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Outrageous Tales From The Old Testament

Below I mentioned that the Old Testament God seems something of a monster (genocidal, petty, vindictive, fickle, vicious, performs weird loyalty tests on Job, Abraham, etc.) Indeed, here's that quote from Waugh again about Randolph Churchill's shock on actually reading the Old Testament:

Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, had been annoying his friends by talking too much. They wagered he could not keep quiet for a week. Churchill, a keen gambler, thought he could win the bet by reading the Bible. But he didn't last long. After a few pages, he was heard to exclaim, "God! God's a shit!"

In response to this and comments, Guess Who says:

As someone who actually reads Hebrew and has published exegetical articles on the Hebrew Scriptures, I would just like to say that I find that Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists read the bible in the same way. How do they read it? Entirely without sophistication, unable to appreciate irony, humor, metaphor, or purposeful moral ambiguity. They leave everything they may have ever learned about literature behind them. If people read Shakespeare the way Skeptic's Annotated Bible reads scripture, they would say "Cassius was an imbecile - he thought that Caesar was some kind of huge monster-giant as big as Godzilla" after all, he did say that Caesar "doth bestride the world like a Colossus"!

Let's discuss. Obviously, we should be sensitive to metaphor, irony, etc.


Jezebeau said…
How is it to be taken as a multi-faceted work of literature and, at the same time, absolute truth? Which bits should we unsophisticated sots interpret for ourselves, and how will we know by which phrases we should affect our lives? This sophisticated bible rings more of 'Let Profities' than it does the tome that was hurled at me as a child.
Nick said…
Guess Who: please enlighten me. How should I read the following with sophistication, and an appreciation of irony, humor, metaphor, and purposeful moral ambiguity?

"He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." -- Leviticus 24:16

"They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. ... And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones.... And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-56

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Lev.20:13

“Whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:13

“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. “Mark 16:16

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 13:6-10
Nick said…
Perhaps I should have restricted my quotations to the Old Testament, as that is what the original post was about, so forget the one I gave from Mark. Instead, here's some (ironic? humorous? metaphorical?) advice on the topical subject of how to bring up children:

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Nick said…
At the risk of further exposing myself as an unsophisticate, I would be very interested to know how to interpret with humour, irony, and metaphor the fact that the Bible dictates failure to follow these commandments incurs a penalty of death:

I am the LORD thy God and Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
The crucial point is that the understanding of God held by the Israelites evolves over time. The Bible is a record of that evolution. You could say, especially for the early passages (from Judges, say) the Israelites project the savagery of their own culture and environment onto the deity.

For example, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, the Israelites stop thinking of Yahweh as their tribal God (my God is bigger than your God) because if that was the case then the Babylonians wouldn't have been able to burn the temple down; instead they start seeing him as creator of the whole universe, and the Babylonian army as the instrument of God's wrath upon them because they had abandoned any concern with social justice.

This is the period (c. 587 BC) when you get monotheism emerging - which is not just about there being "one god" so much as completely reordering what the word "god" means. So Genesis chapter 1 gets composed about this time, and it supplements Genesis 2&3 which are much older.

It's the absence of any sense that this is what the Bible is about that characterises both "Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists". So as you would probably expect, I have some sympathies with Guess Who.

BTW I'd recommend anything and everything by Neil Gaiman. He's a genius.
Kyle Szklenski said…
It only occurred to me a few minutes ago just how absurd the claim that both fundies and atheists read the bible in the same way. But of COURSE we do! The reason is that, if we are to show them just how crazy that bible really is, we have to talk to them about it in their own terms. We can't just start talking over their heads all the time and expect them to listen.

Having said that, we don't really read the bible in the same way because we read it with the exact understanding (for the most part) that you pointed out, Sam Norton. I'm sure there are atheists that don't, but I know many who read it as a guide to understanding Jewish cultural changes over time, including their views of morality. Do you think that's how fundamentalist Christians view the bible, Sam? Seems too incredible for me to believe.
Kyle Szklenski said…
Furthermore, on the quote from Guess Who, I couldn't stop laughing. We're supposed to take a book that has moral ambiguities and use it as a moral guide?

What I really don't understand is how we're supposed to read the bible, appreciate the irony, metaphor, humor, and moral ambiguity, and still come away with believing that it was inspired by god. To me, that's like saying to someone, "This book was written by the most brilliant person alive. It is clear, concise, and simple." Then that person responds, "But there are numerous spelling mistakes that make it exceedingly difficult to tell what was intended, and several sentences are written apparently in the exact reverse order of what they should have been, making it near impossible to actually tell what they're supposed to mean. I'm supposed to believe the author is brilliant?"
Nick said…
I don't know exactly what Guess Who's position is on Biblical interpretation, so I won't make assumptions. However, there are a number of problems with such interpretation in general, including, but not limited to the following:

1) Many Biblical passages containing contradictions, absurdities, atrocities, or intolerance of one sort or another are, on the face of it, explicitly clear in their meaning, and are not really open to any alternative interpretations.

2) It might be someone's opinion that such and such Biblical chapter or verse should be interpreted metaphorically or ironically. However, the onus is surely upon this person to justify why the passage should be interpreted in such a way, and not as it is explicitly written. For example, try to do this with the quotes that I gave in my previous comments.

3) It is evident that the Liberal Christian only feels the need to ‘interpret’ those passages in the Bible that do not accord with our current knowledge and morality e.g. those containing absurdities or preaching intolerance or hatred.

4) If we are to allow the text of the Bible to be interpreted in such a subjective and personal way, then how are we to discriminate between what can and can't be interpreted in a way other than it is written?

For example, perhaps the rejoinders in the Bible to do good were meant to be ironic, and not to be taken literally? Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus was only metaphorical? Perhaps Jesus didn't exist at all, but was only a myth that was intended to be symbolic? Perhaps even the whole concept of God himself was meant to be interpreted metaphorically?

5) For me, as an atheist, I have no qualms about ignoring what is written in the Bible, as I consider it a ragbag collection of myths, superstitions, historical events, and often highly dubious morality. However, surely the self-professed Christian does not have this luxury?

For example, if God actually does exist, and did explicitly command that Sabbath breakers (or gays, or witches, or people of other religions) should be stoned to death, and the liberal Christian ignores this injunction (thinking it to be ironic or metaphorical), then surely they are running a terrible risk? For, if this command was not intended to be interpreted or ignored, then the liberal Christian risks spending an eternity in Hell?

Furthermore, if these commands were issued by God, then who do the liberal Christians think they are to presume to know better than an omniscient and omnipotent being?
jeremy said…
I'm with Nick on this one. There are undoubtedly beautifully written passages in the bible (especially the King James version) where it is entirely appropriate to interpret along metaphorical lines, for instance. But we are objecting to the sorts of things that Nick is able to sample from the bible. I think it would be an enormous stretch, and entirely without justification, to try to make metaphors out of such unambiguously horrendous tales such as litter the Old Testament.

That's really all we're claiming. The challenge in Nick's first comment stands.
Anonymous said…
Let us start with the big one: I think the onus is on Guess Who to explain any interpretation whatsoever of the story of Abraham and Isaac that isn't an utter abomination from a moral perspective.
g felis: possibly that the story shows the evolution away from sacrificing firstborns; Abraham was the first person to wake up and say 'I think God says I have to sacrifice my firstborn, but does God really want me to?'. So you could read it as the conflict between what he had been taught about God and what God really wants.

There's quite a lot to say that what made the Jewish people distinctive in the earliest OT times is that they were the first ones to reject human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice. There's also quite a bit of evidence _within_ the OT to say that the struggle took quite a long time to sort itself out.
Anonymous said…
Aren't religious moderates simply religious people who can't bring themselves to REALLY believe......
Stephen Law said…
Three questions for Sam (who is clearly pretty knowledgeable about the OT - more so than me, anyway).

(1) Should we see the human/god sacrifice of Jesus in light of this history of human and other forms of sacrifice? (this is not leading to a criticism - I am just interested).

(2) Is there any good literature on this? Also, where's the independent evidence that the Jews were first to drop human sacrifice? What about the Buddhists, Hindus, etc.? Where's the independent evidence for human sacrifice in the Middle East at that time? I don't deny they went in for it - but some evidence? (other than e.g. OT passages saying others sacrificed their own children)

(3)The Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament are, then, all myths, in your opinion (as the real God would never do such things)? When do we start getting genuine historical events?
Hi Stephen,
I'm pretty sure that Guess Who would be better placed to answer these - OT is really not my area of expertise - but I can share some things.
On 1) and 2) I'd recommend the work of Rene Girard as a way in. He basically argues that Jesus is the first person to expose (and therefore destroy) the scapegoating mechanism in human society, and that in the light of what Jesus did, what YHWH was always trying to get at in the OT becomes clear. I'm persuaded of his case, but you may well not be! BTW it fits in extremely well, I'd say, with Wittgenstein's understanding of ritual as expressed in his remarks on Frazer and similar writings.

On 2) and 3) I was thinking of Near Eastern culture; I don't know enough about Hinduism to comment. (The Buddha hadn't been born by this time). I will try and dig out a few references - most of my understanding comes from Old Testament commentaries, which I imagine you wouldn't count as evidence (even if they're endorsed by secular scholarship??)

On 3) no, not necessarily at all. Some are fairly obviously mythic (eg Jonah) but I'd take the genocidal bits from Judges as, by and large, historical. I'd even be open to them being genuinely from God, but that can only make sense in the context of the time. (In other words the Hebrews were being led in an improving direction. That didn't turn them into 21st century moral exemplars while living in the 15th Century BC.)

On the very last question, I'd take Genesis 1-11 as primarily mythological, and the rest as more or less historical. The continuous sequence from Deuteronomy through to 2 Kings is a single history, for example, and intended as such, and that includes most of the nasty stuff.
Anonymous said…
sam norton: That "possible" interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock.

The actual story as written does not indicate the growth away from human sacrifice, it shows Abraham being quite willing to sacrifice Isaac insofar as he was convinced that it was what God commanded. He didn't halt the sacrifice of Isaac because it was wrong, or because he realized that any God who would command such a thing was not worthy of worship: He only stopped the sacrifice because God issued a new command.

If you contort yourself strenuously enough and impose enough cherry-picked, carefully interpreted "context," you can give a positive spin to any narrative. But as it is actually written, the story of Abraham and Isaac endorses and promotes absolute obedience to the commands of God. At best, you can say that the narrative portrays a deity who would never actually command us to do evil - because he stops Abraham, after all. But even that slightly positive aspect strikes me as being a pernicious way of reinforcing the primary lesson of obedience: It specifically encourages blind obedience, on the basis that God wouldn't really command us to do anything evil - so whatever He commands, you must trust Him and obey.

I'm also wondering where you get this notion that the Jews were unique in in rejecting human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice, in early OT times. As far as I know, the archaeological evidence for child sacrifice points to only one cluster of cultures in the Near East, those in the Canaanite/Phoenician lineage. As for "human sacrifice" more generally, whether or not the execution of prisoners of war or criminals was also a "sacrifice" would seem to have depended mostly on the relation between religious hierarchy and state power in a given nation/city-state. When the king is also the high priest, or is himself a semi-divine god-king, then the exercise of state power to bring death to declared enemies of the state becomes "human sacrifice" more or less automatically. Child sacrifice is different, always a genuine sacrifice for primarily religious reasons - but it was not in fact widely practiced, being limited to a single cultural lineage as far as I know.

If the Jews are truly unique for their time and place, it is perhaps in the separation they saw between divine authority and human authority: The king, while he may be appointed/annointed by god and even the special beloved of god (as the kings of Israel are portrayed), is not himself first and foremost a spokesman or representative of god. In the ancient Near East, I believe that perspective was unique to the Jews - although exactly how it connects to monotheism isn't at all clear.
Peri Forrester said…
Issac was Abramham's "son of promise". All of Abrahams hopes for the fulfilment of the promises he believed God had made to him were vested in Isacc. God challenged him to sacrifice Isacc (we are squemish about that but sacrificing children was common in antiquity and it was in fact the Old Testament religion that first outlawed it- no doubt some of our practices that are just as deadly to many more children today, such as world ecconomic injustice would make the ancients squeemish).

When Abraham went to sacrifice Isacc, God was saticified that Abraham was willing to make the sacrifice if he had to and he provided a lamb in stead.

Now all of this helps us understand Jesus who is the ultimate son of promise, and as God's son was not spared, but rather is called the lamb that is offered in stead of us. To take away our death (and death- human death- is a universal no matter what we may think of the morality of the fact)

The Biblical narrative is difficult enough to understand so that you can choose not to, and yet simple enough that the most simple person who wants to will get the general pointers to Jesus.

Faith remains a reasonalbe choice.

As deep as you go you will find coherent threads, and in simple terms answers to your questions. And if you are so inclined you will wonder more and more at how a text could be writen spaning millenia and yet weave together such an integrated story. It is not quite but nearly as breathtaking as the Creation itself.

Romans 1:20 (New International Version)
20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Be honest in your seeking, don't try to misquote anyone, (afterall- and for example- the Bible itself says that "there is no God" Psalm 14:1) But if there is a God you will find the truth, the beautiful beginning of real truth when your seeking becomes completely whole hearted (cf,Jeremiah 29:10-14.

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