Old Testament Law

Heather Watkins asked 2 months ago

As a Christian I have been trying to understand the role of Old Testament law in my faith. Specifically, when I read Exodus 21:7-11 or Exodus 21:32 I am deeply troubled because it is clear that the value of both female and slave lives is limited. I believe this violates the principle of the sanctity of human life.

I have also read that many of these OT laws are similar in both form and reasoning to other ancient Near Eastern codes including the Law of Hammurabi. See “Reading Biblical Law” by Shalom E. Holtz in the Jewish Study Bible.

Exodus presents these laws as having come from God which, I believe, implies an eternal rightness as far as principle. The sanctity, the immeasurable value, of every human life seems to be such a principle. When I see it violated, I start thinking that Exodus was just another society justifying its power structure with “god authority”.

Can you help?

1 Answers
Aaron Simms answered 2 months ago

Hi, great question and thank you for asking it!

I’ll split my thoughts up into two areas: (1) the issue of the OT Law being similar to other Near Eastern codes and (2) the particular issue of the verses you mention.

Regarding the first issue, the OT Law (particularly the 10 Commandments) is a clear exposition of the Natural Law. The idea is that God has written the Natural Law (sometimes called the Moral Law) on our hearts and therefore all people know it, to some degree (see, for example Romans 2:14-15). This manifests itself as our conscience or a nagging feeling when we know we’ve done something wrong. C. S. Lewis has a nice explanation of this in the first part of his book "Mere Christianity." Therefore, it is not unexpected that various cultures have codified laws which are similar to the OT Law, since all people have some knowledge of the Natural Law. The Ten Commandments reflect God’s Natural Law and are simply God’s way to make the Natural Law clear to us.

Here are a couple of articles about Natural Law: http://cyclopedia.lcms.org/display.asp?t1=n&word=NATURALLAW (Lutheran) and http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a1.htm (Catholic)

Regarding the second issue of the verses, Martin Luther and others believed that the only part of the OT Law still binding is that which accords with the Natural Law (e.g. https://blogs.lcms.org/2011/natural-law-lutheranism-and-the-public-good-3-2011).

So, for example, the Ten Commandments are a clear exposition of Natural Law, so they still apply, although Christ has fulfilled them on our behalf and died for our sins (both our inherited sin from Adam and Eve and our actual sins we obtained due to our inability to live up to the Ten Commadments or Natural Law).

The other laws in the Old Testament, then, were a way to regulate the life of the people of Israel to mark them out as different than the other nations and as God’s people. That is, they are not part of the Natural Law, but rather a way to improve the way fallen humanity was living at the time. Taken in this light, we can see Exodus 21:7-11 as an improvement over the practice of the other nations. That is, if the female slave did not please her master, he was not allowed to sell her to foreigners (i.e. to the nations outside Israel). Instead, he had to let her be redeemed and freed. If she married his son, she was to be as a daughter. So, she had certain rights granted by God. Other nations treated their slaves as property with no rights at all. Verse 32 is somewhat similar in that it recognizes that the life of a slave had value.

I hope this helps, feel free to ask any followup questions you’d like.

Thanks!