‘Awful’ rules in the Bible
Is the Good Book really good?
This week we feature feedback from an individual who questions whether various regulations in the Bible are morally trustworthy. Andrey I. writes:
Hello CMI , hope i don’t annoying with my questions , but am i correctly understand Mark 12:18–27 : when husband die but in marriage they don’t have kids , wife must marriage on husband’s brother and they must have kids ?
and why God allowed polygamy to the Solomon, Gideon ?
what the awful rule in Deuteronomy 22:20–21 ?
why Bible it’s so evil, i mean it’s prohibits gays , or marriage with non christians ,but allow to kill women with rocks (Deuteronomy 22:20–21) ?
or i something don’t understand ?
CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:
Thank you for your series of questions. We do already have a few articles that address these topics, so please always be sure to search creation.com before you write in. For example, searching for ‘monogamy’, ‘polygamy’, or ‘one woman’ would have found articles like One man, one woman: Does the Bible really teach monogamy? which answers your question "why God allowed polygamy". I picked plausible keywords to show that the answer was not too hard to find.
Certainly, there are a number of customs and laws in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) that can appear odd or even morally repugnant to modern readers. But let’s remember that we live in a very different culture than the ancient Near East (ANE). We shouldn’t dismiss their way of life too quickly without trying to put ourselves in their shoes. Plus, the Bible says that the Mosaic law is good, since it was given by God (Psalm 19:7–11; Romans 7:12). In particular, it was designed to keep Israel separate from the surrounding pagan nations, so many of its provisions illustrated ritual separation—see Are we allowed to eat all animals today? We can’t just throw God’s law under the bus and say that we know better now. Rather, we should try to understand how it was appropriate for its purpose, in its context.
Now, remember that the Mosaic law has limited jurisdiction. It was not to govern all people for all times, but was given to the ancient Israelites until Jesus fulfilled this law and inaugurated the new covenant (Galatians 3:24–26; Hebrews 8:13). We Christians must govern ourselves morally, living by the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21), but we are not bound to keep every directive in, say, Leviticus, which includes many rituals intended for ancient Israel alone.
Another key point is that the Mosaic law is not an exhaustive compilation of moral or legal rules to cover every possible situation. Instead it contains representative case laws to be used as guidelines by sensible judges. See CMI answers philosophy/religion professor on biblical exegesis and the problem of evil. Note how, in cases like that of Zelophehad’s daughters, which preexisting laws failed to address, new statutes were implemented (Numbers 27:1-11). Also, Jesus implied that David was blameless even though he violated the letter of the law by eating the holy bread that was reserved for priests (Matthew 12:3–4).
With these general considerations in mind, then, let’s examine the specific issues you raise. First, you seem uncomfortable with levirate marriage, where a man marries his brother’s widow to perpetuate his family line. This custom predated the Mosaic law (Genesis 38:8), and was incorporated into it (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). You don’t say exactly what you find objectionable, but the ancient Israelites considered this law to be good because it kept a man’s lineage from going extinct and provided for his widow. In a patriarchal society, a woman who had no husband or sons might be reduced to poverty, as in the case of Ruth. Marrying a close relative ensured that her property would remain in the family, and that she would be taken care of.
Regarding polygamy, the Bible never endorses or encourages it. Keep in mind that the Bible does not condone everything it records. For example, Lot’s daughters got their father drunk and seduced him (Genesis 19:30-38). Although no explicit condemnation appears in the immediate context, there is no need to belabor the obvious. The reader is expected to already have the background knowledge to evaluate such behavior.
The Apostle Paul recognized that God tolerated certain behaviors under the old covenant (Romans 3:25; cf. Acts 17:30). But, as Jesus pointed out with regard to divorce, it was not that way from the beginning (Matthew 19:4). Lifelong monogamy was God’s original, normative ideal. See, again, One man, one woman. This is why the New Testament insists that elders be monogamous, for example (1 Timothy 3:2)—a standard to which everyone should aspire.
And notice that there were explicit limitations on polygamous practices. A man was not allowed to be married to two sisters at once because they would likely become rivals (Leviticus 18:18), and the king was not to "acquire many wives, lest his heart turn away" (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon was clearly in violation of this commandment, and God judged him for it (1 Kings 11:1–13). So it’s actually not the case that God simply looked the other way.
As for Deuteronomy 22:20–21, it shouldn’t be hard to see why the Bible regards sex outside of marriage as immoral—it violates God’s design for the family and causes harm to individuals and society. But perhaps you think the punishment is too harsh. Well, consider that we all have a tendency to treat sin like it’s no big deal even though it’s very serious to God, who is "of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong" (Habakkuk 1:13). From a wider perspective, all sin places us under a death sentence (Romans 6:23) and God has the right to require someone’s life (Job 2:10), so it seems that stoning can be justified if it is sanctioned by God. Also, as we have pointed out, Deuteronomy has the form of a typical ANE suzerainty treaty with God as Suzerain and Israel as vassal. So any violations of the law constitute treaty violations and treason against their acknowledged overlord. Considered on those lines, capital punishment has long been the norm throughout the world. We are certainly in no position to prove that God does not have morally sufficient reasons for such a punishment. But, to soften this a bit, we should also keep in mind that a common feature of ANE law codes was to describe the maximum possible punishment while allowing for less severe sentences. See Is the Bible an immoral book? Notice, for example, that when Joseph discovered that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, he was called "just" for planning to "divorce her quietly" rather than "put her to shame" (Matthew 1:19).
Or perhaps you have another concern. Perhaps you think that better proof of guilt should be required before a woman is condemned. But the articles I’ve linked to above show that the test for virginity was not applied hyper-rigidly, and women were acquitted if they had legitimate reasons for failing the test.
Also, by the way, it’s only the Creator who can ground morality in the first place. So if your view is that man is merely a byproduct of naturalistic evolution, then you would be irrational to call anything immoral, and thus you would have no basis for crying foul about biblical morality. See Can we be good without God? and What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma). But if God is the foundation for morality and we are fallen creatures, then we should allow him to correct our fallible grasp of right and wrong (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Finally, the Bible condemns homosexual behavior and unequal yoking for good reasons, since these practices are harmful to individuals and society. There is nothing harsh about such prohibitions—they exist for our good! That’s true of all of God’s commands. Like God told the ancient Israelites in Deut. 30:19, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…".
I hope that addresses your concerns.