I once thought Bible passages portraying God as commanding (and committing) mass murder could mostly be found in its first few books. Mark Johnston’s Saving God, however, makes a more troubling case:

“Yahweh’s thoroughness in inciting and supporting mass killing is consistent, and extraordinary” (p. 58). The idea that God “is a very dangerous person to mess with . . . is a central theme of the prophetic literature of the Bible. That will be denied, but only by those who have skipped over, or forgotten, the rather demented reiteration of the theme” (p. 60).

I found this comment disturbing, but I have to admit that he’s right. So does Johnson believe that God is a mass murderer? I don’t think so. As I read him, he does not see the Bible as a perfect record of God’s messages to humanity. Instead, Scripture shows how people’s understanding of deity changed down through the centuries. At first Yahweh is portrayed as a “jealous” war god. Later prophets spoke of a god of love.

For Johnson, it’s important to recognize how frightening God seemed to the early Hebrews. As Psalms 111:9-10 puts it, “… Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Those who play down God’s ferocity “underestimate the dramatic character of Yahweh’s transformation, his second life as the advocate of justice and compassion” (p. 63).

In Sunday School, many of us were taught that God is love. That’s one reason the passages I have been discussing seem alien and even reprehensible.

Roger Christan Schriner

I have been emphasizing the first five books of the Bible because they contain so many disturbing passages that claim to express God’s will. But such questionable verses can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (which became the Christian Old Testament).

There are troubling passages in the New Testament as well, but perhaps not as many. If that is so, it’s partly because the Hebrew Scriptures focus more on the history of Israel. In most of the historical sections God is either smiting Israel’s foes out of love for his chosen people, or using Israel’s enemies to punish them for disobedience. Here are a couple of examples which are distressing enough that you may just want to skip past them:

Zechariah 14:2: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women ravished …” The text goes on to say that God will then turn around and attack those who have invaded Israel.

Hosea 13:16: “Samaria shall bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God; … their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”

I apologize for presenting such grisly material, but if we want to know whether every verse of the Bible is literally true, we need to know what’s in that book.

What shall we make of the way God seems to see-saw back and forth between boundless love for the Israelites and blistering rage against them? Does this love-hate relationship really reflect the behavior of a perfect being?

Here’s another interpretation which seems more likely: Sometimes the Israelites won battles and wars, and sometimes they lost. Humans often explain victories and defeats by saying that great forces controlled the outcome – fate, karma, gods, demons. So when they won a war – or today, after a team wins the Superbowl – God was with them. When they got clobbered, God was punishing them for their sins. This sort of thinking reflects human ignorance, not divine inspiration.

Roger Christan Schriner

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

Many Bible passages include the peculiar notions of inherited guilt and punishment. For example, one standard interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is that it resulted in “original sin.” Every human being has inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for disobeying God in Eden.

The apostle Paul thought our inherited guilt was canceled out by a vicarious sacrifice. We became guilty by being children of Adam and Eve, but we could be forgiven because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Romans 5:18-19: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

I don’t mean to oversimplify here. There are several major interpretations of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus, and within each interpretation there are subtleties and sometimes profundities. My point is simply that in Biblical times many believed in inherited guilt, so for them this was a plausible interpretation of the Eden story. If we do not believe that guilt can be passed on to one’s offspring, that should influence our response to religious theories of sin and salvation.

So what do you think? Is the inherited-guilt concept entirely defunct? If not, how is it meaningful to you? And if we believe it is an obsolete idea, how should this opinion influence our assessment of Christian theology?

Roger Christan Schriner

My previous post dealt with Deuteronomy 23:2, which advocates punishing people because one of their ancestors had a baby out of wedlock — “even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”

It is not uncommon for people to believe in inherited guilt or shame, collective guilt/shame, and guilt/shame by association. But at this point it seems obvious that these are erroneous ideas. We know better than to condemn individual persons because of their ancestry. However the idea of inherited guilt is found in verses that have become theologically crucial, at least within Christianity.

Adam and Eve, it is said, disobeyed God in Eden, and the entire human race became tainted, guilty, and worthy of punishment as a result. Note that this not the same as saying that human beings are sinful by nature. It’s true that the liturgies of some churches still include passages such as: “We are by nature sinful and unclean, and there is no health in us.” I see some problems with this idea, but right now I’m focusing on the doctrine that we are worthy of punishment regardless of whether we manage to become good persons.

Some believe, based on the story of Eden, that we all deserve to go to hell no matter how saintly we may become, simply because humanity’s parents ate that blankety-blank apple. The New England Primer, an extremely important schoolbook in Eighteenth Century America, put it in a little rhyme that children could easily remember: “In Adam’s fall/we sinned all.”

I frankly do not think it is credible that a supremely good Creator would respond to one man’s disobedience by cursing his descendants with hard, labor-filled lives, or would react to one woman’s misbehavior by making every one of her female descendants suffer pain in childbirth. Genesis 3 applies these penalties to Adam and Eve. It does not clearly state that their descendants will get the same treatment. But many theologians have interpreted the story this way, and later Bible passages also suggest we were tainted on that fateful day in Eden. More about this in my next posting.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Bible contains ideas about guilt and punishment that many of us would find extremely peculiar today. For example, Deuteronomy 23:2 says that “No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”

What? God punishes people for the sins of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents who had a baby out of wedlock? That’s around two centuries of punishment. This passage reflects extreme confusion about who deserves blame and shame. A supreme creative intelligence would not sponsor such nonsense.

Some explain this verse by noting that the natural consequences of sin may harm one’s descendants. Deuteronomy is just warning us of that uncomfortable fact. But that’s not what Deuteronomy says. It’s not: “Watch out that you don’t harm your grandkids.” It’s that the grandchildren must be punished for the grandparent’s sin.

Rather than being written by a single divine author, the Bible includes many voices. These often contradict each other, as people struggle with moral and practical issues. For example, the prophet Ezekiel explicitly rejects the idea of inherited guilt. “The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel…. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.’” (Ezekiel 18:1-3, 20) Deuteronomy 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:29 express similar sentiments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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

“For some, it may seem shocking to suggest that Jesus had room for self-improvement. But it’s hard to miss his sins if you read the New Testament gospels.” So writes blogger Jim Burklo in “The Resolutions of Jesus”

See http://tcpc.blogs.com/musings/2013/01/the-resolutions-of-jesus.html.

In reading Burklo’s essay I remembered my November 17 post, The Heartblink, in which I talked about the way we momentarily block out our own ethical responses. One very effective way to ignore data that disturbs us is to close our hearts for a moment, and then move on to thinking about something else. It is so convenient, sometimes, to temporarily disable our moral instincts.

I grew up believing that Jesus was perfect, and I suspended my ethical instincts whenever I read stories that seem to show his flaws. Here’s an example from Jim’s post:

Once when Jesus was preaching, “his mother and brothers sent someone inside to ask him to come out and speak with them (Matthew 12: 47-50). He brushed them off with an insult: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”

It’s so easy to heartblink this passage, overlooking the verbal slap in the face that Jesus gave his family. It’s more comfortable to focus on the positive part of this scripture, its encouragement to do the will of God. But Burklo faces the whole story squarely, and suggests a New Year’s resolution for Jesus: “Be much nicer to my family.”

Another example: “A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to free her daughter of possession by a demon (Matthew 15: 22-28). He ignored her because she was a foreigner, … saying ‘It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’. Groveling, she said: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Finally he relented and healed her daughter. He did a good thing, but the way he did it was pretty disgusting.”

Burklo then bluntly states the obvious but unsettling implication of this passage: “Jesus started out believing that anybody who was not a Jew was a dog.” But encountering “faithful gentile people like the Canaanite woman cured him of the antipathy toward foreigners that he had inherited from the culture surrounding him. He didn’t want to serve gentiles. But grudgingly he acquiesced, and was humbled. The Bible reveals that Jesus was a racist in recovery.”

Some of the most uplifting stories of the Bible show Jesus affirming the worth of all people, regardless of ethnicity. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. But evidently Jesus did not begin his ministry with such a broad-minded view.

Even if it’s disturbing to think Jesus had faults, it’s inspiring to see him as a flawed human being who learned from experience and honestly tried to be better. As Burklo puts it, “We can resolve to follow Jesus’ journey of self-improvement, working ever-greater miracles of kindness while deepening in humility. What makes us most Godlike is to recognize how far from God we are and always will be.”

I suspect Jesus himself would have agreed with that statement. The Gospels of Mark and Luke both quote him as saying: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Roger Christan Schriner

“Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible” is mainly intended for those who think that every bit of the Bible was inspired by God, and are willing to reconsider this belief. But it can also be helpful for those who do not take the entire Bible literally, and want to communicate with friends and family members who do.

If that’s your goal, be careful how you present this blog. Use it as a springboard for conversation rather than as a club for whacking your literalist relatives. I do not want to provide lighter fluid for starting arguments. And beware of feeling superior to those who treat every verse of Scripture as holy writ. All of us have made mistakes about religion and none can be complacent.

Especially during the December holidays, it’s good to follow the advice of Aldous Huxley, who said when he was nearing death, “It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer than: Try to be a little kinder” (quoted by Tom Owen-Towle, Spiritual Fitness, p. 343). In talking about religion with those who disagree with us, a little kindness can go a long way.

I’m going to take a couple of weeks off from blogging. Happy Holidays to all,

Roger Christan Schriner

Steven Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology, has written a critically acclaimed book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker claims that despite modern media’s emphasis on war and mayhem, over the long run violence has actually decreased. He begins by discussing violence in ancient days, and on p. 10 he talks about the Bible:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.”

All of this is easy to prove. But then Pinker claims, more controversially, that in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” “Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Pinker mentions “atrocitologist” Matthew White who estimates that mass killings which “are specifically enumerated in the Bible” amount to roughly 1.2 million deaths, not counting those who died when God drowned every person on Earth except Noah and his family. White says that would add another 20 million!

How do you react to Pinker’s charges? Is he overdrawing this gory picture? Is the Bible’s picture of God inconsistent? Is there a contradiction between passages that show God as terrifying and aggressive and those that depict deity as loving and merciful? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner