The Bible's Failed Covenant

In the entire Old Testament, there are no verses more significant than the ones in which Yahweh establishes his covenant with the Jewish people. He pledges to make the Israelites his chosen, to show special favor to them above all other nations and races, and to grant them a peaceful and prosperous home in the promised land. Even today, after several millennia, these passages still play a pivotal role in shaping Jewish identity, consciousness, and culture, as well as exerting a major influence on politics and world affairs.

These verses are also, indisputably, false. The Bible's covenant was broken. The promise was not kept. The pledge is void.

This isn't even a close call, scripturally speaking. No subtle exegesis or nuanced interpretation is required to see that it's true. All that it takes is to read the plain and simple language of the text establishing the covenant, observe that it makes a clear and unmistakable promise, and then look at the world and see for yourself that this promise failed to hold true.

According to Yahweh, the instrument by which he would keep his covenant was the dynasty descended from King David. These kings would rule over the Jewish people, protect them from invaders, and ensure that the law was kept. If the king or the people strayed into sin, God threatened to punish them, but he never threatened to put an end to the kingdom or the monarchy. To the contrary, he explicitly promised that both would be established in perpetuity. Consider this critical verse laying out the terms of the covenant:

"And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: but my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever."

—2 Samuel 7:12-16

This passage is presented as "the word of the Lord" which came to the prophet Nathan and which he was instructed to deliver to King David. Note what it explicitly says: the house, the kingdom and the throne of David "shall be established for ever". If the king does wrong, God promises to punish him, but he explicitly says he will not take the kingdom away from him, as he did to David's predecessor Saul. The pledge is unconditional and unambiguous.

So that's the promise; now look at the world. Were the terms of the covenant kept? The answer, of course, is no. There is no kingdom, no throne, and no Davidic dynasty; the line of descent was broken, the "house of David" no longer exists. The ancient kingdom of the Israelites was conquered and utterly destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and it's never been reestablished. There is a modern state of Israel, it's true, but that state is a secular democracy, not a divine-right monarchy ruled by a king descended from David. It fails to meet the terms of the covenant. (Many modern-day Orthodox Jews refuse to give their allegiance to Israel for precisely that reason.) According to the Bible, this was God's single greatest promise to the Jewish people, and it has completely failed.

What really happened, of course, is that no god ever spoke to the Israelites in the first place. Verses like the one quoted above were written not by a deity, but by a human being, some ancient scribe or historian in a fit of nationalistic fervor. Whoever the author was, he was convinced that his kingdom was divinely favored, so much so that he believed God would cause it to endure forever on the Earth.

Of course, this is nothing unique: most ancient empires believed themselves to be the beneficiaries of the gods' special favor, and without exception, all of those empires were toppled and now exist only in ruins and memory. The only thing that makes this case special is that we still have the written records of one particular people in which they told themselves these patriotic myths.

June 7, 2010, 5:58 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink28 comments

God Kills A Baby

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I'm sure that this title is neither new information nor in the slightest bit shocking to those familiar with the atrocities found within the so-called Good Book (of which, Ebonmuse, this site's author, has amply documented). After all, this is the God who cheerfully devastates armies, obliterates nations and once even drowned every living thing on Earth bar a boatful of humans and animals.

And yet for all that - and maybe this is just me - I've always found big numbers a bit abstract. Show me a person who has killed a thousand people, and frankly the number loses something of its meaning. It's not that I don't understand it, but it's a little harder to really get a grip on imagining a thousand people, let alone a thousand deaths. I find it far easier to hate a person who has murdered just one - as long as the story of the murder is related to me.

So where do we find God murdering a baby? ('Lots of places' is the facetious, and yet not inaccurate reply) The story I'm referring to is found in 2 Samuel 11:2 - 12:18. The Israelites are firmly settled in their promised land and are currently under the rule of King David. Despite being a generally rather good King, David is having a rather large lapse in moral judgement - he forces himself on a married woman, Bathsheba, and when he learns she is pregnant as a result, arranges for the husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle. He then marries Bathsheba himself, who gives birth to a boy. Yahweh, understandably, is less than impressed by David, though his moral high-horse sharply collapses and dies under the weight of the punishment He chooses to dish out (announced through a prophet, Nathan):

Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of the sun.
For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before the sun.
And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.
Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.
And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.
David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth, but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.
And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died.

Lovely! Ignoring the point that God apparently deems it a suitable punishment for a man that his wives (yes, plural) are given away to be publically raped, which is its own little world of wrong, the baby was murdered in cold blood merely to punish the parent.

Again, this is obviously nothing an observant Bible-reader should not expect from Yahweh. The notions of women as property and corporate guilt are deeply ingrained in the Bible. And yet I find something particularly vindictive about this story which adds an especially vicious kick to the gut.

I'm not even sure I could put my finger on why. Perhaps it is the fact that the justification seems so petty - at least with Noah's Ark or the tenth plague of Egypt, God could be shielded behind a wafer-thin (and bizarre for an omnipotent deity) excuse that He was doing it for a greater good. But here Yahweh is simply a figure in a soap-opera drama, killing out of petty spite. But I suspect it's more to do with the fact that it's easier to emotionally connect with a small number of people. One victim is easy to feel empathy and outrage for. A thousand is slightly more abstract.

Of course, for atheists, discussing which of God’s many acts is the most atrocious is as moot as asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But this is the story I think of when Christians describe their 'loving, merciful' God. This is the story I think of when hearing the Bible spoken of as a moral guide. This is the story I think of when the religious right preach the sanctity of life whenever abortion is raised as a topic.

This is one of the Bible’s lesser-known stories, and there is a voice that tells me it is pointless to draw attention to this story to ardent believers in the Bible’s morality. After all, if they can find excuses for God’s genocides, they can surely find excuses for this. Then again, that just puts me back playing the numbers game again. To my shame, I have not read too many deconversion stories. But from my own experience of challenging my faith, something started alarm bells ringing. And I’d be willing to bet it’s the stories which pack the most wallop emotionally, not intellectually, which first make people stop and think.

May 18, 2010, 1:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

The Jewish Prophecy of Exile

In a previous post, "An Unserious Response to the Theist's Guide", I poked fun at a religious apologist - apparently a Jewish rabbi - who made a set of obviously insincere demands for what evidence he would require to become an atheist. So much for that. But our friend the rabbi also thinks that he has convincing evidence for the existence of God. In this post, I'll consider his claims and see how they hold up.

The following quotes were given before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel and promised them that they'd settle into their homeland and get comfortable, but in time they'd pursue other gods and be kicked out of the Promised Land as a result:

(Deut 4:25-26 GW) "Even when you have children and grandchildren and have grown old in that land, don't become corrupt and make carved idols or statues that represent anything. I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: If you do this thing that the LORD your God considers evil, making him furious, you will quickly disappear from the land you're possess on the other side of the Jordan River. You won't live very long there. You'll be completely wiped out."

...In this case we have a prophesy of Moses predicting that the Israelites would enter the Promised Land and be well situated and in time they'll be expelled from their homes and land. What seer would dare predict doom and disaster and get away with it?

The obvious answer to this question is: a "seer" who was writing after the events he claims to foretell and knew that they had already happened. And that's almost certainly what happened here.

Our apologist friend assumes something not in evidence: that this prophecy was given "before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel". He goes so far as to uncritically attribute the authorship of Deuteronomy to Moses, something that no reputable textual scholar has believed for decades. He presents no evidence for either of these claims. As critical scholars have long recognized, the biblical books collectively known as the Deuteronomic history were only completed sometime after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE. This was a catastrophe where the Babylonian Empire swept down on the Israelite kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent much of the population into exile. To account for why an omnipotent God had permitted such a disaster to visit his chosen people, the Deuteronomic historians wrote new verses - such as the one my correspondent quotes above - which explained the destruction and exile as God's punishment for idol worship and other sins the Israelites had not ceased to commit. (See, for example, Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?)

But my correspondent tries something audacious. After establishing that the above verse was in existence by Roman times (which I don't doubt), he argues that these verses were actually a prediction of the later Roman destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 CE, not the earlier Babylonian invasion.

Deut 28:49 "The LORD will bring against you a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth. The nation will swoop (literally: "descend") down on you like an eagle. It will be a nation whose language you won't understand."

The Roman army did this very thing in the first century, and the symbol of the Imperial Rome was the eagle. In contrast to the Babylonians who spoke Aramaic which is closely related to Hebrew, the Latin is in a different language family and was unintelligible even to those Jews who spoke Greek as a second language.

This is the same sort of exegetical wordplay that religious apologists and Nostradamus devotees alike have used for centuries, trying to turn a vague prediction into a specific one by identifying "hidden" correspondences in the text. There's nothing to indicate that "like an eagle" is anything more than a metaphor for the strength and fierceness of the enemy. But there are several other things my correspondent has overlooked.

First: The official language of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not Aramaic but Akkadian, a rather different tongue which was derived in part from ancient Sumerian, a language isolate unrelated to Hebrew. Akkadian could easily stand in for the "language [the Jews] won't understand".

Second: Even if we do interpret the "eagle" reference as meaning something about the identity of the conquerors, it's still an ambiguous clue. Of particular relevance is that the Bible specifically compares Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar to an eagle [Ezekiel 17], as well as comparing Babylon's horsemen to eagles [Habbakkuk 1:8].

Third: The facts of the biblical prophecy fit Nebuchadnezzar's invasion much more closely. The chapter my correspondent quotes goes on to say that the Israelites will be punished by being returned to Egypt [Deut. 28:68], and that's just what happens in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion [2 Kings 25:26].

In sum, my correspondent has no clear evidence that this or any other passage is meant to refer to Rome, and that fatally weakens his argument. Imagine that I find an ancient document which reads, "A great American president will be assassinated by a lone gunman." If I want to prove that the author had miraculous foresight, it's not enough to prove that the document was written before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After all, it could also have been written after the death of Abraham Lincoln as a false "prediction" of that event. To disprove this, I'd either have to show that the document was specifically intended to refer to Kennedy, or that it also predates the death of Lincoln. My correspondent has done neither.

Finally, my correspondent makes one last attempt to argue for the veracity of a biblical miracle:

What I call the Sinai event was where the Israelites were at Mt Sinai and the entire nation was recorded to be ear-witnesses to God having spoken to them from the top of the mountain, and where God gave the Ten Commandments to the entire Israelite nation... Now one may argue that the Children of Israel experienced a mass hallucination. Well, if everyone had a hallucination there was nothing to make certain that 2+ million people had the exact same hallucination. How could something like an identical mass hallucination occur?

Have you ever noticed that religious apologists only ever consider the most improbable natural explanations for their myths, even when much more probable ones are available?

I have a much simpler explanation: no identical mass hallucination is needed because the Sinai event never happened. There is no archaeological evidence of either an Egyptian captivity of the Israelites or an Israelite conquest of the Promised Land - and Moses' supposed conversation with God falls right in between those two events. The overwhelming likelihood is that it's part of the myth, a pious fiction invented by later authors and editors as the Hebrew Bible took the shape it has now. The written account may be based on oral folklore, but regardless, there is no evidence for it or for any of the surrounding events in the story it's part of.

...if the miraculous history of the Sinai experience and the Exodus from Egypt were contrived by story tellers who spun the tale around a campfire, or an act of deliberate myth-making then asking the elders for confirmation would be fatal to the contrivance. If it didn't happen then grandpa would say "My grandparents said that they never heard of such a thing. It's bogus."

The problem with this apologetic is that it explains too much. You could use a similar argument in favor of every miraculous event recorded in the annals of every people, from the Roman rain miracle of Marcus Aurelius to Native American stories about invulnerable shamans. How did any of these stories get started?

My correspondent's confident claim that the Jews wouldn't accept a newly-invented law or story, because they had no historical traditions of such a thing, is disproven by an example from the Bible itself: King Josiah's "discovery" of the "book of the law" (probably Deuteronomy) hidden in the temple [2 Kings 22:8]. According to the text, Josiah's discovery made him rend his clothes in grief, because it contained so many laws that had been forgotten. Did the Jews reject this book because they had never heard of it before? On the contrary, it's now part of their canon. All this goes to show is that when those in power find it convenient to wage a propaganda campaign to convince the people to believe certain things, they very often succeed.

May 10, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink16 comments

God's Failed Land Promise

In the early chapters of Genesis, Yahweh makes a sweeping promise to Abraham, forefather of the Jewish people:

"In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates."

—Genesis 15:18

As I've mentioned in the past, this was no small matter: the land that God promised to Abraham would encompass most or all of the modern nations of Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. If the Jewish people had ever controlled this much territory, they would have had an empire to rival the mightiest powers of the Ancient Near East. But now I have an inconvenient question: Did the Jewish people ever control this much territory? Did they ever get what God promised they would have?

The archaeological evidence shows clearly that the answer is no. Although the monarchy of David - described by the Bible as the most glorious era of ancient Israel - apparently did exist, it was a relatively small and insignificant kingdom even by the standards of the day. It never controlled all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. We have abundant evidence of the great empires that did exist in this region, whether Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian or Roman: the cities they built, the monuments they erected, the inscriptions they left behind. An Israelite empire would be equally easy to find in the archaeological record if it had ever existed, and the total lack of historical evidence can only imply that it never did.

And after David and Solomon's reign, even the Bible says that things went rapidly downhill. Solomon's son was an incompetent ruler who caused the kingdom to split apart, and the divided Israelite tribes were conquered by larger powers and scattered across the face of the earth. The modern state of Israel wasn't established until the 20th century, and it still comes nowhere close to controlling all the land that God promised to Abraham.

For almost four thousand years, then, God's land promise has been unfulfilled. Considering that the land he promised is now occupied by millions of other people with a decidedly hostile outlook toward the Jews, it seems unlikely that Israel will be able to control it any time soon. (The biblical solution - military invasion and genocide - doesn't seem to be a prospect today, due to several millennia of progress in humanity's moral sentiments.) And if you believe the evangelical Christians who insist that the Rapture is due to occur very soon and the end of the world shortly thereafter, the time when this prophecy could be fulfilled is rapidly dwindling. And even if Israel did come to own all this land through some bizarre chain of circumstances, would it really count as "fulfilling" a promise if that which was promised is withheld for hundreds of generations and thousands of years? Wouldn't it, in fact, be more accurate to say that this is a failed biblical promise?

The most common Christian apologist explanation for this prophetic failure is that God's covenant with Abraham was conditional, and when the Israelites disobeyed his laws, he took away the land he had promised them as punishment. Unfortunately for them, the Bible itself forecloses this explanation. It states clearly that even though the Israelites were wicked, God still intended to give them the land, in order to keep the promise he made to Abraham:

"Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

—Deuteronomy 9:5

The only rational conclusion is that God has not "performed the word which he swore", because there is no God who shows special favor to the Israelites. This land claim, allegedly a divinely given promise, was in reality just a piece of pious self-congratulation by ancient Israelite scribes who sought to write a self-fulfilling prophecy. They thought that if they could convince their countrymen that victory was guaranteed, that would give them the determination to turn that belief into reality. But their gambit didn't succeed, and millennia later, the Bible's failed land promise stands as proof of the very human and fallible origins of that book.

March 11, 2010, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

Suggestions for the Conservative Bible Project

Although I haven't commented on this previously, I'm sure you've heard of the Conservative Bible Project, a brilliant initiative proposed by the savvy folks at Conservapedia. The plan is that they'll retranslate the Bible to eliminate "liberal bias" in existing verses - but not by going back to the oldest manuscripts or the original languages or anything like that. No, the Conservapedia community simply plans to take an existing, modern English translation of the Bible, and when they come across a verse that strikes them as unacceptably liberal, they'll just change it so as to be in line with what they know God must have meant!

This is a major project and I'm sure it will take all the hands they can get. Since I've previously given advice to the prosperity-gospel believers on how to interpret some difficult Bible passages, I'm sure that the editors of the Conservative Bible Project would be equally happy to hear my suggestions. So, I thought I'd offer them some.

Let's begin with this classic example of liberal bias in the Bible, Matthew 5:9, from the Sermon on the Mount:

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."

Peacemakers? What is Jesus, some kind of liberal Democrat? This is unacceptable.

Real conservatives, as defined in the official Republican Party creed, know that the will of God is to drop bombs on any country that even looks like it might threaten us. After all, that's just what God did through Joshua in the Old Testament. And anyway, we know from good conservative books like Left Behind that the Antichrist will be a peacemaker, so we know from sound logic that any peacemaker must therefore be the Antichrist.

How can we interpret this verse more fittingly? I have a few different suggestions:

"Blessed are those who wage preemptive war on rogue states that we think might be developing weapons of mass destruction."

"Blessed are the waterboarders, for those who torture illegal enemy combatants will be called sons of God."

"Blessed are the politicians who run secret black-site prisons for high-value detainees, for they are righteous in God's sight."

"Blessed are the private mercenaries and the contractors working for Blackwater, for they shall inherit the earth."

Now that's a properly conservative Jesus for you!

Next, Matthew 6:5-6:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Now, obviously, this is a disgustingly liberal statement. If you read this verse in modern translations invented by egghead Ivy League elitist professors, you might get the impression that Jesus was telling people to keep their faith a private matter and not flaunt it in public. But as we can tell from modern conservatives, who demand that explicitly Christian prayers and overtly religious language be prominently placed in every courthouse, school board, classroom and town council meeting, we know that Jesus couldn't really have meant that. We need a new translation that's more in keeping with what Jesus was obviously trying to say. Here's my suggestion:

"And when you pray, do not be like the liberals, for they love to pray standing in their room, behind closed doors, and to insist that the public square is secular. I tell you the truth, if God can't see you praying - and he can't, because he doesn't know what you do in your own house behind closed doors, except of course for gay sex - then you'll get no reward for it. But when you pray, go into the courthouse, or the floor of Congress, or the workplace, or just stand on a street corner with a bullhorn and a stack of Bible tracts! The important thing is to be sure that the greatest possible number of people see and hear you praying, because then they'll realize how pious and humble you are, and that will totally make them want to convert."

Once this translation is in Bibles everywhere, the religious right will be able to say with perfect honesty that they're just following Jesus' example. And that's what really matters, right?

Finally, let's take one of the most often misinterpreted verses in the Bible, Matthew 19:16-24. Here's the usual, inferior translation chock-full of liberal nonsense:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

...Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

This liberalism-inspired mistranslation could drive a stake into the heart of Christianity. What Jesus is proposing in this passage is nothing more or less than socialism! And as we good conservatives know, once you've started down the road to socialism, there's only one place you can end up - death panels, abortions at the local 7-11, and mandatory gay indoctrination in elementary schools.

Clearly, we need a dash of good conservative common sense to interpret this passage properly. Here's my advice on how to read it:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, you must get as rich as possible. The more treasure you have on Earth, the more God is blessing you. I recommend a well-balanced portfolio, with wise asset allocations in both stocks and bonds, plus some side bets on over-the-counter mortgage derivatives. If you run your own business, I recommend hiring cheap immigrant labor, and of course firing anyone who tries to organize a union. And don't forget, politicians who want to tax capital gains hate God!"

When the young man heard this, he went away joyous, because he knew that his great wealth was a sign that his virtue was superior to the sinful people whom God punished by making them poor.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is as easy as your chauffeur driving you in through the golden gates of a luxury resort in a black Escalade SUV. That's not a metaphor. Rich people will actually be chauffeured through the gates of heaven in black Escalade SUVs. If any of the poor somehow make it, they'll be your drivers."

Not even Ayn Rand could find fault with that!

This should get the Conservative Bible Project off to a good start, but there's lots of other liberalism that's crept into the Bible and will have to be purged. What other mistranslations can you detect in the Good Book? And what proper, conservative translations can you offer instead?

December 9, 2009, 8:36 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink27 comments

A God of Obsessions

In the books of the Torah, Yahweh devotes entire chapters to explaining in exacting detail what kind of animal sacrifices he expects from his people. The one common thread, repeatedly emphasized, is that the animals to be slaughtered must be "without blemish":

"And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest's office: Take one young bullock, and two rams without blemish." —Exodus 29:1

"And on the eighth day he shall take two he lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth deals of fine flour for a meat offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil." —Leviticus 14:10

"This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke." —Numbers 19:1

"And ye shall offer a burnt offering for a sweet savour unto the Lord; one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year without blemish." —Numbers 29:2

"And he shall offer his offering unto the Lord, one he lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings." —Numbers 6:14

Only animals that are perfect and flawless, without any physical defects, are acceptable as sacrifices to Yahweh. And this rule doesn't just apply to animals, either. The Old Testament makes it equally clear that people with physical defects are equally unacceptable as servants in the holy places.

"Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.... he shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I the Lord do sanctify them."

—Leviticus 21:17-23

(By the way, if you're curious about what the text means when it bars a man who has "his stones broken", the RSV gives a more explicit translation: "a man with crushed testicles"!)

This passage says explicitly that if a person or an animal with a physical defect touched the altar or entered the sanctuary, it would "profane" them. But how can this be? Doesn't God care about the state of a person's soul, not the condition of their body?

These verses should be very disturbing to modern-day Jews and Christians. They attribute to God a primitive, superstitious and ignorant view - one in which a person's worth is tied to their outward appearance, and people with defects are considered impure and unholy. Even people with flat noses are forbidden to come near the altar of God! (All those churches with wheelchair ramps are going against the word of God, if they but knew it!)

Granted, in the New Testament, Jesus abrogates this command. In its place, he expresses the much more sensible view that holiness (if that term has any meaning) consists not of outward appearances, but of attitudes and actions: "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man... Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man" (Mark 7:15,22-23).

But this hardly solves the problem. If it was never a sin to be ugly or handicapped, why did God say precisely the opposite for the many centuries of the Old Testament? Why was that rule established in the first place, ensuring hundreds of years of discrimination, ridicule and hatred directed at society's outcasts, if God never really meant it? Or did he mean it originally, and if so, what made him change his mind? Did he see the error of his ways? (Apologist site the Christian Think Tank claims hopefully that this prohibition was "perhaps a practical matter of the process of animal slaughter". I'd just love to hear why people with flat noses or crushed testicles were unable to assist in this.)

The apologetic is also sometimes heard that the OT purity laws were a foreshadowing of Jesus' sacrifice. For example:

The animals brought for the "bread of God" must be the best of their kind. They must be without physical blemish, because they were typical of him who had no blemish of sin.

The problem with this comparison is that the OT requires sacrifices and priests without physical blemish, while the NT claims that Jesus was without spiritual blemish. This is not a case of one foreshadowing the other - these are opposite concepts!

The shallow, appearance-obsessed, tribal deity of the Old Testament is just one of the many obscure corners of the Bible that modern-day believers would love to forget about. Atheists shouldn't give them the opportunity.

November 30, 2009, 7:00 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink22 comments

New on Ebon Musings: Some Mistakes of Scripture

I realize I haven't updated Ebon Musings much this year. Between writing for Daylight Atheism, work-related responsibilities, and other projects, I just haven't had as much time to write longer essays as I'd like to. But I don't intend to let Ebon Musings go dormant. I've still got plenty of things to say, and as proof, I've uploaded a new essay: Some Mistakes of Scripture.

This deals with a topic I find very interesting: biblical misquotes. As opposed to biblical contradictions, where two verses simply tell different versions of the facts or advocate different theological opinions, without reference to each other, there are parts of the Bible where one verse tries to cite another, but gets its source wrong - either by bungling the reference, by citing a nonexistent verse, or by egregiously misinterpreting what the cited verse is saying. In short, this essay is about the times when the Bible gets the Bible wrong.

This is an open thread. Do you know any mistakes of the Bible that I left out? Let me know about them!

November 3, 2009, 7:37 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink25 comments

Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

If you've been around the atheist blogosphere, you probably know the name Christopher Hallquist, author of the blog The Uncredible Hallq (I've always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

Well, it seems he's come into his own, because last month in the mail I got a copy of his new book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, which was published earlier this year by Reasonable Press. Here follows a short summary of the book and my review.

The book begins with a brief history of skepticism, from the Roman con-artist Alexander and his nemesis the satirist Lucian, to Franz Mesmer and the spiritualism craze of the 18th century, complete with mediums who could levitate, summon ghosts on command, or communicate using psychic powers. Since most of us rightly consider these claims to be dubious, Hallquist argues, we should apply David Hume's criteria for judging miracle tales and conclude that the Christian resurrection story, which is much longer ago and even less well documented, is even less likely to be true.

There are some great nuggets of information in here, particularly Hallquist's account of an e-mail conversation with Craig Blomberg, one of the experts interviewed in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Blomberg complains that Strobel's book "heavily paraphrased" [p.50] and oversimplified their actual conversation, and that he ultimately gave up on trying to correct all the inaccuracies that Strobel introduced. There follow discussions of textual evolution in the New Testament, of the way legends tend to grow and mutate in the retelling, and the general lack of skepticism or a tradition of critical inquiry in the ancient world. Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus' miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

Building on this argument, Hallquist argues that Jesus may have been similar to a modern faith healer, performing "miracles" that relied mainly on the placebo effect and his devotees' faith in him. These stories then grew in the telling, becoming far more impressive than they originally were.

As for the alleged resurrection and post-death experiences, Hallquist notes that even the Gospels portray the risen Jesus as a strangely ethereal phenomenon, appearing and disappearing without warning depending on who seems to be looking, and often describes his glorified body in mystical, visionary terms. He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions, pointing out their similar dreamlike and hallucinatory qualities, and brings up the nice point that stress - such as at the death of a loved one - can make such visions more likely to occur. The closing chapters ably dismantle some common apologist arguments relating to biblical prophecy, the Shroud of Turin, and religious attitudes toward skepticism and doubt.

Having finished the book, I have just two complaints, one small, one large. First, the minor: There were a lot of typos in this book - grammatical missteps, missing letters, missing words or incorrect punctuation. On average, I counted one such every few pages at least. It obviously doesn't detract from the soundness of the arguments, but it was distracting. I imagine Reasonable Press, a fairly small printing house by the look of it, doesn't have a great deal of money to invest in proofreading, but still.

Second: The one hypothesis that this book doesn't consider, and that I found conspicuous by its absence, was that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure who was gradually "historicized" into a real human being. All the arguments Hallquist presents about legendary development, exaggeration of rumors and the like would apply equally well, maybe even better, to this hypothesis. This is an alternative that I think deserves serious consideration, and if there's a future edition, perhaps it will address it.

With those caveats, this is a short, smart book, one that's worth your while to pick up and read. Most of the skeptical material on Jesus' resurrection was not new to me, but if you haven't read extensively on the topic, it's a useful and fairly comprehensive primer on how an atheist can best respond to these apologetic claims. What I personally found most illuminating was actually the background material - the mediums and spiritualists of past eras who claimed supernatural powers, and the skeptics, like Harry Houdini, who took them on. This is material that I think will be new to most readers, and there are some powerful lessons to draw on here. Hallquist cleverly points out that plenty of spiritualist "miracles", like the alleged levitation of one D.D. Home (which was supported by three signed eyewitness testimonies) are backed by evidence as good as or better than the evidence for anything in the Bible.

October 5, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink11 comments

Defending Genocide

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Of all the evil verses in the Bible, some of the worst must be the ones in which God orders his chosen people to slaughter and utterly exterminate the Canaanites who were living in the promised land, commanding them to kill men, women and children and to show no mercy to anyone under any circumstances. Passages like these are why Thomas Paine said of the Old Testament, " would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God".

Any person of conscience, I hope, should have come to realize by now that genocide is the blackest of evils. Any person or text that defends it is morally depraved and unworthy of being taken seriously by good people. But since these verses still exist in the Bible, there are still apologists who tie themselves in knots trying to defend them - trying to defend the conclusion that genocide is sometimes an acceptable and justified act.

Let's begin with this article from Rational Christianity, which discusses the genocides of the Old Testament specifically in relation to the Canaanite children. It admits that the children "did not share the guilt of their parents", but insists that the Israelites were still right to slaughter them:

Why were the children killed, if they weren't guilty? Apparently, they were considered as morally neutral, since they weren't yet old enough to be held accountable or to have done much right or wrong. While not as corrupt as their parents, they were part of the society that was judged, and shared its earthly (though not its eternal) fate.

So, even though the children weren't guilty, the society they lived in was guilty, and since that society was sentenced to be destroyed for its crimes, the children were doomed to be destroyed along with it for the crime they weren't guilty of. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

This apologetic is just a restatement of one of the Old Testament's more barbaric notions, the idea of "corporate guilt", which claims that people bear the responsibility for things done by other members of their nation or tribe. This is a bloody and primitive superstition. A "society" as a whole cannot be guilty of anything: only individuals can be guilty for the acts they commit.

Next up, we have Wayne Jackson of Apologetics Press, who in this article offers the time-tested defense that the Canaanites were too evil to be allowed to live:

The Canaanite religion was a horribly brutal system as well. For instance, the goddess Anath is pictured as killing humans by the thousands and wading knee-deep in blood. She cut off heads and hands and wore them as ornaments. And in all of this gruesomeness, the Baal-epic says that her liver was swollen with laughter and her joy was great.

What a horrible image! Anath must have been an unimaginably evil goddess. Good thing she's completely different from Yahweh, who will crush people underfoot until his robes are splattered and stained with their blood [Isaiah 63:3], who will kill so many people with his sword that the land will be "soaked with blood" [Is. 34:7], who demands that dead bodies be hung from trees to please him [Exodus 25:4] [Numbers 25:4], and who will "rejoice" to inflict all these punishments and many others on the objects of his wrath [Deuteronomy 28:63], laughing and mocking all the while [Proverbs 1:26].

The only difference between these savage Ancient Near East war deities, of course, is that Christians believe Yahweh to be the true god, and thus his mass slaughters were perfectly acceptable, even praiseworthy, while Anath was a false goddess and therefore the slaughters undertaken in her name were a vile and depraved crime. If Anath had any worshippers today, no doubt they'd take the opposite view.

As for the children, Jackson claims that the Israelites were doing them a mercy:

Would it not have been infinitely worse, in view of eternity, had these children grown to maturity and adopted the same pagan practices as their parents?

Although he doesn't explain this further, the argument is apparently that it was better to kill the children while they were young and innocent, rather than allow them to grow up and become sinners who would end up damned. It's interesting for a Christian apologist to accept this, since they always reject the identical reasoning for abortion.

The third apologist is Gregory Koukl of Stand to Reason. Koukl admits that "on an emotional level I am troubled when I consider this". Nevertheless, he resorts to the inevitable fallback that human moral standards don't apply to God, and that he can kill people however he wants and whenever he wants:

So I'm arguing first that it's God's prerogative to take life when He so chooses, and second that the means He uses to take that life is a matter of His prerogative as well. Whether it's by disease, or mishap, or hailstones, or the angel of life, or the sword of a Jewish soldier, the means is up to Him. It's His prerogative.

In this instance, I'll grant that the apologists have a point: in their theology, God is responsible not just for the genocidal deaths of the Canaanites, but for every other painful and brutal death in the world as well. Why they imagine that this makes the problem better, rather than worse, I can't say.

I think the preponderance of evidence from the same historical record--the Old Testament--is that God is good... This gives us good reason to trust Him. And if we have good reason to trust Him, then when we see things that seem to go against our sense of goodness and justice, it seems only fair to give the benefit of the doubt to [him]...

The moral double standard comes neatly packaged in a paragraph. When the Bible records God acting in ways that are good, we should count those to his credit. But when the Bible records God acting in ways that are evil (sorry - "that seem to go against our sense of goodness and justice"), those do not count against his character, because we should just trust that he is good. All positive evidence is to be trusted; all negative evidence is to be dismissed. The verdict is built into the process from the beginning. Human criminals only wish they could be judged by such a standard!

I don't want to sound like I'm praising myself too highly, so let me make it plain that I don't claim any superior moral virtue for myself. I make mistakes and sometimes use poor judgment, like everyone else. But I think I'm basically a good person, and one of the ways I can tell is that I don't find myself making excuses for genocide. Granted, this is not a very high standard - which makes it all the more shocking that so many Christian apologists don't meet it.

There's a moral cliff here, and the apologists have walked right off the edge. No matter how you got to this point, no matter how slippery the slope or how reasonable your arguments seem, if you've come to the position of defending genocide, that ought to be a clue that you've done something wrong. The conclusion that genocide can be morally justified ought to be a reductio ad absurdum against any argument that you used to get there.

But because these apologists don't see this, they've wandered into a dangerous trap. They're forced to believe that not even genocide can be immoral if God commands it. This is an extremely dangerous position to advocate, because then the question of whether to commit such an act reduces to the question of whether God has in fact commanded it. What this amounts to is the total surrender of one's own conscience - laying aside your moral sense and submitting your will to any authority figure who's sufficiently charismatic to convince the masses that God speaks through him - and that is how crimes like genocide always begin. The apologists have not learned this hard-won lesson of history. By justifying the evils of the past, they leave the road wide open for those same evils to reoccur in the future.

September 10, 2009, 7:44 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink100 comments

Little-Known Bible Verses: Predestination

One of the most common Christian beliefs, and the one most often appealed to in order to explain why evil exists, is that human beings have free will to make choices that are not in God's control. God doesn't want robots, the argument goes, nor mindless puppets programmed to sing his praises. He desires genuine fellowship with real, independent beings, and giving us free will is the only way to achieve that, though some people may misuse the gift and cause evil and sin that harm others.

But if you look at the Bible, this reasoning isn't so easy to support. In fact, there's strong evidence that, in the world of Christian theology, human beings are not free to make their own choices - as we see from some little-known bible verses.

"According as [Christ] hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated [Greek proorizo, to predetermine, to decide beforehand] us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will...."
—Ephesians 1:4,5 (KJV)

This verse from Ephesians arguably isn't even the strongest predestination verse in the Bible, but I chose it because it easily disposes of the usual counterargument: that God does not predestine, but with his omniscience, he sees in advance who will freely choose him. This verse refutes that interpretation by using the Greek word proorizo, which specifically means "predestinate".

If the author of this verse had instead wanted to say that God would foresee who would choose him, there's a perfectly good Greek word for that - proginosko. That word is not used here. However, it is used in another verse which puts the nail in the coffin of the foreknowledge argument:

"For whom [God] did foreknow [proginosko], he also did predestinate [proorizo] to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? .... Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth."
—Romans 8:29-33 (KJV)

This verse uses both the words for "foreknow" and "predestinate", and it specifically says that God does both. But there's one more predestination verse in the Bible that's the most compelling of all:

"Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?"

—Romans 9:14-21 (KJV)

This long verse makes it clear what Paul's views on free will are. Salvation is "not of him that willeth", but the choice of God, who selects some people and shows mercy to them. The rest, like Pharaoh, he "hardens" so that they will reject him and be condemned. But the most incontrovertible proof that this passage teaches predestination is that Paul anticipates the obvious counterargument - that it would be unjust for God to punish people for being as he made them to be - and responds to it! His argument is that since God is the maker, he can do whatever he wants with us - just as a potter shapes clay into different vessels to suit his purposes - and we have no right to lay a charge of injustice against him.

Verses like these may disturb Christians who've always believed that God gave us free will. But the truth is that such a concept finds little support in the Bible. By contrast, the pro-predestination verses are numerous and specific in their wording: God makes us as he chooses, rewards the people whom he made to be good, and punishes the ones whom he made to be evil, even though neither group had any choice in how they would turn out. Many influential historical Christian thinkers, including Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin, accepted these verses for what they say.

Today this view is much less popular, probably because of its unsettling moral implications for God's goodness. As mentioned earlier, even most Christians now seem to accept that a god who was directly responsible for evil, and who condemns people for being as he made them to be, would not be worthy of worship. But this can't change the fact that it is still what the Bible clearly says.

Other posts in this series:

August 28, 2009, 6:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink140 comments

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