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We’re not in Eden anymore

Hard sayings reflect the hardness of our hearts—and the mercy of God


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EXODUS 21 AND 22 are flyover country for many Bible readers, but it would have been too obvious to omit them from our women’s Bible study on the second book of Moses. So there we were in class, trying our best to navigate directives on slavery, polygamy, and the proper handling of ox thieves without weakening in our good opinion of God.

Though the lot of us seem to have survived with faith intact, the problem of hard sayings of the Bible is a perennial one, so it may be best to face these things head-on. Why did God give the Hebrews detailed instructions on the handling of slaves, rather than simply declaring, “No slaves, period!”? Why did He instruct men that if they married two wives, they must not diminish the food allowance of the first wife, rather than saying flatly, “No polygamy! Take only one wife!”?

We know that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), but in some respects God seems at odds with God in the two different Testaments:

In the New Testament letter to Christian slave-owner Philemon, the Apostle Paul does this little diplomatic maneuver in which he grants to Philemon that the runaway slave Onesimus technically belongs to him—but wouldn’t it be nice if Philemon treated him like a brother rather than a slave? It’s not a demand but an appeal. A higher form of Christ-mindedness is taking shape after Christ. Paul doesn’t openly attack the institution of slavery but lays the groundwork for its eventual abolition.

When Pharisees seek to engage Jesus in a discussion of divorce laws, Jesus shows no interest. He offers a higher principle that reaches back to a time predating the Mosaic codes, before the world got so screwed up that divorce became a lawyers’ industry—back to the Garden: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning … said … ‘The two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

This is our first clue as to why in Moses’ time God regulated distasteful human practices rather than abolishing them: We are not in Eden anymore. We are doing damage control at this point. Slavery is universal, polygamy is common, killing is a fact of life. God quarantines a tribe for his possession and gives them instructions for mitigating harm. Jesus spells out the divine rationale himself: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (verse 8).

So Exodus 21 and 22 are God’s merciful intervention in order to curb the worst abuses of slavery, polygamy, and murder. What grates against the modern American’s sensibilities would have delighted the late Bronze Age slave, who under God’s rules was set free after six years of servitude, as well as the unloved wife who was protected from starvation (21:10). (It must also be said that Old Testament slavery, rightly practiced, often was a debtor’s best option.)

Galatians gives another clue: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, … is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (4:1-2).

God here calls Old Testament Israel “a child.” Ancient Israel was “no different from a slave” (verse 1) in many of its customs. It was easier to get the Israelites out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the Israelites. This had to be handled incrementally. Abraham, Jacob, and David had multiple wives, and God didn’t make an issue of it. He majored in the majors. To some extent His people would have to learn the hard way that having two wives simultaneously is not ideal. See Genesis 29:31-30:24.

While on earth, Jesus said to His disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

I have often wanted to object, “I can bear any teachings you throw at me!” But God is surely wiser than I. I have to believe that God dispenses just the truths we need at just the time need them.


Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.

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