Photo Credit: "Achan Is Stoned to Death", Gustave Doré - 1866 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Outdated Biblical Laws


In the prior two essays that I posted on this site, I discussed the parable by ibn Tufayl where we saw that most people are unable to understand the truth and are even disturbed by the truth, and in the essay focusing on the “noble lie” that educated people need to hide the real truth from the masses and need to lie. If it is true that it is impossible to teach the truth to people, it would follow that the Torah also does not reveal the truth, but only as much of it that will help people to improve themselves and society. It would also follow that as time passed and civilization matured many biblical laws needed to be updated to what the Torah really wants of people. This is what Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed.


For example: If scripture had told ancient people to give up the practice of offering sacrifices to God, that God did not need them and that there was no need for a temple for worship, people would have rejected the Bible as nonsense. Only a few people realized that sacrifices and temples are unnecessary, such as the biblical prophets and the philosopher Maimonides (1138–1204), who quotes these prophets in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:24 and 41. Thus it is clear, as Maimonides wrote, that the biblical approach is to “allow” the ancient practices but to restrict them in many ways so that, ultimately, the people will realize that the practices are wrong.

Thus, the Bible allowed sacrifices but did not allow the Israelites to engage in the extravagant pagan sacrificial ceremonies, and restricted the kind of animals that could be offered to only a few. It also limited the occasions and times that Israelites could enter the houses of worship; for example, people who had seminal emissions or who came into contact with the dead were not permitted to enter until they had undergone a purification process. This process, Maimonides explains, was only designed to restrict entrance into the house of worship. The idea that these people had become impure and needed the “purification process” were only ruses; people could be cleansed in minutes by washing in soap and water. Thus, seeing how the Torah restricted sacrifices, the general population would ultimately realize that sacrifices, the butchering of animals, and placing their carcasses on altars is not something that God wants.

Just after the revelation of the Ten Commandments, to cite other examples, the Bible mandates many “allow” commands in Exodus 21 and 22. Addressing the house of worship, it does away with the ancient concept that temples create a sanctuary for murderers in 21:14. Similarly, the ancients were so enamored of worship that many sacrificed their firstborn sons to their gods. The Bible shows its displeasure with human sacrifices in Genesis 22, and it changes the practice of sacrificing firstborns to dedicating these sons to God, as a kind of priest (Exodus 22:28–29 and 24:5). This was later changed when the Levites were selected for the tabernacle duties and firstborns were redeemed, that is, released, from this duty by a gift of money.

Exodus 21 begins by allowing slavery but restricts it by determining when male slaves must be freed. The law required masters to release the slave’s wife when the slave was released. Slaves could decide to remain enslaved at the end of the mandated time period, but if so, the law required the master to bore the slave’s ear with an awl against the master’s doorpost, so that every time the slave went in and out of his master’s house, he would see the hole and be reminded that he had made a stupid, even immoral decision (Exodus 21:2–6). The laws of slavery were so restrictive – to teach that slavery was wrong – that the rabbis commented: he who acquires a slave is acquiring a master.

These laws are followed by the case of a man selling his daughter as a slave, a brutal ancient practice showing, among other things, insensitivity to women. Recognizing that masters will generally insist on having sex with their female slaves, the Torah mitigates the degrading harsh treatment by insisting that the master install her as his concubine. If he no longer wants her, he may not sell or give her to another person; he must free her. Furthermore, if after purchasing her, he gives her to his son, she may not be his concubine but is his wife in every sense (Exodus 21:7–11).

The ancients allowed revenge killings, especially when a person killed a relative, even in self-defense. Unable to stop the retaliations because of the mindset of the time, scripture established places where the killer could flee with impunity (Exodus 21:22).

In the award-winning 2002 book Reading the Women of the Bible, Tikva Frymer-Kensky acknowledges that the Bible reflected the ancient view of women being subjugated, but it told many stories where women were able to successfully exert power despite their subjugation – stories such Moses’s mother and sister and, later, his wife who saved his life; the matriarch Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, who secured a blessing for her son Jacob; the prostitute Rahab who aided Joshua in conquering Jericho when the Israelites entered Canaan; and the prophetess Deborah who encouraged the Israelites to fight against their oppressors. This teaching of the use of power despite subjugation encouraged women to fight against their lower status and encouraged Jews who were subjugated to use their power to acquire freedom.

Some of the laws in these chapters were not mitigated in the Torah itself but were changed by rabbis centuries later, when Jews realized that while the laws were moderate in ancient times compared with most pagan practices, the punishments were too harsh. Among others, the following punishments were eventually discontinued: death penalties for hitting (Exodus 21:15) or cursing (Exodus 21:17); an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc. (Exodus 21:26–27) was later understood to refer to money payments; forcing a girl who was seduced to marry her seducer (Exodus 22:15); and death penalties for the owner of an ox who killed a man or woman (Exodus 21:29), for sorceresses (Exodus 22:17), one who has sex with an animal (Exodus 22:18), or those who offer a sacrifice to an idol (Exodus 22:19).

Thus religion has its values, but it must be understood correctly. While the Bible states that the Ten Commandments were carved into stone, the rest of the Bible was not. Thomas Aquinas, the famed Roman Catholic philosopher and author of Summa Theologiae (c. 1225–1274), wrote: “Reason in man is rather like God in the world.”