Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Lawyer's Perspective on the Legal Status of Women in Old Testament Times

I eventually intend to write an extended post on the subject of “Theonomy” as taught by Rousas Rushdoony and practiced within the Christian Reconstructionist Movement - and also in the closely related Christian Patriarchy movement, the subject of my most popular past post. That will have to wait for another day, but in the meantime, I decided to pick a little low hanging fruit and discuss the issue of the legal status of women in the early era of the Old Testament. As a lawyer, I deal with the effects of the law as it applies to ordinary people in everyday situations. Many think of law as the big constitutional issues that the United States Supreme Court decides, or perhaps of a high profile criminal case. Or Perry Mason. The majority of us will experience law in matters of small justice. We may never be personally affected by a “big issue,” but we or our loved ones will at some point experience a divorce, an estate administration, a landlord/tenant issue, or a collision causing injuries. These cases matter too. Thus, our view of the law, and of equality before the law, matter.

More significant to this discussion, I have represented the victims of domestic violence in court throughout my career, mostly on a volunteer basis. I probably should write a post solely on domestic violence, culture, and the Church’s harmful response. (Teaser: violence against women is not caused by a lack of submission by the women. And greater submission does not cure it either.)

Over the last decade or so, gender roles and relations seems to have become the cause célèbre within conservative Christianity - and even more so within the home schooling circles, where Christian Patriarchy has become a significant force. There has been a lot of rhetoric flung around, with the most conservative accusing the others of not being “biblical,” and elevating gender roles to the level of a foundational doctrine of the faith. (I also intend to write a post on this at some point.)

In order to make this more clear, I want to start with a definition. “Theonomy” in its broadest sense simply means “God’s law,” or being governed by that law. Theonomy in that sense can be defined simply as adherence to God's law, which would make all Christians into theonomists. All of us try to determine how God would wish us to live, using the Scriptures - particularly the words of Christ himself - as a guide.

In a more narrow sense, Theonomy is an approach to the Bible as “God’s Little Instruction Book,” containing everything we need to know about everything. This approach entails reading the Bible primarily to find rules for living. (While most Christians within the pell of orthodoxy believe that the Scriptures contain everything we need to establish a relationship with our creator, few would, for example, claim that it contains all we need to know about medicine.) It is this sense of “Theonomy” that I intend to address more broadly in the future.

For purposes of this article, I define the term more narrowly still as a school of thought which advocates the literal, specific, and detailed applications of Mosaic civil laws to modern civil government. In essence, the belief is that everything we need to know about law and government is contained in the Mosaic law, and that the Mosaic law represents God’s perfect plan for civil society. And that therefore, the goal of the Christian must be to establish the rule of the Old Testament civil law enforced by the power of the civil government. This is the “theonomy” advocated by Christian Reconstructionist such as Rousas Rushdoony and his son-in-law and successor, Gary North, and by the Christian Patriarchy Movement.

In the case of the Reconstructionists (and to a large extent, the Patriarchists), there is are two additional doctrines which combine with their theonomy to create a vision for the future of the re-establishment (Reconstruction) of a Christian Nation, the new Israel, on earth. The first doctrine is “postmillennialism.” (For those who were not steeped in eschatology as a child, this is the belief that Christ’s second coming - his return to earth - will not take place until the Kingdom of God has been established on the entire earth and ruled for a thousand years. This sounds to me a little like the Shia Islam belief in the return of the Madhi, to be preceded by an apocalypse...) The second is “dominionism” which holds that Christians are mandated to take dominion over the earth in all possible ways - particularly political dominion. Thus, the primary aim of the church is to be the establishment of a Christian Theocracy that will eventually rule the entire earth.

And what will be the law that governs such a theocracy? Why, the Mosaic Law, of course! As Gary North puts it in his book, Unconditional Surrender (available free online as a pdf here),

How, then, can anyone calling himself a Christian be satisfied with anything less than the reign of Old Testament law in the civil government?”

It is my intent in this post to explore (in part) what that would actually mean, and explain why I reject this vision.

Division of the Mosaic Law

Traditionally, the law of Moses was divided into at least three parts. I chose to use four divisions, as this makes the most sense to me as a basis for classifying the laws.

1. Laws relating to the Temple and the sacrifices.
2. Ceremonial and cleanliness laws. I also include laws that separate the Israelites from other nations here.
3. The civil law. These are the laws that are commonly enforced by governments today. Criminal law, torts, contracts, etc.
4. The moral law. The Ten Commandments are the best known of these. These are the laws of ethics and morality and are generally common throughout all societies in all time periods.

Within the Christian tradition, there has been a great deal of controversy and difference about which of these laws are still binding after the death and resurrection of Christ. Pretty much everyone agrees that the sacrifices are no longer necessary, although some observe the various feasts. (In some cases, instead of modern holidays such as Christmas and Easter and even birthdays.)

Most believe that the ceremonial and cleanliness laws were abolished along with the sacrifices. This (and St. Peter’s vision) leads to the eating of pork and shellfish by most Christians. Few consider circumcision to be required for gentiles.  (Although Bill Gothard, for example, strongly advocates both circumcision and avoiding “unclean” foods such as pork.) A modern example of the conflict over cleanliness laws would be over the issue of tattoos.

For the civil law, my experience is that most Christians pick and choose. We tend to support the death penalty for murder, and occasionally for rape, but not for working on the Sabbath, for example.  

In the case of the Reconstructionist/Patriarchist view, the Mosaic law applies in every case, unless expressly abolished by commands in the New Testament or by the examples of the apostles. (And in some cases, not even then. See Circumcision and avoidance of pork, noted above.) Thus, for this species of theonomist, the vast majority of the Mosaic law is binding on all people in all time periods. And, for the true Reconstructionist, the goal is to eventually impose these laws on all the people of the earth.

Again, this sounds strikingly like the goal of the most militant branches of Islam to impose Sharia Law on the entire earth. And, not coincidentally, there are many parallels between the Mosaic Law and Sharia Law. Historians would explain that they both arose out of the same culture.

The Role of Culture in Mosaic Law

I believe that in order to evaluate the merits of a literal, specific, and detailed application of the Mosaic civil law to our own culture and government, it is vital to understand the culture in which it arose.

I do not believe it is possible to separate the law from ancient middle eastern culture - and neither do the Reconstructionists and Patriarchists. (They wish to re-create both the rules and the culture. See Douglas Phillips and Vision Forum and the “Tenants of Biblical Patriarchy.”   Or the Courtship/Betrothal model. )  The laws grew out of and are a reflection of that culture. Thus, many of the laws make no sense until they are understood in that light. And, very much to the point, they cannot be literally enforced without a re-creation of that culture.

I have chosen to focus on the legal status of women for this post both because I am a lawyer and laws are therefore of interest to me, and also because I believe that it is their attempts to impose a particular legal status on modern women that the theonomists do much of their damage.

Central idea: in the ancient Middle East (and many other cultures past and present), women were considered to be property. Chattel. Something that men owned.

Once I understood this basic fact, so many things in the Old Testament made sense! Let’s face it, the Bible is a messy book, filled with terrible behavior, great cruelty, high adventure, and lots of stuff that was taken for granted then but seems strange to us now.

Let’s look at some examples:

Rape Laws

From Deuteronomy Chapter 22: (All quotations are from the New American Standard Version. See endnote.)

23 If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her,
24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
25 But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die.
26 But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case.
27 When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.
28 If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered,
29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.

This passage was puzzling to me as a teen. Why did it make a difference whether the girl was engaged or not? And why would she have to marry her rapist if she wasn’t?

The answer becomes clear if you look at it with the understanding of the culture. The woman in all of this is irrelevant. She is property. If she is engaged, then she belongs to her future husband, who would clearly not want a tainted girl. Unfortunately, this cultural understanding has led in the past - and in the present Islamic Middle East - to a demand that women never go anywhere without a man to “protect” them from rapists. Otherwise, it is the woman’s fault if she is raped. And she is executed accordingly.

It is the last verse in particular that makes this property relationship clear. I call this the “you break it, you bought it” clause. You “break” a virgin? You just bought her, pal, and you have to pay for her. Payment shall be made to her previous owner - her father. Note that the woman has no say in the matter. (Indeed, in ancient middle eastern culture, women really had no say at all in marriage. We tend to forget this in our modern times.)

Virginity Laws

It is hardly controversial to say that throughout most of history and in many places in the world, it has been believed that the most important thing a woman can bring to a marriage is her virginity. This was and is particularly true in middle eastern culture, where “honor killings” persist to this day.

Also from Deuteronomy 22:

13 If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her,
14 and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ‘I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,’
15 then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate.
16 The girl’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her;
17 and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, “I did not find your daughter a virgin.” But this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.
18 So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him,
19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.
20 But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin,
21 then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

Again, my original response upon reading this as a teenager was great puzzlement. It makes no sense to one who grew up in Twentieth Century America. I mean, I suppose I could understand the man being unhappy about not getting the virgin he was promised, but why would he pay her father if it turned out he was lying. And why would her father have a bloody garment as proof of her virginity? But, again, it makes perfect sense once one looks at the woman in this scenario as property belonging first to the father and then to the husband.

The marriage transaction was that of the purchase of property. A true virgin was like a new car. Substituting a used car for a new car would obviously be serious fraud. Similarly, claiming that one was swindled would be defamation if untrue, and the party that was harmed wasn’t the woman - she was property anyway - but the father.

Notice as well that there is no corresponding provision for a man. (I concede that it is harder to test for virginity in a man.) It wasn’t relevant, because the man wasn’t property. (The sexual double standard persists to this day, of course. Men do not suffer a loss of reputation for promiscuity. Women do.) I would also note that this law could be harsh on women who were born without a hymen, or who damaged it prior to marriage. Don’t bleed? We stone you. I will note again that this culture persists in areas of the middle east today.

Divorce Laws

From Deuteronomy 24:

1 When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,
2 and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife,
3 and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife,
4 then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.

I quote this passage in part because one of the areas of my law practice is divorce. It is probably obvious to all lawyers that there is one significant thing missing from this passage. What happens when the woman divorces her husband? Oh, wait, women didn’t have the power to do that! Again, a comparison to Sharia Law is helpful. To divorce, the man must say “I divorce you.” three times. (A recent clerical ruling held that doing this by text or e-mail was sufficient.)

However, the woman may not initiate the divorce proceedings. If she wishes to leave, she must flee, and has no financial support or protection should she do so. She would need to throw herself on the mercy of her family (who may well not accept her), find another man willing to take her on, or turn to prostitution. And that is exactly what the case was in the culture present during the writing of the Old Testament. (Les Misérables contains a most poignant tale of the fate of the woman abandoned by a man, with her reputation ruined.)

Vestiges of this double standard persisted into rather modern times. Even the Western nations did not recognize adultery or abuse on the part of the man to be grounds for a woman to initiate a divorce until the 1800s.


From Numbers 30:

3 Also if a woman makes a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by an obligation in her father’s house in her youth,
4 and her father hears her vow and her obligation by which she has bound herself, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she has bound herself shall stand.
5 But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears of it, none of her vows or her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her because her father had forbidden her.
6 “However, if she should marry while under her vows or the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself,
7 and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day he hears it, then her vows shall stand and her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand.
8 But if on the day her husband hears of it, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her.
9 But the vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, everything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.
10 However, if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by an obligation with an oath,
11 and her husband heard it, but said nothing to her and did not forbid her, then all her vows shall stand and every obligation by which she bound herself shall stand.
12 But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the Lord will forgive her.
13 “Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it.
14 But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her; he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them.
15 But if he indeed annuls them after he has heard them, then he shall bear her guilt.”

This passage refers to women only. Men are bound by their vows at all times. Yet again, this passage makes sense in the culture of the time. Women (generally) could not own property, and could not enter their own contracts. (This persisted in most cultures until a mere few hundred years ago.)

This also is completely consistent with the concept of women as property, at least prior to marriage, and during any marriage. A woman would only be able to bind herself after divorce or widowhood. Douglas Phillips bases his teachings that a daughter is subject to a father’s authority until marriage, and then to her husband’s authority thereafter on this passage.

Polygamy and Concubinage

Perhaps one of the most axiomatic thing about wealth is that the wealthy love to accumulate status symbols. Property that can be shown off. A wealthy man could afford more than one wife. And concubines.

In the days of Abraham, “patriarchs” were not just heads of their immediate families. They had a whole retinue of wives, children, slaves - and even younger relatives who did not inherit the “birthright.” Thus, Hagar was doubly property. She was a woman, and she was a slave. From Genesis 16:

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar.
2 So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.
3 After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.

Note again that there is no mention of choice for Hagar. She was given. A nice little present for Abram. And note that the child would not belong to Hagar, but to Sarai!

I won’t cite the whole passages, but this scenario is repeated two generations later when Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel engage in an arms race to out-reproduce the other. (Genesis 30) The slaves Bilhah and Zilpah are enlisted, and the children produced belong to Leah and Rachel. It must have been fun to be a slave back then. (Actually, the evidence suggests that it is the normal state of affairs for slaves to be used also as concubines. It goes naturally with the belief that other humans are chattel.)

King Solomon would raise this to its ludicrous extreme by supporting 700 wives and an additional 300 concubines. If you read the passages carefully, you can note the use of the exact same language describing Solomon’s accumulation of women and his accumulation of horses and chariots. Status symbols and property all.

Violence Against Women

The most shocking passages, however, are the ones which casually accept violence against women. From Deuteronomy 20:

10  When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.
11 If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you.
12 However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it.
13 When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the ]men in it with the edge of the sword.
14 Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.

Yes indeed, the women (and children) are part of the booty. Concubines for all! Or, from Deuteronomy 21:

10 When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive,
11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself,
12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.
13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.
14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.

Sadly, this was actually pretty generous for ancient times. The woman got to mourn for a month before she had to sleep with the man that killed her parents. And she had protection against being sold into slavery afterward.

Both of these passages are, once again, consistent with a view of women as property. It gets worse, however.

In the well known story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a couple of angels go to visit Abraham’s nephew, Lot, at his home in Sodom. (Genesis 19)

4 ...the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from every quarter;
5 and they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them.”
6 But Lot went out to them at the doorway, and shut the door behind him,
7 and said, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly.
8 Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

And, the corresponding incident in Judges 19:

22 While they were celebrating, behold, the men of the city, certain worthless fellows, surrounded the house, pounding the door; and they spoke to the owner of the house, the old man, saying, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have relations with him.”
23 Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my fellows, please do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not commit this act of folly.
24 Here is my virgin daughter and his concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and brought her out to them; and they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn.
26 As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was, until full daylight.
27 When her master arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, then behold, his concubine was lying at the doorway of the house with her hands on the threshold.
28 He said to her, “Get up and let us go,” but there was no answer. Then he placed her on the donkey; and the man arose and went to his home.
29 When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel.
30 All who saw it said, “Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel and speak up!”

This is pretty shocking and terrible, and I could not understand it when I first encountered it. But it makes sense from a certain viewpoint.

In that culture, there was little worse than failing to protect a (male) guest. Thus, Lot and the unnamed man in Judges were willing to bribe the violent mob to go away. So they offered some of their property. In Lot’s case, his two virgin daughters (likely in their early teens) to be raped and abused by a mob of violent men. The man in Judges offered his daughter as well, but ended up only giving his concubine. His slave. And she was raped and murdered. He then desecrated her dead body, cutting it up and sending it out as an object lesson. But, she was, after all, simply his chattel.

There is no other way to explain this behavior except by acknowledging that, in that culture, women were little more (if any) than livestock. Useful as a bribe, but certainly not possessing human dignity and worth of their own. Not possessing choice about the integrity of their bodies. Objects for men to expend their lusts upon. And the father or owner had the power to sacrifice the bodies of a daughter or a slave at will.

I want to cite one final incident from Judges 11.

30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
34 When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.
35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”
36 So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”
37 She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.”
38 Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity.
39 At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel,
40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

I will note that Jephthah promises to sacrifice “whatever” comes to meet him. He is thinking of property. Clearly, he would not have sacrificed his uncle. It is possible he might have sacrificed a son, but a daughter was clearly property, and he was (in his own mind - and in his daughter’s mind) stuck.

These last three incidents are described in the Bible, but are not given express approval by the text. They do, however, illustrate the culture. Women were property. Chattel. Not human beings with equal humanity and dignity compared to men.

Potential Conclusions

As I see it, there are three potential conclusions one can draw from these examples.

Conclusion #1: the atheist’s conclusion

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins have concluded that:
1. The Mosaic Law does in fact represent “God’s” ideal society.
2. The ideal society treated women like property.
3. This is obviously cruel and wrong.
4. The concept of “God” is therefore cruel and evil.

It is the casual cruelty of the Old Testament that has given more ammunition to militant atheists such as Dawkins than any other facet of Christianity. When we insist on claiming that these laws - particularly as they relate to women - are God’s ideal, we are asking that they believe what is really ludicrous on its face. They are able to say - correctly - that they could easily create a system of law that was more just and considerate of women.

Conclusion #2: the Reconstructionist/Patriarchist conclusion

Rushdoony and the Patriarchists (particularly Douglas Phillips) have concluded that:

1. The Mosaic Law was in fact God’s ideal society.
2. Women should not, in fact, be treated equally with men or have autonomy.
3. We must try to re-create this society, complete with the laws that treat women like property.
4. Any departure from this view constitutes “evil” feminism, or “secularism.”

It is this view that allows Phillips to create his rules of Patriarchy, wherein women are not deemed capable of being fully functioning humans the way men are. Rather, a woman must be directly under the authority of a man at all times. Her father or husband, of course, but in some situations her son or another male relative. At least Phillips should be given credit for consistency. The natural end result of the attempt to duplicate Old Testament culture is the complete subjugation of women.

It is also why Rushdoony (and his philosophical forefather, R. L. Dabney), Douglas Phillips, and Douglas Wilson have advocated limiting voting rights to land owning Christian males. (Dabney would have denied sufferage to non-whites as well.) Women need not apply.

It is also this view that enabled Rushdoony and North to advocate a return to execution by stoning.

Conclusion #3: the Mosaic Law was NOT God’s ideal vision for a society

There are various forms of this view, but what they have in common is that they view portions of the Mosaic law to be obsolete as applied to Christians after the resurrection.

In the tradition I grew up in, the most common view was that, while the moral law was still binding, the civil and ceremonial laws were not. In fact, those laws were put in place to preserve the line of the Messiah by separating ancient Israel from the surrounding nations. In essence, the Mosaic Law was viewed, not as a set of instructions, but in its role in providing for the eventual redemption of mankind. It is a view of the whole of scripture as a story arc with it’s high point at the death and resurrection of Christ.

I am not a theologian. I feel unqualified to lay out all of the arguments in favor of this view, and will not attempt to do so here. I will, however, explain my view, and why I hold it.

God has worked within existing culture

I have read through the entire Bible several times, and read the Gospels and Epistles many more times than that. I enjoy the study of history, and have spent time learning about ancient cultures and the Roman Empire and the related Greek culture. I own and use a concordance to look up the underlying uses and meanings of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words. I do not come to this conclusion lightly, nor with an ignorance of the words contained in Scripture.

I also do not want to appear dismissive of the Mosaic law. For its time, it did have some protections that were unusual. It served its purpose of preserving the line of the Messiah - and of foreshadowing his coming. The Apostle Paul described the Old Testament as inspired by God, and profitable, after all. But I believe that a literal application of the Mosaic law and a reconstruction of the nation of Israel misses the point badly.

I have concluded that throughout history, God has always focused on the heart. Not on outward actions. Not on culture. Not on rules. God has sought to work on the heart within the flawed culture that exists. He has always been realistic about the speed of cultural change and the difficulty of imposing it without a prior change of heart.

If the heart changes, the culture will change too.

That is why God worked through the ancient culture to establish the nation of Israel. That is why He gave instructions to slaves and masters in the letters of the Apostle Paul. Not because slavery was okay, but that His focus was the heart. What attitude should one have within a flawed culture? How should one act to avoid bringing disgrace to the name of Christ?

One of the most enlightening passages that I discovered was in Matthew 19.

3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.
9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

I believe this passage has been greatly abused by the church because of the lack of understanding of ancient cultures. In our modern times, we like to use it as a weapon against women, telling them that they need to endure abuse ( - John Piper trying to explain this concept) rather than divorce. 

In light of the culture, where a woman who was “put away” was thrown on the mercy of her family, her ability to find a man willing to take her, or her ability to earn a living as a prostitute, Christ’s words here take on a whole different light. Moses (not God himself - interesting) allowed a man to cast a woman away like used property “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Not because this was ideal. Note also the passage in Malachi on divorce, which focused on the fact that the man was breaking the covenant with the woman. Discarding her like property.

Seeing this passage that way made me wonder how many other specifics of the Mosaic Law existed because of “hardness of heart.” How many others were Moses permitting cultural evils to remain for the time. The permitting of polygamy? Perhaps the one about stoning women who don’t bleed on the wedding night? Perhaps the one about taking female captives as concubines? Perhaps the one forcing her to marry her rapist?

Perhaps there is an overriding principle that might help figure this out. Matthew 22:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 This is the great and foremost commandment.
39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

In Luke’s version of a similar conversation, the statement is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s not like this was a new idea introduced in the New Testament either. In Isaiah 1 (which this lawyer reads as an indictment and offer of a plea bargain) one can find the following:

11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
12 “When you come to appear before Me,
Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
13 “Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
14 “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 “So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
17 Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.

Seek justice. Reprove the ruthless. Defend the oppressed and the vulnerable. Love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps even treat women the way you wish to be treated yourself. It’s a radical concept.

It takes time for ideas to change culture. Our hearts are indeed hard, and we cling to our power and our privilege. We prefer to look for hard line cultural standards that make us feel better about our own lack of compassion.

For those of us who believe in an all-knowing God, we would have to admit that some of the scientific and medical rules of the Mosaic Law are outdated. Leprosy can now be cured by antibiotics, and we are close to developing a vaccine that works after exposure. This information was not revealed in the Mosaic Law. According to the knowledge of the day, quarantine was the only viable solution. Likewise, there are no detailed instructions for creating a modern waste treatment plant. (Imagine trying to bury all the human waste from my hometown of Los Angeles in a pit outside the city!) The instructions were fit to the knowledge and society that existed. But we would not dream of insisting that they be applied to the different conditions that exist now.

For some reason, however, most of us understand that the Mosaic Law is not a textbook on sanitation or medicine; but the Reconstructionists/Patriarchists insist that it is the definitive rule book for law, government, and personal relationships.

The uncomfortable fact is that the literal application of the Mosaic law leads inexorably to the belief that women are not fully human and that they may - nay, SHOULD, be treated as property.

Thus, I have concluded that in matters of law, government, and male/female relationships, we have not been bound to a particular “ideal” culture from the past. Rather, we have the duty to evaluate our institutions and rules in light of the greatest commandments and the intelligence we have been given. If our particular rule leads to injustice, cruelty, or favoritism, it violates those overarching rules, and should therefore be discarded. The greater law trumps the lesser.

I would note, as I have before, that it isn’t too difficult to see the Reconstructionist version of “theonomy” or theocracy in practice. Much of Sharia law parallels the Mosaic law. Just substitute “Yahweh” for “Allah,” and “Jesus” for “Mohammed,” and you get a fairly indistinguishable system. As implemented by the Taliban in Afghanistan and other radical groups throughout the world, it indeed leads to the treatment of women as property. It also leads to the repression of other religions - and indeed dissent in general. The evidence is easy to see.

I particularly get my back up when those who hold Rushdoony’s view of theonomy and Biblical interpretation insist that their way is the only “Biblical” or “Godly” way. As if those of us who do not seek to impose a literal, detailed, and specific implementation of Mosaic Law are somehow not taking the Bible seriously.

“How, then, can anyone calling himself a Christian be satisfied with anything less than the reign of Old Testament law in the civil government?” ~Gary North

Yes indeed. One cannot be a true Christian unless one believes in the imposition of the Mosaic law in full, and in civil society, enforced by the power of the State. And the power to put to death “blasphemers,” aka, those who disagree.

As if the story of redemption is about establishing an earthly theocracy. As if the New Testament never happened. As if walking by the Spirit (as the Apostle Paul puts it) is merely about rediscovering the law of Moses. And, as if God truly created women to be the property of men.  

Note on Reconstructionism:

For more on the vision of the Reconstructionists, I recommend this 1998 article from Reason, which includes a number of the parallels between Reconstructionism and radical Islam.

For more on Dominion Theology, the Wikipedia articles on Dominionism  and Dominion Theology  are a good start.  

For more on Reconstructionsm’s roots in White Supremacy, see my post here.
Compiling all of the poisonous quotes on race, slavery, segregation, and stonings by Rushdoony and North (and others within the movement) is beyond the scope of this post. One from Rushdoony on the Mosaic law’s permitting of permanent enslavement of foreigners will do:

“The law here is human and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so.”

Or perhaps this one from Foundations of Social Order, conveniently available in full for free online here:

“A ‘Litany’ popular in these circles identifies ‘God’ with the city, with the ’spick, black nigger, bastard, Buddhahead, and kike,’ with ‘all men, this concept runs deeply through the so-called Civil Rights Revolution… But …no society has ever existed without class and caste lines.” (Page 159-160)

(Although quotation marks are used, Rushdoony does not give a citation for the racial slurs, while he does for the previous quoted exerpts, so I must assume they are his words.)

Note on Bible translation:

I chose to use the NASB because it is generally the most literal, word-for-word translation, and because it was the first Bible I owned. (I still own my childhood copy.) I generally read more in the old NIV (no longer in print) version that I obtained in my teens. However, it is impossible to cut and past from online, now that it has been superceded by an updated version. (Lots of controversy here, which I will avoid.) I rejected the use of the KJV both because its language is obscure and many of its translation choices tainted by political concerns, but also because “KJV only” is a rallying cry of the Patriarchy movement. Parallel translations (and the original language texts) are readily available online for those who wish to look up alternative translations.

Note on Ron Paul:

I have a number of libertarian leaning friends who send me stuff advocating for Ron Paul. Yes, I delete it. I find him generally to be a bit nutty and out of touch (particularly on foreign policy) with actual reality.

What I did not know until just recently is that he is now developing his own curriculum. And who do you think might be the Director of Curriculum Development for this?

None other than Gary North.  I am having a bit of difficulty figuring out exactly how a libertarian can justify joining forces with an advocate of theocracy. I guess perhaps they are linked by a desire to dismantle the current governmental system. Libertarians would prefer less government control. Reconstructionists would prefer the Government use its powers to enforce Old Testament civil law, rather than, say, civil rights laws.

Still, Ron Paul supporters: Your libertarian movement is being taken over by Reconstructionism. This should bother you.


  1. That statement by Jesus ought to be the final word on whether the law of Moses is meant to be the "ideal human society."

    I would point out that the law here is speaking to an entire, entrenched honor-based society--it was not just the men who thought of things this way, it was the way women thought, too. Note that "consent" is not an issue in these passages--it simply wasn't the way people thought. So, in many cases, this passage would in our terms simply compel a man to marry his girlfriend instead of dumping her. And remember in the parallel passage in Exodus there's a provision for the father to *not* consent to the marriage and levy a hefty fine instead, which would be consistent with how the law punished nearly all physical injuries. (Also, a woman who was otherwise physically injured in rape logically should have been able to levy the standard fines for injuries.) Deuteronomy reads more like case law than statutes to me, and should not be read to be a complete statement about how things were. It is quite possible that the application was generally far less harsh than it appears.

    Regardless, a woman in that culture would not see her rapist as someone who had gone against her consent--she would see him as someone who had violated her honor. And that honor could be restored by giving her his name and contracting a lifetime obligation of support. You can see this in the story of Tamar, where she thinks being sent away after the rape is *worse* than the rape, but also in quite separate ancient documents, such as in Herodotus. In a story in Herodotus, there's an ancient king, Greek maybe, who wants his best bud's opinion on the charms of his wife, so he smuggles him into the bedroom just to observe. The queen is horrified to find this out, calls the other fellow and says--you can kill the king and reign, or you can kill yourself, but my honor doesn't permit both of you to live. That queen doesn't sound like she's property--but she does care more about honor than anything modern people would consider important.

    I'm not saying this to defend this approach *at all*, just to point out that this is an area where the thought process of those who first received and tried to apply the Law was almost unimaginably different than our own.

    1. I knew I could count on the Queen to weigh in with a great perspective. You are absolutely correct that the thought process was completely different. That is why it is dangerous to try to mechanically apply it to a completely different culture. And I do find it a bit offensive that it is claimed that ancient Honor Culture was somehow more "godly" than others, and that we need to return to it.

      Your examples are illuminating as well. Results that seem odd to us now were perfectly normal. (I did note this regarding Jephthah's daughter - she agreed with the violent result.) I just have a real problem with the attempt to re-create this mindset.

      I love your idea that the law was more like case law than statutory law. Here is how to apply the basic legal principles in this situation and in this culture. That suggests a more rational approach than the imposition of the law in every detail.

      It really is a shame that few Christians bother to understand historical context. I guess Higher Criticism ruined everything.

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  3. Great post on women being property! The problem I run into is not believing these laws existed -- I certainly do -- but I have trouble believing God commanded it. Yet according to Deutronomy 22, God did say it. This means either he did, or someone just wrote down the laws of God (but they didn't actually hear his voice). I tend to go with the latter, but like you, think Jesus turned a new leaf. I think Paul was a lot more progressive than we give him credit for. Little words here and there were added to the Greek (as I ran into when I studied Greek at the university).

  4. Excellent post. I'm looking forward to reading more of your stuff. :)Another view of the law I've heard, and it makes me a little crazy because of the cognitive dissonance involved, is "well, God doesn't consider women property, so that can't possibly be what the law means. The law was just protecting women from a bunch of societies which were far worse."