Is God a Moral Monster? 5

Sometimes its the evident arbitrariness of an Old Testament law or, to use the words in this book by Paul Copan, the “weirdness” of a law, that calls into question the divine source of such a law or the wisdom of the law. Copan, in Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, examines such questions over a few chapters.

Take this whole thing with purity, or the clean and unclean issues. Our next post will deal with kosher food laws, but today we want to look at the why question. Why these issues with purity?

For you, what’s the point of the purity laws? The kosher laws? the “weirdness” laws?

Copan’s approach is theological: God is holy, God is Life, God is Other. Therefore, God’s people, who have been brought into relation with God through election and through the covenant, are to be like God — to be holy.

Further, the laws are expressions of what God expects for redeemed and covenanted people. He quotes Chris Wright to say there is a grace leads to gratitude and obedience paradigm.

So far the theological and covenantal dimensions … and they do find expression in purity laws. But he then explores a cosmic or ethical sense: the laws of Israel express the reality that God is God over all of life, and the laws often express God’s sovereign rule over the fullness of life.

Copan points to an excellent point: our culture sees religion as private and God belongs to your personal (not public) life. But the purity laws rattle that theory to pieces: God is holy and fully holy so all of life is holy, including the public and the personal. So, God doesn’t belong to the private to all of life.

Which leads to the big idea behind laws on clean and unclean:

It’s about life and death. Uncleanness symbolizes loss of life; cleanness symbolizes life. Whether we are talking about ritual or moral impurity, life and death are at work in all these laws.

And the mixing restrictions — kinds of clothing, no mixed breeding, no two seeds in the same field, no two family members having sex, the sexes are to be kept apart … and here, while Copan doesn’t explore the life/death issue, and these are those ideas that make the life/death paradigm strain itself to explain itself, he does see these issues to be about wholeness and integrity and completeness — and I suppose life is whole and death is the tearing apart of the wholeness.

Well, OK, I see his points but there are other dimensions, and I prefer the explanation that the purity laws are about order: things alike belong together; things not alike belong apart; and taxonomically irregular items are not to mixed with regular items. It’s about boundary markers. So, God is holy and God’s people are to be holy, and separation from sinners is because God’s people is “like” God and “unlike” sinners so they are to be together and not mixed with sinners. I take sides with Mary Douglas on this one: Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge Classics).

So the issue is election and covenant belong. Their taxonomic status of the Israelite is holiness due to connection with God. That is sufficient ground for Israel being unlike her neighbors.

Giving rise, so it seems to me, to some arbitrariness to the laws at the concrete (though not theological) level. Because God is holy and Israel is to be like God, if God says X then Israel is to do X. It’s a relational thing more than a life/death thing, though life and death can be brought into the equation at points.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim

    I always thought the Israelites saw themselves as a priestly people, hence the purity laws.

  • Susan N.

    I think the purity laws of the OT, however God intended them (and I can’t say I know), ultimately did more harm than good. The people got so caught up in following the letter of the law that they failed to understand the “spirit” of the law. I love how the teachings and life of Jesus go to great lengths to point this out to the Jews. In the “miracles of Jesus” chapters of Matthew, I loved the first one in which Jesus was “willing” to touch the leper and make him clean (Matt. 8:1-4). If God blessed the Jews for their faithful obedience to the Law, then it was in order to be a blessing (a light) to the other nations. In practice, they got hung up on ritualistic lawkeeping and tribalism/isolationism. That’s what trying to maintain their purity laws did for them…

    Through Jesus, God sends the “good news” message to ALL people. Granted, coming first and through the Jews, but intended to be for all (Jew and Gentile).

    So for Christians, are we to associate primarily, if not only, with fellow believers? I think that it’s easy to fall into the same trap as the Jews of the OT did in practicing our faith or looking at biblical laws as a means of making us holy as God is holy, expressing our covenantal fellowship, and being a “tribe” separate from the “unclean” world. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount to pray and fast and practice almsgiving in secret relationship with the Father, not to show our tribe how *outwardly* lawabiding we are being. In this way, God sees the purity of our heart…not the kind of outward purity gained by avoiding unclean people, foods, etc.

    In the OT, were (many of) these “weird” laws given as a test and exercise in obedience to God, or to give an object lesson to the people in how inadequate these practices are in making us holy? It’s about purity of heart, not outward ritualistic lawkeeping, imho.

    Oh, and this grabbed me: “Copan points to an excellent point: our culture sees religion as private and God belongs to your personal (not public) life. But the purity laws rattle that theory to pieces: God is holy and fully holy so all of life is holy, including the public and the personal. So, God doesn’t belong to the private to all of life.”

    I think it is right that religion/God are a private, individual matter insofar as it must be a personal *choice* to love and obey God, commit to following Jesus. I think it’s possible to believe strongly in religion/God being a personal, private choice, and also that the expression of my choice of faith in and following Jesus will naturally affect all of my life (hopefully for the better, for His sake and mine) and what I do and say will be a very public expression of that inner relationship and set of beliefs.

  • Percival

    I doubt that the purity laws were made up whole cloth from nothing. For the most part, they probably had roots in the history and culture of the tribes. Just a guess though.

  • Richard

    I view the “weird laws” as dealing with separation and distinctiveness but I wrestle with how to maintain continuity between the covenants in this. So much of OT purity laws seem focused on the very “personal piety” that your most recent book discusses. This may be out of the scope of what we’re dealing with here but what do we do with the apparent actions of Jesus that seem to break-down (maybe “redefine” is more apt) the separation and purity standards?

  • Don

    I’ve been very engaged by considering the ways in which these purity laws could be viewed ethically (as well as relationally) – such as our table is to only have food that G_d Himself would consume in order to make our table an altar of sorts that welcomes the Presence of G_d.

    In addition when we recognize that there are some things within creation that have specific purpose (such as scavengers to clean-up death/disease/decay), though they could be useful elsewhere, we must recognize that though we have other uses – G_d’s intentions are better. This is a beautiful means of obedience.

    Because there is a limited amount of meat that is ‘eligible’ according to Scripture, for consumption, it curbs our murderous intentions and increases our awareness and value of life in all things. (see Jacob Milgrom’s discussions on Leviticus)

    I have found that the Laws are beautiful on many levels and should not be quickly dismissed or labeled as arbitrary.

  • Liz Klassen

    It’s been helpful to me to look at these in the context of how they would have been perceived in the ancient Near East. For example, there’s a fair bit of evidence that pigs, were used by Israel’s neighbors in sacrifices to the dead. The Israelites were to worship YHWH and look to him for help, not the dead. Eating and sacrificing pigs was prohibited on theological grounds–it was false worship. That helps with the continuity between the covenants thing in this case–it’s ultimately about idolatry. ‘Little children guard yourselves from idols’ is something God’s people are told to do in both covenants. It’s about relationship and separateness still, but it’s not arbitrary.

    I suspect there’s a lot more of those cultural sorts of things involved in the laws that seem the oddest to us even if the archaeologist have yet to excavate the right tablet that would help us make sense of them.

  • dopderbeck

    This is all very helpful. Very good stuff. And also… the purity laws weren’t just made up whole cloth (pun intended!). Check out Zondervan’s commentary on the Bible and the ANE. Purity laws were a common feature of the ANE legal landscape. So, it seems to me that God is employing some common cultural elements to mark out this people as His own. Are some of those cultural elements weird to us? Of course, because we don’t live in the Ancient Near East.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    There are a lot of people in the world who can’t let different foods touch each other on their plate even when they “grow up”. I have found that anal retentive people have a habit of making their rules apply to others since they are so passionate about them. I am not saying that’s all there is, but it is certainly a big driver for some.

  • Percival

    Dop #7,
    Glad someone caught that. ;)

  • http://faithfulreason.wordpress.com jordan

    DRT (#8), are you calling God anal retentive? ;-)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    jordon, I feel obligated to answer that question….just to make sure no one misunderstands….no. But, we are made in his image..

  • http://tankrumblings.blogspot.com/ Sherman Nobles

    I believe that the laws addressed issues that were detremental to the physical, familial, social, and religious health and well being of the people, whether they knew it or we understand it. For example, the dietary laws I believe were meant for the good of the people. Note that the promise for following these teachings are health – physical, emotional, financial, familial, and social.

    Blood was forbidden to be eaten. Why? Because the blood is the first to decay and become diseased after death. This is why Moses was inspired to also speak to the proper means of killing animals, to remove as much blood as possible from the meat before the animal died. T

    Pork, shell fish, and other animals and fish were forbidden to be consumed, why? Note that most of them are either scavengers or top predators and thus have a high concentration of toxins that are detrimental to our health.

    Fat is also forbidden to be consumed, why? Fat is an organ of the body just like the heart is an organ. And one of, if not “the” primary purpose is to serve as a storage dump for toxins that the body is not able to nutralize or eleminate. And thus when one eats fat one eats a concentrated amount of toxins which are bad for our physical health, a potential source of cancer and many other illnesses.

    I believe that the laws and teachings of Moses had and have very practical purposes. I believe that even today we’d be wise to respect them. And didn’t Jesus note that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven would be those who both taught and obeyed these teachings of Moses; and those who did not teach and obey them would be least in the kingdom of heaven. Note though that both groups are still partakers of the kingdom of heaven; PTL!

  • Dan Arnold

    A note on Douglas’ ideas about the kosher laws: In the introduction to the Routledge edition of her book, she rejects her original conclusions about categorizing the animals. Her categories were arbitrary, as happens when a person looks for similar and dissimilar characteristics. She now believes that the kosher rules reflect YHWH’s covenant with Israel. (See page xv in the introduction to the Routledge edition.)

    That said, separation is an important and frequently misunderstood aspect of holiness. This is true of the creation narrative (Gen 1:4,6,9,14) and it is true as it relates to the kosher food laws. If I am reading Leviticus 20:25-26 correctly, the dietary restrictions are a daily reminder of Israel’s covenant relationship.

    There is no hint in the Pentateuch that the Law was too difficult to carry out. It was what was expected of every Israelite. When there was a failure, God graciously provided a means to restore the broken relationship via sacrifice.


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