Old Testament Law: A Redemptive Movement

Anthony Weber —  October 1, 2012 — 5 Comments

In the previous posts, I noted two key points in relation to Old Testament law. First, the laws cannot be understood apart from their context and purpose. Second, many of the laws that seem unusually restrictive served an important purpose: God wanted a people who understood what it meant for something to be “holy” – separate, undefiled, and distinct.  God used laws governing seemingly insignificant things to help the Israelites understand what it meant for them to be distinct from the cultures around them.

Even with these caveats, it’s hard to read the Law without cringing at more morally significant mandates, such as those concerning slavery or the treatment of women.

It is important to note that while the Israelite Law was a solid move toward a better world, the laws were usually incremental instead of complete.  The laws were intended to show a redemptive movement in the broader context of the world.  In Christian terms, this means God at times used progressive revelation to reveal truth.  The cultural climate of world was at a particular place; God used the Law to begin a redemptive movement away from injustice and toward justice.  It was a cultural shift that can only be appreciated by understanding what God was pulling people from and what he was pulling them toward.  The Old Testament shows the beginning of a restorative work in a very broken world through a particular group of people. This was the start of that process, not the finished product. 

We see this principle clearly in the New Testament. Let’s start with the broad principles of justice and mercy. Jesus himself taught:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’”  

He was referring to an Old Testament priniciple of lex talionis (Exodus 21:22-25).  Jesus continued:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38-39).

The Old Testament standard limited revenge (a good and unusual move for that time period), but the New Testament showed an  ideal where mercy and forgiveness side-by-side with justice.

In spite of the misogynist label given to Old Testament law, the status of women also revealed a redemptive movement. According to the Mosaic law, a wife had a right not to endure physical abuse; she had the right to inheritance, as well as the right to initiate divorce and be protected from a husband’s frivolous divorce. The Law commanded improved treatment of suspected adulteresses, improved rape laws, and a more equitable household environment. In other words, a woman in Israel was not a powerless possession living at the social and economic mercy of the men around her. Once again, these laws were not the apex of God’s plan.  They were part of a redemptive movement away from the cultural norms in the cultures of that time.

Here’s one example of how a redemptive movement for women finds its fruition in the New Testament. In Deuteronomy 24, divorce is permitted;  Matthew 19 clearly states that divorce is not God’s ideal – the certificate of divorce was to protect the wife because of the hardness of her husband’s heart.  We read later in the New Testament, “Husbands, love your wife, as Christ loved the Church.”  This kind of love is an agape love, selfless and sacrificial. That’s the goal.

The Mosaic law makes it clear that offenses against slaves were offenses against people with value, in sharp contrast will all other cultures at that time. In Exodus 21, the Israelites were to take “life for life” if a master killed a slave. If a slave was beaten and lost an eye or a tooth, he or she was set free. Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway slaves. Israel, however, was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) and grant release in the seventh year to indentured servants according to Deuteronomy 15. . Slaves were given leisure days. Masters had to release slaves from service with generous provisions, all conducted with the right attitude for the slave’s well-being as he enters into freedom:

“Beware that there is no base thought in your heart . . . and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother” (Deuteronomy 15:9).

We read in the book of Job:

If I have denied justice to my slaves (menservants and maidservants) when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me?  What will I answer when called to account? Did not he who made me in the womb make them?  Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:13-15).

William Webb writes of the redemptive movement in the Old Testament, noting how the Old Testament law improved the status of slaves in contrast to the norm as seen in the historical records of other cultures at that time. Regarding slavery, Christopher Wright declares:

“The slave [in Israel] was given human and legal rights unheard of in contemporary societies.  Mosaic legislation offered a radical advance for Ancient Near East cultures. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, ‘We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters.’”

     One cannot understand the New Testament passages on slavery without understanding context and purpose. There is a noteworthy difference between slavery and indentured servitude in the ANE and Roman world. We have an image of slavery drawn from our recent American history. This is not an accurate reflection of how both slaves and servants lived at other times.

In the NT, slaves are encouraged to pursue freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21). Two verses later, Paul clarifies what type of slavery he is talking about when he gives the free people in the church the following caution: “do not become slaves of men.” Paul is not saying, “Avoid capture.”  He’s saying, “Avoid putting yourself into such a financial bind that you must become a servant to pay off your debts.” This is a passage about indentured servitude. 

Paul takes a lot of undeserved heat for returning Onesimus to Philemon, but let’s add some context to that situation. Paul had been an exemplary Jew: he knew the Mosaic Law said not to return a slave to his master. Onesimus was likely a runaway indentured servant, fleeing before his debt was paid.  Paul befriends him when Onesimus ended up in prison, and after hearing his story urged Onesimus – whom Paul claimed as a “son” – to return to Philemon.  Paul sent along a letter urging Philemon to free him of the rest of his obligation because Onesimus was a brother in Christ (Philemon 1:16; Galatians 3:28).

The infamous 1 Corinthians 7 and Colossians 3 passages are often blamed for encouraging a slave mentality. On the contrary, they contain advice to slaves/indentured servants about how to live with integrity in the midst of hardship. It’s hardly an “atta boy!” for their lot in life.  Considering how Romans dealt with civil disobedience, and considering the “present crisis” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:26 (likely a famine that had left many people in dire financial straits), the advice to persevere with patience may have simply been a practical reality for that time.

So what redemptive movement did the Old Testament laws begin?  IN the ANE, slaves were owned as mere possessions; the Mosaic law began to recognize them as people with moral significance deserving of rights; the New Testament declared that we are all brothers in sisters in Christ.


God appears to have actively involved the Israelites in a movement that began an individual and societal restoration. When Jesus arrived, he explained what the fulfillment of the Law actually looked like, which is one reason Christian ethical systems build primarily from the person and teaching of Christ and the New Testament, not the 613 laws in the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is not to be discarded, but its usefulness cannot be understood without seeing the broader context and purpose of the entire Biblical revelation.

Up next: What if the punishments in the Old Testament don’t fit the crime?

Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.
  • Steve Ruble

    It seems inefficient for God to lay down a bunch of arbitrary laws with the intention of emphasizing the “separateness” of the Israelites while also laying down a “progressive revelation” of moral laws which were at best slight improvements over the laws of neighboring cultures. Here’s a law that would have had the dual effect of both making Israel quite distinct from surrounding cultures and greatly improving moral standards: “Thou shalt not own people.” Here’s another: “Woman shall have equal standing with men under the law in all things.”

    If God’s goals when creating the OT law are as you describe them, why did he choose such a feeble and meandering path towards those goals? It’s not as though he’s reluctant in general to give commandments which are difficult or onerous to follow (do the phrases “Turn the other cheek,” and “Give all that you have to the poor,” ring a bell?).

    I’ll give you one thing: the god you’re describing does appear to be the god of many modern conservative Christians, in that he appears to care much more rules which distinguish “us” from “them” – rules about homosexuality, abortion, teaching evolution, etc. – than about rules which are morally important – give to the poor, be kind, support justice, etc. But is that the God you worship?

    • http://learningtojumpagain.com/ Anthony Weber

      Steve, one point I was attempting to make was that the laws were not arbitrary. The Israelites understood their purpose. “Slight” is a tricky word when it comes to moral improvement. A comparison of the new Israelite standard again other cultures would strike me as “vast” in a number of areas.
      Your two suggested rules are obviously the ideal. The point of progressive revelation is that it is, well, progressive. You and I may not like the timing as we look back with thousands of years of human history to inform our perspective, but that does not make the progress bad. Good progress is good, no? Think of the process of emancipation in England and America. It was certainly progressive and incremental. That hardly counts against it. A God who fast forwards human nature, cultures, and history so that people do not have to wrestle with their own nature strikes me as a “helicopter” God, to use a modern parenting term.
      I must sadly agree with your last point – too many Christians have a terribly distorted understanding of holiness. It’s one thing to believe that certain issues are morally important because I have chosen to live my life in light of God’s will for me; it’s quite another to be arrogant and mean as I interact with those who do not share my beliefs or moral standards.
      As you know from the God of War series, I believe God showed a willingness to directly intervene in extreme cases of cruelty and evil. In general, though, God seems willing to allow those who do not wish to make a covenant (to use OT language) to live their lives freely without forcing them to agree with His law.
      In addition, there are very clear commands in the OT about the necessity of caring for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants. The Israelites had to take care of the most marginalized among them (there are more than 2,000 verses on poverty and justice). Check out this link for a tremendous list of verses: http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/poor.htm. And this link: http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/learn/g8-bibleverses).

      • Steve Ruble

        When I describe the holiness laws (the laws you describe as having the effect of marking the Israelites out as a separate people) as “arbitrary” I mean that they do not appear to have any intrinsic moral content. Instead, to the extent that they have moral content they have it because they have an instrumental effect which is morally relevant – namely, to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding nations. If the holiness laws contained intrinsic moral content – if it were truly, intrinsically wrong to do work on the Sabbath, for example – then it would still be wrong for us to do work on the Sabbath today. (This is assuming that moral truths are enduring and do not change, which I take to be part of your account.) The only way I can see to reconcile the immutability of divinely-founded morality with the eventual abrogation of the holiness laws is to say that the holiness laws were instrumental and therefore arbitrary: any laws which achieved the same ends could have been given instead, without any overall reduction in moral good.

        So my question is: why use arbitrary, purely instrumental laws to establish the separateness of the Israelites, rather than laying down moral laws which would be both intrinsically and instrumentally good? God shows no reluctance in laying down laws which cause significant changes in the culture (indeed, the holiness laws would be a failure if they did not force transformative changes upon the culture) so why should he be reluctant to lay down laws which cause significant morally good changes in the culture?

        • http://learningtojumpagain.com/ Anthony Weber

          Ah. Got ya. We were using arbitrary in different ways. My initial thought is that I agree that some of the holiness laws were instrumental. However, there are other laws that are both instrumentally and intrinsically good. Typically, theologians look at the New Testament to clarify which were instrumental and which were intrinsic. If we take the ethic of Christ as the apex of Christian moral teaching, does that not seem both challenging and transformative?

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