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?

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About Adam Lee

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