Making Excuses for the Bible

Via Elliptica, I came across a post titled Imprecations, exegesis, and hermeneutics on the blog Higgaion, written by a liberal Christian theologian. The post blasts Wiley Drake and his call for “imprecatory prayers”, and argues that Drake has seriously misunderstood the verses he quotes in support of his beliefs.

Leaving that issue aside for now, Higgaion goes on to make a larger point about whether we should always imitate the behavior described in the Bible. He asserts that even if the God of the Bible commands acts of violence or hate, that is not necessarily a warrant for Christians to do likewise.

Suppose that the genocidal commands in the book of Joshua, the rules for “holy war” in Deuteronomy, and even the texts of Psalm 109 and 137 perfectly represent commands given to the Israelites by God, or at least models offered by God for the Israelites or Judeans to follow. Would that then mean that… the only truly “faithful” response is to endorse and imitate such violent and hateful language?

I argue that it does not.

…There is a deep and powerful stream of resistance—even to divine initiatives—within scripture, and in many cases such resistance is precisely where faithfulness dwells.

Higgaion offers several scriptural examples of this, but I think most of them don’t support the point he’s trying to make.

Consider Job. He argued that God was treating him unfairly, that he could win against God in an impartial lawsuit … and at the end of the book, God agreed with Job, over against Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar who sought to justify God against Job!

This interpretation puts a convenient spin on the truth. Yes, it’s true that in the Book of Job, God agrees that he treated Job unjustly (2:3: “thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause”). But when he finally shows up, it’s not to apologize for this wrong. Instead, when God appears to Job, he belligerently declares that he is the creator of heaven and earth and can do whatever he wants because he’s the strongest, so there! God isn’t satisfied until Job abases himself and confesses that he should have acknowledged God’s sovereign right to destroy Job’s life and slaughter his family for no reason at all.

Consider Abraham, who objected to God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Again, it’s true that Abraham bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous people lived there. It’s also true that God then goes on to obliterate the cities anyway. Shouldn’t an omniscient deity have known in advance that he was just playing with Abraham’s hopes for mercy? And what about the incident on Mount Moriah, where Abraham meekly obeyed God’s command to murder his son?

Consider Habakkuk, who argued against God’s use of the Chaldeans as an instrument to punish Judah.

I’m not sure what verses in the Book of Habakkuk this is referring to, but again, as with Abraham, the Bible says that God ultimately does send the Babylonians to destroy Judah and carry its people off into slavery – regardless of the prophet’s protests. And in the end, Habbakuk praises God regardless (3:18).

Although most of Higgaion’s examples of “resisting” God don’t show what he claims, I think he does make one telling point.

In fact, if one believes that God exercises sovereign control over the cosmos, then every act of “intercessory” prayer is in fact an objection, mild or strong, to something that God has set in motion.

It’s undeniably true that intercessory prayer amounts to asking God to change his mind, something which makes no sense in standard Judeo-Christian theology of an “omnimax” deity. (This has been noted before.) But then again, religion is hardly based on a rational, logical view of the world and our relationship to it. One of its primary purposes is to provide comfort and a sense of control to human beings living in a random and unpredictable universe. Illogical as the notion is, intercessory prayer exists because it serves this purpose, of giving believers a sense that they’ve done something to influence the course of events.

That said, I do think Higgaion’s post makes an important point, though not exactly the one he thinks.

When the psalmists ask God to curse their enemies, we may rightly and faithfully say, “No.” When Ezra tries to break up marriages because of the ethnicities (or merely citizenship) of the husband and wife, we may rightly and faithfully say, “No.” And were we to think that God had said to us, “Go kill all your neighbors and live in their houses,” we might rightly and faithfully say, “No.”

I agree absolutely with this. These deeds and many more which are recorded in the Bible are evil, and would remain evil even if they were the word of God. Even if God himself was commanding us to do these terrible things, the only morally acceptable response would be to refuse. (To Higgaion’s list, I would add the idea that people’s sins require forgiveness through the shedding of someone else’s blood.) But this does not mean that a god who issued such commands would be a good being worthy of our worship. How could it? Instead, the conclusion Higgaion is groping toward is the very one that atheists have been saying for some time: the god described in the Bible is a profoundly evil being. If such a being existed, it would not deserve to be worshipped or obeyed by any person. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that this cosmic tyrant does not exist, and that the Bible is merely the creation of fallible, primitive humans.

Higgaion is obviously an intelligent, ethical person, and I wish he wouldn’t spend so much time defending a book that doesn’t deserve defending. More puzzling to me than the fundamentalists are the liberal and moderate believers who admit the numerous flaws of the Bible, and then go on believing and using it. Why bother? If the Bible is so flawed, then why do we need the Bible? Why not just set it aside and use our own conscience and reason to figure out what’s right? The amount of effort and time that has been spent through history on making excuses for the Bible, a book that should have long since been relegated to the status of historical curiosity, could have been far better spent on useful and productive endeavors. We know the book is manifestly imperfect: why not take the next step and admit we don’t need it to live our lives?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.trevormckee.com Trevor McKee

    “The amount of effort and time that has been spent through history on making excuses for the Bible, a book that should have long since been relegated to the status of historical curiosity, could have been far better spent on useful and productive endeavors”

    Likewise, the ammount of effort and time spent interpreting and cross-interpreting to find out whats right and wrong could have been spent using logic, reason, and plain old common sense to arrive at a more usefull conclusion.

  • Joffan

    On the biblical theme, my great-grandfather received grave injustice at the hands of a colleague in 1905. He killed him, of course, my grandfather killed his son and my father killed his grandson. Unfortunately his great-grandson has not yet produced a son, so I’m wondering whether I should just kill him now or wait a little longer to see if he reproduces, to give my son a chance to carry on the vengeance until the seventh generation.

    Hoping you can help in this difficult dilemma.

  • Karen

    More puzzling to me than the fundamentalists are the liberal and moderate believers who admit the numerous flaws of the Bible, and then go on believing and using it. Why bother?

    From my experiences interacting with liberal and moderate believers, I’ve found that the more bracingly honest and self-aware will admit they are emotionally attached to the bible and religion. Often they are former fundamentalists who have overturned their childhood indoctrination but stopped short of rejecting the bible and theism outright because it so frightens and confuses them to even contemplate that. Others have had “spiritual experiences” that were so moving or meaningful that they can’t discount them or explain them away.

    Thus, they spend countless effort trying to “reinterpret” or “historically contextualize” scripture passages that they recognize are difficult or even abhorrent. It would be incredibly frustrating to me to pursue that kind of exercise, but they keep at it because they just can’t seem to break the tie emotionally. I haven’t been able to ferret out any other motivation.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    More puzzling to me than the fundamentalists are the liberal and moderate believers who admit the numerous flaws of the Bible, and then go on believing and using it. Why bother?

    This is the primary reason I rejected any form of Christianity and turned to atheist humanism. I spent years watering down my faith, until I finally realized that the beliefs I actually held bore little resemblance to Christianity. I eventually came to the conclusion that you noted: “why bother?”.

  • Mrnaglfar

    As if to verify the criticism leveled by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al. that religion, and specifically “Bible-based” Christianity, is hurtful and destructive, pastor Wiley Drake of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park has “called on his followers to pray for the deaths of two leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” according to a Los Angeles Times story from a few days ago.

    Bible-based Christianity, as opposed to the other, non-based kind? Is that the whole “being a christian in name only thing”?

    In the first place, the imprecation found in Ps 109:6–19 is a wish for harm to come to the speaker’s (or speakers’; see below) target. It is not a promise from God that such a thing will happen, and still less a command from God to pray in such a fashion.

    So the bible says it’s ok to wish harm on those who don’t agree with it, but doesn’t promise god is going to do anything about it? He then goes on to talk about how:

    Verses 6–19 are a wish for harm to come to a singular “he.”

    Even though the psalm talks about also hurting his children, and indeed, his entire hereditary line hoped to soon come to end.

    Of course, the point that’s trying to be danced around is that bible does indeed condone violence and hatred that speakers have different opinions on. It seems the bible again gets to mean different things depending on who’s speaking and what they’re trying to convince people of.

    Many Christians want to apply a Qur’anic dictation-style model of “inspiration” to the Bible, but the biblical writers did not themselves make any such claims. It should be clear to just about any reader that the majority of the psalms, at least, represent human speech to God, not divine speech to humans.

    If I understand what he’s saying he correctly, it sounds like an admission that the bible isn’t divinely inspired. However, to say that the biblical writers didn’t make such claims, i.e. that the bible is god’s literal word, is flat out wrong. They really did believe it to be so. While correctly noted that it is fact not the work on a god, that statement of original intent smells rotten through my screen.

    This one seems even stranger

    In this passage, Ezekiel has God take credit for giving destructive, life-sapping laws, up to and including child sacrifice. But why, according to Ezekiel, did God do this? Precisely to provoke revulsion. Had Ezekiel’s forebears found such laws repulsive, and resisted them, the laws would have done the job Ezekiel says they were given to do. But if folk like Wiley Drake had been in charge, child sacrifice would have run rampant.

    So god creates terrible laws that are repulsive in order to make people not obey them because they are repulsive? That raises a few points. First, if people already have a moral sense to find them repulsive, why should god need to make that any more so by creating rules telling them to do just what they find repulsive? That doesn’t sound like divine reasoning to me; that sounds like the stupidest moral idea I’ve ever heard. He might as well say “When hitler said kill the jews, he knew people would find it repulsive and wanted people to disobey him”. But I forgot, when you put god to the same standards as humans and he fails the test, he must work in mysertious ways beyond us percisesly because they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. More to the point, he correctly points out that if someone who takes that stupid stuff literally gets power, they will exercise poor judgement and do something they otherwise might not have. Bravo on that one, he nailed it. If given power, people who take the bible (what his religion is based on) more literally will do a lot of damage.

    In sum, even if every single word of scripture was indeed dictated by God (which I don’t believe for a second, based on the bald statements of the biblical writers themselves), then it still would not be the case that the “only way” to respond faithfully to scripture is to “trust and obey.”

    And there he claims to be more moral than god and know what he’s doing better than god; at least he isn’t always wrong.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    But this does not mean that a god who issued such commands would be a good being worthy of our worship. How could it? Instead, the conclusion Higgaion is groping toward is the very one that atheists have been saying for some time: the god described in the Bible is a profoundly evil being. If such a being existed, it would not deserve to be worshipped or obeyed by any person.

    Having read an awful lot of posts on Higgaion in an attempt to figure out exactly how the author’s faith in God works, I should point out that this is a theme which comes up regularly on that blog. For example, this post states quite baldly:

    For some reason that I still find difficult to fathom, Christians of my acquaintance seem to find comfort in the face of misfortune (from minor annoyances to genuine tragedies) by affirming that “God is in control.” Yet if God really is in control, then that means that God “controlled” whatever misfortune prompted the affirmation in the first place. . . . The pious sentiment that “God is in control” is actually a problem for monotheism.

    And then there’s this post on the Virginia Tech shootings:

    I have no answers for those who mourn the victims of last week’s shootings, or the traffic accident four years ago, or any other tragedy. To me, the “problem of evil” is deep and perplexing, and has been for a long time. The intractability of this problem does not incline me toward atheism; it does not make me doubt God’s existence, but it does cast some very long shadows over God’s character.

    The blog has as yet not given a complete explanation of the author’s God-belief; not that I’ve been able to find, anyway. I should note that he places himself at 2.5 on the Dawkins scale:

    . . . if pressed, I would put myself in category 2 before I would put myself in category 3, but that may be wishful thinking or self-deception.

    I suspect so.

    We’re dealing here with a man who still calls himself a ‘conservative Christian’ despite believing in evolution and being far too smart a scholar to take the whole Bible literally. I suspect there’s a certain amount of group identity coming into play there; it has also occurred to me that, for the author, ‘conservative Christian’ may well indicate an initial standpoint that clings to as much as can be conserved in the face of the evidence.

    You might consider this frustating, but I have to point out that it does at least make his posts criticising creationists doubly juicy . . .

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    So god creates terrible laws that are repulsive in order to make people not obey them because they are repulsive?

    This made me laugh. :) It reminds me of a quote from Stephen Colbert’s new book (which, Mrnaglfar, you should definitely read):

    “Don’t worry if a rule makes sense – the important thing is that it’s a rule. Arbitrary rules teach kids discipline: If every rule made sense, they wouldn’t be learning respect for authority, they’d be learning logic.”

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    In reference to the “Abraham on Mt Moriah” bit, I find it interesting to mention the recent movie Pan’s Labyrinth and its powerful conclusion, where the protagonist faces Abe’s conundrum…

    As a child growing up, I have to admit I’m glad to have gone to a Jewish parochial school. It really prepared me for freethought, especially the Bible classes (read all the Pentateuch and Joshua in Hebrew). It didn’t help my language skills, sadly, but I became very suspicious of God’s motives as we went along (What, if a guy sins you have to stone his kids too?). It also helped that arguing with the rebbe was allowed and even encouraged, and that we had good science teachers as opposed to bible-thumping ones. That was another thing that made me suspicious — the clear disconnect between what we were being taught in our secular and religious courses.

    And I especially like that, no matter how nasty the Jewish God can be, once you’re dead that’s it and there’s no afterlife waiting. No clear good or evil path, either — more like law and chaos. Going to college in the Bible Belt was thus an unfortunate shock, and 9/11 finally pushed me over the edge into atheism.

    You’d think religion would try not to provide copious reasons NOT to believe… But I would have absolutely no problem with a God who saves only those who have the courage either to disbelieve, or to disobey clearly immoral commands. Too bad there isn’t one.

  • Seth P.

    In reference to the book of Job you commented:

    “[God] belligerently declares that he is the creator of heaven and earth and can do whatever he wants because he’s the strongest, so there! God isn’t satisfied until Job abases himself and confesses that he should have acknowledged God’s sovereign right to destroy Job’s life and slaughter his family for no reason at all.”

    I’m not exactly sure what your objection to God’s actions in this story are. You seem to be suggesting that God’s actions were immoral and injust. I think our American sense of fairness gets in the way of understanding this text. God doesn’t have any obligation to be fair to anyone, he has an obligation to be just; and since God is sovereign, he has every right to do with his creation as he pleases. That may sound harsh, but it’s ultimately true. For example, it isn’t wrong for God to take a life that he created.

    On Abraham…

    “Again, it’s true that Abraham bargains with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if even ten righteous people lived there. It’s also true that God then goes on to obliterate the cities anyway. Shouldn’t an omniscient deity have known in advance that he was just playing with Abraham’s hopes for mercy?”

    Have you considered that perhaps there weren’t even 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah? Also, your version of the story leaves out the fact that God did in fact save Lot and his family from the destruction of those two cities.

    Just some food for thought. By the way, caricaturing God’s actions and words or framing them in sarcasm (such as with your comments on Job) actually limit free thought and clear thinking. Sticking to what the text actually says and making an effort to understand it should be the goal of everyone, Christian or Atheist or whatever. I’m sure we can all agree to that. Have a good night all,

    seth

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’m not exactly sure what your objection to God’s actions in this story are. You seem to be suggesting that God’s actions were immoral and injust.

    I’m not suggesting that, I’m saying it outright. Even if God existed, he would not be exempt from basic principles of morality.

    God doesn’t have any obligation to be fair to anyone, he has an obligation to be just; and since God is sovereign, he has every right to do with his creation as he pleases.

    So if, in your view, God can do anything he wants and it will be good by definition, what do you mean when you say God has an obligation to be just? Is there anything God could do that would not be just?

  • OMGF

    If one can do what one pleases with one’s creation, does that mean that parents can murder their kids?

    Have you considered that perhaps there weren’t even 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah? Also, your version of the story leaves out the fact that God did in fact save Lot and his family from the destruction of those two cities.

    Do you understand how you sidestepped the point here. Even if there were 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, god should have known that, and would therefore be “playing with Abraham’s hopes for mercy” as Ebon pointed out. I would think that according to god, there most certainly were less than 10 righteous people.

    Also, no one forgets about Lot. We are talking about a man who offered his daughters up to be raped by the crowd outside. How moral of him. Then, as they escape, his wife happens to look back at her hometown only to be turned into a pillar of salt, and for what? Is that just to end a righteous person’s life for simply looking back at the place that they call home?

    Sticking to what the text actually says and making an effort to understand it should be the goal of everyone, Christian or Atheist or whatever. I’m sure we can all agree to that.

    What I suspect you mean here, however, is that we should make an effort to understand it until we see it your way. What evidence do you have that Ebon doesn’t understand the passages he talked about? Is Ebon wrong because he sees god in a negative light after god goes on killing rampages and allows the devil to ruin a man, and you somehow can “rationalize” away genocide and murder in order to come to your a priori conclusion that god is good or just? If you wish to assert that god is just, you have a lot to answer for in god’s name, like hell, genocide, murder, subjugation of women, etc. If you have a good argument, I’d like to hear it.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Seth,

    I’m in agreement with ebon and omgf, just wanted to add a litle of my own to the mix.

    By the way, caricaturing God’s actions and words or framing them in sarcasm (such as with your comments on Job) actually limit free thought and clear thinking.

    How does pointing out that god doesn’t seem morally blameless for actions any human would be despised for committing limit free thought and clear thinking?

    God doesn’t have any obligation to be fair to anyone, he has an obligation to be just; and since God is sovereign, he has every right to do with his creation as he pleases.

    Do you know how dangerous that mindset is? The bible’s stories are just that, stories; God has never actually killed anyone. Under that logic though, all it takes is for one man to claim god has spoken to him and some believers of that mindset to allow that man do to anything he wants; The same holds true for the most brutal dicatorships of our time. When people willingly sacrifice their morals to a powerful figurehead it has a habit of killing a lot of people and doing a lot of real harm.

  • DamienSansBlog

    While I don’t want to make this a Seth-bash, I would also point out that when Seth says “sovereign”…I do not think that means what you think it means.

    Consider that the UK, the US, France, etc. are all sovereign governments. However, they still cannot call down nuclear strikes on their own cities, despite their sovereignty. At the very least, such an action would both require and inspire heavy moral censure; the very legitimacy and justice of the government would be called into question.

    In the Bible, the government of God and His angelic court is assumed to be universal; every city is God’s city, and every man, woman and child is God’s subject. Very well. But that does not necessarily give Him the right to kill thousands of His own people. If you are going to justify the ways of God to man, you will have to do better than “He’s the boss, so He can do what He wants.”


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