[This post has related or continuing thoughts from this post.]
The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament of the Bible have some sections with laws, codes, and instructions in it. Certain of these laws seem downright bizarre, strange, or morally disturbing. I’ve seen some of these odd laws used to make a laughing stock of the Bible or to show it to be misogynistic or morally reprehensible. Simple examples are the instruction not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk, or to mix the fabrics of wool and linen together. What in the world? Not all of the laws or instructions are odd – for example, the Ten Commandments contain basic ethical principles that transcend across time.
But what about the weird or morally disturbing rules? We need to remember that these are ancient eastern laws from over 3,000 years ago. The Bible is the only ancient book most people have on their bookshelf. There are other ancient laws and legal codes from antiquity such as the Code of Ur-namma, Code of Eshnunna, Code of Hammurabi, Hittite Law Code, and Middle Assyrian Laws. I don’t think anyone except specialized scholars have these on their bookshelf! If we were to look through these other ancient codes and laws, I’m sure we’d also find some odd and disturbing things. The Bible is put in a unique position because it is the only one still widely available to everyday people. It is a rather unique situation to pick up a book that contains laws from over 3,000 years ago!
If today, we were able to put together a sampling of modern laws and judicial decisions and send them back in time 3,000 years – I am certain that these ancient people of long ago would find some of our modern laws downright bizarre or repulsive too.
All laws are written within a culture and reflect the culture. In order to understand them, we need to take the time to understand the culture and historical situation. The ancient near eastern culture was polytheistic, patriarchal, polygamist, and prostitution was common. (Hmm…all those start with P!) Women were considered property and treated harshly. The worship of some false gods included things like the sacrifice of babies and young children. In the fertility cults, sexual activity was part of their worship.
Into this harsh reality, God stepped in to call out a special people unto himself. Some of the laws in the Old Testament were not to create an ideal society, but were to soften the worst effects and harshness of already existing practices. My regular readers know I’m a bit of a Christian feminist, and sensitive about the rights and treatment of women. Some of the laws regarding the treatment of women are disturbing. Yet, one of my professors (Dr. James Allman) explained that some of the Old Testament laws were not establishing new practices, but regulating already existing ones in the culture. While some laws seem very hostile to women, there is actually a degree of humanitarianism as the laws are mitigating some of the miserable treatment of women in the culture at that time.
And what about some of these random odd rules about not boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk, or mixing the fabrics of wool and linen together? There are different theories and ideas here. Archeology can sometimes shed light on these issues, but not always. Sometimes scholars must make educated guesses. Avoiding idolatry was critical for the Israelites. They were to avoid any of the practices or rituals associated with pagan deity worship. It could be that boiling a young goat or the mixing of wool and linen was associated with pagan rituals, and therefore they were to avoid these things.
I realize this post is written in more of a general sense, but I hope it might help bring a little perspective. Many aspects of the Bible transcend across time and transfer easily to our modern day. As we read historical narratives, it can be comforting to realize that families deal with some of the same problems now as back then. Yet, the Bible also took place in an ancient setting and some things, like certain laws, are unique to that culture and time.
Instead of making fun or discrediting the Bible, we need to remember that the Bible must be read a little differently than other books. It is highly unusual that we have such an ancient text so well preserved and widely available. It is an amazing gift to have the history of God’s work in this world recorded for us. Let’s try to respect this gift.
**If you are interested, here is another post with a worthwhile quote from Philip Yancey on this topic. **