Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Barbaric/Progressive Bible (Deut. 17-20)

SEAN - We're looking at execution by stoning, and also environmental awareness, in Deut. 17-20. Israeli ethics seemed at once jihadist and oddly enlightened. The picture up top is of an Israeli man hugging a tree, apparently taking to heart the respect for nature that is laid out in Deuteronomy 20.19-20: 'When you besiege a city... you shall not destroy its trees... are the trees of the field human, that they should be besieged by you?'

Based on's Chronological Bible In a Year schedule. If anyone would like to join in, this blog's comments sections would be a good forum in which to share insights from the text.

One Side of the Coin: The Barbaric Bible
What if I told you that at 6:00pm tonight, we were going to take a murderer out of jail and hand him over to be executed by his victim's nearest relative? How about if I told you that we were about to take a televangelist, bury him chest-deep in the earth, and crush his skull with stones for making a false prediction? Some of you might secretly think, "well, it's about time," but I'd bet most of you would be horrified. That is Taliban activity right there!

Well, those are some of the scenarios that might have happened in ancient Israel. Murderers were handed over to their victim's relatives for execution (Deut. 19.11-13); false prophets were killed for their efforts (Deut. 18.20). Although war is a reality for most countries, Israel  took their conquest of Canaan many steps further -at God's request!- by slaughtering pregnant women and little children without pity (Duet. 20.16-17). If these kinds of activities went on in this day and age, we would send soldiers to stop whatever regime was responsible. Actions like that are unconscionable. This is not the place to justify the more barbaric-sounding laws of Ancient Israel. The fact is that Ancient Israeli law had many features that our culture would condemn, and many others that we would approve of with enthusiasm.

Other Side of the Coin: The Progressive Bible

There are some more progressive strokes to ancient Israeli law, however - take war ethics for example. Israel can be faulted for committing genocide, but they also had a separate code of ethical rules for combat, which they used outside of Canaan (Deut. 20.10-15). The BBC history of war ethics doesn't mention any thought on the matter of war ethics before the Greek philosopher Cicero, and yet here was Israel 1,000 years earlier with a code of combat ethics enshrined in their national law, mandating that they offer terms of peace to enemies before engaging in war, and demanding Israel's army spare any women and children. during military conflict. There are also other more progressive laws that we could point to.

Israel was more enlightened than even recent modern culture, in a lot of other ways: they had a volunteer military instead of a draft, 3000 years before the USA got rid of their own military draft  in 1973 (Deut. 20.8); long before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, Israel had a standard where allegations of serious crime had to be proven before a sentence was passed (Deut. 17.4); civil leaders were not able to gather massive wealth for themselves (Deut. 17.17); the death penalty for false prophets meant that religious leaders were made to tell the truth (Deut. 18.20-22); and finally, unlike in our own day in politically conservative areas of the West, a respect for nature was legislated (Deut. 20.19). And this is just in Deut. 17-20!

Making Sense of the Barbaric Side
Making heads or tails of some of the more backward-sounding laws of ancient Israel is somewhat tricky for me; one one hand, I want to stand apart from that and denounce it in no uncertain terms. On the other hand, I would call God's character into question if I did so. It is my legitimate belief that God is good and just. So there has to be some other way to deal with this - perhaps, as cruel as the bits about execution and genocide seem, they are just what's necessary to keep corruption and ethical decay out of societies? Some believe that the solution to our day's defective criminal law is to quietly relax it and focus on rehabilitation; perhaps, it is possible that we just haven't taken our legal punishment of criminals far enough. That does sound pretty barbaric, and I am just throwing it out there. But could it be true? I welcome your feedback in the comments section.

Other comments and observations can be found in the comments section! Join in!

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