Lunchbreak rant: The Problem with Asserting Implicit Messages in the Bible

Ok, so this started as a response to a post on Facebook from one of my Christian Facebook friends (Hi Troy!) during my lunch break. But it slowly spiralled out of control, so I figured I would paste it into a post here, in order to get it off my chest.

The article in question is linked below, and seeks to explain why the exhortations to stone people in the Bible don’t need to be taken literally today.

First of all, the author points out that many of the passages in question apply only to the Tribes of Israel, and cannot necessarily be extrapolated further than that group of people. I have to ask; if the laws in that part of the Bible are a covenant between the tribes of Israel and God, and thus not something that modern Christians have to follow, then how is this not some form of moral relativity?

This however is only a minor point in the article which focusses the rest of its argument to the idea that ancient legal practices were different to today’s, and that we must look at the words of the Bible through these Bronze Age lenses.

The article suggests that the laws written in the Bible are not meant to be taken seriously, as often punishments in the area weren’t handed out. I thought this was meant to be the word of the god, and thus a trustworthy document? Comparing the apparent rules of a creator with the pragmatic governments of the time seems to be troublesome.

The article notes the “the absurdity and impossibility of putting many of these laws into practice.”, yet still wants us to trust in the general idea behind the law. But why not apply this logic to other parts of the bible? It is perhaps absurd and impossible to expect gay people to not be gay, and yet this is what many Christians today claim.

If these “were not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [but rather they] serve an admonitory function”, then why not simply state this in the document that outlines the laws?

The text literally demanded a person be put to death but assumed the punishment would be substituted for a fine set by the courts.” Strange to think that these pretty explicit laws can be assumed to be paid off with a bit of cash. How can a legal system be considered fair when it can be so skewed by the wealthy?

The article likes to say that the way that these systems were meant to be employed was implicit in the document. I have heard the same argument employed by some homosexual Christians to explain how the Bible doesn’t decry same-sex relationships, but rather only certain kinds of same-sex actions. They say that it is implicit that when the Bible says “a man should not lie with a man as a man lies with a woman”, that it really means in a sinful manner, as can be done with heterosexual couples also.

The problem with trying to insert implicit things into the interpretation of the Bible is twofold: first it assumes that we can infer these implicit things by looking at other documents, when the Bible claims to be a wholly singular read. And secondly it then has to explain why such an important thing (the very word of a god!) would have relied upon implicit messages, when explicit ones would serve better. After all you don’t see lawmakers these days using implicit language in important legal documents.

I especially like this passage:

Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle notes that “‘life for life,’ in the sense of capital punishment, has an explicit alternative of monetary substitution.”

Really? I expected more from the Bible when it came to the idea of the sanctity of a human life. Instead here we find the assertion that taking a life is simply a monetary transaction, and that if you have the means, you can buy your way out of any punishment or culpability.

So really, if the contention of this author’s article is to be taken seriously, that is, that when the Bible says that a personal shall be put to death the Bible doesn’t mean literally; then perhaps the Bible needs to be rewritten, so that it says “the murderer shall be put to death, or pay a ransom”. Would not that be simpler, and more timeless? After all if an omniscient god was the origin of these edicts, then surely it would note the inherent problem in relying on customs that don’t span the breadth of time.

“It is not at all clear that the Old Testament ever commands Christians to stone women who commit adultery.”

Actually, many of these commandments are pretty explicit. Sure you can argue that there are later passages that can be used to infer that this isn’t so, but that argument can be applied elsewhere also (with worrying effect). There are passages saying “Thou shalt not commit murder”. But then subsequent murders are sanctioned. So can we say that it is implicit that some murders are ok? The fact of the matter is, if we are to take the Bible as the word of a divine being, and the framework of a moral system of laws and commandments, then there shouldn’t be such problematic implicit readings. This in itself should cause us to question the legitimacy of such a divine document.

The genre of the passages, in light of the common ancient Near Eastern legal practices and customs, suggests(…)”, if ever there has been a time to acknowledge the human origins of the Bible, then surely it is after reading this sentence. If we have to look towards ancient, and many would say out-dated, forms of society and legal system to try and explain an apparently timeless and absolute moral system, then surely we can see that these laws are a product of their time, and not the divine.

Lunchbreak rant complete.