Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What about those Old Testament laws on physical relations between adults?

I saw a meme the other day about the bible and marriage referencing OT passages on physical relations between men and women. The meme gave the message that the bible promotes traditional marriage (nuclear family), marriage via death of your brother (husband dies and has a brother then the wife marries the bro-in-law), polygamy, slave marriage, stoning a woman who wasn't truly a virgin, etc. First off, I would argue that everything that is in the OT wasn't condoned by God. Second, we also have to, have to, have to, (did I mention "have to") have to remember Israel was under a theocracy and not a democracy. Israel wasn't a constitutional republic, pure democratic government, or any man-centered government; they were under God's government. This point is a good point to remember even if God didn't/doesn't exist and Israel was mistaken about their God because they were operating a totally different society than what many of us live in today regardless of whether God exists or not. I'm not a professional theologian or bible scholar, but the previous two points seem like good points to keep in mind when we come across these OT passages that hit us pretty hard in the gut.

What about the following for traditional marriage between a man and a woman? According to the meme the bible has the following regulations for the nuclear family: interfaith marriages forbidden, wives subordinate to husbands, arranged marriages, and this is added just for fun I'm sure: a bride who couldn't prove her virginity was stoned to death.

Interfaith marriages forbidden 

Interfaith marriages were forbidden for Israel because they were under a theocracy so what obviously follows from that is those under the theocratic rule were not allowed to marry those who didn't worship Jehovah God. I understand that God's purpose with Israel was to set them apart from surrounding societies of the time to show their external difference from the surrounding societies. Such a structure required a lot of external challenges for the Israeli of that time. It required sacrifice like not marrying those outside of the religion. If Israel had established a democratic society then yes they would have been able to legally marry those who weren't of the same religion. Theocracies don't give you the options democracies do.

Wives subordinate to husbands

Israel isn't the only religion or society guilty of this one. People take this to the extreme like the husband drags the wife around by her hair (maybe a husband has done that - it's possible). I think Paul explained this the best by saying the husband is to love his wife selflessly and the woman is to submit to the husband. The husband is the representative of the marriage before God. If the husband loves his wife selflessly then the woman will gladly submit because the husband is loving his wife in a selfless way, i.e. protecting her, cherishing her and taking care of her better than he takes care of himself. This doesn't mean the husband is to be a pushover, but I think this is another way of establishing the husband and wife as a team and promotes healthy selfless love.

Arranged marriages

This wasn't uncommon back then or even today. An arranged marriage, arguably, wasn't a unique idea that Israel originated, nor is this surprising given that Israel was a theocracy and not a democracy. In a democracy the individual is free to choose his own life whereas in a theocracy the individual is part of a collective under the rule of their god(s) who charts their life for them. Some theocracies, maybe Israel, probably extend the authority of arranging marriages to the parent(s) and/or elders of the society.

 A bride who couldn't prove her virginity was stoned to death

This is a passage that I, as a classical liberal, am not at all comfortable with accepting or promoting this law. Please don't think I will try to explain this verse away (Deut. 22:21). When we come across verses like this one (there are a few like it in Deuteronomy) we have to remember that Israel was treated differently than NT Christians. OT Israel was under a theocracy, more specifically, they were ruled by a perfectly righteous God who wanted his people to be different from the surrounding societies who practiced free sex. Israelites were only to have sex within heterosexual marriages. Fornication, multiple sex partners, and the like were not tolerated by God as actions for his people to make. The consequence of breaking his law was not just a slap on the wrist. He wanted his people to be different from other societies.

The meme mentions polygamy, which as I understand wasn't specifically endorsed by God as something he wanted Israel to practice. There are five (6) things to consider when reading the OT (this is an excerpt from the Apologetics Study Bible.)
Narratives describe what happened, not what was necessarily approved.
  1. We assume wrongly that if a story is in scripture, it must be "what God wanted."
  2. Biblical narrators dealt with the real world, with all its corrupt and fallen ambiguity.
  3. Shouldn't mistake realism for ethical approval.
  4. OT stories challenge us to wonder at God's amazing grace and to patience in continually working out His purposes through such morally compromised people.
  5.  OT stories challenge us to be discerning in evaluating their conduct according to standards the OT itself provides
These are excellent points to remember when reading the OT narratives. Every verse in the OT is not a divine command from God, most are describing an account of an event that happened. My continual use of the theocratic government reason for these shocking laws in the OT is not in any way an attempt at approving these laws or an attempt to act like atrocities didn't happen under that government; what I want to do is to treat the OT like any historical document understanding the dating, historical context and what the society was like, i.e., put my self in the time and setting of the author of the historical documents instead of trying to read and understand the documents through the lenses of my society and time. If we keep the above points in mind and also the form of government that Israel was under when reading the OT, it will be a huge benefit for our understanding of the OT. 

Related posts

Is God a Moral Monster? This audio deals with OT stuff.


  1. Yeah, when people quote "embarrassing" OT passages, like the ones dealing with polygamy or others (Lot and his daughters ad nauseum), I have to wonder if they've really done critical thinking on it. That might work against someone who believes in "evan-jellyfish" Christianity, but not someone who knows their scripture. God's word doesn't mince words about how fallen humanity is and what fallen humanity might do, but that doesn't mean He approves it. It makes as much sense as saying a historian who wrote on the Holocaust must love all that happened in the concentration camps, and basing this argument solely on the fact that the historian made mention of what went on in the camps.

  2. I agree with you. Also, when skeptics of the bible and co. bring up verses in conversation with Christians who may only know the NT like, "Yeah, you say God is love and all, but what about Deut. 22:21?" Such a question throws the new Christian off balance and he's unable to answer. Such an event makes the skeptic proud, but after closer inspection I think it's evident he shouldn't feel proud. The guy acts like all Christians should know the OT in and out; if they don't then they're not worshiping the "real" God of the bible. Such an idea is ludicrous I think because Christians aren't historical Israelites you know? Paul and the Apostles didn't evangelize or make disciples using the whole bible because the bible wasn't around back then (yeah, I know they OT was completed, but they didn't have the NT) instead they gave the gospel. I don't know why the standard should be different today. New Christians don't know the entire bible, but they were persuaded of the gospel which covers the basics of Christianity: God, man, Jesus, cross, and resurrection. If a new Christian doesn't know about Deut. 22:21 that doesn't mean at all that he isn't worshiping the God of the bible.

    Another thing: the bible isn't a book of isolated verses that are divine commands from God. I wish skeptics and bible haters would realize this.


Reformed Seth appreciates and encourages your comments, but we do have guidelines for posting comments:

1. Avoid profanities or foul language unless it is contained in a necessary quote.

2. Stay on topic.

3. Disagree, but avoid ad hominem attacks.

4. Threats are treated seriously and reported to law enforcement.

5. Spam and advertising are not permitted in the comments area.