Monday, September 07, 2009

Five Inconvenient Bible Verses

Friends and I were talking over the weekend about someone we know who insists that the Bible is literal truth. A 2006 Rasmussen survey found that 54% of American voters believe this; this percentage is highest among evangelical Christians, lower among Catholics, and lowest -- of course -- among us Godless liberals in the Northeast.

A literal interpretation of the Bible is not only lazy but presumptuous. If God is a being all-present, all-knowing and all-powerful -- as the Catholic catechism says and as I, in fact, believe -- how could God's vast revelation possibly be distilled into a single set of documents, filtered and edited and translated again and again over centuries?

What this survey says to me is that most Americans haven't read the Bible. If they had, they might find themselves wondering about the literal truth of these verses, among others. (All quotations taken from The Jerusalem Bible, (c) 1966, 1967 & 1968 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc.)

1. Exodus 21:7. "If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not regain her liberty like male slaves. If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, thus treating her unfairly." So for future reference, fathers, you can rest easy knowing that only you have the right to sell your daughter. Go ahead and try it. The Bible says it's okay.

2. Leviticus 11:10-11. "But anything in sea or river that has not fins or scales, or all the small water-creatures and all the living things found there, must be held detestable. You must hold them detestable; you are not to eat their flesh and you must avoid their carcasses." Leviticus 11 is the basis for kosher food laws, and made a great deal of sense for a nomadic people living in a hot climate. Camels, hyraxes and pigs are unclean; locusts are quite all right. I often wonder why the fundamentalist Christians who insist on the literal truth of the Bible don't keep kosher, or follow the restrictions on cutting one's hair.

3. Deuteronomy 21:10-11. "When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife." What's a small thing like the Geneva Convention against the literal word of God?

4. 1 Corinthians 8:12. "That is why, since food can be the occasion of my brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of a brother's downfall." Paul is discussing the danger of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol. I wonder what he'd have made of the Golden Arches. To be fair, some Christian sects (such as the Seventh Day Adventists) do espouse vegetarianism, but I don't think it's caught on among the Southern Baptists.

5. Luke 18:22. "And when Jesus heard this he said, 'There is still one thing you lack. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." This, as far as I'm concerned, is the tactical nuclear weapon against the self-righteous fundamentalist. Jesus says to his believers -- literally -- "Put your money where your mouth is." A few verses later he relents a little, because his followers point out that this is simply not possible for most people: "'In that case,' said the listeners, 'who can be saved?' 'Things that are impossible for men,' he replied, 'are possible for God.'"

And I guess that's my point here. The Bible is a book of marvels and great wisdom; in addition to some scary stuff about slaves and uncleanness and the role of women in a household, it is also full of powerful truths about the way we ought to treat each other in war and peace, responsible land use, childrearing, and a host of other issues. If you read the entire Bible, instead of cherry-picking the bits and pieces that support your own religion's point of view, you see a God we cannot hope to understand except, in Paul's words, "through a glass darkly." At best, the Bible is that glass, but the image is still pretty muddy.


Moira said...

Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

I rarely believe that what I write is the literal truth. Damned if I'm going to believe what anyone else has jotted down unquestionably.

-- Ed

Larry said...

Well done. Nice to have you back.

SarahLea said...

I love this.

Anonymous said...



Jack said...

On #1, we should look at the whole passage for context:
7 If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.
8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.
9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter.
10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.
11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
So the situation is more like a dowry given to the father for his daughter's hand than it is the sale of a slave. How can one break faith with a slave?

Jack said...

#2 -- On Kosher foods.

The church has long taught that Jesus declaration in Mark 7:18-19 ("Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.") along with Peter's dream in Acts 10:10, removed the dietary laws.

While we may be wrong in accepting this view, it is not our view alone, nor a new interpretation, but the interpretation of men and women who literally lived and died studying the Bible.

Jack said...

#3 Considering she could not thereafter be sold as a slave, it was probably better.

Jack said...

Possibly the worse translation I have ever seen. First, the dependent and independent clauses have switched places; then the "if" is replaced by "since," completely changing the meaning.

Now, just previously, in verse 8, Paul says that meat is OK. His concern here is that, seeing one eat meat, a brother might wrongly conclude that eating meat that had been offered to idols was also OK to eat.

It is for this verse, however, that I do not eat unkosher food in the presence of my Jewish friends who do not, nor do I eat meat in the presence of my vegetarian friends.

Jack said...

#5 -------------
As the disciples rightly point out, we cannot save ourselves. As Jesus said, God can do that impossible thing. What does he ask?

"If ye love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15)

AnswerGirl said...

Chip, you can read Aramaic? I'm impressed.

Jack said...

The New Testament was written in Greek, not Aramaic.

AnswerGirl said...

Sorry, my mistake -- I should have remembered that. Wow, Chip, you read ancient Greek? I'm impressed.

Jack said...

A little. It amused me no end that our motto was in Greek, but Greek was not taught. So I picked up a book and started learning. It's not as though I'm trying to speak it or understand the spoken word.

Aside from the Latin and German from H.S., I've also dabbled in Russian and Welsh (a truly fascinating language), Greek, and (most recently) Japanese.

I absolutely love languages!

Leah said...

It amazes me that people can accept the big bang theory yet have people ever wondered where the rest of the universe came from? I believe somone made it along with earth. I AM a CHRISTIAN and there are things i wonder about, but the fact remains that there are things that only a higher power can do, I have seen it and it never stops amazing me!

AnswerGirl said...

I do not allow anonymous comments on this blog, and not on this post of all posts. I welcome polite discussion and feedback, but my name is on this, and I ask that yours be as well.

Teddy said...

Thank you for this. I literally just posted something very similar. I'm glad there are people who aren't completely stubborn out there.