Paying the Ransom

I see a lot of critics throw out verses of OT law in order to enforce the “barbaric” nature of the Bible. Are these laws truly disgusting, or did the ancients have something else in mind?

Verses such as Leviticus 20:27 and Exodus 21:29-32, also including much of Deuteronomy, have been accused by many to be evidence of the evil nature of the Bible. These objections are purposed to uncover the “truth” of Christianity of being a man-made system used to satisfy a twisted lust for control. No loving God would support such barbaric laws, right? Not so fast. When addressing this objection, it’s wise to ask some questions, the most important being: what did the ancients really have in mind?

When we look to these laws we often view them through our modern perception, comparing them with the laws we hold today, laws that are enforced literally and with no exception. When interpreting historical literature, it’s important to interpret it according to its genre. For example, one shouldn’t read a sci-fi novel as an example of scientific literature. The book of Deuteronomy, based on its structure and language, is reminiscent of other Ancient Near Eastern legal texts. Here are a few examples from old Babylonian law to compare:

*A man who kisses another’s wife has his lips cut off.

*A man who raped another’s wife would be sentenced to having his own wife or daughter raped.

*A negligent builder whose house collapsed and killed another’s son would be sentenced to having his own son killed.

There are many more that mirror Deuteronomy’s harsh language. So were these laws ever held as literal? Not necessarily.

As any credible scholar will point out, these verses were inconsistent with the legal practice that actually occurred in OT culture. What often took place was the practice of ransoming: the monetary payment for one’s crimes. One who committed, for example, one of the crimes above would be considered to forfeit his son’s life. However, it did not mean his son was executed, rather, the offender could ransom his son’s life by making a payment and/or agreeing to an alternative (often less severe) punishment. This was usually decided by the courts.

A Biblical example can be seen in Exodus 21:29-30. At first, it deals with an ox goring another person to death due to negligence of the owner. The penalty stated in verse 29 is death, yet straight after, verse 30 says this, “If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give a ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.

But why would ancient literature contain this harsh language to begin with? If they’re not to be literally enforced, what are they for? Scholars such as Joe Sprinkle recognize this language as that used in Exodus as “hyperbole to underscore the seriousness of negligence which threatens the life of another human being.” This language was used to emphasize the seriousness of the crime, and to provide easy recollection due to its overly dramatic nature.

Of course, there were times where these laws were literally enforced. Numbers 35:31, for example, specifically forbids a ransom payment for the life of a murderer. There are other examples elsewhere, but these laws are only enforced for the worst crimes, such as murder and treason, and often if the laws were repeatedly broken, so it can be argued that cases such as these were the exception rather than the rule.

What I find most interesting is the prominent presence of the act of ransoming in Christian literature. That Jesus paid our ransom with His life is one of the most basic points of theology, and it makes me wonder if this is a much simpler issue than a lot of atheists would have us believe. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. Either way, these verses bring up great questions, but when used as solid evidence against the validity of Christianity, the critics themselves may need to pay a ransom for the crime of a lack of research.

Here’s a more detailed analysis by Matthew Flannagan (one of my sources).


14 thoughts on “Paying the Ransom

  1. That is interesting, I’ve never considered that before.

    Would you consider it hyperbole when God commands the slaughter of every man, woman, and child, except the virgin women?

    1. Hey Black Sheep, thanks for reading!

      I certainly would take those texts as hyperbole, for a vast number of reasons. I’ll just give you one example of this: Chronicles 4:41 states that, “They attacked the Hamites in their dwellings….and completely destroyed them.” Literally, this means there were absolutely no survivors, but a few verses later it says that the survivors fled to Amalek where they were later all “destroyed” a second time. We can conclude this was either a contradiction (which considering the space between these verses is extremely unlikely) or the author used hyperbolic language. This is but one example out of many. I recommend reading Matthew Flannagan and Paul Copan’s book, “Did God Really Command Genocide” which explains hyperbolic texts in much more detail.

  2. Huh. Interesting. That does put things in a different perspective. I would like to see your sources, though. Where can I go to read what these scholars say?

  3. Crime of lack of research?
    I really don’t have any trouble saying there is contextual guidelines for enforcing the laws of the OT. I’m fine saying that they are meant to underscore the seriousness of the offense and to prevent further crime. But if you are taking a literal reading of the bible, you can’t say that. I don’t know your particular theological beliefs about the inspiration of the bible, but once you start contextualizing teachings you throw out literal readings.

    1. Hey CD, thanks for reading.

      I’m glad you agree, but that’s the point, these verses weren’t meant to be taken literally, and that’s not a bad thing. The ancients didn’t expect to take it literally either, as this post shows. There were certain genres and language used throughout the Bible that suggests something other than a literal reading is required. How do you know? That requires research, which I’m sure you wouldn’t have a problem with, but a quick and simple example would be the poetic books such as Psalms and Song of Solomon. You need to show why a literal reading is the only way to read the Bible and why divine inspiration must always result in a literal reading.

  4. Thanks for the response Lucas. I find it interesting that out of your many examples you choice was a section that as far as I can tell didn’t actually include a command from God, but not only did they kill everyone who was living there, but then the swept up anyone who might have survived. And they did this because they wanted their pastures. Which makes me curious if “do not covet” is just about oxen, or if it extends to anything else. But again, I didn’t see a command, so I don’t think we can really judge God on this (beyond the genocidal precedent he set in Deut.).

    I’m curious about your take on if you think God was limited by the genres at the time? And do you feel that a text written in hyperbole detracts from it being the literal word of God?

    1. No problem.
      The example I gave was just to show the use of hyperbolic language. The book I mentioned has a lot more examples regarding the verses of your choice.
      I don’t believe God was limited by specific genres, but He inspired the writer in a way that they understood. As for hyperbolic texts, I don’t believe it detracts it from being divinely inspired at all. There is a primary author (God) and a secondary author (man). The secondary writers were free to write out of their own intellectual creativity and theological understanding while the primary author brought it about that the books carry the message God desires to convey. He appropriated the human writer’s work as His own speech, delegating them to speak on His behalf.

  5. Hey sorry, I missed some of your comments on literal interpretations.

    My thoughts on the matter, if the end goal is to save as many souls as possible the message should be as clear and as easy to read as possible. Did you know news is written at a sixth grade level? If God is the most perfect editor in the world then there should be no contradictions and hyperbole has no place in a text treated as history. Either they killed everybody or they didn’t you can’t have it both ways

    1. That’s alright 🙂

      God wants first and foremost disciples. As said in my other comment, God delegated the secondary author to speak on His behalf, so his word acts as God’s word to us, and they wrote in a way they understood, and we can understand it as well if take the time to study. Wanting a sixth-grade Bible for modern times is simply laziness on our part, and God’s not obliged to make up for it. As I said to CD, you need to prove why the authors can’t use their own intellect and literary tools and why the text must only be read literally.

    2. Regarding salvation, that is perfectly clear. Jesus is God in the flesh, died, and rose again. Anything more than that is for those who have already entered into the covenant based relationship.

      1. I’m afraid you miss understand me. As for myself I am well educated and quite comfortable diving into a text, studying it, analyzing it, diving into other texts about the text, and drawing my own conclusions. In terms of the Bible these are things I have done, and are the primary reason why I am an atheist. The point I am trying to make is the vast majority of people living in the world right now, let alone throughout history have not had the education opportunities that I have had. That is why the news is written at a 6th grade level, so anybody picking up a newspaper can understand it. Imagine a Bible that anyone can easily read and understand, a Bible where “history” isn’t obscured in hyperbole and the lessons are easily accessible. A Bible where you don’t need to use a third section of the Bible to interpret two other sections of the Bible that seemingly contradict one another.

        Jesus’s target audience was the masses. He picked illiterate fisherman to be his disciples and railed against the educated pharisees. Yet the Bible caters to the educated not to the masses. If the Bible is an anthology and God is the editor, he completely missed his target audience and how does the most perfect editor miss his target audience? If an editor did that today he would be fired.

        And in terms of salvation the message is not perfectly clear, and I’ll tell you why. Your entire post is about how large swaths of the bible are hyperbole, in your comments with me you’ve discussed the possibility that genocide as describe in the Bible is only an exaggeration (we will overlook the fact that killing anyone at all for the land is probably not moral). The problem is what you want me to believe is exaggeration sounds like actual human behavior. And then you want to turn around and tell me that some guy was “God made fleshed,” that he died and then rose again, which isn’t typical human behavior is completely serious and doesn’t exaggerate at all. Do you see the disconnect there? Do you see why, from an editing stand point, including hyperbole is problematic?

      2. “The point I am trying to make is the vast majority of people living in the world right now, let alone throughout history have not had the education opportunities that I have had.”

        Neither had I, my Biblical knowledge was pretty much average before I began doing the research. If you want to learn, you can get scholarly books from the library and find tons of articles on the internet. The “vast majority of people” isn’t an excuse, and you defeat it yourself when you said God made a lowly fisherman his disciple. It’s not about your pedigree or status, but about your willingness to listen and learn. If you’re willing to learn, you’ll do just that. God didn’t miss His target audience at all.

        “That is why the news is written at a 6th-grade level, so anybody picking up a newspaper can understand it.”

        The heart of the Gospel is as simple as can be, beyond that raises the question of who is the Bible’s intended audience. The Bible’s intended audience is disciples.

        Your jab at hyperbole there fails because there is sufficient reason to conclude the genocidal texts as hyperbole based on the text alone (and based on ancient ANE conquest texts, which again commonly uses hyperbole). Another quick example would be 1 Samuel 15:8. The evidence of hyperbolic language is that later on just a few chapters later, the Amakalites are still making trouble. And you complain about the use of hyperbolic language in a historical document. Black, take a look at this inscription offered by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III, taken from Moshe and Trude Dothan, Peoples of the Sea:

        “I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought on captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore.”

        He clearly didn’t literally mean they were made non-existent as he took them into captivity in the very same sentence. This is a clear use of hyperbole, so to say it has no place in a historical document is simple ignorance of historical literature.

        As for Jesus, we have vast amounts of evidence that He was who He said He was, the Resurrection being the centre-piece, which is why we don’t take that as hyperbole. Also, we need to take into account the genre of the book in question. As pointed out, the books containing war texts have much akin to ANE conquest accounts while the Gospels have more in common with ancient Biographies. Your comparison to genocidal texts and Jesus is completely irrelevant

        Black, your arguments are simply a copy and paste of what other atheist wolves have said, I’m not answering another.

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