Reading the Bible at Random

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s a recent entry.]

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The God of War and the God of Love

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s another entry.]

I once thought Bible passages portraying God as commanding (and committing) mass murder could mostly be found in its first few books. Mark Johnston’s Saving God, however, makes a more troubling case:

“Yahweh’s thoroughness in inciting and supporting mass killing is consistent, and extraordinary” (p. 58). The idea that God “is a very dangerous person to mess with . . . is a central theme of the prophetic literature of the Bible. That will be denied, but only by those who have skipped over, or forgotten, the rather demented reiteration of the theme” (p. 60).

I found this comment disturbing, but I have to admit that he’s right. So does Johnson believe that God is a mass murderer? I don’t think so. As I read him, he does not see the Bible as a perfect record of God’s messages to humanity. Instead, Scripture shows how people’s understanding of deity changed down through the centuries. At first Yahweh is portrayed as a “jealous” war god. Later prophets spoke of a god of love.

For Johnson, it’s important to recognize how frightening God seemed to the early Hebrews. As Psalms 111:9-10 puts it, “… Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Those who play down God’s ferocity “underestimate the dramatic character of Yahweh’s transformation, his second life as the advocate of justice and compassion” (p. 63).

In Sunday School, many of us were taught that God is love. That’s one reason the passages I have been discussing seem alien and even reprehensible.

Roger Christan Schriner

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God and War

This fall my Theists and Atheists site often includes items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s the latest entry. I hope both theists and atheists will find it interesting:

I should warn my readers that some verses in today’s post are rather grisly. But as I’ve said before, one reason these passages sound so disturbing is that they clash with core Judeo-Christian values [and with the values of most secular humanists].

We’ll be considering excerpts from stories of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan. It’s interesting to ask whether God would want anyone to march into someone else’s country and wipe out its inhabitants. Some would say “absolutely not,” while others would maintain that violent conquest is OK under certain circumstances. In this blog I just want to focus on what virtually all of us will agree does not sound like God’s will. For example:

“So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40).

“Then we turned and went up the way to Bashan; and Og the king of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not fear him; for I have given him and all his people and his land into your hand . . . So the Lord our God gave into our hand Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people; and we smote him until no survivor was left to him. And we took . . . sixty cities . . . And we utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, destroying every city, men, women, and children” (Deuteronomy 3: 1-6).

Take a moment to let that soak in: “. . . utterly destroyed all that breathed” “destroying every city, men, women, and children.”

Deuteronomy 20:10-11 sounds merciful by comparison: “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.”

I doubt that Jesus would have agreed with this interpretation of “making peace!” If the city does not agree to enslavement, the Israelites are to kill every man. “. . . but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 20:12-14).

This is extremely unsettling. It implies that after wiping out all the men, the Hebrews are allowed to sexually enjoy the widows and daughters of those they had killed. In the book of Numbers God’s prophet Moses spells out a similar policy quite explicitly. Moses tells the people, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18).

It’s hard to face the full implications of this passage. After the conquest, young virgins were sexually exploited by the men who had murdered their fathers, mothers, and brothers. One can imagine God confronting Moses about these brutal orders, roaring in a thunderous voice : “What the !!$**$??! are you doing here, Moses? This is just despicable!” But as far as I know Moses was never rebuked for this policy.

At one point we read that virgins were left alive only in faraway cities. By contrast, “. . . in the cities of these peoples that your Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes . . . as the Lord your God has commanded. . . .” (Deuteronomy 20:16).

Not all of these passages say that God gave genocidal orders, but several do. These verses cannot be reconciled with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor with teachings of Jesus such as his focus on the value of children. (See, for example, Mark 10:13-14, where Jesus says of little children, “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”)

And notice what’s missing: There is never the slightest suggestion of a positive alternative to conquest. Rather than miraculously delivering city after city into the hands of the invaders, why wouldn’t God have worked a finer miracle, making an uninhabited desert region bloom into a paradise and ordering the Hebrews to migrate there instead of into Canaan? That way they would have inherited a Promised Land without causing untold pain and devastation to those who were there first.

Regardless of whether dramatic and obvious miracles occur, I doubt that the conquest of Canaan was sponsored by deity. Instead, I suspect that some of those who wrote the early books of the Bible were still thinking in terms of a fierce tribal war-God instead of a universal deity who loved every person on Earth. Other writers had a different understanding, as we can see in Joel 2:13: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

Roger Christan Schriner

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Jesus Rejected Biblical Literalism

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

According to the New Testament, Jesus rejected the idea that every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. Here’s the evidence:

As I mentioned in earlier postings, the Biblical penalty for doing any work on the Sabbath was execution: “… on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death …” (Exodus 35:2)

That seems a bit harsh, but the rule was sometimes enforced with deadly seriousness. Supposedly God even commanded Moses to have a man slain because he gathered sticks on the Lord’s day. (Numbers 15:32-36) But later Jesus was criticized for working on the Sabbath (picking grain to eat, and healing the sick). In an earlier time he could have been stoned to death for that crime. His response to his critics was, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27. See also Matthew 12:9-14.)

So Jesus himself rejected Biblical literalism! He explicitly contradicted passages from the Hebrew Bible (which has become the Christian Old Testament). Since Jesus clearly rejected a passage which is part of Christian scripture, anyone who takes his statements as truth must conclude that Biblical inerrancy is in error. And of course, few Christians today think God wants us to kill those who work on Sunday.

The Gospel According to Matthew also says Jesus rejected Biblical rules about what should and should not be eaten. “And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’ Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” (Matthew 15:10-12)

The Hebrew Torah (and therefore the Christian Old Testament) bans lots of foods. Leviticus 11, for instance, forbids consumption of pigs, shellfish, ostriches, lizards, crocodiles, etc. But if Matthew 15 is correct, the Nazarene was rather relaxed about such matters.

Right now I’m mostly writing about Old Testament passages, but I am taking a detour into the New Testament to show that Jesus disagreed with at least one of the death penalty clauses of the Torah. So there’s a big problem here. If we assume that every word of the Bible is true, we have to believe that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” But that obviously contradicts the passage mandating the death penalty for anyone who does even a tiny amount of work on that holy day.

Any comments?

Roger Christan Schriner

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Capital Punishment in the Bible: God Was Just Kidding?

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s an adapted version of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

I recently wrote that the harshness of Biblical death penalties suggests that those who wrote the Bible were limited by “personal and cultural biases.” One reader replied that this statement actually shows my cultural bias, because it is unclear “whether the Torah death penalties were ever regularly observed as written. Some scholars suggest that the very extremity of the stated punishment suggests it was never intended as the actual punishment but as a statement about the seriousness with which the matter touched society.” This commentator also referred me to a helpful web page called The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/About_Death_and_Mourning/Death_Penalty.shtml.

So was I showing cultural bias? I admit it may have sounded as if I was showing ignorance about Hebrew culture, by assuming that the ancient Hebrews always carried out the letter of their law. I’m sorry to have given that impression, so let me emphasize that I was not trying to focus on what the Hebrews did or did not do. Instead I was commenting on a list of plain and blunt statements in the Bible, and asking whether these reflect a supreme intelligence.

For example: I am not saying that every time a child impulsively smacked one of its parents they called the village together and stoned the little tyke. That seems most unlikely. As Paul H. Jones writes in The Fourth R, Nov./Dec. 2012, “If parents executed their rebellious children according to the directive of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, none of us would be alive!” (Actually I doubt that all of us were as rebellious as the “glutton and drunkard” described in that passage, but I’m sure you get Jones’ point.)

I will, however, stand by my statement that these passages reflect personal and cultural biases – although “opinions” would have been a better word than biases. Those who wrote these verses believed that imposing (or at least threatening) extreme penalties was a good idea, either because that was their personal opinion or because they were reflecting the opinions of their culture.

These passages sound quite human to me, rather than divine. I cannot imagine that a supreme being, knowing exactly how the human mind works, would prescribe death for a wide range of offenses, assuming that fallible men and women would soften these commandments appropriately. That assumption certainly didn’t turn out well for the fellow mentioned in Numbers 15:32-36. God supposedly commanded Moses to have him slain, merely because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, an all-knowing deity would have been able to predict the terrible damage that certain verses would cause when people took them literally. Witch-hunters down through the ages have justified their murders by quoting Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

Remember, the focus of this blog is on whether every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. And even though the verses I’ve been discussing are from the Jewish Torah (which became part of the Christian Old Testament), Jews have not typically embraced scriptural literalism. Saying that God inspired every word of the Bible is much more common in conservative Christian churches than in Jewish synagogues.

I don’t think it works to say that God commanded these punishments, thinking, “These rules are so harsh that people will know I’m just kidding.” So what are some other ways that a literalist could deal with these Biblical penalties? I welcome further comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Inspiration: Dictation or Filtration?

[Note: For the next few weeks this site will include items I post on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that is more specifically related to theism and atheism. Here’s an adapted version of my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

Before considering other problematic Bible verses, I want to suggest two different ways of understanding the divine inspiration of scriptures.

A sacred book can be inspired through dictation. God, or an emissary from God, can speak to a human (or put thoughts into a person’s head) and these can be written down word for word. In this scenario, the person is a passive instrument, serving as “God’s pen.”

On the other hand, inspiration may involve filtration. Communications from God or some other source of wisdom are filtered through the minds of human beings. Sometimes people are so thoroughly conditioned by their cultures or so full of their own prejudices that most or all of the message gets filtered out. And sometimes they think they’re hearing God when they are actually listening to a very different voice.

Something similar can happen with guidance that comes from within, and this suggests the possibility of a secular humanist interpretation of inspiration and filtration. At times people unconsciously realize something important, and that realization “tries” to push its way into consciousness. But for one reason or another they suppress or distort this message. The classic example is a revelatory dream that the dreamer misinterprets. Sometimes people discover, years later, that they completely missed the point of what a dream was trying to tell them.

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that a personal deity did communicate with those who wrote the Bible. If the Bible seemed like perfect heavenly guidance from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21, then one could reasonably believe that this book was divinely dictated. But if there are numerous passages that clearly do not reflect higher guidance, perhaps such guidance was filtered through the minds and hearts of fallible humans.

Isn’t that how Christians often experience prayer? Even if they have been listening carefully for the voice of God, they may see later on that they were mostly hearing themselves. “Uh-oh! That was my ego talking, not God.” Or: “That was my anger … my stubbornness … my attachments … my narrow-mindedness … my self-righteousness … my fear of change.”

And maybe that sort of thing sometimes happened to those who wrote the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

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The Heartblink

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though the Bible contains some extremely problematic verses, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

No doubt many Christians and Jews quickly heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

I have posted a version of this essay on my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible (didgodreallysaythat.wordpress.com) which focuses on Biblical literalism. In that blog I suggest that in order to accept verses such as Leviticus 20:9, people resort to mindblinks and heartblinks – suspending their ability to think and their ability to care. We can all learn to notice when we cope with an unsettling datum by momentarily immobilizing our own moral instincts, and learn to open our hearts instead.

The true visionaries, both religious and secular, urge us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Regardless of their theologies, I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner

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