Here’s brilliant summary by Iain Provan on the nuanced approach Christians need to adopt when they encounter the Old Testament’s realistic (rather than idealistic) depiction of Israel’s dark history and imperfect moral vision. I think this paradigm is exactly what Jesus was so provocatively reminding the Pharisees of when he reflected upon God’s rationale for allowing divorce under Moses. The distinctions that Provan draws out here must be constantly kept in mind as we read the Old Testament today as God’s Word to us:
“There is a disturbance to the [creation] order of things in Genesis 3. Human relationships are out of order, and the alienation between the man and the woman in due course in Genesis 1-11 becomes alienation of brother from brother, neighbor from neighbor, and the whole of society then breaks down as we get towards Genesis 6. It is this rather uglier vision of gender relations and sexuality that we find widely reflected in biblical narrative elsewhere in the Old Testament, because biblical narrative is the story of the people of God in this fallen, disobedient state living in the world. We should not expect, therefore, to be able to go to biblical narratives [in the Old Testament] and simply read lessons for life out of them without thinking about their nature. We cannot move exegetically from description to prescription without a considerable degree of thought. And so we find in the Old Testament all sorts of very horrendous stories of abuse and violence…The Bible does not pull its punches about the nature of fallen reality, especially as it leads to the oppression and exploitation of women.
It is not just the narrative [of the Old Testament], however, but also the law that reflects the fallen reality…Old Testament law [often] does not represent the highest vision of the Genesis creation story. And indeed, Jesus himself gives weight to that point of view when in Mark 10:1-12, asked about divorce, he makes precisely this distinction between creation and law…I take [Jesus’ statement] to be precisely a distinction between the creation order of things and the legal position in a fallen society. The law must always be read in the context of the creation purposes of God, because Old Testament law seems to be aimed at dealing often with ugly reality as it is, rather than enunciating ideal principles of conduct. That is what modern law does too. It does not prescribe virtue; it deals with ugly reality as it actually is. And you can understand many of the laws [which seem to us strange or compromised] in a much more friendly way if you do not hear them as ideals, but as attempts to regulate what otherwise would be even worse situations…Both law and narrative (which describes only what people did, not what they should do, then or now) must be set in the context of creation. The church, unfortunately, has often lived out the fallen reality described and legally addressed in the Bible as if it were the vision of the kingdom of God.” (Iain Provan, “Why Bother with the Old Testament Regarding Gender and Sexuality?”, in Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality, and Community, ed. Maxine Hancock, pp. 36-40)