The Severity of Some of the Old Testament Laws and Their Relevance For Christians

A Brief Introduction

The Law of Moses is said to consist of 613 commands, and can be found near the beginning of the Old Testament in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The commands were given by Moses to the people of ancient Israel. It has been argued that the laws fit into three general categories, although there may be some overlap with some of them:

The first category consists of laws to do with moral behaviour, like the ones that command people not to steal or murder.

The second consists of laws which were appropriate for the culture in which the Israelites lived, but which might not be for people today, although the principles should be put into practice. For instance, one law says that people should build a parapet around the roof of their home. Houses in that part of the world would have had flat rooves, and apparently, people sometimes used them for storage. Having a parapet around the edges would have been a safety measure to prevent people from falling off. Obviously, when people have different-shaped rooves and don't walk around on them, this law will no longer be appropriate; but we can use it as an example of a principle we can put into operation, that is, the principle of having good safety standards around our properties.
Another example of the principle of a law still being appropriate but not its exact requirements concerns the rules for isolating people with certain infectious diseases. This is obviously a good principle for the modern day, although it clearly isn't necessary to follow the exact procedure laid down by the Law which required people with various skin complaints to be examined by the priests, who may have functioned as medical officers in those days, who would decide whether or not they should be isolated, and who would perform rituals involving animal sacrifice when they were well again.

There are a few little laws in Leviticus that seem strange and not very sensible, such as a command not to make clothes with two types of fabric and a command not to sow a field with two different types of grain. These probably had cultural significance at the time.

The third category of commands have to do with ritual purity and ceremonial laws, such as the laws which pronounced people unclean for certain lengths of time and required them to wash in a certain way after touching various unhygienic things, the laws which required animal sacrifices to pay for the sins of the people, and the laws that laid down rules for celebrating various holy days and festivals at certain times of the year. Obviously, there are good principles in those laws, such as keeping clean, making reparations for sins, and allowing people time off work for worship, entertainment and rest. However, the New Testament says that the external ritual in the Law of Moses pointed to the good things Christ has done for us. For instance, it says that the animal sacrifices performed under the old Law illustrated Christ's greater sacrifice when he allowed himself to be put to death on a cross once and for all to take the punishment for the sins of the world, so that anyone who turns to follow him and renounces sin can be with him for eternity. It says the rituals were like picture language pointing to a greater truth.

The Harsh Punishments Demanded by the Law of Moses

The Old Testament Law, which was said to have been dictated by God to Moses, had rules as severe as:

Exodus chapter 21 (TEV)

15 Whoever hits his father or his mother is to be put to death.

Exodus chapter 35 (TEV)

2 You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is to be sacred, a solemn day of rest dedicated to me, the Lord. Anyone who does any work on that day is to be put to death. 3 Do not even light a fire in your homes on the Sabbath.

Leviticus chapter 20 (NLT)

10 If a man commits adultery with another man's wife, both the man and the woman must be put to death.

Deuteronomy chapter 23 (TEV)

2 No one born out of wedlock or any descendant of such a person, even in the tenth generation, may be included among the Lord's people.

Some of the verses that seem particularly nasty and discriminatory can be explained as logical in the conditions of the culture of the day. For instance, the Bible commanded that if two men were fighting and the wife of one of them grabbed hold of the testicles of one of them to rescue the other, she was to have her hand cut off. That sounds barbaric! But the original word had the connotation of fastening onto them to cause malicious damage above and beyond what would be necessary to rescue the other man. in the culture of the day, when there was no welfare state, people relied on their children to look after them in their old age. An action that might prevent a man having children might severely hamper his life chances when he grew older. Under the "eye for an eye" principle, the loss of a hand would be a just punishment for depriving him of hands that would help his survival in his old age by depriving him of the ability to have children whose hands would help him. To read more on some of these laws that seem particularly discriminatory or unfair, see a satirical yet informative article, Doo-Doo and Deuteronomy.

The law about the Sabbath is one of the ones that sounds especially harsh, but not quite so bad when the fact is taken into account that it would have been meant for the whole community, and would have been particularly beneficial to those in most danger of being exploited, like servants and hired workers, who might otherwise have been forced to work seven days a week by unscrupulous employers. Elsewhere, the Law of Moses does emphasise that servants, and also animals, must be included in the command and be given rest.

To get some idea of the damage unscrupulous employers still do today by exploiting and overworking their workforce, have a look at these articles:

There are other laws which sound very severe and unfair, but an examination of the culture of the day can reveal that they were put in place for a good reason and may actually have had a protective effect, bearing in mind what could have happened to various members of the community otherwise.

For instance, one law stated:

Numbers chapter 5 (GWT)

11 The LORD said to Moses:
12 "Speak to the Israelites and tell them: A man's wife may have been unfaithful to him 13 and may have had sexual intercourse with another man without her husband's knowledge. She may have kept it secret if there were no witnesses to accuse her and she wasn't caught in the act.

14 "A husband may have a fit of jealousy and suspect his wife, whether she was actually unfaithful or not. 15 He must then take his wife to the priest along with eight cups of barley flour as an offering for her. He must not pour olive oil on the flour or put frankincense on it, since it is a grain offering brought because of the husband's jealousy, an offering used for a confession--to remind someone of a sin that was committed.

16 "The priest will have the woman come forward and stand in the LORD's presence. 17 Then the priest will take holy water in a piece of pottery and put some dust from the floor of the tent into the water. 18 The priest will bring the woman into the LORD's presence and loosen her hair. In her hands he will put the offering used for a confession (that is, the grain offering brought because of the husband's jealousy). The priest will hold in his hands the bitter water that can bring a curse.

19 "Then the priest will say to her, 'If no other man has had sexual intercourse with you and you haven't been unfaithful to your husband, you're not guilty. This bitter water that can bring a curse will not harm you.
20 If, in fact, you have been unfaithful and have had sexual intercourse with another man, 21 may the LORD make you an example for your people to see what happens when the curse of this oath comes true: The LORD will make your uterus drop and your stomach swell.'" Then the priest will administer the oath and the curse by saying: 22 'May this water that can bring a curse go into your body and make your stomach swell and your uterus drop!' "Then the woman will say, 'Amen, amen!'
27 If she has become unclean by being unfaithful to her husband, the water that can bring the curse will go into her and become bitter. Her stomach will swell, her uterus will drop, and she will become cursed among her people. 28 But if the woman is not unclean and is pure, she is not guilty and will be able to have children."

This sounds disgusting. However, honour killings are and were prevalent in some Middle Eastern cultures, - see, for example, 'Honour killings' law blocked (BBC News, Sept 2003) and Speaking out over Jordan 'honour killings' (BBC News, Feb 2003), and so without this rule in the Law of Moses, wives suspected of being unfaithful may well have been killed. The time it would take to travel to where the priest was and arrange the appointment may have given the husband time to calm down, and certainly if the wife was innocent, she would be unharmed by the procedure, and thus she would avoid retribution at the hands of her husband, and her reputation in the community would be vindicated.

There are other laws which seem even more discriminatory against women. To read about biblical attitudes to women, which weren't actually as oppressive as some people claim, visit: Women in the Heart of God.

Another reason why the Old Testament laws wouldn't have been quite as severe as they sound is because the punishments would only have been meted out after the person accused of a transgression would have been allowed to defend themselves in a trial, bringing forth any mitigating circumstances. See a case study on some laws that seem especially oppressive: Are the laws in the Old Testament about rape and virginity unfair to women?

Why the Bible Doesn't Command Christians to Obey the Law of Moses

The apostle Paul wrote to Christians In his Letter to the Romans in the New Testament:

Romans chapter 3 (NLT)

20 No one can ever be made right in God's sight by doing what his law commands. For the more we know God's law, the clearer it becomes that we aren't obeying it. 21 But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight - not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. 22 We are made right in God's sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. 23 For all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard. 24 Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. 25 For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God's anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.

31 Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.

The Bible explains in other places what the process is by which this can happen:

John's Gospel records that when Jesus was on earth:

John chapter 7 (CEV)

37 ... Jesus stood up and shouted, "If you are thirsty, come to me and drink! 38 Have faith in me, and you will have life-giving water flowing from deep inside you, just as the Scriptures say."
39 Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit, who would be given to everyone that had faith in him.

Paul wrote to Christians in some of his letters in the New Testament:

Galatians chapter 4 (NLT)

4 When the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. 6 And because you Gentiles have become his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, and now you can call God your dear Father. 7 ... And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you.

Romans chapter 7 (NIV)

5 For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet."
8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.

Galatians chapter 5 (NLT)

17 The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. 18 But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.

Romans chapter 8 (CEV)

1 If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won't be punished. 2 The Holy Spirit will give you life that comes from Christ Jesus and will set you free from sin and death. 3 The Law of Moses cannot do this, because our selfish desires make the Law weak. But God set you free when he sent his own Son to be like us sinners and to be a sacrifice for our sin. God used Christ's body to condemn sin. 4 He did this, so that we would do what the Law commands by obeying the Spirit instead of our own desires.

5 People who are ruled by their desires think only of themselves. Everyone who is ruled by the Holy Spirit thinks about spiritual things. 6 If our minds are ruled by our desires, we will die. But if our minds are ruled by the Spirit, we will have life and peace. 7 Our desires fight against God, because they do not and cannot obey God's laws. 8 If we follow our desires, we cannot please God. 9 You are no longer ruled by your desires, but by God's Spirit, who lives in you. People who don't have the Spirit of Christ in them don't belong to him. 10 But Christ lives in you. So you are alive because God has accepted you, even though your bodies must die because of your sins. 11 Yet God raised Jesus to life! God's Spirit now lives in you, and he will raise you to life by his Spirit.

12 My dear friends, we must not live to satisfy our desires. 13 If you do, you will die. But you will live, if by the help of God's Spirit you say "No" to your desires. 14 Only those people who are led by God's Spirit are his children. 15 God's Spirit doesn't make us slaves who are afraid of him. Instead, we become his children and call him our Father. 16 God's Spirit makes us sure that we are his children. 17 His Spirit lets us know that together with Christ we will be given what God has promised.

In the Old Testament, the Bible says:

Exodus chapter 34 (TEV)

29 When Moses went down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord; but he did not know it. 30 Aaron and all the people looked at Moses and saw that his face was shining, and they were afraid to go near him. 31 But Moses called them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the community went to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 After that, all the people of Israel gathered around him, and Moses gave them all the laws that the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he covered his face with a veil.

In some of Paul's letters addressed to Christians that are in the New Testament, the Bible says:

2 Corinthians chapter 3 (TEV)

6 ... the new covenant ... consists not of a written law but of the Spirit. The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life. 7 The Law was carved in letters on stone tablets, and God's glory appeared when it was given. Even though the brightness on Moses' face was fading, it was so strong that the people of Israel could not keep their eyes fixed on him. If the Law, which brings death when it is in force, came with such glory, 8 how much greater is the glory that belongs to the activity of the Spirit! 9 The system which brings condemnation was glorious; how much more glorious is the activity which brings salvation! 10 We may say that because of the far brighter glory now the glory that was so bright in the past is gone. 11 For if there was glory in that which lasted for a while, how much more glory is there in that which lasts forever!

Galatians chapter 3 (NLT)

19 Well then, why was the law given? It was given to show people how guilty they are.

21 If the law could have given us new life, we could have been made right with God by obeying it. 22 But the Scriptures have declared that we are all prisoners of sin, ... 23 Until faith in Christ was shown to us as the way of becoming right with God, we were guarded by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until we could put our faith in the coming Savior. 24 Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian and teacher to lead us until Christ came. ... 25 But now that faith in Christ has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. 26 So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him. 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians - you are one in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians chapter 1 (CEV)

13 ... You put your faith in Christ and were given the promised Holy Spirit to show that you belong to God. 14 The Spirit also makes us sure that we will be given what God has stored up for his people.

2 Corinthians chapter 5 (TEV)

14 ... Since we believe that Christ died for everyone, we also believe that we have all died to the old life we used to live. 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live to please themselves. Instead, they will live to please Christ, who died and was raised for them. 17 What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun! 18 All this newness of life is from God, who brought us back to himself through what Christ did.

20 ... We urge you, as though Christ himself were here pleading with you, "Be reconciled to God!" 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.

But Didn't Jesus Command People to Obey the Law Forever?

Some people think the Law of Moses was meant to be kept in its entirety for all time to come because Jesus said:

Matthew chapter 5 (NIV)

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

One bit of that Bible passage that's often not noticed, it seems, is the bit where Jesus said he'd come to fulfil the law, (not to abolish it), and the bit where he said not a letter of it would pass away till all is accomplished.

What did he mean by "All"?

The Letter to the Hebrews, written decades after Jesus' death, strongly suggests Jesus fulfilled the Law when he was on earth, by dying for sins, the ultimate sacrifice that it says had been presaged by animal sacrifices in Old Testament times.

As for what Jesus said about heaven and earth disappearing, it was typical of the language of the time to use hyperbole for emphasis, so that may have been what was going on. For more information on that kind of language, see an article called On the use of hyperbole and "extreme language" in the Bible.

But as quoted before, the New Testament doesn't say that Christians don't need to obey any of the commands in the Law any more - it says that though the Law is old and becoming obsolete, the essence of the law is very much to be obeyed - it says it can be summed up in the command to love one's neighbour, and everyone who does that will never do their neighbour wrong, so they will in effect actually be obeying the whole Law, albeit the spirit of it rather than the letter.

There may also have been a sense in which Jesus was being ironic, given the verses later in the New Testament about how it's actually impossible to obey the whole Law of Moses, so detailed and strict is it. Paul pointed out in one or two of his letters that if people wanted to obey the Law, the Old Testament taught that they'd have to obey the entirety of it if they wanted to please God, and said it would be far easier for them to adhere to the new system where Christ had died and they could now please God through putting faith in him, if they obeyed the spirit of the Law. It may be that Jesus was saying something a bit similar, that his critics needn't think he wanted to abolish the law - he didn't; but if they wanted to obey it as their means of pleasing God, they were going to have to obey it extremely zealously indeed if they didn't want to be considered least in the kingdom of heaven. After all, the Pharisees were zealous upholders of the letter of the law. But they'd have to do even better than them to really please God.

Jesus, and the Law's Requirement of Animal Sacrifice

The Law of Moses commanded that animal sacrifices be made to atone for the people's sins.

For example, one requirement was:

Leviticus chapter 4 (NIV)

22 " 'When a leader sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the commands of the LORD his God, he is guilty. 23 When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering a male goat without defect. 24 He is to lay his hand on the goat's head and slaughter it at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the LORD. It is a sin offering.

The New Testament says that animal sacrifices were an outward ritual which served only to remind people of their sins but had no real power to remove them. It says that the ritual pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who allowed himself to be crucified, which was the real fulfilment of the Law.

In the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, the Bible says to Christians:

Hebrews chapter 10 (TEV)

1 The Jewish Law is not a full and faithful model of the real things; it is only a faint outline of the good things to come.

Hebrews chapter 9 (TEV)

22 According to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and sins are forgiven only if blood is poured out.

Hebrews chapter 9 (NLT)

10 For that old system deals only with food and drink and ritual washing - external regulations that are in effect only until their limitations can be corrected. 11 So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. ... 12 He took his own blood, and with it he secured our salvation forever. 13 Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people's bodies from ritual defilement. 14 Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our hearts from deeds that lead to death so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.

External signs and Festivals Required by the Law of Moses

The Law strictly commanded that people observe specified festivals at certain times of the year, and perform various other outward rituals including male circumcision, to demonstrate their allegiance to God and that they were set apart as his people.

For example, the Bible says that God told Moses to relay the commands to the people of Israel:

Exodus chapter 23 (NLT)

14 "Each year you must celebrate three festivals in my honor.
15 The first is the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast, just as I commanded you before. This festival will be an annual event at the appointed time in early spring, for that is the anniversary of your exodus from Egypt. Everyone must bring me a sacrifice at that time.
16 You must also celebrate the Festival of Harvest, when you bring me the first crops of your harvest.
Finally, you are to celebrate the Festival of the Final Harvest at the end of the harvest season.
17 At these three times each year, every man in Israel must appear before the Sovereign LORD.

Leviticus chapter 12 (GWT)

1 ... When a woman gives birth to a boy, ... 3 The boy must be circumcised when he is eight days old.

People believed that circumcision especially was necessary to become right with God. But the New Testament teaches that what's important is not outward ritual but a person's attitudes and actions.

Paul stated this when he wrote to Christians:

Colossians chapter 2 (NLT)

11 When you came to Christ, you were "circumcised," but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure - the cutting away of your sinful nature.

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins.

16 So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules were only shadows of the real thing, Christ himself.

More About New Testament Teaching on sin and the cleansing of the Holy Spirit

Paul wrote to his fellow Christian worker Titus:

Titus chapter 3 (TEV)

1 Remind your people to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey them, and to be ready to do good in every way. 2 Tell them not to speak evil of anyone, but to be peaceful and friendly, and always to show a gentle attitude toward everyone.

3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, and wrong. We were slaves to passions and pleasures of all kinds. We spent our lives in malice and envy; others hated us and we hated them.
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior was revealed, 5 he saved us. It was not because of any good deeds that we ourselves had done, but because of his own mercy that he saved us, through the Holy Spirit, who gives us new birth and new life by washing us. 6 God poured out the Holy Spirit abundantly on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that by his grace we might be put right with God and come into possession of the eternal life we hope for. 8 This is a true saying.

I want you to give special emphasis to these matters, so that those who believe in God may be concerned with giving their time to doing good deeds, which are good and useful for everyone.

Paul wrote to Christians in his Letter to the Romans:

Romans chapter 13 (GWT)

11 You know the times [in which we are living]. It's time for you to wake up. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first became believers. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So we should get rid of the things that belong to the dark and take up the weapons that belong to the light. 13 We should live decently, as people who live in the light of day. Wild parties, drunkenness, sexual immorality, promiscuity, rivalry, and jealousy cannot be part of our lives. 14 Instead, live like the Lord Jesus Christ did, and forget about satisfying the desires of your sinful nature.

The main Bible pages on this site:

Bible Bible Part 1: Bible Quotations, The Holy Spirit, People And Their Stories
Bible Part 2: The Lives and Suffering of the Ancient Israelites
Bible Part 3: The Bible, Articles About Alleged Inaccuracies in it, And Stories of People who Became Christians.

The selections of Bible quotations have been put together by Diana Holbourn.

Throughout this series, wherever the initials TEV appear, they stand for Today's English Version (The Good News Bible).

Other initials:

Warning Against Believing Everything you Hear or Read

Don't be afraid to question the truth of what a religious authority figure tells you, or even the Bible or other holy books themselves, or certain people's interpretation of them. Nothing to do with religion or the supernatural is so well established in fact it shouldn't be questioned. To find out why caution is a good idea, visit:

The Beauty of the New Testament's Moral Teaching and Other Important Pages on this Website

Are you up to trying the challenges of the New Testament's moral guidelines, and would you like to know more of what it says about the love of Jesus? Here are some links to Bible quotes about the beautiful ideals the New Testament encourages Christians to try to live up to:

There are a lot of pages on this website with quotations from the Old Testament on them. Many of these are unfortunately rather gruesome, since the main theme of the Old Testament is warnings and stories about how it says societies were punished for mass lawless and hurtful behaviour, even to the extent of having war brought on them by God, that seem to have been designed to scare societies where crime and violence were rampant into behaving more ethically. In case there is any misunderstanding, it should be understood that this website does not endorse war as anything other than a last resort. The position of the website owner can be gleaned from the articles:

Fancy some light relief or laughter therapy? Then go to the first of our jokes pages:

If you have a problem affecting your mental health or well-being, like depression, a difficulty with life-damaging worry, panic attacks, phobias or OCD, marriage problems, an addiction, an eating disorder, recovering from the trauma of sexual abuse or domestic violence, coping with bullies in the workplace, or bullying and teasing at school, trying to lose weight, raising difficult teenagers, caring for someone with a disease like Alzheimer's, wanting to recover from anorexia or self-harm, or grieving for someone you were close to or feeling lonely, and you'd like some ideas on coping or getting past it, visit our Self-help series.

If this is the first page you have visited on this site, this is part of, a website about social and psychological issues, what the Bible says about social problems and other topics, and how they affect people's lives today.

Go to the home page to find out more.....