Now, we turn our attention to the laws God gave to Israel. Are they truly as offensive as they are made out to be?
Now, we can’t cover the entire Old Testament law in one post. So let’s start where God starts: the Ten Commandments. It is interesting to me that so many people claim the Old Testament law is so unforgivable, but rarely do you hear a complaint against the Ten Commandments, the very first commands given to Israel and widely referred to in our culture as a summary of everything which comes after them. Let’s take a look.
1. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Alright, that seems fair. God dramatically rescues the Israelites from their lives of slave labour and then follows that up with “Don’t worship any other gods. They’re not worth your time.” I can get on board with that. Don’t put anything or anyone before God because he deserves first place in our lives. Doesn’t seem so unfathomable after that same God has just so clearly demonstrated his care for you. This isn’t some power trip. God isn’t seeking to just control the masses. He loves his people and wants what is best for them. Which happens to be him. You know, the author of life and all.
2. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Now we’re talking. Don’t worship anything that’s not God. I get that. You don’t ascribe ultimate worth to the product rather than to the Designer. But a jealous God? Visiting iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations? People struggle with that, and understandably so. Let’s be clear that jealous in this context means God is the only one worthy of our worship, so worshiping his creation instead is pretty offensive. It’s hurtful, actually. God wants us to experience his goodness, but instead we often choose to give the credit he’s due to objects. It’s like giving all the credit for that awesome-tasting roast beef dinner to the oven rather than to the person who made it.
Punishing three or four generations for the sins of their ancestors is a little tougher to swallow. That does seem a little unfair to me, if I’m honest. What I think God is demonstrating here is just how serious and far-reaching rebellion against him is. It’s a much bigger deal than we make it out to be. It’s cosmic treason. The effects of leading your family away from God catch your children and their children and their children in the consequences. Interestingly, God later tells Israel not to punish children for the sins of their parents, so clearly this is not a mandate of punishment, but rather an acknowledgement of the severity of our foolish treason.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”
Most often, this command is interpreted to mean “Don’t use God’s name as a curse word.” I think that’s a valid application, but the real point here is not to take the name of the Lord in vain, as opposed to just saying it. In other words, don’t call yourself by God’s name, don’t call yourself a follower of God, if those are just empty words. Don’t give God a bad rep by associating him with behaviour which is not reflective of who he is. Nobody likes to be misrepresented.
4. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant, or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
God commands us, Heaven forbid, to rest one day a week. He commands us both not to be lazy (six days you shall labour) and not to overwork (but the seventh day is a sabbath…in it you shall not do any work). Definitely not a taskmaster.
5. “Honour your father and mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord God gives you.”
Don’t disrespect your parents, and give them the honour they’re due for giving birth to you and raising you. This doesn’t mean do absolutely everything they say even if they’re abusive. It means respect. That’s certainly something the up-and-coming generation could do with a little more of.
6-10. “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
So, you know, basically don’t be a jerk. Don’t kill people. Don’t sleep with somebody who’s not your wife or husband. Don’t take stuff that’s not yours. Don’t lie about the people around you (which interestingly goes beyond just deceit to gossip), and don’t be jealous of things that aren’t yours.
We can summarize all of this by saying that God wants us to: put him first in our lives (because he cares for us), give him more credit than the stuff he created, not misrepresent him, rest one day a week, respect our parents, and not be a jerk to the people around us. All of this sounds reasonable to me. In fact, it sounds loving. And most of the rest of God’s law in the Old Testament elaborates on the specifics of what not being a jerk to people means so that people won’t find loopholes.
We’ll continue to look at specific laws given in the Old Testament in future weeks. For now, hopefully we can agree that the first 10 don’t quite fit the description of offensive or outdated. The world (and our lives) would be a much better place if we kept all of these laws perfectly.
Of course, we can’t. That’s the whole point. The apostle Paul wrote that the law only exists in order to show us how much we fall short of keeping it, so that we will recognize our need for forgiveness through the perfect life, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So how do you think you’re doing at keeping the Ten Commandments?
 Exodus 20:2-3 (New American Standard Bible).
 Exodus 20:4-6 (NASB).
 Deuteronomy 24:16 (NASB).
 Exodus 20:7 (NASB).
 Exodus 20:8-11 (NASB).
 Exodus 20:12 (NASB).
 Exodus 20:12-17 (NASB).
 Galatians 3:19-24 (NASB).