Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally

Why Progressive Interpretations Of The Old Testament Still Do Not Justify Its God Morally July 11, 2010

In reply to this video on various immoral things outright commanded in what is supposed to be God’s law in the Old Testament, Loyal writes:

Militaristic non-Christians often seize upon the many difficult passages where God is condoning morally repugnant acts.

I am glad you admit that they are morally repugnant acts and neither morally permissible or, worse, morally necessary on account of God’s approval.  But you have already in the first sentence begun to dissimulate when you use the word “condone” whereas in the Bible we read God not condoning but commanding morally repugnant acts from genocides, to infanticides, to the stoning of children, homosexuals, people who work on the Sabbath, etc.  The list of morally vile things that God, according to the book you think is divinely inspired, commanded includes nearly every basic type of immorality we know of.  God even threatens to make people eat their own children in that book.

So, before we get any further, how can a morally perfect God ever command a genocide or cannibalization of one’s own children?

You say that atheists “seize” on these actions like we are trying to pick on some minor point and make more out of it than it is.  But that’s not the case.  We’re not just playing games of “gotcha!” here.  You have a thesis that a morally perfect and omnipotent God inspired the Bible and that the will and historical deeds of this morally perfect God are revealed in the Bible.  Now, there has to be positive evidence for this claim.  You, in what follows, will simply take it for granted that the God described is in fact morally perfect and try to give the most moral interpretation of what He does in the Bible you can for each point.

But what you will have to demonstrate in order to prove that the Bible describes the deeds and will of a morally perfect and omnipotent divine being intervening in history is (a) that each thing he did was not minimally morally acceptable but the most morally perfect thing he could have done and (b) that the hypotheses that the God of the Bible is a fictional character projected by barbaric human minds and reflecting all their own moral failures and intellectual weaknesses is not a more plausible interpretation of the relevant data.

However, I believe that this is done without taking into account the broader scope of the Bible and human history. (It also ignores the incredible focus on social justice- taking care of those who were powerless, such as widows, orphans, and aliens, and redistribution of wealth through the year of jubilee to prevent chronic generational poverty.)

And Hitler was a vegetarian who only wanted to be an artist and who was ever so kind to his secretaries, why does everyone want to focus on the genocides?  It’s such a narrow focus!!

God takes a primitive and brutal society

Wait—why were they primitive?  If God is a perfect moral being why not make human beings with morally and politically non-primitive and non-brutal society?  Why not set them up from the outset with a functioning moral and legal code?  You make it sound like God got called in on a job that was going bad but which He had nothing to do with.  This is supposed to be the omnipotent creator of the universe, right?

and begins the process of bringing them into line with His original design for creation. Those morally repugnant commands can often be explained as modification of common practices into something more in line with God.

That’s unacceptable.  You are talking like this is not an omnipotent deity.  Or do you think your God is not omnipotent?  What harm would it have done the people to institute a democracy instead of a theocracy?  What harm would it have done the people to institute egalitarian attitudes about male and female relationships?  What harm would it have done to command them not to stone their disobedient children?  What harm would it have done to command the people to stop stigmatizing and murdering homosexuals?

You are trying to tell me that the Almighty God, morally perfect and absolutely omnipotent is just a Cass Sunstein fan who goes out of his way to intervene in history only to make a specific tribe of barbarians just a little bit bit better through slight nudges towards moral Enlightenment.

What is more likely?  That a slightly more advanced barbaric culture than its neighbors has just pulled itself up towards enlightenment through its own slowly evolving moral imagination or that an all powerful, morally perfect God gave them their moral and legal code that is rife with, as you put it yourself, moral repugnance.  Where does the hypothesis that there is anything but moral repugnance come in?  Just because it is a bit less moral repugnance does not indicate in the slightest that what we are dealing with is moral perfection.  A morally perfect God would give a morally perfect law.  That’s simple logic.  There is no way to infer, “this morally repugnant law is a bit less morally repugnant than it’s neighbors, therefore it must come from a morally perfect source”.  The clear and logical inference is that it came from a  bit less morally repugnant source.  That’s it.

The only reason you advance such a ludicrous interpretation of the evidence is out of religious conditioning to accept the hypothesis that the God in the Old Testament is a morally perfect God.

There is no reason to think that barbaric humans, if given a moral code enforced by God could not be just like any modern day humans.  We have not evolved that much in the last 3,000 years. We are basically the same “model” they were then.  Any one of our babies put into a time machine and sent back to be born in those times would likely come out just as barbaric as they were and any of their babies raised in modern civilization would wind up just as (er, relatively) civilized as we are.  The issue is culture.  And culture comes as much from the moral and legal law as anything.  And God was intervening to shape these ancient people and so rather than give them a more perfect moral and legal law, one which at least knows as much as we figured out without divine intervention—slavery is wrong, sexism is wrong, homophobia is wrong, authoritarian political structures are wrong, domestic violence is wrong, etc.—you want me to believe that this morally perfect and omnipotent being gave them a code filled with animal sacrifice and slavery and capital punishment for the most trivial offenses and, even, outright morally fine things?

Without your faith commitment, which is a deliberate and willfully committed to prejudice, why in the world would that be the most compelling available interpretation?

Take the example of the rapist of a virgin be required to pay a severe fine and marry the woman.  If an unmarried woman was raped, she would be considered unmarriable.

So, Loyal, imagine you are God and you can tell humanity anything you want.  Would it be that raped women are used up and impure and unmarriable?  You are an omnipotent and morally perfect being and rather than write one word in your big, huge literary and legal intervention into history, you don’t say a word to rebuke people treating raped women like tainted unlovable garbage?

If I were all powerful and had the chance to write a book for humanity, on the first page it would read, “if a woman is raped, it takes nothing away from her desirability whatsoever—nothing from her beauty, nothing from her purity, nothing from her intelligence, nothing from her moral virtue, nothing from her dignity, nothing from her worth, nothing from her charm, nothing from her physical and technical abilities, and nothing from her ability to flourish fully as a human being or to contribute fully to the rest of humanity.”  That would go on page one.

I would not write, “Because I understand you human beings have wretched misogynistic views that consider women to be chattel and economic structures which force them into dependency on male benefactors, I am going to accommodate your abusive depravity from which all you men are benefiting BUT if you rape a woman, you have to marry her so that she does not starve.  That’s where I put my foot down.  You are allowed to see her as defiled, damaged goods, because, well, there’s no teaching you stupid people yet.  You will figure out how to treat people better some day later, but that’s not my job.  And, what’s that?  You mean you find it dehumanizing to be forced to marry a man who raped you?  Lady, you can eat and you have a roof over your head, I’m only God here, not a miracle worker.  Stop your fucking complaining and acknowledge my moral perfection.”

Any book that claims to be the work of a morally perfect being has to say something like what is in the first paragraph if it is going to convince me of its morally perfect authorship and any whiff of the attitude in the second paragraph is proof to me that a morally perfect being by no means is doing the commanding.

A single woman could not support herself in that society and would be a social outcast. The requirement that a stiff fine be paid served as a deterrent and restitution to the offended family and the marriage of the woman (in a time when very few married for love, but by arrangement) guaranteed that the woman would live a life of less suffering. The law took a bad situation and made the best of it.

When God’s given lemons he forces rape victims into perpetual subordination to their rapists by making them their husbands and sole source of economic well-being.

God was not content to leave His people in that moral situation. Saving His children may have started with revealing himself, providing land, and giving a rudimentary code of law to a bunch of shepherds in the middle east, but it did not end there. It was a process.

An omnipotent God can only give a rudimentary code of law?  If it’s so admittedly rudimentary, why not infer the obvious fact about its authorship—that it came from rudimentary minds?  Give me one reason to infer a morally perfect and infinitely knowledgeable being wrote a rudimentary law code that does not have to do with sheer force of will to believe against logic and evidence?  You are arguing for outright absurd conclusions out of a faith-based prejudice.

In Jesus, the process continues. He taught things like (I am paraphrasing here), You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [equitable justice], but I tell you to love your enemies and do good to those who do evil to you so that you may be like your father in heaven who loves all his children. And he taught that you have heard that it was said ‘whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’ [he could not remarry her later, this prevented capriciousness and gave some measure of security to women], but I tell you that you were given this law because your hearts were hard (Matt 19:8, Mark 10:5); Divorce is not for your convenience but because of to take into account that this world is screwed up and your spouse may at some point refuse to keep the covenant of marriage. God joined you together, you should not tear yourselves apart.

Later, as God’s saving work progressed into non-Jewish areas, God taught though Peter and Paul that His children were not only Jews, but all people. The work of breaking down ethnic and cultural barriers began.

We have seen hints of Gods longer-term goals throughout the Bible. His desire for all humanity to know him is demonstrated when Elijah took care of a non-Jewish widow during a famine, the inclusion of Rehab (a non-Jewish prostitute) and Ruth (a non-Jew) in the lineage of King David and Jesus, the sending of Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, Jesus’ healing of the Roman centurion’s servant, and many others.

The use of God’s early efforts to move the moral center of a barbaric society as evidence for a bad God ignores His overall work.

Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, he says that not a word of the law will pass away, etc., etc.  To this day, Christians the world over, including you, do not treat the Old or the New Testament as cultural landmarks since superseded as humanity has progressed.  You claim special revelation.  Special, divine guidance.  Human societies all over the world have progressed in naturalistically explicable ways, with no need for supernatural interventions.  The fact that you can trace moral progress from the Old Testament to Jesus to the New Testament does not give any evidence that any thing other than normal means of progress and standard, run of the mill cultural, social, economic, and psychological factors were at play.

Plato represents as great a leap forward in human understanding as the world has ever seen, far advanced beyond anything in the Bible, and yet that represents no reason to think he was supernaturally inspired.  We take Socrates’s claims to that effect completely unseriously as literal truth claims.  They are quite interesting for their literary, psychological, and cultural value, but there is and should not be no religion based around the non-human sources of inspiration Socrates claimed for himself.  And there should be no more religion based around the supposed divinity of Yahweh or Jesus.

Finally, we still have Christians with barbaric hateful attitudes towards gays.  We even have some proposing laws to have gays killed with the biblical death penalty.  Tell me, Loyal, if God is really behind all the moral progress in the world, why are Christians as a class behind non-Christians in morally embracing gays as morally good and praiseworthy people and their homosexuality as capable of ethically excellent love and physical expression?

Is it that he still doesn’t think His people can shed their prejudices?

Maybe then it’s not a good thing to be one of His people.

Your Thoughts?

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