Thursday, December 26, 2013

In Defense of Biblical Barbarism

        Many American Christians are perplexed that God seems to act in a very unenlightened way in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  Why, this backward God seems to be against 21st Century American morals concerning homosexuality!  And what is to be made of the Israelites receiving Divine permission to invade Canann and to kill all the Canaanites?

     Some assume that since God is good, it must indeed be a good thing to exterminate Canaanites, pull out the hair of non-Jewish women and persecute homosexuals.  Others assume that since these actions appear evil, and God is not capable of evil, then the Bible must be wrong.  

     However, the Village believes that neither interpretative method (or hermaneutic, if you prefer) is at all on the right track.   Not at all.

        Let us ask what the Bible is.  Bible is Greek for "book"  and the "Testament" is literally the testimony of those who have gone before us.  Thus the Bible testifies to what happened.  It does not claim to be some kind of rule book, nor can one assume that the ancient Israelites are to be held up as some sort of shining example for the rest of us to follow.  After all, the Bible and especially the Old Testament was created when the world was still barbaric and scarcely civilized at all.  To put it bluntly, if the ancient Israelites jumped in a lake, does that mean that modern Christians  have a moral duty to jump in a lake too?  Obviously not!

     In fact, we are supposed to learn from some of the events and especially the mistakes that are recorded in the Bible, rather than repeat them over and over and over.   

    The needs of an ancient barbaric people may very well differ from the needs of 21st Century America.  In an ancient barbaric society it was vitally important to win wars and even to annihilate the opposition if possible.  This requires a growing population.  With the average life expectancy of about forty, it was vitally important for girls to begin having children at the onset of puberty and to continue doing so for the rest of her life. This may have been vital to the survival of a barbaric society in the year 1000 BC, but it is alien to our thinking today.  Hence girls were married as soon as possible, usually when they were in their early teens (see West, Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs).  

    Male barbarians, on the other hand, are expendable.  It is acceptable to lose males in combat as long as they kill more males for rival societies with them.  In military terms, this is known as optimizing the kill ratio, or opponent deaths divided by the losses of the society's own warriors.  It leads to a deficit in the male population, but harms the opponents more.  
      The goal was to outnumber and dominate the opposition, rather than providing fulfilling romances and sex for the members of an ancient barbaric society.   

     Moreover, the reproductive capacity of an attritted  male can be easily replaced if males are allowed to mate with multiple wives.  Indeed this was the case in Biblical times. Males were routinely permitted to take additional wives.        

     Solomon, we are told, had 700 wives and 300 concubines, hardly the ideal of one man and one woman per marriage that many of us espouse today. The one man and one woman model is not actually Biblical. 

     As incomprehensible as it may seem to modern Americans, ancient barbaric societies simply did not have a vested interest in fulfilling the romantic desires of its members, whether heterosexual or homosexual.  What they did want to ensure is the maximum reproductive rate and this is accomplished by heterosexual intercourse, beginning at the earliest possible opportunity and continuing as long as possible.  

     Hence, if we wish to adhere to the concept of marriage in the Old Testament, we should consider supporting various practices now considered barbaric, including the marriage of young girls (say age 12 to 14) to older men, especially in situations in which females out number males due to combat losses.  Multiple wives for prosperous males should certainly be supported, and definitely same-sex relationships do .  Such arrangements can probably be most stable if there is a substantial casualty rate from hand to hand combat with neighboring tribes in order to maintain a high ratio of females to males.  

    Please don't quote me out of context, but based on the needs of an ancient society, I recognize potentially valid reasons for various barbaric atrocities, including banning of homosexuality, forced marriage of adolescent females and even genocide.  

    That was simply the common sense reality of ancient life.  But is not a blueprint for modern life at all.   

    This in no way implies that modern Americans are supposed to emulate the barbaric behavior of the Israelites.  Rather, we are supposed to read the records of what they did and learn from them, not emulate them!

   The alternative is to recognize that the Bible is a living document.  I like to say that the Bible is "Divine Grace and human response."  Paul certainly suggests that spiritual growth is a process rather than a fait accompli:   "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me."

    I believe that Jesus Christ called humanity to put aside its barbaric ways, and to become more tolerant and to live our lives out of love for God rather than fear of Divine Wrath.  

      It should be obvious that we no longer need to kill our neighbors and steal their land.  Likewise we are free from the need to steal their women and force them to reproduce as often as possible.   This ancient code of conduct simply does not apply to modern life.  Hence there is a major problem if one tries to use the Biblical description of the ancient Israelites as a model for the ideal modern American.  

   Jesus Christ was sent to humanity to lead us to a more excellent way (1 Cor 12:31).  It's up to us to decide whether to follow that way, or to stay in our familiar childish ways. 

     Now, if for the moment the reader is willing to acquiesce to my suggestion that we relieve our societies from the need to act like the barbaric societies, does that mean the Bible is pro gay?  Is there some commandment that causes us to recognize the religious correctness of homosexuality.  

    I don't think it means that either.  The Bible is simply not meant to act as a simple rulebook, and thus when we try to use it as a rulebook it is like operating a machine outside of its design specifications.  It just does not work very well.   

     Hence it is presumptuous to say that any particular form of sexual conduct is necessarily sanctioned by the Bible.  Being a Christian does not entitle me to do whatever I want whenever I want to.  Personally, I find that if I pray for guidance, and study the bible I almost always receive it.  Even if that is not as simple as some simple rulebook, there are real limits, and real direction for living life is in fact provided.  

     Whatever we decide to do, it should be done with the guidance of the Holy Spirt, in which case we should expect to see some evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), which is "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."

     So I would say that even in today's context we don't have an automatic license to do everything we want to, whether homosexual or heterosexual. We probably can not use the Bible effectively to provide simple answers about, say, supporting or opposing specific legislative actions.   The Bible does not prohibit a modern society from addressing such issues in a way that differs from ancient practice, but neither does it offer carte blanche support, either. For example, perhaps we should take the Bible out of the sexuality debate altogether. 

    In  any case, it is very dubious whether a cosmic imbalance will be righted if we return to the laws and codes of ancient Barbarism.  To some extent we can afford to be very sympathetic to the actions of the ancient barbaric peoples, but 21st Century America is not the place to re-establish them.  



  1. I like your hermeneutic better than many, Elliot. I would suggest another, perhaps compatible hermeneutic. The Bible is not so much a book as it is a library in which is trapped (almost like a fly in amber) an evolving experience of and understanding of who God is and what God desires of us. God has not changed over that time, but our understanding of God has. Since this "fly in the amber library" creates a kind of trajectory that we can and must extrapolate from in order to know how to understand God and ourselves in the present and the future. However, on a more spiritual level, the Bible is not intended to describe or contain God, nor to circumscribe our behavior with a set of laws. By the power and intention of the Holy Spirit it creates a "space" wherein the believer may encounter the Living God (who can never be fully understood or described) and to learn from Him how we ought to conduct our lives.

    1. Very well put, David. I like the fly in the amber analogy also. Yes I agree with your explanation virtually completely (this may be a first!). We probably do not do God much of a service by trying to assign him the role of petty rulemaker. If he can help us to set a new direction for our own lives, that's probably good enough! imho.