Like many of us, I had heard and read selected passages from the Bible over the years and was familiar with many of the stories in it. It was only recently that I took the time to read it through without skipping around or omitting anything. A straight-through reading of the Bible with everything in context was an eye-opening experience. The following sections discuss some of the questions and concerns I came away with.
Keep them in their place
Some of the characteristics of humanity in which we justifiably take pride include our indomitable spirit, thirst for knowledge, and inspirational endeavors. We desire to improve our lot and accomplish great things. But evidently God does not share our esteem for these qualities, as we see in the accounts of the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel.
Let’s look at the account of the Tower of Babel first. After the great flood, the survivors multiplied and settled in the region of Babylon. They all spoke the same language since they were all descendants of Noah and his family. At some point they decided to build a city and a great tower “with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.” (Genesis 11:4) To me, this impulse to build an inspiring edifice seems an integral part of the human spirit, akin to the creative drive that spurred the building of the pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, or the great cathedrals of Europe.
But God didn’t see it that way. After inspecting the city and the tower, he said, “If as one people sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.” (Genesis 11:6-7) God was so displeased that .”.. the Lord confused the language of the entire world, and from there the Lord scattered them across the face of the entire earth.” (Genesis 11:9)
That makes an interesting story to explain humanity’s multiplicity of languages and political institutions, but it doesn’t paint God in a very good light. God put a stop to a great positive endeavor for humanity–a project that promoted the cooperation of the entire human race, a project intended to provide a common goal and source of pride to keep the people together in harmony. And in the process he ensured misunderstandings and distrust for all time by splintering the common language. What were the people doing that justified messing up humanity so badly?
The only reason given for God’s actions is that with the cooperation made possible by one common language “nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.” God evidently will do whatever it takes to handicap humans so they cannot rise above some limited level of accomplishment. He does not want them aspiring to greatness. While it’s true the people were hoping to reach heaven, which might be construed as competition with God in his own realm, God doesn’t mention that as a problem. And you wouldn’t think an all-powerful deity would be afraid of his creation if they managed to come knocking at his door.
Some religious commentators interpret the story of the Tower of Babel to be a warning not to have pride–the people were proud of their tower and God crippled their capabilities for further construction because pride is bad. But is pride necessarily bad? Although pride that veers into arrogance can be quite harmful, pride is often a positive emotion; it’s the inner warmth we feel when something at which we work hard or something about which we care deeply has a good outcome. It’s not bad for a child to be proud of learning to read or hitting a home run, or for a master builder to be proud of a cathedral to which he gave a good portion of his life. I don’t see that the tower builders were exhibiting a harmful pride.
Another justification by religious commentators for God’s hobbling of humans is that God saw a need to limit their capability to do great harm. (Apparently the attendant limitation on their capability for heroic good works is viewed as an unfortunate side effect.) That is a strange way of thinking, considering all the occasions when humans have done great harm and God did nothing to stop them. If he could mess up people’s minds to the extent they could no longer understand each other, you’d think he could have come up with something to confuse the Third Reich.
But a more fundamental reason for questioning this justification is that there is absolutely nothing to support it. In the story of the tower of Babel, the Bible doesn’t even hint that God wants to limit humanity’s potential for harmful actions. Actually, quite the opposite is true elsewhere in the Bible–there are many accounts of God commanding his chosen people to destroy entire nations, including rape, pillaging, slaughter of all the inhabitants, and burning everything to the ground. Evidently God is fine with massive harm done by humanity, but he will cruelly suppress constructive behavior, at least if it is overly ambitious.
So there doesn’t seem to be a sensible justification for God’s inordinately negative reaction to the building of the tower. But there may have been a reason for the author of the biblical account to depict the building of the tower in a negative light. Babylon was one of the largest and most advanced city-states in the ancient world, at a time when the Israelites were nomadic tribesmen living in tents. There is archaeological evidence of several towers, or ziggurats, in Babylon, one of which could have been the tower in the biblical account. It’s easy to imagine that a nomadic wanderer who came upon an impressive city and its wondrous achievements might feel a little awed and maybe a bit jealous. Those would be natural human reactions. And it would be natural for such feelings to shape a story told about the city. Of course, that’s all pure speculation on my part–but it’s a lot more reasonable than speculations based on the completely groundless assumptions that God’s purpose for limiting humanity’s capabilities was to prevent humans from doing harm, or to teach them a little humility.
The story of the Garden of Eden also shows God’s insecurity about humanity’s potential. In the case of the Tower of Babel, God limits the potential for people to cooperate and to work together for a common goal. In the case of the Garden of Eden, God wants to limit the status of humankind to that of chief species. Adam and Eve are given dominion over all the animals and plants of earth but are forbidden to have knowledge (Genesis 2:16) or wisdom (Genesis 3:6). Without our wisdom and knowledge of good and evil we wouldn’t be human; we’d be God’s special pets.
Along with his other almighty attributes, God evidently has an almighty ego and was keen to have his human creations remain inferior to him in two important ways–knowledge and immortality. In God’s words, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22) We didn’t manage to get immortality, but God is quite troubled that we even got the ability to think.
Religious apologists are aware of the PR problem posed by God’s fervent desire to keep knowledge and wisdom from his human creations. In an attempt to excuse God’s punishment of humans for the sin of gaining that which, in fact, makes them human, some religious commentators hypothesize that Adam and Eve were simply not yet ready for knowledge of good and evil–presumably, after humans had been around a bit longer they would have been better prepared for this knowledge, if only Eve had had a little patience.
That is an amazingly hollow proposition. There is no evidence for it in the Bible; it’s pulled out of thin air. And it doesn’t make sense. What was humanity going to experience in the paradise of Eden that would have made them ready for wisdom and knowledge of good and evil? What experiences would have meant anything to them in this regard if they were in a state of innocence? I don’t see how somebody can put forward this kind of fabricated proposition without suffering terminal embarrassment.
The story about Jephthah and his daughter makes me wonder what its message might be or what lesson it might be trying to teach. Briefly, the story is an account of the Israelites in Gilead who have been oppressed by the Ammonites and turn to Jephthah, a brave warrior, to be their leader. As his forces approach the Ammonites, Jephthah makes a vow to God that if he is victorious “then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites–he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.” (Judges 11:31)
God hands over the Ammonites to the Israelite forces, who wipe out the Ammonite cities. When Jephthah returns home victorious, his daughter, his only child, is the first to come hurrying out to greet him. Jephthah is horrified at this turn of events, but nevertheless fulfills his vow to God and sacrifices her as a burnt offering.
That’s quite a tragic story and you would think it should have some message worthy of its dramatic impact. But all I can come up with is that a vow to God is so important that it must be kept no matter how bad the consequences. It certainly appears that Jephthah did the right thing in God’s eyes–there is no censure of Jephthah for killing his daughter, and he goes on to lead Israel for six years until his death.
Another account that leaves me curious about its intended message is the story of Lot and his daughters. After the destruction of Sodom, Lot was afraid to remain in its vicinity, so he and his two daughters settled in a cave in the mountains. Lot’s oldest daughter complained to her sister about the lack of men with whom they could have sex, and suggested they should get their father drunk and have sex with him. That night, they got Lot drunk and the eldest daughter had sex with him, and the next night the younger daughter took her turn. Both daughters got pregnant, each had a son, and each son went on to found a major tribe.
The Bible presents this episode neutrally. There is no condemnation or negativity attached to the daughters’ actions. The Bible seems to condone father-daughter incest, at least if initiated by the daughter. The two sons were successful, although the tribes they founded were subsequently disliked by the Israelites. This account may therefore have been an attempt to cast those tribes in a negative light by portraying their founders to be the products of incest, but that would be a very indirect and weak condemnation of the daughters’ actions.
What is the purpose of this story? Is it to convey the message that sex with your father is fine if there are no other men available? Or that you should be wary if your daughter seems to be trying to get you drunk? I’m being facetious here, but I can’t come up with anything substantial. Maybe the story is just filler material, thrown in for its slightly titillating subject matter. If these are God’s words, I don’t understand what he wants me to learn from them.
We hear a lot from religious fundamentalists about family values. I don’t know of an official definition of that phrase, but it is evidently connected to a belief that the traditional family headed by a father and mother is the only morally correct form of family. Fundamentalists who hold this view generally also believe that the Bible is literally true. I’m uncertain how they reconcile these beliefs, considering what is actually in the Bible.
For example, Jesus said: “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10:34-36, and similar in Luke 12:51-53) Jesus also said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-26) In other words, if you want to be a good Christian and follow Jesus then you need to hate and abandon your family and lifestyle so nothing remains in the way of complete devotion to him. This does not seem to me to be a good endorsement of family values.
In a slightly different vein, the disciple Paul evidently regards marriage purely as a mechanism to allow men and women to satisfy their sexual needs without being immoral. In Corinthians 7:1-9 Paul says that ideally people would be celibate, as he is. However, he recognizes that many people lack the necessary self-control, and in that case they should get married rather than sin by having sex outside of marriage. Corinthians 7:25-40 reinforces Paul’s feeling that it is better not to marry “so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord.” Someone who does decide to marry “does well, but the one who does not, does better.”
The cause of the problem
Most of us are familiar with the story of the ten plagues Moses inflicted on Egypt to force Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Religious teachers stress Pharaoh’s unwillingness to free the Israelites from their servitude and the consequent necessity for Moses to continue to force the issue. But a reading of the whole story, including the usually downplayed parts, reveals the real problem to be God’s dark scheming.
God did not want Pharaoh to free the Israelites without a struggle. God’s goal was to inflict the plagues on Egypt as a way to show off his power, so he ensured that the plagues would be necessary. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go.’ ” (Exodus 4:21) And just before the first plague: “But I [God] will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and although I will multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you.” (Exodus 7:3-4)
God states repeatedly that he wants an excuse to inflict the plagues; his whole intent is to promote a memorably fearsome and wrathful image of himself. “Go to Pharaoh, for I [God] have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order to display these signs of mine before him, and in order that in the hearing of your son and your grandson you may tell how I made fools of the Egyptians and about my signs that I displayed among them, so that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:1-2) The final plague consists of God himself killing all the firstborn in Egypt, except those of the Israelites, “from the firstborn son of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl who is at her hand mill.” (Exodus 11:5) God slaughters innocent children just to impress future generations with his cruelty.
God’s strategy works. Just before his wedding, Samson’s groomsmen guess a riddle he had put to them; therefore he has to pay them the prize on which they had agreed, which was a set of linen robes and clothes for each of the thirty groomsmen. In order to pay them the prize, Samson goes out and murders thirty men and takes their clothes. And he does this because “the Lord’s spirit empowered him” to do it. (Judges 14:19) No, I am not making this up–according to the Bible, God encourages the murder of thirty innocent men to facilitate payment of a debt, with the objective of stirring up trouble between the Philistines and Israelites.
Samson is so angry about the riddle outcome that he leaves his fiancé with her father. Sometime later he returns to her father and says he now wants to have sex with his intended bride. The father, meanwhile, had given her to another man, but offers to substitute her attractive sister. This annoys Samson, so he burns down the Philistines’ grain stores, vineyards, and olive groves. That gets a good fracas going between the Israelites and the Philistines, which is just what God had intended.
Those examples are bad enough, but God’s crowning achievement as troublemaker was to ensure that genocide would be the result of Joshua’s many conquests. As detailed in my earlier KIOSK article, Moral Compass, God got into the heads of Joshua’s adversaries and made them “obstinate” so they would attack Israel. God wanted Israel to annihilate them without mercy.
In all these examples, God manipulated men’s minds to make them act in ways that would result in tragic outcomes, ranging from massive slaughter to outright genocide. Why didn’t he instead do a little manipulating that would result in positive outcomes? For example, rather than purposely harden Pharaoh’s heart, why not soften it (or even just do nothing) so the Israelites could leave Egypt peacefully? The only reason for God’s choice of action was to give him a chance to show to the entire world and to future generations how cruelly powerful he is.
Similarly, when the Israelites came into the promised land, rather than purposely make the existing populations obstinate, why not plant the seeds for peaceful coexistence (or again, just do nothing)? Wouldn’t it have been better to give the pagans a chance to convert to worshipping God rather than totally obliterate them because of fear that paganism would win out? What does it say about God if he is so insecure about his charisma that he feels it necessary to annihilate whole populations who haven’t even been given a chance to learn about him, rather than risk the possibility that they would reject him?
Religious believers refer to the Bible as the word of God. But opinions differ about what that actually means. Some think the Bible’s words were transcribed exactly as they came from God. Others think the biblical authors were inspired by God’s spirit but wrote his messages in their own words. There’s no objective way to settle such shades of interpretation, but fortunately that’s not the issue I think is important.
The important consideration is how much authority we should cede to material in the Bible. In particular, can we as lay people sit down, read the Bible through, absorb its teachings, and directly apply its mandates to our lives for the good of society and ourselves? If we can, we’re using the Bible and its words, however they got written, as a good authority.
But we can’t. Or at least we shouldn’t. I mentioned in my previous KIOSK article numerous passages that, if taken at face value, would lead a person to engage in completely unacceptable behavior. To briefly repeat some of these: the Bible commands that adulterers, homosexuals, and disobedient sons be put to death; a woman who is discovered not to have been a virgin when she married is to be stoned to death, as is a person caught working on the Sabbath; a soldier is allowed to take a captive woman as a sex slave; nations of unbelievers must be totally destroyed; you may buy and own slaves, as long as you don’t beat them so badly that they die immediately; and women should submit to their husbands in everything. Besides these direct commands to behave badly, I’ve mentioned many stories that set bad examples for behavior. It seems obvious to me, and I hope I’m in the majority here, that messages of this sort are bad guides for our actions.
Of course, religious authorities and commentators are well aware of the difficulties poised by these biblical prescriptions for bad behavior. They therefore go to great lengths to interpret the meaning of these and other biblical embarrassments to be something other than the obvious meaning that is actually in the Bible. Or they excuse some material as being irrelevant in today’s world. In essence, they are substituting their words for God’s words. We are not really supposed to follow God’s words; we are supposed to follow the words of selected people who interpret God’s words for us.
Even if we wished to accept the authority of such interpreters, that would be problematic in most cases because the interpretations are at odds with each other. A familiar example is the biblical injunction to do no work on the Sabbath. There are about ten passages in the Bible that command observance of the Sabbath, including three that specify the death penalty for disobedience. But obviously there are numerous differences concerning the interpretation of that command. Orthodox Jews have a complicated list of activities defining work not to be done on the Sabbath. Most Christians have found arguments to wiggle out of the command. Muslims maintain that Muhammad’s views supersede the biblical injunction. And nobody invokes the death penalty for Sabbath desecrators. The point here is that everybody is following interpretations and traditions that come from outside the Bible.
Another obstacle to accepting the Bible as an authority for our conduct is its own inconsistency. On many issues, the Bible takes one position in one place and a different position in another.
One example is the biblical attitude toward incest. The founding line of the Israelite tribes was full of incestuous relationships. Abraham married his half sister Sarah (they had the same father, Terah). Evidently God considered this to be a good union, as he repeatedly blessed Abraham, and Abraham became the patriarch of all of Israel; Jesus was a direct descendant. So if you’re contemplating sex with your half-sister, the Bible supports that. But wait a minute–the Bible also says, “Cursed is the one who has sexual relations with his sister, the daughter of either his father or mother.” (Deuteronomy 27:22) And, “If a man has sexual intercourse with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace. …he will bear his punishment for iniquity.” (Leviticus 20:17) So if you consider sex with your half-sister to be sinful, the Bible also supports that view. Take your pick.
In a similar vein, God has no problem with Jacob concurrently marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel, daughters of Jacob’s uncle Laban. As he did with Abraham, God blessed Jacob at great length. However, the Bible also says: “You must not take a woman in marriage and then marry her sister as a rival wife while she is still alive, to have sexual intercourse with her.” (Leviticus 18:18)
One more: Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed. Their children were Moses and Aaron, who played major roles in God’s plans for the Israelites. You probably get the pattern by now–in another place in the Bible marriage to one’s aunt is forbidden: “You must not have sexual intercourse with your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.” (Leviticus 18:12)
The Bible contains many other inconsistencies concerning conduct and morals. As with the biblical mandates that are obviously wrong, it falls to religious authorities to try to paper over these inconsistencies and promote the right course of behavior. Again, we are not following the words of the Bible; we must instead listen to the words of some person who is represented as an authority.
Leading or lagging
We might acknowledge the flaws in the Bible and yet view it as a nucleus of good moral instruction if we include the (rather thick) layer of interpretations that have been formulated over the years. We might admit that it would be exceedingly difficult to write down a comprehensive guide that would apply over the many millennia of the Bible’s existence, and we might therefore think of the Bible as a kernel of inspiration that needs to be interpreted somewhat differently over time. This would lead us to view the interpretations of religious authorities as a good and necessary adjunct to the Bible, rather than as attempts to cover up a lot of warts and incongruities.
The problem with that nice view of the Bible is that generally the bad messages are first recognized as such and are dealt with, not by religious authorities, but by secular society. Religious teachings based on the Bible tend to be an anchor that holds back progress. Eventually, after a significant fraction of society realizes there is a better way to view some area of human affairs, religious institutions then manage to redo their biblical interpretations and their teachings in order to remain relevant.
A good example is the change in attitudes about women’s rights. In most modern societies the status of women is quite different from what the Bible prescribes. Did religions lead this change of attitude? It doesn’t seem so. Even today, in areas of the world where Islamic law is influential, Muslim treatment of women remains biblical, with even a number of additional strictures. Some Christian evangelical denominations seem to want to reinstate more “traditional” roles for women. In Mormon families only the male speaks with God. Roman Catholics famously deny women the right to participate in the most important areas of their religion; other religions also limit the participation of women. Some traditionalist Jewish men thank God every morning for not having made them a woman (or a slave, or a Gentile). Pressure to rescind the Israeli requirement for women to ride in the back of the bus in certain Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods is coming from laity, not from religious authorities. Religions have clearly lagged secular societies in according women and men an equal status.
Another example concerns attitudes towards homosexuality. The Bible condemns homosexuality in no uncertain terms. This attitude carries through to the present in many religious denominations. Catholics are still taught that homosexuality is a sin. Most evangelical denominations also teach that homosexuality is a sin, which often is sufficient to incite violence against homosexuals. Many Islamic states have laws against homosexuality, and there have been many reported executions of homosexuals by Muslims. Secular society has come a long way toward acceptance of homosexuality as part of the spectrum of natural human sexuality, while much of the religious community still holds tightly to long-standing discriminatory attitudes rooted in the Bible.
In those and other issues, secular society has gradually adopted considerably more enlightened ideas than those expressed in the Bible. Unfortunately, biblical ideas hold back progress because the Bible is considered sacrosanct. One result is uneven progress, with biblical ideas tending to have influence where people hold more conservative religious beliefs, or where people are simply more religious. An evangelical Christian who beats up a homosexual, even so badly that he dies, is practicing his faith far better than you or I, because that is exactly what the Bible tells us God wants us to do. Muslim men in an Afghanistan village who stone an adulteress to death are doing exactly what God in the Bible commands, and have every reason to think they are practicing their religion well.
Here’s the problem: if we are devoutly religious people we should be doing many bad things–the Bible commands us to do them, and the Bible is the word of God, and God’s word must be obeyed. If we are not stoning homosexuals and adulterers and Sabbath violators, or we are not exterminating nonbelievers, then we are not good Christians or Jews or Muslims, because our God tells us to do those things in no uncertain terms in our Bible. Those conclusions are inescapable, as long as people believe the Bible to be an inerrant and authoritative guide to behavior. Religions are long overdue in admitting that the Bible is far from inerrant and that many of its messages are just plain wrong.
Along the same lines, there was a good deal of publicity recently about an Afghan woman who was imprisoned for adultery after she reported she had been raped. The New York Times carried an article revealing that the Afghan government announced it would pardon the woman, but with the expectation that she would agree to marry the man who raped her. I’m sure most people who read that article came away thinking it was one more example of the barbaric nature of Islam. It certainly is barbaric–it basically allows a man to get any woman he wants for a wife by raping her, which demotes women to the category of sex slaves. Where would Islam get the idea for such a bad statute? Well, the following surely looks like a good candidate for the source: “Suppose a man comes across a virgin who is not engaged and overpowers and rapes her and they are discovered. The man who has raped her must pay her father fifty shekels of silver and she must become his wife because he has violated her.” Other than the minor issue of the payment to the father, that is exactly what the Afghan Muslims are practicing. Where do those words come from? They are from the commandments that God gave to Moses to impart to the Israelites, Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
Christians should not try to weasel out by imagining that the Old Testament, or at least selected parts of it, does not apply to them. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law [“law” in the Hebraic sense that Jesus would have used refers to the first five books of the Bible, which contain most of the commands that I have been quoting above] or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20) So if you’re a devout Christian you should obey the Old as well as the New Testaments, which means you should be stoning to death homosexuals and Sabbath violators as well as killing adulterers.
The point here is that Christians and Jews have no room to criticize the Islamic code for including practices that were, in essence, lifted intact from their Bible. If, sometime in the future, Christians (and Jews, although they don’t take the Bible quite as authoritatively) admit publicly and clearly that numerous commands in the Bible are bad and should not be practiced, then they can preach to the Muslims. Until then, they need to realize that their insistence on claiming the Bible to be an inerrant guide to behavior is a considerable part of the problem.
Not all bad
The sections above have emphasized bewildering, questionable, and downright bad messages from the Bible. Of course, there is certainly much in the Bible that is morally good, and even more that at least is not bad. I’ve concentrated on the less-than-wholesome messages because most people seem to be unaware of their existence. We need to be aware of all aspects of the Bible in order to make reasoned decisions about religions that are based on it.
(This article is excerpted from Heading for the Light: Dispelling the Shadows of Religion, a free e-book available in pdf and other e-reader formats at Smashwords and other e-book sellers.)
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