25 March 2012
Uncomfortable Laws from the Old Testament
It would be easy enough for me to dwell on the goodness of Jesus and wax eloquently on how much better the world would be, if more of us followed His example. However, that would seem to skirt the tough issues, so let me deal with a particular command from the Old Testament that I see in the comments here and on Facebook (when people want to ridicule Christianity). Deuteronomy 22: 28-29 says:
This is a particularly troubling passage right now, in light of an awful story involving a Moroccan girl who committed suicide when finding herself in just this predicament.
Before I try to reconcile this with my belief in the Bible—including its claims that the God who issued this rule is infinitely good—let me acknowledge that this really is troubling to me. So it’s not that I’m saying, “What’s the big deal here?” I don’t want to make light of these situations by any means.
I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: I literally came to my faith in God through Jesus, in at least two senses. First, as an atheist I thought I could best make sense out of history by hypothesizing that there really was a guy named Jesus, who really believed he was the prophesied Jewish Messiah, and that he really did go around healing people through the power of suggestion. (I don’t remember if I thought he “came back from the dead,” before I realized that some type of God existed. That whole period was pretty fluid for me and I can’t remember the precise order of events, but for sure I thought Jesus existed and committed “miracles” that could be rationally explained, before I believed in God.)
However, there is another sense in which my faith in the Biblical God came through Jesus. It was only because I trusted the man who issued all of the gorgeous and wise teachings in the gospels, that I entertained the notion that the God depicted in the Old Testament could be good. I knew Jesus was a far better man and had a more developed moral sense than I did, but the God of the Old Testament had seemed fickle and malevolent at times. Yet Jesus clearly says that this person is not only good, but perfect. So that really made me think.
So when I try to make sense of that Deuteronomy passage, here are some reactions:
(1) I don’t really know. This is the honest answer. I’ve explained several times and in different ways why I think there is a God, and I believe that Jesus was His human incarnation. I also believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. So given those views and all they imply, it has to be the case that it was just for God to issue the rules in Deuteronomy, even though many of them admittedly sound quite draconian and some even seem evil. As many of my atheist critics point out, it is presumptuous of any of us to discuss what motivates an omnipotent and omniscient being. So the real answer is, I don’t really know.
(2) But that’s no fun. Let’s try. The first thing is that you should read the whole chapter to put it into context. You’ll see that there are all sorts of rules, most of which sound fine, if perhaps a bit odd. There are other rules regarding sex, and although they are very harsh, they’re actually fairly equal in their treatment of the two sexes. E.g. if something would cause a woman to die because of her unchaste behavior, the guy dies too (whereas you might have expected the woman to die but not the male adulterer).
(3) Continuing with the above, it is clear that the point of the rule is actually to protect the woman. That sounds crazy to modern ears, but that’s because in our society, a woman’s future wouldn’t be ruined to the same degree by being raped as it would have been, back then. (Again, in saying that I’m not minimizing how traumatic/shaming/etc. it is today. My point is, it was way worse back then, when women didn’t have a lot of career options and men would not want a non-virgin for a bride.) There’s not really a great analogy available, but the rule might be something like this: “If a man cuts off another man’s arms, so that he cannot earn a living, then the criminal must take in the victim into his own household, and care for him until he dies of old age.” Now on the one hand, that sounds disgusting—why the heck would I want to live with a guy who cut my arms off?! But in a society where an armless guy is dead, you can see why that might not have been such a terrible rule.
(4) I actually have Jesus Himself saying something like this in a different context. When asked about divorce, on one occasion Jesus says the only reason Moses allowed men to divorce their wives was because “of the hardness of your hearts,” and then explains that this was never what God originally intended when He created the institution of marriage.
(5) One obvious complaint with rationalizations such as the one I just gave, is to accuse me of moral relativism. “Oh, so your omnipotent God of perfect justice, has evolving standards of righteousness over time? Huh, how convenient. Of course, this is just what we’d expect if God were an invention of humans, whose ‘eternal’ precepts changed with cultural norms.”
Right, I get why an atheist would say that, but I can just as well say this: God has standards of perfection. No matter what, we humans can never live up to them. So, dealing with us as we are, God issues rules that are the best for us, at the time they are applicable.
Look, in economics when I was teaching undergrads, I would say things all the time that weren’t quite right. In other words, I would get a concept or a viewpoint across, using an argument that was actually invalid, or at the very least I was offering a “proof” of my conclusion without actually supplying all the steps.
For a while this troubled me, but I didn’t know how else to teach the kids. If I actually tried to do it properly, I would have lost most of them and they would have remained in their state of ignorance.
My brother (6 years younger) was in a mathematics doctoral program, and he had to teach undergrads in calculus classes. So I asked him if he did the same thing, and he said yes. In other words, even in the most “objective” and logical discipline possible—mathematics itself—he was telling me he actually taught “proofs” and other techniques (for taking integrals etc.) to the kids, that weren’t really rigorous. His justification, of course, was the same as mine: The kids wouldn’t even know what he was talking about if he tried to explain the subtle little thing you had to worry about when proving why L’Hopital’s Rule works (or whatever).
So I think there is something analogous with God as He teaches us morality. For those of you with kids, think of how you raised them. When they were little, you didn’t have philosophical discussions about right and wrong. No, I’m guessing you told them flat out that hitting the other kid at the playground was wrong, that it was nice to share with siblings, etc. And you probably were “mean” and “angry” when they did things wrong. But as they got older, you seemed to mellow out and tried to reason with them more, appealing to their growing moral sense and so forth. (You also probably mellowed out because you finally caught back up on your sleep.)
That’s how I view God interacting with humans. The Ten Commandments were very explicit, and mostly told you what not to do. Yet when Jesus was asked the greatest commandment, He said to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and added that the second greatest was to love your neighbor as yourself. Note, however, that Jesus didn’t invent these two concepts to crystallize the individual commands from the Old Testament. No, those two commandments were themselves issued by the “mean” God much earlier (here and here).
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