Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Religious Freedom in the 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.