God’s moral instruction book


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4 Responses to God’s moral instruction book

  1. Scott says:

    David Robertson’s replies to the Bible’s apparent endorsement of such things as murder (etc). in The Dawkins Letters:

    …you need to learn the basic principles of reading the Bible. You must always read it in context – that includes historical, literary, theological and biblical context. To read out of context is to misread. Then you must recognize that much of the Bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, it is telling us what went on rather than what should have happened.

    Paul Copan’s Reply in Is God A Moral Monster:

    Twelfth-century rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) counted out 613 distinct laws (365 prohibitions, 248 positive commands) in the Pentateuch. Talk about dos and don’ts! It’s no secret that Westerners find many of these commands—and the ancient Near Eastern world in general—baffling. They seem millions of miles removed from us—all the regulations about food laws and skin diseases, not to mention prohibitions against cutting the edges of one’s beard, wearing tattoos, or cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk. Israel’s perplexing precepts, principles, and punishments seem odd, arbitrary, and severe. When the New Atheists refer to the “ubiquitous weirdness” of the Bible, this may simply be the knee-jerk reaction of cultural snobbery or emotional dislike. It may also reflect a lack of patience to truly understand a world different from ours. C. S. Lewis warns against chronological snobbery—the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”2 How would you respond to the challenges of the open letter? Our discussion in part 3 will look at laws that may strike us as random, bizarre, and harsh.

    While the Old Testament world is in many ways a strange world to us moderns, to be fair-minded, we should at least try to understand it better. After some introductory thoughts to frame the discussion, we’ll look at issues related to cleanliness and the treatment of women and slaves, concluding our discussion with Israelite warfare. Hopefully, this lengthy but popular-level discussion will help put Israel’s laws and ancient Near Eastern assumptions into proper perspective. The Law of Moses: Inferior and Provisional On Palm Sunday in 1865, the brilliant Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the tenacious, gritty Northern general Ulysses S. Grant— sometimes called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. This day at the Appomattox Court House was the decisive end to a costly war. Well over six hundred thousand men were killed in the Civil War—2 percent of the United States’ population—and three million fought in it.

    Despite the North’s victory, the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded it (January 1, 1863), and the attempt at Reconstruction in the South, many whites did not change their mind-set in regard to blacks. As a nation, we’ve found that proclamations and civil rights legislations may be law, but such legalities don’t eradicate racial prejudice from human minds. A good deal of time was required to make significant headway in the pursuit of racial justice. Let’s switch gears. Imagine a Western nation or representatives from the West who think it best to export democracy to, say, Saudi Arabia. Think of the obstacles to overcome! A radical change of mind-set would be required, and simply changing laws wouldn’t alter the thinking in Saudi Arabia. In fact, you could probably imagine large-scale cultural opposition to such changes. When we journey back over the millennia into the ancient Near East, we enter a world that is foreign to us in many ways. Life in the ancient Near East wouldn’t just be alien to us—with all of its strange ways and assumptions. We would also see a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall. Within this context, God raised up a covenant nation and gave the people laws to live by; he helped to create a culture for them. In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures.

    As we’ll see with regard to servitude, punishments, and other structures, a range of regulations and statutes in Israel reveals a God who accommodates. Yet contrary to the common Neo-atheists’ caricatures, these laws weren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all persons everywhere. God informed his people that a new, enduring covenant would be necessary (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). By the Old Testament’s own admission, the Mosaic law was inferior and future looking. Does that mean that God’s ideals turn up only in the New Testament? No, the ideals are established at the very beginning (Gen. 1–2). The Old Testament makes clear that all humans are God’s image-bearers; they have dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. And God’s ideal for marriage is a one-flesh monogamous union between husband and wife. Also, certain prohibitions in the law of Moses against theft, adultery, murder, and idolatry have enduring relevance. Yet when we look at God’s dealings with fallen humans in the ancient Near East, these ideals were ignored and even deeply distorted.

    So God was at work in seeking to restore or move toward this ideal. We know that many products on the market have a built-in, planned obsolescence. They’re designed for the short-term; they’re not intended to be long-lasting and permanent. The same goes for the law of Moses: it was never intended to be enduring. It looked forward to a new covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). It’s not that the Mosaic law was bad and therefore needed to be replaced. The law was good (Rom. 7:12), but it was a temporary measure that was less than ideal; it was in need of replacement and fulfillment. Though a necessary part of God’s unfolding plan, the Sinai legislation wasn’t God’s final word.

    As the biblical scholar N. T. Wright affirms, “The Torah [law of Moses at Sinai] is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside—not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished.”3 This is the message of the New Testament book of Hebrews: the old Mosaic law and other Old Testament institutions and figures like Moses and Joshua were prefiguring “shadows” that would give way to “substance” and completion. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, the law was a “tutor” for Israel to prepare the way for Christ. Incremental Steps toward the Ideal How then did God address the patriarchal structures, primogeniture (rights of the firstborn), polygamy, warfare, servitude/slavery, and a number of other fallen social arrangements that were permitted because of the hardness of human hearts? He met Israel partway.

    As Jesus stated it in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” We could apply this passage to many problematic structures within the ancient Near Eastern context: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted servitude and patriarchy and warfare and the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” They were not ideal and universal. After God invited all Israelites—male and female, young and old—to be a nation of priests to God, he gave them a simple covenant code (Exod. 20:22– 23:19). Following on the heels of this legislation, Israel rebelled against God in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32). High priests would also have their own rebellion by participating in deviant, idolatrous worship (Lev. 10). As a result of Israel’s turning from God, he gave them more stringent laws (Jer. 7; cf. Gal. 3:19). In the New Testament, Paul assumes that God had been putting up with inferior, less-than-ideal societal structures and human disobedience: • Acts 17:30: Previously, God “overlooked the times of ignorance” and is “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.” • Romans 3:25: God has now “demonstrate[d] His righteousness” in Christ, though “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Like two sides of the same coin, we have human hard-heartedness and divine forbearance. God put up with many aspects of human fallenness and adjusted accordingly.

  2. RP says:

    Sure, some text is metaphor, some is pure myth, some is poetry, some is proven forgery, some is the actual intention of God.

    Depending on who you ask, of course. How many thousands of theologians have spent hundreds of thousands of accumulated man-years trying to understand what God actually meant? After 2,000 years, have they reached any sort of useful consensus at all? None. This is history’s grand display of an utter waste of human energy.

    God’s biggest failure is making his message utterly incomprehensible to humanity.

    That, or the entire book of Bible is plain myths and fables cobbled together by an iron-age desert civilisation who knew less about the world, humanity and morality than any eight-year-old today.

    • Matt says:

      And of course, if he’s omnipotent, he knew; if he’s omnipresent, he could do something; if he’s omnibenevolent, he could guide us. And yet he won’t, and we’re all deluded by our rationality and need for evidence, and most will say that we’re at least a step or two closer to burning in agonizing torture eternally in Hell because of it. As Sam Harris said, there are so many faiths, and they’re all mutually exclusive, at least in some major details. Most of us are wrong, and most of us are lost and misguided. God failed, and we’re doomed because he failed.

      …Or, this malevolently confusing tome compiled in a time of ignorance could be false. HMMM…

      • RP says:

        With all this confusion and lack of consistency, the most rational thing for a believer would be to conclude that the Bible was written by Satan in an attempt to confound and lure us astray.

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