The Harshness of the Old Testament Era

Some have strongly criticized the Old Testament for the “harshness” that characterized some of its laws and practices. Let us briefly consider this matter.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

There are circumstances in the Old Testament that many find difficult to understand. Hostile critics impulsively adopt the “attack” mode, never taking the time to seriously analyze “problem” episodes. Christian people frequently puzzle silently over such matters, not wishing to appear irreverent, but nonetheless troubled inwardly. What shall be said of those cases of “brutality” that seem to be woven into the fabric of the Mosaic system.

(1) Many people object to the fact that the Old Testament seems to condone moral atrocities—the slaughter of the Canaanites, for example (see Joshua 6:21). But consider the following facts. First, when one objects to “moral” problems, he is obligated to defend the moral standard by which his judgment is made. No atheist can do this successfully, for “if there is no God, nothing is wrong” (Jean Paul Sartre), and man fashions his own moral rules.

Second, God has always been patient, even with the vilest of people (cf. Genesis 6:3; 15:16); but justice eventually demands a day of reckoning.

Third, the seeming harshness of national judgments actually was an example of “moral surgery” in view of the coming Messiah and the implementation of a plan of human redemption, hence, ultimately constituted an act of divine mercy.

(2) Consider the strictness and severity of capital punishment, as administered under the Mosaic code. The death penalty was attached to: striking/reviling a parent (Exodus 21:15, 17), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14ff), Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:14), murder (Exodus 21:14), causing a miscarriage (Exodus 21:22-23), witchcraft and pretension to prophecy (Exodus 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:20), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), incest, homosexuality, and bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:11-16), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), idolatry (Leviticus 20:2), perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16, 19), etc. Actually, a number of other offences could fall under this indictment as well.

In addition, it should be noted that capital punishment was to be implemented publicly, and in some cases the “congregation” was to be actively involved in carrying out the sentence (Numbers 15:32-36). Moreover, the judgment was to be initiated as quickly as justice would allow. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Contrast this with the current practice in America where it generally takes more than a decade for a capital case ever to reach the enactment stage in the most serious and well-established cases.

Again, to many in our modern society of “toleration” and “compassion,” the Hebrew system appears extremely “cruel and unusual.” However, two important observations need to be made to put this issue in balance.

First, a number of scholars have shown that the Hebrew system was much “more elevated [in] character” than its heathen counterparts (Horn 1955, 40). Treatment of slaves, for example, was decidedly more merciful under Hebrew law, and provisions for the poor by far eclipsed that of paganism. One scholar has noted that ancient Babylon “felt no such social sympathy” (Barton 1937, 385). Numerous examples could be cited. Moreover, one cannot judge a system that was operative fifteen centuries before the influence of Christian principles, with justice twenty centuries this side of Jesus.

Second, the following statement from Thomas H. Horne on this matter is most insightful:

The moral government of Jehovah was to be exhibited on the earth by the theocracy which he established. Its very nature required temporal sanctions, and their immediate enforcement; its object could not be attained by waiting till the invisible realities of a future state should be unveiled. The previous exhibition of such a moral government was the best preparation for the full revelation of man’s future destiny, and the means provided for his welfare in it, by a merciful and redeeming God (1841, 145).

  • Barton, George. 1937. Archeology and the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: American Sunday School Union.
  • Horn, Siegfried. 1955. Light From the Dust Heaps. Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing
  • Horne, Thomas H. 1841. Critical Introduction to the Holy Scriptures. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA: J. Whetham & Son.