Monthly Archives: August 2014

Laws of Savages Part 1

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!

This is the song I'm thinking of

This is the song I’m thinking of

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.


Context is King

Let’s imagine for a second that you are chatting with a friend. This friend mentions that he ate a Big Mac the other night; he then grimaces and says “I might as well order a heart attack to go next time”. He throws you a small grin as you suppress a chuckle.

Step back and think about how much info you need to know to actually understand what he said. You first need to know what a Big Mac is. You need to know the reputation McDonald’s food has. You need to know what a heart attack is and a little about good health and nutrition. All this information must be known before you can understand what your friend said. Knowing the dictionary definition of each word in the statement “I might as well order a heart attack to go next time” would not be enough. If you looked up the words “heart” and “attack” in a dictionary, you still wouldn’t know what your friend meant when he said “heart attack”. If you looked up the words “go” and “to” in the dictionary, you still wouldn’t know what ordering something “to go” means. A person just learning the English will be thoroughly confused and probably wonder why this friend will command a heart attack to go somewhere and where exactly this heart attack will be ordered to go. My point is to show how you much information you need to have before you can understand a simple sentence from your friend.

I bring this up because this is what happens when we read the Bible. Too often, we read a certain passage in the Bible and expect to understand exactly what the author of that passage meant. Some might go further and look up some definitions in a Greek or Hebrew Bible dictionary. We never stop to think what other information we might need in order to understand the Bible. Many times, we even misinterpret certain passages because we don’t have enough background information to understand what the author of the passage had in mind. I previously gave a small example of this regarding the phrase “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. Modern readers look at this passage and believe it describes a reaction to physical pain. However, this is not what the phrase means; it describes the reaction of people experiencing public shame or dishonor.

Let me give you another example. In Luke 14:26, Jesus states that a person must hate his father, mother, wife children and siblings before that person can come to Jesus. Many uninformed skeptics use this verse to show that the Bible is a joke; after all, Jesus is telling us to hate our families. However, scholars have pointed out that, back then, love had a different sort of meaning. Love mean something more akin to attachment and loyalty to the group. In contrast, hate meant to disattach oneself from the group. This bit of background info then helps illuminate this passage. Jesus wasn’t telling his followers to hate, he was telling them that he demanded a loyalty from his followers that went beyond loyalty to family. In a culture where family and group belonging meant more than life, this was revolutionary teaching.

I cannot stress enough how important this is. The problem that I see is that many Christians and non-Christians assume the Bible was written TO us; to Americans living in 21st century America. It wasn’t. Each book of the Bible was written to a specific audience living in a different culture at different times in history. Granted, the Bible was written FOR all Christians; however, it as not written TO us. If we want to really understand what the Bible teaches, it’s important to learn the background and history of the Bible. I would give the same advice to skeptics or non-Christians who have problems with the Bible. If you do not know the historical and cultural context of the passage you have a problem with, then you have no business whining about it.