Cultural and historical context are also important when we start thinking about how the Old Testament laws were to be enforced, and about what God ultimately wanted to happen as a result of giving them.
A few years ago, I was volunteering with Justice for All at the campus of the University of Northern Colorado, and at the end of my conversation with one of the students that had seen the display, he asked me about the group’s goals: “What do you guys ultimately want out of this?”
I told him that our goal was for abortion to be outlawed, but I realized later that I had lied, at least about what I wanted personally. I don’t really care all that much about the laws. What I care about are the babies. And no matter what happens with the laws, my real goal is that abortion clinics have to close because of lack of demand. In the end, the result would be the same – abortion would end. But the way we get there would be totally different, and the way we get there is incredibly important.
Modern missionaries have faced a unique dilemma in ministering to polygamous tribes. Let’s say missionary Harry goes to Papua New Guinea and, through chronological Bible storytelling, a certain tribe begins to accept the gospel and live as believers. As they begin to pursue Biblical ethics for their tribe, they realize that God’s intention for marriage is that each man have only one wife, and vice versa. What does Harry do with the man who already has 6 wives? In order to follow the letter of the command, he must either divorce or kill 5 of his wives, but is that really what we want? The solution to this is, of course, complex and must be dealt with uniquely in each situation, but I use it to illustrate the fact that the world in which these laws were given was not a blank slate. It was a very chaotic, morally confused world in which men married, divorced, and killed their wives, children, and slaves based on whim and mood, human sacrifice was commonplace, and feuds between families and between nations continued until one side or the other was completely obliterated from the face of the earth. To get people to start treating each other with respect in a world like this is quite a task.
But God’s goal is not just obedience. His goal is obedience that results from a changed heart, which is one of the primary messages of the sermon on the Mount. It’s important to note that Jesus never changed God’s rules, in fact He followed the Old Testament closely. His rebellion (I’ve heard it called this, but I think teaching people that Jesus was a rebel probably does more harm than good) was against the kind of laws that teach people that as long as they behave the right way, their hearts do not matter. What Jesus was attacking was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Law was all about. This is why Jesus spit in the dirt to heal a man on the Sabbath. For those who don’t know, the Pharissees had a law that said it was legal to spit on a rock, but not on the dirt, on the Sabbath. The only possible justification I can think of for this is that, should there happen to be a seed in the ground where I spit and it grows as a result of the moisture I have placed upon it, then I have farmed on Saturday and deserve to be cast into the Lake of Fire. By spitting on this law (sorry…), Jesus points out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of such a situation. He has just healed a blind man, but the really important thing is where He spit… This is sort of like telling a rape convict who wants to get saved that he’s going to have to get rid of his earrings and pull his pants up. It may be that at some point he does both of those things, maybe even because he loves Jesus, but the timing is a little off.
And timing is actually pretty important. If you watch the progression of God’s revelation throughout history, it’s not all that difficult to see that He is continually calling people to a higher standard, taking the long road of character change in order to reveal what He really wanted from the beginning. This, I think, is one of the most incredible and beautiful things about God. He never compromises on the absolute standards, but He also meets us where we are at in order to bring us, by our own choice and the development of our own character, to where He wants us.
Let’s take the example of slavery. From the beginning, it was very clear that God created all men (and women) equal. Genesis 1:27 says that man and woman were both created in the image of God, and the early laws make no distinction between one man and another by way of race, ability, age, etc. God’s desire is that all human beings, as His image-bearers, be seen and treated as equally valuable. But by the time we get to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, sin is firmly in place, human nature is corrupted, and slavery is commonplace. What is God to do now? How does He rid the world of slavery?
Let me pause and remind you that God’s goal is not to rid the world of slavery. His goal is to fill the earth with men and women who will not tolerate slavery because they have learned to honor the intrinsic and inalienable value of every human life.
God could have gotten rid of slavery by sending a lightning bolt to kill everyone who owned slaves, or even by making slave-owning punishable by death. But what would have been the result? He would have achieved half His goal. Granted, people would not own slaves, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not nearly as good as people not wanting to own slaves because they respect each other. He would also have had to keep doing this, every generation, until the end of time, because people’s actual morality would never change. Effectiveness in the short term does not equal effectiveness in the long term. And God seems an awfully patient fellow when it comes to things that are really important, like the morality of the human race.