How To Defend OT Harsh Laws?

I find those passages on herem war very challenging as well. For example, in Numbers 31 when God commanded the Israelites to do battle against Midian, they killed every man but took the women and children prisoner. But Moses was angry at them for not also killing the women and male children:

7They did battle against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and killed every male. 9 The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty….14 Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? 16 These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the LORD in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. 17 **Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. **

So are you saying that we can’t tell right from wrong, just from unjust without it having to be spelled out for us? For instance, are you saying we wouldn’t know that it is wrong to murder someone if it wasn’t in the Ten Commandments?

You make a good point.
Statements of the law are not the only source of morality. God reveals himself through nature and imprints the law of love on our hearts. The moral law is written on the hearts of man.

We are blessed to have the scriptures, but we do not need scripture alone to tell us that murder is wrong. We do not need scripture to tell us that ignoring the hungry is wrong. We do not need scripture to tell us that human existence comes from the union of a man and woman. Before scripture was, Satan (the deceiver) whispered in the ear of humanity and pulled them away from what their own eyes and ears received from God.

You make a good point. The problem comes when we pick and choose to ignore what is revealed, and to accept a deception instead.

Well said! :thumbsup:

Well, if you study what the Israelites did when they turned from God you might understand a bit better. Sacrificing children to idols for instance, deserves an extremely harsh response!

1.) When the Israelites failed to drive out or destroy the inhabitants, the end result was that they turned from God and became utterly depraved. You cannot live in a pagan culture without being influenced by that culture - unless you become a hermit.
2.) I think we forget how incredibly evil these cultures had become. They make the worst modern cultures look timid in comparison.

You **need to be careful **in deciding what is actually a universal law in the bible and what just applied to the Jews at one single point in time, given their particularly harsh situation at the moment in history. Just like military law is extremely harsh in times of war today, the law in the OT could be very harsh at specific moments as well. So the law seemed to adapt to the situation to some extent, and perhaps some of the commands were situation specific, rather than universally applicable.

I think Christ clarified this further. Because of what He did for us we don’t need to live up to the perfection demanded by the law… but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the ‘ideal’ or ultimate ‘objective’. He showed that if we had to really live up to it, it would be horrifying - you would have to cut your arm off etc. in order to be saved - i.e. it would be impossible to achieve. Reductio ad absurdum!

Matthew 5:17
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18"For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.…
So he fulfilled it for us. He did the impossible for us through His love for us.

1 Samuel 15: 2-3: Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

So even the children, infants, oxen, sheep, camels and donkeys in these cultures were incredibly evil and had to be destroyed, too?

Right. And I’m not quite sure how the culture could be more evil than one that allows its mothers to kill their children and calls such murder “choice”. Or one that beheads “infidels” simply because they refuse to convert to the prevailing culture’s religion. But I digress. I’m not going to say I understand why God ordered the Israelites to commit genocide. Honestly, King Saul didn’t quite understand why God would order him to exterminate every last living thing in Amalek, either, as he and his men defied the order and brought the king of Amalek back alive, along with many of the animals. And yet, the Bible informs us that, because Saul disobeyed the LORD on this command, the LORD stripped Saul’s family of the kingship.

Curiously, it seems as if later, God seems to try to give the kings a bit more slack. For example, one could say that David’s double sin of adultery and murder was a worse transgression than Saul’s refusal to completely exterminate the Amalekites. Yet David’s punishment, instead of losing the throne, became the loss of the newborn son and internal family strife. In fact, it was his second son by Bathsheba (Solomon) who would follow David on the throne - almost as if God somehow blessed David’s sin. After the schism, God dethroned Jeroboam’s house due to Jeroboam creating two false temples. Yet later, once Jehu dethroned Ahab’s house, God favored Jehu’s house even though Jehu didn’t take down Jeroboam’s false temples.

Regardless, we do have to remember that, in the times of the Israelites, total war seems to be the norm, not the exception. It was kill or be killed, oppress or be oppressed, enslave or be enslaved. And any chlidren left alive could rise up and become one’s new enemies.

One very simple way to defend the OT harsh laws is to label the OT all as “metaphor.”

However, that poses problems too, since the Ten Commandments are also part of the OT.

Oxen, sheep, etc. are obviously incapable of moral good or evil. But animals were not created for their own sake, and man exercises dominion over them to direct them, in God’s plan for creation, toward human flourishing. If God thought the retention/possession of these animals would somehow pose a temptation for the Israelites, then, there is really nothing remarkable about the order to exterminate them.

The infants and children are the problem, Man does not exercise dominion over the very life of man, and may, by natural and revealed law, intentionally and directly slay only the guilty. Knowing that children below the age of reason are incapable of personal sin makes most conclude quickly that they could not possibly be guilty - evil, if you will - and thus the divine demand for their deaths seems to outright contradict what else we know of God and his moral law. But we should not rush to the judgment of children’s “goodness” too quickly, because we also know that original sin alone is sufficient to exclude one for all eternity from communion with God. (The Council of Florence decreed in 1439 that “the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” -emphasis added) Thus some would make the argument that, regardless of the real difference between the personally innocent children and whatever murderous or licentious degenerates may have been present in the adult population, it nonetheless remains true that even the children “deserved” death in consequence of their sinful disposition.

What about collective punishment? Is it OK to punish a person’s family for something that he did?

In Joshua 7, the Israelite Achan kept some gold and silver that he had found when they slaughtered the people of Jericho and thus violated the ban that God had commanded and God commanded that not only should Achan be killed but “all that he has” including his whole family:

11 Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings. 12 Therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies; they turn their backs to their enemies, because they have become a thing devoted for destruction themselves. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. 13 Proceed to sanctify the people, and say, ‘Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “There are devoted things among you, O Israel; you will be unable to stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.” 14 In the morning therefore you shall come forward tribe by tribe. The tribe that the Lord takes shall come near by clans, the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households, and the household that the Lord takes shall come near one by one. 15 And the one who is taken as having the devoted things shall be burned with fire, together with all that he has, for having transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and for having done an outrageous thing in Israel.’”

So Once Achan confessed:

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him. Tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” 20 And Achan answered Joshua, “It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and there it was, hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. 23 They took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites; and they spread them out before the Lord. 24 Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the silver, the mantle, and the bar of gold,** with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor**. 25 Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, 26 and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day.

Achan, as the head of his family, is responsible for them and their actions and safety. He fails to lead them properly, he brings doom on all of them. This is the culture of Achan’s day and the “laws” were very clear and followed literally. Thank God we have a different culture today.

Sin continues to affect innocents even today.

Why is this the “culture of Achan’s day” since God is the one who according to the Book of Joshua commanded that his whole family be burned to death with him for his transgression? What does this have to do with culture instead of God’s unchanging moral laws? Or is God just kinder now than He used to be?

God is unchanging but how we understand Him and His laws tend to change. It’s like people tens of thousands of years ago may have looked up at the sun and believed it was a creature made of fire and that this creature traveled across the sky of its own volition. We know now that the earth is rotating around a star. The sun did not change; our understanding did. As we continue to discern about God and His laws, our understanding will continue to change; this is a result of the gift of intellect that God has given humans and the ability to communicate with God through prayer.

This is always something I have never been able to explain or understand for that matter. I have heard the explanations from the Christian scholars, but I still struggle with it. It hasn’t challenged my Faith to a great extent, but I do not understand it It’s basically the one point I concede to atheists when I am debating online, I have no explanation for it. I know the times were tougher and mens hearts were hard, but, yeah…I don’t know.

Remember that what you quoted was highlighting why these passages appear *problematic *to us, not resolving that problem. But here I do think recourse to the ubiquity of sin has traction.

When I was born, one could say that I deserved eternal separation from God as a consequence of Original Sin. But that wouldn’t be a punishment inflicted upon me for something Adam and Eve did; yes, their action caused me to be born without sanctifying grace and opposed to God, but the [potential] exclusion from heaven resulted from my personal condition of sinfulness/opposition.

In the case of Achaz’ family, one might make a case as to why it was fitting for God to execute His punishment upon all the members at once (exemplarity, mercifully preventing further sin, etc.), but through this lens of viewing the situation the death sentence would be just, ultimately, not because of the father’s sin but because it was in fact due to each person individually. This does not conform to our modern intuitions about infant innocence and divine mercy, but its approach has strong basis in the Tradition (especially of Augustinian pessimism).

Isaias (Isaiah) 55:8
For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

Isaias (Isaiah) 55:9
For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Ezechiel (Ezeckiel) 18:25
And you have said: The way of the Lord is not right. Hear ye, therefore, O house of Israel: Is it my way that is not right, and are not rather your ways perverse?

Jeremias (Jeremiah) 35:15
And I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, rising early, and sending and saying: Return ye every man from his wicked way, and make your ways good: and follow not strange gods, nor worship them, and you shall dwell in the land, which I gave you and your fathers: and you have not inclined your ear, nor hearkened to me.

Romans 11:33
O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments, and how unsearchable his ways!

1 Corinthians 2:9
But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him.

Remember Jesus says not only is adultery condemned but just looking lustily at someone is wrong,plus not only is killing wrong, but just being unjustly angry is wrong.

Sometimes the lesson behind the story is the main point and not so much the cruelty or severity of the punishment. The authors may have been exaggerating the punishments to emphasize that disobedience to Gods laws are so severe that very harsh punishments are given out.

Dire consequences will happen if we fail to do what God requires of us.

As Jesus says, love God above all else (or very bad things will happen)

Treat you neighbors well or other bad consequences happen.

Some penalties may appear harsh but they are shown that way to prevent others
From disobeying or repeating the same sins.i

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