Why do Christians give Old Testament ethics the benefit of the doubt?
That question came up before Christmas, as a result of discussions here on slavery in the Old Testament. There is no denying that the slavery codes in the Pentateuch seem wrong, even barbaric, to 21st century readers (most readers, that is: slavery is still a thriving enterprise of death in our world today).
As I will repeat in point 4, “the benefit of the doubt” is hardly required for most OT ethical matters. Still it is for some things, slavery being one of them. To many non-Christian readers, OT slavery codes look like reason to wonder whether God knew what he was doing, if there even is a God. Christian readers tend to interpret them differently than that. We’re all looking at the same text. How can these differences be justified?
I have seven main reasons to offer. The first three are important for perspective, the next two are are transitional, the sixth is the clincher, and the seventh is icing on the cake.
There is Room For Doubt
1. Cultural distance
The law of Moses was written a very long time ago, in a very foreign culture. Ancient Near East (ANE) studies show that it was a very violent period in human history. Comparative studies show that the Hebrew slavery codes were considerably more humane than those of surrounding peoples.
2. Literary expectations
ANE literature studies show conclusively that hyperbole was frequently employed, and used in a manner completely unfamiliar to modern readers. Whether that applies directly or not to descriptions of slave treatment, it ought to give us pause before concluding that every text’s meaning is what it appears to be.
3. Progress of cultures over time
History seems to show that cultures grow up over time, and that what we consider normal today might have seemed not just strange but impossible thousands of years ago. Consider, for example, modern liberal democracy based on the attitudes of the Declaration of Independence. It took generations upon generations for the idea that “all are created equal” to take root in human thinking. It took generations after the Declaration before “all men are created equal” began to seem overly restrictive. To impose our standards upon earlier cultures may be as unfair as expecting a four-year-old to practice the high ethics of personal sacrifice.
Culture and Context During the OT Period and Beyond
4. Advanced ethics in the Old Testament
There is more to the OT story. As time goes on, the prophets exhort Israel over and over again to free the oppressed. Examples are many, Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 22:1-4 among them. Meanwhile in Greek and Roman culture, such compassion was unknown. Slaves were regarded as deserving their status. Widows had few rights. To help the poor and the sick was to preserve weakness and thus to weaken all of society. In other words, OT ethics proved in the long run to be very advanced. It is only a few early matters that even call for “the benefit of the doubt.”
5. Advanced ethics in the New Testament
OT prophetic themes like these continue into the New Testament, where (although there is still no command to free the slaves) the framework for emancipation is laid, especially in 1 Cor. 12:13 and Gal. 3:28—but above all through Jesus Christ.
The Clincher: The Deepest Good
6. God’s goodness proved in Jesus Christ
While OT moral codes may be confusing, the goodness of God visible like mountains on a clear day in Jesus Christ. His ethics still stand at the pinnacle of human teaching. Towering above all is his own willingness to accept the limitations of humanity, and eventually the excruciating pain of death on a cross, to free all persons from our severest bondage, to sin and to death.
The death he died, he died for all persons equally, for “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23), and no person is better in God’s eyes than any other. This was the most radical proof of all that we are of equal worth.
Proving the Effect
7. The goodness of God expressed in his people over time
Finally, it is because of the Old and New Testaments that we understand today that slavery is wrong. Though controversial, this is historical fact. Slavery was gradually and peacefully eliminated in Europe, mostly through the work of Christian leaders like the freed slave Bathilda, wife of Clovis II. Granted, some persons have used the Bible to justify slaveholding, but historically they are the exception, not the rule, and their misuse of the Bible can easily be explained under the principle, some people will use whatever means they can to justify their self-servingness—even if they have to twist things to work for them that way.
Summary: Viewing What’s Unclear in Light of What’s Clear
The OT slavery codes remain a puzzle to all of us. This is hardly surprising. I have been to several foreign countries, and I have found that other cultures and customs can be confusing, even in the same century. We would be foolish to think that we could understand the ANE cultural context just by reading the Bible.
So we follow the sensible principle of interpreting what’s unclear in light of what’s clear. The goodness of God in Christ is very clear and plain. The prophets’ exhortations before him are plain to read, and while it requires some historical study, the effect of the Bible on the world since Christ is almost as clear.
Thus we feel justified giving God the benefit of the doubt over the OT slavery codes.
Making Decisions Accordingly
A final word: because there is so much that is unknown about the ANE context, it seems unwise to judge God and the Bible on that. It makes a lot more sense to look at the New Testament, especially the work of Jesus Christ, and to make one’s decisions on that basis, where things are so much more clear.