Old Testament Proscriptions, The Levitical Law, and the New Covenant

Rachel Slick, atheist daughter of CARM.ORG founder Matt Slick

Rachel Slick, atheist daughter of CARM.ORG founder Matt Slick

I was reading a piece over at the Friendly Atheist, written by the daughter of prominent Christian evangelist Matt Slick, founder of CARM.org, a christian (but not Catholic, and at times Anti-Catholic apologetic website – I could write a whole web-site dedicated to refuting that stuff, but others already have.).

The author of the piece, Rachel (named “after the biblical wife Jacob loved,” she tells us) grew up drilled in Christianity by her dad, and believed it wholeheartedly all her life in spite of some lingering doubts.  She was touted and bragged about publicly by her dad for her knowledge of the faith, whom he used to goad others into learning about the faith, saying, “My daughter knows more about theology than you do! You are not doing your jobs as Christians to stay educated and sharp in the faith.”

Matt Slick instilled in his daughter a love for critical thinking, and that love, or so the story goes, lead her eventually away from the faith entirely. And yet she relates that:

Atheists frequently wonder how an otherwise rational Christian can live and die without seeing the light of science, and I believe the answer to this is usually environment.   If every friend, authority figure, and informational source in your life constantly repeat the same ideas, it is difficult not to believe they’re onto something. My world was built of “reasonable” Christians — the ones who thought, who questioned, who knew that what they believed was true. In the face of this strength, my own doubts seemed petty.

I don’t know the exact view of CARM on things like evolution, but I have to assume that they’re against it enough that she’d word a defense in such a way as bolded above.  (I’ve shared my thoughts on this matter before, to wit: “that ain’t the hill I’m gonna die on.“)

Rachel’s loss of faith all hinged, in her account, on one moment when she found a question she could not answer:

 If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?   … Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.

Not to doubt her sincerity, but here’s where her story begins to fall apart for me.  For someone as well versed in scripture and reason, that seems an awfully puny hill upon which to expire.  It leaves me suspecting, of course, that there was a lot more going on “behind the scenes.”  She mentions other questions she had prior to this,

As my knowledge of Christianity grew, so did my questions — many of them the “classic” kind. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, why did He create a race He knew was destined for Hell? How did evil exist if all of Creation was sustained by the mind of God? Why didn’t I feel His presence when I prayed?

The latter could be easily answered by reference to the writings of a classic saint, John of the Cross, were her protestant upbringing not so detached even from the holy men and women of the Catholic tradition who have so much to offer (Carm.org does list writings of the early church fathers, all of whom were very Catholic, oddly enough).

But for now, after such a long introduction, we get to the point: Why did we have the Levitical code?  How could it change if morality is immutable?

Why did the Old Testament Law Change?

(The answer I’m going to give will be, in some sense, a cursory explanation, but it should explain enough that the end of the forest can be seen beyond the trees.)

The story of humanity and her relation to God is THE STORY at the heart of the scriptures, and the driving force behind the interactions of the Immutable (i.e., unchanging) with the mutable (i.e., changeable) across space and time.  God is love, and He is so perfectly Love that He gives of Himself totally and without thought to cost or reward (for what could creation give Him that isn’t his already, right?)

And in order that our love might reflect His Love, we are free to reject the gift of that love, and some, it seems, do so in such a manner that they are utterly unable to receive his love upon stepping into eternity at the end of their lives (the term for this is “hell”).

To prevent that, and to help us know Him, He has, at times, intervened in human history, first in limited ways, and ultimately by becoming paradoxically Mutable himself.  In the former case, we have Him, through messengers (the Greek term: Angelos), communicating covenants with his people.

First, implicitly, with Adam; then Noah; then Abram, Isaac, and Jacob; then Moses; then David.

With each, the arrangement changed, and it wasn’t until Moses and the Israelites that the “law of Moses” with it’s many proscriptions came about.  To keep these meant one was under the law; to disobey the law was to disobey God and remove oneself (temporarily at least) from the covenant.

So no meat of cloven-hooved animals, no shell fish, no blended fabrics, no milk with meat, etc.  And this, of course, is outrageous to modern ears.  “God finds shellfish an abomination!  That’s dumb!” usually followed by “Well, if shellfish was an abomination, and it’s okay now, what about the other stuff (like homosexuality) that was also an abomination under the law?”  And so forth.

We’re given clear indications in the New Testament that the food proscriptions are lifted, from Jesus’s statement that, “it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, but what comes from it,” (cf. Matt 15:11), to Peter’s vision of many animals, clean and unclean, which he is commanded from above to “kill and eat.” (cf. Acts 10:13).  So what was the purpose of these laws?  How immutable were they?

But can this law change?

Why did the Israelites get the Levitical code, anyway?  Having been slaves in Egypt, not just in physical bondage but also to the Egyptian way of life (and worship), they often struggled to maintain fidelity with God even after their miraculous rescue.  God Who is Love chose this small, rag-tag band of men, women, and children, to display His love.  And to do that, he had to drill into their minds that they were “a people set apart,” from the other nations, through which he’d show his glory (cf. Deut. 7).

And so they lived this apart-ness in their daily life.  It influenced how they viewed themselves, because the history of this people was going to be very important.

[An interesting side point: I once saw a pro-zionist T-shirt that listed a litany of empires that had sought to oppress Israel, from the Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Assirians, to the Nazi’s and Communists, and then showed the rough-dates of their beginning and end.  Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and the like all were massive, world-spanning empires in their prime, and yet we don’t have, in the sense meant originally, “Egyptians” or “Romans,” and certainly not “Babylonians” or “Assyrians” today – yet the Jews survive, even if small in number (about 13.7 million).  The point being (regardless of how one feels about the nation-state of Israel, which I will not broach here): in the face of immensely absurd persecution, still this small band remains.]

So the Levitical law wasn’t the moral law except insofar as to transgress it willfully was to willfully disobey God.  The Catholic analogy is eating fish on Fridays: no, eating meat isn’t sinful, but to willfully disobey the normative disciplines of the church (which are extremely modest in this regard) is to sin.

The Proof Is In The Pudding Curds and Cows

And we can find proof of this in the Old Testament, in a passage that has always puzzled me, but for a different reason.  The story is in Genesis 18, which seems to hint at the trinity, with 1 man or 3 men visiting Abraham, who are referred to singularly as The Lord.  In the account, Abraham prepares a meal for his divine visitor(s):

Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick, three measures* of bran flour! Knead it and make bread.”

He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice calf, and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it.

Then he got some curds and milk, as well as the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them, waiting on them under the tree while they ate.

He prepared meat and milk – which was not Kosher – but at a time when the Kosher Laws didn’t exist.  And The Lord ate it, and went on to bless Abraham and promise him and Sarah a child (Sarah laughs in disbelief, not unlike Zechariah, but he had the advantage of knowing this story and that God can perform such miracles).

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