“The Old Testament” or “Choose-Your-Own-Morals”


There is a debate going on in Ireland again at the moment about abortion. This is not something I’m going to get into here. However, there is something about the debate that has caught my attention. We all know that the Catholic Church does not agree with abortion. And while there is nothing in the Bible directly referencing abortion, Christians tend to point to the Sixth Commandment “Thou shall not kill” as proof that the Bible condemns abortion. And this is the thing that has caught my attention.

Now, I will be the first person to admit it has been many years since I was a regular churchgoer. But I have been to church for weddings and christenings etc. in recent years and, as far as I can tell, little has changed when it comes to the liturgy since I was a child. The attention of the Christian church is focused on Christ. Most of the reading’s – gospel and otherwise – are taken from the New Testament. Most of the time the church is not interested in promoting the ideals of the Old Testament – with its archaic tribal customs and violence – and instead is more interested in promoting the values of Christ and the New Testament. And this is admirable. However, it would seem that when debates about issues such as abortion or homosexuality arise, suddenly the Church invokes the Old Testament.

This is the Old Testament of Leviticus that allows the owning of slaves:

 “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves … You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” Leviticus 25:44-46

and quarantines a woman when she has her period:

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19-24

 or Exodus that prescribes death for working on a Sabbath and allows the selling of daughters:

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” Exodus 35:2

 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” Exodus 21:7-11

or Deuteronomy that calls for the stoning to death of anyone who believes in any other gods:

 “If a man or woman living among you … has worshiped other gods … take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” Deuteronomy 17:2-7

Now, there are many Christians who will say that this is too easy, that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are easy targets. And they would be right. But the reason they are easy targets is because they are there. There is no denying them: these stories and rules are there and they cannot be changed. And if we are going to invoke certain rules and moral codes of the Old Testament and use these to further an argument, then – it would seem to me – we must abide by ALL of the rules and the moral codes of the Old Testament. And if this is not the case, then why not?

And I am not being facetious here. If we are to accept that certain laws contained in this book have a moral certainty (and this is certainly how they are portrayed by Christians) then surely all the laws contained therein must have equal moral certainty? Otherwise, the entire house of cards collapses.

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16 thoughts on ““The Old Testament” or “Choose-Your-Own-Morals”

  1. I have read similiar ideas elsewhere and can only say that they need to be expressed more and more. There has not yet been ANY reply, let alone a satisfactory one, that I am aware of. Have you come across any such replies?

  2. I’m not religious, but I am a lawyer, and to me, cherry picking parts of the Bible to rely on as authority for doing certain things, and conveniently ignoring other parts, is like choosing to ignore a part of a piece of legislation. It doesn’t work like that – generally either the whole of the document is valid, or none of it is.

  3. This is a very good point, and one I have heard made in various forms. The answer I usually get (having been raised closely around Christianity) is that either the “spirit of the laws” are what need to be upheld, i.e. the Ten Commandments are the main ones and so should be the basis for morality; or the response is that Jesus came to fulfill the laws, and so what he says counters the more “restrictive” laws in Leviticus.

    The problem with both explanations is it creates a cherry-picking effect either way. So Christians can choose whichever laws they feel are important in the Old Testament are still in effect (like homosexuality being a sin, which is in fact in Leviticus) while ignoring some of the other ones, like slave laws.

    Those are some of the responses I’ve gotten, anyway. There are whole Biblical scholar courses devoted to Leviticus and the Old Testament to analyze the texts in detail, and determine how they are relevant to the New Testament and Christianity today.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Alex. I don’t claim to be any kind of a bible scholar but it seems to me these “laws” were written down for a nomadic Semitic tribe around the 6th century BC and it seems blatantly obvious that the majority do not apply to the 21st century. If this is the case, I would ask, why should any of these “laws” have any moral weight?

      1. That is the question, isn’t it. Because the fundamental idea behind Christianity is that Jesus is the *only* way to know God and escape the fate of Hell, and also postulates that Jesus intended his commandments to supplement, not be separate from or supersede the Torah and currently held religious beliefs. So the only way to get into heaven is to take the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, and come to grips with it somehow.

        From what I’ve gathered, the spirit of the old testament laws dictated how Israel was supposed to act as ‘God’s chosen people,’ including how Israel was to relate to its enemies as opposed to fellow Israelites. Your enemies were lawless men, but your fellow Israelite was something special–he was one of God’s chosen, so special rules applied. And Israel was supposed to be an example to the rest of the world.

        However, in the case of religious and sexual sins (two very distinct sections in Leviticus, and ones that each mention homosexuality for different reasons… but that’s a tangent) the punishment even for Israelites could be death. This is where the idea of Jesus coming to “fulfill” the laws comes into play. Because Jesus was sacrificed on the cross for all of humanities sins, the old laws were no longer applied. The sins were still sins, but they were no longer punishable by death. (Which makes you wonder, theologically, what the Biblical argument would be for the death penalty). AND Jesus’ coming opened up the “special” status of the being one of God’s chosen to all of mankind, not just the Israelites. So in that sense, the laws about how to treat non-Israelites (who were NOT God’s chosen people) are irrelevant because now everyone falls under the special status.

        Then there are the “health” laws: separate a woman for a week while she’s bleeding, don’t certain types of meats, etc. All of which may have been fairly good health advice in the ancient world. Should a man still be punished for violating these laws? No, because Jesus took care of that problem by paying for sins. Would God still frown on you having sex with your wife while she’s on her period? Should you eat raw pork? Because of Jesus, you can without being stoned and ostracized, but does it mean you should?

        I’m not a scholar, or a Christian, and my interaction has been primarily with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, so my take on the reasoning is only moderately informed and a bit skewed. But that’s what I’ve gathered, in more detail. Sorry for being a bit of the devil’s advocate in reverse! I found the question interesting, because it’s one that I’ve approached from various angles over the years. I’ve never gotten a full, hands down explanation either, but lots of answers that rely on faith and abstracted application of theological principles.

        Apologies for playing angel’s advocate 😉

  4. Excellent post. I don’t talk about it often at all, but my degrees are actually in theology. I have long said the same thing. You can’t selectively claim some rules and brush others off.

    Since you (sort of) asked for it, here’s my take: the Bible was never meant to be a rule book. It’s meant to be a story, which is a good thing because, as a rule book, it stinks. It’s confusing and contradicts itself and only a handful of times (like the ten commandments) comes right out and says, “Do this,” in a way that is crystal clear. But as a story, regardless of your belief system, it’s interesting, dramatic, scary, uplifting and even inspiring.

    Friends who know my background occasionally hit me up with tough theological questions, and I tend to answer questions about scripture the same way each time. The bible is a story, and the key to understanding it (if there is one) is in following the development of the main character–God. Like any other story, it doesn’t answer every question about him or solve every riddle, but what it does do is give us some insight into who he is. Enough to know basic things about what he holds dear, what he hates, and what he hopes for us. Read that way, it’s pretty hard to use the Bible as a social weapon to enforce your preferred set of rules. It’s too subjective to be used in that fashion, and I think that’s by design.

    And anyway, the rules don’t matter. The characters do. The Bible, I would argue, is not one long morality tale. It’s an introduction. The point is not “behave this way”, but “this is who God is”. And it pulls no punches in that regard. Trudge through the Old Testament some time. God does all kinds of dark, violent, even shady things. To say that he’s a complex character is putting it lightly. No one, reading the entirety of the Bible, would ever sound sane claiming that he/she fully understands God. (And really, would anyone want to worship a God we could psycho-analyze? Where’s the mystery in that?) As far as I’m concerned, there are basic (very basic) things I think (er…hope) I understand about him, but there’s far more I just don’t get. You could say I take the rest on faith.

    Granted, I’m not representative of the majority of Christians. Most Christians would, in fact, disagree with me. They might even interrupt me, forcefully pushing me to shut the hell up for the sake of my own soul. But the Bible is a book. I read books. I write books. Why should I approach this one, even as old and sacred as it is, in a radically different way? It’s a story. The people in it are characters. It’s not a manual for life–it’s an adventure.

    I know–I sound like a writer. Eh, I am what I am. My point, though, is that the truth (if you believe there’s truth to be found in the Bible) is hidden in the who of scripture, not the do’s and do not’s.

    [Adam steps down from his soapbox]

    1. Get up on that soapbox anytime, Adam! 🙂 Thanks for a brilliantly articulate reply. While I wouldn’t share your faith – and I would be extremely sceptical of the historical accuracy of the Bible – I wholeheartedly agree that it is an astonishing written work. I also think we could all do a lot worse than to heed some of Jesus’ words (if they were in fact *his* words). I’m with Gandhi on that one: “”I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

      1. That quote from Gandhi is one of my all time favorites. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

        Faith is such a personal thing. I don’t really see much point in pushing it on anyone. I’m all for discussion–this one, for example, is interesting and fun–but we’re talking about things that cannot be proven. Why people argue about this kind of stuff baffles me.

        As far as the historical accuracy goes, you’re absolutely right. The Bible isn’t historically accurate, at least not according to the way we conceive of historical accuracy. In that time (both Old and New Testament), history wasn’t recorded the way we record it now. People felt it was more important to make a record of the spirit of an event than to thoroughly document the facts. That’s one of the reasons why the historical sections of the Bible don’t sync up. Plus, I personally think some significant chunks of it (like the creation story) are purely metaphorical.

        All of that is beside the point, though. At least, as I understand it. I’ve come to believe that the most important message of the Bible is painfully simple: be nice/kind/loving to others. When I come across people who don’t agree with that motto I tend to avoid them, regardless of their theology!

  5. Great post and great responses
    Between them, Alex and Adam have said a lot of what I was going to say and you guys have already decided it doesn’t satisfy as an answer. 🙂
    There’s a couple of points I would like to add that equally will not satisfy!

    But before I do, may I be so bold as to suggest [POLITE NOTICE – as the legal letters would put it :)] I doubt you’ll be satisfied with any answer (even a comprehensive chapter and verse one) if it says there are certain things that people should just not do!

    Anyway firstly, I don’t believe you’re saying that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a bad concept. So you are questioning whether it can be applied to abortion? I think the reason there is a question mark is not because we disagree on what killing is or whether it is wrong. I reckon it’s cause we disagree on what life is. That is usually where the abortion discussions fall apart.

    I take your point. I get that the inconsistency is frustrating.
    I’ve a BTh and will soon have an M.A. in Theology and I still don’t get it. But as a Christian I don’t question every wrinkle I can’t iron out. I trust what I know of the character of God to be just and faithful in the bits I don’t understand.

    At the end of the day, decisions will be made and I will obey the law of the land because I should.
    But while these things are still up for discussion, I believe as an Irish citizen I have the right to say to the decision makers – just like everyone else – “You want my vote? Then listen to my voice.”

    1. This is a really interesting post Derek. I had no idea you were so familiar with the Bible 😉 And I’ve always maintained that if you’re taking some of it at face value, then who awards you the right to cherrypick some parts snd disregard others? Either it all stands up, or it doesn’t.

      The comments also are really insightful and I like Alex and Adam’s perspectives in particular. Out of curiosity, I wonder if there are any references to abortion at all in the New Testament?

      1. Thanks AM. Yeah, I find that atheists are oftentimes more familiar with the Bible than believers, perhaps because we’re at once curious and bewildered by it, but don’t just take it at face value. As for references to abortion in the NT, again, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I don’t believe so. Perhaps Alex, Adam or AnnMarie might be able to enlighten us more.

      2. To my knowledge, there are no references at all to abortion in the Old or New Testament. There are plenty of references to killing, and that’s generally what Christians will lean on. Of course, there are also many times when God explicitly condones and/or commands killing, so anyone arguing that God “always” opposes killing is on shaky ground.

        The issue of abortion is further complicated by arguments over when life begins–at conception or at birth. I’m not aware of any Bible verse that easily answers that question, either. (I tend to think of that argument as tangential anyway. I’m not sure how we got so hung-up on that idea…)

        I think the Bible does present the view that God values life, and that inclines me (personally) to believe that abortion as a matter of convenience is not the best choice a person could make. However, there are so many other potential factors, I’m certainly not comfortable saying anything as sweeping (and judgmental) as “abortion is always wrong”.

        Just my two cents.

    2. Thanks for that AnnMarie. As it happens, I wasn’t even beginning to go down the road of my thoughts on abortion. I was simply thinking aloud that if you use the Bible’s laws to back up your argument that it *is*, then the Bible’s other laws must surely apply equally. But – between yourself, Alex and Adam – we seem to have teased out that argument pretty comprehensively 🙂

  6. Derek the God I believe in is a wonderful, loving, compassionate being, I frequently talk to him about much of the trivia of my life – he (for in my minds eye he’s a he) is a Superstar who gave us our humanity and hoped we’d follow his example, creating goodness in this world..

    I feel he’d agree with you, in the same way I feel he’d turn in his grave (if he’d stayed in it) at much of the man made nonsense spoken of and done in his name by organised religion, in general.

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