Question: Why are Old Testament penalties for disobedience so harsh?

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Question: Why are Old Testament penalties for disobedience so harsh?

The Law of Moses was a very strict law that was designed to teach the Children of Israel obedience

The Law of Moses was a very strict law that was designed to teach the Children of Israel obedience. It was indeed quite harsh when compared to our modern standards, however for its time (in several aspects at least) it was step forward from the even harsher surrounding Near Eastern cultures. It was a lesser law meant to bring the Israelites to Christ incrementally. As Evangelical scholar and apologist Paul Copan has written:

Incremental Steps toward the Ideal

How then did God address the patriarchal structures, primogeniture (rights of the firstborn), polygamy, warfare, servitude/slavery, and a number of other fallen social arrangements that were permited because of the hardness of human hearts? He met Israel partway. As Jesus stated it in Matthew 19:8, "Because of the hardness of heart Moses was permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." We could apply this passage to many problematic structures within the ancient Near Eastern context: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted servitude and patriarchy and warfare and the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way." They were not ideal and universal.

[. . .]

In the New Testament, Paul assumes that God had been putting up with inferior, less-than-ideal societal structures and human disobedience:

  • Acts 17:30: Previously, God "overlooked the times of ignorance" and is "now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent."
  • Romans 3:25: God has now "demonstrate[d] His righteousness" in Christ, though "in forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed."
Like two sides of the same coin, we have human hard-heartedness and divine forbearance. God put up with many aspects of human fallenness and adjusted accordingly[1]

As Copan cautions a page earlier:

Does that mean that God's ideals turn up only in the New Testament? No, the ideals are established at the very beginning (Gen 1-2). The Old Testament makes clear that all humans are God's image-bearers; they have dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. And God's idea; for marriage is a one-flesh [meaning equal] monogamous union between husband and wife. Also, certain prohibitions in the law of Moses against theft, adultery, murder, and idolatry have enduring relevance. Yet when we look at God's dealings with fallen humans in the ancient Near East, these ideals were ignored and even deeply distorted. So God was at work in seeking to restore or move toward this ideal.

We know that many products on the market have a built-in, planned obsolescence. They're designed for the short-term; they're not intended t be long-lasting and permanent. The same goes for the law of Moses: it was never intended to be enduring. It looked forward to a new covenant (Jer 31; Ezek.36). It's not that the Mosaic law was bad and therefore needed to be replaced. The law was good (Rom. 7:12), but it was a temporary measure that was less than ideal; it was in need of replacement and fulfillment.

Though a necessary part of God's unfolding plan, the Sinai legislation wasn't God's final word. As the biblical scholar N.T. Wright affirms, "The Torah [law of Moses at Sinai] is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside--not because it was a bad ting now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished." This is the message of the New Testament book of Hebrews: the old Mosaic law and other Old Testament institutions and figures like Moses and Joshua were prefiguring "shadows" that would give way to "substance" and completion. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, the law was a "tutor" for Israel to prepare the way for Christ.[2]

When Jesus Christ came to earth, He fulfilled the Law of Moses. God reminds us that his ways are not our ways in Isaiah 55:8-9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The following were defined as crimes worthy of capital punishment under the Mosaic Law:

  1. Adultery (Leviticus 20:10-21)
  2. Bestiality (Exodus 22:19)
  3. Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16,23)
  4. Cursing your parents (Exodus 21:17)
  5. Divination (Exodus 22:18)
  6. False prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:1-11)
  7. Fornication (Leviticus 21:9)
  8. Homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22)
  9. Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2)
  10. Incest (Leviticus 18:6-17)
  11. Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
  12. Murder (Exodus 21:12-14)
  13. Rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27)
  14. Rebelliousness (Deuteronomy 17:12)
  15. Sacrificing to false gods (Exodus 22:20)
  16. Striking your parents (Exodus 21:15)
  17. Violating the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)


  1. Copan, Paul "Is God a Moral Monster?" Baker Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan (2011) PRINT
  2. Ibid.