I remember watching a episode of The Walking Dead two years back that made me think a bit differently about the Old Testament. The Walking Dead is a TV show about survivors that band together to survive a post-apocalyptic world teeming with zombies. In this episode, the “good guys” just captured a boy, probably late teens or early 20’s. This boy, Randall was part of a group of “bad guys” that started shooting at the good guys. When the zombies start coming, the “bad guys” run away. Randall tries to escape too, but he ends up tripping, falling and impaling his leg on a sharp fence post. Rick (leader of the good guys) decides to save Randall and brings him back to the “good guys”. The entire group then argues about Randall’s fate. Should they kill him? let him go? keep him as part of their group? They found that the answer wasn’t as clear-cut the way it was before the zombie apocalypse. What if he goes right back to his group and comes back for revenge? Will Randall betray them if he stays with the group? When life is harsh, when every day is a struggle for survival, when the tiniest mistake or oversight means the death of everyone around you, right and wrong become hard to distinguish or might even switch places. Sometimes there might not even be a choice between right and wrong but between all wrong choices. It’s hard to imagine your self in that situation from the comfort of your air-conditioned home.
I’ve written elsewhere that most Americans, be they Christian or non-Christian can be completely ignorant of the cultural, social, and historical context of the various books of the Bible. As a result, they tend tend to use their own cultural baggage to interpret what they read. It’s so easy to forget just how different the world of the Bible was. There were no grocery stores where you can easily purchase what you needed to eat. You couldn’t just call 911 if your sister was raped. Leisure time as we know it didn’t exist except for the extremely rich. Things we take for granted like bread and cheese took time to produce and couldn’t be obtained with a simple trip to Safeway or Whole Foods. Our modern world was nothing like the Old Testament or New Testament world. People living back then did not share many of our mores and values. Unlike our lives, life back then was MUCH harsher. Remember this when you read the Bible.
I read a few posts by bloggers Hessian and Withteeth that take offense to the book of Deuteronomy. Take a look and read them if you will. I decided to start this series as a response to hessianwithteeth’s posts. However, I am not writing this post to convince hessian, withteeth or any of my readers of anything. I’m writing this post mainly to show how faulty assumptions, cultural blinders and even a lack of knowledge of the translated languages can cause the us to misread the Bible. Now, I can’t answer everything in one post, so this will take a few posts to answer. Furthermore, I also will not address everything hessianwithteeth brings up. This series is not meant to be a detailed commentary on Deuteronomy. I’m simply using hessianwithteeth’s posts as a launchpad for showing how Christians and non-Christians can misinterpret the Bible due to a lack of knowledge about the world of the Bible (one of the reasons I started this blog).
I’ll put down hessianwithteeth’s individual comments and then write a response to the comment. Let’s start with an easy one.
hessianwithteeth – “Birds not to eat include the bat. Um…bats are mammals Yahweh. So much for all knowing.”
I have heard this objection many times before, both from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. First, this objection assumes that the ancient Israelites used the same scientific classification system we do today for animals. They didn’t. The word(s) translated to birds both here and in Leviticus carry the meaning of any winged creature or any creature that is “flight-capable”. Last time I checked, bats had wings and are capable of flight. There is no problem here. See here for more information
hessianwithteeth – “Stoning rebellious sons to death is acceptable”
I’d find it acceptable too if I lived back then. The passage in question is Deuteronomy 21:18-20. First, let’s read the passage in context. The passage says that such a rebellious son was disciplined by both mother and father to no avail. The kind of son that gets executed is one that continues to be rebellious even after both parents have tried to deal with him. They don’t stone him the second he shows any signs of rebellion. Second, the parents can’t just decide on their own to stone their rebellious son. They are required to bring the son to the city elders and basically provide oral testimony to the city elders. Only then does the son get stoned. Now this sounds like a kind of trial with the parents acting as witnesses and the stoning a form of execution. The son is to be executed for rebelling against his parents. Wait, what? Execution for rebelling against your parents? That’s barbaric! That makes it worse!
Hold on a second. What exactly did the author mean by rebellious? When we read “rebellious son” here, we use our own cultural assumptions to imagine what rebellious means today in the modern world. Images of little junior mouthing off to his parents or getting tattoos are likely to be the kind of images we have in mind. However, this is NOT what the author of Deuteronomy had in mind. Like I said above, life was harsh. Ancient Israealites did not have leisure time because they were too busy surviving. Survival was a day-to-day problem. As a result, dependence upon and loyalty to the group you lived with (possibly your entire extended family) was necessary for survival. Rebellion wasn’t little junior whining or refusing to make his bed. Back then, a rebellious son was likely to wasted the precious few resources the family had or put the family danger of death, starvation or worse. A rebellious son threatened the survival of the entire group. Imagine a son who refused to stay on lookout at night and left his post thereby putting the whole family at risk annihilation by roving bandits. Such a son was a liability. A good family leader would not risk the death of his entire family due to his son’s rebellion. Therefore, the leader would resort to executing the rebellious son to prevent further damage to the group. Harsh? yes. Brutal? yes. But necessary? Absolutely. It’s easy to sit back in our air-conditioned homes with a fully stocked fridge and criticize how those “barbaric cavemen” lived when we have no idea just how vicious life was. When life is harsh, different rules and values are in play.
There is obviously much more that can be said about this as I did not go into other cultural considerations (like the collectivist mindset ancient people lived with or the honor/shame dynamics that could play a role here) that would make even the son choose execution as opposed to, say, banishment from the community.
Those are the things I have time to address today. I’ll see about addressing some more soon. Feel free to comment with any objections or anything really. I plan on discussing the collectivism and honor/shame culture of the Bible in future posts but if anyone is interested, The Handbook of Biblical Social Values is a good place to start learning.