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What Does the Bible Say About Cruelty?

A Close Examination of the Bible's Warnings Against Cruelty

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God detests cruelty, and while our first impression may be that ancient times were more barbaric than today, the Bible constantly warns against vicious behavior.

In the Fourth Commandment, God orders that not only are his people to take a day of rest on the Sabbath, but:

"On it (the Sabbath) you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates." (Exodus 20:10, NIV)

No one is to work ceaselessly nor are they to force others to labor without rest. Even oxen are to be treated with kindness:

"Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." (Deuteronomy 25:4, NIV)

Leaving an ox unmuzzled while it was crushing the grain would give it the opportunity to eat some of the grain as a reward for its labor. Paul later says in 1 Corinthians 9:10 that this verse also means God's workers are entitled to payment for their work.

Some argue that the biblical sacrifice of animals was cruel and unnecessary, but God required a sin offering that involved the shedding of blood. Livestock were very valuable in ancient times; therefore, sacrificing animals drove home the seriousness of sin and its fatal consequences.

"Then the priest is to sacrifice the sin offering and make atonement for the one to be cleansed from his uncleanness. After that, the priest shall slaughter the burnt offering and offer it on the altar, together with the grain offering, and make atonement for him, and he will be clean." (Leviticus 14:19-20, NIV)

Cruelty Caused by Neglect

When Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry, he preached often about cruelty stemming from a lack of love toward one's neighbor. His famous parable of the Good Samaritan showed how neglect of the needy can be a form of cruelty.

Thieves robbed and beat a man, stripped him of his clothes, and left him lying in a ditch, half dead. Jesus used two pious characters in his story to illustrate cruel neglect:

"A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side." (Luke 10:31-32, NIV)

Ironically, the righteous man in the parable was a Samaritan, a race hated by the Jews. That man rescued the beating victim, tended to his wounds, and provided for his recovery.

In another instance, Jesus warned about cruelty by neglect:

"'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'" (Matthew 25:42-43, NIV)

When asked by the onlookers when they had neglected him in those ways, Jesus answered:

"'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'" (Matthew 25:45, NIV)

Jesus' point in both cases was that everyone is our neighbor and deserves to be treated with kindness. God considers cruelty by neglect a sinful act.

Cruelty Caused by Deeds

On another occasion, Jesus stepped in personally when a woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned. Under Mosaic law, the death penalty was legal, but Jesus saw it as cruel and merciless in her case. He told the crowd, poised with stones in their hands:

"'If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.'" (John 8:7, NIV)

Of course her accusers were all sinners. They drifted away, leaving her unharmed. Although this lesson called attention to human cruelty, it showed that unlike man, God judges with mercy. Jesus dismissed the woman but told her to stop sinning.

The most obvious example of cruelty in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He was wrongly accused, unjustly tried, tortured, and executed, in spite of being innocent. His reaction to this cruelty as he hung dying on the cross?

"Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'" (Luke 23:34, NIV)

Paul, the Bible's greatest missionary, took up Jesus' message, preaching a gospel of love. Love and cruelty are incompatible. Paul simplified the intent of all God's commands:

"The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Galatians 5:14, NIV)

Why Cruelty Continues Toward Us

If you have experienced criticism or cruelty because of your faith, Jesus explains why:

"'If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.'" (John 15:18-19, NIV)

Despite the discrimination we face as Christians, Jesus reveals what we need to know to keep going:

"'And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" (Matthew 28:20, NIV)

Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for About.com, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack's Bio Page.

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