The Torah of Adonai is perfect, renewing life… (19:8)
One question that comes up frequently in the comments to my “Ethics and Religion Talk” columns is ‘how can we base a system of ethics on a piece of literature that gives laws which are unethical according to our contemporary standards?’
I have written one column addressing this question in the context of The Hebrew Bible’s apparent acceptance of the (for us) immoral practice of slavery by mandating a set of laws proscribing proper treatment of slaves.
It has also come up in connect with the Biblical law that a rapist must marry the woman whom he raped, and the apparent second class status of Priests with disabilities.
These are some of the questions posed against any religious tradition which holds the Hebrew Bible to be sacred scripture. The only truthful response to these challenges is to say that Torah reflects the reality of the society in which it was created. Its laws were in fact progressive compared to contemporary non-Biblical legal systems, even though they are primitive compared to our laws. Ah, there’s the rub – how can the Bible be perfect/revealed/word of God if they laws of the Bible are not perfect. If God is omniscient and perfect, then why don’t the laws of the Bible reflect a perfectly evolved system of law.
We might understand the Bible as an eternal book whose meaning transcends time, and/or as a product of God’s revelation. Nevertheless, the Bible came into existence as a specific time and place in history, and its language, style, and content spoke to that first generation who embraced its wisdom.
The best way to understand the Bible is to contrast it with contemporary wisdom and law in the ancient Near East. In the code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian law code), we can read about slave treatment that is truly brutal. Against that backdrop, the Hebrew Bible is a giant step towards humane treatment of slaves. It is not unreasonable to presume that the Hebrew Bible deliberately sought to wean humanity away from slavery.
The Bible has undergone constant reinterpretation over the many generations since it first came into being. What was acceptable to one generation was no longer acceptable to later generations. The Bible is timeless because from its inception, it was intended to be a progressive, rather than a static, code of law and behavior.