04 November 2011

The bible is just a good book of moral instruction/ Hey now you can't judge the bible outside its historical context...

In the American Culture Wars, it is often said that not only is the Bible full of truth about reality, but that even if one did not believe it that one should still read it and be taught it in schools because it is rich in moral guidance.
It just gives really good rules for how people should live.

Moral truths abound as it were. Or so we are told.

In support of this, people who make such propositions will often adduce the Decalogue of Moses. These are the much contested Ten Commandments over which massive amounts of legal paper has moved. I won't over bore you with my own observations about the Ten Commandments. They have been deconstructed elsewhere, brilliantly by Carlin, and just as brilliantly revised, and analyzed by Hitchens. Penn Jillette takes an enlightened stab them too. So I will not dwell over much on them here as their importance is only tangential to the point I want to make. What I will do is note that in the Decalogue of Moses there are only four useful injunctions with which any secularist, indeed almost any human would agree. The first four are religious injunctions that have little to do with morality or ethics among humans. The fifth isn't a moral statement as written and reads like a bribe (it essentially says to honor parents not for any moral reason, but so that you can receive a reward). and after that Moses gives us the already well understood, don't commit murder, do no adulterous shagging, don't steal, and don't bear false witness. Its pretty hard to find much objectionable with those commandments. The last prohibits thought crime, and forbids even thinking about wanting a neighbor's things while also equating women with chattle). There is nothing terribly moral about telling people what not to think, and plenty immoral about comparing a woman to a cow.

I'm already veering into a tangent, so let me stop. My point is that as a book of moral instruction the bible is a really a mixed bag more heavily weighted toward lessons, stories and examples that comfortably fit in the immoral category. The people who tell you that the bible is just a great book of moral instruction always leave that fact, and it is a fact, out. They will point to the sermon on the mount, or selectively quote only half of some injunction so that it sounds more moral than it actually is (consider again the commandment about honoring one's father and mother).

When people start to bring up the just and moral character of God, I tend to deploy, as a counter example, either the story of Abraham and Isaac, or the genocides and other mindless and monstrous violence found in the Old Testament. The first provides a harder escape by way of historical context as it reveals a rather sadistic character in the person of God, and a rather self-serving asshole in the character of Abraham, both tormenting an innocent boy. There is a different kind of moral gymnastics performed when this story is adduced in the case against God as moral exemplar so we will leave it for another time perhaps.

When you bring up the utterly awful events that occur in the Old Testament there is often an attempt to excuse them as part of the bloody, and blood-thirsty time in which they "occured." The gist of the evasion goes like this:
Well those were the historical times in which God operated so we cannot judge the actions of God or his heroes in those tales by the moral reasoning of our time.


At this point I think we are entitled to say the believer cannot have it both ways. Either God's reasoning is unchanging and perfect which is the case that the fundamentalist believer always makes, or it is not. The power the believer suspects God of having means, at the very least, that he should be no prisoner to the historical context. God's power in the mind of the believer simply makes the fiction (of course much of the Old Testament is fiction) that he was bound by the time silly. You will remember it was God who orchestrated all of the blood soaked events of Exodus, and who demanded death for violation of even his most frivolous laws. He did, after all, harden Pharaoh's heart to the arguments, and conjuring tricks of Moses, after which God amused himself by visiting plagues on the people of Egypt who had very little say on what their ruler did anyway. The sanguinary event celebrated by Passover to this very day serves as an annual reminder that the deity in those stories wasn't bound by the historical context but seemed rather to endorse, and actively participate in the bloody events.

The attempt to excuse God by invoking the Bound by Historical Times hypothesis fails in at least two ways, one profoundly fundamental, and the other editorial. In the first, the Christian God appears to define the very context Christians often use to excuse his actions. God in these stories is simply the author of countless unjust and immoral miseries and cannot reasonably be divested of his culpability in these tales. So the hypothesis is, from the very start, false. God is not bound by any historical context, he is both author and participant. Given the alleged power of the character it seems obvious to anyone not sufficiently indoctrinated by Christian dogma (namely the strange idea of omni-benevolence) that God could have found, and should have found better, more moral ways in which to accomplish his goals.

A second way in which God could have been excused, at least to some degree, by way of historical context is if he (or his writers) had commented on the matters described in the biblical narrative clearly, and negatively. God never even has his writers editorialize during the atrocities. There is no, "Jesus H. Christ! Moses! I never said kill all the males, all the non-virgin females, and keep for yourselves a bevy of virgin sex slaves. That is utterly wrong, despicable, dare I say immoral...etc etc." To extend the example of God's dealings with Moses, his wrath at Moses, stems largely from the fact that Moses took a wee too much pride in his own accomplishments, when all the glory needed to go to God. That, if you missed it, is God taking credit for not just the nice bits (minimal as they are), but also for the bloody, immoral, rape and pillage bits. At the very least God doesn't seemed too bothered at the means by which his holy ends were accomplished.

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