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OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 2

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 26, 2022

I have been considering the similarities and differences between the moral code God provided to the Jews under the Old Covenant and that provided by the same God to the Christians under the New Covenant. In Part 1 I offered three major points for consideration:

  • First, that the fundamental moral code is actually the same under both Covenants, as represented by the Ten Commandments, and it is under this law that we find most if not all capital crimes;
  • Second, that the Jews also had Liturgical law (as we Catholics do), but unlike under the New Covenant, liturgical law was applicable to them as a nation;
  • Third, that the Jews also had laws of “ritual purity”, which were significant in separating them from other nations, all of whom worshipped false gods, and in focusing their attention on their special relationship to God in their own community—again the major component of their identity as a people.

I then introduced the question of Divine Providence in order to indicate the special role assigned to the Jewish nation as a people set apart for God in the midst of extreme hostility. My suggestion was that we might find in this an important additional reason for the felt-importance of the Law in Jewish life, and perhaps even for the severity of some of the punishments prescribed under the Law. It is just here, then, that I will pick up the thread.

Divine Providence will always be somewhat difficult to grasp. Our ways are not God’s ways, and often we can only see the point of things that happen to us in hindsight and at a considerable distance. This is true of salvation history as well, and while the Jews had many poets (see the Psalms) and prophets who could offer considerable insight into what God was up to, we Christians can see things even more clearly in the light of the One who fulfills both the Law and the Prophets, namely Jesus Christ. Thus we may be able to look back and perceive the overall salvific situation of the Jews from afar, so to speak, in order to understand the distinctive moral pressures under which they lived.

A nation under siege

What we find, then, is that the Jews were always a nation under siege. They were certainly a foreshadowing of Christ and the Church, but in their own existential situation they were themselves a sign of contradiction to the world around them, called by God to be set in opposition to all the false gods and the nations that served them. They had to struggle constantly to carve out a place for themselves, to maintain their fidelity to the Lord, and to resist both the sins and blandishments of their neighbors, as well as the efforts of those same neighbors to annihilate them. If there were ever a people called to live in a constant readiness for spiritual, moral, and physical attack, it was the Jewish nation in Old Testament times.

This is very probably a sufficient (if not exclusive) explanation for the harshness of the application of the Law—our impression that the Jews in the Old Testament lived within a more detailed and more punitive moral dispensation than do Christians, even if we recall that this harshness was, in a great many lax periods, observed primarily in the breach. But I would also suggest that this harshness can be understood as appropriate to what we would now call their military situation—their constant vulnerability to attack and destruction as a people, and their corresponding understanding that to deviate from the liturgical law, from ritual cleanliness, and of course from the natural moral law was not only as important as we ought to consider it today but also a matter of the distinctiveness of the Jewish identity compared with those whose idolatrous practices demanded sacrifice without goodness.

In other words, the moral tenor of Jewish life under the Old Covenant was profoundly shaped by the recognition that, in the face of all other nations, the Jewish adherence to the Lord was a matter of both national identity and national survival.

Above all, the Jews were to be a people set apart. They were not to be unclean in any way, and they were not to mingle and intermarry with the nations around them, which would lead them to compromise their own identity and even to worship false gods. But, perhaps predictably, they meted out punishment in their own communities far less often than they sinned. Even the great, wise and highly-blessed King Solomon, the number of whose wives rose to the legendary figure of 1,000—many of them pagan!—eagerly set up in the “high places” idolatrous altars to satisfy the false beliefs of those he wed.

Nonetheless, under the Old Covenant the Jews were a nation under siege. If they were well-instructed and spiritually honest, they could not fail to recognize that fact, and this may go far in explaining the prescribed punishments. We might even wonder whether we Christians pay enough attention to our own transgressions, considering all that really is at stake. If we saw that what we were doing was actually fraternizing with the enemy and weakening the chances for national survival, we might have an additional incentive—as all nations do in wartime—even if a less perfect one.

Polygamy and other potential contradictions

However, the particular case of Solomon gives me an opportunity to consider another question that might be raised—namely, the difference in the apparent allowance of polygamy in the Old Testament as compared with the monogamy demanded by Christ and His Church. Actually, this instance is a kind of proof of another aspect of what is at work in the Old Testament, namely the impression that what was done—and therefore what was allowed and what was punished—was necessarily equivalent to what God had commanded. In many cases, as we ought to know from our own experience of human nature, that was simply not the case, and polygamy is a good example.

At least for the more prominent men in this warrior nation—which was in many periods rather short on males in their prime owing to losses in battle—it was clearly socially permitted to take more than one wife (and even foreign wives, despite God’s express prohibition through Moses). This common difference between custom and the ordained moral code ought not to surprise us. But the only time the Mosaic Law itself makes provision for more than one wife is when it states that the brother of a man who dies must be willing to marry his widow, to give her protection and raise up children for his dead brother.

Note that when it comes to looking for contradictions between God’s moral law under the Old Covenant as compared with the New, it is hard to find an explicit contradiction any stronger than this provision for a dead brother’s widow. Of course, there is a general difference in tone and in what we might call degree—the difference, for example, between “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and Christ’s insistence on forgiveness. But it is at least important to recognize that “an eye for an eye” was actually a command against unrestrained reprisals, a formulaic expression indicating that, as a simple matter of justice, it was immoral to punish another in a disproportionate way for personal harm. And vengeance was rather pointedly reserved to God.

Let me add that mercy was not frowned upon in the Old Testament. Consider the relationship between David and Saul, who repeatedly tried to murder David, and who was just as often spared by David—which is portrayed as arising from an impressive goodness in David. But God knows that it is hard enough for us to act justly, and that it will take a new dispensation of grace to fully activate mercy as a moral requirement. The most striking difference between Christ’s teaching and the common practice and attitudes of the Jewish nation is Christ’s emphasis on the reality that we are all sinners, so that we ought to have the self-awareness to be merciful to others—and yet even this was part of the Old Covenant, as evidenced in the prophets.

In their emphasis on the externals of the law, the Jews often failed to internalize its deeper message, putting their trust in standardized sacrificial offerings for sin, and repeatedly ignoring the prophetic message that God desires not so much specific ritual practices as the genuine interior goodness these represent: He wants “mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).

The Prophets

The Jewish nation itself developed in stages, first a scattering of people dimly aware of the one God; then the people of the promise beginning specifically with Abraham; on to the hardening of their identity through slavery in Egypt; then the enormous revelations of the Exodus, the codification of the Law and even the ritual marking of the flesh in circumcision. But as time went on, one mechanism of governance after another was instituted to allay the Jewish people’s ongoing fears that they were not equipped to take their place among other nations. They argued that it was not enough that they had God to guide them, and so God established Judges over them; but then it was not enough to have Judges when other nations had kings, so God established Kings.

We may be able to understand this perpetual dissatisfaction, but God makes it clear that it arose from lack of trust in Him. Today, though, we might take it as a warning against the efforts of so many to create a socio-economic-political space between themselves and God, so that they can be like everyone else, and so gain worldly honor and success.

Given their progressive political refusal to be content with God’s direct guidance, it is hardly surprising that we also see in Jewish social and economic life a constant tinkering with legal practice by which the letter of the law is “adjusted” and even “twisted” in favor of the rich and powerful, even to the point of permitting the enslavement of some Jews by others. As a result, God had to constantly raise up prophets to denounce the people for their stubborn refusal to be fully formed by the Divine law, instead of constantly ignoring or adjusting it, observing it only according to their own customs.

He also sent them into exile under the Babylonians and the Persians, and allowed them to be conquered and harassed by the glowing human civilization of the Greeks. In addition to the slow revelation of His overall Providential plan—the coming of the Messiah and His rejection, the suffering and dispersion of the Jews, and that apocalyptic time when they would again be brought close to God and other nations would cling to them in streaming into the Divine Presence—God used the prophets for hundreds of years to warn the Jews of impending national disasters because of their sins, that is, because of their natural reluctance to live by an interior correspondence with the moral law which God had so assiduously established among them.

Here we recall the word of the Lord that came to Isaiah in the eighth century before Christ:

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” [Is 29:13-14]

Similarly, the very latest of the so-called “minor” prophets railed against the people for the constant failure of their own customs and human laws to incorporate the very intentions of God’s law. Thus Zechariah:

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord. [8:15-17]

And Malachi warns: “I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against” sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who oppress the hired worker and the widow and the fatherless, those who thrust aside the sojourner, and who “do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5).

When law impedes love

Another point to be made here is that the most legalistic books in the Old Testament are the earliest, in the Mosaic Pentateuch. The Wisdom literature, Psalms and prophetic books are later. The later books are far more concerned with a growing problem: That the “external legalities” prescribed from a very early date had never been effectively internalized. This is significant, because it tells us a great deal about the whole point of the Law. After all, even in the early books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, God insists that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:4-5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18). So the Great Commandment was always there.

Under the Law and the Covenant, the Jews were called to live as a sign of contradiction to all the nations of the world, even if they played this Divine role imperfectly. And they were called to play this role, however imperfectly, for over a thousand years. Perhaps we can see now that there is something “civilizational” about the workings of Divine Providence. When God tries to inculcate into the human race a deep awareness of the fundamental moral and spiritual realities of the Divine relationship, it should not surprise us that this must be done not only through our own personal history, but in some sense civilizationally. In any case, the reality is that God’s plan for us was designed to enter history through a “chosen people” over a long period of time, and through the full range of their human experience.

We can only presume that this was the best way for mankind to get the basics of Godliness into its very bones. Yet while the results of God’s action under the Old Covenant were impressive, they did not bring mankind into union with its Creator. Just as the Fall and the consequent darkness set the stage for a special covenant relationship between God and His chosen people, so too were the Jews, under this genuinely remarkable covenant, setting the stage for something more. We must turn our attention next to whether the Law is to be abolished by Christians...or fulfilled.


Previous in series: OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 1
Next in series: OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 3

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - May. 28, 2022 5:54 AM ET USA

    This is proving to be a very good series. But rather than write the Jews were "conquered and harassed by the ...Greeks," maybe "seasoned and enlightened" would be better to use? The Greek influence brought about the Septuagint, a sort of common man's/elite's battle for the culture, and Jesus Himself used that scripture most of the time. But Isaiah 60 looks like the world will become Jewish, so Jewish resistance is understandable; it even looks practically imperative. Conundrums abound.