Awhile back I had a post entitled: “Understanding Weird or Disturbing Old Testament Laws.” It was emphasized that all laws are written within a culture and reflect the culture. In order to understand them, we must take time to understand the cultural and historical situation. The ancient near east was polytheistic, patriarchal, and polygamist – among other things. 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.
In a book I read by Philip Yancey last year, he shares some similar thoughts which I will quote below:
I detect in the Old Testament a gradual but certain movement toward grace. The Hebrews lived in wild, barbaric times. Their laws, which may seem harsh to us, represent a great softening compared to their neighbor’s laws. They established basic rules of warfare and enshrined in their laws respect for the poor and care for the environment. They set limits on revenge and built Cities of Refuge. We must remember, as we look back on a time of blood-vengeance, slavery, polygamy, and contract marriage with a brother’s wife, that God had to work with people’s moral condition at its given stage. In the writings from this period lay the seed, but only the seed, of God’s grace. “These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” Jesus told the Torah-readers of his day, then added pointedly, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
“As nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to lisp when speaking to us”, said John Calvin. In the Old Testament especially, God lisped. Speaking in language that could be understood, God gradually edged his people toward a different way. He took the side of the oppressed and promised a Suffering Servant who would redeem not as the perpetrator but as the victim of violence. For a time he allowed behavior that he disapproved of, “because your hearts were hard.” Meanwhile, albeit sometimes in zigzag fashion, the long vectors of history pointed steadily toward his Son, Jesus, the final revelation of God in human form. In Jesus, God no longer lisped; the Word spoke loud and clear.
– from The Bible Jesus Read, by Philip Yancey, pages 12-13