Category Archives: The World of the Bible

A World of Hyperbole

Regular readers of my blog will know that I write endlessly about the culture of the ancient world, especially that of the Bible. As I constantly remind my readers, ancient culture is a gateway into better understanding all the nuances of what the Bible teaches. I write about this often because modern, mainstream Christians, skeptics and atheists do not understand just how much our modern culture differs from the culture of the Bible. In addition, we don’t realize just how much influence our culture wields over our interpretations of biblical teaching.

In this post, I want to discuss the ancient cultural value of hyperbole and exaggeration. The ancients used hyperbole and dramatic expression almost to a fault. In fact, as I understand it, many Middle-Eastern cultures still do. Almost 100 years ago, Abraham Rihbany, an American Christian wrote:

The Oriental (Middle-Eastern) piles up his metaphors and superlatives, reinforced by a theatrical display of gestures and facial expressions, in order to make his listener feel his meaning… Just as the Oriental  loves to flavor his food strongly and to dress in bright colours, so is he fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and postiveness in speech. To him mild accuracy is a weakness (p. 83-84

According to Rihbany, who was himself from the Middle East, what matters is the “flavor of what is being said, not the details. At another point in the book, He writes of what an old friend said when Rihbany visited him:

In welcoming me to his house, an old friend of mine spoke with impressive cheerfulness as follows: ‘You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you can burn it if you wish. My children also are at your disposal;  i would sacrifice them all for your pleasure’ (p. 91)

Obviously, Rihbany’s friend isn’t endorsing child sacrifice here; it’s  a clear use of hyperbole. Rihbany also notes that this is the world that Jesus lived in as well. Unlike our western culture, Jesus lived in a place where exaggeration and hyperbole were default modes of communication. What mattered was the “feeling” of the message, not the precision of it. Modern Christians and skeptics may chafe at this but modern scholarship confirms Rihbany’s point. In The Handbook of Biblical Social Values, scholar John J. Pilch writes:

Words and language are very important in Mediterranean culture, for they are related to manliness. The man who is eloquent and capable of strong rhetoric is viewed as a strong man… Eloquence involves the skill of verbal exaggeration and over-assertion… Exaggeration is quite common in the culture

This is very different from our culture which values precision and “getting to the point”. Only a little bit of googling is needed to show that modern Christians are heavily influenced by their culture’s distaste for exaggeration and hyperbole. In fact, one guy had the following question on a Christian forum:

exaggerate

Our culture so dislikes hyperbole and exaggeration that he actually has to wonder whether the Bible says anything about. In addition, I googled “verses about exaggeration” and found this:

LIES

Apparently what the Bible says about exaggeration is tied to what it says about lying, i.e. it’s bad. This should be enough to show a clear bias that modern, American Christians have. Generally, they equate lying and exaggeration as one and the same. You can’t exaggerate because that would be lying. The funny thing is that this is much more a product of modern, Western culture than anything the Bible teaches. Bible scholar, John J. Pilch sums it up quite nicely:

A technological society like mainstream Untied States culture is tied to precision. Dramatic orientation, exaggeration, and over-assertion waste precious time by not getting to the point… Creativity, Imagination and boasting… have no place in a society driven by productivity; machines will tolerate no exaggeration, imprecision, or tardiness. Dramatic orientation is suitable for the theater but not for real life.

This reaction against exaggeration, hyperbole, etc is due mainly to our culture and not what the Bible teaches. As I said above, the Biblical world was the exact opposite. Despite this, atheists and self-styled skeptics point to “questionable”  and contradictory verses in the Bible and whine very loudly when they are told that these verses are hyperbole. Here are some examples of how hyperbole is used in the Bible.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and castit from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)

I know many atheist websites that point to this verse and claim that Jesus is commanding evil or something like that. Out of ignorance, they misread what is clear hyperbole. Jesus is not actually teaching us to cut off limbs; he is using hyperbole to make a rhetorical point.

In another example, we have an atheist who might as well stamp his ignorance onto his forehead when he complains about a verse I’ve covered before:

[Jesus] told his followers to hate their families.

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

Clearly, this person is either willfully ignorant or stupid if he believes that Jesus actually was teaching his followers to hate is family. As I’ve said before, this is clearly hyperbole used to make the point that Jesus’ followers owed him their primary loyalty.

In addition, we see many instances of exaggeration and hyperbole in the Old Testament. In Exodus, for example, God pronounces judgment on on Egypt and says:

and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the female servant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the animals. Then there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as was not like it before, nor shall be like it again. (Exodus 11:5-6)

It should be obvious that the incomparable cry of Egypt is clearly hyperbolic. God is not making a statement about a literal cry that will literally be heard throughout the entire Egyptian nation that will never again be equaled. That much should be obvious. Here’s another example, God supposedly makes a promise to Solomon in the Old Testament:

12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you; and I will give you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like. (2 Chronicles 1:12)

Really? Solomon is going to be a greater king than David? What about King Hezekiah?

He [Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:5-6)

So which one is greater? The village idiots who run the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible would be delighted to call this a contradiction. These buffoons will not see this as the dramatic exaggeration that it is supposed to be. It’s not meant to be taken literally in the sense that King Solomon or Hezekiah really is the greatest monarch to have ever lived in all history.

Whether we like it or not, the authors in the Bible lived in a culture that continually used exaggeration and hyperbole in their communication. As a result, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bible contains plenty of exaggeration and hyperbole. Christians need not be uncomfortable when faced with this. There is nothing wrong with exaggeration and hyperbole. I find it ridiculous that some Christians actually equate hyperbole and exaggeration with lying. Such notions display a complete ignorance of the Bible. In addition, skeptics would do well to avoid using instances of exaggeration and hyperbole as ammunition in their endless and fanatical crusade against Christianity.


Adam and Eve, Myth and Modernism

In a post written awhile back, Free Northerner wrote the following about creationism and the book of Genesis:

Creationists have lost completely their conception of primal/mythic truth. They can not conceive of Truth apart from fact, so their faith rests on a literal interpretation of what is fairly obviously poetical and has a high chance of not being meant to be understood literally. They believe that if creation as written isn’t fact then it can’t be true and therefore the Bible is false and the faith is false…

…As I said recently, “Modernism, in its essence, is the destruction of myth in the human experience and its replacement by fact, often false. Modernism is the entirety of truth being conquered by fact. Buying into the naturalist, materialist world-view is to swallow modernity whole.” To debate creationism as a science is to accept the modern frame.

I think he makes a good point. Our modern culture views truth and fact as if they are one and the same without realizing that literature and “myths” can communicate truths as well, regardless of whether they are fiction or not. Something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Homer’s The Iliad is able to communicate truths about humanity even if they are fiction or didn’t really happen.

I have recently finished John Walton’s  book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. The book is a game-changer and I highly recommend it to any who are interested. After reading this book, I believe Free Northerner is more accurate that even he might realize. In short, Walton argues that we are forcing our modern, anachronistic mindsets and motivations onto the Genesis account if we are expecting the bible to “do science”. Walton writes:

In our culture, we think “scientifically.” We are primarily concerned with causation, composition and systematization. In the ancient world they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery. We are primarily interested in events and material realia whereas they are more interested in ideas and their representation (p. 136).

Walton goes on to describe what this means for the book of Genesis using a very interesting analogy. He compares two images of the night sky: a picture taken by the Hubble Space telescope and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night

pictures

Walton writes:

People would never consider doing astronomy from the van Gogh and could not do so even if they wanted to; the image contains nothing of the composition or position of stars. At the same time, we would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognize that [van Gogh’s] depiction is independent of science but not independent of truth… Imagistic history, like that preserved in Genesis, is to history as The Starry Night is to a Hubble photograph.

If this is the case, how exactly do we look at the creation story? We come from a scientific culture that is concerned with fact; therefore we are inclined to think about material origins and the mechanisms that were used to create this world. We then read Genesis as describing just that, the material origins and mechanisms that created the world. However, is that what the Genesis story is really claiming? Walton argues that no, the Genesis account is not a scientific treatise on the material origins of the planet. Therefore we shouldn’t treat the account as such.

Well, then what is the Genesis account trying to do? Walton argues that the first chapter of genesis is an account of the functional origins of the universe, rather than the material origin. To borrow one of Walton’s illustrations, let’s imagine a house. A house is not a home. You can have a house completely built with it’s walls, carpeting and flooring already in place; however, it is not the same thing as a home. When does a house become a home? When the residents move in and begin to live there. Walton argues that Genesis is not telling us how the house was constructed, rather, it is telling us how the house became a home. There is much more to this than I can write here, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walton’s book if your interest is piqued.

Regarding the account of Adam and Eve, Walton affirms that they are indeed historical figures, however,  Genesis isn’t really interested in them as historical figures. In other words, Genesis is not a biography of Adam and Eve. According to Walton, Genesis treats Adam and Eve as archetypal figures and uses them to illustrate truths about humanity. Thus, what was true for Adam is also true for us. Let’s use Genesis 2:7 to help illustrate Walton’s argument:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Now the question we must ask ourselves is whether this verse is actually referring to the literal, material creation of a single man from literal dust. Walton highlights a few problems with this interpretation:

The most basic way to think about dust would be to view it as part of the chemical composition of the human body. That approach immediately has several drawbacks. First, the Israelites would not be inclined to thinking in terms of chemistry. They would have no means to do that, and therefore they had something else in mind as they considered this detail. Second, we would have to consider it flawed chemistry from our vantage point, in that dust could hardly be considered the primary ingredient of the human body.

A common alternative to thinking in terms of chemistry is to understand the statement in the text as referring to craftsmanship. In this way of thinking, the imagery is of a “hands-on” God who has fashioned his creature with loving care and then bestowed on him the breath of life. The major problem with this is that the ingredient chosen would not make sense if the main idea were craftsmanship. One shapes clay, not dust. The latter is impervious to being shaped by its very nature. (p. 72-73)

An alternative interpretation would be that the dust here refers to mortality. What the text is doing here is highlighting Adam’s mortality in order to illuminate the truth about our own mortality. In other word, just as Adam was mortal, so too are we. We see this emphasized later when God tells Adam that he is dust and that to dust Adam shall return (Genesis 3:19). Now, I know that many reading that will immediately chafe at such a statement. How could Adam be mortal before the fall? After all, death came into the world because of sin, that’s what Paul says. This contradicts what Paul is says in the New Testament. Now, I have no intention of defending Walton’s theory against every objection that could come up. I’ll simply direct those interested to pick up a copy of Walton’s book and read it thoroughly before objecting. That said, I will provide an answer to this specific objection.

Walton provides some persuasive textual evidence for Adam being created mortal. For example, the text mentions that the tree of life was in the garden. The fact that God provided one suggests mortality because immortal people have no need for a tree of life. What about Paul? Walton has this to say:

Now, lest we think that Paul’s statement (Romans 5:12) might be out of sync with Genesis, we out to look more carefully at what [Paul] is affirming. In Genesis, we find that people are cast from God’s presence when they sin and that a cherub is posted by the entry to the garden to prevent access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). If people were created mortal, the tree of life would have provided a remedy, an antidote to their mortality. When they sinned, they lost access to the antidote and therefore were left with no remedy and were doomed to die (i.e., subject to their natural mortality). In this case, Paul is saying only that all of us are subject to death because of sin: sin cost us the solution to mortality, and so we are trapped in our mortality. He is therefore not affirming that people were created immortal and is precisely in line with the information from Genesis (p.73-74)

Of course other objections are also brought up. How can creation be good if death existed before the fall?  Again, if you really are interested in understanding Walton’s interpretation of Genesis, I highly recommend you read Walton’s book. Walton deals with this objection and many others while also shedding some much needed light on the more confusing passages. I bring this book to your attention for two reasons. First, I think it is a fascinating book that offers and intriguing interpretation of Genesis, original sin and how that fits in with what Paul teaches in the New Testament. The author of Genesis is much more interested in showing us who we are as humans and our relationship to God rather than offering a scientific explanation of the origins of the world. Now, before anyone gets ahead of themselves, I’m not saying I completely agree with Walton on this; I simply think this is an interesting interpretation that Christians should think about.

Second, I think Free Northerner makes a very good point. We’ve lost our sense of “mythic/primal” truth and have become obsessed with facts and science; they are the only things that matter now. The fact that we are looking for science in a text that arguable has none says more about our modern obsessions than anything else. We’ve, in essence, ingested the poison of modernity which tells us that scientific fact is all that matters. As a result, we’ve lost our sense of the divine, of beauty, of mythic truth and much more. There is so much more that can be said on this subject but we’ll end with Free Northerner’s powerful thought:

Science discovers fact, mundane truth, but it doesn’t discover Truth and it cannot create Truth, it cannot even create truth. To elevate science above its place is to destroy reason and Truth.


What is Faith?

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” – Mark Twain

I remember completely butchering a lesson at a youth group meeting once. The teacher was talking about “having faith in God” and called me up to illustrate what he meant. He had me stand on a chair and told me to pretend that I was on the roof of a burning, 10-story building. He told me that I had to jump and to trust that he would catch me. I was a kid and completely misunderstood the lesson he was trying to teach. For some reason, I thought I was supposed to stand firm and not fall for his lies. So every time he told me to jump, I simply shook my head. The teacher kept trying to get me to jump to no avail and finally gave up saying that if I did jump it was supposed to illustrate what faith was as opposed to mere belief. I laugh about it now but the question remains. What exactly is faith and is it really different from mere belief?

Many of those who grew up Christian know or at least were taught that there is a huge difference between faith and belief. Belief is something of the mind; it is simply assenting to a certain fact. However, belief by itself doesn’t save you; it isn’t enough. Faith, on the other hand, is a lot more than that. Faith is active trust in something or someone. You may believe that the chair in front of you will support your weight; however, you aren’t placing your trust in the chair until you actually sit on it. I’m sure many reading this right now will be very familiar with this explanation of faith.

Those of you who listen to me rant will know that I am a huge fan of seeing how the ancients looked at the world and using that to interpret the Bible. You’ll also know how wary I am of imposing our modern, western mindset on an ancient document that was complied almost 2000 years ago. When I did a little research into the subject, what I found surprised me quite a bit. It seems that modern Christians HAVE been reading modern notions into the Bible when it comes to faith.

In the Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Bruce Malina writes that faith refers to:

the value of reliability… Relative to persons, faith is reliability in interpersonal relations; it thus takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The nouns ‘faith, ‘belief’,’ ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness,’ as well as the verbs ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe,’ refer to the social glue that binds one person to another. This bond is the social, externally manifested, emotional rooted behavior of loyalty, commitment and solidarity.

Reading this for the first time was revolutionary. Faith is not so much belief/trust as it is a personal loyalty. This makes a lot of sense as in the ancient world, loyalty was of paramount importance. The ancients did not have indoor plumbing, power grids, the internet or other modern luxuries. As such, they had to work together to survive. This dependence on the group for survival elevated loyalty to a primary value. Self-reliance or “doing your own thing” was practically impossible and even looked down upon as it endangered the entire group. .

When the ancients spoke of faith, especially of faith in God, they were not talking about any sort of mental exercise much less mere belief in the existence of God. God’s existence was assumed and not a question they wrestled with. The question was whether one was loyal to God. I actually touched upon this in a previous post:

Biblical scholar Larry Hurtado writes that the issue for the ancient Israelities was who they worshiped and were loyal to, not strictly belief in the existence of one god. Peter Haymon states that the thing that mattered for the ancient Jew was that God be the sole object of worship, not the sole divine being in existence

You see the issue of loyalty come up multiple times in Jesus’ teachings. For example, Jesus states that:

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Some will chafe when I say that this is clearly poetic hyperbole, but that’s the simple fact. Jesus isn’t telling his followers they have to hate their own families. Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that he wanted his followers to be loyal to him above everything else. If the ancient world placed a huge emphasis on loyalty, i.e. faithfulness, then you would expect it to come up often in the Bible. We don’t see it as much because we substitute our modern notions into the word faith. But remember that faith is much more than any kind of trust or belief in the existence of God, it is a personal loyalty to God. In addition, faith presupposes belief in the existence of God, after all, you wouldn’t pledge your loyalty to someone you know doesn’t exist. In this way, we can see someone’s conversion to Christianity as a change in allegiance. No longer are they loyal to themselves, Allah or the teachings of Buddha.

Such a definition of faith is superior, in my opinion, because it emphasizes both action and a sense of duty to God that our modern definition lacks.


The “Rape” of Bathseba

Here’s a link to a blog post written by a feminist who believes that that David raped Bathsheba. While reading it, the first thing I thought was “this author is probably a feminist”; lo and behold, when I read the mini biography she provided, she stated that she is interested in “queer, feminist/womanist, and liberation theologies”. Ok then.

In a completely unscientific analysis, I googled “the rape of Bathsheba” and found a good number of articles and material arguing that Bathsheba was indeed the victim of rape. Funny thing was that a good amount of these articles were written by feminists. Interesting. The two articles I read on the subject provided next to no analysis on the subject and simply conclude that Bathsheba was raped because David was all powerful and would kill her if she refused. Or they point to the difference between two different commentaries and pick the one most fitting for their point as the correct interpretation. Hmmm… OK. I’ve written way too much about reading the Bible in the proper cultural and historical in order to really understand what is going on. So I won’t repeat that here. For now, let’s just see what happens when we read this story with knowledge of the proper context.

“In the spring of the year, at the time when kings  normally conduct wars, David sent out Joab with his officers 3  and the entire Israelite army. They defeated the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed behind in Jerusalem. One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. Now this woman was very attractive.” – 2 Samuel 11:1-2 (NET Bible)

There is so much going on in this passage alone, but we’ll zero in on the second verse. It starts with “one evening David got up from his bed”. Notice that David had just gotten up from his bed, heavily implying that he had just been sleeping or at least trying sleep and failing. When do people go to sleep? At night… when it’s dark. Keep this in mind as it will be very important for our analysis

The next sentence states that David saw a woman bathing from where he was standing. Now, woman don’t bathe in places where they could be seen publicly. This is true now as it was in the ancient world. Furthermore, we have to remember that it was dark. People did not use electricity nor did the streets have lights… that is if there even were streets. That said, it would have been impossible for David to see Bathsheba bathing unless she had provided sufficient light to be seen from the roof of David’s palace. Hmm… curiouser and curiouser.

Now, we might posit that Bathsheba simply wasn’t aware that she could be seen from the palace. Scholars Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien beg to differ:

“In antiquity, people were cognizant of their proximity to the seat of power. Even today ,White House offices are ranked by their distance from the Oval Office. We would be unlikely to believe a White House aid who said, “I just stepped out in the hallway to talk. I didn’t realize the president of the United States walked down this hallway every day at this time!” Likewise, we would be skeptical if Bathseba asserted, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was the king’s balcony.” We think the story is told in a way to imply that she intended to be seen by the king. Her plan works”. p. 122 “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

So, now we get to the root of the matter. Bathsheba intended to be seen by David. But she was already married to Uriah, why would she cheat on him. Well, that isn’t as hard a question to answer as you might think. I’ll just let Rollo Tomassi answer that question for you:

Hypergamy is a woman’s natural (which is to say, genetically wired) preference for a higher status male–that is, higher status than herself and also higher status than the other men in her field of vision and also perhaps higher status than men she has known in the past.

I’ll make it easy for the reader to understand. King David was a high-status man. He was king of Israel and had the reputation of a warrior; he did kill the giant Goliath after all. What is interesting is that verse four tells us that at the time Bathseba “was in the process of purifying herself from her menstrual uncleanness”. In other words, she was ripe for conception. What higher-status male could Bathsheba get to impregnate her other than King David?

While this might sound like I am reading far too much into the text, keep in mind that the author of the text would have assumed that his audience would know all this. I’ve written before about the way the Bible was written and it is extremely important that we do not lose sight of that.

Despite what feminist bloggers might think, there was no rape. The text drops some pretty big hints that Bathsheba intended to be seen by David and planned the ordeal to some extent and though there is more that is going on in the story, I’ll stop here for now. I only wanted to set the record straight and show what is really going on in the “rape” of Bathsheba. The rest of the story can wait for another time.

I find it hilarious that anytime a woman might be culpable for some crime or wrong; feminists are so quick to blame everyone other than the woman herself. What will they do next, abolish prison for women? Oh wait, they are actually trying… thank you, Dalrock for the pointer.


Hive Mind

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” – Japanese Proverb

In my last post, I wrote about the individualism of Western/American culture and how it affects the way we look at the world. I want to take some time to compare this “culture of self” with a different one: the collectivist culture. Simply put, a collectivist culture is one that views the community and not the individual as the bedrock of society.

In the book, The Samurai, one character, a missionary says this about Japanese culture:

The Japanese never live their lives as individuals. We European missionaries were not aware of the fact. Suppose we have a single Japanese here. We try to convert him. But there was never a single individual we could call “him” in Japan. He has a village behind hi. A family. And more. There are also his dead parents and ancestors are bound to him tightly, as though they were living beings. That is why he is not an isolated human being. He is an aggregate who must shoulder the burden of village, family, parents, ancestors…. When the first missionary to Japan… began his labours… this was the most formidable obstacle he encountered. The Japanese said, “I believe the Christian teachings are good. But I would be betraying my ancestors if I went to a Paradise where they cannot dwell.

Japanese culture was and still is a collectivist culture. The individual is tightly bound to the group he was born into, his family and ancestors. This is not just some small, superficial difference. The collectivist culture greatly affects the way the individual person feels, acts and sees the world. The collectivist person views the family or group he or she belongs too as the most important part of life. As a result, the collectivist person does what the group/family wants. Conformity is the name of the game in a collectivist culture; individual people are expected to conform their behaviors, beliefs, opinions to that of the entire group. Failure to do so leads to shame and embarrassment of the entire group. The American looking in on such a culture would be horrified; preserving our individuality is so important to us that we believe individuality necessary for a “healthy identity”, whatever that means. We are encouraged to be true to ourselves and to do our own thing. Such an attitude would be considered harmful and dangerous in a collectivist culture. Below is a handy chart that lists a few important differences between the individualist culture of the United States and the collectivist cultures of other countries.

 

Collectivist Chart

from the “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels”

There is much more to a collectivist culture than this chart can illustrate, but this gives a good, basic understanding of the differences between our individualist culture and the collectivist culture.

Well, this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with the Bible? Good question. Simply put, the culture of the Biblical world was a collectivist culture. Paul, Jesus, David, etc all lived in it. Individualism as we know it did not exist at the time. Therefore, if we want to really understand what the Bible teaches, we need to stop reading the Bible with individualist lens and start looking to the ways the original audience would have understood the Bible.

One area this comes into play is the way we think about the church. Due to individualist assumptions, Americans tend to view the church as a social club. I’ve heard too often of someone leaving a church for another because they weren’t “getting fed” at that particular church. I’m not getting fed, I’m not growing, I don’t like the sermons, etc. Needless to say, this is a very self-centered attitude. The focus is on the “I”. However, this is not biblical. To the early Christian, simply getting up and leaving was not an option. Paul uses the metaphor of the body to get this point across and warns that “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!‘” The average American Christian is ready to leave the local church when things are tough and he or she “isn’t getting fed”. This sort of complaint would have likely been looked down upon in the early church because of the focus on the individual. What matters is the body or church as a whole and if the individual members simply leave when the going gets tough…. well, I can’t think of  faster way to weaken the local church than this sort of thinking.

I believe that Christians will gain a much better understanding of the Bible if they began to read the Bible the way its ancient audience did instead of reading it like a personal letter from God.


Laws of Savages Part 2

This is the second part of my series responding to hessianwithteeth’s comments on Deuteronomy. You can catch the first part here. Because no intro is needed, we’ll dive right in.

hessianwithteeth says “Moses then says ‘Do not follow other gods.’ More polytheism”

Many skeptics and atheists believe verses like this  teach polytheism as opposed to monotheism. Now, there is a grain of truth in that the Old Testament does not monotheism. The Old Testament doesn’t teach that only God exists so much as only God is worthy of loyalty and worship. It may come as a shock to some Christians, but ancient Judaism wasn’t a necessarily a monotheistic religion. And this isn’t just me making things up; many biblical scholars have written on this subject. Michael Heiser states that the word “monotheism” is an inaccurate description of ancient Judaism. Biblical scholar Larry Hurtado writes that the issue for the ancient Isrealities was who they worshipped and were loyal to not strictly belief in the existence of one god. Peter Haymon states that the thing that mattered for the ancient Jew was that God be the sole object of worship, not the sole divine being in existence.

hessianwithteeth says “Taking and raping non-Israelite women is acceptable if you find them beautiful…so long as you marry them first”

I’m assuming the passage hessianwithteeth takes offense to is Deuteronomy 21:10-14. Once again, this objection reads the text through modern eyes and gives no thought to the conditions that might give rise to such a law. Let’s sketch a brief picture here. Imagine for a second a young woman whose city has been overrun by the Israelite army. Her family was killed and the man she would have married was killed as well. What exactly does hessianwithteeth expect her to do? Her home was destroyed and anyone she knew most likely killed. The nearest city was 25 miles away. Finding refuge in a city would have been out of the question. Walking the road to the nearest city would place in in danger from roving bandits and marauders who would most certainly brutalize and rape her. Assuming she somehow managed to get to the nearest city, what exactly could she do? There would be a high risk of abuse and molestation (being alone in a city with no police, no relatives can lead to this sort of thing). The notion of the independent woman striking out on her own and succeeding is a purely modern one. If she stayed in the ruins of the city, she faced a slow and miserable death from starvation, thirst, disease, etc. That is, if bands of marauders and slave traders didn’t find her first and sell into slavery after raping her. This is the situation the woman faced.

Now imagine an Israelite soldier finds her, sees she is still young and reasonably attractive and decides to marry her. This passage would require the man to first take her and allow her some time to mourn her family for a full month. Don’t forget that the man would be obligated to support her her with food and shelter during this time of mourning; who else will? Afterwards, she would be married to this man who would continue to provide her with food, shelter and the possibility of a future family. Furthermore, the the man did not like her, he was FORBIDDEN from selling her into slavery or take advantage of her. He was required by law to let her go wherever she pleased; she would be a free citizen. If this is the situation the woman faced, then you tell me what you think she would have preferred. This sounds like the law was made with the captive woman in mind.

Many scholars have concluded that such a law was a step up from the practices of surrounding cultures where the captives were killed, raped, brutalized and/or sold into slavery. Researcher Glenn Miller writes that biblical scholars find the legal provisions here to be “exceptionable, remarkable, compassionate and even humanistic!”. It’s easy for the modern reader to chafe at such a practice, having grown up in more luxury than ancient kings. But when the surrounding context of the passage is taken into account, these legal requirements show a compassionate lawgiver who is concerned with the plight of the captive woman.

That’s all the time I have to write today; in fact, I think I hear my homework calling…


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.