Ethical Problems in the Pentateuch


Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt

Critics of the Bible have drawn attention to various seemingly cruel or immoral rules or events in the Pentateuch. The following principles should be born in mind when assessing such problems.

I. Imperfect Saints

A. The Bible is very realistic about its men of faith, a fact which attests to its authenticity.

  1. Most religious books hide their heroes' sins.
  2. However, in the Old Testament, Noah gets drunk, Samson and David are adulterers, Jacob cheats and Abraham betrays his wife twice.

B. This teaches us two important facts:

  1. God uses people for His purpose by grace, in spite of their sins.
  2. Man is deeply fallen, even when they seek to follow God.

C. The following facts should also be considered.

  1. The fact that narrative records an act does not necessarily imply that the author approves of that action. The morality of their actions must be determined by the Bible as a whole. Usually, the narrative goes to some effort to convey to the reader that the act is wrong (ex: David's adultery with Bathsheba).
  2. Because Christ had not yet paid for man's sins, most of the ministries of the Holy Spirit which we take for granted were absent in the Old Testament (ex: indwelling, convicting, regenerating). This is why the practical ethical standards are somewhat higher in the New Testament.

II. Imperfect Laws

A. The common contention is that the laws of the Old Testament and New Testament are so different that they require two different sources. However, in refutation, it should be noted that:

  1. Jesus and the New Testament authors repeatedly condone and affirm the Old Testament law (see Matt. 5:17; 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10; I Pet 1:16).
  2. The recipients are in very different situations. The Old Testament law is given to a nation of mostly unregenerate people; therefore, it must be civil in emphasis (focused on outward acts). It must also be more harsh because they are unregenerate. However, in the New Testament, the ethical standards are given to a Body of regenerate people indwelt by the Holy Spirit; therefore, its emphasis is not civil, but personal and internal.

B. Some Examples

  1. "An eye for an eye" (Ex. 21:23-27)
    • This is a simple statement of "lex talionis" (the punishment should be justly suited to the crime).
    • The intent of this law was to prevent "blood feuds" (unlimited vengeance killings), which were common in the ancient Near East.
    • This law was not intended to be interpreted or enforced in a strictly literal manner (see Ex. 21:26,27).
  2. Marriage and Divorce
    • Both Old Testament & New Testament affirm that permanent monogamous marriage is desirable (see Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5,6).
    • The fall of man brought polygamy and God did not forbid for pragmatic reasons (see above I. C. 2.), but He never affirmed it.
    • The evils of polygamy were taught through Abraham, David and Solomon.
    • Divorce was permitted, but strictly regulated to prevent cruelty. Deut. 24:1-4 made a just reason and a bill of divorce mandatory, so that the woman was free to remarry.
  3. Prisoners of War
    • Treatment was remarkably humane, especially in comparison to other cultures.
    • No rape or slave concubines were permitted. (Deut. 21:10)
  4. Death Penalty (Ex. 21:12-17;22:18-20; Lev. 20)
    • Capital punishment was practiced for blasphemy, sorcery, breaking the Sabbath, incitement to apostasy, incorrigible juvenile delinquency.
    • Since the secular government now has the responsibility for capital punishment (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7), Christians are obliged to follow its punitive laws.
    • The Old Testament penal system was very mild in comparison to other ancient Near Eastern penal codes. Furthermore, while the Old Testament code was harsh on sexual and other relational sins, ANE codes were harsh on things like theft. ANE codes used terrible physical mutilation, while this form of punishment is forbidden in the Old Testament.
    • Since Israel was a theocracy ruled by God, religious apostasy constituted treason, which has always been a capital offense.
    • Sexual offenses were often a part of idolatrous rituals (i.e. Baal worship) and thus constituted treason. God also places very high importance of the family in preserving the fabric of society. Sexual sins disintegrate the family unit and endanger the health of society.
    • Execution of the incorrigible was safeguarded from abuse by the requirement that the child be turned in by his/her own family.
  5. The "Ban" Observed in the Conquest
    • According to scripture, not all violence is sinful. If we grant that certain acts are deserving of death, and that God employs human agency in judgment, then to take part in the judgment of a nation (which God has specifically commanded) is not sinful. This is exactly what happened in the case of the conquest of Canaan. God had waited for over 400 years for the Canaanites to repent (Gen. 15:16). Because of their utter wickedness, He decided to judge them by removing them from their land (Deut. 9:5,6), thus preventing the rest of the world from being polluted by their wickedness (Deut. 20:17,18).
    • In the conquest, strict commands were given against exploitation and cruelty (see Deut. 20:19)
    • The Canaanites were given the opportunity to surrender and stay (Deut. 20:10-16).
    • In the other wars in which the Israelites were involved, it should be noted that they were not permitted to fight in order to expand their territory, only to defend it. There was always a strong prophetic voice against war for exploitation (Is. 10:13; Amos 1:11,13).