Biblical studies: September 2010 Archives

Paul Copan's "Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?" presents what struck me, on my first exposure to it, as a relatively novel (to me, anyway) thesis defending God as presented in the Hebrew scriptures from the charge of genocide. He claims that the commands to wipe out Canaan and not leave anyone standing, including women, children, and even livestock are hyperbole and that such expressions were commonly used to indicate a severe attack but did not literally mean that no one at all would survive.

I was a bit hesistant to rely on such a view, because it seemed to be to require more evidence than Copan gave, and there are certainly some occurrences when the expression in question simply cannot mean what Copan wants it to mean, e.g. when Saul is roundly condemned by Samuel in I Sam 15 for not fully carrying out the wiping out of the Amalekites. Saul's failure in that chapter was precisely his willingness to leave some alive, as Wes Morriston pointed out in the comments on Robert Gressis' Prosblogion posting on this last year. That objection struck me as decisive.

It occurred to me very recently, however, that Morriiston's objection doesn't quite do it. I'm still a little skeptical of Copan's thesis without more evidence than I've seen, but I'm not sure anymore that Morriston's objection really defeats the thesis. Consider the following version of Copan's claim. There's the literal meaning of the expression to wipe out everyone and everything. Saul did not do that. He spared Agag and the best of the livestock. Copan could then come along and point out that the passage doesn't include in Saul's failure that he spared women and children, for example. So it's compatible with what the text says that (a) Saul did wipe out all the women and children (and spared just Agag and the best animals) and that (b) Saul didn't wipe out all the women and chilfdren (but never was supposed to kill all of them, just all of the animals and King Agag).

So I'm not sure anything in I Sam 15 disproves Copan's thesis. Saul did sin, according to I Sam 15, by sparing Agag and the best livestock. But it may well have been that Agag and the livestock should have been killed according to the correct Copan-modified translaton or paraphrase of whatever the hyperbolic command really insisted on. In other words, Saul really should have killed Agag and these animals according to the command of God, but that doesn't mean he literally was expected to wipe out the whole Amalekite people. So I don't think I Sam 15 is really a counterexample to Copan's proposal.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

You Shall Give To Him Freely

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There's a fascinating element in the discussion of the Sabbath year in Deuteronomy 15. The general law requires releasing people from their debts every seven years. That means if you lend to someone a few months before the release of debts, and the person is too poor to pay it back in time, you have to release them of the debt. You might expect this to give rise to unprecedented amounts of stinginess in the time before the year of debt-release. The law anticipates this, though, and it commands Israel not to use such fears as excuses not to give. It's sin to refuse to give in such a situation, and they were commanded to give and not grudgingly. It says God will reward those who get stiffed in such a situation.

In the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism about gender distinctions in marriage, egalitarians often say that calling on a woman to submit to her husband is unfair when the man isn't called on to do the same. This does ignore that the same Ephesians 5 that tells women to submit to their husbands commands husbands to love their wives as self-sacrificially as the love that brought Christ to die for the church, which I think should count as at least as significant a level of sacrifice as what the wife is asked to do. But one thing complementarians often say strikes me as missing the point. They say that in any ideal marriage this shouldn't be an issue. If the husband is loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, then it won't be difficult at all for the wife to submit to the husband.

One hint that something is amiss here comes from considering the flip-side, which would be: If the wife submits to the husband, then it won't be difficult to love her as Christ loved the church. Really? I suspect it would still be immensely difficult for a sinful husband or wife to follow these commands even with a sinless spouse.

But I think the main reason I don't like that complementarian response is that you shouldn't have to go to the ideal situation to see that these commands are all right. If complementarianism is correct, then wives should submit to their husbands even if their husbands are complete jerks, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church even if their wives are as unlovely as someone's inner self could be. Indeed, I would say this is so even with an egalitarian interpretation of this passage. This is simply Christian teaching. Philippians 2 makes this utterly clear. Christ's model of giving himself for us is just plain the model for Christians and how we should treat others, regardless of how those others treat us. And this is simply continuous with the Hebrew scriptures, including the Mosaic law, since the very same principle underlies the command in Deuteronomy 15 that lenders should give to the poor even when there's little chance of getting the money back before the debt-release year (and many other places in the Torah, Proverbs, prophets, etc. along these lines).

So, while I don't think the complementarian reply above is correct (i.e. saying that in an ideal situation it isn't all that bad to follow complementarianism), at the same time I think objections to complementarianism that involve any claim that it asks too much are, at the very least, contrary to the very spirit of Christ and his call on the church. There are those who will resist such an ethic. They will say that Nietzsche was right in his diagnosis of Christianity as a slave-morality. I'm willing to grant that to a point, as long as they recognize that they resist Christianity in doing so. What I will have little patience for is those who think they can maintain a Christian ethic while thinking any unfairness here is immoral.

It reminds me of a discussion I overheard between two atheist philosophers, both of whom had some Christian influence when they were younger. One was giving a certain argument against a certain conception of hell, saying that it would be unfair, and the other said that it won't make much sense to use an argument that assumes God is fair against the followers of Jesus, since Jesus described God in terms of an employer giving the same amount of pay to the laborers who only worked an hour as he gave to those who had been working all day. These were day-laborers who subsist on a day's wage to live for the day. The Torah even requires people to pay day-laborers every day for that very reason. Jesus says God is like the farmer who pays the day-laborers a full day's wage even if they don't earn it. There's nothing fair about that arrangement, and yet Jesus says it represents what God's character is like. It's not remotely fair to ask Israelites to give to their poor fellow Israelites who will almost certainly end up with no debt due to the closeness of the year of debt-release. But it's very clear that biblical morality requires doing exactly that sort of thing and much more.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Abominations

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There's a particularly bad argument against those who accept the biblical prohibitions against same-sex sexual acts, and I think I've just realized something new about the argument. The Torah prohibitions on male-male sex acts are declared to be an abomination. There are those who want to reconsider how to interpret the biblical texts who want to minimize this statement. They point to the fact that eating shellfish is also an abomination in the Torah, which means it can't be all that bad to be an abomination in the Torah.

Anyone who has thought for a little bit about the relation Christians see between the Mosaic law and the New Testament should see through such an argument, because the New Testament explicitly affirms the judgment of male-male and female-female sexual relations as bad while explicitly rejecting the dietary laws that the ban on eating shellfish was a part of. So that objection is pretty naive. Any Christian interpretive grid that seeks to minimize the Torah prohibition on same-sex sex acts can't do so merely because we nowadays think it's all right to eat shellfish, because there's explicit allowance of that in the New Testament and explicit continuance of the harsh language about same-sex sex acts.

What occurred to me today, when reading Christopher Wright's discussion of Deuteronomy 25, is that there's a further problem with this objection. It's not that the occurrence of eating shellfish lowers the negative judgment on homosexuality because an innocent enough act gets called an abomination. It's the evil of eating shellfish and the other things that fall under this same term that go way up, and that includes the example Wright discusses from Deuteronomy 25 (cheating people in commercial ventures). Eating shellfish in the covenant context of God's people called together to be separate from their neighbors is tantamount to deciding for yourself what you think God's standards should have been when he instituted the dietary laws. We can't read our acceptance of shellfish-eating into how serious eating shellfish would have been taken among those at the time.

The dietary laws were an important distinguishing feature of how Israel was to live in contrast to those around them. It reflected both abandonment of pagan worship practices and an affirmation of the things in nature that, in the Mosaic covenant, represented wholeness and unity among God's people. It's easy to lose sight of how serious it is to reject that when you think about how easily Christians eat shellfish today. It's a complete misunderstanding of the cultural, indeed covenant, context of the Torah to think that the inclusion of shellfish as an abomination makes abominations not very serious.

Those who continue to hold to a high view of scripture, including the Torah, aren't going to be able to dismiss the Torah pronouncements against abominations as easily as pointing out that we all eat shellfish now and don't consider it an abomination. Any Christian does consider it an abomination to do something with the import of what eating shellfish would have been in that context. We just rightly don't think eating shellfish in our context would have the same import. So any reconciliation of the prevailing secular view of homosexuality of our day with a high view of Christian scripture is going to have to look elsewhere. I don't think it's all that plausible that we should lessen how serious we take the Torah prohibitions on what it calls abominations to be just because it's called an abomination to eat shellfish. We should instead increase our sense of the horror an ancient Hebrew would have had at the idea of eating shellfish

[cross-posted at Evangel]

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