Old Testament Morality

When the people of Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai, God gave them the 10 Commandments. But he gave them much more than simply a list of 10 rules of behavior. God also provided the following:

  • Rules concerning the construction and use of the altar (Exodus 20:21 – 26)
  • Rules and punishments concerning slaves (Exodus 21:1 – 11)
  • Punishments for acts of violence and for violation of the 10 commandments (Exodus 21:12 – 27)
  • Rules and punishments concerning property (Exodus 21:28 – 36)
  • Rules and punishments concerning restitution (Exodus 22:1 – 15)
  • Rules and punishments concerning religion and social behavior (Exodus 22:16 – 31)
  • Rules and punishments about justice (Exodus 23:1 – 9)
  • Rules concerning the Sabbath and the Sabbatical Year (Exodus 23:10 – 13)
  • The times of the feast of the unleavened bread, the harvest, and of the intergathering (Exodus 23:14 – 17)
  • Instructions for the making of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10 – 22), the Table of the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:23 – 30), a Lampstand (Exodus 25:31 – 40), the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1 – 14), the Framework (Exodus 26:15 – 30), the Curtain (Exodus 26:31 – 37), the Altar of Burnt Offering (Exodus 27:1 – 8), the Court of the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:9 – 19), the vestments for the priesthood (Exodus 28:1 – 4, Exodus 28:31 – 43), the Ephod (an apron worn by the chief priest) (Exodus 28:5 – 14), the breastplate (also worn by the chief priest) (Exodus 28:15 – 30), the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1 – 10), and the bronze basin (Exodus 30:17 – 21)
  • Rules concerning the burning of a lamp in the tent of meeting (Exodus 27:20 – 21)
  • Rules for the ordination of priests (Exodus 29:1 – 37)
  • Rules for the daily offering (Exodus 29:38 – 46)
  • Rules concerning the census and the levying of a tax for funding the sanctuary (Exodus 30:11 – 16)

The 10 commandments were accompanied specific punishments, though not in the same passage that lists the commandments. Here is how the sixth commandment is stated:

“You shall not kill.”

Exodus 20:13, Revised Standard Version (RSV)

And here is what God told Moses about how violations of this commandment should be punished:

“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him treacherously, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.”

Exodus 21:12 – 14, RSV

This passage clearly describes the difference between killing generally, and premeditated murder. Someone who has killed in self defense, for example, would qualify for this type of flight. To what sort of place would someone who has killed in self defense flee? They were to run to cities of refuge:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. And the cities which you give shall be your six cities of refuge. You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that any one who kills any person without intent may flee there.

Numbers 35:9 – 15, RSV

So anyone who killed another person in self defense would flee to one of the six cities of refuge and would apparently be tried by the congregation. These cities of refuge were only to be refuges for those who killed without intent:

“This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past– as when a man goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies– he may flee to one of these cities and save his life; lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and wound him mortally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past.

Deuteronomy 19:4 – 6, RSV

The manslayer was to appear before the entire congregation. Does that mean everyone living in the city of refuge? Or perhaps only the adult males? Is the manslayer allowed to present witnesses? Is the avenger allowed to present witnesses? Is the decision of guilt or innocence a matter of a simple majority vote? The book of Deuteronomy does not say.

The book of Leviticus adds another means by which an offender could avoid harsh punishment– the sin offering:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, if any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the LORD, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the LORD. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the tent of meeting; and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the LORD which is in the tent of meeting, and the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the door of the tent of meeting. And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall take from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the appendage of the liver which he shall take away with the kidneys (just as these are taken from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings), and the priests shall burn them upon the altar of burnt offering. But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung, the whole bull he shall carry forth outside the camp to a clean place, where the ashes are poured out, and shall burn it on a fire of wood; where the ashes are poured out it shall be burned.

Leviticus 4:1 – 12, RSV

The above passage describes a sin offering for an anointed priest. There were also other sin offerings, each with slightly different rules, for the entire congregation of Israel (Leviticus 4:13 – 21), the ruler of Israel (Leviticus 4:22 – 26), and for the common people (Leviticus 4:27 – 35). These rules are described as having been given to Moses by God, so they are every bit as much a part of the law as are the ten commandments.

The point of a sin offering is that the burning of the animal produced a pleasing odor to God:

And all its fat he shall remove, as the fat is removed from the peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it upon the altar for a pleasing odor to the LORD; and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.

Leviticus 4:31, RSV

There is nothing in the book of Leviticus that says that there was to be any process for determining whether a sin offering was suitable to a given offense. Here is what Exodus says about the punishment for violations of the fifth commandment (that to honor father and mother):

“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.”

Exodus 21:15, RSV

So let us suppose that a man strikes his father and permanently blinds him. Would the man be able to evade punishment by invoking the right of a sin offering for such an offense? Leviticus says yes, as sin offerings are described as applying to all of the stipulations of the law. If there is supposed to be some process whereby the priests determine that a sin offering cannot be applied in a specific case, the book of Leviticus does not say.

Each of the sin offerings describes the sacrifice of an animal “without blemish”. Who determines whether the animal provided meets that standard? The priests? Again, Leviticus does not say. And what if the offering goes awry somehow? Can a sin offering be rejected as having failed? Could God find that the odor of the burnt offering was not pleasing? If so, who makes that determination? Leviticus is silent on that too.

The ten commandments were written on the stone tablets (“tables” in the text) that were given to Moses:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

Exodus 34:27 – 28, RSV

But the laws given to Moses by God were far more extensive and complex than just those ten commandments. No doubt the remainder of the law was not included in the writings on the stone tablets because it simply wouldn’t fit. But it was every bit as much a part of the corpus of law given to Israel by God as are the commandments that were written on the stone tablets.

No modern society follows the practice of sin offerings. And the city of refuge has been replaced with the concept of a fair trial before a court of law. These elements of the God-given law of the Old Testament are obsolete, as are the rules about slavery. And they are also at odds with the teachings of Jesus, who argued for the forgiveness of all sins (except the sin of blasphemy against the holy spirit)– see Matthew 12:31. The laws and the morality of the Old Testament have historical and religious significance, but they have little relevance to modern society.

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore

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