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Missing the point about atrocities in the Bible

07 July 2010

In debates with atheists, Christians often fail to engage with the complexities of the Bible, argues Ronan Head

IN A Channel 4 documentary about the Bible earlier this year, the then MP Ann Widdecombe, a conservative Roman Catholic, extolled the virtues of the Mosaic law, while at the same time lamenting our moral descent from the lofty heights of Sinai.

Of course, it is hard to argue that society would not be better off if we followed the Ten Commandments, at least those extolling personal moral behaviour. But it does not take long for the Mosaic law to unravel as an unimpeachable guide to modern ethics, especially given the fact that Moses can, without evident irony, remind the Hebrews in one breath not to kill (Deuteronomy 5), and in the other command his people to lay waste to Canaan, sparing no man, woman, child, or animal (Deuter­onomy 7).

Such difficulties in the Bible — particularly the Old Testament — are often ignored by Christians such as Miss Widdecombe, but easily ex­ploited by those who see religion as a hindrance to human morality. They can therefore result in an un­settling impasse for many believers.

So enraged by Miss Widdecombe’s insistence that the Good Book really is good was Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) that he walked out of their interview. In the same programme, Stephen Fry de­nounced the Bible as a collection of “hysterical babblings”.

Richard Dawkins would probably agree, believing as he does that many biblical morality tales are “appalling”. Militant atheists often attack this area of biblical morality, and Christians struggle to answer them. It is hard to argue in favour of genocide as Moses does.

YET THIS apparent conundrum stems from a simplistic, overly literal­istic approach to the biblical text, an approach that Christians, particularly those with a more conservative faith, need to move away from if they are to engage detractors in a satisfactory manner.

Note: this is not to do violence to the status of the Bible as the word of God, nor to deny the basic historicity of most biblical ac­counts. One need not be a re­visionist liberal to salvage the Old Testament from its detractors. Instead, one must read the Bible as its writers intended, with an awareness that we are not reading normative ethical treatises as we would see them today, but na­tionalistic histories and ritual codes.

For example, while tradition holds that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, biblical scholars have long detected a later human hand in the Pentateuch’s composition. Deuteronomy and the conquest narratives of Joshua and Judges almost certainly belong to the so-called “Deuteronomic history”, an account intentionally written by Israelite theologians to promote the nationalistic view that the Israelites’ claim to the land has divine approval.

That these theologians engaged in hyperbole is attested by evidence on the ground: the book of Joshua seems to suggest a genocidal annihilation of the Canaanites, but it is clear from archaeology and even from later biblical books that the Canaanites never went away. Thus the tale is accurate as theological narrative, but not necessarily as pure historical fact.

Likewise, context is important in understanding the intent of the biblical text. For example, the harsh punishments meted out to Moses’s own people must be understood in the context of Near Eastern covenant codes: just as the king made coven­ants with his vassal people, so God made a covenant with Israel. In both situations, the breaking of such coven­ants was always met with severe punishment, a point the text uses to highlight the seriousness of God’s relationship with his people.

EVEN SO, we need not think that such violence is troubling only to our modern moral sensibilities. There is much evidence to suggest that later Israelites and Jews, while still herald­ing Moses as a national hero, were not always keen on his methods.

The book of Jonah is a prime ex­ample. Having been rescued from the whale and after finally preaching to Nineveh, Jonah impatiently awaits the destruction of the heathen city, only to be reminded by God that his love and mercy transcend national boundaries: “Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than 120,000 people in it who do not know right from wrong” (Jonah 9.11).

The message here seems to be that the Ninevites, because they do not know God, are also not accountable to him. This was not something that ever seemed to bother Moses and Joshua about the Canaanites. The Jonah narrative thus seems to be a deliberate moral counterweight to the earlier stories of God’s arbitrary vengeance. The author of Jonah would have known the old theology, and explicitly chose to reject it.

In addition, Amos and the other minor prophets preach social justice and temper nationalistic rhetoric. Jesus — who generally expects his disciples to follow the Mosaic law — explicitly distances himself from the aspects of the old law that he cannot support: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.44).

Thus Jesus shows Christians how to read the Old Testament text. And it is in Christianity that the covenant is finally seen to transcend nationality, offering the gospel to both Jew and Gentile.

Christian defenders of the Old Testament need not feel that they are undermining the text by calling for a more nuanced reading of the Mosaic law and a revision of its morals. Indeed, this is exactly the approach taken by other biblical figures — including Jesus and the writer of Jonah — who seem happy to accept a positive evolution in their national morality.

The Bible accepts its own fallibility, without denying God’s hand in Israelite history. In the black-and-white arguments be­tween believers and the new atheists, this is something that both sides should understand.

Dr Ronan Head teaches religion and philosophy at Loughborough Grammar School.

‘One need not be a revisionist liberal to salvage the Old Testament from its detractors’

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