Why is the OT sometimes so barbaric sounding?

Why does Leviticus have such “barbaric” punishments for law-breakers?

Eg why stone people who break the Sabbath? Eg why do lots of people die as a punishment for somebody’s sin (eg David’s sin in 2 Samuel 24)? Isn’t a law like “an eye for an eye” a bit harsh?

This is a question which has a number of angles to it. The following factors combine to give perspective to this question.

What is considered just or unjust in punishments vary from society to society and from age to age. Our smoking laws today would have doubtless seemed draconian a mere 20 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. There are vast differences in standards of justice in different parts of the world today- eg drug laws in Asia. Part of our trouble in understanding punishments in biblical ages comes from misunderstanding arising from different social standards in different cultures.

Harsh punishments were the order of the day in cultures of the ancient near east. One reason for this was that mere survival was a constant struggle, and so society could not afford to have rebels causing problems and distracting from the community building stability to survive together. A contemporary analogy to this is the discipline used in the army in which complete obedience is insisted upon in every detail in order to increase cohesion and success in dangerous missions.

There was little means of punishing people, other than by making them a slave, exiling them or the death penalty. People were poor, and so could not be “fined” much. Obviously, society was not advanced enough to support prisons, let alone rehabilitation centres! Slavery was used as a punishment, but may have had practical difficulties in implementation- how do you stop them running away, and escaping justice?

Death was commonplace in society- there was less value on a human life, as death simply occurred so much more often. Thus although death would have always been a tragic event, it would not have seemed so harsh as it does for us in our modern world.

The modern idea of the sanctity of human life is a religious concept- atheism has no logical foundation for any real sanctity of human life. But a biblical concept of the sanctity of human life does not necessarily mean this is an infinite value of meaning, in which life could or should never be taken under any circumstances.

Death was believed to be the pathway to the afterlife, in which God would give them perfect justice, unlike the very impartial justice received on earth. Thus death could be seen as a better punishment than the very incomplete type of justice given by human courts. Death for the righteous is not the worst possible outcome, as it is in an atheist worldview, although of course the decision to end another’s life was always one only taken with the most serious of justifications.

Thus, where punishments are used in the OT that seem harsh to us, God is communicating his displeasure concerning sin in ways that people in the culture of the ancient near east will understand. If God used a far more “humane” level of justice than what was used everywhere else in society, the message would be that sin mattered little.

Of course, the Israelites in the wilderness had personally witnessed so much of the direct action of God in their lives, that their disobedience to God was especially willful and rebellious. This may account for the immediate judgement which God sometimes gives to people in OT times.

Punishments for breaking Old Testament laws of course are not applicable to the church today as they were given for ancient Israel in its special relationship with God in the context of the ancient near east. The Christian church is no longer under the law, and is scattered to live as minorities in all the nations of the world, being submissive to their governments, rather than seeking to establish a new theocracy based on the pattern of the Old Testament.

The law regarding “an eye for an eye…” was a civic law- thus, it does not give permission for people to start taking out people’s eyes whenever they get an elbow from somebody else- it was a judgement for a judge to proscribe. Furthermore, it was not as a principle taken literally- rather monetary compensation was given to pay for an injury- as seen in Exodus 21:23-27. The point of the law was that the punishment should fit the crime, and this law served to limit the punishment given, so that excessive punishment could not be given out to vulnerable people beyond what was deserved. Laws regarding punishments in the OT are often more lenient and humane than what was common in surrounding ancient near east cultures.