Abortion and the Bible, Part Three

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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Abortion and the Bible, Part One

I’ve been trying to show that even though there are good ideas in the Bible, some Scriptural commandments attributed to God definitely do not reflect divine guidance. But now let’s take another tack. Let’s assume that every word of this book was inspired by God, and consider the implications. The passage I want to consider pertains to abortion and the Bible, Exodus 21:22-23.

22: 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, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23: If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life . . . (Revised Standard Version)

These verses have important implications for the pro-life vs. pro-choice controversy. Continue reading “Abortion and the Bible, Part One”

More on Random Bible Readings

 

In my previous posting I reported an experiment in which I opened the Old Testament at random five times and glanced through the text of the two facing pages before me. It turned out to be very easy to find verses that did not seem divinely inspired. I could imagine a loving deity shuddering at the thought that these passages are part of a book that people read for divine guidance.

Example: Execute anyone who has the wrong theology, which is commanded in II Chronicles 15:13.

Now let’s try the flip side of this experiment. Go back through the pages you selected at random and look for statements that do sound divinely inspired, or that at least express keen insights.

Here’s what I found when I tried this, and I realize that “your results your vary.”

The pages I picked at random began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4. Out of the five two-page segments that began with these verses, I found uplifting material only in Proverbs. Even in that section most statements were common-sense platitudes that essentially told the reader, “Be good, work hard, and treat others well.” No doubt we need to hear such messages repeatedly, but a normal individual of average intelligence should discover these principles without a revelation from on high.

Here are the verses that seemed insightful, beyond mere “let’s-be-good” platitudes:

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Proverbs 11:1)

I especially appreciate the first of these items. It pushes against the peculiarly-common human inclination to waste time arguing with fools. I still fall into that trap at times, so it’s a good lesson for me personally.

Again, try this yourself. Open the Old Testament to five different places at random, revealing ten pages. Look for passages that sound like genuine divine revelations, statements which give you that spine-tingling feeling that something transcendent has broken into our human world. (“Love your enemies” is a good example.) Then do the same with the New Testament. See what you learn.

Roger Christan Schriner

And What about Collective Guilt?

In my last few entries I’ve been discussing inherited guilt and punishment. A related idea is collective guilt. According to the Bible, if most people in some group do bad things God may punish the whole group. In fact, God may do that even if only a few group-members transgress.

Or even one! In Second Samuel 24, David, ruler of Israel, ordered his assistants to carry out a census. Even though God had actually put this idea into David’s mind, the Lord was very angry that David wanted his people to be counted. “David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people.” He confessed that he had sinned and asked God for forgiveness. God then proposed three possible punishments, and he and David agreed that the punishment would be a three-day pestilence.

The pestilence was not directed against David, but against his people. Seeing their terrible suffering David protested, “… but these sheep, what have they done?” God had evidently already decided to cut the pestilence short, so for David’s sin only 70,000 of his people died. Could have been worse.

The theme of this blog is: “Did God Really Say THAT!? In this case the answer is, absolutely not. A loving, all-knowing, perfect being would not kill 70,000 people because their leader took a census. That Bible passage cannot be accurate.

Roger Christan Schriner

New Bible Passages Page

I’ve posted a page that includes most of the Bible passages quoted on this site. When I cite more passages in the future I’ll add them as well. I’ll try to organize the passages by topic, but of course some verses relate to more than one subject.

In about a week I’ll resume frequent postings, including several on that ever-popular religious topic, guilt.

Roger Christan Schriner

Troubling Bible Passages Point Toward a Higher Vision

I realize it can be depressing to slog through Bible passages that seem factually false or morally disturbing. But if you love the Bible and you’re finding the courage to read this blog anyway, remember this: If you find certain scriptural passages troubling, that is partly because they contrast so sharply with other passages which are inspiring and insightful. It’s jarring to encounter Bible verses that fall short, that seem out of sync with beloved verses that have lifted the hearts of believers everywhere.

So every time I spotlight an unsettling excerpt from the Bible, think of other places in Scripture that ennoble the reader and that urge us to a higher standard of personal commitment and action.

Roger Christan Schriner

Three Puzzles about Biblical Death Penalties

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