When it comes to Judeo-Christian beliefs, one focus of the skeptic’s ire is the presumed dictatorial nature of the Old Testament law. When they aren’t tsk-tsk-ing about the laws that dealt with slavery, marital faithfulness and idolatry they are guffawing over the legal minutia surrounding food preparation and personal hygiene. The nexus of this criticism really centers around personal freedom – how could Jews and Christians see morality in law that is so personally restrictive and antithetical to the pursuit of personal happiness?
And yet, as we look at our own society, we have to admit that such criticisms are at least hypocritical, if not downright contradictory. Our own jurisprudence is certainly more widely restrictive when considering the range of behaviors it deals with. We have laws that deal with every aspect of our lives from food production to building codes, how we run our businesses to how we are able to transport ourselves. In terms of sheer volume, when one considers every aspect of our law from Federal codes down to those which govern municipalities or even neighborhoods, the volume of law we encounter each day renders miniscule the mere 600 some-odd statutes in Mosaic law.
And while it could be argued that the majority of laws in the Old Testament derived from certain moral principles that applied to the entire Israelite society, our law is increasingly driven by a patchwork of special interests and political gain. One might decry the stoning of an individual for idolatry as draconian, but one couldn’t argue it was motivated by greed or personal advancement.
And while the average citizen of Israel’s past might be expected to adhere to certain customs, his lack of obedience was only problematic if others took the time to drag him or her before a judge and provided witnesses or evidence to wrongdoing. Now there are large entrenched government agencies whose entire purpose is to seek out wrongdoing and prosecute it with all the force and authority of a national government. A citizen in effect pays to be prosecuted but rarely has the resources to fight against such an agency should the piercing eye of the bureaucracy land on him. A mere accusation is punishment in and of itself.
And it is less than clear that our freedom from the moral law of the OT actually leads to the personal happiness we desire. We have entire urban areas where immorality and promiscuity are so common that marital fidelity is the exception, places which are marred by entrenched poverty, crime and violence. Coveting isn’t stigmatized in our society, but considered a virtue that primes the economic pump – driving individuals and governments into overwhelming debt which threatens everyone’s prosperity. And in lieu of precepts requiring us to honor our parents and discipline and instruct our children, we have created costly and often ineffective agencies to do the job for us.
While many skeptics consider the penalty for transgressing certain OT laws to be too severe, the reality is the consequences of our modern ideas of personal ‘freedom’ are certainly as costly, if not more so. The difference here is that while the Biblical penalty was directly attached to the individual committing the crime, the current consequences of our choices effect all of society – and often the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the suffering.
Take the impact of promiscuity, adultery and no-fault divorce. We consider ourselves superior because we have few if any laws regulating such behavior – we have no legal penalties to fear, unlike denizens of ancient Israel. And yet, these behaviors are primary factors behind poverty, crime, and violence. Women and children and the elderly are victims of a society that disregards familial fidelity. Millions suffer in poverty and thousands are exploited and die violent deaths because of the violence that is born out of such choices. It is difficult to insist in light of this suffering that our lack of a penalty is superior to the penalties proscribed in Scripture.
I think it’s legitimate to question whether Old Testament law, much of which surrounded the Levitical priesthood and the civil structure of Israel is applicable in modern society. As a Christian I am certain much of it isn’t. What the modern secular West can’t do is pretend it has developed a superior set of laws to that articulated in the Old Testament in terms of moral clarity, ease of application to everyday lives, fairness or harm done to the most vulnerable segments of society.