Questions and Challenges: Part 5

“And why does it [the Bible] include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism?”

I don’t remember how old she was, but I distinctly remember telling my daughter that she was now old enough to create problems that I couldn’t solve for her. No more easy daddy-to-the-rescue: she would henceforth have to bear the consequences of her own actions. I hoped it would be a sobering warning — not that my daughter was a hellion! — and one that would forestall potentially careless behavior and ill-considered choices. That is one of the very difficult coming-of-age lessons that many of us learn the hard way.

Something akin to that scenario plays out in the opening chapters of Genesis:

Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The Lord God has placed Adam in Paradise with a single proscription and a warning; if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will bear the consequence — and the consequence is death. Of course, you know how the story goes. First Eve and then Adam ate, and God confirmed the consequences:

Genesis 3:16–19 (ESV): 16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

That Adam’s actions not only had consequences for himself but for all his offspring is painfully evident in the following chapters of Genesis and in the whole of human history. None of us is immune to those consequences. The theological term for this is original sin or ancestral sin. We are born oriented away from God and our own actions take us farther in the wrong direction. And we suffer grave consequences as a result. We do terrible things to one another. Stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, bigotry, and chauvinism the meme mentions, but there are so many more evils we inflict upon one another: deceit, slander, sexual and emotional abuse, war, genocide — the list is endless. My interlocutor wants to know why the Bible includes these things? Because they are the leitmotif of human history. The Bible is full of sin and misery because it is telling the human story and because humans are full of sin and misery.

The problem is actually far worse than the meme reckons. The Bible is also full of fire and flood, drought and famine, storm and plague — a host of what we call “natural disasters.” But, they are far from natural, far from how God designed nature to function for the benefit and blessing of man. No, these too are consequences of our actions; our sin threw nature out of joint, subjected it to randomness, entropy, chaos, and vanity. Our sins still do. The Bible reflects the brutal reality we created and are still creating.

The singer Michael Card summarized the situation painfully well: “We were intended to wake up in a garden; instead we find ourselves in a sin-impregnated world.”

Is this what the meme had in mind? Probably not. Given its overall tone, I suspect the real question lies more nearly along these lines: Why does God allow — and sometimes even mandate — stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism? If so, the meme attempts unfairly and unreasonable to shift the blame from man to God. None of these evils existed in Paradise; all of them resulted from human sin.

While it is a fool’s errand to attempt to justify the ways of God to man, I would like to address of few of these “charges” against the Bible and ultimately against God.

Our legal system — indeed I suspect every legal system — mandates punishment for crimes against persons and property. The most basic mandates of any social hierarchy are to maintain order and to protect the members of the group, and these punishments are intended to deter infractions. Some cultures employ mediation and reconciliation; others opt for fines, incarceration, and, in extreme cases, capital punishment. In these capital cases, various societies have devised clever means for dispatching the offender: the gallows, the guillotine, the firing squad, the electric chair, the lethal injection. Likewise, the Law of Moses mandated punishment for sin; all crimes were also considered sins against God. The worst of these punishments was stoning. While it may seem particularly brutal to us, it differs only in kind but not in degree from more modern methods: dead is dead. On rare occasions, after an offender was stoned, the body was also burned. This was probably a symbolic cleansing by fire of the residue/taint of sin left behind by the offense committed. As to torture, there simply was no explicit torture mandated in or allowed by the Law unless one considers lex talionis (eye for eye and tooth for tooth) torture. I do not. Lex talionis was given not primarily for retributive purposes but rather for protective purposes. It limited the revenge that one could exact for a wrong done. A man blinded in one eye could not by way of retribution kill his offender. Far from sanctioning torture, lex talionis was a major step toward loving your neighbor as yourself.

It is true that slavery was allowed under the Mosaic Law. But again, the Law regulated the practice in ways unknown in surrounding cultures and limited the power of the slave owner over the slave. This is true certainly because God cared for enslaved peoples, but also certainly because the Hebrews had themselves been enslaved. That memory is a constant drumbeat throughout the Law and the Prophets. Consequently, when, because of poverty, a Hebrew sold himself into servitude to another Hebrew, the slave was never considered as property; he was permitted the option of going free after a maximum of six years of servitude. Nor was he to be freed empty handed. The former master was required to provide sufficient material resources for the slave to establish himself as a free man. So yes, slavery was a historical reality, even in Israel. But, if you were forced into slavery by war or poverty, best to be a slave in Israel where God had mandated protections for slaves. Those interested can read more about the slave code in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. A final word about slavery is in order. Slavery was also part of New Testament culture. Neither Jesus nor his disciples directly condemned it. But, Jesus planted the seeds, and Paul watered them, that led to the abolition of slavery among Christians and largely throughout the Western world. They created a though world in which Christian slavery was no longer tenable.

I have not yet addressed the issue of homophobia for this simple reason: I reject the charge. The word as most frequently used connotes hatred or animosity toward homosexuals, and I do not find that in Scripture. The Bible does proscribe homosexual relationships — both gay and lesbian — in no uncertain terms. But the Bible also proscribes a variety of heterosexual behaviors as well: premarital sexual relationships, adultery, incest. God created and designed man — male and female — for human, sexual intimacy, but intimacy within certain bounds that promote human flourishing — the bounds of life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Christians have no phobia — what a stupid and ill-suited term! — toward those who violate those bounds and certainly no hatred. But, we cannot approve, accept, or promote the behavior as something that promotes human flourishing. I am not dieselphobic. I do not hate someone who puts diesel fuel in a car with a gasoline engine. But I could not promote the practice as appropriate for the design of the vehicle; it will not promote automotive flourishing, and will, in fact, lead to destruction. This is not, as it may appear to be, a foolish analogy. The Creator alone has the knowledge and right to specify the parameters of human flourishing. He has made explicit that homosexual relations fall outside those parameters. You may choose to put diesel in your Honda Civic, but it will not run well or run long. To tell you that is not an act of hatred, but of concern.

And lastly, chauvinism. This non-specific term is difficult to address because I do not know precisely the charge being leveled against Scripture. My assumption is that the meme is deriding the Bible for male chauvinism — a typical charge — that is, for misogyny. I would ask my interlocutor to read the Bible again carefully to note the prominent role of women in both the Old and New Testaments, not least the fact that when God chose to unite his divinity with our humanity he did so by being born of a woman. It is beyond question that no human — other than our incarnate Lord Jesus — is as central to our faith as is the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is hardly chauvinistic. Further, it is simply a historical fact that Christianity grew so rapidly in the first few centuries of the common era in large part because it appealed to the poor, to slaves, and to women because of the high regard in which these normally disenfranchised groups was held in the Christian community. Far from oppressing women, the New Testament — and, yes, Paul — actually elevated the status of women in the church over their status in the surrounding cultures.

“And why does it [the Bible] include stoning, torture, murder, burning, slavery, homophobia, bigotry, and chauvinism?”

Well, we have made a mess of God’s good creation. God is in the process of redeeming man and restoring creation. But, it is a long game, not least because he desires to use fallen men and women — redeemed humans struggling toward holiness — as his agents of renewal. Our prayers, our work, our love can make and have made a difference in the world.

A final word as I bring the series to a close. I have found that many people reject the Bible and level these meme-like charges against it based upon a child’s level of familiarity and understanding. Perhaps they attended church in their youth, learned a few Bible stories, and then drifted away from the church in their adolescence or young adulthood. Then, without a serious, adult study of Scripture they attack it as something childish and even morally deficient. My challenge to them would be to put the memes away and engage in a serious, reflective, open minded, prolonged study of the Bible. I suspect that, at the end of such study, even if they have not embraced the faith, they would at least have developed a greater appreciation and respect for the Biblical perspective.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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