The Bible has sometimes been known as the “Good Book”. But really the Bible should come with a health warning. Because for all the stories of love and compassion, there are also stories featuring truly horrific behaviour. Particularly in the Old Testament (the first part of the Bible) you will find stories about murder, violence, mutilation, adultery, incest and gang rape. The worst of humanity is on display. So it is reasonable to ask in what sense is this a “good” book?
The truth is that this idea of the Bible as the “Good Book” misleads people into thinking it is just going to be a collection of spiritual sayings or moral tales. But this isn’t the case at all. “Bible” means library or collection of books, and that’s what the Bible is, it is a collection of books, each with its own style and own topic. The Bible contains books of history, of poetry, of songs, of prophecies, of visions, of stories and even some letters. And given all these different types of books, we should not be surprised to find certain things. So if someone is writing history, they will write about the stuff that actually happened not just the pleasant stuff. And if someone is describing the reaction of their people to times of trial and hardship they are not going to sugar coat it, even if their reaction doesn’t seem very Christian. Since the Bible isn’t just words straight from the mouth of God, but is words written down by men that are drawn together to form God’s book, then we shouldn’t expect the Bible to read like a heavenly voice. We should expect the Bible to sound, in places at least, very human. And humans can be pretty rubbish, at times.
The Bible certainly isn’t a book of moral fables, where each story has a clear moral lesson. Many of the stories have no moral commentary at all. Those stories that are particularly troubling, with violent and evil deeds, do not come with a command “you should behave like this”. If they did then we should be really worried. But the Bible isn’t like that. When the Bible does contain moral direction it makes plain that acts like murder and rape are absolutely wrong. So we shouldn’t try and read moral lessons from bits of the Bible that aren’t intended for moral teaching.
But these violent and unpleasant passages have a point. Take for example Judges 19-21. It is story that includes betrayal, abuse, gang rape, mutilation of corpses and pointless warfare. This is one of the most unpleasant stories that you could read. But its not there to be pleasant. It is there to provide an answer to a historical, that is, how did the tribe of Benjamin become so small. And that might not seem like a terribly important historical question – and in the grand scheme of God’s message to mankind, it isn’t – but it is one of those details from which the sweep of biblical history is composed. That’s probably the best way to regard these stories. They are there as background detail, they are not big picture stuff.
Yet this isn’t the whole answer. Because some of this violence comes direct from God. God judging people. God condemning people. God requiring death for evil men. And that can be difficult to swallow. That seems harsh, that seems cruel, that seems unforgiving – very different from the character of God as often presented. So what’s going on? Why does God kill people?
Now I don’t support the death penalty when implemented by human governments. Why? Because human justice can make mistakes. Human judges might condemn an innocent person, but they can’t take back the death penalty. In addition, the death penalty admits no second chances – no chance of repentance and a clean slate. Yet these problems are problems for God. If God is all knowing then he cannot make mistakes, he cannot condemn an innocent person, if God says someone is guilty then that person is guilty. And God also knows the heart of men, he knows if they are likely to repent or whether they are beyond reaching. So, it seems to me, the only appropriate person to administer the death penalty is God.
God is justified in putting people to death if he knows they deserve it. And it doesn’t matter whether God puts people to death individually or in a group, because he is able to ensure that only those who deserve to die will die. Take the example of God’s destruction of Sodom (you’ll find the story in Genesis 18). Abraham asks God if he would destroy Sodom if there were fifty righteous people in Sodom? And God says no, he would spare all those wicked people so that he wouldn’t kill any righteous people. What about forty-five? Or forty? Or thirty? Or twenty? Or ten? Abraham keeps asking and in every case God says that he would not destroy the city if there were righteous people in it. In the event God sends angels to rescue the only four righteous people in Sodom (and let’s face it, some of them weren’t particularly righteous). So when God destroys Sodom, we can be sure that the only people who died were those who deserved to die. And if that is the way God works then these violent passages of the Bible turn out to be demonstrations of God’s justice.
Now that doesn’t answer every problem. Some passages of the Bible are still confusing. But these ideas give the broad principles for providing an answer.
Preceding articles in this series:
- The Battle Among Us (signsofthetimes.org.au)
Those in power are not immune to such degeneration. Politicians lie and cheat, while rich businessmen move their money into overseas tax havens to avoid paying their dues to the country that protects them.
Society floats in a moral vacuum. We might have an amoral, “feral” culture that ignores decency and morality. But just as evil are the cultured rich and powerful who also ignore laws.
Society today is at war. The battle-front is not in Israel, Palestine or Ukraine. It is here in our midst: it is our own inability to distinguish between right and wrong.
Under the cloak of freedom and tolerance, we have abandoned morality grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics, replacing it with a concept of moral relativism.
- Does God Let His Kids Lie About Him? A Thought (or Two) on the Enns/Bell Interview (derekzrishmawy.com)
The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge.
The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience.
The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot.
For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).
- What has convinced many believers to not believe? … the bible did. (skeptical-science.com)
EA Hanks, a writer based in Los Angeles, has written a very personal article in the Guardian that takes us on her journey from Fundamentalist born again Christian to atheist. In it we find two rather common answers to some truly fascinating questions. Why do people convert and become “born again”?
- Unfortunately this happens to me all the time (thei535project.wordpress.com)
Using your standard of morality that states that things that do no emotional or physical harm are good, is raping someone who is in a coma morally wrong?If it does no harm yet it’s still morally wrong then it’s morally wrong by a standard other than your own. This means that your standard is illogical.If you maintain that your standard is logical, then you cannot assert that raping a person in a coma is wrong.
- The Abrahamic dilemma (jeremystyron.com)
Doesn’t a believer’s response to what I will call the Abrahamic dilemma really cut to the core of a person’s faith? If, for instance, a believer says he would, in fact, sacrifice his child, or otherwise commit some violent act against another human being, for God, this indicts him as a hideous person, at least based on our set of moral principles. If a Christian says he would not raise the knife and sacrifice his child for God, then the person is not a true believer.
- PZ Myers Has This Problem With My Post About the Terrorist Who Lost His Head (patheos.com)
Indiscriminate cruelty and slaughter has long been a way of life for these types. I guess I’m supposed to be sad when it becomes a way of death for them too, but for once I’ll nod along in agreement with Jesus, who is said to have stated the inevitability of violence begetting violence pretty succinctly: “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”
Mohammed Fares was another Islamist boil on the ass of humanity. It’s an unpleasant procedure, but boils need to be lanced. Or beheaded — same thing.
- If ISIS Is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic (newrepublic.com)
As ISIS slaughters its way though Syria and Iraq, it became inevitable that we’d hear from apologists who claim that ISIS is not in fact “true Islam,” and that its depredations are due to something other than religious motivation.
Reply:Not true or True Catholicism and True Islam
- Is there such a thing as “Biblical” marriage? (lotharlorraine.wordpress.com)
Rachel Ford recently published an article on the website of the “Friendly” Atheist arguing that the Bible is a morally consistent evil book presenting marriage coherently as a man possessing several wifes as objects to be used and maltreated.
- What is a “true” religion? (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
As ISIS slaughters its way though Syria and Iraq, it became inevitable that we’d hear from the apologists who claim that ISIS is not in fact “true Islam,” and that its depredations are due to something other than religious motivation. Those motivations, say the apologists, are political (usually Western colonialism that engendered resentment),…