My new book Conversations with My Inner Atheist features an extended conversation ranging over 25 chapters with my inner voice of questioning and doubt, My Inner Atheist (Mia). I have included chapter 6 below: “If the Bible includes immoral laws, how can it be inspired?” If you enjoy the chapter, consider buying the book.
Mia: Okay, let’s turn back to the Bible for a moment.
Randal: I had a feeling we weren’t done with that topic.
Mia: Done? We’re just getting started. So I already pointed out that the Bible is surprisingly ambiguous in laying out the details of salvation. The problem I now want to consider is that the authors of Scripture say a lot of other things which are morally problematic and thus they count against the Bible being the revelation of any perfect God of the Philosophers. Maybe the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is behind this book. But if he is, he ends up looking more like a terrifying Middle Eastern warlord rather than the vision of Anselm’s perfect idealization.
Randal: Hey, easy on the Richard Dawkins-styled rhetoric.
Mia: Rhetoric? Have you read the Bible? It’s full of immoral teaching.
Randal: I’ll stop you right there. Be careful about conflating that which is recorded in the Bible with that which is taught in the Bible. The Bible includes lots of material that is simply recorded but not commended.
Mia: Fine, let me clarify. The Bible includes many passages in which the human authors—God’s people—endorse behaviors or actions that are evil. And these are allegedly a reflection of the command and wisdom of God. Just consider God’s Law in the Torah.
Randal: Don’t be too quick to dismiss the Torah. That ancient code makes impressive advances beyond other legal codes of the day. For example, in the Law of Hammurabi, if a man hits a pregnant woman and she loses the fetus, he needs to pay a fine, but if she dies, then his daughter (assuming he has one) is killed in retaliation.
Randal: Yes, it is. The Torah addresses the same topic in Exodus 21:22-23. But in this case, the punishment is importantly different. Once again, the man must pay a fine if the woman loses the fetus, but if she dies, the text directs a payment of “life for life” (v. 23). In other words, the guilty party must accept the penalty as the perpetrator of the act. Punishment is not inflicted on an innocent third party.
Mia: That may be less bad, but that hardly makes it good. Like today, if some guy hits a woman and she falls on her stomach and miscarries, would you agree with executing the man in retaliation?
Randal: No, I’m not saying that. I was just pointing out that you should grant that the Torah constitutes a notable improvement in many ways over the other legal codes of the time.
Mia: Oh, I’m willing to grant that all day long. No problem there at all.
Randal: Wait, are you being sarcastic?
Mia: No, actually I’m being one hundred percent genuine. I truly have no problem recognizing that the Torah represents an incremental moral improvement over other legal codes of the day. That’s precisely what we would expect from the long history of humanity: natural, incremental moral improvements.
But you, you’re conceding that today we have moved beyond the moral improvement of the Torah since you wouldn’t sanction killing a man in those circumstances. Put it this way: if there are two societies today which are identical except that in society 1 the man is executed in that circumstance while in society 2 he serves a sentence in prison, you would think society 2 is more just, all other things being equal, than society 1, right?
Randal: Yes, I agree with that.
Mia: Good, so to put it another way, the Torah may be less brutish than the Law of Hammurabi but that doesn’t mean it isn’t brutish.
Randal: “Brutish” is a strong word.
Mia: Don’t worry, I’ll be happy to expand on that. But first, I want to make sure that you agree on the fact that the authors of the Hebrew Bible do not appear to view the Torah in this very modest developmental way that you’re proposing. The Torah isn’t merely seen to be an advance on other ancient near eastern legal codes. Rather, biblical authors view it as a wonderful and gloriously wise revelation to order one’s life and govern civil society.
Perhaps the fullest endorsement of the beauty and wisdom of the Law comes in Psalm 119 as the Psalmist exults in God’s Law:
4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.
8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.
In verse after verse, the Psalmist captures the beauty of Torah culminating in the words of verse 160: “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”
Again, the Psalmist does not view the Torah merely as an incremental improvement in governance over the Law of Hammurabi. No, he views it as a glorious thing, a maximally wise way to order one’s life. But we’ve already agreed that this isn’t correct since the killing of a man for the inadvertent death of a fetus-in-utero is not justified and a civil society that didn’t have that brutish penalty would, all other things being equal, be more humane and just than one that did.
But that’s just the beginning: there are many other laws which pose an even sharper affront to our moral sensibilities.
Randal: Such as?
Mia: Let’s start with the so-called Ordeal of the Bitter Waters.
Randal: Yikes, that sounds like a chapter from a fantasy novel.
Mia: Uh yeah, okay, this is probably not the time to make a joke. This is serious stuff. In Numbers 5:11-31 the Torah outlines what should happen to a woman who is suspected of adultery. The enraged hubby would drag her before the priest and she would be required to drink a bitter potion. Then, if her stomach swelled afterward she would be judged guilty of adultery.
I mean, I have enough problems with the notion of a jealous husband hiring a private investigator based on a hunch. Still, at least that guy might have a hope of getting some actual evidence. But who is to say why this poor woman’s stomach might end up swelling? To subject her to this kind of trauma based potentially on nothing more than a possessive husband’s gut feeling? And now her whole life might depend on how her body reacts to a particular concoction? Unconscionable!
Randal: Look, I’m not going to pretend that’s anything other than awkward.
Mia: If you were to learn that Saudi Arabia today has a law like that on the books, would you merely call it awkward? Or would you say it is an affront to basic human rights and that it should be eradicated?
Randal: The latter, I suppose.
Mia: You ‘suppose’? What a disappointingly understated response. Well, the next law may be even worse. In Deuteronomy 25:11-12 we read what should be done to a woman when she grabs a man’s genitals while he is fighting her husband. Guess what? Her hand should be amputated, just lopped right off. I don’t need to tell you that this was in a day before the mercy of general anesthesia.
Again, how would you react if you read that a judge in Saudi Arabia today decreed the amputation of a wife’s hand for a similar action? Horrible, right?
Randal: Yes, I agree, I would respond viscerally in both cases. And it’s definitely worse than just awkward.
Mia: I’m glad to hear that. But then you’re already disagreeing sharply with the Psalmist who believes this law manifests God’s glorious wisdom for regulating the self and civil society today. You don’t think that applies today, clearly. But then what about ancient Israel? Did they get it wrong?
Randal: Well, I . . .
Mia: Actually, hold that thought. I want to pile on one more case and this one is probably the worst of all. Imagine for the moment that you read the following story in the news:
(Kabul, Afghanistan) Yesterday, reports surfaced of a public stoning in the city of Saidu Sharif in the Swat Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Early reports identify two parents as presenting their thirteen-year-old son to public authorities for being “stubborn and rebellious”. Town elders gathered together and stoned the boy until he was dead. The Al Qaeda held district of Swat has become notorious in recent months due to its enforcement of a strict Sharia law. (Associated Press)
I’m guessing that you would be shocked and morally indignant at this report. And I bet you’d denounce it as a moral atrocity, amirite?
Randal: I’m not going to sugarcoat it: that sounds abominable. I’d be horrified, disgusted . . .
Mia: And yet, you have a passage just like that in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, a passage in which parents are directed to take an insub- ordinate child to the elders to be stoned to death. This must surely be one of the most shocking passages of all in the Torah. But to really see how shocking it is, you need to listen to a Christian biblical scholar defending it. Just consider how Eugene Merrill addresses this passage. Merrill describes the steps under which the execu- tion would take place with a disturbing matter-of-factness while making clear that according to verse 19, the child was definitely not yet an adult. Against that backdrop, Merrill then explains why it would be necessary to pelt this insubordinate youth to death with rocks. He writes:
“The severity of the punishment appears to outweigh the crime, but we must recognize that parental sovereignty was at stake. Were insubordination of children toward their parents to have been tolerated, there would have been but a short step toward the insubordination of all of the Lord’s servant people to him, the King of kings.”
Did you catch that? Parental sovereignty is apparently at stake: that’s why Merrill believes it was necessary to pelt the child to death with rocks. He’s defending it as an honor killing.
Randal: Ouch, I agree that’s an ugly justification all right. I remember reading about a contemporary honor killing in Canada a few years ago. A Muslim father in Toronto named Muhammad Parvez and his son together strangled his sixteen-year-old daughter to death because she refused to wear the hijab and conform to other rules in their conservative Muslim household. Needless to say, I felt terrible for the poor daughter who was victim to the violence and cruelty of her father and his evil cultural assumptions.
Mia: Careful, it sounds like you might be saying there is a wicked ideology in the Bible. That’s the surest path to theological exile in the Christian community.
Randal: I’ve thought a lot about this. I think any Christian who wrestles with these texts and who allows the compassion and mercy of their God-given moral intuitions to speak back to them will feel that they are out at sea, being tossed by waves in a churning storm. As they move deeper into the storm, the swells grow larger and they might begin to wonder if they’ll ever make it to shore. That has often been my experience when I have carefully considered some of the violence of the Torah.
And so, let me now suggest that the way to get guided back to shore starts with finding that fixed point of light—the lighthouse, as it were—that will bring us in. Find the lighthouse and keep your eyes on it and you can find your way through the storm.
Mia: Wow, that’s very dramatic. And the lighthouse is . . . ?
Randal: Jesus, of course!
Mia: Ah, I should’ve guessed.
Randal: I know it might sound like a cliché, but I’m deathly serious. Every Christian should recognize that Jesus is the interpretive key for the Bible. The entire Bible is about him and for him and to him, so we should always read the entire Bible in light of him.
Mia: Don’t be offended, but it sounds like you’re just piling up bumper-sticker maxims. How does this work out in these specific cases?
Randal: Well, first off, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If you want to know the true purpose of the Law, you must read it through Jesus.
To illustrate what I mean, bear with me while I give an illustration. Picture a husband and wife who live happily in a small one-bedroom suite. This couple loves living in the city: they regularly go to parties and clubs, they leave on a moment’s notice and lock up the apartment to go on a vacation to the tropics; they work long but satisfying hours at their startup business; they are happy and fulfilled.
Then suddenly they give up their apartment and the life they enjoyed in the city and move to the suburbs where they buy a new home with a fenced yard near a school. They paint one bedroom with a Sesame Street motif and put in a crib, the husband builds a playset in the backyard, and they buy lots of toys and fill a closet with baby clothes.
Now, what do you suppose explains all those perplexing changes?
Mia: Lemme guess: could it be that the wife is . . . pregnant?
Randal: You got it! If we only considered their actions relative to their satisfying life in the city, all those changes would appear perplexing. But of course, they are all explained given the expectation of a pregnancy: that future child provides a perspective to make sense of all their otherwise perplexing actions.
I’m not suggesting the problem with the Bible can be interpreted just that neatly, but I am claiming that the basic logic is quite similar: we need to read the perplexing things that come before in light of Jesus who comes after. And so, when we have questions about Torah, we should look to Jesus as its fulfillment.
Mia: Fine, but how does Jesus explain all that?
Randal: Jesus said he came not to destroy the Law and Prophets but to fulfill them, in other words, to show their true meaning, end, and purpose. And clearly, that purpose wasn’t to establish the one perfect way to govern society. Jesus was actually quite explicit about this when he noted in Matthew 19:3-9 that the Mosaic law on divorce was a concession to where the people were at rather than an expression of God’s perfect will for all time. This opens up the space for recognizing accommodation in the Torah to the imperfect circumstances of human history.
Mia: Accommodation? You mean something like that idea of incremental moral improvement?
Randal: Yes. And so, insofar as the Psalmist didn’t recognize the Law as an accommodation, insofar as he believed it was the maximally perfect final way to regulate oneself and civil society, to that degree he was wrong.
Mia: Wow, so the Psalmist made mistakes?
Randal: He didn’t have the full picture. That only came with Jesus. I don’t think that’s revolutionary. God is inerrant in his actions in the writing of scripture. But that doesn’t mean that the human author of Scripture is thereby inerrant in all his perspectives. You cited the lofty view of the Law in Psalm 119. I don’t think that the Psalmist had the accommodationist picture that Jesus seems to take when he addresses divorce. But that doesn’t negate the voice of the Psalmist. Rather, it should remind us that only God sees the whole picture. The final authority in all Scripture resides with God’s voice in the text as it is interpreted through Jesus.
Psalm 119 is only the tip of the iceberg. The fact is that the Psalmist often says things that the Christian should disagree with. For example, in Psalm 37:13 he says that God laughs at the destruction of the wicked and their future judgment. And in Psalm 69:28 the Psalmist pleads that the names of his enemies would be removed from the Book of Life. The Psalmist says many other things about his enemies that are equally awful and inconsistent with what a Christian believes about God and proper holiness.
So why do we think differently from the Psalmist? Because Jesus explicitly said in Matthew 5:43-44 that while it has been said you should hate your enemy, he calls us to love our enemies. And where the Law called for a woman to be stoned for adultery, Jesus called for mercy (John 8:1-11).
The very heart of the Law, so Jesus said, is to love God and neighbor. That’s what it is to be like Jesus. And as I already pointed out, the purpose of Scripture, as Paul says in I Timothy 3:14-17, is to make us more like Jesus. So what does that look like? Admittedly, it isn’t always clear, but St. Augustine offered an excellent guiding principle when he suggested that we always ought to read the Bible so as to increase love of God and neighbor. Thus, if a reading of Scripture leads us away from that love, we need to reconsider that reading. I think that’s great advice.
So while I don’t have an explanation for everything, I do think there is clearly evidence of accommodation in the text, there is evidence of human weakness and fallibility—as in the Psalmist’s angry outbursts—and we ought to read all of it in light of the person and life of Jesus who showed us the true heart of God the Father.
When people read the Torah as perfect in the unqualified sense suggested by Psalm 119 rather than as an incremental improvement indicative of divine accommodation but ultimately pointing toward Jesus as its fulfillment, I believe they misread it. And a good sign that they are misreading is that their way of reading does not increase love of God and neighbor. Their reading often forces them to justify imperfect legal dictates that, if consistently followed, could unfairly terrorize or inflict excessive violence on a wife, or perpetuate the most torturous death of a child. Their reading forces them into a cognitive dissonance with their basic moral intuitions as they recoil in disgust at honor killings or hand amputations carried out in other contexts.
Most people today recognize that those actions are wrong, so when Christians find themselves defending the trial of bitter waters, the amputation of hands, or the stoning of a child, I think they are thereby attempting to cauterize their moral compassion and sense of justice for the sake of their reading of the text. And that, I believe, is a mistake.
Mia: But isn’t this all just a bit too neat and tidy? How do you defend yourself against the charge that you’re just reading the Bible in light of your modern cultural assumptions?
Randal: First off, I don’t think this is “neat and tidy” at all. It’s messy. We have to read carefully and judiciously in light of God as revealed in Jesus, looking for moral development in the text, guided by readings that increase rather than decrease love of God and neighbor.
What is more, I’d say that objection can be turned right back onto the objector. We all read the Bible in light of our own beliefs. So-called modern cultural assumptions—such as the belief in the injustice and cruelty of hand amputation and stoning—are not thereby automatically more suspect than well-entrenched assumptions about the moral rightness of such actions.
Let me put it this way: the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century was up against centuries of Christians reading the Bible as pro-slavery and yet we all know which side won that debate. I think it is reasonable to think Christians who categorically reject practices like honor killing and hand amputation are in a moral position analogous to the abolitionists.
One more thing: that hypothetical objector is just mistaken to think that these issues only became a matter of moral concern in the modern era. We can see Christians throughout history wrestling with the way to interpret biblical violence, to recognize development in the text, and with how to read the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the coming of Jesus.
The bottom line is this: Christians can disagree over how to interpret the Torah and the ethics and wisdom of its various laws. But no Christian should find herself compelled to sacrifice her conscience or to go against the way she believes God is revealed in Jesus for a particular reading of those passages. As Martin Luther famously said when he took his stand at the Council of Worms, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
God has given us a conscience, and reading Scripture in light of Christ, ever guided in our pursuit of greater love of God and neighbor, we should not be afraid to use it.