Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I'm a loser, Baby, so why dontcha kill me...*

One favorite debate trick to dismiss the Bible is to invoke a seemingly trivial Old Testament capital crime.

One such passage was in the Morning Prayer lessons today:

But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God... Deuteronomy 13:5

So, is this the debate ending trump card that proves the Bible to be a book of intolerance, or that proves believers to be hypocrites who live by some verses and not others?


One of the most credible things about the Bible is that it shows God at work on the human race in various ages, with various needs, bodies of knowledge and blind spots. The Bible is not a book of pretty stories divorced from human reality. The people to whom this law was addressed were, by our standards, primitive. They lived in a harsh time of short life spans, where people fought over waterholes, for example. Yet God engages them and begins to teach them.

The core of the early Old Testament law was to build a holy community distinct from the surrounding pagan religions. Yes, this included some harsh and uncompromising sanctions. It also included honesty in trade, fair treatment of migrants, and other standards of social justice that even the most progressive among us today would be loathe to dismiss. It included the elimination of human sacrifice, which was common among the pagan religions - all the more reason to aggessively eliminate their influences from the emerging community.

Even an atheist would have to admit that we have progressed from ancestors who did what they could with what they had. "Doctors" at one point in our human history, using the best evidence they had from observation and reflection, drilled holes in peoples' skulls to relieve headaches. So, do we dismiss medical science? Ancients spotted patterns in the heavens and drew conclusions we now find goofy. Do we therefore dismiss astronomy? Reading the Bible takes this same awareness that every age gained insight and had blind spots.

A second flaw in the "trivial capital punishment" critique of the Bible is the failure to read the whole Bible see how God developed and altered the rules for the people. The New Testament is built around the sacrificial death of Christ, which replaces and eliminates much of the Old Testament ritual law. We also see that God's community on Earth, the church, does not (at least in the New Testament, which is sadly ignored in some periods of church history) employ capital punishment, because a) it wants people to have time for repentance and salvation and b) it considers excommunication a much worse punishment.

The church, in many cases, has lost the sense that its ministry is about eternal life and death issues. Laity are uninformed and don't read the Bible with any consistency, and clergy get caught up in this or that agenda du jour and stop teaching the faith. And so the loudest, most confident voices become those who defend or critique the Bible from a simplistic, all-parts-no-whole approach.

*Beck, 1993

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