Thursday, March 4, 2010

Immoral God and Immoral Bible? (Article II) A Look At Sinful Men In the Bible

[Note: Profanity, Blasphemy, Insults and the Like will result in the poster being banned without warning.  if you wish to disagree with this article, do so in a civilized and respectful manner]

Preliminary Note

This being part II of a series (it was originally going to be a trilogy, but is moving up to five as I edit), this article is limited to the actions of men in the Bible which are considered immoral. The cases I am writing of here are in response to what seems to be a common set of complaints.  Please remember, I can't cover every event in the Bible.  I can't anticipate every accusation.  Nor can I anticipate every misinterpretation of the Old Testament.  So consider this a sample of the ones brought to my attention.  An omission of a reader’s favorite example was not done to "kick it under the carpet" but was done to discuss some of the more common ones.

The incidents most cited are Lot in Sodom, actions in the Book of Judges (from which comes stories many are scandalized by) and the story of David and Bathsheba (from the perspective of David's actions, not God's action [that will be in article IV], so the article will be limited to these. I believe the principles in rejecting these charges of an “immoral Bible” also apply to others.

Now there are acts of men in the Bible being commanded to do certain things by God.  However, since God is the one commanding them, these will be looked at in the next article.


What are we to make of those accusations of immoral acts "supported" in the Bible?  The accusation generally runs along the lines that people in the Bible do some wicked things, so the Bible can't be considered a source of authority.

While most of the individuals who take this view are ones who seem to be looking for whatever reasons they can grasp to condemn the beliefs of Christians, that doesn't take away the fact that some people are indeed scandalized — and perhaps earnestly — by some of the actions of characters in the Bible.  What are we to make of what the Bible records?  Does the Bible give sanction to men doing things which seem evil today?

Literalism and Context

To begin with, there is a problem of assumption which, whether sincere or malicious, seems to be a key point of the atheistic scandal with the actions of the Bible, and that is taking things literally without considering the context of the writings.

Just as when I wrote about Biblical Literalists who interpret everything written in the Bible as expressing literal history without considering the genre and the culture of the times, I believe certain atheists do the same thing.  While they do not accept the inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible, they do seem to think that the Bible is intended to be interpreted literally using the understanding of the individual reading it.

In any case, Literalists of both sides don't seem to consider the possibility of their own interpreting being in error.  I think the issue of the objection to “Evil acts of the Bible” is of the same mindset as the Biblical Literalist, but with the opposite conclusion. 

Both hold everything is intended to be literally true from the interpretation of the reader.  The difference seems to be that because the Biblical Literalist knows God exists but takes everything literally, he must try to defend everything done in the Bible.  Meanwhile the atheist, who attacks certain actions in the Bible, assumes God does not exist and holds everything is understood literally and thinks all of the actions viewed are seen as being good, even if the acts are bad.

Both mindsets fail to consider whether the Bible passages were understood properly.  Looking at the charges, I find most of the attacks against Scripture on the "Bad God, Bad Bible" grounds do not understand what it was like to live in a culture of semi-nomadic Middle Easterners some 3,000 years ago.

This is the underlying principle to these accusations, which I believe can be demonstrated as false by looking at the Scriptures themselves.

Bad Acts in the Bible?  Of Course.  Approving Bad Acts?  Not At All.

Let's start with one of the more appalling incidents in the Bible, an event taking place Sodom in Genesis 19 which leads up to the destruction of that city.  What generally shocks the reader is how Lot tries to dissuade the inhabitants of Sodom… by offering his daughters instead:

1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening; and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed himself with his face to the earth, 2 and said, “My lords, turn aside, I pray you, to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the street.” 3 But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.

Now I have heard people point to this and say that this was an evil act on the part of Lot to offer his daughters to be raped, and they argue this proves the Bible can't be good.  The problem is: where does it say what Lot did was good?  This is an assumption which one does not find proof for in the Bible.

Now it is true that the customs of the time and region (for all the region, not just the predecessors of the Jews) held the hospitality offered to a guest to be sacrosanct, but we see nothing in this passage to indicate Lot was doing good by offering his two daughters to be abused instead.  Lot may have sincerely thought this was his duty of course, but it does not follow that such an act was good before God or to the writer of Genesis or to the reader at the time of the book being written.  Haydock's commentary on the Old Testament mentions this comment by Menochius:

Some allow that, under so great a perturbation of mind, he consented to an action which could never be allowed, though it was a less evil.

Now I don't think it was a "less evil" myself, but the commentary raises an interesting point.  We have an account of what happened, but not of the motivations behind it.  The atheist may argue that there is no proof this was Lot's motivation.  The response is: Neither is there proof that Lot's actions were seen as good.

This then is the issue: We have an account of what happened, but not why it happened or motivations for the people acting.  So to try to argue the Bible thought Lot's action was good is to commit eisegesis (inserting meaning into the text), and commits the fallacy of argument from silence ("there is nothing disproving what I say, therefore it must be true").  In light of what the Bible will go on to tell us about the evil of prostitution and fornication and rape, it seems more likely that the ancient reader of these texts would have seen them as appalling was well.

In short, all the ink (or bytes) spilled in indignation over this is based on something assumed but not proven: That the Bible was portraying Lot as behaving rightly.  I find it interesting that in Genesis 19:30-38, we see this was not the end of the folly of Lot and his family.

So before saying "How wicked the Bible is" one should first be certain they interpret it correctly, knowing the message it is seeking to convey (The depravity of the people of Sodom being punished by God in this case) and not assume that everything which occurs was met with approval.

The Book of Judges Speaks of Good… and Evil

The Book of Judges is another one which has many scandalous actions which offend our modern day sensibilities.  In reading this we need to remember we are seeing tales of depravity, not tales of heroes, and we see the description of a spiritual breakdown of Israelite society after the death of Joshua.  We are basically seeing Judges (non dynastic military leaders of Israel in times of crisis) who are called to deliver the Israelites from oppression.  These judges are people who are portrayed as being flawed individuals who choose wrong things at times.  Samson, for example, seems to be more of an anti-hero than a hero for example.  The example of Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11) tells us of a man who, in making a vow, did something explicitly forbidden by the Law: Human sacrifice.

Those who make the claim of the Bible promoting wicked behavior tend to make use of these verses concerning Jephthah to claim God sanctioned this act:

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”

32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand.

To say that God granted victory because of the vow is to commit a post hoc fallacy.  If God intended Jephthah to deliver the Israelites from oppression, He could have delivered them in spite of Jephthah's vow.  The assumption that God granted victory because of the vow is to assume a God who can be swayed by bribes.  This is an interpretation without evidence to support it.

Notice at the end of the chapter (verses 39-40) we see that the action was remembered with mourning for the daughter, not the anime-like "tragic but necessary action":

And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

So it goes.  In each of these chapters we see people of differing moral qualities.  God may call these Judges to help Israel in times of oppression, but nowhere do we see any praise for the wicked actions.

This becomes especially clear from Chapter 17 to the end of the book (Judges 21:25).  In this section we see a sort of lament to bookend the accounts of the people written about in them.  Chapters 17-19  in this section begins each chapter with "In those days, when there was no king in Israel" and each chapter shows practices which we would find reprehensible. (Chapter 20 does not because it is a continuation of chapter 19).  Commentators on Scripture refer to this time as a time of anarchy in Israel where there was no authority to enforce the Law.

In these chapters we see accounts of idolatry (chapter 17), banditry (chapter 18), cowardice, rape and brutal murder of a concubine (chapter 19), an intertribal war (chapter 20) and the wink/nod at the abduction of young women to be wives for the almost exterminated Benjaminites (Chapter 21).  The book of Judges concludes, saying: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes."

However in none of these sections do we see anyone tell us God commanded them to do these things, or see the Scriptures say these things were good.  Rather we see numerous acts of sin with the refrain of how, because there was no king, people did what they thought was right.  Men may make vows to do wicked things, and may even be ignorant of the evil they are doing.  However, as we see no evidence of approval for these acts, and indeed the book of Judges follows the Torah which condemn them, it seems to be baseless to say this book endorses immorality.

The book of Judges seems more of a condemnation of moral anarchy of Israel during these times than an endorsement of the behavior within the book, and as such I don’t consider the accusations made of a "wicked Bible" using this book as valid.  Such an accusation seems to be taking the events out of context.

King David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite

This incident contains both an act of a man, King David, and an act of God spoken through the prophet Nathan. I will deal with the human aspect in this article and the Divine aspect in Article IV.

I was surprised that some atheists have pointed to this sordid case as an example of a Bad Bible given how it turns out.  However, since it has been brought to my attention, we can look at it.  The story is found in 2 Samuel 11-12.  The gist of it is that David stays at home when his armies are at war, sees a woman bathing on the roof of a nearby building, has sex with her and gets her pregnant.  He tries to conceal this sin by attempting to get her husband to go home and sleep with Bathsheba (to cover up the sin). When Uriah shows himself to be too devoted to go home while his men are in the field, David orders him to be killed in battle.

Pretty reprehensible, right? Some atheists have used this as a charge against the Bible. After all, David was a Hero and he did something wicked.

Unfortunately for this argument, the Bible also calls this reprehensible.  The prophet Nathan goes to David and we have the following account in 2 Sam 12:

1 And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man. Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; 8 and I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

Again, this act of immorality was condemned and not condoned by God. Indeed, God sent Nathan to carry His word to David. Those who think such a verse promotes immorality seem to base such an idea on this line of thought:

  1. The Bible speaks approvingly of David
  2. David did evil
  3. Therefore the Bible approves of the evil David did.

But the whole point of Chapter 12 is God did not approve of what David did and, in fact, decreed punishment.  Since this punishment leads to actions of God (and a new set of objections against the Bible), that part will be discussed in Article IV of this series.


Ultimately, the actions of men which are pointed to in the Bible as being immoral are in fact considered by believers to be immoral.  Because of this, the accusations of the "Immoral Bible" on these grounds are more of a straw man argument than anything legitimate.  Just because the Bible speaks of men who obeyed God does not mean they were sinless.  The entire point of the Bible is that humanity is alienated from God and needs salvation.

Only through the taking things out of context and failing to understand how the Christian reads the Bible can the accusation be made that the Christian approves of these actions.

With the next two articles (needs to be split… currently over 6000 words), which I suspect will cover the issues most will be interested in, we will look at things which were not done by men on their own action, but were the commands of God. 

Article III will be about discussing certain principles Christians believe when looking at the commands of God.  Article IV will then be about looking at the actual commands of God on the topics of God's judgment of David and on the topic of slavery. Articles IV and V will be based on the principles discussed in Article III.

No comments:

Post a Comment