Thursday, August 17, 2006

Religious Freedom in Old Testament

Religious Freedom in the Old Testament
Leong Tien Fock

A superficial reading of the Old Testament would lead one to think that there was no religious freedom in ancient Israel. For if you happened to be born into an Israelite family you are bound by the Ten Commandments and the other laws that came with the Mosaic Covenant. Under the Mosaic Law, the worship of idols and the breaking of the Sabbath were punishable by death. If you were born an Israelite you had no choice whatsoever but to worship the God of the Old Testament and in the manner prescribed. And so it seems.

Is the God of the Old Testament the same God of the New Testament? The seeming lack of religious freedom in ancient Israel suggests otherwise. To address this apparent discrepancy we need to explore an aspect of the Old Testament religion usually ignored in Old Testament studies. I am referring to the question of whether an Israelite individual or family could opt out of the Israelite religion at will. Since anyone in ancient Israel who worshipped foreign gods could be put to death, could he? Could they?

The Mosaic Covenant was made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai soon after Moses led them out of Egypt (Exodus 19). God had spoken to them that if they would keep this covenant He would be their God and they would be His people. They were given a choice as to whether they would be bound by this covenant. The people unanimously chose to do so. So there was religious freedom.

The question then arises: What about the future generations who did not participate in that choice? Since religion is a matter of personal conscience, why should they be bound by the choice of their forefathers? They did not choose to be born an Israelite to begin with!

It must be recognized that the Israelite religion was bound up with a piece of land. God made it very clear that they must observe the Mosaic Covenant in order to enter as well as to remain in the promised land. In fact, later in their history when they failed to do so despite repeated warnings they were exiled to Assyria and Babylonia.

This aspect of the Israelite religion has a very important implication on the question of religious freedom in the Old Testament. Since the occupation of the land was conditioned upon observing the Mosaic Covenant, any Israelite living in the land is deemed to have chosen to be, or remain, in the religion and be bound by the Mosaic Covenant. Anyone who chose to opt out of the religion must also opt out of the land. The death penalty on worshipping idols or breaking the Sabbath was intended for violations committed within the promised land. And there was no law that forbade an Israelite from leaving the religion by leaving the land.

The book of Ruth indicates that it was possible for an Israelite family to migrate out of the promised land. In this particular case they left the land and sojourned in Moab because of a famine and not because of a rejection of the Israelite religion. But there is no reason to believe that an Israelite family who wanted to worship the gods of Moab instead of the God of their forefathers could not have migrated to Moab for this very purpose. And there is no reason to suppose that the religious leaders of Israel would stop them from leaving. So as long as those who have renounced the Israelite faith do not worship their foreign gods within the promised land they are not punishable by the Mosaic Law. If they do not leave the land they are considered to have opted to remain in the religion and are therefore punishable by the relevant religious laws. So the blanket prohibition to worship idols or break the Sabbath (within the promised land) does not imply a lack of religious freedom in ancient Israel.

Hence a careful reading of the Old Testament shows that no Israelite would be punished for leaving the religion as he would have to also leave the land, and as a result the Mosaic Law would no longer be applicable. We are not aware of another religion practised today that is bound up with a piece of land. This means it is easy to misunderstand the Old Testament on the subject of religious freedom.

Dave: Soo Inn has written another helpful post, but from the New testament perspective, here.


Alex Tang said...

Hi Tien Fock,

Thank you for this interesting posting.

Let me see I am understanding you correctly.

"I am referring to the question of whether an Israelite individual or family could opt out of the Israelite religion at will. Since anyone in ancient Israel who worshipped foreign gods could be put to death, could he? Could they?"

These are some interesting issues you are addressing. Is it possible for a circumcised Israelite to opt out of being an Israelite? And if that person decide to not to believe in God but as long as he did not believe in other gods, he will be spared any punishment. And is the Mosaic covenant made between God and Israel be binding on future generations who may decide not be follow the religion.

First, is the person opting out of worshipping God (Mosaic covenant) or being a cultural Israelite. There are certain distinction here that needs to be addressed.

Second, the Mosaic Covenant is binding between God and Israel. Even when Israel rebelled, God still kept his end of the covenant. It is binging on a people. Can you choose not to be a Chinese, Indian or Japanese?

Third, the promised land is an important part of the Mosaic covenant. You have made an interesting statement here.
"Anyone who chose to opt out of the religion must also opt out of the land. The death penalty on worshipping idols or breaking the Sabbath was intended for violations committed within the promised land. And there was no law that forbade an Israelite from leaving the religion by leaving the land." There is no law for leaving the faith is because it is not possible or allowed to leave the faith. Could you be making an argument out of silence?

Four, your postulation that Israelite who want to leave the faith can just migrate to Moab and they are free. As long as they are not on the promised land they are not under the Mosaic law. Any I ask is there any papers or evidence in supporting this assertion?

Finally, I think I understand the direction of your argument in asserting religious freedom in OT. However, The Israelites are racially, spiritually, socially, emotionally, nationalistically, educationally and economically interwined with the Mosaic law. I wonder whether it is possible to then for them to untangle themselves from who they are and even consider fredom of religion or being given a religious choice. Could freedom or religion or wanting a religious choice be modern inventions, the result of our modern and post modern influence by radical individualism in our religious life. Evangelicalism has always approached spiritual life individualistically. Could there be another approach to a religious life as that of a community. Should we then not try to understand the ancient Israel as a community.

tfleong said...

Hi Alex,

Thank you for taking the time to respond.

Let me first clarify certain things to ensure we are on the same wavelength.

1. I use the term “Israelite” to refer to the person called an “Israelite” and not to the birth- or national-identity. No one can change his birth-identity. Thus an Israelite, meaning anyone descended from Israel (Jacob), will always be an Israelite. And the term “Israelite” (national identity) is bound up with the Mosaic Covenant (and the promised land). In this sense an “Israelite” is one who practices the Israelite religion. Talking about leaving the religion is then puzzling. But the question I asked was, Could a particular person labeled “Israelite” choose (if he would) not to practice the Israelite religion as prescribed by the Mosaic Law? My answer is yes and my piece sought to defend this answer. I hope this will clear up some of the issues you raised, especially those I consider not pertinent to my argument (see 2 below). To address them individually would make this already long reply far too long.

2. My piece has a narrow and specific goal: to respond to the claim that the OT does not uphold “religious freedom” just because there was a death penalty for worshipping foreign gods. Note the link to a website right at the beginning (giving the context for what follows) and explicit statements like, “Since anyone in ancient Israel who worshipped foreign gods could be put to death, could he [leave the religion]? Could they?” I was trying to show that the claim is not valid. It was not to build a case for “religious freedom” in the Old Testament in thin air and out of the blue, giving the impression that it may be driven by individualism. So my entire argument must be read in context. We must certainly not read the OT individualistically. And my students know how I “nagged” them about not falling into or continuing in this habit. But we must also not read the OT communistically (community swallows up individuality, as in communist state).

3. The question of “religious freedom (to leave the religion)” is not addressed in the OT. And it was also not relevant in the history of Israel because from reading the OT we can conclude that the idea of leaving the religion would not have crossed the Israelites’ mind. Their problem was not the temptation to leave the religion but to corrupt or violate the religion. So all the punishments under the Mosaic Law (including that of worshipping foreign gods) was not about leaving but violating the religion. I wrote my piece in response to the claim that it was. Note that I was not talking about the “right” (a modern individualistic term) to leave one’s religion but only the possibility of doing so. And would denying that there could exist this possibility without clear indication and valid justification from the OT be reading it communistically? Even then, I was arguing for this possibility in the context of a certain debate.

And this debate was whether the blanket prohibition to worship foreign gods entailed a lack of “religious freedom” in ancient Israel. My point was, the prohibition had nothing to do with not having freedom to leave the religion. It was about not having the freedom to corrupt or violate the religion. The commandments, and the punishments for breaking them, were given to “believers”, those who are in the religion (read: in the land). Nothing was said about not being able to leave the religion.

But to end the debate here would be only trying to be destructive and not be constructive at all. The OT does not address the question of whether an Israelite could leave his faith or not. To claim either he could or could not leave his faith is NOT based on any direct evidence (in this sense, both positions are “arguments out of silence”) but on inference, whether done consciously or unconsciously. Of course we can simply give up and say we do not know. For reasons better not discussed I think we should and could probe the OT on this question, especially in the context of my debate.

My approach was to analyze the nature of the Mosaic Covenant and make inferences. Firstly, the Mosaic Covenant was not imposed on the Israelites. It is significant that under the Abrahamic Covenant (signified by the circumcision) the Israelites were already chosen to be God’s people and to possess the promised land. Even with this election God said to the generation that came out of Egypt that they would indeed be His people (and could then enter and remain in the promised land) only if they would CHOOSE to be bound by the Mosaic Covenant. God wanted them to choose even though He had already chosen them. And at least in theory, they could have chosen otherwise. Thus God explicitly allowed religious freedom, at least at the collective level.

If that generation got to choose, what about future generations? By asking this question I was trying to infer the implicit based on the explicit (which is what theologizing is about). That is, based on the nature of the Mosaic Covenant explicitly known from the OT, was there a possibility that an Israelite family could opt out? This is not to question that the Mosaic Covenant was intended to be binding on all generations of Israelites (“national identity”). Surely it was. But does this affirmation preclude the possibility that a family labeled “Israelite” could opt out? The Malaysian constitution was intended to be binding on all generations of Malaysians (“national identity”). If the constitution itself does not say so, does this affirmation preclude the possibility of a family labeled “Malaysian” opting out because they do not want to be bound by this constitution anymore? If understanding the Malaysian constitution as allowing one to opt out implies modern individualism, would understanding it as forbidding one to do so be implying modern communism? Note: the book of Deuteronomy could be considered the “constitution” of ancient Israel. And the Malaysian constitution also involved our Chinese and Indian forefathers making a choice to be bound by it (in spite of some unusual terms) in order that they and their descendents could remain in the land.

Now it is explicit that the Mosaic Covenant was bound up with the promised land. That means to leave the religion, if that was possible, one would need to leave the land as well. Hence one who chose to remain in the land had implicitly chosen to remain in the religion. So when one is found worshipping foreign gods within the promised land and be punished for it, he was not punished for leaving but for violating the religion (my basic thesis spelled out above). In light of the debate, whether he ever thought of leaving the religion by leaving the land does not concern us. What concerns us is whether he could leave if he ever thought of it.

There are 3 possible reasons why he could not.

1) The religion itself forbade him. But as I said, there was no OT law that forbade one from leaving the religion. For the purpose of my argument, this “silence” is “golden”, as it means I can say, (by inference) as far as Mosaic Law is concern, one could leave the religion (since the prohibition to worship foreign gods was not a prohibition to leave the religion). We must recognize the genre of law. Reading a text according to its genre is basic to interpreting any type of text. In a law code, what is forbidden must be spelled out. What is not spelled out is assumed to be not forbidden. The Bible itself says, when there is no law (prohibitions not spelled out) there is no transgression. God only spelled out that Adam and Eve could not eat from that one tree. Can we then say it does not mean that that was the only tree they could not eat from just because God did not spell out there were other trees they could not eat from?

Also, if the law does not say so, what would the law Giver say, if He were to be asked? Based on what we know about God (even in the OT), especially His allowing the generation that left Egypt to choose whether to be bound by the Mosaic Law or not, would God forbid any Israelite family who was not involved in that choice from leaving? If saying “no” implies reading the OT individualistically, would saying “yes” then imply reading the OT communistically? Interestingly, Joshua as well as Elijah challenged the Israelites of their respective generations to choose if they would serve Yahweh or the foreign gods. Were they grossly misrepresenting God? The challenge was, if they chose to serve Him they must serve Him and Him only. Otherwise do not serve Him at all. The problem with the Israelites was not their leaving Yahweh entirely but adding foreign gods to their religious practice (see for example 1Sam 7:3).

2) The authorities forbade him from leaving. This by itself is not relevant. If the religion does not forbid but the authorities did, it was a matter of misguided fanaticism and not the official position of the religion. My piece was about the official position of the OT, if we could infer one.

3). In terms of physical (not religious) mobility, was it possible in those days for a family to migrate out? The book of Ruth indicates that it was possible. In fact, if we think it was not possible without evidence, we are probably influenced by our modern experience where just to visit a foreign land needs a passport and perhaps even a visa. The “nation-state” is a modern invention. My point was this: if it was possible to migrate to a foreign land at all, why was it not possible to migrate for reason of leaving the religion, if religious mobility is not an issue here? This inference is so obvious. Since we have an explicit record of a family migrating out of the land, do we need an explicit record of a family migrating for the specific reason of leaving the religion before we can conclude that it was possible? In the context of the debate, our concern is the possibility not the actuality of something like this happening.

This reply is already much longer than the original piece and so I would not drag on. Also, I am about to leave town for a few days. If there are issues you think pertinent which I have not addressed, please let me know and I will see what I can do when I get back.

R Choong said...

Dear Dr Leong,
Thank you for the inetersting essay on religious freedom in the OT. I am also indebted to Dr Alex Tang's comments which prompted me to write.
I am curious about your thoughts regarding the impact of intermarriage among the Israelites. Since the bloodline of Jesus himself is rife with non-Hebrew pedigree, how would the genetic pool variation affect the composition of what constitutes an Israelite.
I live among several million self-identified Jews here in New York and ALL my Jewish friends admit to having mixed lineage.
If being an Israelite by national birth does not deny freedom to detach oneself from the religious community, this is certainly not evident in contemporary practice. Most rabbis I know today claim that they follow Mosaic practice when they shun Jews who marry ourside the faith or who become secular.
I am posting something (Hebrew, Israelites and Jews) put together some years ago to address the confusion caused by the careless use of terms ourside their historical contexts, confusing exegesis with hermeneutics. This was written for my Project Timothy program. I shall be grateful if you would critically comment on its weaknesses.

God bless,

Ron Choong
Academy for Christian Thought

Alex Tang said...

Dear Tien Fock,

Thank you for clarifying the issue and making sure we are on the "same wavelength". It is certainly helpful to know the context in which you wrote your thesis. Now, at least i know what you are defending.

I agree with you that most of the OT deals with punishment because the Israelite were worshipping other gods after making a covenant with Yahweh. And I agree with you that whether an Israelite can decide to leave the faith is a separate issue altogether.

Thank you again for 'theologizing' the issue.


tfleong said...

Dear Ron,

Let me first thank you for sharing some time ago in an email concerning your asking Derrida about “absolute truth” when he lectured in Princeton. The clarification on “postmodernity” was very helpful.

As a term referring to birth-identity, “Israelite” would simply mean one descended from Israel (Jacob), whether intermarriages were involved or not. If we do not think in terms of “race”, the idea of birth-identity is much more straightforward. Someone who is “one-eighth Jew (race)” may be a full-fledged “Israelite (ancestry without regard to race, if it could be traced)”. The 12 sons of Israel had to marry non-Israelites to begin with (even if we consider the Ishmaelites and Edomites as of the same “Abrahamic race” as the Israelites, how many of the 12 sons could have married one of them?). Assuming all the grandsons of Israel married their cousins, if we think in terms of race, we still have an impure race right at the start.

Actually the term “race”, though rather convenient to use, is rather inconvenient to define. What makes a Chinese a Chinese? We get into problems when we use the criteria of language, culture or physical features. There are people we consider “Chinese” who may not speak any Chinese dialect, practice the Chinese culture, nor look “Chinese”. So we fall back on ancestry. And we may say something like, one is a Chinese if his father is a Chinese. But what makes his father a Chinese? His own father is a Chinese. But what makes his father’s father a Chinese? If we follow this line of reasoning we will end up saying Noah (and then Adam) was a Chinese. So we may then settle on something like, “one descended, need not immediately, from a blood-related community that spoke one or more Chinese dialects, practiced the Chinese culture and on the whole had ‘Chinese’ facial features”. I am not saying this is a good definition (I just cooked it up off the top of my head), only suggesting how slippery the idea of “race” can be.

In the Bible any significance a birth-identity (mainly through the father’s side only) may have is indicated by the genealogies. One important purpose of the genealogies is to indicate legitimacy. As for Jesus, there are two genealogies (one in Matthew and one in Luke) to legitimize his Messiah- or Christ-ship. There are different theories why the genealogy in Matthew differs from that in Luke from David down to Jesus (from David upwards to Abraham both are the same). Whatever the reason, assuming both are somehow correct, there are two genealogies to trace Jesus to David. This makes sense, as the Messiah must be a “son of David” who would be given “the throne of His father David”. So for Jesus, what matters is that He must be a Davidide, not just an Israelite, to be the Christ. And since the foreign ancestresses of Jesus are also listed in Matthew’s genealogy, intermarriages (and the question of a “mixed genetic pool”) did not affect his birth-identity as a Davidide. Perhaps our concerns are not God’s concerns. After all, all human beings since the Flood are Noachians.

Yes, the freedom for a Jew to detach himself from Judaism is (and was) most often not there. I will try to be brief on this issue since (in my reply to Dr Tang) I have already elaborated on my original piece as to why I think it was possible for an ancient Israelite to leave the religion by leaving the land and since a discussion on this can be open-ended (and I am glad Dr Tang can now see and agree with the main thrust of my original piece). I will only consider whether it is appropriate to project any lack of religious freedom in a Jewish community (beyond that enforced within the family) back to ancient Israel.

Just for the sake of discussion let us assume that Judaism is essentially the same as its ancient counterpart in the OT. We then have to ask whether any zealousness we see in Judaism to forbid a change in religion could be seen in OT times. Well, since leaving the religion altogether was not an issue at all in the OT, the closest we can try and detect is whether there was zealousness in preventing and opposing the worship of idols. Anyone reading the OT can see that (after Joshua and his generation of elders passed away and apart from a few episodes like the efforts of Elijah and a few reforms under godly kings like Josiah) the Israelite community had a very poor track record in this regard despite severe penalties for violating the first 2 commandments. If they did not seem to care much if their neighbours worshipped the foreign gods right within the land in violation of explicit laws, how much would they have cared if their neighbours had decided to leave the land for good in order to do the same, against which, as far as we know, there was no law?

Since the Rabbis shun those who are “secular” (which I do not suppose is difficult to become one) or those who have married outside the faith (two ways of leaving the Jewish faith) it shows that Jewish religious authorities leave those who have left the faith alone and not try to kidnap, threaten, pester or even persuade them. So in fact this is an expression of religious freedom (to leave the faith).

Sincerely in Christ,

Tien Fock