I don't think that the "old rules" were arbitrary. At least, the ones I've thought about had a base in practical reasoning.
The dietary laws lead you away from things that are tricky to prepare safely. We all know about the dangers of undercooked pork. What is not as widely known is that you can't eat just ANY rabbit that you catch. Likewise, the prohibition against blended fabrics mystifies modern readers, but back in the day, that was important. Different fibers shrunk at different rates, and the very first time such a cloth got wet, it would be ruined.
Here is where Ryan raises an excellent point: it's not the law that's important, but the consequences of violation. We know how to prepare all manner of meats safely, so the dietary laws no longer apply. We can make pre-shrunk fabrics, and/or treat them to shrink uniformly, so cotton/wool blends are perfectly OK. The list goes on.
Some things are still prohibited. But they're not very controversial, for the most part. Murder. Theft. Adultery. The harms were obvious then, and they're obvious now.
One interesting question remains: Why was homosexuality on the list, back in the day? I have my own idea, but I'm curious to see what anyone else comes up with.
"Why was homosexuality on the list, back in the day?"
That depends on what you mean by the question.
Is it: Why would God condemn homosexuality? (Possible answer: God intended only for men and women to be together.)
Is it: What rational reasons could people have had to condemn homosexuality? (Possible answer: People needed to increase their population size.)
Or is it: What were the actual reasons for which people condemned homosexuality? (Possible answer: They were disgusted by it. Disgust has always been a significant force in morality.)
Only if we do assume that God's reasons are non-arbitrary (beneficial to humanity) would the first two questions have the same set of possible answers. The answers to the third question, however, would probably tend to be irrational.
"Different fibers shrunk at different rates, and the very first time such a cloth got wet, it would be ruined."
Is this a sufficient justification for a moral rule? Most people--including Christians--would say that it is not. But perhaps we can make it work by clarifying the harm that it causes:
"Blending fabrics is immoral because it leads to a waste of fabric, which is an important and finite resource."
The harm of blended fabric, then, is in its waste of important, finite resources. If that is the justification for condemning it, then it follows that we should condemn the waste of all other important, finite resources, which would in turn have significant political ramifications for Christians.
But also consider how counter-productive it is to condemn blended fabrics without justification:
The typical reader would conclude that there is something wrong with blended fabric in itself, such that we could never be justified in using them.
Morality becomes apparently arbitrary.
- Other behaviors that should be condemned for the same reason are pursued because there is no explicit rule against them.
God should have either made a much more comprehensive list of rules or offered its moral justifications so that we could figure out what to do on our own. Instead, we have a limited list with some strange contents and little to no explanation.
In fact, some of the contents seem pointless or even immoral.
What are we to make of the Biblical rules concerning animal sacrifice? Are we to believe that the abstract symbolism of offering up the best of one's flock to God (and God's pleasure at the smell) is worth the tangible harm to the animal and the depletion of the flock?
What about the rules concerning slavery? Are God's words to the slave and master intended to preserve the practice? Or are they a strangely pragmatic concession that the practice will continue with or without the Bible--an abandonment of what is actually good in exchange for popularity?
With all of these problems, it is easy to see the appeal in simply loving your neighbor as yourself. But that rule suffers from its own problem: it dictates few to no particular courses of action.
While cautioning against pointless and immoral practices here, Ryan also writes for his own site, where animal sacrifice is not mandated.
Please visit Secular Ethics.
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