In my previous entry I wrote that the harshness of Biblical death penalties suggests that those who wrote the Bible were limited by “personal and cultural biases.” One reader replied that this statement actually shows my cultural bias, because it is unclear “whether the Torah death penalties were ever regularly observed as written. Some scholars suggest that the very extremity of the stated punishment suggests it was never intended as the actual punishment but as a statement about the seriousness with which the matter touched society.” This commentator also referred me to a helpful web page called The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition:
So was I showing cultural bias? I admit it may have sounded as if I was showing ignorance about Hebrew culture, assuming that the ancient Hebrews always carried out the letter of their law. I’m sorry to have given that impression, so let me emphasize that I was not trying to focus on what the Hebrews did or did not do. Instead I was commenting on a list of plain and blunt statements in the Bible, and asking whether these reflect a supreme intelligence.
For example: I am not saying that every time a child impulsively smacked one of its parents they called the village together and stoned the little tyke. That seems most unlikely. As Paul H. Jones writes in The Fourth R, Nov./Dec. 2012, “If parents executed their rebellious children according to the directive of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, none of us would be alive!” (Actually I doubt that all of us were as rebellious as the “glutton and drunkard” described in that passage, but I’m sure you get Jones’ point.)
I will, however, stand by my statement that these passages reflect personal and cultural biases – although “opinions” would have been a better word than biases. Those who wrote these verses believed that imposing (or at least threatening) extreme penalties was a good idea, either because that was their personal opinion or because they were reflecting the opinions of their culture.
These passages sound quite human to me, rather than divine. I cannot imagine that a supreme being, knowing exactly how the human mind works, would prescribe death for a wide range of offenses, assuming that fallible men and women would soften these commandments appropriately. That assumption certainly didn’t turn out well for the fellow mentioned in Numbers 15:32-36. God supposedly commanded Moses to have him slain, merely because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath.
Furthermore, an all-knowing deity would have been able to predict the terrible damage that certain verses would cause when people took them literally. Witch-hunters down through the ages have justified their murders by quoting Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”
Remember, the focus of this blog is on whether every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. And even though the verses I’ve been discussing so far are from the Jewish Torah (which became part of the Christian Old Testament), Jews have not typically embraced scriptural literalism. Saying that God inspired every word of the Bible is much more common in conservative Christian churches than in Jewish synagogues.
I don’t think it works to say that God commanded these punishments, thinking, “These rules are so harsh that people will know I’m kidding.” So what are some other ways that a literalist could deal with the three puzzles about Biblical penalties that I discussed in my previous entry? I welcome further comments.
Roger Christan Schriner