Archive | Old Testament

A Review of the NIV 2011: Part 1 of 4

Stan Gundry, Vice President of Zondervan, was kind enough to send me a review copy of the NIV 2011. Not just any review copy—but a soft leather, NIV Thinline Reference Bible! My wife told me to hurry up with the review so that she could have it. I had to remind her that one doesn’t judge a book by its cover, but being Irish she might not have heard a word I said. And being of Scottish descent, I didn’t pay attention to whether she did. 

So, I must do this review in haste for the sake of peace in my home. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a careless review. I have read several reviews of the NIV 2011—some positive, some not—and have checked numerous passages to form a judgment of my own. As one who has been a consultant, proofreader, translator, or editor of a few Bible translations, I come with some experience in the matter.

A Selected History of the English Bible

First, for a brief history lesson. The NIV was one of the first English translations of the modern era to consciously depart from the King James Bible tradition. That tradition—reaching as far back as William Tyndale (1525)—has had successors in the Revised Version (1885), American Standard Version (1901), Revised Standard Version (1952), New American Standard Bible (1971), New Revised Standard Version (1989), and English Standard Version (2001). This tradition involves a heavy amount of infighting: The revisers of 1885, mostly British scholars, were slammed by those devoted to the King James Bible. Chief among them was John Burgon, whose main complaint was over the textual basis of the RV New Testament, a work that was largely a translation of the Greek text that Westcott and Hort had published in 1881. Apart from the textual base, the RV also suffered from its position of touting the triumph of “King Truth” over “King James.” The RV was literal, and slavishly so; it was the ugly step-child of King James, and had a poor following. Contrary to what many KJV Only advocates believe, the KJV was not a literal translation; it was a literary translation (as H. L. Mencken—no friend of Christianity once quipped—the King James Bible is “unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world”). It was a literary masterpiece that, in this regard, has been unmatched by any English translation of the Bible since. But its accuracy of text and translation were long overdue for a major overhaul when the RV came along. Continue Reading →

Matthew Flannagan’s Interactions with Thom Stark

A note from Paul Copan:

New Zealand theologian and philosopher of religion Matthew Flannagan is a good friend of mine.  He and his wife host an excellent blogsite—MandM.  Knowing that the kinds of comments Stark made in reply to me sounded much like what Matt had experienced, I asked Matt to comment on his previous exchanges with Thom Stark.  This is what he wrote. 

Hi Paul,

I still have not yet read Stark’s lengthy “review” of your book, but I do plan to respond. I have dipped in a bit, and it looks like more of the same stuff he wrote on his blog and in his emails to me. What you have written [in response to Stark] looks good, and it will be great read alongside Richard Hess’s response. 

Here is a brief overview of my interchange with him.

Sometime after I wrote a post on the Canaanite issue I was made aware of a post called “The Flannagan Delusion” by Thom Stark. The post not only called me “deluded,” but it contained nasty vitriol, speculated on and dissected my alleged motives, and distorted my position significantly. Stark did not respond to the line of argument I had made in the article he was responding to.  Instead he had put together a series of statements I had made in comments boxes on other issues and tied them together and presented them as my position on the Canaanite issue.

The post was part of a series with snarky titles in the same vein as “The Flannagan Delusion”; “Attack of the Clowns” was one.  In each case Stark speculated as to what other positions I held and attacked my basis for holding them even though I have never written on these issues. He continued to ignore my central argument.  He attacked my scholarly credentials; he stated I was not an Old Testament scholar and that my ideas were such that anyone in the field would recognise them as terrible.  The problem was I was not doing Old Testament Studies in the piece he was responding to; I had engaged in Old Testament Ethics—these fields overlap, but they are not the same.  I have a PhD in Theology specialising in Ethics. Stark, at the time, had a Bachelor of Divinity; so this ad hominem argument cuts both way. Continue Reading →

Richard Hess’s Response to Thom Stark

Note from Paul Copan:

This is an e-mail (dated 7 May 2011) to me from Richard Hess (Denver Seminary) in response to Thom Stark’s criticisms of Hess in Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker).

The entire letter is by Richard Hess, but it is divided into Stark’s charges/arguments (which I have italicized) with Hess’s full responses (which I begin with the capitalized “HESS:”)

Dear Paul:

Thanks for sharing this with me and for inviting me to respond.  I have chosen to address here most of the places where Stark actually cites me and criticizes me, and to address the problems with his points.  Surprisingly, the total wordage came to about 4500.  It was difficult to stop!  But I hope it is of help.

Best wishes,
Rick Hess

– – – – – –


In his first criticism of me, Mr. Stark quotes my reference to herem in the Mesha stele on p. 25 of my “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview.” He goes on to critique me as follows:
“This is Hess’s critique of Niditch. A two-sentence dismissal of a book-length argument!”  

HESS: Mr. Stark’s claim is false.  I devote pp. 25-27 of my article to summarizing the approach of Niditch and spend most of it approving of her work. Indeed, I largely use her categories as a useful means to understand the subject of warfare.  I never dismiss them.

“The problem is, contrary to Hess’s claim here, there is ample evidence in the early texts for human sacrifice to Yahweh, and good evidence that Israelites in the pre- monarchical period believed that a human sacrifice could be offered to Yahweh in exchange for victory in battle. Niditch spends numerous pages pouring [sic] over the evidence and discussing it in detail; Hess’s response is just to deny that any such evidence exists, with no argument offered. But we’ll just cite two examples.” 

HESS: This is false.  The denial of human sacrifice as “an approved form of Yahweh worship” is my concern throughout this discussion and that phrase appears at the end of the same paragraph on the same page where Stark cites my Mesha of Moab discussion.  Stark’s decision to ignore this point distorts my statements and my understanding of the absence of human sacrifice as “approved.”

The examples Stark cites to prove that human sacrifice was given to Yahweh and approved by early Israel come from Judges 11 and Numbers 21.  Judges 11 is irrelevant because (1) there is no reference to herem anywhere in the chapter; and (2) there is no evidence that this practice of Jephthah’s was “an approved form of Yahweh worship” in the sense that the biblical text endorses it.  Numbers 21 is irrelevant because it does not deal with human sacrifice.  Line 17 of the Mesha inscription does indeed discuss the herem.  However, it simply uses the causative verbal form of this root with the Moabite god as the direction toward which the herem was made.  This follows king Mesha’s slaughter of 7,000 inhabitants of the city.  However, in the context of war it is nowhere clear that this has to do with human sacrifice. It has to do with defeat of the enemy.  We do not know what the religious beliefs of the Moabite king were in respect to the practice of the herem; only that he practiced some form of it.  Beyond that, there is insufficient evidence on the basis of this one citation.  To attempt an identity of the use of this term in the 9th century Moabite stele with that of the herem in Israel’s wars, in a different culture and at times centuries removed from the Moabite text, is incorrect method. Continue Reading →

Is God a Moral Monster Revisited: Preliminary Replies to Thom Stark

(by Paul Copan)

Thom Stark has offered a lengthy response to my book Is God a Moral Monster?  His online book is entitled:  Is God a Moral Compromiser? When a book is laden with sarcasm, distortions, and ad hominem attacks, genuine dialogue and cordial exchange—the stuff of genuine scholarship—become difficult, if not preempted.

My good friend Matt Flannagan, with whom I have collaborated on various projects, has extensively engaged with Stark in the past.  (Note: I have posted his response alongside my posting.)  I’ve held off on commenting on Stark for this very reason, as the experience of others shows that engaging with Stark on such topics tends to be unproductive.

Let me make some preliminary comments on Stark.  

First, Stark accuses me of ignoring the critical scholars.  Keep in mind that I am writing for a popular audience—a group that isn’t going to read at a scholarly level but who are reading the New Atheists.  Mentioning these critics is simply a springboard to launch into the topic of Old Testament ethical issues; these men are hardly legitimate sources of critique, even if they raise points discussed by critical scholars. 

Second, it’s disappointing that Stark simply writes off Old Testament scholars who have endorsed my book, calling them “Little Leaguers.”  These include Christopher Wright (Ph.D. Cambridge), Gordon Wenham (Ph.D. Cambridge), and Tremper Longman (Ph.D. Yale).  They have earned their stripes at leading academic institutions.  Stark’s demeaning talk strikes me as disrespectful and unprofessional.  One gets the impression from reading Stark that those who agree with him are the “real” scholars. 

Third , Stark assumes I have no background in biblical studies.  Not so.  I’d imagine that I’ve probably logged the same number formal academic hours (if not more) in biblical/theological studies than Stark—though Stark would no doubt dismiss such training as “Little League.”  I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M.Div. (Having studied Greek and Hebrew)—in addition to an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in philosophy (in which I also took courses in theology).  I’m also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I have presented at SBL as well as the American Academy of Religion.  Furthermore, I am a Fellow of the Institute for Biblical Research.   Continue Reading →

What Does it Really Mean to Keep the Sabbath

The drama goes on. You know, all that stuff about whether Katelynn, my eleven year old, can wear make-up. I have come to a tentative conclusion and it has to do with the fourth commandment. We will get to that in a moment.

Some people need to take a sabbath rest from going church. Just hang with me. I will get there too.

I don’t know about you, but I love Chick-fil-a. It is our families favorite place to each on a dime (or so). My youngest, Zach, is made purely of Chick-fil-a chicken nuggets and chocolate milk. It is amazing what the body can turn those two into. Chick-fil-a is not open on Sundays, so Zach justs practices his 3-year-old fast that day. I admire Chick-fil-a for not being open on Sunday. I think it is one good application of what it means to keep the Sabbath and make it holy.

For most people that I know, the obligation to keep the sabbath is either seen as null-and-void in the church age or it simply means that we “go to” church. If you hit Sunday School and “big church” you have done double duty! However, I don’t believe this captures the essence of the fourth commandment very well.

The fourth commandment is found in Exodus 20:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exo 20:8-11 ESV)

This commandment is one of the only commands that is tagged with an explanatory clause, helping us understand the reason for its institution. As the Lord rested on the seventh day of creation, so also we are to keep the Sabbath “holy.” The parallel here is between “rest” and “holy” in verse 11. They key here is that the Sabbath is set apart (i.e. “holy”) as a day of rest from our labors. The term “sabbath” translates the Hebrew sabbat (שבת), meaning “to cease.”

As I said before, many people believe that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that does not have an abiding moral principle, being completely fulfilled in Christ. While I agree that Christ is our Sabbath rest (Heb. 3:9-11) in that he fulfilled the Law and we have rest from our labors, I don’t think that Christ’s fulfillment takes away from the principles being expressed that are truly eternal. We still need to take breaks . .  and a whole lot more.

Christ made it clear that the Sabbath was created for man (Mark 2:27). Paul makes it clear that no one is to become legalistic about when we take a sabbath (Col. 2:16).  

Today, in our industrialized world, we have much more opportunity for rest then did the Israelites in the Old Testament times. Their labor was a sweaty field labor. Most of the time it was hand to mouth. As well, it lasted from sunrise to sunset. And we think we have it hard! For them the dictum was: “Don’t work today, don’t eat today.” It was that simple. In our western world, we normally work from 8am-5pm and take two days off! Continue Reading →

The Problem of using Old Testament Prophecy to Defend Christ

One of the best ways to confirm the Christian faith is through prophecies in the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ. As I read through certain portions of the Old Testament I can’t help but be amazed at the evident hand of God in the composition of these Scriptures.

God tells the Israelites, who were continually toying in henotheism (i.e. one main God and many lesser gods), to bring these so-called gods into account by making them tell what would happen in the future. In this mocking of other gods, God called on them to prophesy.

“Bring your idols so that they might tell us what is going to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come.” (Isa 41:22)

The idea goes like this: God, by definition, is transcendent. God created all things, including time. Therefore, God, in his essence, does not reside in any part of his creation, including the parameters of time. Therefore, he alone has exhaustive knowledge of the future out of necessity. No other created thing has innate access to this kind of knowledge—not man, angels, demons, or Satan. God alone knows the future. Therefore, any consistently accurate prediction of future events must come from him. If the Bible accurately predicts future events in detail, we must pause and consider the implications.

Most evangelicals are well aware of this. We have some very popular defenses of the faith that consistently use prophecy to convince others that Christ is God’s son. I am certainly not against this at all. As I said, this is very convincing to me as well. There are certain passages about Christ that stand out more than any other. Isaiah 53 of course. The entire chapter looks as if it was written after Christ’s death, yet it was written 700 years before. We even have scrolls of Isaiah that date at least 150 years before Christ. As well, the book of Daniel. Specifically, I look at Daniel chapter 9. This is not an easy chapter to understand, but once grasped it very convincingly predicts when Christ would die over 400 years later. (The best book to pick up on this subject is Harold Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ).

There are many others that stand out. However, I think that we Christians should be careful concerning which prophecies we include in our apologetic arsenal. While we look at the Old Testament and see Christ in prophecy, imagery, foreshadowing, and typology, we look at it though our beliefs that are already in place. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, for us Christians it is very exciting to begin to see Christ everywhere in the Old Testament.

However, there is a problem. There are certain “prophesies” about Christ in the Old Testament that need to be distinguished from those we use for evangelistic/apologetic purposes. In other words, there are certain prophecies that carry great and convincing weight, but others are of less apologetic value.


1. Isaiah 7:14: Born of a virgin.

I often hear people using Isaiah 7:14 as definitive proof that Christ was the Messiah.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Continue Reading →

Bible Interpretation In a Nutshell

The following is a practical guide to biblical interpretation following a three step process that I have used for years. The Bible is two-thousand years old and often seems very archaic. This makes it hard to know how it applies to us. It can be very frustrating as all Christians are encouraged to read their Bible daily but often are at a loss as to how to understand it and apply the message to their own lives. This process has served me well and I believe it is representative of the best way to interpret the ancient word of God and apply it to today. I hope that it will alleviate some of the “Bible interpretation anxiety” that is out there, allowing the Bible to become real and relevant to your life.

click on image to enlarge

Notice the three sections of the chart. There are three audiences that everyone needs to recognize in the process of interpreting the Bible. In the bottom left, you have the “ancient audience.” This represents the original audience and the original author. The top portion represents the “timeless audience” which transcends the time and the culture of the original situation. It is that which applies to all people of all places of all times, without regard to cultural and historical issues. Finally, we have the “contemporary audience” in the bottom right. This represents the audience of today. Here we will find application of the Bible with regard to our time, culture, and circumstances.

In Biblical interpretation, it is of extreme importance that one goes in the order of the chart. The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. So many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s word. Others start with step number two, attempting to force their own theology on the text. It is important that all steps are covered to ensure interpretive fidelity.

Step one: Exegetical Statement

What did it mean then?

The first step is the most important. Here the goal is to ascertain the original intent of the writing. It is very important that one enters into the world of the author and the audience. Sometimes this will be easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, requiring quite a bit of study.

Here are the different issues that you must consider:

Historical issues: There will be historical circumstances that will aid in your understanding of the text. Here, you will ask questions of “occasion.” Who is the original author? Who is the original audience? What purpose did the writing have? When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what was his occasion or purpose? Was it to give an exhaustive history of the world to everyone or to prepare the Israelite religious community to exist in a theocratic society under Yahweh? When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, what was his purpose? Knowing that in 2 Corinthians he was writing to defend his apostleship as other false apostles were opposing him is essential to understanding every verse. As well, what was Paul’s disposition toward the Galatians when he wrote to them? Was it to commend, condemn, or correct? The occasion will determine so much of our understanding.

Grammatical issues: It is important to understand that the Bible was written in a different language. The New Testament was written in Greek. Not only that, but it was a particular kind of Greek called “Koine.” Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (small portions in Aramaic). Naturally, other languages will have characteristics that communicate well in the original tongue but can get lost in translation. Greek, for example, works off inflections (word endings) which determine their part of speech. Word placement can add emphasis. These types of things are often hard to translate. I am not saying that everyone needs to be a Greek and a Hebrew scholar to understand the Bible, only that there are grammatical issues that can nuance our understanding of the passage. A good commentary will normally bring these to recognition.

Contextual issues: Every book was written for a purpose. The smallest component of a writing is a letter. We don’t take each letter in isolation, but understand that with a group of letters, it makes a word. But we don’t take the word in isolation, understanding that a group of words makes a sentence. And we don’t take sentences in isolation, understanding that a group of sentences makes a paragraph. But we don’t stop there. Each paragraph either represents or is a part of a larger whole that we call a “pericope.” The pericope is the basic argument or story that is being told. The story of David and Goliath is a pericope of many paragraphs. As well, Christ’s parables make up individual pericopes. Finally, the pericopes are smaller parts of the entire book. The purpose of the book will shape the context in which each pericope should be interpreted.

Here is how it looks:

click on image to enlarge

Literary issues: We must remember that there is no such thing as a type of literature called “Bible” or “Scripture.” The Bible is made up of many books from many different types of literature called “genres.” Just like in your everyday life, you encounter many genres and know almost instinctively that they follow different rules of understanding. You have fiction novels, newspaper editorials, commercials, television dramas, academic textbooks, and tickers at the bottom of the news stations. All of these need to be understood and interpreted according to the rules of the genre. In the Bible, we have narratives, histories, parables, apocalyptic prophecies, personal letters, public letters, songs, proverbs, and many others. Each of these are to be interpreted according to the rules of the genre. Just because they are in the Bible does not mean that the rules change. For example, a proverb is a common type of literature that is found in the Bible, but also in many other cultures. A proverb is a statement of general truth or wisdom that does not necessarily apply in every situation. A proverb is not a promise. If it is in the Bible, it is still not a promise. As well, theological histories are just that—theological. Being in the Bible does not turn it into a technically precise and exhaustive history that is supposed to answer every question that we have. We must determine the type of literature we are dealing with if we are to understand it.  Continue Reading →

The Ancient Near East Was No Picnic: Contrasting the Mosaic Law to Ancient Moral Codes

In my last blog, I discussed the fact that the Mosaic Law should not be understood as a lofty moral ideal for all cultures and all times. Rather, as Jesus points out in Matthew 19:8, many things were permitted (whether divorce, slavery, polygamy, war, patriarchal social structures), but these were far removed from the creational ideals presented in Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:24. No, the Mosaic Law wasn’t the ideal, but it certainly was a noteworthy improvement upon the miserable moral and religious conditions in the ancient Near East (ANE). In this blog, I want to note some of them. As we’ll see, Israel would have been a great moral and social refuge in contrast to the surrounding nations.

From the late fourth millennium BC until the first centuries AD, collections of cuneiform law were in existence in the ANE. Cuneiform was a script of wedges impressed upon tablets of clay or wax or inscribed in stone or metal. Various collections of cuneiform law exist. These include the laws of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur); the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1925 BC), who ruled the Sumerian city of Isin; the (Akkadian) laws of Eshnunna (c. 1800 BC), a city 100 miles north of Babylon; the laws of Hammurabi (1750 BC); and the Hittite laws (1650-1200 BC) of Asia Minor.

There are certainly many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic law and various ANE law codes. These include legislation regarding perjury and false witnesses (cp. Dt. 19:16-21), death penalty for murder (cp. Ex. 21:12), a husband’s payment for false accusation of adultery (cp. Dt. 22:13-19), payment for injury to an ox while renting it (cp. Ex. 22:14-15), and so forth. One of the laws of Eshnunna (§53) is nearly identical to Exodus 21:35: If an ox gores an(other) ox causes its death, both ox owners shall divide the price of the live ox and also the meat of the dead ox.

Such similarities should not be surprising. For instance, we observe that the book of Proverbs utilizes and adapts various sayings and maxims from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke observes: Proverbs’ similarity to pagan literature is part and parcel of Scripture’s incarnation within its historical milieu. Its theological significance does not depend on the originality of its individual sentences or sayings any more than the theological significance of the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23) rests on the originality of its individual commandments. Proverbs utilizes general revelation (various Egyptian wisdom sayings), but Proverbs names the covenant God who can be known and in whom true wisdom is anchored.

Another example of strong ANE influence is the structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty between Yahweh and Israel; this is patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite suzerainty treaties’ with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain; also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cp. Dt. 30:19-20). In all of these examples, no one is denying ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic Law, but we have no wholesale adoption either.

Despite the overlap between the Mosaic Law and ANE legal texts, there are notable differences between them and sigificant moral advances made in the Mosaic Law. First, how are they different? Joe Sprinkle points out general disparities between cuneiform laws vs. biblical laws: (1) secular laws vs. religious cultic-ceremonial ones; (2) laws made by kings (not gods) vs. laws from God mediated through Moses; (3) laws to glorify kings vs. laws to glorify God and to instruct (torah = instruction ) people and shape a national character; (4) laws reflecting king’s unlimited authority vs. laws limiting the king’s authority (e.g., Dt. 17:14-20); (5) property crimes punishable by death if a thief cannot pay (up to thirty-fold) vs. property crimes not being capital offenses but limited to five-fold restitution or indentured servitude (not death) for those who cannot pay; (6) offenses against slaves as on the same level as property crimes (e.g., oxen) vs. offenses against slaves as persons of value; (7) religious sins not typically capital offenses vs. a number of religious sins as capital offenses’ idolatry (Dt. 13:6-9), false prophecy (Dt. 18:20), sorcery (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-23), Sabbath violations (Num. 15:32-36). We could also add that Israelite law is far more concerned about the sanctity of life than Mesopotamian law. Because of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh’s unique covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Thus their violation was a serious matter that would undermine Israel’s very identity.

What, then, about specific improvements in the Law of Moses could we highlight? 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 ANE 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. Kidnapping a person to sell as a slave was punishable by death: He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death†(Ex. 21:16; see also 1 Tim. 1:10). This biblical prohibition presents a marked repudiation of the kidnapping of Africans that ushered in the era of more recent Western slavery. Yet the new atheists seem given to blur any such distinctions. While other ANE cultures may too have prohibited kidnapping, the Mosaic Law stands out in sharp moral contrast to the former’s standard extradition treaties for, and harsh treatment of, runaway slaves. For instance, Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway slaves [§16]). Israel, however, was to offer safe harbor foreign runaway slaves (Dt. 23:15-16). The ANE was no picnic, but Israel was a notable improvement.

Indeed, Hebrew slaves were to be granted release in the seventh year (Lev. 29:35-43) a notable improvement over other ANE law codes. Furthermore, masters had to release them 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 (Dt. 15:9). The motivating reason for all of this is the fact that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today (Dt. 15:12-18, esp. v. 15). The overriding goal in Dt. 15 is that there be no slavery in the land at all (vv. 4, 11). Gordon McConville calls this revolutionary.

Another marked improvement is in the release of injured slaves (Ex. 21:20-21). This is in contrast to their masters merely being compensated, which is typical in the ANE codes. If a slave’s eye or tooth was knocked out, the master gets compensated and keeps the slave. In Israel, the slave was freed if this happened. Elsewhere in the OT, Job recognizes that he and his slaves have the same Maker and come from the same place their mother’s womb (Job. 31:15).

We can mention the inferior sexual morality of the ANE. We are familiar with the Canaanite qedeshot—the female and male prostitutes (cp. Gen. 38:15, 22-3; Dt. 23:18-19; also Hos. 4:14). A number of ANE cuneiform laws permitted activities that undermined the family’s integrity and stability by allowing men, for instance, to engage in adulterous relations with slaves and prostitutes. The laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Lower Mesopotamia (1930 BC) take for granted the practice of prostitution (e.g., ¶ 27, 30). In Hittite law (1650-1500 BC), If a father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not an offence (¶ 194). Hittite law even permitted bestiality: If a man has sexual relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence†(¶ 200a).

Not only do we find morally-inferior cuneiform legislation, but its attendant harsh, ruthless punishments. Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: These dreadful laws are notable for the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For instance, Hammurabi’s code stresses the centrality of property whereas the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 21-23) consider crimes against persons to be far more weighty.

For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut off (§§ 192, 194, 195, 205). One punishment involved the accused’s being dragged around a field by cattle. Babylon and Assyria (as well as Sumer) practiced the River Ordeal: when criminal evidence was inconclusive, the accused would be thrown into the river; if he drowned, he was guilty (the river god’s judgment), but if he survived, he was innocent and the accuser was guilty of false accusation. Besides punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between 100 and 200 strokes. In fact, a 100-stroke beating was the “mildest form of punishment, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Contrast this with Dt. 25:1-3, which sets a limit of forty strokes for a criminal: He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these. The reason? So that “your brother is not degraded in your eyes. Furthermore, in Babylonian or Hittite law, status or social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime whereas biblical law holds kings and priests and those of social rank to the same standards as the common person. The informed inhabitant of the ANE would have thought, Quick, get me to Israel!

Our interlocutor might ask: What about Scripture’s emphasis on lex talionis’ an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is this not a brutal retribution? First, an investigation of the Pentateuch’s lex talionis texts (Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:17-22; Dt. 19:16-21) reveals that, except for capital punishment (life for life), these are not taken literally. None of examples illustrating eye for an eye calls for bodily mutilation, but rather just (monetary) compensation. Brevard Childs comments on the uniqueness of this approach: Thus the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age. Second, this principle served as useful guide for exacting proportional punishment and compensation; this was designed to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate acts of retaliation.

We could highlight many more such differences. Again, we see in the Mosaic Law a drastic improvement upon ANE cuneiform law. Though Sinai legislation attempts to balance realism with idealism and has a restraining, regulating effect, it brings moral uplift and points Israel back towards God’s creational designs of sexual, racial, social, equal and the goodness of lifelong monogamous marriage.

(This essay is excerpted from Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics. Forthcoming in the next issue of Philosophia Christi [].)