The Euthyphro Strikes Back

This week, The King and I blog (which is doing a guided reading through the whole King James Bible in a year) finished the Pentateuch. I’ve been keeping up with the readings, and I’m often struck by the strong contrasts between the passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels and epistles I hear weekly at Sunday Masses.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks in parables, using specific examples to teach higher, more abstract lessons.  Most of the parables end using more general and universal language, which makes it clear the story is not about proper agricultural practice, but about the disposition of your soul.

As far as I can tell (from my amateurs grasp of bible history) the laws set down in the Torah are narrowly tailored and do not teach moral lessons.  Laws are bizarrely specific or seem ungrounded (see almost all of Jewish dietary law) and there’s little in the text that suggests that they should be taken as metaphor.

If you’ve ever read Socrates’s dialogue with Euthyphro, you may be familiar with Socrates’s famous question to Euthyphro.  After Euthyphro defines piety as ‘that which is pleasing to the gods,’ Socrates asks whether the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious or whether is it pious because it is loved by the gods.  Reading the Hebrew Bible, it frequently seems like the Good is Good only because God says so.  There is nothing good in it for its own sake.

The best example of this phenomenon so far comes from Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

In case you’re baffled by the language, these two verses explain that if a woman is caught helping her husband win a fight by grabbing his opponent’s genital, her hand should be cut off without remorse.

Why is this law included in the part of the Hebrew scripture allegedly written by Moses himself?  It seems unlikely that wives were interfering in fights by groping their husbands assailants so frequently that this prohibition and its consequences deserved a spot in the last book of the Pentateuch.

But if the law is meant to have a broader application, is it at all conceivable that it can be extracted from the text?  I’ve written enough literary papers in college to know that, although it’s possible to use a text as a springboard to many interesting ideas (talk to me about Sweeney Todd and the range of responses to living in a Fallen world sometime), there’s no guarantee your discovery bears any relation to authorial intent.

I could read Talmudic discussion on the passage, but I’d have no heuristic to tell truth from falsehood.  In fact, I did a little googling, and found two sources that claimed this passage is one of only two laws in the Torah that requires the wrongdoer be maimed.  That’s interesting and points to some kind of significance, but I have no idea what it could be.

I’d be interested in exegesis from anyone who knows the Torah well, but I’d also be interested in Christian perspectives on this kind of biblical mystery.  Reading through the Bible has tended to decrease the probability I assign to the the likelihood the Christianity is true.  The Old Testament frequently seems picayune, disjointed, or just plain amoral.  It’s extremely hard for me to reconcile that with any idea of revelation.

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  • We who worship a God crucified in rags have little trouble accepting that the same God should reveal his law through the taboos of a backward and insignificant tribe.That's the glory and the scandal of Christian faith — that there should be nothing so petty, so obscure, or so base, that the Lord of Hosts should not concern himself with it.(To the nations this kind of talk is mere rhetorical grandstanding — to God's people it is passing joy.)

  • Michael Haycock

    One has to remember that the whole of Christianity looks upon the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ, would very prominently dismissed the specificity and rigidity of ancient Jewish law (and especially the extrapolations upon it given by the religious authorities in his day). This varies from the Seventh-day Adventists (who take their name from the fact that they place at the center of their practice the Old Testament-based observance of the Sabbath on Saturday) to the Cathars (13th Century sect that decried the Old Testament as a work of the Devil, who attempted to lead astray the world by posing as God until Christ came and the New Testament was written). Every Christian tradition has its own explanation for the peculiarities of Jewish law, including what Kevin has said above.For example, for Latter-days Saints the Book of Mormon and modern revelation elucidate the relationship between historical Judaism and Christianity. First, the Lord had given Moses the higher law (associated with New Testament Christianity and the Priesthood of Melchizedek) but, when the Jews began to worship the Golden Calf at Sinai, the Lord determined that they were not ready for it, and thus he gave them a lower, preparatory law of practices and few principles. Second, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob even says that the Jews "sought for things that they could not understand" – and thus they got complicated, tortuous legal codes and the nigh-opaque imagery of prophetic books like Ezekiel and Isaiah. (This is not even including the LDS belief that the Bible has be mistranslated and obscured in meaning over the millennia.)In short, Christianity to some degree or another, despite recognizing the Old Testament as the word of God, they qualify that with varying degrees of literality and often contextualize the commandments away. Jewish sources would have a significantly different viewpoint – I've heard that the main idea around much of modern Jewish practice is to "build a fence around the law", that is, to make rules so that practitioners cannot even approach transgressing the law. Hence the prohibition on eating dairy and meat together that stems from an injunction against boiling a kid in it's mother's milk.

  • @Kevin:,—| We who worship a God crucified in rags have| little trouble accepting that the same God| should reveal his law through the taboos of| a backward and insignificant tribe.`—Could you clarify the connection you see that leads you to posit that one increases the probability of the other?@Leah: funny verse. My friend and I used to send verses like this one back and forth as email signatures as an inside joke. We'd find obscure and pointless verses and laugh to ourselves as we imagined others getting the email and scratching their heads trying to figure out the "deeper meaning" we intended them to convey. The idea arose from all the others in our circles who used various verses as their signatures.I share this mostly as just a side comment as I have no deeper exegesis to provide, but on the other hand, perhaps if even as a devout believer I thought there was no deeper meaning in verses like this… could that tell us all something?Not every jumble of colors is a magic eye painting. You might stare for ever at it and get nothing but dried out eyes.

  • @Kevin: what does God being a God of armies have to do with the Israelites?@Leah: I would suggest the Christian explanation would be two-fold, and possible or the other. First from a literary perspective everything in the old testament is suppose to point to the New testament in some way. I can't for the life of me see what this passage could foreshadow, or prefigure about Christ, but you never know :). Second in practical historical terms the chosenness of the Israelites was specifically to prepare an environment for Christ to arrive, just as every seemingly insignificant, or perhaps counter-productive, evolutionary change that happened to one of your ancestors was required to happen for you, and precisely you, to exist everything god commanded of the hebrews was to 'prepare' them. – This line of thought can be used to hand-wave away more fundamentalist objects to things like evolution (God and evolution must be compatible since god made man, and by definition a man is a creature that evolved. and the entire rabbit hole that line of thinking can take you down…)

  • Outstanding question. For me, as with any experiment, one must begin with a presupposition. This is akin to defining the words used in the debate. We must agree on the meaning for both sides to discuss the issue property. For the typical Christian the starting points should be:1. Existence of the Biblical God2. God has revealed Himself to man a. General revelation b. Special revelation c. Personal revelation3. Man's lack of capacity to understand spiritually4. Consistent HermeneuticThat is the starting point for the Christian. The starting point for the non-Christian is somewhere else. So the disjunction in the discussion is similar to the confusion in languages, words like pitcher, red vs. read, etc.So when you read the O.T. how you approach the text, grammar, history, literal, allegorical, the dispensation, etc. determines what you glean for it. Taking a verse out of context is the easiest way to discredit anything or anyone. So the question asked becomes, "What is the purpose of your proof?" Do you want to prove whatever of Scripture or do you want to learn from Scripture? If you purpose if to prove whatever, the conversation and/or debate is useless. Arguing for arguments sake is worthless and accomplishes nothing because both parties are still entrenched in their position. No winner, no loser, just a dividing fence.Food for ThoughtIf you are Hungry

  • @Hendy:The connection is one of divine condescension.None of us can escape Christianity. Some ride on the ark, and the rest — professing that they can swim very well for themselves, thank you very much — float along in its wake. Some christian concepts have inescapably taken root in our minds, whether we acknowledge their origins or not. This of course, is an argument neither for nor against christianity, merely a historical fact.But it's for this reason that some of the thingschristians believe about God no longer shock. Modern secularists, for example, tend to regard philanthropy and humility as valuable, and to admire those who exhibit them. This would not have been the case in the ancient world, into which the valuations of christianity came as a scandal. Today, christian or no, we tend to think and speak in terms inherited from christianity, even if we reject the faith from which those terms emerged.For this reason we readily understand the compassion exhibited in the crucifixion of Christ, and perceive easily that in a self-sacrificing love there is something extremely noble. That God comes as a commoner, clad even in rags, bringing a message of hope and liberation even to common people, accords with all our sensibilities.For this reason we fail to see it as it is. To understand the christian dispensation in its full glory, it's sometimes helpful to think of it while temporarily suspending some of the christian ideas that have wormed themselves the more securely into our brains. And from this perspective, an irrational law like that of the Jews, and an irrational act of love like that of Christ — a idiosyncratic and alien law, and a kind of godhead utterly at odds with all our (temporarily dechristianized) ideas of what a god ought to be — are equally shocking, equally offensive to reason.God reaches even to the dregs of creation, making degradation his glory, folly his wisdom, and the strange, particular, and entirely historical laws of the Jews part of the eternal testament of his love.It is for this reason that my belief in the godhead of Christ "increases my belief in the probability of" the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures.@Charles:I wasn't thinking of that title in an actually military sense. יי צבאות is mainly used to refer to the majesty and supreme authority of God, and I thought its use created a not unpleasant rhetorical contrast which also laid accent on my point.

  • @Kevin, what you wrote is incredible. Thank you very much for the depth of your comprehension.

  • @Kevin:,—| And from this perspective, an irrational law| like that of the Jews, and an irrational act| of love like that of Christ — a idiosyncratic| and alien law, and a kind of godhead utterly at| odds with all our (temporarily dechristianized)| ideas of what a god ought to be — are equally| shocking, equally offensive to reason.`—So the more "at odds with reason", the more likely? How do you separate one type of improbable faith proclamation from another? Scientology has to be even more improbable than Christianity, doesn't it?

  • @Eagle Driver: wouldn't the same be true of any holy book? If you presuppose it's inspired nature… you will believe there is no contradiction so great that the text is overturned? How do you come to pick which text to follow if you never start by trying to "prove whatever"?

  • @Hendy, forgive me if I am presuming his point incorrectly, but I don't think Kevin is saying the more at odds with reason the more likely. I think he is saying that Christianity makes bold claims, and bold demands so don't be surprised IF it is shocking to reason.I would actually argue that Catholic scholars typically claim that the faith is NOT shocking to reason at all, and that it is completely reasonable. It is SHOCKING to people, but we are not Vulcans and not 100% reasonable in our motivations. But I would suspect "reason" was simply a poor choice of word for Kevin since his point seems to be of the C.S. Lewis/Chesterton school of thought on this matter, that although influenced in some ways by Christianity our culture is NOT a Christian one.

  • Ugh.Hendy's the kind of atheist with which it's really not fruitful to speak much — so confident are they that their atheism underwrites their intelligence that no intellectual error is too gross to accuse their opponents of, and so unperspicuous in reading those opponents' arguments that they can't see how badly they themselves are missing the point.Credo quia absurdum sounds nice enough, but it wasn't what I was trying to say. It's not that I'm looking for impossible things to believe before breakfast, or something like that. "The more at odds with reason, the more likely"? What utter nonsense.But assume that, for whatever reason, I believe in the authority of christian revelation (and assume for the moment that I am right to do so). I therefore am willing to agree to various unconventional and unpredictable ideas which otherwise would probably have never occurred to me, since I now believe their truth to be guaranteed by a higher authority. I am thus trained (rightly or wrongly) to get used to a certain kind of counter-intuitive proposition.My argument was not merely that the incarnation of the Word and the particularity of the old Law were equally offensive to reason in degree, but also equally offensive in kind. And it's this kind of paradox with which the christian, if a thinking christian, has learned to be comfortable — and so one case of it shocks me no more than another.@Charles:I don't disagree, in principle, with the Catholics who argue that there is nothing unreasonable in christian faith — inasmuch as nothing is open to refutation by reason. But there are many things which reason alone could never have discovered (almost all christians agree with me here), and some things which, to reason deprived of the light of faith, would appear strange, unpredictable, uncalled-for, and otherwise unworthy of assent. It is in this sense which I meant that, as far as worldly reason is concerned, the christian faith is offensive to reason. That's exactly what is meant by "folly to the Greeks."

  • @ Hendy"How do you come to pick which text to follow if you never start by trying to "prove whatever"?"Again, every argument is based on the starting presuppositions. Based upon my stated presuppositions I have concluded that the Bible is the cumulative revelation of the Creator God of the Universe and Man. Therefore each dispensation began with a greater revelation of God to man, and as such each dispensation has failed. So no I do not "pick out the cherries of the text", I see a building block approach of God's approach to man. We are currently in the dispensation of the Church. Therefore I approach the Bible differently than if I was alive in the Mosaic time.You probably begin with different presuppositions – I'm cool with that. For me I see the dispensations and it makes sense. Are there difficulties, yes and there are wonderful scholars who can exegete those passages. I see the common thread from beginning to end, you may not. Of course this can be played out to the end: if I'm wrong then I'm wrong – no harm no foul, if I'm right then I'm right. So based on my presuppositions I can answer the profound question of life: Who or what made the Universe/Big Bang? This gives me the First Cause.Food for ThoughtIf you are Hungry

  • @Charles: that's absolutely freaking hilarious! I didn't misread your argument at all, nor am I confident in my atheism. I've just asked some questions and allowed your answers to direct the discussion and/or provide further questions.In fact, you've finally clarified by essentially saying, "I believe and therefore I see connections that I would not have otherwise seen." Well, let me say thank you for clarifying. No need to get upset about it. Go read your original comment through the lens of a non-believer who falls into that category of not seeing these belief-inspired connections, and you will see that your initial statement on its own is pretty confusing. Rags odd OT prescriptions does not make any sense without first saying, "Since I whole heartedly believe in the entirety of the salvation history as revealed via the Bible, I perceive this type of upside-down nature to God's work as a thread which is woven through his revelation to man. Odd prescriptions, salvation via humility, messages so simple they baffle the intelligent but save the child-like… yeah, it's like that. All the same." That would have helped a bit.@Eagle: I think I get you, but you seem to say that based on a set of presuppositions you arrive at the Bible being a cumulative revelation from God to man. But… I'm tempted to say that "The bible is a cumulative revelation from God to man" is the presupposition, isn't it? And that presupposition leads you to see no error/contradiction/flaw? If I'm wrong, would you provide some samples from your presuppositions that precedes believe in the bible?Oh, and per Leah's request — could you give an example of scholar's takes on the specific passage above and it's exegesis?

  • @ Hendy & Leah,Thank you very much for allowing me to posit my ideas. Your site is outstanding and I have learned much from reviewing the post from time to time. It is difficult to find a place to exchange ideas without the typical berating from one side to the other. Most sites it is the "Hatfields vs. McCoys". So again thank you.Yes you are correct about cumulative/progressive revelation. This falls under #2 God has revealed Himself to man with a. General (Acts 14:14-17 b. Special (Heb. 1:1 2Pet. 1:21 2Tim. 3:15) c. Personal revelation (John 1:18 Luke 24:44-45). So revelation is significantly clearer today than in Moses time (Matt. 5:37-48). An excellent commentary on this revealing more now than in Moses day is Ephesians by Glenn W. Campbell (very scholarly).As per Leah's request, one of the best commentaries on the O.T. is from Walvoord and Zuck called The Bible Knowledge Commentary. They follow the same presuppositions I listed above and follow the grammatical-historical Hermeneutic. So their exegesis is as follows (pg. 307):"Stopping a fight. 25:11-12. This is the only instance in the Law where physical mutilation served as punishment for an offense. Israel's restraint here contrasted with other Near Eastern law codes which provided for a wide range of physical mutilations depending on the crime committed… The command in 25:11-12 was probably intended to protect both womanly modesty and the capacity of a man to produce heirs. This second purpose probably helps explain why this law is placed here immediately after the instructions about levirate marriages (vv. 5-10)."We do not operate under the Dispensation of the Law but of Grace as presented by Jesus Christ and articulated by Paul and the others of the New Testament. However it is important to know the history of were we came. History is important for the betterment of today.Hope this explains my position. I would enjoy reading your presuppositions that you based your life after. I am about learning with respect. As a 52 year old, a 24 year old has taught me about Punk Rock and now I am a big fan of Joe Strummer. Food for ThoughtIf You are Hungry

  • Any idea where my post went?

  • @Eagle: interesting response by Walvoord and Zuck. I wonder how many times a "WWF genital grab" has led to infertility, thus making this move so severe as to require the removal of the offending hand?

  • @ HendyThe great thing about America (opposed to other countries) is we are free to choose. You can pick what you want, I choose to believe the whole package because of the previously stated presuppositions. This leads to a systematic theology. Dude, what are your presuppositions? I gave you the respect of answering your question/statement, do I get the same respect in return? So what are your basic presuppositions of life?I am all about the exchange of ideas, not argument for argument's sake (see: Hatfields & McCoys). Anyone can poke holes, that is easy child stuff. I am looking for ideas and solutions, not just complaints. If you got a idea present it. For me, I want ideas to contemplate, to find "blind-sides", to discover, to gain wisdom, to comprehend life, etc. I'm too old to play games of egos. If this is not the place to exchange ideas and honestly attempt together to answer questions of life, then someone point me to that site.@LeahBTW Leah thanks for presenting my post that got lost. You present outstanding honest ideas, great thoughts for me to ponder. Keep writing as I have learned much from your perspective on life and your questions of life.Food for ThoughtIf you are Hungry

  • antichrist

    Something that is real can be observed and tested. Its really simple. I dont see God making appearances anywhere. The bible is a book of stories by uncivilized humans that had no grasp of science. Stop wasting your time on issues that are dont exist! I dont see people fighting over who comic stories. Maybe you people should find another hobby.

  • “and taketh him by the secrets, then shalt thou cut off her hand. ”

    Thanks for the translation, I might not have guessed what “secrets” were. 😉 The bible does seem to have a lot of references to “secrets” — proof that it was written by men?

    For reasons that will become clear the following verse makes me chuckle.

    “If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

    Now, I have a penis and no “secrets”. Will I be admitted? Maybe? Because, while the one “secret” was indeed crushed, the other one’s cord got twisted and a doctor had to take it out. A technicality that might get me admitted with a good lawyer.

    Another question. The surgeon who removed my remaining “secret” was a woman and had very much taken it by the hand. Does the fact that I wasn’t fighting with her husband at the time mean he doesn’t have to chop her hand off?

    I enjoyed this. It’s not every day that not having any “secrets” leads to such mirth. Luckily my sense of humor wasn’t removed along with my “secrets”. 😉

    • Darren

      No Secrets;

      Ah, unintended biblical humor…
      My favorite? Leviticus 19:4, “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD.”

      Back in my bible study days, I found this hilarious. Was the camp of the ancient Israelites so beset with the tripping of blind men, that Moses had to specifically call it out? Likewise to hurling of profanities at the deaf?

      What sort of madcap, Three-Stooges’esk outfit was Moses running, anyways?

      I suppose if you are wandering the desert for 40 years, though, you take your amusements where you can…

  • Kyle

    Your blog is great, I’m winding up in all sorts of interesting places on it.

    I haven’t read all the comments here, but for commentary on obscure characters or difficult passages, I find that Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is a great resource. Check out the Newman Reader website for an extensive collection of his works online.

    He has a talent for finding the humanity in difficult texts and making them relevant. His Parochial and Plain Sermons (composed before he became Catholic) are wonderful. His best-known work, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is very interesting and gives an insight into how his mind works, but it can be tedious at times, particularly with the 19th century English.

    I am biased because the church I attend is an Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the same order that Blessed Newman joined…so figure that into your priors if you check him out. There has also been speculation that he may be made a Doctor of the Church, perhaps with the title the Doctor of Conscience.

    On the Newman Reader site, I’d recommend checking out this page. It has a nice collection of some of his best-known stuff.

    • leahlibresco

      I’ve got the Apologia and Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent out from the library. Any suggestion about which to read first?

      • Kyle

        I have only read the Apologia, so I can’t really say. It looks like (from reading brief remarks on Wikipedia) Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is more directly relevant to questions you tackle in this blog.

        There is some background info about Grammar of Assent that might help you make your decision. The Dublin Review from 1870 is a very short notice about the book. The other two are a bit longer (i.e. I did not read them), but written by the same author.

        The Apologia is basically his response to someone who called him dishonest, the beginning of the preface gives this account. His defense of his honesty essentially goes throughout his whole life and explains his thinking at every stage to show that he was following truth to the best of his ability and knowledge and was not purposefully misleading or dishonest. I was fortunate to read it in a group that was led by someone very familiar with Newman’s life, so additional biographical and historical information made it much more interesting.