Catholic in Yanchep

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)


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A reader asks about homosexuality and the Bible

Last Judgement Sistine Chapel

The Last Judgement (detail), Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Today I’ll cover part three of the series which answers a question from a reader of my Facebook posts.  This is the question:

Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed.  While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.

Part One (non-believers) is here.  Part Two (rape) is here.

Part Three will attempt to discuss the final part, which is referring to the sexual prohibitions mentioned in Leviticus 18.  To provide some context, this chapter in Leviticus is part of a larger section describing the Law of Holiness (Lv 17-26), which is a guide for the moral formation of the Israelites, as a people distinct from the surrounding nations who were known for various types of degenerate behaviour such as incest and child sacrifice.  The list of sexual prohibitions in Chapter 18 spans a few categories which I have itemised in the table below.  To modern ears and in a society that has been deeply wounded by the adultery and divorce culture, these lists sound harsh and judgmental; words like ‘sin’ and ‘degenerate’ trigger emotional responses in people who have been affected by the negative consequences of the rampant sexual license characteristic of the post-WW2 era.  And then the Biblical descriptions of menstrual impurity sound completely alien to our ears if we don’t read them with any comprehension of the concept of ritual purity in ancient Judaism.

Prohibitions in Leviticus 18 Number of rules Verse
Incest (various classifications) 11 6-17
Polygamy 1 18
Sex during menstrual periods 1 19
Adultery 1 20
Child sacrifice 1 21
Homosexual acts 1 22
Bestiality 1 23

There is a constant refrain running through Leviticus, wherein God reminds the Israelites, “Be consecrated to me, for I, the LORD, am holy, and I shall set you apart from all these peoples, for you to be mine” (Lv 20:26).  The idea of holiness is intended to convey the ‘separateness, inaccessibility and awe-inspiring transcendence’ [i] of God, and the lists of ‘sins’ are there to help the Israelites identify the particular practices that God regards as being problematic if one wants to grow in one’s covenant relationship with him.

I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that, at bottom, the reader was really asking what right Christians have to include homosexual practices in any list of sins.  Is he really worried that Christians are going to start executing homosexual people because of Leviticus 20:13 or putting to death the man who has an affair with another man’s wife because of Leviticus 20:10?  To be sure, some countries have current legislation demanding severe punishments for homosexual acts, but they are Islamic, not Christian.  For example, Iran’s New Islamic Penal Code lists this penalty:

Article 234– The hadd punishment for livat shall be the death penalty for the insertive/active party if he has committed livat by using force, coercion, or in cases where he meets the conditions for ihsan; otherwise, he shall be sentenced to one hundred lashes. The hadd punishment for the receptive/passive party, in any case (whether or not he meets the conditions for ihsan) shall be the death penalty.[ii]

 – however, it is principally in countries which have sprung from the Christian intellectual tradition that so-called LGBT rights have even been able to emerge.  Why the difference?

This is because Christians read the Old Testament books of the Bible in the light of the New Testament – and vice versa.   St Augustine tells us:

The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New[iii]
(quamquam et in Vetere Novum lateat, et in Novo Vetus pateat)

and again,

This grace hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament according to the most perfectly ordered dispensation of the ages, forasmuch as God knew how to dispose all things.[iv]

Jesus as the Word of God is the God the Father’s perfect expression of Himself, and if we want to interpret Old Testament texts correctly, we have to look to Jesus’ own word and example.  You can find this specific instruction in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2053):

Following Jesus Christ involves keeping the Commandments.  The Law has not been abolished, but rather man is invited to rediscover it in the person of his Master who is its perfect fulfilment.[v]

Again, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI’s  Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, has emphasised the person of Christ as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Scripture.

  1. … God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.  I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.[vi]

So, to answer the reader’s question, the Church doesn’t condemn those parts of the Old Testament that seem difficult; the Old Testament is a crucial part of the story of Salvation.  But we must then make our next question, “So how would Jesus behave towards a person with same-sex attraction?”

The answer: “Always with love.”

Now, what we mean by ‘love’ is complicated, because in the Christian understanding it means ‘willing the good of the other’, which is not the same as approving every action of ‘the other’ or agreeing with ‘the other’ on what they believe.  The Christian understanding of the human person distinguishes a person from his/her acts.  It is this understanding of love that enables the gay Rubin Report presenter, Dave Rubin, to sit down with Bishop Robert Barron and have a mature and respectful discussion about same sex marriage.  It is this understanding of love that enables the SSA Tim Wilson to sit down with Andrew Hastie and have a charitable conversation on the same topic.

St Augustine (he is so very useful) has a famous epithet for this ability to distinguish between a person’s inherent dignity and their acts (or beliefs): Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum , which can be translated aswith due love for the persons and hatred of the sin”[vii].  We can see this in Jesus’ actions when he says to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11) in the same sentence:  “Neither do I condemn you; go and from now on sin no more.”  He doesn’t crush her (literally and figuratively) by condemning her to being stoned to death, but at the same time he doesn’t deny that her actions have been sinful, and he calls her gently to a renunciation of sin.

Now when we come to people who are same-sex-attracted (SSA), explaining this gets tricky, because in our current culture, as never before in the history of mankind, sexual orientation is regarded as an inherent characteristic of the SSA person – as if it is part of one’s genetic makeup.  And so, any criticism of same-sex activity becomes per se a criticism of the person’s identity or orientation.  But is sexual orientation really genetically determined?

Speaking as a former Human Biology teacher and as someone who has studied molecular genetics at post-graduate level, I can say that the evidence for sexual orientation being genetically determined is not conclusive by any means, and the science as it currently stands sees it as being the result of a complex interaction of genetic, hormonal, environmental and social influences.  For example, an Australian study of 4,901 sets of twins by Bailey, Dunne and Martin[viii] found only 20% concordance in sexual orientation in male monozygotic (identical) twins and 24% concordance in female monozygotic twins.  If the condition were purely genetic, the concordance should be 100%.  In fact, the gay community are divided among themselves about sexual orientation: many who want to leverage a political and ideological agenda want to claim the ‘born this way’ status, so that the group as a whole can be treated as a victimised minority group, while at the same time, others want to promote the idea of gender fluidity so that children can be indoctrinated at an early age with the ideology that gender is a malleable social construct of our own self-creation and not something objective and biologically determined.

On a personal level and as someone who has a few SSA friends and acquaintances, I am leaning towards a strong correlation with social factors and have made the following informal observations about cases I am familiar with, as they have been self-reported to me.

  • Friend #1 is female SSA, was sexually and physically abused by her father in her early years, and reportedly without emotional support from a passive mother. This friend is now coping with the additional burden of paranoid schizophrenia.
  • Friend #2 is female SSA, was abandoned by her mother in her early years. Her mother was a drug abuser and is currently living as a homeless person.
  • Friend #3 is female SSA. Her case involves significant childhood trauma, but because of her status as a friend of mine, I can’t even begin to discuss her case publicly.
  • Friend #4 is male SSA, was sexually abused by ‘multiple teachers and an older boy’.[ix] You can read his story here.

Even Milo Yiannopoulos agrees with me on this.

I have to concede, though, that others do not fit into this paradigm – I’m thinking of people like Mindy Selmys and Eve Tushnet.

What this means for the Christian, is that for many SSA people, the experience of rejection by a significant other is a large part of what feeds into their self-perception.  And it seems to me that because the theme of rejection looms so large in their psychological landscape, they are particularly sensitive to the suggestion that same-sex attraction is regarded as sinful in the Abrahamic religions.  To them it seems just another instantiation of the rejection meme (in the Dawkins sense).  Hence the constant accusations of ‘homophobia’.

I get this a lot.  In spite of my having spent a significant part of last summer visiting an SSA friend in psychiatric hospital and taking her on outings while she recovered, I still get called ‘homophobic’ by certain members of my family, just because I happen to disagree with them about the purpose of sexuality in our lives.

And my Facebook news feed reveals a sort of passive aggression about the Christian understanding of homosexuality.  There is so much misunderstanding and superficiality in the meme below, that I will need another whole post to explain the logical fallacies in the statement, and give some clarity about what classical Natural Law theory is for Christians.  So I will leave that for next week.

Homosexuality-Meme

Things my friends post on Facebook.

The Christian understanding is that while the existence of a same-sex orientation itself is not sinful, homosexual acts are.  Christians are not picking on homosexuality in particular – we also regard masturbation, adultery, sex before marriage, polygamy and contraception as intrinsically dis-ordered, with the word ‘disordered’ being used in a technical, natural law sense and not in a medical sense.

The most important thing for me as a Christian, is to be, as much as is humanly possible in my flawed sort of way, Christ’s representative to my SSA friends.  For they won’t be able to understand the Christian position on homosexuality without first encountering the person of Christ.

Next week, I will give an overview of Christian teaching on sexuality, and explain some aspects of Natural Law as it pertains to this discussion.

In the meantime, for some extra background on Homosexuality from a Catholic perspective, I can recommend these two interviews with psychologist, Dr Joseph Nicolosi:

Understanding Same Sex Attraction, Part 1 
Understanding Same Sex Attraction, Part 2

[i] The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), Doubleday, notes to Leviticus 17.
[ii] The new Islamic Penal Code, accessed at http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/human-rights-documents/iranian-codes/1000000455-english-translation-of-books-1-and-2-of-the-new-islamic-penal-code.html#45
[iii] Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, 2, 73: PL 34, 623, accessed at http://www.augustinus.it/latino/questioni_ettateuco/index2.htm
[iv] St Augustine, Anti Pelagian Writings, 27 [XV] accessed at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xi.xxx.html
[vii] Letter 211, Augustine, §11, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102211.htm.
[viii] Genetic and environmental influences on sexual orientation and its correlates in an Australian twin sample, (2000) Bailey, J.M., Dunne M.P. and Martin, N.G.,  J. Pers. Soc. Psychol, accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10743878
[ix] http://catholicoutlook.org/james-parker-from-gay-activist-to-husband-and-father/

 

 

 


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EASTER | Some stats and graphs on why the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are extraordinary

Have you ever been told that the Bible is historically unreliable and not been sure how to respond?  Most people who make that claim are using it as a lever to excuse themselves from taking Christianity seriously.  Press them, and you find they have not actually studied the facts about the Bible’s historicity.  It’s a sign of the craziness of our times that the word ‘facts’ has itself become contentious.  Setting that aside, it’s instructive to look at the statistics relating to the extant New Testament manuscripts.  If we dig into the figures, we discover some striking data that rarely seem to find their way into the popular media.

I first became interested in this subject when I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, which has recently been released as a film and will be available in Australia in May 2017.  While I don’t agree with everything Strobel writes, and find his writing style annoying in its lack of subtlety and constant attempts to re-create the scene, his interviewees are usually well-known scholars in their fields.

We’re all familiar today with the way some news items ‘go viral’.  A similar thing happened after Christ’s Resurrection: an astounding explosion in documented output by authors describing it.  So singular, extraordinary, impossible, fantastic, and unbelievable was this event, that not only did it inspire four contemporary eye-witness and/or “one-step-removed-from-eye-witness” authors to produce accounts (something unheard of for any other event in ancient history), but the sheer volume and speed of propagation of these documents is unparalleled, considering the technology available in this period of history.

Focussing in on just two aspects of this phenomenon, I’d like to share with you some graphs for those of you who are visual learners.  I will concentrate on these two questions:

  1. Number of manuscripts.
    1. How many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist?
    2. How does this compare with the number of manuscripts of other ancient documents?
  2. Time interval
    1. What is the time interval between the date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript?
    2. How does this compare with other ancient documents?

Just to define my terms, I should mention that by manuscripts I am including handwritten copies prior to the invention of the printing press, inscribed on papyrus, parchment, vellum, and paper, in any number of languages from that period:  Greek and Latin, Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian, amongst others.

Comparing the most well-known works from this period, we find a breakdown as shown in Table 1 below.  Surprising, isn’t it, that there are only seven manuscripts of Virgil’s Aeneid, ten of Caesar’s Gallic Wars which it was de rigueur for every Latin scholar of my era to read, but over 24,000 of the New Testament?  Testament, indeed, to the power of the Gospel.  Even Homer’s Iliad is fewer by about 37 times.  A graph makes the disparity even more striking.  When it’s the Bible versus ‘everything else’, ‘everything else’ pales, mathematically speaking, into insignificance.  And I haven’t even included the numerous commentaries about the New Testament which would explode the figures into the stratosphere.Manuscript-Number-Graph

 

 

Manuscript-Numbers

Manuscripts of Iron Age writings: the Numbers

Another measure we can look at is the time interval between the best-estimate date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript.  Disputants like to claim “Oh well, the New Testament was written long after the events it describes”.  Actually, when the Bible is compared to other works from about the same era, one finds that the intervals involved for the Bible are relatively short.  The bars on the graph below show the time interval from the creation of each work (bottom of bar) to the date of the first extant copy (top of bar) of each manuscript.  Using the same criteria as historians use for other works, the New Testament compares favourably – in fact it appears to be more reliable than other ancient texts.  I have arranged these by date of composition, so that it is clear which documents are contemporaneous with each other.

Manuscript-Summary

Interval-Authorship-to-Extant

So now, when you are challenged about the reliability of the Gospels, please share with your friends these facts and figures.  There are numerous other points that can be made regarding the Resurrection of Christ as a real event, and I encourage you to go and see the film, The Case for Christ, when it is released next month.  And for a Catholic version on a similar theme, try Dr Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus  – written in a more scholarly style, with much additional data, but still accessible to the general reader.

Wishing all readers a joyful and blessed Easter!


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5th Sunday of Lent, Yr A | A reader asks: Should we condemn parts of the Bible (part two)

The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus

This week I will continue answering a question from one of the readers of these posts, this time focussing on the middle section, concerning whether the Christian Bible condones rape:

Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed.  While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.

I was somewhat bemused by the claim that the Bible condones rape, as most people understand the Bible to be strongly opposed to sexual sin, so I had to resort to consulting an atheist website with the congenial and obviously impartial name, The Bible is Evil, to discover our reader’s likely sources.  It turns out that this website lists a number of examples from Judges, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Exodus which, according to the author, support rape.   I will take just one of these by way of illustration and look at some general principles of interpreting Scripture, and leave some references which deal with the other examples.

The first example involves a rollicking yarn from Judges 21, concerning the rape of the daughters of Shiloh by the men of the tribe of Benjamin.  Most Catholics who are not regular readers of Scripture are probably unfamiliar with this story, as the Catholic Lectionary for Sundays and Major Feasts includes not one snippet from the Book of Judges, and the weekday readings cover less than 10% of the entire content of the book (Lectionary Statistics by Felix Just, S.J.).  This leaves Catholics somewhat unarmed for assaults from atheists on some of the more intemperate parts of the Old Testament.

To answer our reader’s question and provide some context, I will give a brief(ish) synopsis of the tale, which begins back in Judges 19.

The story begins with an unnamed Levite from Ephraim who has a slave wife – or concubine.  Although concubinage was common in the Ancient Near East, in the Bible it is never described with approval.  Jewish readers would understand immediately that the fact that the Levite has a concubine is a blemish on his character.  This concubine has made an escape from her master to return to her father’s home – in Bethlehem of all places – and after a leisurely four months, the Levite finally decides to make the journey to recover her.  We get a hint of why she might have run away from her master as his character is revealed in the story.  To cut a long story short, the Levite gets along swimmingly with the concubine’s Dad, and the two of them spend the next several days eating, drinking and making merry far into the evening (while the concubine seems to be completely ignored).  Finally, the Levite manages to tear himself away from the insistent father and makes his way back to Ephraim, together with the concubine, a servant and two donkeys.

When they start off, it is already late, and the light is failing as they approach Jerusalem.  The servant sensibly suggests they stop there for the night, but the Levite turns up his nose at staying in what was at this time a city occupied by Jebusites – non-Jews, and moreover, descendants of the cursed line of Canaan (see Genesis 10) – and opts to head to the next Israelite town of Gibeah, in Benjamin.  By the time they reach Gibeah, night is falling, and as they wait in the town square for someone to offer them hospitality, their chances of finding it are slim.  Remember street lighting was not a given at this period in history.  As luck would have it, an old man comes along and offers them a place in his house.  Levitical law made it obligatory for Jews to offer hospitality, even to foreigners: “If you have resident aliens in your country, you will not molest them. You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born and love them as yourself – for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.”  (Lv 19:34)

But just when they have settled down to dinner indoors, we discover that Gibeah is not the safe place the Levite thought it was.  In a scene reminiscent of Sodom, an unruly band of men surround the house, wanting to pack-rape the Levite (as one does).  The old man and the Levite prove themselves cowardly in the extreme, for to get themselves out of this tricky situation, the old man suggests they substitute his daughter, while the Levite ends up giving them the concubine to do with as they please.

They had intercourse with her and ill-treated her all night till morning.

In the morning, the concubine, after a night of being violently gang-raped, drags herself to the door of the house, where in great distress, she dies “with her hands on the threshold”.

Meanwhile, the Levite, astounding us with his indifference to her plight, appears to have had a good night’s sleep!  The tranquillity of the Levite is masterfully juxtaposed with the horror of the scene that has just occurred:

In the morning her husband got up and, opening the door of the house, was going out to continue his journey when he saw the woman, his concubine, lying at the door of the house … ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘we must leave!’  There was no answer. (Judges 19:27-28)

This is all the more appalling when we remember that Levites had a sacred calling and were the tribe set apart for service of the sanctuary.  Jesus himself is not above criticising the hypocrisy of certain Levites (Luke 10:32), and perhaps this Levite is typical of those priests and Bishops who in our own age have been indifferent to reports of sexual abuse or even complicit in such activities.  But I digress.

Without feeling a ounce of self-reproach, the Levite hauls her body home on his donkey, and proceeds to cut her up into twelve pieces, distributing the parts countrywide to each of the twelve tribes, with the message,

Has anything like this been done since the day when the Israelites came out of Egypt until today?

Instead of examining his own conscience, his purpose is to stir up the vengeance of all Israel against the men of Benjamin, and he succeeds, as representatives from all the tribes (except Benjamin) gather at Mizpah and declare that they will not let this injustice go unpunished.

When the Benjaminites refuse to hand over the rapists from Gibeah, full scale war breaks out, and to cut a long story short, after two days where Benjamin appears to be getting the upper hand, the Israelites get strategic and draw the Benjaminites away from Gibeah to a place where they can be hemmed in and massacred, while in the meantime other Israelite troops ambush Gibeah, killing the inhabitants and setting the town alight.  Only 600 men from Benjamin remain, having escaped into the desert.

With all the mishegoss of a Woody Allen movie, the Israelites are suddenly struck with Oy vey iz mir about the fact that they have practically wiped out one of their own tribes,

Yahweh, God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel that a tribe should be missing from Israel today?

One imagines God going *ultimate headdesk*.  (Er … because you killed them, stupid.)

So the Israelites decide that they need to ensure they provide wives for the remaining Benjaminites in order that the tribal remnant might not die out.  Well, they can’t provide wives from among their own daughters, as they have previously made an oath not to contaminate their families with the murderous Benjaminites, so they come up with a plan to steal all the virgins from the one town in Gilead that had not gathered in Mizpah – having slaughtered everyone from that town outside the category of virgin – but this provides only 400 women for 600 men.  They make up the balance by telling the men of Benjamin to seize the girls from Shiloh as they come out to dance at the annual festival (these are the rapes mentioned by our reader).  Having done this, the Israelites all return home, and the Benjaminites are free to rebuild.

What are we to make of this unedifying story?

Atheists and anti-theists tend to think this way:

  • Premise 1: the Bible is meant to show us how to live.
  • Premise 2: the Bible is full of violence and rape.
  • Premise 3: violence and rape are bad.
  • Conclusion 1: the Bible is therefore teaching us to rape and be violent.
  • Conclusion 2: therefore the Bible is wrong.

But to the Biblical exegete, that’s not what the book of Judges is about.  One has to understand the intention of the author, and in this case, he is quite clear.  We have the repeated verse regarding good leadership:

  • In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit. (Jg 17:6)
  • In those days there was no king in Israel (18:1)
  • In those days, when there was no king in Israel (19:1)
  • In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit. (Judges 21:25)
  • In those days there was no king in Israel (18:1)

The generations after Joshua have forgotten God, are lacking good leaders, and have resorted to doing whatever they like.  The entire book of Judges describes a repeated cycle of the Israelites turning away from God to worship the gods of the Canaanites, being humiliated by their enemies, being rescued by the Judges, having a brief period of peace, and then falling back into sin.

The Israelites then did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes and served the Baals.  They deserted Yahweh, God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt, and they followed other gods, from those of the surrounding peoples … He delivered them to the enemies surrounding them, and they were no longer able to resist their enemies …  so that they were in dire distress.  Yahweh then appointed them judges, who rescued them from the hands of their plunderers … But once the judge was dead, they relapsed into even worse corruption than their ancestors.  They followed other gods; they served them and bowed before them … (Jg 2:11-19).

Our reader asks why Christians don’t condemn the rape that is described in this book.  A better question would be, “How did you, dear reader, manage to miss these repeated sentences condemning evil?”

  • The Israelites then did what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes (Jg 2:11)
  • The Israelites did what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes. (Jg 3:7)
  • Again the Israelites began doing what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes (Jg 3:12).
  • … Since they were doing what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes (3:12)
  • Once Ehud was dead, the Israelites again began doing what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes (4:1)
  • The Israelites did what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes, and for seven years Yahweh handed them over to Midian (Jg 6:1)
  • Thus God made to recoil on Abimelech the evil he had done his father by murdering his seventy brothers, and all the evil that the men of Shechem had done God made recoil on their heads too (Jg 9:57).
  • The Israelites again began doing what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes (Jg 10:6).
  • Again the Israelites began doing what is evil in Yahweh’s eyes, and Yahweh delivered them into the power of the Philistines for forty years (Jg 13:1).

Perhaps the atheists who ask these questions are just indulging in the straw man fallacy, relying on the ignorance of their audience.  Or perhaps I am being cynical and the reader genuinely wants to know the true interpretation.  In fact, we could say with today’s reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans,

People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you.

When it comes to active atheism versus total indifference, active atheism wins hands down, because at least it cares about asking the important questions.

At any rate, the point of Judges is to warn us about the consequences of evil and to show what happens when a society abandons God and does whatever it likes.  In fact, it is a book that is most applicable to our own time when relativism is the prevailing standard and everyone ‘does as they see fit’, without reference to God.

As far as the other claims go regarding rape verses in the Bible, I will refer you to Jimmy Akin’s treatments here:

Stay tuned for next week, when I will tackle part three of the question.

Today’s readings:
Word format: Year A Lent 5th Sunday 2017
Pdf format: Year A Lent 5th Sunday 2017

 

 

 

 

 


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Third Sunday of Lent, Yr A | A reader asks: Should we condemn parts of the Bible? (Part One)

Angelika Kauffmann Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the well 1796

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Angelika Kauffmann, 1796, oil on canvas, Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

Today I’m going to depart from the usual format of commenting on the Sunday readings and take up a question from a reader of my Facebook page.  The question is this:

Why don’t Christians condemn the parts of their Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed.  While they are at it they could do the same about the bits that condone rape and the bits that say gays must die.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Bill for asking the question, and say that I had similar questions when I first took up the Bible to read it cover-to-cover.  But I found that the deeper I delved into Sacred Scripture, with the help of commentary from the best scholars, the more miraculous and life-changing the Bible became.

Today I will focus on the first part of Bill’s question, and I’ll take the second half next week.

With reference to ‘the parts of the Bible that instruct non-believers must be killed’, I’m not sure which particular passage Bill had in mind (sorry, Bill, I should have asked), but let’s take, for example, Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

But as regards the towns of those peoples whom the LORD your God is giving you as your heritage, you must not spare the life of any living thing.  Instead you must lay them under the curse of destruction: Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honour their gods: in doing these, you would sin against the LORD your God.

 Sounds pretty violent?  Here are some thoughts on how to interpret this:

We need to understand the context of the story in order to understand why it says what it says.  This is not an instruction to us NOW to go out and lay anyone under a curse of destruction, and I have never encountered anyone suggesting such a thing (except non-believers telling Christians how violent the Bible is).  The Bible spans at least 2,000 years of history, and the parts of the Bible which have the most violence occur early in the history of the Israelites.  But still, it’s legitimate to ask, “Why is this violence there at all?”

  1. We don’t teach toddlers in the same way we teach adults, and neither does God.

The Bible is really a collection of books in different genres which trace the story of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind.  Now it’s not an easy task to teach humans anything, so God, in his wisdom, decided to select one particular nation – the Jews – and lead them gradually by methods that they could understand, to a fuller knowledge of Himself.  When we read Scripture, it helps to think of the question, “What is God trying to achieve?”  He wants the Israelites to be in a Covenant relationship with him – as children to a loving Father – and he wants them to learn how to listen to him and live good and holy lives.  It’s essential that we understand the covenantal love of the Father if we want to understand the Old Testament – God is creating a bond with creatures he wants to elevate to the level of family.

During the period described in the Deuteronomy passage above, the Jewish nation is still in its infancy.  Like toddlers, they are having great difficulty learning to listen to the voice of God, their Father, who, like a good parent, knows what is best for them.  By the time we get to this passage in Deuteronomy, we have seen numerous examples of the peaks and troughs of the Israelite journey.  One minute they are trusting in God with wholehearted self-abandonment, and are rewarded with blessings, next minute they are a nation of grumblers and mutterers who forget God’s help during the good times and are now backing away and suspicious of God’s intentions.  The Israelites have an unfortunate habit of thinking their own ideas are better than God’s.

The Israelites of this period are like spiritual toddlers, who are embedded in a culture that is not very nuanced or morally sophisticated, and so God has to achieve his purpose of returning them to the Promised Land by talking to them in the only language they can understand – the rather unsubtle Deuteronomic Law.

For more on this and how to understand the Bible generally, I would recommend reading Walking with God by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins.

  1. Context is everything.

God had previously given peaceful instructions to Moses for re-entering the Promised Land (remember this is the land they had left about 500 years earlier, when they had relocated to Egypt during a famine), but they had failed to obey orders.  What, specifically, were these directives?

Look, I am sending an angel to precede you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place I have prepared … I shall send terror of myself ahead of you; I shall throw all the peoples you encounter into confusion, and make all your enemies take to their heels.  I shall send hornets ahead of you to drive Hivite, Canaanite and Hittite out before you.  I shall not drive them out ahead of you in a single year, or the land might become a desert where wild animals would multiply to your cost.  I shall drive them out little by little before you, until your numbers grow sufficient for you to take possession of the land. (Exodus 23: 20, 27-31).

So this re-entry was meant to be accomplished without warfare, but merely through the Israelites trusting in God to drive the enemies of Israel out little by little as they were (a) thrown into confusion and (b) discomfited by something as relatively mild as an outbreak of hornets.

But, just when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, they got cold feet!  The reconnaissance party that had been sent out to assess the land, returned in fear, and their negative report caused the whole nation to waver and lose trust in God’s promise to be with them.

They began disparaging the country they had reconnoitred to the Israelites, saying, ‘The country we have been to reconnoitre is a country that devours its inhabitants.  All the people we saw there were of enormous size.  We saw giants there too … We felt like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them’

The whole community then cried out in dismay, and the people wept all that night.  All the Israelites muttered at Moses and Aaron, and the whole community said to them, ‘Would to God we had died in Egypt, or even that we had died in this desert!’ (Numbers 13:32-33, 14:1-2)

The consequence of the lack of fidelity shown by Israel, is that they have to wander in the wilderness for forty more years, before they can have another crack at the Promised Land.

Now this is where the book of Deuteronomy comes in (the violent passage quoted at the beginning).  What we have to understand about Deuteronomy is that it’s not God’s first choice – the name itself means, “second law” (Deutero = second, nomos = law).  The only law that is universal and continued into the New Covenant under Christ is the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) – and the principles derived from it.  Jesus himself gives a critique of Deuteronomic law when he talks about divorce in Matthew 19:8:

They said to him, ‘Then why did Moses command that a writ of dismissal should be given in cases of divorce?’  He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard hearted, that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning.  Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife … and marries another, is guilty of adultery.’ 

Referring back to Deuteronomy 24:1, we can find out what ‘Moses’ command’ was.

Suppose a man has taken a wife and consummated the marriage; but she has not pleased him and he has found some impropriety of which to accuse her; he has therefore made out a writ of divorce for her and handed it to her and then dismissed her from his house; she leaves his home and goes away to become the wife of another man.  Then suppose this second man who has married her takes a dislike to her and makes out a writ of divorce for her and hands it to her and dismisses her from his house or if this other man who took her as his wife dies, her first husband, who has repudiated her, may not take her back as his wife now that she has been made unclean in this way.

See how different Jesus’ version is from that of Moses’ Law?  The Deuteronomic law was given for people whose hearts were already hardened to God.  Therefore the teaching about killing the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, and any other recalcitrant tribes, is also a ‘limited edition’ instruction which falls away under the New Covenant.

  1. The spiritual danger of being infected by Canaanite culture.

But why does Moses say, “You must not spare the life of any living thing”?   The reason that the Israelites must not contaminate themselves with Canaanite culture is made clear:

so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honour their gods: in doing these, you would sin against the LORD your God.

The thing that many people don’t appreciate is just how horrific and obscene the practices of the Canaanites were.  Think of it from God’s point of view – for the Jews simply to blend in with these Canaanites would be like your conscientious, God-fearing and well-behaved son getting involved with a bunch of drug dealers and sex traffickers.  Once his mind has been twisted by the wrong sort of friends, it will be very difficult for him to extricate himself.  Similarly, if the Israelites start intermingling with the deplorable Canaanites, soon their close, distinctive and holy relationship with the one true God will be so diluted as to be unrecognisable.

So what sort of things did the Canaanites, Hittites, and the rest of them get up to?

  • Idolatry: the Ancient Near East had a pantheon of ‘gods’– Ba’al, Anat, Dagon, Tanit, Asherah, Ishtar, to name a few. Unlike the God of the Israelites who is the single uncaused cause of all reality, these ‘gods’ were different in kind.  They were no more than mythical creatures whose moral code ascended no higher than soap-opera levels.  The Canaanite myth, El, Ashertu and the Storm-god (ANET, 519) illustrates this aspect.

The Storm-god [Baal] came to El-Kunirsha, the husband of Ashertu [Asherah], and entered El-Kunirsha’s tent … Thus said the Storm-god.  “When I entered thy house, Ashertu sent out her maidens to me, saying, ‘Come, sleep with me.’  Ashertu is impugning thy virility.  Although she is thy wife, she keeps on sending to me: ‘Come, sleep with me.’  El Kunirsha began to reply to the Storm-god: ‘Go sleep with her!  Lie with my wife and humble her!’

  • Incest: Not only does Ba’al have a sexual relationship with his sister, Anat, but also with his daughter, Pidray.  And if the ‘gods’ can do this, what does that mean for the example they’re setting?
  • Temple prostitution: the Canaanite religion included so-called sacred prostitution as part of their fertility rites – there were priestesses set aside for this, but it also affected the general population. Herodotus of Halicarnassus describes  the Ancient Near East worship in the temple of Ishtar as follows:

There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Ishtar [Venus] and there give herself to a strange man.  The History of Herodotus, Book 1, 199.

  • Bestiality: This deplorable practice seems to have been condoned by this description of Ba’al’s activities, amongst others.  And if the gods can do this, what does this say about the humans that follow him?

Mightiest Ba’al obeyed.
He loved a heifer in the pasture,
A cow in the fields by the shore of the realm of death;
he did lie with her seven and seventy times,
she allowed him to mount eight and eighty times;
and she conceived and gave birth to a boy.  (Baal and Mot 5, v, vi)

and worst of all,

  • Child sacrifice: – both the Canaanites and the Phoenicians (who were related groups) practiced child sacrifice. Leviticus 18:21 describes the practices of the surrounding nations:

You will not allow any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God.

Cleitarchus describes the Phoenician method of child sacrifice:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos [the Phoenician equivalent of Moloch], its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing. 

The commentary in the Jerusalem Bible says, “In Canaanite ritual, children were sacrificed by being made to pass through fire, i.e. by burning … The rite found its way into Israel, notably at the burning-place in the valley of Ben-Hinnom (‘Gehenna’), just outside Jerusalem.  The origin of the word Molech is Phoenician and designated a certain type of sacrifice.”

  1. Jesus is the ultimate reference point.

All Christians know that, whatever is said in the Old Testament, the fullest expression of the heart of God the Father is contained in Jesus Christ, the ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15). Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God, who has assumed human nature and come to us to reveal the Father more fully.  Therefore the definitive guide for Christian behaviour is seen in the New Testament and explained by the Church which Christ established on earth.  The Church has clear teachings on the killing of others, grounded in Christ.  If atheists don’t hear Christians proclaiming these teachings week after week, it’s probably because they’re not in Church or looking in the right place.  In fact, today’s Gospel reading is perfect for illustrating Jesus’ method of approaching those who do not share Jewish beliefs.

  1. Nevertheless, Christians don’t condemn parts of the Bible

… because all Scripture has been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and describes how God has revealed Himself to mankind over the course of at least 4,000 years. Without God’s preparation of the Jews described in the Old Testament period, without their strengthening as a distinctive race with a distinctive Covenant relationship with God, the teaching of Jesus would have been incomprehensible, and his many fulfilments of prophecy would have been invisible.

(See here: Prophecies fulfilled by Jesus Christ)

Bill, I hope this has answered at least the first part of your question.  Stay tuned for next week, when I will tackle the second part.

Today’s readings:
Word format: Year A Lent 3rd Sunday 2017
Pdf format: Year A Lent 3rd Sunday 2017