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‘Awful’ rules in the Bible

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Is the Good Book really good?

Published: 18 August 2013 (GMT+10)

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 responds:

Hi Andrey,

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.


Keaton Halley

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
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Readers’ comments

Jeff H.
This particular sin was not just the sin of fornication, but also of lying--the woman is considered guilty of lying; she is the only one who really knows whether she was a virgin. She presented herself to her new husband as pure and undefiled, but she wasn't. The father's punishment was that he would be branded as someone who allowed his daughters to go "whoring"--he didn't properly supervise his family.

But the reason given for the harsh punishment was to "purge the evil from among you".

The same is in vs. 22 and 23 (concensual adultery).

The same is in Deut 21:21 (rebellion of sons) and Deut 19:19 (bearing false witness). And others are supposed to be afraid enough no to do the same things. These were apparently very serious things--evil things--that weren't to be tolerated.

Deut 21:20"They shall say to the elders of his city, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.' 21"Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.

Deut 19:19then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.

Can you imagine how teenage rebellion would be staunched if the parents were to take their rebellious child to the magistrate and turn him over for execution (assuming proper trial and guilty verdict)? Can imagine very many school shootings in such a society?

The evil would indeed be purged.

God wanted to preserve his people, and this was the best way for him to do it, apparently, until Jesus came.
Phillip B.
Pointing at the laws in the Bible that required death, and saying "How awful" show to me that most do not understand history. You heard of the saying nothing is ever truly free, this is especially true of sin. If one looks at history, both recent and ancient, the sins that the Bible in the laws of Moses demand a death penalty lead to death of the individual, and eventually if they are generally accepted as the norm; enslavement, suffering and death of many, even those who are innocent. These practices can even lead to the self destruction of an entire civilisation. I believe in the severity of the punishment for these sins God was trying to educate un rebellious humans as to the severity of the final consequences for unchecked sin both in society and our personal lives. Rebellion against God always leads to death, and then eternal death, in the lake of fire. God instated these laws to show us we cannot be righteous by own own efforts, the severity of sin and its consequences and that as many that are willing may be saved through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only when we submit to Gods controlling influence that we can live in a truly free society. I have noticed myself the growing spirit of fear in the west as we turn from God and the los of personal freedoms. I think a good article to read in relation to this is the one showing how "tolerant" modern society is really intolerant. Finally in reading the law of Moses the general guiding principal was the burden of proof of three corroborating witnesses to enact upon it, where as in many non Christian countries one is enough. This shows how much God values life, especially the life of the innocent.
Berend B.
Dear Keaton Halley,

In your "‘Awful’ rules in the Bible" you write: "Regarding polygamy, the Bible never endorses or encourages it.".

I would say that Leviticus 18:18 clearly forbids polygamy: "18: Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.".

The phrase "take a wife to her sister" is Hebrew for: "take another wife." That was not to be done while the first wife still lived. In Genesis 26:31 we have the same phrase for example: "a husband to his brother," i.e. translated as "one to another". And in Joel 2:8 we have this phrase again.

And Kings were not exempt: Deuteronomy 17:17: "Neither shall he multiply wives to himself".

I refer you to John Henry Livingston's "A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man With His Sister-In-Law".
R. D.
While I commend CMI for avoiding taking a position on an issue which has no crystal-clear Biblical answer - that is, the precise status of the Deuteronomaic law in post-Christ times - one thing that's very important (and almost all Bible critics fail to do) is to note the difference between LAW (i.e., you do this, you do not do that) and judicial punishment (if you do this, that happens), which is quite different. The treaty of Deuteronomy contains absolutes for the former and, as pointed-out in the above article, things which were intended as and (as many parts of the Bible itself and non-canonical literature of the time as well) were taken as guidelines for sensible judges. It's unfortunate that most modern Christians fail to point-out the Bible-critic's error in failing to differentiate thus, because there's rarely any issue, even in modern times, with the law itself, what people tend to think of as barbaric is the punishments.

One of the clearest signs, for my money personally, that these punishment stipulations were something intended for the Israelites of the time between Moses and Jesus only is Jesus' own words when He made it quite clear that the death penalty for adultery was not something meant as a long-term thing (John 8:1-11 - and yes, of course the legitimacy of this passage is disputed, but I support CMI's views that it did indeed happen). Many of God's commands have been temporary, and I think the Mosaic punishment stipulations were one such.

After all, there is good reason to suspect so - many (including CMI writers) have noted how God needed to be particularly strict with the Israelites during this time. Notice how many of the punishments conclude with "you must purge the evil from among you".
Paul O.
" It was not to govern all people for all times, but was given to the ancient Israelites until Jesus fulfilled this law"

Why do you completely ignore what Jesus actually said (according to the Bible)?

Matthew 5
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Keaton Halley
There are a range of views among Christians about how the old and new covenants relate to one another, though all affirm that some elements of the old covenant such as the sacrificial system have been fulfilled in Christ (see the book of Hebrews). CMI does not endorse any particular view, and my statement was not meant to either. We affirm what Jesus said in Matthew 5.
Mark G.
I should make a specific response to the concerns about gay marriage and polygamy, to add the great response from Keaton Halley. God told us his plan but before Christ it was not clear. Jesus quoted Genesis and stated:
Mat 19:4-6 ... He who made them at the beginning 'MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE,' and said, 'FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH' ? ... Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

It is clear from this verse that the first couple were created male and female, NOT male, female, bisexual, homosexual and more. Monogamy, divorce and more were tolerated before Jesus came because of the hardness of their hearts, but from the beginning it was not so. Then with Jesus came truth that people in the Old Testament did not have. Eph 5:32 "This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church."
This was a mystery but marriage was a pattern of Christ and the Church and their love relationship forever in heaven. Polygamy, gay marriage, sex outside of marriage and all other contenders for a form of marriage or intimacy miss God’s pattern for Christ and His bride, the Church.
Further, there is no recognized sexual sin in the wider gay community. Who will tell a gay person that gay marriage is moral but not the one night stands? And on what grounds? Do we then say gays may have sex outside marriage but not the straight people? Is there NO sexual sin?
Followers of Christ believe that, as our Creator, God alone has the right to tell His creatures what is moral and what is not. Without God, who is even to say what is right or what is wrong?

God knows what He is doing and when He tells us something is sin. We trust in our Creator, not political correctness!
Ed M.
Mr. Halley, I thought that this was a particularly good article and enjoyed reading it thoroughly.
Mark G.
There is another important point about the law in the Old Testament. The Law represented justice where righteousness is earned and punishment severe. The entire point of the Law was to show that righteousness earned by good works is a bad idea.

The other main point was that judgment under the law was too severe and though some seemed to get judged worse, in truth the whole world became guilty before God.

Thus the reason for Jesus. Instead of earning righteousness, we receive it by faith in Jesus. Instead of judgment, we receive unmerited Grace and forgiveness that we never earned.

The writer was concerned about the heavy judgment of the law but missed it's very point. When we try to establish our own righteousness, there are no end to rules and regulations with severe consequences. Though the writer of the comment may not like it, humanity needed to see just how futile a life under religious law really is. We needed to know and Paul was clear about that.

When one understands that the law of Moses was never God's final intention, but instead it was faith, we should all cheer for faith in Jesus and reject righteousness earned by the works of religious law.

Jesus own dealing with a condemned woman, offering her grace and forgiveness instead of a stoning, is a great contrast to grace vs strict religious laws! Now we can do good things because we want to, not because we have to.

Having said all this, some people still sadly seek religion and rules instead of the grace and righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus.

The writer should agree with the Apostle Paul that Grace is better than Law of Moses. So now every reader should choose Salvation by faith and take the lesson to heart that faith in Jesus is better than that Law of Moses, or any other religious law.
N. N.
What exactly was the "test" of virginity? How would they go about determining whether or not she was still a virgin?
Keaton Halley
There are a couple of different views on this. I recommend you consult a good commentary on Deuteronomy. CMI doesn't take a stand on which view is correct.
Susan V.
Thank you for this site and thank you also to the friend that forwarded it to me. I am pleased that the subject "Awful rules in the Bible" was brought up. I also thought how cruel they were in that day... slaves nailed to a doorpost by their ear, and so on. But never for one moment did I stop to think that the Old Testament and Deuteronomy in particular was written for ANE people and not for modern society.
Keaton Halley
Glad it's been helpful. And for what it's worth regarding Deuteronomy 15:17, nobody was being permanently affixed to a door. I presume the door was just mentioned as something solid to drive the awl into when performing the piercing.
Michael K.
I think your answer is astute and your website is excellent.

My only suggestion for improvement is that I find the fonts you use very difficult to read. Perhaps a darker or thicker font would be better?

God Bless You Richly!

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