Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about why God would choose to send his son to the Jews at a particular historical moment, about why the law of the Torah preceded the Messiah. My response to the question was essentially that (as he phrased it later) they needed to "marinate in the law" before they could even begin to understand their need for a Messiah.
This might seem like an obtuse and highly unusual claim, so I will offer an explanation from my studies in developmental psychology that may help to clarify my thought process. When we raise children, babysit children, or even reflect on our own childhood behaviors, we can see a developmental path in morality. That path is very short for some people. It is much longer for others. Some people circle back several times and their path appears quite convoluted. Nonetheless, it is a path. When we look at Kohlberg's stages of moral development, we can see that the path traveled under healthy circumstances has some common stages through which a person passes.
The first stage is the moral perspective of Obedience and Punishment. This stage is important for children because they do not yet have an internalized moral framework; a young child is all ego. A child will seek whatever is pleasurable without understanding the costs, avoid whatever is painful without understanding the benefits, and they lack the life experience to discern which actions are worth the pain involved or which actions are temporarily pleasurable while causing long-term damage. In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the proverb that a spared rod results in a spoiled child or the commandments to punish people who break the law.
The second stage is the moral perspective of Individualism and Exchange. At this stage, a person has begun to understand that actions have consequences, that taking something has a cost. Controlled punishments from the previous stage may have helped teach them this reality. A child may offer a trade of doing chores for a reward of a new toy. An adult may do the same thing, though the nature of the chores will probably be more difficult and the toys will probably be more expensive. In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the laws regarding the treatment of the property of others, such as paying for damages we have caused to the property of other people.
The third stage is the moral perspective of Interpersonal Relationships. People at this stage have started to understand that not only do we pay a price for acquiring things, but we also incur a cost of existing in relationship with other people. Children begin to understand on an intuitive level that they need the help of their parents and seek to please their parents and make amends when they do something hurtful to them. Adults do the same thing, but are generally more conscious of it and intentional about it. In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the requirements to sacrifice in the temple; the sacrifice is a way of making amends and pleasing God so as to maintain the relationship with God.
The fourth stage is the moral perspective of Maintaining Social Order. People who have come to this stage have realized a sense of the needs of a harmonious community that transcends to some extent the wants of the individual. Children begin insisting on fair or equitable treatment for themselves and others according to agreed-upon rules. Adults do the same, though they may have a less simplistic understanding of fairness than a child. In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the commandment to love our parents and the regulations regarding the treatment of slaves and outsiders.
The fifth stage is the moral perspective of Social Contract and Individual Rights. People who have entered into this stage understand that mutually agreed-upon contracts should be upheld by both parties even when the cost is very high to one party or to both of them. They also understand that individuals may choose to not be party to an agreement with them and do not have to maintain interpersonal relationships with them. In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham.
The sixth stage is the moral perspective of Universal Principles. People who operate at this stage of development have an internalized moral code and they understand that adherence to their code may come at a high price, a price they are willing to pay. Their moral code often has abstract or transcendental elements that call them beyond what normal social conventions would require. In the Tanakh, we might associate this with the prophets who criticized injustice and called people back to their covenant with God, knowing that they might be killed or tortured for their trouble.
What is interesting is that that the Tanakh, which we Christians refer to as the Old Testament, contains components which correspond to the stages of morality through which each of us journey to one degree or another. The Tanakh responds to all of the stages of human moral development, offering something to draw us away from ephemeral pleasures and toward eternal unity with the divine no matter where we are on our journey in life.
Its value is in its presentation of a holistic moral landscape, in how thoroughly it responds to us as human beings in a constant developmental process rather than in a static state of moral perfection. All the pieces of human morality are there, available for us to utilize in making our way to living a holistic morality which takes into account our own personal development as moral agents and enabling us to respond to others where they are in that process of moral development.
The Tanakh leads us to what many of my contemporaries would understand as a higher morality, and it does so by meeting us where we are as we traverse the realms of what they would understand as a lower morality. It shows us how to live at each stage of morality as Kohlberg classified them; it shows us the great good and great difficulty of living at each of those stages. And it shows that moral development is a recursive process in which we must continually be called back to a higher morality of transcendent unity and universal principle as we sometimes move back toward a lower morality of fear of punishment and lust for reward.
In my next piece, I will examine how we might understand Christian thought in light of the moral landscape shown to us in the Tanakh.
Note: The above is an icon of the prophet Samuel which I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com, the online store for the Paracletos Monastery.