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Is the Bible an Immoral Book?

In 2012, the then education secretary Michael Gove, pledged to put a copy of the King James Bible in every state school in the UK. As one might expect, Gove’s plan was met with mixed responses. There were those who backed the plan with approval and there were others who decried his idea as a mere ‘vanity project.’ There was one person, however, whose support few would have foreseen, and that was the ardent forerunner of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins. 


After seven or eight years of anti-God bestsellers and atheist bus campaigns, prime-time documentaries and public debate, the New Atheist’s war on God was in full throttle. One of the noted teachings of the New Atheist movement was their insistence that teaching the Bible to children amounted to a form of child abuse. For someone like Dawkins, then, to support Gove’s venture was beyond surprising. Until, that is, Dawkins made clear his reasons. Writing in The Guardian, Dawkins explained, 


I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove's scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality… I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.1

For Dawkins, any reasonable person who takes time to read the Bible, will see it for what it is - not a book of moral value but of moral repugnance. Dawkins fellow New Atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote of the Bible,


The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.2

This is a huge challenge for Christianity because it strikes right at the heart of the character of the Christian God, and the authority to which Christians listen. It raises all kinds of questions: Does it make logical sense to believe in a God who is all-loving and yet who appears to condone practices such as slavery? Would such a God truly be worthy of worship? Do we have a moral obligation to ignore the so-called ‘problem passages’? And if so, does the Bible not become a book from which we can merely pick and choose? What, then, are the implications for this being the word of God? If we do take the Bible at its word, could those passages, which seem to us so morally offensive, actually provide justification for behaving that way today?


These are questions that we cannot ignore, for there are certain passages in the Bible that are extremely problematic. Both the Old and New Testaments give instructions for the treatment of slaves. The nation of Israel took possession of the land by slaughtering the native inhabitants. In some cases, women seemed to be treated as second class citizens and there are times when God’s punishments can make the reader extremely uneasy like, for example, the man who was stoned to death for collecting sticks on the Sabbath. What are we to make of difficult passages such as the ones above?


Christian philosopher, Paul Copan, urges caution to those who would too quickly denounce the problem texts of the Bible, that they do not read them superficially. Likewise for the believer who wants to defend the Bible from accusation. Difficult passages in the Bible must be read carefully and understood accurately - and this may mean digging a little beneath the surface. To help us do this, Copan suggests a number of principles that we should bear in mind when it comes to giving the Bible a fair hearing. In this article I will highlight four such principles.


Understand the Cultural Context 


Every text must be understood within its own historical and cultural context. Let us consider the cultural context of the Old Testament. The overarching story might be summarised like this: God created the universe with people as the pinnacle of His creation. Humanity rebelled against God and placed themselves and creation under God’s judgement. God called for Himself a people, the nation of Israel, who would serve as a light to the rest of the world and through whom the Saviour would come. 


When God deals with the people of Israel, then, He is dealing with a unique nation at a unique time with a unique calling. Without this context in place it becomes extremely difficult to understand some of the troubling verses that we read. As an example, let us return to the incident of the man who went out on the Sabbath day to collect sticks. We read, in Numbers 15, that he was brought to Moses and Aaron who put him under guard until God revealed what should be done with him. God’s reply seems harsh to say the least: 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.3


How are we to make sense of this passage? And if we take it as God’s command then, should we not take it as binding on those who work on the Sabbath today? The answer to both these questions lies in the unique context in which ancient Israel lived. Earlier on, God has instituted both the Sabbath day and made clear the penalty for breaking it: 


And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.4

The seriousness of the man’s crime relates, not primarily to his picking up sticks,  to the day itself. Rather it reflects the seriousness of a member of the nation of Israel, set apart from the nations to be a light to the nations, flagrantly disregarding the command of God, and so opening up the door to compromise and conformity to the pagan nations surrounding them. 


Consider what God says about the Sabbath to Israel: “[The Sabbath] is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you”.5 To rest on the Sabbath reflected the pattern of God in creation - that He worked for six days and rested on the seventh. This pattern was given as a sign and an agreement between God and His people that they were in fact His people with a unique calling. Through them God would bring salvation to the whole world. 


Now, this was a formative time in Israel’s history and already individuals were despising the God-given sign that they belonged to Him as His unique people. Such rebellion would have ramifications even for future generations. In treating God’s Sabbath with contempt they would be treating God lightly. The sign that they belonged to Him would be tarnished. In time they would forget God, the one who sets them apart, and be joined to the pagan nations around them.


Admittedly, this does not provide an easy answer. With our modern day sensitivities, we still struggle with passages such as these. But the severity of the punishment underlines for us just how serious and important was the formation of God’s people at that particular time. It reminds us how serious human rebellion is, how desperately our world needs a Saviour and how nothing could be allowed to compromise God’s salvation plan. Once we appreciate the cultural context we go well beyond the seemingly innocent act of collecting sticks and see things from a whole another angle. Furthermore we have grounds for not enacting such punishments today. As we consider some of the difficult passages of the Bible, then, we must keep context at the forefront of our minds. 


Understand the Difference Between Description and Prescription 


Here is an essential distinction. Not everything that is described in the Bible is prescribed by the Bible. As an example, let us consider Lot who lived in Sodom. Along with Gomorrah, Sodom was an intensely wicked city and God chose to destroy it but preserve the life of Lot and his family. Two angels arrive in Sodom and rescue Lot and we read that the men of the town arrive at Lot’s door en masse, wanting to sexually assault the two angels. Lot’s response is shocking: 


Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.6

We baulk at such a suggestion by Lot, and critics have rightly pointed out the horror of what Lot did. Dawkins tells us, “Whatever else this strange story might mean, it surely tells us something about the respect accorded to women in this intensely religious culture.”7

Indeed it does. But, while Dawkins means this as a criticism against the Bible, saying that it demeans women, he fails to consider the possibility that the reader is supposed to be horrified by Lot’s actions. The point of the account of Sodom and Gomorrah is that they were intensely evil places, which is why the angels were there in the first place. God’s judgement was about to fall. This part of the narrative serves as a warning to us that even those who are righteous, like Lot, can be corrupted by the evil around them if they allow themselves to be. The apostle Paul sums it up when writing to the Philippians: “Bad company corrupts good character.”8 Lot’s awful plea to the men of his city illustrates this point. Later on, Lot’s daughters decide to sleep with their father in order to conceive. Again there is perhaps more than a hint here that they have picked up some of the ungodly cultural norms in which they had been living. Both rape and incest are prohibited by the Law of Moses so we cannot look to this story as an example given us to follow. More likely it contains an implicit warning not to conform to the corrupt practices around us. As we approach difficult passages, then, we have to ask whether what we read is condoned by scripture or is merely describing for us what occurred.  


Take off your 21st century Western glasses 


Here is a difficult one for us. In any passage that we read, we must be careful not to plant our own 21st century Western interpretation squarely on top of it. For example, one of the key criticisms levelled against the Bible is that it promotes slavery. Consider the following verse:

 

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.9

If these verses trouble us, the New Testament is no easier. Both Peter and Paul issue commands on how to treat slaves. In fact we read in Paul’s letter to Philemon that he actually returns a runaway slave rather than letting him go free!


What are we to make of this? Well it is important, first of all, to remember that we have a very specific understanding of what we mean by slavery: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which is a blight on world history. Such a practice involved kidnapping people, racial subjugation, dehumanising others, physical abuse, sexual abuse, malnourishment and murder. The slave trade was an appalling reality that we should rightly feel repulsed by. And the sad truth is that slavery still continues to this day. People are trafficked for work and sex, both in the UK and across the globe. And we ask, could God really condone such an evil practice?


Once again we have to put on the brakes and ask some basic questions. Here is one: is my modern understanding of the word slave the same as the ancient Israelites understanding? Consider this verse from the Old Testament: “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”10


According to this verse, under Old Testament law, the perpetrators of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the slave owners, and those involved in modern day trafficking, would face immediate execution. Furthermore in the New Testament, the apostle Paul condemns slave traders in a list of those who are ‘lawless and disobedient.’11 In other words, the Bible condemns, right at the heart, the practice that we call slavery. This should urge us to caution when we approach these passages, that we do not unintentionally place upon these texts ideas that were never intended to be there.


Understand the Original Use of Language 


Our final principle is perhaps most easily applied to some of the difficult passages that appear to promote genocide. In Deuteronomy 20:16, God issues a command to the Isrealites as they prepare to take the Promised Land: 


But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded12

To our modern ears, this sounds like ethnic cleansing. The words ‘everything that breathes’ surely means civilians, children and even animals. While much could be said on this topic, Copan begins by suggesting that there is a degree of hyperbole in the language used. We use similar language today in, for example, the world of sports. We might say something like, “Manchester City completely destroyed Crystal Palace at the weekend!” We know how to take a sentence like this: Manchester City won convincingly. They did not ‘completely destroy’ anyone in a literal sense. Copan argues that ancient war texts show that such hyperbole was common at the time. Furthermore he points to passages within the Old Testament itself. For example a few verses after the command to ‘save alive nothing that breathes’ God gives commands regarding marrying the women who remain in the land.13 Once again, asking ourselves how the original hearers would have understood God’s commands to wipe out the inhabitants of the land, at the very least, causes us to slow down and make sure we have understood the text correctly. 


Concluding Thoughts


The purpose of this article is not intended to give a thoroughgoing treatment of the so-called ‘problem passages’ of scripture. Questions such as, ‘Does the Bible condone slavery?’ or ‘Did God command genocide?’ require a deeper examination of those passages and a chance to look at each one individually. Rather, it is hoped that these four principles will give us pause for thought and provide us with some helpful tools, that we may be equipped to approach these passages as we ought. There has been much criticism levelled against the Bible, and much of it has been done on a superficial understanding. It is hoped that, as we engage with these texts, we may have something better to offer. 


Endnotes


1.  Dawkins, R. (2012) ‘Why I Want all our Children to Read the King James Bible’ The Gardian https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible

2.  Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything London: Atlantic Books 

3.  Number 15:35-36

4.  Exodus 31:12-14

5.  Exodus 31:13

6.  Gen. 19:6-8

7.  Dawkins, R., (2007) The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press p. 272

8.  1 Corinthians 15:33

9.  Leviticus 25:44-46

10.  Exodus 21:16

11.  1 Tim. 1:8-10

12.  Deuteronomy 20:16-17

13.  See Deuteronomy 21:10-14

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