Morality and the Old Testament Law: Seven Quick Points
Saints and Sceptics
When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that we need the Bible to have moral knowledge. God himself, not the scriptures, is the ground of morality, right and wrong, good and evil! The apostle Paul was quite clear: a person can know deep moral truths even if they have never heard the scriptures. Romans 2 and 1 Corinthians 5 . (Note that these passages also assume that unbelievers often obey the moral law when those who know the scriptures do not!)
The point of the moral argument is not that atheists cannot have moral knowledge or a moral code. Rather, the concern is that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. To illustrate, I might know that positrons exist by reading a few science textbooks. But because I am not a trained physicist, I cannot explain why they exist.
Still, some might argue that the Christian scriptures contain too many strange and apparently uncivilised commands; surely a good God could not have inspired them? Surely a good God would have inspired something like the UN Declaration of Human Rights; why would we consider the Old Testament law codes to be inspired when they contain so many strange, bizarre and draconian commands?
1) First, the Old Testament laws need to be read in a narrative context. The Bible tells the story of God’s saving activity. Briefly, God calls a people; then that people receive a messiah who will deliver the rest of the world. The law was not given, then, to turn the Israelites into morally perfect, enlightened civilization. No set of laws could accomplish that! The human hearts must be renewed from within; it cannot be reformed by enforcing a set of laws established on high.
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No set of laws can create a utopia because we mostly prefer rebellion to obedience, darkness to light. The law is not meant to be a blueprint for a perfect society; it is important, rather, because it is has a crucial role in Israel’s story. It brought Israel into a deeper covenant with God; marked Israel out as a separate and special people; taught Israel about the Holiness of God; taught Israel to depend on God; set the nation of Israel on a path that God would use for his purposes; and prepared the way for God’s messiah.
2) Second, the Old Testament needs to be read in its historical context. We can then see how God directed Israel on to a better path. It is not only that the heart of the law is to love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. We should note the similarities between the Old Testament law and other ancient Near Eastern “law codes”, such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. We will then see the striking improvements made by the law given to Israel.
For example, there is no concern for the immigrant in the Hammurabi code. Also, if someone was building a house and it collapsed and killed a child, then the builder’s child was also to be killed. There is nothing like that in the Old Testament laws. God takes a people by the hand, taking them on a path from the norms that they are used to, and have lived with for generation, to a better and higher moral vision…