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 the 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? This language was used to emphasize the seriousness of the crime, and to provide easy recollection due to its overly dramatic nature. The best way to put it is that these laws were didactic rather than prescriptive. They taught moral principles with examples, however, the examples themselves were not the written “letter of the law” the same way ours are today. Matthew Flannagan in his article on this subject notes that “The method used in legal texts was ‘to set out principles by the use of often extreme examples.’”
Of course, under extreme circumstances, 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 only if the laws were repeatedly broken, so it can be argued that cases such as these were the exception rather than the rule.
Here’s a more detailed analysis by Matthew Flannagan.