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Today I’ll wrap up my series on abortion and the Bible. In previous posts I showed that Exodus 21:22-23 can be interpreted in two radically different ways. If men are fighting and accidentally hurt a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her child, one interpretation says the culprit should be fined for the miscarriage. But others read this passage as saying he should be executed for causing a premature birth in which the child later dies.

People disagree about how to translate the ancient Hebrew – miscarriage or premature birth? Exodus of course is one of the core books of the Jewish Scriptures, also called the Old Testament by Christians. Jews have generally favored the miscarriage interpretation, and pro-choice Christians say this passage suggests that abortion is not murder. Pro-life Christians tend to view these verses as involving premature birth.

I am not an expert on the Hebrew language, but when I studied for my doctorate in religion I learned that translating ancient texts is definitely not an exact science! There is often very substantial disagreement.

On this web site I have argued that God did not “write” the Bible and that many commandments attributed to God show signs of human weakness, ignorance, and even mindless viciousness. (Example: a child that curses one of its parents must be killed.) But suppose we assume for the sake of discussion that every verse of Scripture does reflect God’s will. What should we say about a passage like this that is so important and yet so ambiguous? Here are four possible ways of thinking about this predicament. None of them are at all attractive:

  1. God doesn’t care about clear communication. Murky and confusing commandments are just fine. That’s a bizarre suggestion.
  1. God guides some of us toward the right interpretation. That would mean Scripture is a helpful guidebook for those God favors, and a source of error for everyone else – odd, for a God of love and mercy. In this case it would suggest that God let Jews make the wrong interpretation for millenia, and finally revealed the right one to pro-life Americans.

During the American slavery controversy, Bible passages condoning slavery were quoted much more often by southern preachers than by clerics in the north. Did God give northern clergy the right interpretation just because they lived in anti-slavery states? Or was their exegesis shaped by their political views?

  1. God hates us all and considers every person worthy of eternal torture in Hell. It doesn’t matter much what we do on Earth. None of our actions are good in God’s eyes, so guiding us with clear Biblical teachings is unimportant. The only thing that matters is taking Jesus as savior, to avoid the fires of perdition. Fortunately these days few people accept such an extreme version of Calvinist theology.
  1. God didn’t realize how important the abortion controversy would become later on, especially in the U.S. So it wasn’t important to clarify this passage. But that would mean an all-knowing deity created a guidebook for living that would go out of date. That’s just silly.

Furthermore abortion has always been a significant concern. “Abortions have been performed since ancient times and recipes for ridding women of pregnancies are as bizarre as they are plentiful. The Egyptians prescribed crocodile dung. The ancient Greeks recommended pennyroyal, an extremely toxic herb as likely to kill the women as to abort the fetus. Other colorful abortion aids included sitting over a vat of boiling onions, honey/salt/mouse feces suppositories, mashed ants/camel spit/deer hair paste, and stepping over a live viper.” For more, click here.

Saying for the sake of discussion that the Bible is 100% God’s word leads us to bizarre conclusions. Logicians call this reductio ad absurdum – reducing to absurdity. If we follow some idea to its logical consequences and these consequences are ridiculous, the idea is probably just wrong. So this passage about abortion in the Bible helps prove that “Biblical inerrancy” is an error.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Last week I quoted a passage that has caused a lot of controversy about abortion and the Bible, Exodus 21:22-23.

When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined . . . If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life . . . (Revised Standard Version)

Scholars argue over what it means that “any harm follows.” Read the rest of this entry »

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

According to the New Testament, Jesus rejected the idea that every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. Here’s the evidence:

As I mentioned in earlier postings, the Biblical penalty for doing any work on the Sabbath was execution: “… on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death …” (Exodus 35:2)

That seems a bit harsh, but the rule was sometimes enforced with deadly seriousness. Supposedly God even commanded Moses to have a man slain because he gathered sticks on the Lord’s day. (Numbers 15:32-36) But later Jesus was criticized for working on the Sabbath (picking grain to eat, and healing the sick). In an earlier time he could have been stoned to death for that crime. His response to his critics was, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27. See also Matthew 12:9-14.)

So Jesus himself rejected Biblical literalism! He explicitly contradicted passages from the Hebrew Bible (which has become the Christian Old Testament). Since Jesus clearly rejected a passage which is part of Christian scripture, anyone who takes his statements as truth must conclude that Biblical inerrancy is in error. And of course, few Christians today think God wants us to kill those who work on Sunday.

The Gospel According to Matthew also says Jesus rejected Biblical rules about what should and should not be eaten. “And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’ Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” (Matthew 15:10-12)

The Hebrew Torah (and therefore the Christian Old Testament) bans lots of foods. Leviticus 11, for instance, forbids consumption of pigs, shellfish, ostriches, lizards, crocodiles, etc. But if Matthew 15 is correct, the Nazarene was rather relaxed about such matters.

Right now I’m mostly writing about Old Testament passages, but I am taking a detour into the New Testament to show that Jesus disagreed with at least one of the death penalty clauses of the Torah. So there’s a big problem here. If we assume that every word of the Bible is true, we have to believe that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” But that obviously contradicts the passage mandating the death penalty for anyone who does even a tiny amount of work on that holy day.

Any comments?

Roger Christan Schriner

The Christian Old Testament prescribes punishments for lots of banned behaviors, including execution by being burned or stoned to death. Oddly, even though the Bible often spells out ceremonial regulations in meticulous detail, death-penalty commandments are tossed off almost casually, with little or no wiggle-room for unusual or extenuating circumstances. This tends to confirm the idea that even though the Bible’s human writers tried to accurately express the will of God, they were limited by their personal and cultural biases.

Here are a few examples, beginning with those found in Exodus 20-22, which begins: “And God spoke all these words, saying, …” (Exodus 20:1)

“Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15)

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (That’s Leviticus 20:9, which I mentioned in an earlier entry.)

“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

“Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.” (Exodus 22:19)

“Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

And from a list of regulations in Leviticus 20-21:

“For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed incest, their blood is upon them. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them. If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man lies with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:10-16)

“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.’” (Leviticus 20:27)

“And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9) (I guess it’s always been tough to be a preacher’s kid!)

And here’s one I’ll discuss in a later entry: Whoever does any work on the Sabbath, even kindling a fire, “shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:3) A strict Biblical literalist might have found it hard to live in Medieval Scandinavia during the winter.

This blog focuses on whether it’s realistic to believe that the Bible is God’s Word from beginning to end, and obviously some of these verses don’t sound like higher guidance. Here are three puzzles about these passages.

1. Many punishments seem absurdly extreme. If a child kicks Daddy or curses Mommy, that would seem to suggest a time-out rather than capital punishment.

2. A supreme divine intelligence would realize that offenders can be reformed. For example, those who engage in peculiar sexual practices might learn to obey social norms. How about giving first offenders a second chance?

3. As noted above, lists of rules in the Bible seldom allow for extenuating circumstances. If one actually thinks parent-strikers should be killed, the regulation should say something like, “You must kill a child who strikes a parent, unless the child is very young, or was drunk with wine, or is mentally incompetent, or unless the parent has done something terrible to the child, or unless there is some other reason that this penalty should obviously not be applied.” (And even that greatly-softened rule still sounds horrible!)

How should a Biblical literalist deal with these three puzzles? Literalism accepts every bit of the Bible as true. Is it possible to do that with these passages? I’ll comment further in my next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though I read all of the problematic Bible verses that will be discussed on this web site, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

 I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

It’s easy to heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

As you read the scriptural passages which I will discuss on this web site, watch out for mindblinks and heartblinks – moments when you suspend your ability to think, or your ability to care. Learn to notice when you cope with a passage such as Leviticus 20:9 by momentarily immobilizing your own moral instincts. All of us do this sort of thing from time to time.

The Bible as a whole, I believe, asks us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Jesus and many of the prophets urged us to stay in touch with our compassion. I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner