A gracEmail subscriber asks how someone can support a literal contruction of scripture but not wish to execute rebellious children as the Old Testament prescribes. Did God decide that the Old Testament was too harsh and replace it with a milder set of rules? Why is the Old Testament still in our Christian Bible?
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The real issue here is not one of literalism but of audience and purpose. The Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the “Old Testament,” is the record of God’s dealings with his covenant people the Jews, plus the Jewish oral traditions of God’s earlier involvement with pre-Jewish humankind from Creation to Abraham. Many of us Christians and Jews alike believe that God had a hand in the origin, transmission and written preservation of those oral traditions, so that they are altogether trustworthy for their intended purpose.
We moderns naturally shrink back from the harsher laws found in the Law of Moses, such as the imposition of capital punishment for a variety of offenses including juvenile rebellion, sexual sins, blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. We often forget that these laws set the boundaries for a theocracy whose subjects were a band of newly-freed slaves, whose neighbors worshipped fertility gods with orgaistic rites, regularly practiced child-sacrifice and other societally-suicidal abominations, and whose own laws defined justice in terms of the power balance between the offender and the offended.
We often overlook also that the Mosaic Code contained numerous safeguards against miscarriages of justice. It allowed no criminal convictions based on circumstantial evidence. Convictions required two eye-witnesses, and perjured witnesses faced the same penalty to which their false testimony subjected someone else. The Law of Moses also contained every major element of our modern civil system, including concepts of civil duty, ordinary and gross negligence, actual damages for medical expenses, physical impairment and lost wages, and punitive damages for outrageous conduct.
The Mosaic Law was never intended for non-Jews living outside Israel. Its universal and permanent principles are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as the Book of Hebrews illustrates. Salvation comes, not by our keeping any set of laws, but by relying on Jesus’ atoning work in our stead, as Romans and Galatians point out. The Old Testament system did establish fundamental justice and morality in a primitive world, and highlighted human sin and the common need for redemption. It demonstrated both the goodness and the severity of God and his rule over the nations. And it preserved the people of Israel definably intact for a millennium-and-a-half until the coming of Jesus Christ the Jewish Messiah and Savior of the world.