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:

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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Introducing My New Project: “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible”

My attempt to encourage communication between theists and atheists reflects my broader interest in bridging the gap between different theologies and philosophies of life. And one of the key issues dividing us is the question of Biblical inspiration. Is the Bible divinely inspired?

Here are six possible answers to that question:

1. The entire Bible is divinely inspired, and every verse is literally true.

2. Except for minor problems such as errors in translation, everything in this book was inspired by God.

3. The Bible may contain incorrect statements due to human error, but God ensures that no harm will result from these mistakes.

4. Some passages of the Bible reflect human opinions rather than divine wisdom, but the Bible as a whole is divinely inspired.

5. Much of the Bible is God’s Word and much of it is not.

6. None of this book was inspired by God. It is entirely a human creation.

My new blog is primarily intended for those who accept statements 1, 2, or 3, and are open to considering the possibility that these options may be incorrect.

Although millions of people believe that virtually every verse of the Bible was divinely inspired, some are troubled by passages that seem morally repugnant. Others are concerned about seeming contradictions between the Bible and modern science. Still others accepted the complete literal truth of the Bible when they were young, and feel that it’s time to revisit this decision.

Most readers of Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground are either humanists or liberal theists. But even if you reject Biblical literalism, do you have friends who say the Bible is entirely God’s word, but who might be open to reconsidering this belief?

In a series of at-least-weekly postings I will attempt to show beyond any reasonable doubt that options 1, 2, and 3, above, are incorrect and lead to dangerous and destructive consequences. I will take no position about items 4 – 6.

Some will wonder why I am bothering to address Biblical literalism when there are already web sites purporting to show that the Bible contains errors, contradictions, and hazardous ideas. But many of these web sites sneer at Christianity and Christian beliefs. They will persuade no one. I wish to explore this issue in a way that respects the three “Abrahamic” religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which all say that at least part of the Bible is Holy Scripture.

I have friends who are Biblical literalists, and I have no interest in denigrating anyone’s faith. I hope the conversation I am beginning will bring us all closer together, not push us farther apart.

I will publish most entries from “Did God Really Say THAT!?” on this blog. If you’re not interested in this topic, just skip these items. I will continue to post entries that specifically deal with theism and atheism, about once a week as usual.

For the new blog’s first entry go to: Or click “A blog about the Bible” on my blogroll. I’m looking forward to feedback about “Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Two

In The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), James P. Carse proclaims that we know very little about theological matters. In particular, he focuses on our limited understanding of sacred texts such as the Christian Bible.

Carse does not view the Bible as a practical guide for everyday living. He maintains that those who draw conclusions about reality from religious texts are deluding themselves. Rather than seeing such texts as collections of factual statements, he sees them as being more like poetry.

“… they are texts that demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be. The Bible, for example, provides no guide to reading the Bible” (p. 200).

That is an important and provocative assertion. If the Bible is God’s guide to life, it ought to include clear instructions about how to interpret it. Since it does not, it’s up to us to decipher its messages. Carse is skeptical of our ability to do so, and I find his argument persuasive. The human brain has a hard time dealing with complex theological and ethical issues, and what reasoning power we do possess is often overwhelmed by emotional biases.

Even though Christianity says that Scripture reveals God’s plan for humanity, one of the main reasons this religion has splintered into over 30,000 denominations is that Christians keep disagreeing about how to interpret the Bible. Evidently we aren’t very good at figuring out what this book is trying to tell us.

If God “wrote” the Bible, God surely would have known that humans have a lot of trouble interpreting what they read. To avoid confusion, divinely inspired scriptures should be as clearly written as a good college textbook.

If the Bible seems clearly written to you, think about the fact that others have so many interpretations that contradict your understanding of this book. Your interpretation could be the right one, perhaps because you are smarter than other people or more sincere. But of course we all want to think these things about ourselves. Remember, humility is a virtue!

Although I appreciate Carse’s ideas, I do think he goes out on a limb when he claims that religions “are not at their core intelligible….” (p. 36). “In their purest forms, they are thoroughly poetic. Odd as it may seem …, as richly verbal as religions are, like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

They say nothing? That seems extremely peculiar. I admit that the Bible does not present a single coherent message, and it often contradicts itself about important matters. (See Bridging the God Gap,pp. 173-180.) But I do not think that Biblical writers were only penning poetry. In many passages it is obvious that they were making flat statements about theology, history, science, ethics, and practical matters such as child-rearing and sexual relationships.

I take it that Carse would disagree with me about that. He maintains that “essentially none of [religious] discourse is descriptive. It is not making any claims about the nature of the world” (p. 161).

Carse applies this radical idea to the Christian messiah: ” … the vast literature on Jesus is not about anything; … in fact, it says nothing. Indeed, that saying nothing, perhaps more profoundly than any other work of poetry, is its glory” (p. 112).

Many writers have suggested that scriptures are essentially poetry rather than history or science books. But let’s be careful here. Poetry, history, science, mythology, and other genre-designations are modern conceptions. Those who wrote religious texts thousands of years ago did not make these distinctions with rigor and clarity. For example, the first chapter of Genesis certainly contains elements of poetry. But it also contains factual claims about the way the cosmos was created. It would not have seemed odd to ancient Hebrews to mix these literary genres.

Furthermore, some theologians and philosophers seem to reason as follows: “A certain topic is very complex and confusing. Therefore we can reach no conclusions whatsoever about this matter.” That’s not logical. And by the way, many of those who most loudly proclaim that we can say nothing with certainty actually make an amazing number of confident and even absolutistic statements. I especially notice this among so-called post-modernists.

To his credit, James P. Carse invites readers to criticize his work. Even though many of his statements sound quite confident, he realizes that his own viewpoint is inherently, humanly, limited: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection. Indeed, by citing the importance of disagreement to a vital and ongoing conversation is all but to beg for a critique of this critique” (p. 213). Here Carse shows that he has indeed attained what he calls “the higher ignorance,” realizing that even his most cherished opinions are subject to revision through dialogue with others.