Today we look at more of the Old Testament laws that make little sense to Christians and are a source of derision by hostile skeptics. We will see that the laws were appropriate for their time and place.
Some of the laws, such as the ban on boiling of a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19) or forbidding tattoos (Lev. 19:28) or trimming one’s beard (Lev. 19:27), was a rejection of Canaanite fertility rites because God wanted to clearly separate His chosen nation of priests from Ancient Near Eastern pagan religions.
What about the punishments for law breaking in the Old Testament such as those in Deuteronomy 25? Paul Copan points out a few unique factors to Old Testament laws: “(1) a proper trial had to take place first; (2) No one was to extract punishment personally, taking matters into his own hands; (3) the process was to be supervised by a judge, who would ensure that the punishment was properly carried out; the punishment wasn’t left up to the cruel whims of the punisher; (4) This was the maximum penalty, and offenders were typically punished with fewer strokes than forty. Yet the maximum number of lashes was fixed and wasn’t to be exceeded [Egypt allowed more than 100]; (5) The judge rendering the verdict and the punisher were to remember that the guilty party was a “brother.” The criminal was to be protected from the overreaction of a mob or individual; he wasn’t to be humiliated (so that “your brother is not degraded in your eyes”).”
Other Ancient Near Eastern laws had the lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) but their laws ONLY applied to the wealthy whereas Israel’s law applied to everyone and, again, was a limit on the amount of punishment one could expect and, once again, unlike other nations, the person punished had to appear before a court of impartial elders.
The Old Testament was also unique in that it banned child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; and 18:10), which was a common practice in the region of Canaan.
What about the treatment of women? The Ancient Near Eastern attitude was to treat women as things with even mothers placed under the authority of sons but not so in Israel where sons were to honor their mothers as well as their fathers (see Genesis 1:27; 2:24; Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3; Proverbs 6:20; Proverbs 18:22; Proverbs 19:26; Proverbs 23:22; Proverbs 23:25 and Song of Songs 6:3).
But what about texts such as Leviticus 12:1-8, which reads, “The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. 6 “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. 7 He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. 8 But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”
Does this strike you as sexist? Keep this in mind: First of all, it is common for newborn baby girls to have vaginal bleeding, which, again, reminds Israel of the cost of sin. Second, newborn girls and mothers were also involved in fertility rites in pagan religions and Third, notice the sacrifice was the same for both boys and girls, who are both made in the image and likeness of God.
The teaching that women are equal in worth because of being made in the image and likeness of God was also unique and a major step forward in history thanks to God’s law.
But why no female priests? More on that tomorrow.