"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Those Yucky Bible Passages

So I'm reading a book someone recommend many months ago and I got for my birthday.  Anyway there is a question in the last chapter about what we should do about disturbing biblical passages.  The main ones discussed were the ones about the genocide against Israel's enemies. You know where they are commanded by God to kill every man, woman and child. And in others where one could stay alive if she were a virgin woman (I suppose for sex slave purposes), but not if one were not a virgin - and definitely not a man.   Still others where God seemingly cared more for trees than people.  (Sounds like some extreme environmentalists I've heard of.)

I was going to share the author's words about those, but figured first I'd ask you.

Should we allegorize them?  Excise them from the text? Ignore them? Condemn them? Learn how to defeat our own enemies from them? Celebrate them as God's plan for keeping the line for the Messiah safe?

All, some, or none of the above.  Please tell me how you view them. How do you deal with them and explain them to others?


Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

When I was a Christian I seriously struggled with these texts, and I mainly tried to allegorize and/or ignore them (at different parts of time). Growing up I was taught that it was all part of God's plan, and that it wasn't up to us to understand his ways.

Today I find them deeply disturbing. I appreciate them from a non-religious point of view, as a way for a people/culture to make sense of their past and their time - and as a way to justify their actions.

I think they are very problematic though, because these days they are being used by people to justify atrocities. Researchers in Israel asked a group of children to read one of these passages about genocide, and then asked them if this was a right, and just thing to do. The vast majority said yes.
They asked another group of kids (same age, only separated so they wouldn't be influenced by the first question). This group of kids got a story about a people in Asia (I think they said Japan, but not sure), who was told by their God to kill another people. The exact same story, only with different references. This time? The vast majority thought it was wrong and completely atrocious.

The fact is that these stories ARE part of the Bible, and they do play a huge role in why I don't believe in God - because in my opinion, an almighty, all-loving God wouldn't commit such acts.

Yes, it was a different time, and I wouldn't judge the people who did these things - but I would judge an eternal God, who supposedly is much more moral than us - but that is not the God I see in OT.

Sorry that got a bit ranty, I'll shut up now.

Looking forward to reading the thoughts of the author! (And your thoughts?)

sanil said...

(Sounds like some extreme environmentalists I've heard of.) and Learn how to defeat our own enemies from them? made me laugh. :)

Back when I was extremely literal about the Bible, I think I excused these as being necessary for the time. It's not good for us to treat people that way, but God could treat people however he wanted and maybe that extreme treatment of enemies was necessary for Israel to carve out a place for itself and not be taken over by neighboring nations.

I'm not very proud of that time in my life. Once I became less of a literalist and no longer believed the Bible was 100% dictated by God and recorded word for word but rather was human interpretation of God's actions in the world, it made more sense to me. A lot of people try to understand and choose their actions based on what they think their god/s would want, but we're all limited in our understanding and subject to bias. I figured whatever was going on with Israel at that time, that really seemed like the right thing to do, the same way many people today think war is the right and thing to do and God is on their side. If someone sees their enemies as the enemies of God as well, then it's probably obvious to them that God would also want the enemy destroyed.

I think the way God works through imperfect people in the Bible is part of what makes it such a compelling narrative. Every part of the Bible might not actually be an accurate depiction of what God would want, but overall there is a story of God drawing a people out of captivity, working through their flaws, and ultimately creating a nation built around justice and redeeming the world. That's not only a Christian idea, Judaism already included on its own the idea that God was redeeming the world and that in the future the world would be remade whole and good. That story is all the more powerful for seeing how we've come and how much redeeming there is to do.

Sarah said...

I read something interesting about this in Karen Armstrong's "A History of God". Scholars seem to think the Israelites wiping out the Canaanites didn't happen as recorded in Deuteronomy. This part of the text emerged much later during the reign of King Josiah, and was said to be an ancient text, but may not actually have been authentic historical document. The strict monotheism was developing within Judaism at the time this text was "discovered" (around 622 BC), there was a lot of destruction of idols and pagan temples going on, there was this desire to distance themselves from anything polytheistic. So there was the motivation to, perhaps, rewrite their history to include much more brutal intolerance of polytheism.

I suppose this doesn't help much, because these intolerant and hateful attitudes clearly did exist, whether the text was genuinely historical or had been written later... and are perhaps still inspiring the same attitude today in some believers...

Susanne said...

I love all of your thoughts! Some of what you've said are also things this author wrote so it was interesting hearing it reinforced or restated by things you've read in other books or come to conclude on your own.

Thank you all for sharing these things!

Stay tuned for a new post and I'll try to summarize a bit of what this author says and you can give feedback on that if you want.

Sarah Familia said...

I'm chiming in late on this, but I loved the questions you asked. I read an article in the Guardian a few weeks ago about a Christian Fundamentalist group and how their "ethics" curriculum (which is used in hundreds of schools) teaches the story of Saul and the Amalekites. Pretty disturbing.

As a Mormon, one of our Articles of Faith states, "we believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly." When I was younger, I assumed that referred to the translations to English (or whatever language) from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Reading the excellent book Misquoting Jesus opened my eyes to how much MORE the Bible evolved and changed during the centuries before then (starting long before it was even written down).

The Bible has many beautiful teachings that I feel are inspired by God, but they are definitely filtered through human understanding (and sometimes human prejudice and bigotry). And as you might expect from a book with so many authors and editors, it's rife with contradictions.

Letting go of the overly literalist view I used to have of the Bible has been enormously liberating for me. It has also improved my relationship with God, because I can now see Him(/Her) as completely loving to everyone.

Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

@Sarah Familia - I'm actually about to start reading Misquoting Jesus, really looking forward to it!

Amber said...

I've been trying to comment on this since you posted, but life keeps getting in my way! How rude!


I never read these passages until I was on my way out of Christianity, and I won't lie and say that they didn't have anything to do with my decision. After all, they seem so completely antithetical to the kind, loving God that we're taught about in Sunday School. We're taught there that he loves us, no matter what. That he wants everyone to be saved, and values everyone equally.

This, of course, is a huge misrepresentation. People, children and adults alike, are being fed this version of God that is sweet and fluffy and would never in a million years do anything but sit back, dewey eyed, and give out hugs. There is, of course, the fundamentalist version, where he sits around with a ledger and a lightning bolt waiting to zap people, but that's not what I've encountered as the common idea.

*That*, that glossing over and Disney-fication of deity is why people who bother to read the Old Testament are so shocked by the violence contained therein.

So I read those passages, in my Southern Baptist run private school of course, and I couldn't relate the sweet, loving and accepting Jesus/God that I had been raised with with the God who would order every living thing slaughtered just for being where he'd decided to plop his 'chosen people'. Weren't the people being slaughtered his creations too? His children too? Even if they weren't the favorite, or doing exactly what he wanted, how could a parent (which is what God is presented as to us) desire the deaths of their children? It was as incomprehensible to me then as every story you read about a parent killing their child today is.

Over my years away from Christianity I came to understand the Bible as a non-religious text. As a mishmash of history, myth and story. It became easy enough to understand the stories of slaughter and destruction then, because whatever justification might be claimed, people are very good at killing other people for resources.

When I returned to Christianity, I brought that mindset with me. I was never able to be a literalist, so there was no disconnect between thinking that the Bible contained nuggets of important spiritual truth and seeing the heinous actions carried out in God's name as being done at human impetus and then attributed to 'God told me to'.

I also recall, as an aside, reading somewhere, though I can't recall where, that some scholars (not sure how widespread this idea is) believe that the slaughters mentioned in the OT never really happened, or at least not as completely as they're recorded in the Bible.

Becky's story about the research done in Israel is interesting and it just helps prove how things can be seen as 'okay' if you're conditioned to accept them in a certain light. The majority of children in the US are raised at least nominally Christian. It's deeply woven into our culture at this point, to see anything that happens in the Bible as 'okay' because it's in the Bible. Even if there's no personal belief in the stories therein, there's a subconscious acceptance of them because they weren't condemned as we were growing and forming our frame of reference.

Also, I love Ehrman's works. Misquoting Jesus is one of my favorites of his.

Susanne said...

Sarah Familia, thanks for your wonderful comment. I am curious though how you - as Mormons or yourself in particular - decide which parts are translated correctly and which are not. Does the Book of Mormon correct the Bible much like Muslims claim the Quran does?

I appreciate what you added and I'm glad you've found liberalizing your views freeing. Do you find most Mormons like you or more overly-literal or somewhere in between?

Amber, you sound quite a lot like the author of this book in your explanation and understanding of the OT. I really appreciate learning where you came from and how learning about the OT atrocities was so shocking to you.

I grew up knowing of both the love of God and the wrath of God so it wasn't as shocking as perhaps it should have been to realize God ordered genocide by his chosen people and permitted sex slaves and so forth.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Lots of interesting thoughts!