The Bible was written in ancient times by many authors. Over a thousand years separated the earliest from the most recent writings. Naturally, the Bible reflects the cultural and intellectual milieus of the times and places of its composition. Unless one is theologically committed to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, it should not be embarrassing that biblical writings reflect a pre-modern cosmology or that the biblical scale of earth history is off by six orders of magnitude off (4.6 billion years vs. 6000 years). Nor again, unless one is committed to inerrancy, should it be troubling that the Bible contains elements of myth and legend, such as the tales of Noah and the flood, or works of outright fiction, such as the stories about Jonah and Ruth. The message of the Book of Job is just as powerful (God does indeed make the innocent suffer), and its poetry is just as splendid whether or not Job was a historical person.
More disturbing are the ethical lacunae of the Bible. Again, any ancient work has to be judged in the whole context of its time, including the moral context. The modern reader of Homer’s Odyssey is shocked by the massacre of the suitors, and even more so at the hanging of the maidservants, whose only crime was to have had sexual relations with the suitors. The Odyssey is a story from a savage time that imposed a harsh code, and Homer merely accepts this code as a fact. You can still admire Odysseus for the reasons that Tennyson did—the indomitable will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Likewise, if we look at the Bible as we would a secular document from that time, its rough edges are not surprising. Remember that much of the OT was written when Assyrian kings were raising steles to boast of the cities they had sacked and the thousands of captives they had impaled, flayed, and beheaded.
Nevertheless, the Bible is supposed to be a special document. Believers, whether liberal or conservative, think of the Bible as more than a merely human product, namely, one composed under divine inspiration. Now, inspiration need not mean dictation. We do not have to see the biblical authors as amanuenses. Still, we would expect that scripture would have insights that would transcend the limitations of time and place, and endorse moral principles which, though seldom recognized at the time, are now established ideals. The Bible certainly contains some instances of such lofty principles. The teaching of Jesus is, among other reasons, remarkable for the value he places on “the least of these,” the humble, poor, marginalized, and degraded. These are presented as much closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the smug and the ostentatiously pious.
Critics of the Bible often focus on particularly hair-raising passages, such as the genocide commanded in I Samuel 15, and the mauling of the children by the she-bears in II Kings 2. These are disturbing, and religious writers have exerted great efforts to explain away and extenuate such passages. To my mind, what the Bible does not say is even more problematic. That is, it is the Bible’s sins of omission rather than sins of commission that really create the greatest burden for its defenders. There are fundamental ethical principles, now recognized by all decent people, that are either not mentioned in the Bible, or given very short shrift. True, some of these principles were recognized by nobody before the Enlightenment, so if the Bible were a merely human document, ignorance of these would be excusable. Yet, the Bible is supposed to be inspired, however conceived, and so it is supposed to reflect divine insight that is not limited by temporal or cultural context. God should not have to wait for John Locke, Voltaire, or Tom Paine to announce basic moral truths. Here, then, is a list of some things that are not in the Bible, but should be, if it is divinely inspired.
1) A Clear condemnation of slavery. Slavery is wrong always and everywhere. No human being should be kept in a condition of chattel slavery by another. John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government states that slavery is a state of warfare in which the master maintains a continual state of violence against the slave in order to prevent the slave from the exercise and enjoyment of his natural rights. The slave therefore has a right to free himself by any means necessary (It was Locke’s idea before it was Malcolm X’s.). Nowhere in the Bible do we find an outright, unambiguous condemnation of the institution of slavery. The defenders of American slavery before the Civil War gleefully seized upon this fact and threw it in the face of abolitionists, who condemned slavery as ungodly. The pro-slavery apologists had a point. If slavery is sinful, why does the Bible never come right out and say that it is? Why did the Bible not take an openly and unmistakable abolitionist stand?
Perhaps the reply would be that all ancient societies accepted slavery as a matter of course, indeed as an economic necessity. Slavery was seen as a personal misfortune, like sickness, not as an evil institution. The silver that built the Athenian triremes that defeated Xerxes at Salamis was dug by slaves who labored under atrocious conditions. Aristotle regarded some persons as natural slaves and demurred only at Hellenes being enslaved by barbarians. Perhaps in those days the advocacy of outright abolitionism would have seemed like a doctrine of such radical impracticality that it would have been dismissed as sentimental foolishness. Yet the Jews frequently insisted on things that were foolishness to the Greeks and Romans. Only one god? Please. Circumcision? Revolting mutilation. Jesus said many things that were outrageous and shocking. Why not add a condemnation of slavery?
2) Tolerance for other religions. When the Bible mentions worship of other deities, it is almost always to condemn. Again and again, in the harshest possible terms, the prophets (who were fanatics rather than prognosticators) rail against “idolaters” and call for their extirpation. The Book of Ezekiel, which has no superior in the long history of vituperation, goes into pornographic detail depicting the “harlotry” of Israel and Judah’s apostasy (Ezekiel 23). Ezekiel gloats over the ravages of the Assyrians, whom he hails as the instruments of God’s just chastisement. Throughout the OT death is the fate richly deserved by idolaters and apostates. Elijah celebrates his triumph at Carmel over the priests of Baal (I Kings 18) by leading the assembled multitudes in a joyous massacre of the priests and their followers. Later, (II Kings 10) Baal worship was entirely eliminated by the murderous Jehu, who had been made king by the prophets of Yahweh. Jehu invited all worshippers of Baal to a great sacrifice at the temple of their god and had the entire multitude put to the sword, thus becoming a true hero of The Lord. Even when the Bible does not endorse murder, it sternly warns against any other belief. Yahweh declares himself a jealous god (exodus 20:5), and the first commandment of his Decalogue is that no other gods are to take precedence over him.
3) A clear condemnation of torture. Four centuries ago every Christian society practiced torture. I once read of a defense of the Spanish Inquisition that argued—no kidding—that it was not so bad because it did not torture as savagely as the secular governments of the day. There was nothing exceptional about torture in those days. It was an everyday occurrence. Only royalty and nobility could expect the quick death of decapitation. Ordinary felons were generally broken on the wheel, that is, beaten to death with sledge hammers. The rack, the strappado, and the Spanish boot were routinely used to extract confessions. The standard punishment for relapsed heretics was burning at the stake, though sometimes the victims were given the mercy of being garroted before being burned.
Think how different history might have been if the Bible had included a clear and explicit condemnation of torture. No, torture would not have been entirely prevented, since nominally Christian governments did all sorts of things that are explicitly condemned. However, such a statement would have expressed a clear moral principle, one that would have motivated sincere Christians to oppose the practice of torture and, in general, would have created a more humane ethos. The failure of the NT authors to speak out against torture is especially puzzling since Jesus was horrifically tortured. The Roman scourge was designed to inflict maximum pain and tissue damage, and crucifixion was, of course, excruciating. Yet Paul never speaks against torture or crucifixion, so either he approved of it, or did not think it was important enough to mention. Perhaps the early Christians gloried in torture and torturous executions, because the more that they suffered, the more glorious was their martyrdom. Still, if these writings were inspired, we might hope that they would foresee a day when Christians would be in charge and would be instructed not to inflict on others the atrocious treatment they had suffered.
4) A clear statement of universal human rights. Recently here in Texas, the State Board of Ignorance, er, Education nearly included a requirement that history texts list Moses as one who inspired and prefigured the content of the U.S. Constitution. Activists of the religious right insist that there is a biblical basis for universal human rights. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bible does not contain even the most rudimentary conception of human rights. The idea that human beings, simply because of their personhood, have inalienable rights such as life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and conscience (see above), privacy, self-determination, etc., is a concept utterly alien to the Bible. The Bible does in places call for social justice, as, for instance in Hosea. However, the justification for such imperatives is the will of a just God, not the inherent rights of the oppressed.
A right, in the sense we are concerned with here is something—like life, liberty, or property—that we may legitimately claim and others have a duty to respect that claim. Nowhere in the Bible do we find such a conception of rights. Certainly not with respect to God. We have no rights with respect to God because he has no duties with respect to us. When he treats us kindly, it is due to his grace, not because he owes us anything. In one of my debates with William Lane Craig, he took this line to its logical conclusion and argued that there is no problem of evil since we are God’s and he can do with us as he wills. It follows that if God, for whatever reason, wants you to be raped, sodomized, and strangled, or to have inoperable brain cancer, or die in a house fire in infancy, then you would have no basis for complaint since God owes you nothing.
Oddly, some Christian intellectuals have appealed to the Bible as a foundation for the view that each human life has inherent dignity and worth—the infinite value of he individual soul. In doing so they oppose what they see as reductionist, straitened, distorted view of human nature promulgated in contemporary social science and economics. In the Bible, they say, we see humans as bearers of intrinsic, irreducible worth, as being, in Kantian terms, ends in themselves, and not means merely to be used. Where? Where is this concept found in the Bible? Please cite specific verses.
I imagine that many will say that I have here been guilty of what C.S. Lewis called “The parochialism of the present,” judging an ancient text by current vales. Fair enough, but this seems to be an admission that the values I have indicated are, indeed, not in the Bible. If they are not, then should we give up our modern belief in, say, human rights, and go with the Biblical view that there are no such things?
Finally, please note that my argument here is not a condemnation of the Bible. I am not saying that it is an evil book. I am saying that it is a human book, all too human. As we would expect with any such compilation of very diverse writings from numerous authors and reflecting many different historical contexts, there are good parts and bad parts. Many of the good parts are very good and constitute part of the enduring cultural legacy of the human race. Some of the bad parts are very bad. The way to read the Bible, then, is to read it as we would The Iliad or any other such ancient document, taking it as it is, and neither demonizing it nor attempting to elevate into something it is not.