I’m aware that there are already a good few threads revolving around this subject already, but I’m having trouble understanding a couple of thing in particular. Plus, I kind of got into a conversation with someone about this subject and in their mind’s eye, they see it as God “changing His mind” about the old law. I know that God doesn’t change, but I need some clarification on a couple things:
In the law of Moses, it prescribes an adulteress to be stoned to death when caught in the act. Yet, Jesus seems to rebuke the people for this when He said “whoever here has no sin, cast the first stone”. Yet, it is evident that Jesus doesn’t outright deny the law of Moses. I guess what I’m wondering is whether God commanded Moses, word by word, each law of the old testament (like the stoning of adulterers, people caught in homosexual relations, etc.) or did Moses create these laws to help the people see the severity of breaking the commandments; albeit in an imperfect way?
If it was commanded word for word by God, why would it start out imperfect to later be perfected by Jesus? This would give the impression that God did decide to change his mind. Yet, Jesus doesn’t condemn the adulteress and says “Go, and sin no more”. Why go from having a law that is very harsh then have Jesus suddenly look down on the act of solving it with physical retribution? Was this law then an imperfect law written by Moses to help people see the evil of sin?
There is a line in Scripture that has helped me many times in understanding some of the regulations in the Old Testament. God speaking through Isaiah says:
Isaiah 1:2 “Sons have I reared and brought up, …”
It caused me to examine how I raised my children. I thought about he differences in rules, punishments, etc. at the various stages of their youth. (eg. as a baby, no regulations - just feed and care for needs; at toddler stage, rules starting and punishment if disobeyed; …) I realized how the rules changed as my son grew (eg. what was forbidden as a toddler, no longer forbidden as he got older.) The punishments also changed. (eg. as young children, they were likely to get a spanking for certain offenses, but that punishment was no longer used as they got older.) At all ages, the severity of the punishment was related to how detrimental the offense was in those circumstances. (eg. going out on the street was very detrimental at toddler age, but not at all once the child got older.)
I then applied this whole outlook to God’s “rearing” of the Israelites. It is sort of amazing how the stages of child rearing correlate to God’s rearing of His people.
Infant = Abraham to Moses. Only one regulation: circumcision
Toddler thru teens = Moses to Jesus. Mosaic rules
Adulthood = Jesus. NT rules. (Interesting to ponder how they differ from Mosaic rules.)
If the punishment was severe (stoning), then the offense must have been very detrimental to the culture/way of life God was working to establish for His chosen people.
Something else to keep in mind is that when all these commands were given to Moses, they were a nomadic people. There were no jails for example. To eject someone whose behavior was harmful to the wellbeing of the community, would have meant abandoning them in the desert, leaving them to die a slow, agonizing death.
The Israelites were a nation, and as a result the laws God gave Moses included criminal laws, civil regulatory laws, health laws, etc. in addition to moral and religious ritual laws. (Wouldn’t it be great if all our U.S. laws fit in one book the size of the Pentateuch!!!)
At the time of Jesus, the Jews were no longer an independent nation. They had to abide by the rules of the Romans in matters of criminal punishment. The Jews did not have the authority to inflict capital punishment. The Jews who brought the woman to Jesus were well aware of this.
Such prescriptions as those in the OT were in place for two basic reasons.
The first reason is one you have already suggested: to teach regarding the severity of the action, and hopefully scare people enough to keep them from it.
The second reason was to protect the purity of the nation. When you allow sin in, in whatever form, it infects and can destroy the nation itself. Often throughout the OT we see the entire nation of Israel being punished for the sins of the few. Moreover, and more to the point, this was important not just because they wanted to keep the nation safe, but also to protect the covenant. Jesus had not yet come, and the Jewish tradition, Jewish moral law, had to be protected until the time the covenant could be fulfilled by the promised Messiah.
So what about Jesus, then? The severity of these crimes are no different than they used to be. The protection of the national body is also still an interest (which is part of the reason why excommunications can occur). But something entirely new came about through Jesus: Sanctifying Grace.
In Baptism, we enter into the life of Grace that Jesus offers us through the Church. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, and God transforms us interiorly into a holy people. It is because of this interior transformation that we are no longer bound by the law; it is because desire those things that the law directs us toward, so we obey it instinctively, rather than begrudgingly.
Moreover, when Jesus preached, He spoke strongly against hypocrisy, having a great focus on the interior life of the person. No longer was it enough that one should simply not have adultery, for example, but one should also not even lust after a woman. Jesus was concerned with the interior life of His people. That’s what He came to transform.
The woman caught in adultery was willing to repent, that’s what Jesus desires. Those who would have stoned her were not acting out of a righteous anger, and Jesus reveals their hypocrisy. Moreover, the time for such outward forms of justice were at an end, because Jesus had arrived.
The Law was given to Israel in order that they might be transformed into a holy nation. But outward acts were not enough. Israel had not been transformed inwardly. This is how Jesus fulfills the Law. He fulfills its purpose, its direction, its orientation. He, by the power of the Holy Spirit, transforms us inwardly to love and desire a life of virtue and Grace.
This is the difference between the old and the new. Not that God “reversed positions,” but that the whole reason for the prescriptions of the old, could now be accomplished by the saving action of the Messiah.
Some has said this story was actually a setup for Jesus. The Pharisees were trying to get Jesus in trouble with Roman law. Under Roman rule, Jewish authorities have no authority to impose capital punishment, including stoning. So if Jesus has said “yes” to the stoning of the adulteress, he would be branded anti-Roman law. And if he said “No” he would be violating Mosaic rule. Therefore despite what the answer is going to be, no stoning can happen. Under Roman law, adultery does not carry capital punishment. And Jesus saw the trap and responded appropriately.
Now if the Pharisees were really interested in enforcing Mosaic law, they would have brought both the woman and the man caught in the act. And Mosaic law would require 2 witnesses to establish guilt. If the witnesses were to step forward they would need to
a) commence stoning (and putting themselves in violation of Roman law) and
b) explain why the man was not accused and subject to punishment as well.
And so the accusers found themselves in their own trap.
Hence the response that Jesus gave was not really suitable to establish whether God changed his mind or not. It was to turn the table on the Pharisees.
For those who seek clarity on wrong-doing vs punishment, it is beyond doubt that every last penny must be paid. The only question is who does the punishing, us or God. Either way, justice will be served. It would be a rather legalistic myopic view if Mosaic processes need to be observed. And Jesus condemned those soundly for their hearts were far from God.
I also wanted to add this last bit on the stoning.
Since the law requires 2 witnesses and although Jesus isn’t a witness to this act but although being God and all-knowing, he can not proclaim her guilty under Mosaic law due to the requirement of 2 witnesses. Knowing and proving it are 2 different aspects of law as most of us know. So in summary, guilty under divine law (10 commandments) , not guilty under Mosaic law (insufficiency of evidence) and Jesus would be in full compliance with the Mosaic law.
I second this understanding, as well as that of raising a child. I puzzle over the apparent differences in the law too, until I remember that Jesus talks about eternal death, not just physical death. One could almost say he upped the ante, and called us to something even harder, further up, and deeper in. (This is my own reflection, but it’s almost like the physical death is a “type” of the spiritual death.) We are even more accountable. Sobering.