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A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Is the Old Testament Law really good?

September 10, 2015

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 4 – The Good Life: Moses and his Law

The fourth chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible is probably the best chapter of the book so far. Dickson explores the often misunderstood Old Testament law of Moses. Dickson rightly acknowledges that the Old Testament law ‘is the cause of some confusion to modern readers’ (p.68). Dickson writes a very helpful chapter in exploring a number of aspects of the Old Testament Law and allaying some of this confusion.

Premise of the Law

As Dickson paints the context for the law he rightly discusses the Exodus from Egypt. The lack of corroborating extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus presents some concerns for the Christian believer. There is no direct clear archaeological evidence that a major Exodus from Egypt ever occurred. Dickson asks the correct questions about historical corroboration for the Exodus, ‘Where is the archaeology?, Why didn’t the Egyptians record it?’ (p.70).

Dickson then slightly curiously says that these questions assume that ‘the biblical record itself is not evidence.’ Dickson is correct at one level – the biblical record is a form of evidence. But this overlooks the main reason doubters seek extra-biblical corroboration of the biblical story, which is to demonstrate the historical reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical story. Is the biblical story more likely a true historical event or a legendary saga?

Hence assuming that the Biblical story is evidence for the historic Exodus event reeks a little of a circular argument – i.e. the evidence that the Bible is true is the Bible!

Nonetheless, Dickson does helpfully point out that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. He points out that only a tiny fragment of the records of the Ancient world survive meaning there are enormous gaps in our knowledge. There have been some attempts to suggest that pieces of the archaeological puzzle confirm the biblical story and Dickson points to a couple of clues that the biblical record might be reliable, e.g. the large number of Semitic people enslaved in Egypt and the consistency with the Merneptah Stele. Yet clear corroboration with the biblical story is missing.

Dickson concludes with a very apposite observation that in assessing the evidence most believers and skeptics, ‘have to fall back on their underlying convictions and preferences to form opinions about the exodus’ (p.71).

Is the Old Testament Law really ‘freedom’?

The most controversial point of Dickson’s chapter are is comments surrounding the freedom of the law. Dickson asserts that the Old Testament law (notably the 10 commandments) is actually a charter of freedom. Dickson acknowledges that the laws are expressed negatively, but that this is a good thing ‘for the simple reason that only a few things are really forbidden and pretty much everything else is there to be enjoyed’ (p.77-78). He claims that a few negative laws are better than a thousand positive prescriptions.

I found this a thought-provoking suggestion. It is a relatively common assertion that the 10 Commandments are a negative document. Yet Dickson suggests that this ‘negativity’ is actual a positive prescription for freedom – because it enables us to ‘become what I’m made for’. Dickson demonstrates the failure of modern notions of ‘freedom’, the power to choose what I want, by demonstrating that some ‘freedom’ is destructive and enslaving e.g. being an alcoholic. Hence Dickson points out that some laws prevent destruction and enable us to be who we really are.

What do people make of the 10 Commandments – do you think that they are negative or positive? A charter for freedom? Do laws enable us to become ‘who we really are?’

The refraction of Jesus

The biggest source of confusion around the Old Testament law is their applicability to believers and society today. Doubters often accuse believers of inconsistency in application and Dickson demonstrates this by quoting a powerful scene from the West Wing. In this scene US President Jed Bartlet confronts Jenna Jacobs over her condemnation of homosexuality by quoting Leviticus. He then explains a number of other Old Testament laws which believers seem to conveniently “forget”. This scene highlights the apparent ‘cherry picking’ that many believers appear to adopt when using the Old Testament law to justify moral decisions today.

Dickson writes a very helpful response to this claim by showing that the Old Testament has been fulfilled in Jesus. This means that that the Old Testament law has been ‘refracted’ so that some injunctions are adjusted only slightly e.g. the mandate to care for the poor, others are intensified e.g. love neighbour becomes love enemies, and other laws have been refracted more radically ‘beyond recognition’ (e.g. Old Testament food laws). Dickson shows that this ‘refraction’ is not cherry picking because it was anticipated by the Old Testament itself through promises of a new prophet and a new covenant (p.84-85).

He says,

This is not some fancy footwork designed my modern Christian apologists to get out of the charge of inconsistency leveled at them by the likes of Jed Bartlet. It is the way Jesus taught his followers to approach the Old Testament. It is how the Old Testament itself said it would one day be read. (p. 85-86).

Dickson’s explanation is both correct and crucial to understanding the Old Testament law and the Old Testament more generally. This ‘refraction’ (or transposition as I describe it elsewhere) provides the interpretive key to understanding the application of the Old Testament today. It is so fundamental that I wonder if explanation would have been better suited in the previous chapter, where Dickson alludes to this ‘refraction’ but doesn’t expand on it (and hence potentially creates confusion).

What do you make of this idea of ‘refraction’? It is an idea that is contained within the pages of the Old Testament, so it’s not cherry picking. But it can be misunderstood by both doubters and believers. Doubters can misunderstand it and hence reject the Bible as a relevant document, and believers can misunderstand it, precisely as Jenna Jacobs did in the West Wing and make incorrect judgements as Jed Bartlett points out.

Overall, this was a very helpful and thought-provoking chapter which allays some of the concerns about the application of the Old Testament in the modern world.


From → Bible, Comment

  1. It’s often said that people misinterpret the Bible because they don’t appreciate and recognise the different genres that the various books are written in.
    After reading this post, and the chapter of John Dickson’s book referred to here, I thought that one good genre to appreciate this material in is comedy. So I’ve mashed up a couple of current interests – namely, criticism of theistic beliefs, and my favourite cartoon show for grown-ups right now, Archer, to provide a response.
    Of course, I don’t expect anyone to find this at all comedic, regardless of your position on Christian beliefs or the TV show Archer, except for myself.
    But, it’s out there now.
    {Warning: Linked material contains offensive language and offensive adult themes. Furthermore, it isn’t actually funny. Except to me.}

  2. But how do you *know* which are refracted and in what way and by how much? I can see that where Jesus says something specific by way of comment on an OT law the Christian would feel that warranted them in adopting Jesus’ take on it in preference to a strict interpretation of the OT text. And I suppose there’s always Peter’s dream. But even so, that still leaves a lot out of the 613 mitzvot where you’re basically on your own trying to work out how far they apply to you.
    And does Dickson deal with the 2 significantly different versions of the 10 commandments? If God thought that not seething the calf in its mother’s milk was sufficiently important to write in stone, surely there must be something there that the believer should pay attention to?
    And what about the requirement to give the first born to God? (this is a reference to human sacrifice, which was a part of early Jewish worship. But even if you re-interpret it to refer to some kind of temple service – what happened to that?)
    What I think about the 10 commandments (taking the more familiar version, from Deuteronomy) is that
    1. The first 4 have no relevance to me, as a non-believer
    2. The next 5 – yeah, they’re ok. A bit lacking in the flexibility that a really sound moral framework would provide. Supposing you’re starving. Can’t you steal some food to stay alive if there’s no other way? Would it be acceptable to murder the commandant of a concentration camp to stop him sending innocent men, women and children to their deaths?
    3. Number 10 – pointless and misogynistic. What’s wrong with envying something? As long as you don’t go and steal it – but that’s already been covered by number 8. What does this commandment add? Also of course, women are not property. Not even married ones. Comparing me to a donkey? Gee, thanks, Yahweh.

    • Thanks for the comments Frances – nice to hear from you again. I’ll get to responding soon.

      I think that your question about how you ‘know’ which are refracted is the crucial one. Dickson answers it in the book by saying that the more you read the Scriptures the easier it becomes easier to spot. That’s perhaps unsatisfactory, but I tend to agree with Dickson – it often comes with experience and reflection.

      In terms of the different versions of the 10 commandments – are the commands radically different in each or just the descriptions of each? I know that there are differences in the two commandment lists, but I thought that the substance of the actual commands were the same.

      I’m just wondering where the requirement was to give the first-born to God? Forgive my ignorance for that one, but I’m intrigued.

      Thanks for your reflections on the 10 commandments as a moral framework – I suppose I wouldn’t expect you to believe 1-4 (except that if the god who wrote them was actually real, then I suppose they would take on a different level of urgency wouldn’t they?)

      I suppose Dickson’s purpose in describing the 10 commandments is to explain their purpose in the Scriptures and also to respond to the accusation that they are ‘negative’. I do appreciate your reflections – they are always valued and do stimulate me to think.

      Hope you’re going well and look forward to talking again soon.


      • There are 2 sets of 10 commandments given in Exodus. One is very similar to Deuteronomy but the other isn’t. I had forgotten that when I posted, so my post was misleading, but the point is that the bible gives 2 different versions of the commandments given to Moses.

        According to Exodus 32 when Moses returned with the 1st version, the version given in Exodus 20, and found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he was so angry that he threw the tablets containing the 1st version down and they broke.
        So then he had to go back to God and ask for another copy. God said he would re-write the words on some new tablets and that they would be the same words as had been on the 1st tablets. These are the commandments he gave second time around:
        1. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
        2. Do not make any idols
        3. Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you.
        Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
        4. The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock.
        5. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
        6. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.
        7. Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.
        8. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel.
        9. Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.
        10. Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
        This is at Exodus 34:15-27. At 34:28 these are specifically called “The 10 commandments” and that is the only place where you will find that description (meaning that the claim of the commandments found at Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6 to be THE Ten Commandments highly dubious,)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Archer on Old Testament Law | Skept in the Loop
  2. 29. Laws that Value People | From guestwriters

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