One of the most common criticisms of the Old Testament is that the laws (and there are a lot of laws in the OT) that God gave the people of Israel were unenlightened, barbaric, mysogynistic (not nice to women), nationalistic etc. etc. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, in one of the most famous lines from his book “The God Delusion” makes the statment that:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Despite that, as someone put it, it sounds like Prof Dawkins has “swallowed a thesaurus” and the fairly angry tone of this paragraph – the substance of his claim is one that many would share, at least in part. The idea that the God, and his laws, that we find in the Old Testament has no relevance for us post-enlightenment people.
I’ve been reading Leviticus this week. It is the 3rd book of the Old Testament and its name means “regarding the Levites”. The tribe of Levi were descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, and were particularly chosen for religious duties in Israel, and from them the priests were chosen. The name can still be found among Jews today such as Lord Levy who is a friend of Tony Blair and was his special envoy to the Middle East during his premiership.
As such, the book of Leviticus contains mostly instructions about the worship and sacrifices of the Israelite community and of the laws that they should live by. It is these laws that I am thinking about today.
It needs to be borne in mind that the laws found in Leviticus were given in the context of the culture of the day. This was the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Europeans, native Americans, Aboriginal Australians etc. were still living in the late stone-age – still hunting deer with stone axes and wooden spears. The cities and civilisations of the Fertile Crescent were unknown in what we now call Gloucestershire. The customs, culture and laws of these societies (e.g. the Canaanites who lived in what we now call Israel) were incredibly different from our own – but also incredibly different from what we find God laying out in the Old Testament. Their approaches to justice, superstition, women, the poor, the disabled and punishment would appall many of us.
So, we may miss the fact that the laws and customs of the OT were radical and enlightened. If the Israelites had followed these laws, then they would have been living in such a radically different way from the nations around about. This is what God wanted, they just didn’t make a good job of it!
Let’s take a look at a few of them:
9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. 11 “‘Do not steal. ‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. 12 “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. 13 “‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbour. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. 14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. 15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. 17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Now, hang on a minute. Some of these are extraordinary, even today in 21st century AD Europe, let alone 12th century BC Canaan. Just a few to highlight:
- Don’t harvest every last bit – leave some for the poor. Just think of this principle in most businesses today.
- Do not lie. Need we say more.
- Don’t pay your workers late. This would change the lot of millions of poor labourers around the world.
- Don’t curse the deaf or blind. In Buddhist cultures – disability is seen as the result of bad Karma.
- Don’t slander other people. If only we could keep this one.
- Don’t seek revenge. This would change our world if we managed this.
All of this doesn’t mean that the OT doesn’t throw up some real questions when we read it, and I’m not trying to dodge them. But if we take a look again, we might find it all rather more enlightened that we thought. Go and read Leviticus.