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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

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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:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/About_Death_and_Mourning/Death_Penalty.shtml.

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

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