You have probably heard the frequently posed question regarding “cherry picking” passages from the Old Testament in order to reinforce Christian morality. The Atheist poses this question rhetorically, attempting to illustrate a contradiction, while many Christians may genuinely struggle to understand which OT passages are in fact applicable. Do you eat shellfish? Do you wear mixed clothing (meaning clothing made from more than one fiber)? Yes, I do eat shellfish, and yes, I do wear mixed clothing, and here’s why.
The cherry picking criticism is derived from a basic misunderstanding regarding scripture. Christians read and understand the Bible as a comprehensive whole, not a disjointed collection of arbitrary statements. Covenantal theology addresses the various covenants God made with his people. For example, the covenant God made with Abraham, or the covenant God made with the people of Israel. Anyone who has read Romans, Galatians, Ephesians or Hebrews will have a better understanding of covenantal theology.
WE ARE NOT THEOCRATIC ISRAEL
And here is the crux of this entire misunderstanding. We are not geopolitical Israel. Meaning, we are not ancient Israel, with whom God formed a conditional covenant with specific qualifications. This Covenant was formed with the Nation of Israel while the New Covenant with a redeemed people (not the theocratic state of Israel), us. Accordingly, not all of the six-hundred + laws we read about in the OT are applicable to modern Christians, who are under the New Covenant. But who decides or how do we decide which are in fact applicable?
HOW DO WE ANSWER THIS CRITICISM?
In this case, good hermeneutics and a historical understanding of the Ancient Near East, as well as Israel, are imperative. In addition, the NT elaborates considerably regarding what is and is not germane. Coupled with the Holy Spirit, we can be reasonably certain we are not “cherry picking.” Here are some basic rules to assist in interpreting these aspects of scripture.
1. There were various types of law as it pertains to God’s covenant with geopolitical Israel. There are three major categories. Civil (taxation, penal), ceremonial (sacrifices, cleanliness) and moral (ten commandments, for example). Some of these prescriptions were narrowly applicable to ancient Israel, while others are more broadly applicable to everyone (moral law).
2. Consider the spirit of the law. Jesus often directed us to the ethical underpinnings of the OT law. Matthew chapter five is a perfect example. In this series of statements beginning with “you have heard that it was said,” Jesus points to an OT law, then ferrets out the ethical principle buried in the particulars. These principles are often more difficult to follow than the original law. Do not murder becomes do not be angry. Do not commit adultery becomes do not lust. Jesus takes even the decalogue and asks us to dig deeper.
Exodus 21:13 is an instance where we can draw out the spirit of the law from the cultural particulars. “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.” This instance sounds almost impossibly foreign to us, yet we can derive an underlying principle from the particulars. If our actions result in the misfortune or harm of someone else, we should attempt to make restitution.
3. God’s covenant with Israel was conditional. Accordingly, the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law do not apply to us. Hence, we don’t sacrifice or keep Passover, for example. However, we can derive benefit by examining these principles and the underlying ethical considerations, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are also part of the narrative that led to Jesus, and thus exhibit great value. The Acts 15 Council is an early illustration of this very issue. Were non-Jewish converts and Jewish Christians required to maintain the expectations of the covenant?
28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
The council reached the conclusion that non-Jews and Jewish Christians were not required to keep the laws of theocratic Israel. Paul even goes as far as to admonish Peter regarding this issue. Apparently, Peter was pushing converts to adhere to this plethora of laws that would be quite foreign and unnecessary.
4. Have a cursory knowledge of ANE and ancient Israel. I’m not suggesting you cannot read your bible without having an exogenous knowledge, but I am saying is that it’s extremely helpful in this instance. Israel lived in relationship with other ANE peoples such as the Canaanites. Many of the prescriptions God gave Israel had to do with their particular interactions with these people groups.
For example, Exodus 23:19 prohibits Israel from boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. This enigmatic and strange command most likely had to do with neighboring pagan rituals. It would have been an idolatrous or occult practice. Do not wear clothing of mixed fibers, do not make marks on your flesh for the dead…the list of particulars goes on. Again, I think there is an overarching principle of not allowing culture to sculpt our faith, but the OT particulars seem rather irrelevant to modern believers (at least for the purpose right living before God).
IT’S NOT CHERRY PICKING!
A basic understanding of covenantal theology and the progression of the biblical narrative allows us to debunk the cherry picking objection. It further allows us to understand why we adhere to certain OT laws and neglect others. If I may be so bold, it should also cause us to examine some of the age old Christian assumptions that are in fact based on these OT texts. Tattoos are a great example. Leviticus 19:28 prohibits cutting the body on behalf of the dead or receiving tattoos. Long have Christians used this to condemn tattoos while ignoring the immediate context, which also prohibits cutting your sideburns and beard. How about tithing? There is some food for thought! Christians admittedly have been guilty of some cherry picking. Let’s be astute in moving forward with a proper hermeneutic, so that we may illustrate the truth of scripture.