Iain Provan, in his book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Ch. 10) makes the claim that God is a gradualist. This has significant implications for biblical society, the lessons we should draw from biblical society, and the attitude we should take toward our society today.
From all of this it is clear that, in the biblical way of thinking, God does not deal with the world in an all-or-nothing way. He works with the world as he finds it, and (indeed) he accommodates himself to the world as he finds it, so that the world—and human society—may continue. When it comes to the new Jerusalem, God is a gradualist. He nudges the world slowly in the direction of this great city, rather than dropping it from heaven directly upon the world. (p.264)
The “all of this” that Provan refers to is the way God works with people in Genesis and Exodus. No one is perfect, and some are downright disgusting at times. God calls his people to goodness, and commands it, but doesn’t coerce obedience. The whole story of Genesis is an example.
Adam and Eve sin, and now ashamed of their nakedness make a belt of fig leaves to cover themselves. Now fig leaves (shown to the right) are not a particularly effective material for clothing. God supplies a much more practical garment instead.
If there must be clothing, at least it shall be proper clothing. God has essentially accommodated himself to the new reality of shame in the world, and he has become actively involved in finding the best way forward, given all the circumstances. From the perspective of the biblical authors, God remains the God who is “for us,” even in the midst of our wrongdoing and shame. When moral evil enters God’s good creation, he does not abandon his creatures but comes closer, accommodates himself further, and helps them to deal with these new realities. He aids them in finding a way to continue their journey in the fallen world, in which physical nakedness has now become problematic because of evil. (p. 254)
And this is only the beginning. Abraham lies when it seems expedient, Sarah is cruel to Hagar. God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a few righteous people. Rebekah conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac, Jacob favors Rachel over Leah, Rachel steals her father’s household gods and lies about it, Joseph is insufferable, Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, and Judah, wow. Judah persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, and he slept with a prostitute, actually his daughter-in-law. The line to David, the line to Jesus, runs from this union.
Joseph had his ups and downs in Egypt. The Lord blessed him – but he married the daughter of the priest of On. He uses the famine to gather up the wealth of the land for the Pharaoh. After taxing the people in the seven good years to lay away stores he gives them food in exchange for their livestock, and then in exchange for their land. A rather oppressive scheme resulting from the good God intended with the dreams and interpretation.
And then we turn to Exodus. With the Israelites now oppressed in Egypt, God raises up Moses to lead them out. But the tale is one of human failure after failure. The golden calf fashioned by Aaron at the request of the people is the most striking example of this failure, but it is in the company of many others.
The Law and Society. Provan turns next to a consideration of the place of the Law in the biblical story. (image source) The Law is not designed to build a perfect society. The laws concerning slaves illustrate the point. Slavery is assumed, and it is not condemned. The laws establish a clear sense of humanity of slaves, but slaves are not equal in their humanity and foreign slaves were property.
How does such a society qualify as “good”? Where is the “good”? It consists in this: that if there are going to be slaves in a society, there should at least be laws regulating their treatment. That such laws were absolutely necessary in ancient Israel is obvious from the many texts that describe people ignoring them. … There was, it seems, no natural predisposition on the part of many ancient Israelites to treat slaves well. It is good, in such a context, that laws were introduced whose aim was to ensure that slaves enjoyed a certain degree of protection from those who wished to exploit them. God himself is described as the source of such legislation and as the ultimate guarantor of its enactment. (p. 265-266)