Overview | Slavery | Levirate Marriage | Killing Infants | Capital Punishment for Small Crimes | Jericho — A Just War?

You often hear critics of Christianity saying the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament — that this Old Testament God is mean-spirited and vindictive, but that the New Testament God is merciful and loving.

Many fundamentalist evangelical Protestants have their own peculiar notions of the God of the Old Testament. Some of His proclivities:

I explore various topics using Old Testament biblical passages. Examples of topics:


The God of the Old Testament appears to approve of slavery. This offends our modern sensitivities.

Some questions to consider:

Slavery was common in both Old Testament times and New Testament times.

The Catholic Church emphasizes human dignity.

There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel: Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 1938)

The principle of solidarity, also articulated in terms of "friendship" or "social charity," is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 1939) Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 1940)

Furthermore . . . whatever insults human dignity, such as . . . slavery . . . are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (Gaudium Et Spes. para. 27)

Note that in these citations the Church does not necessarily forbid all types of forced servitude. (Let My People Go: The Catholic Church and Slavery) But it's hard to imagine a society in which slavery could be practiced in a way that doesn't violate human dignity.

I assume that whatever moral principles are true today are also true throughout all periods of human history; that God did not change His moral law as humanity became more civilized.

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. (Genesis 17:12)

God commands Abram to circumcise his slaves. This implies that God was not opposed to the institution of slavery as it was practiced by Abram.

Servants [slaves], be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. (Ephesians 6:5) And, ye masters, do the same things unto them [their slaves], forbearing threatening (Ephesians 6:9)

The apostle Paul does not suggest that slavery should be abolished. This does not necessarily mean that slavery is good.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament treat the topic of slavery in the same manner — they allow for certain forms of forced servitude to be practiced. It is only in our modern times that we began to consider slavery as a bad thing; and we do not learn this from the Bible. Thus, those who use the Bible as their only source of authority have no justification for claiming that slavery is a bad thing.

Levirate Marriage

The Old Testament practice of Levirate Marriage is the obligation by a man to marry a brother's childless widow for the purpose of providing children for her.

The Catholic Church clearly teaches that any and all sexual relations outside marriage are gravely immoral acts.

Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations - even transient ones - they commit adultery. . . . The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 2380)

Based on this Catholic teaching Levirate Marriage simply cannot be allowed even if there is a good that comes from it (such as providing the widow with a lineage and means of support).

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 1756)

The Old Testament commands the practice of Levirate Marriage.

If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)

How are we to reconcile the Old Testament command of Levirate Marriage with modern Christian teaching? Some possibilities:

In the same passage in Deuteronomy in which we find Levirate Marriage we also find the following passage allowing divorce:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Yet Jesus clearly condemns divorce.

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. (Mark 10:2-5)

The Catholic Church strongly condemns divorce just as Jesus does.

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 2384)

Notice that Jesus does not state that the Old Testament law was superseded by the New Testament law. Rather, he affirms that the Old Testament law regarding divorce was not from God but from Moses. The same is true of the institution of Levirate Marriage (since it is in the same passage in Deuteronomy as the commands regarding divorce).

Killing Infants

Catholic just war doctrine informs us that it is morally unjustifiable to indiscriminately slaughter the innocent in a war. Certainly infants would qualify as innocent.

The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 2312-2313)

Yet some claim that the Old Testament commands the Israelites to exterminate everyone in battle including infants. The prophet Samuel speaks:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:2-3)

I discuss just war in another article.

I assume the following:

My conclusions:

Capital Punishment for Small Crimes

In the Old Testament, God clearly commands the death penalty for an assortment of crimes including:

The Catholic Church teaches that capital punishment is acceptable (but rarely needed in our modern world).
Evangelium vitae, John Paul II | Crime And Punishment: A Catholic Perspective, Joseph L. Falvey Jr.

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sect. 2266-2267)

How are we to reconcile the discrepancy between the commands of the Old Testament and the moral teaching of the Catholic Church? Has God changed His moral standards?

Two questions:

In the quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, note the reason the offender is to be locked up — to protect the innocent. The phrase "defending human lives against the unjust aggressor" implies that the specified crime is murder. But in cases where the crime is not murder, this phrase doesn't strictly apply. To address the more general case this phrase should perhaps be "to defend members of society against the crimes of the criminal".

Apparently, in a society such as Old Testament Israel (or Christendom), crimes against religion and morality are truly capital offenses. Certainly in a pluralistic society such as our own these kinds of actions must be tolerated or even legalized. But this is by way of accommodation to a culture which ultimately rejected God's way. Now, we must allow those who reject God and those of other religious faiths to participate freely in society. The experiment of Old Testament Israel and Christendom ultimately failed.

In the New Testament Jesus offers forgiveness to those who should be executed according to the Old Testament law. How are we to reconcile this? Does the God of the New Testament have a different moral standard than the God of the Old Testament?

Note that Jesus never states that the guilty party is innocent because the crimes are not capital offenses. Rather, he challenges the witnesses to execute the law perfectly. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, no one will stone her, presumably because they would be obligated to also stone the man. She is guilty, but in the absence of witnesses she is set free.

These Old Testament passages have been used by both Protestants and Catholics to justify killing each other in the name of God and for burning supposed witches. There have been many abuses over the centuries.

Not every example of people wanting to stone someone in the Old Testament is for crimes specified by God. Sometimes they wanted to kill someone for various other reasons.

Jericho — A Just War?

A few troubling questions:

I wrote an article about this topic.