Progressive Then, Brutal Now?

Progressive Then, Brutal Now? November 16, 2013

This came my way on Facebook. I was going to just say “discuss” but I thought I should also say something more than that. A key question for those for whom the Bible is important is how to respond to the above, if one agrees with the statement. Is the way to be true to the Bible as part of your heritage to simply repeat what it says even though that has different meaning and connotations in our present day context? Or should one rather be progressive in relation to our time in the way that the Bible's authors were (for the most part, in at least some instances) in relation to theirs?


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  • Isn’t Leviticus the first known legal text that prohibits male homosexuality?

  • Also, the relocation policies of the Babylonians and Assyrians sound peachy when compared with the policies favored by the Levite priestly author of Deuteronomy 20.

    • In fact, the recommendations of Deuteronomy 20 are only slightly less brutal than the policies presently followed by the Syrian army.

      • Certainly in its approach to war, and in particular “holy war,” books like Deuteronomy and Joshua are as disturbing as any ancient text if not more so. I suspect that if you learned more about Assyrian war practices, you might not be sure that the Biblical authors are worse.

        Would you acknowledge that there are progressive voices in the Bible as well, considered in their context? Amos’ criticism of war practices, for instance?

        • Amos’ criticism of war practices, for instance?

          -The authors of Amos 1 only criticized war practices when those war practices were committed against what they considered to be the tribes of Israel. They did not criticize any nation for engaging in brutal war practices against nations they considered non-Israelite.

          • That misses how that criticism functioned for Amos’ purpose, which was to get his audience to join in criticizing enemies only to turn the condemnation upon them. Not only does he end with condemnation of his hearers’ nation, but he also has them and them alone reach the number of seven things for which they are condemned.

          • My point still stands. Amos does not condemn Israel and Judah for war crimes; he condemns them for disobeying religious obligations, for sexual sins, for acquiring wealth, and for exploiting the poor.

          • True. And was he progressive on those issues, if not on the subject of Israel’s and Judah’s war crimes?

          • Kinda. On the poor and on acquiring wealth, his condemnations could be called progressive, but are rather unsophisticated. On cultic and sexual issues, his pronouncements cannot be called progressive.

          • Well, I never argued that they were “sophisticated”! 🙂

        • The Assyrians did not subject the inhabitants of those cities that surrendered to them to forced labor. They also generally did not kill all the males of cities they captured after sieges, but, rather, made them slaves of the Assyrian government. Yes, the author of Deuteronomy 20’s preferred policies are definitely worse.

  • Clearly, at least one person does not like my pointing out simple facts about what the Bible says.

  • Peter Kirby

    I suppose the first question to ask is whether a Bible retains its status as the most privileged set of texts retained from antiquity as a formative document for faith and morals to people today (or, to narrow it down, people who want to follow Jesus). Alternatively, the question must arise, at least, once the texts have already been set aside as flawed and limited by historical context.

  • James Pate

    I’ve heard in classes on ancient Near Eastern law, and have read in commentaries, that there are areas in which biblical law was less progressive than some of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern nations. I think of laws about women inheriting property: biblical laws were more patriarchal.

  • spinkham

    I’ll go with the rest of the crowd: most things that can be said in 2 categorically unqualified sentences are too simplistic to be reasonably judged true.

    Sure, there’s progressive voices in the Bible, in some cases even relative to our own time. There’s also tons about how to demonize and murder the other, to own women, and the need to give all your good stuff to the priests.

    The Bible isn’t heavenly or hellish, it’s just another human creation that mirrors many of our best and worst traits, and any attempt to worship or demonize it is dangerous.

  • Michael Wilson

    The Bible has a lot of perspectives in its text, so it can be used to appeal to all sorts of opinions on brutality and liberality. None of its opinions are unique. The brutality of the Israelite way of war is comparable to what we find in the Iliad while the benevolent sentiments of the later prophets can be found in near contemporaries like Buddha and Confucius. Overall, I do think that their is a benevolent theme running through the Bible that is the inadvertent result of its writers poor luck with history. As Nietzsche pointed out, the Bible is the scripture of slaves. The prophets and the Deuteronomist may have been religious puritans and iconoclast but they also were the priest of the common people and their opponents were the official priest of the royal cult. Their advocacy for the poor may have been self centered, but it was still advocacy for the poor. Nationally the priest may have dreamed of a fantasy world where they wiped out their enemies, but the reality was that the Israelites were typically the vassals or worse of greater nations, so the struggle for freedom for the weak from the rule of the mighty is a frequent theme.