By Christopher Wright:

The prevailing prejudice against Scripture is that the Old Testament portrays a violent God of a violent people and is filled with narratives recounting horrendous events with disreputable people playing major roles.  Is the Old Testament ethical?  Here are some reasons why it is.

It was ethical enough for Jesus.  Jesus accepted the truth and ethical validity of the OT (“the Scriptures”) in His own life, mission, and teaching.  His noted “you have heard that it was said…but I tell you”  (see Mt 6-7) sayings don’t contradict or criticize the OT but either deepen its demands or correct distorted popular inferences.  “Love your neighbor” meant “Hate your enemy” to many in Jesus’ day, even though the OT never says any such thing.  Jesus reminded His hearers that the same chapter (Lv 19) also says, “Love the alien as yourself,” extending this to include “Love your enemy.”  Jesus thus affirmed and strengthened the OT ethic.

Narratives describe what happened, not what was necessarily approved.  We assume wrongly that if a story is in Scripture it must be “what God wanted.”  But biblical narrators dealt with the real world and described it as it was, with all its corrupt and fallen ambiguity. We shouldn’t mistake realism for ethical approval.  Old Testament stories often challenge us to wonder at God’s amazing grace and patience in continually working out His purpose through such morally compromised people and to be discerning in evaluating their conduct according to standards the OT itself provides.

An eye for an eye is remarkably humane.  Unfortunately this phrase sums up for many what OT law and ethics are all about.  Even then they misunderstand that this expression—almost certainly metaphorical, not literal—wasn’t a license for unlimited vengeance but precisely the opposite:  it established the fundamental legal principle of proportionality; that is, punishment mustn’t exceed the gravity of the offense.  The rest of the OT law, when compared with law codes from contemporary ancient societies (e.g., Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite), shows a remarkable humanitarian concern, especially for the socially weak, poor, and marginalized (the classic trio of “the widow, the orphan, and the alien”).  Israel’s laws operated with ethical priorities of human life above material property and of human needs over legal rights.  Not surprisingly, then, Jesus (who clearly endorsed the same priorities) could affirm that He had no intention of abolishing the Law and the Prophets but rather of fulfilling them.