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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

OT Jews, NT Christians: Why such a different moral code? Part 1

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 24, 2022

Recently someone dear to me raised an interesting question: How is it that the same God could impose such radically different systems of morality on the Jews in the Old Testament and on the Christians after the coming of Jesus Christ? This is a fascinating question, and one which I doubt has a single simple answer. But the complexity of the question is immediately obvious when we put our own assumptions to the test by asking the obvious prior question: DID God impose one moral code on the Jews before Christ and another on the Christians after Christ came?

And the answer to that is not nearly as obvious as we may think.

If we want to answer that question with a resounding “yes”, we are probably thinking of the severe punishments—not excluding execution—which were specified in the Old Testament for certain failures to observe the Law, under which the Jews were supposed to behave in a manner appropriate to their special relationship with God. But if we ask ourselves about the most fundamental moral code for the Jews in the Old Testament, we realize immediately that this was spelled out in the Ten Commandments as revealed by God to Moses. This is the Law that was actually etched in stone, on Mount Sinai.

Now, as soon as we realize this, we ought also to realize something else, namely, that the Ten Commandments are the most succinct summary of the natural law ever written. They cover the basic moral principles which all of us can in some measure discern naturally, in our heart of hearts, that is, through the faculty of conscience: Here we are commanded, first, to acknowledge God and what is due to Him, from which derives our essential humility as creatures; second, to acknowledge the honor due to our parents, from which derives the genuine bonds of family life; and, third, to avoid the most obvious sins against our neighbors and against the human community as a whole, such as killing, stealing, lying, lust, and covetousness of every kind.

These simple commands clearly identify the basic categories of evil which we must avoid and the corresponding goods we must therefore uphold.

Most if not all of the sins punishable by death according to the Old Testament are violations of the Decalogue and, by extension, the natural law: homicide, child sacrifice, kidnapping, adultery, incest, sodomy, bestiality, striking or cursing one’s parents, kidnapping, witchcraft, divination, worshipping false gods, and violating the Sabbath. It is interesting to reflect that these are also the predominant sins that secularized or anti-religious people seek most to justify in our own time. Thus the moral understanding of the Old Testament is strikingly similar to the Christian understanding, though the expected punishments were (at least as prescribed) often more severe.

There was, as we will see, a deep sense in the Old Testament of the need to root out evil, to cut out the cancer from the larger society lest it spread. The idea of excommunication was once an expression of this same understanding among Catholics, but we have largely fallen into the trap of confusing right and wrong with political laws, so perhaps our own sense of the seriousness of the moral law could be improved!

Two Other Kinds of Law: Liturgical and Ritual

However, there were other legal factors which also color our perception of morality in the Old Testament. In addition to the Decalogue’s foundation in the natural law—again, this is also the basis of Christian morality—there is much in the Old Testament books which concerns what we now call “liturgical law”, that is, the prescriptions and rules regarding worship and God’s special presence in the Ark of the Covenant. For the most part we regard these laws today largely as incidentals associated with our voluntary religious worship (which may, again, be our own deficiency), but they were impressed upon the entire Jewish nation with great precision, primarily under Moses, because God intended to be present to the the Jews in a very special way. This meant that as a matter of corporate duty, they all had to be taught how to worship and to express their reverence for Him.

I note immediately here that even “liturgical laws” are for the good of the men and women who are bound by them. They are, of course, mostly provisional, that is, not in their specific details necessarily required by the very nature of things, but rather particular forms of ceremonial reverence which are appropriate to our relationship with and worship of God. Moreover, whatever God has prescribed—or has been prescribed by those He put in charge, such as Moses and Aaron and Miriam—should obviously be taken very seriously. Liturgical Law is designed to preserve awareness of the sacred mysteries with which Divine worship is concerned, and to ensure habits of reverence and solemnity before God which are altogether essential to mankind.

But there is also another kind of law in God’s plan for the Jewish people, which we might call the “laws of ritual purity”. These do not concern a specific manner of worship. Rather, they are designed to impress the need for a certain purity to be maintained in the presence of God and, by extension, at all times among the people that God has set apart as His own special possession. For the Jews were to be a sign of the reality and presence of the one true God to all the nations of the world. They must therefore have a horror of the practices of those who worshipped idols, and a horror of approaching God without regard for their own worthiness. This was inculcated through a large number of practices which could render a person unclean, so that he or she would have to go through a certain procedure of cleansing before entering again into the fullness of the community for Divine worship.

Again, some of the rules of ritual purity were a protection against falling back into evil practices; others were more oriented to inculcating a sense of purity which befitted those who were set apart for the God of Heaven and Earth. Sometimes infractions of liturgical laws and the laws of ritual purity could carry very serious punishments, but this is not quite the same thing as a different code of fundamental morality. Moreover, as happens in all human societies, there was the danger of reducing this to a set of rules which found little correspondence in the heart and soul.

In reflecting on liturgical and ritual law, it may also be helpful to consider the differences between the fundamental moral law in our own day and the many institutional rules we must follow which in themselves have little or no moral content, and the punishments which are meted out for their violation.

Providential Plan

Another important aspect of Old Testament law relates to the particular role God elected the Jews to play in His Divine plan. Here it is especially helpful to consider the code to which soldiers must adhere in wartime, a code which does not always deal with matters of fundamental moral obligation, but with matters of military responsibility deemed so important that transgressions are punished by imprisonment or execution. Dereliction of imposed military duties and any form of desertion, even when otherwise morally neutral or even admirable, can bring summary execution in wartime, and with some degree of moral legitimacy. It is necessary to recognize this aspect of the situation of the Jews as recounted in the Old Testament, and it is just here, perhaps, that we should pause to take a closer look at God’s purposes in all this.

It is important when discussing Divine Providence to keep in mind always the fundamental problem God faces in creating beings who are capable of receiving and returning love. They must be made in God’s own image, that is, possessing intellect and free will. As such they are subject to both confusion and the refusal to return God’s love. In other words, unlike the animals, human persons do not have to fall in with His plan. To understand Divine Providence, then, we must always keep the challenge of free will in mind. To override human freedom is to eliminate the very possibility of love. So how can God maximize the love of God in mankind without crossing that line?

Now, it is the purpose of Sacred Scripture to chronicle Divine Providence at work, from creation to redemption through Jesus Christ, the Son of God—and on, at least briefly, to the consummation of all things. We learn from Scripture that God created our first parents in a state of Original Justice, enjoying an intimate relationship with their Creator, but that their pride led them to desire to be God’s equals. The particular temptation at the root of their fall was to desire to judge the difference between good and evil for themselves. Through this sin, Adam and Eve lost the innocence in which they were created (they became, for example, acutely aware of their nakedness).

There is a telling verse in Genesis 3, in which God expresses what His Providential plan requires Him to do next: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:22-23). In other words, God does not want the human person to live forever in a state of perpetual estrangement from Him, and so He proceeds to the second stage of His plan for us. (Also note that already God refers to Himself, in the first book of the Bible, in the plural: The one God is “we”—as we will later learn, a Trinity.)

It is not, of course, that God keeps changing His mind as things develop. He is outside of time and sees all “times” at once in a stunning grasp of reality. What we see in Scripture is the unfolding of the eternal Divine plan in terms that finite creatures can experience, understand and respond to—that is, in time. Modern genetics verifies that all humans can be traced back to a single set of parents, as Genesis recounts, and we learn from the Old Testament that mankind was dispersed throughout the world, and that various tribes and peoples developed in different places. Most of these were given over to a kind of spiritual darkness in which, through their own weakness and under the influence of the Devil, they fell into the abominable practices associated with the worship of idols. At one point, God cleanses the earth again through a great flood, but after that the peoples multiply again, and they mostly fall again into abject sinfulness and idolatry.

If the Creation and Fall constitute what we might call the first phase of salvation history, this extended period of spiritual darkness may be said to constitute the second phase. But apparently a few people did cling to a remembrance of the God of Adam and Eve. One such was Abraham, and it is with Abraham that God initiates a new phase, in which he calls a single God-fearing man to be the father of a great nation set aside for Himself. This Abraham marks the beginning of the formation of the Jewish people as God’s special possession, a people set apart from all others who are sunk in sin and darkness and idolatry—a chosen people who have a covenant with God, and will be a light to the nations.

The tumultuous history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament is well-known. Through their various ups and downs they are being formed into a nation bound to the true God, as becomes very clear when they are called out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. It is during the Mosaic period and the centuries following that the Jews experience two things: Constant warfare with the idolatrous nations by which they are surrounded; and constant failure on their part to maintain the moral standard God has demanded of them as His people. The great prophets are sent repeatedly to denounce their sinfulness and call them back to obedience to the true God.

Again and again even their own priests (often likened to hirelings, or paid shepherds) lead them astray, and God finally declares through the prophet Ezekiel that “I myself will shepherd my people” (Ez 34:11-31). Thus do we learn to pull together a great many prophetic references to a “Messiah” who will usher in a new phase of salvation history. This will become crystal clear with the coming of Christ and the opening of the Christian era, and with the establishment of a new form of Divine authority in the Catholic Church.

But what must interest us now is the situation of the Jewish people between Abraham and Christ, during the time of the Law. What was God’s particular plan for them, and how does that color our understanding of the moral code imposed upon them by God? This is the subject of the next installment.


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

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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