What to make of all the weird Old Testament laws?
Incorporating history and context helps the laws seem less weird. Imagine that.
Whether it's how ancient Israel ate, worshiped, related to one another publicly and privately — God aligned all aspects of life to reflect His perfect plan. That's the through line of the Old Testament text that helps account for some of the Old Testament laws, according to Paul Copan's book, Is God A Moral Monster.
Even in 2021, that notion undergirds how we as Christ followers are to live in all aspects of life, not just the socially acceptable ones.
"Food, clothing, and planting laws weren't nitpicky commands God gave to oppress Israel. The prophets reminded her [Israel] that God was primarily concerned about justice, mercy and walking humbly before God (Deuteronomy 10:12; Micah 6:8)," Copan wrote on page 74. This through line helps clarify the whys behind some of the weirder parts of the Old Testament law.
Why weren’t all animals fine to eat?
Israelite laws stated some animals were clean (Kosher) while others weren't, based on whether they crossed boundaries, Copan argued, just as the Israelites were to purely follow God's law, not mix in ideas about other deities.
Animals were clean if they were clearly created to either fly in the air, walk on land or swim in water. Those that crossed between categories were not to be eaten, in the same way Israelites were to avoid worshiping other deities. "Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world," he wrote on page 81. Animals that crossed categories, such as snakes, eels and flying insects, were considered unclean and represented the fall, death and abnormality, and therefore were to be avoided.
They were also not to eat animals or live in ways symbolic of uncleanness. He cites Leviticus 21:18-20 and 23 where the law talks about unblemished priests sounded a lot like the language a chapter later verses 18-22 discussing unblemished animals.
Unclean = loss of life in ancient Israel, not hygine
Today “clean” is inextricably linked to health and hygine. Not so in ancient Israel.
"For the Hebrew, life wasn't mere biological existence. Humans could be biologically alive yet living in the realm of death — spiritual, moral, psychological/emotional ruin and alienation (e.g., Prov. 7:23-27)," Copan wrote on page 75.
The penalties were also lighter than we might realize. Being unclean only meant they couldn't enter the temple, not that they couldn't worship or take part in feasts or that you were sinful, Copan explained.
Israel was chosen, not favored
Israelites were punished just as harshly as non-Israelites, Copan wrote on page 72.
"Indeed, the Creator of the world had chosen them for a special relationship and purpose rather than any other nation, but it was not because Israel was better than the other nations. In fact, God makes clear he chose them because they were smaller and weaker than the other nations (see Deuteronomy 7:7). In other words, the Lord did not choose Israel because Israel was great, but precisely because it was not," wrote Pastor Skye Jethani in the With God Daily devotional on June 24, 2021.
God made Israel "chosen" in that through Him he would bless all nations and all people. It was never about favoring a single nation temporarily, Copan argued.
Old Testament sacrifices mirrored how we pray today
The sacrifices of animals reminded Israelites of human sin and unholiness and great need for God's help, Copan explained on page 85. He cited work by researcher Richard Hess, who classified sacrifices into three arenas:
Purification from sin
Burnt offerings, indicating total dedication to God
These parallel what Jesus instructed us to do in the New Testament in the form of confession of sin, dedication to God and then fellowship with God.
If you're interested in a more nuanced explanation of animal sacrifice in ancient Israel and how it is linked with Jesus, this blog post by the Bible Project takes at least 15 minutes to digest, but provides a fresh perspective on the topic.
What to make of dishonorable discharges?
"In contrast to the surrounding nations, wives in Israel weren't possessions to be used for sexual pleasure. Men had certain restrictions regarding when they could have sex with their wives, which was to help give women a greater measure of independence," Copan wrote on page 85. This ethic stood in contrast to other cultures, where it wasn't unusual to have sex with temple prostitutes as an element of worshiping deities.
Semen and vaginal blood symbolically linked back to life and death and therefore fell under the same practices of being clean and unclean mentioned above, he wrote.
God created laws to guard Israelites from being negatively influenced
I also thought it interesting that God, Copan wrote, provided some rules so in essence Israelites wouldn't be unduly influenced by the bad behavior of nearby cultures. Hence the need, he argued, to avoid breeding of cattle with others, mixing the planting of crops, plowing with different animals, mixing fibers or crossing sexual boundaries like with bestiality, adultery or incest.
"These antimixing commands attempted to portray a sense of wholeness, completeness and integrity," Copan wrote on page 77.