The ancient Near Eastern setting of the Mosaic Law further justifies that the specifics of the law were for a specific people in a specific time. The parallels between the Mosaic Law and the other laws of the time period show that there were common things occurring in that society which required specific laws to address. Examples of these types of laws are those relating to the theft of animals. Animals are not a significant part of many of our lives today (with the possible exception of pets), but the animals during this time period were either the owner’s livelihood or next dinner. Both are directly related to survival. Therefore, the penalty for stealing animals is severe compared to the value we would place on animals today. Exodus 22:1-4 states:
Hammurabi’s Code states:
If a man steals an ox, a sheep, a donkey, a pig, or a boat — if it belongs either to the god or to the palace, he shall give thirtyfold; if it belongs to a commoner, he shall replace it tenfold; if the thief does not have anything to give, he shall be killed.
Both of these laws give a higher value to the animals than we would today. The specific penalties do not apply to us today, but there are still things that the Christian can learn from this. First, Christians are commanded by Jesus not to steal (cf. Matthew 19:19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20) so the concept of stealing is still applicable to the life of the contemporary Christian even though the earthly punishment might be different.
Second, we know that the laws of the Old Testament do not apply to us today, but since God never changes and He is always the source of goodness and morality we can use the ancient Near Eastern setting to “peal away” the cultural factors involved with the law (in this case the value of animals) to get at the morality behind it.
It is important to remember, though, that this does not work under every circumstance so we should not read things into the text that are not there. In this case, though, once the incident is removed from its historical context by comparing it to the specific factors involved with the time period, we could have still come to the conclusion that stealing is wrong even if it was not specifically mentioned in the New Testament.
To prevent reading more into the Old Testament text when pealing back the cultural aspects of the laws and, even by accident, introduce rules and regulations that do not apply to the believer today, the best use of the method described above might be to find God’s unchanging nature through both the Old and New Testaments by finding laws that have remained throughout human history. This not only strengthens our faith through knowing that God does not change, but reveals the importance of these unchanging laws.
While reading non-Biblical ancient Near Eastern documents I could not help but to notice the apparent lack of multiple manuscript support as evidenced by the numerous gaps in the narrative accounts. These stories were not well preserved. A guess as to why might be that these stories were not accurate portrayals of history so they were not treated as history. The Old Testament, however, has at least enough copies in existence to show us the full story. I do not know how many copies that we have for each ancient Near Eastern text nor do I know how many copies we have of the Old Testament, but this argument does not depend on specific numbers. It depends on motivation. The Old Testament was preserved because it is true. The ancient Near Eastern documents were partially lost because they were not. I still have copies of important books I read many years ago because they are important to me in some way and helped to shape my life, but I couldn’t begin to tell you where my childhood copy of The Cat in the Hat is.
When God created us we were perfect. Then sin entered our lives through our own fault. This caused our nature and the nature of the world to become a perversion of the original perfection. What was once good was good no longer. Evil came to exist as good gone wrong; perfection twisted.
I can remember my pre-salvation days where I did a lot of things that I regret today. These were things that the culture said were okay. Nothing I did was either culturally or socially unacceptable. But they were all perversions of things God intended to be for good. I didn’t want God’s good, but my own. Most culturally-accepted perversions of God’s perfection are this way. Take sexual relations between a husband and wife as an example – one only need to turn on the television to see how culture has perverted this. Like premarital sex is a perversion of God’s intention, these stories from the ancient Near East are perversions of biblical history.
Many of the stories have surface similarities to the biblical accounts, but when examined further the major differences can be easily seen. In the stories there is not one God, but many Gods. Man did not rebel morally to cause a punishment flood, but made too much noise. The stories do not glorify God, but human kings. Some truth is there (superhuman creation of the world and humanity, a flood, etc.), but this truth has been twisted, much like culture has twisted so many other God-determined purposes, morals, or history.
When confronted by cultural differences with the biblical narratives or morals, the Christian can look back at these stories and know that their situation is not the first time in history when culture has twisted the words of God. This has been going on for a long time. Satan is the “god of this world” and this world creates culture. It should not be surprising, but assuring, that these documents exist which seem to so closely match, but really so much corrupt the truth of what really occurred. Through their differences with the Bible, they point out what is the most important in the Bible.
The Pocket Testament League has free pocket-sized Gospels of John that are great to leave as take-aways in any evangelism situation.
A museum devoted to scientifically proving the veracity of the Genesis creation account opened recently. This is a Current TV promo to the longer special.