Old Testament morality

AmmoniteAtheist friends have great fun with Biblical Morality- homophobia, slavery, child sacrifice, the death of everyone in the Flood because God “was sorry he had made humanity”. How could one learn a moral life from all this? Here is a typical story:

David stays in Jerusalem when the Israelites go to make war on the Ammonites.He sees Bathsheba having a bath, so he sends for her, and they have sex. She becomes pregnant. He sends for her husband Uriah, on the pretence that he wants to hear how the siege is going, thinking that Uriah will take advantage of his home leave. But Uriah, knowing that his brothers at Rabbah cannot make love to their wives, refuses to visit his own. If someone has told him of Bathsheba’s adultery, the narrative does not say.

David sends Uriah back to the front, and tells his general, Joab, to place him in the thick of the fighting and leave him there to be killed. Joab deliberately fights recklessly, so that Uriah is killed, and reports to David. David then marries Bathsheba- how many other wives he had then is unclear.

The Lord sends Nathan to rebuke David, with a parable. What does David think of a rich man with great flocks who takes a poor man’s only lamb, for a feast? David says, As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die. Nathan prophesies that the sword shall never depart from your house, and Bathsheba’s son will die. Monster-God kills an innocent child.

File:Ammonite11.jpgTragedy then unfolds. Joab defeats the Ammonites, and David enslaves them; then his son Amnon rapes his daughter Tamar, and her brother Absalom stages a coup. Absalom lies with David’s concubines. He is killed in battle with David.

What are we to learn from this? Kings should make war, and enslave foreigners. No: the Bible is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. God punishes the disobedient? Well- the rape of Tamar and the revolt of Absalom proceed from David’s murder of Uriah. David’s lawlessness produces the lawlessness of his sons. It is not so much God, as Reality, which punishes: David sows the wind, and reaps the whirlwind. It is a story against Kingship: power corrupts.

As Nathan prophesied, the Lord struck the child, who died on the seventh day. Is this God in one of his most Old Testament moods, lashing out wildly against the innocent? No, it is a child dying at a time of high infant mortality. It is the most contemptuous and wounding thing the prophet could say to the king. It is people ascribing bad things that happen to a wrathful God.

And it is a wonderful story.

Am I trying to justify the unjustifiable, because I am a Christian? Ark, Violet, we are never going to agree on that.

38 thoughts on “Old Testament morality

  1. I’m just curious, because I don’t see David doing anything worse than what the OT god did. The kind of kings and the lord of lords is the epitome of corrupt power. So that was why I asked the question. God was a bully, a trouble maker, jealous, and a habitual murderer. This post is confusing.

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    • Sorry to be confusing. As a student, in with the Evangelicals, I used to sing,

      Ascribe greatness to our God, the Rock
      His work is perfect, and all his ways are just :||
      A God of faithfulness, without injustice
      Good and upright is He :||

      I looked for a youtube video, but they sing it at half speed, we belted it out. It is Deuteronomy 32:3-4.

      This is the God who killed the Egyptian firstborn, and even “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”- that is a refrain through the Plagues story, up to Exodus 10:27, just before the tenth plague.

      God rejects Saul because he fails to completely destroy the Amalekites, leaving their king alive.

      These are legends, not history. In them, bad happenings are ascribed to God. Pharaoh is proud and stubborn- well, as King of a 2000 year old culture and great civilisation ruling a huge, rich country he would be. Good happenings, like the Israelites being led out of Egypt, are also ascribed to God. I see the Bible as showing different understandings of who God is, does, wants, understanding growing towards that of the suffering servant. Here we see God as inspiring prophecy: Nathan, seeing what has been done, goes to tell “God’s Word” to David- Nathan tells David his wrongdoing is known, and he will be punished for it.

      Thank you for the videos. I was busy yesterday, and will watch the first tomorrow.

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  2. It’s just a story. The omniscient YHWH can’t keep anything in order and he knew it would be a mess before he started. That did not stop him though. It’s almost as if he has no free will. I’ll assume you have a personal relationship with your god and it must be assumed that god was personal to David. The omniscient and omnipresent god can’t tell David “don’t do that” … but decides to punish him after. Sounds a lot like the YHWH has no omniscience or omnipresence. It sounds like standard human drama with a god story woven in to try to make it important. There’s no moral in this story unless you consider it a lesson to know that the omnipotent YHWH (even for his chosen golden boy) will do nothing until he gets a chance to punish a human then he’s all in with magic and disasters and death and stuff. When you need death and retaliation and punishment… YHWH is your guy.

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            • Well, there was a rough transition or two in Ark’s argument, but I agree with him. The history of the thing changes the perspective irreparably.

              When one actually studies the history of Christianity we find that it is a very nasty bit of work, more corrupt than its holy texts mention of kings.

              Jesus never claimed to be god and Ark’s point that if one part is different than the rest, there is a question of veracity. That brings the whole book/library into question on a single point. When he points out that he is referring to a figure who is largely thought to be a literary device it diminishes any value in the text.

              Paul of Tarsus built his own religion. You have to look at the history of that in contrast to what is know of the supposed Jesus to see the real history of Christianity. He built it well enough that Constantine thought it useful and it turned out to be useful, just not for average joe’s.

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  3. I reckon that if we – the mortals – try to understand all God’s ways we get confused and our interpretations lead us all over the place and at times away from God…which is a shame because we cannot understand why God causes things to occur the way they do…now that you mention Floods, I came across a newspaper article some ten days ago which reported that Patriarch Irinej of Serbian Orthodox Church stated that the terrible floods in Serbia were God’s warning against the organising of gay parade in Belgrade…! There you go, when “men’ decide they know God that is when the world can really get screwed.

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    • Yes. Thank you.

      Genesis 9:

      13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

      Were there no floods before? When “Sodomy” was a capital offence, why did floods occur?

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      • Even floods I think have a function we cannot understand or see, I think…while Floods are seen as a biblical type of God’s wrath we cannot presume to know we know why they occur…my thoughts on it…we have no capital offences any more (at least most of the countries of civilised “denomination”) so hard to say why they occurred the, we are taught they occurred because of it??? but “we are told” not by God 🙂

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  4. I have to take great exception in inavukic’s remark, in as much as it demeans me and all of us who care to think. I could no more accept the existence of a God whose ways were “beyond interpretation” that I could walk naked down the street. Good gravy.

    I, too, found this a bit confusing. You seem to be drifting off toward the right, my Clara Belle … getting me lost and confused. Before long they’ll be hiring you to make maps of Paris for tourists.

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    • 🙄 Giggle. 🙄

      As for Prof. Vukic’s remark, I agree with her almost completely. We cannot understand all the circumstances of our existence. I think the effort is worthwhile, but if we think we do understand, then we get into trouble. Some openness and doubt is necessary.

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      • Well, I do definitely think doubt is crucial, as Sr. Thomas so ably argues. We can’t understand all of the circumstances of anything, which is a healthy liability for murderous primates. But we can understand enough to perceive contradiction, intuit silliness and know that at the end of the day we’re going to be mulch, ash, of a bag of chemicals in a box. There is no law saying that one should or must believe in the existence of an ethereal God whose ways are “too mysterious,” so to heck with the Tsunami victims. Perhaps this mysterious God was busy helping baseball teams win and such.

        I sound harsher than I mean to … I’m just saying it as directly as I can.

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        • I don’t see you as harsh, but it seemed earlier that you were saying those Episcopalians weren’t entirely meretricious, so perhaps you are exploring this for yourself here. Our friendship deepens as we explore our disagreements. There is a saying among Christians, “God has no hands but ours”- that’s fourteen billion hands- that is, it is for us to care for tsunami or earthquake or hurricane victims as a God of Love would. Not all Christians are US Republicans, and even they pay at least lip service to this idea.

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          • Clare, I look forward to the day when you realize your prosocial behavior is intrinsic and that realization is exceptionally empowering. It makes you want to be a better person, not because some god is looking over your shoulder and told you to do this and that, but because you — you have the capacity to love, to nurture, to care, and share. You have overcome a lot and your empathy and compassion shines through. I hope this does not come across as condescending. I am speaking from my heart.

            When things go wrong with the brain, things go wrong with humans. We have an enormous amount of neurological and psychological research now that explains anti-social behavior. Although I’m just getting to know you, I think you’re awesome. A beautiful person, and I look forward to getting to know you better. Also keep in mind that I was a believer, Christian most of my life — 40+ years. Deconversion was the most painful experience of my life, and I’ve had my fair share of trauma in life. But when I made it through to the other side, I felt a peace and a liberation that no belief ever gave me.

            I also understand why people need to believe. They need hope and meaning. They need that feeling that there is someone looking out for us. But when we study science, about our brain, about neurotransmitters, about gene expression, about how the environment profoundly influences our behavior, things start to fall into place — and when this occurs, there is a genuine forgiveness and an understanding for the wrongs suffered. We also get past the need for fairy tales of old. Their lessons are representative of the Iron/Bronze age, and it then begins to feel like you are having to repeat 1st grade after you’ve attained a PhD. The wonders of life become so much more magnificent. If there is a god, it isn’t the god we have envisioned. The god we have envisioned is the perfect primary caregiver — i.e., a mother, father, etc. When you look at history, you can see that the number one cause of death for women was childbirth. A bond was severed. Oxytocin (bonding hormone) stops flowing. Attachment disorders can occur, with lead to the very behaviors that are exhibited in the bible that the this god condemns. Yet this god created the very conditions that led to those behaviors. Today, 1 in 6 women will die from pregnancy and childbirth complications. Christianity devalued motherhood. In Genesis 3:16 it cursed childbirth as a punishment and a means for salvation for the woman, and as a species, we have paid a price for this on an enormous scale.

            I am only scratching the surface. If such a caring, loving god exists he/she/it/they would have enlightened us from the beginning about the brain and our biology and how the environment is intertwined. Humans creating the god of the gaps is understandable, but today, with the vast amount of knowledge we have about “human nature”, the gaps are quickly filling in.

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            • Victoria, I do not find you condescending. Thank you very much for sharing like this.

              Oddly enough, today I am acting out in a selfish and irresponsible manner. I am satisfied with this: I want my prosocial acts to come from love and creativity, not from fear, and so I am consciously doing teenage in my forties, because I did not do it properly at the appropriate time.

              I do not see God as the father in the sky, looking after us, but as the suffering servant, alongside us in our joy and travail. I see God as the Light within each human being.

              I am glad of your peace and liberation. I find forgiveness and understanding within Christianity- all that stuff about NOT JUDGING.

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            • “and so I am consciously doing teenage in my forties, because I did not do it properly at the appropriate time.”

              Good for you, Clare. I really appreciate reading that. I can relate to doing the youth thing in mid-age. I gave up my youth for Christianity. I made enormous sacrifices because that was what the bible god expected. That what I was taught in the mainstream Christian churches. “To be about my father’s business.” To put my needs last. To see the flesh as inferior to the spirit. To not be comfortable in my skin because it wanted to ‘sin’. To be ashamed of being a woman because I was of the gender that was the cause of the fall of man. To have to submit to my husband. To believe that I was created for him, but he wasn’t created for me, as Paul states. It was a real mindfuck, if you will excuse the expression. I see that you have a positive perception of the bible and Christianity, but the two largest Christian denominations in the U.S. have causes an enormous amount of harm to humanity, and still today, we find ourselves about 1000 years behind in evolution because of it. The problem is, Clare, most humans haven’t evolved to the point that they can look at books such as the bible and not apply it as literal, hence, why we still have many societal problems and they are only getting worse now that our U.S. Congress and Supreme Court are being swayed by conservative extremist. The most religious states in the U.S., our state and local governments, are being run by bible believing Christian fundamentalists.

              These bible believing states have the highest violence and highest infant mortality rate. They have the highest obesity and diabetes rate due to poor quality food and poor education about nutrition. These religious conservative states have the highest teen pregnancy rates and the highest HIV/AIDS rate. Corporal punishment is legal in most of these states. They have the poorest heath and rank the lowest for heath insurance. They are considered the worst states for women to live in. They have the highest high school dropout rate and are the most illiterate states. They have the highest income inequality. They are the most racists. They own the most guns. They lead the nation in the highest incarceration rate. Highest death penalty rate. They have the highest divorce rate. Why? Researchers concluded that the conservative religious culture is a major contributing factor thanks to “the social institutions they create” that decrease marital stability.

              The state I live in, which is also a religious, conservative state, has the highest homicide rate for women. Why? Because their ‘godly’ men kill them. These are the states that cleave to the bible — the Red states. When religion, such as Christianity thrives — quality of life takes a dive.

              In my country, you would not be considered a real Christian. There are only a hand-full of scriptures in the bible that are prosocial. The rest ARE about judging. Revelation 19 speaks for itself, when Jesus comes back with his army of angels, having the wrath of his father. Those who don’t/didn’t believe in Jesus and his father, will die and the birds will gorge on our flesh. So I do have trepidations when someone appears to look like they are cleaning up or sugarcoating the bible’s message, which was intended to control the masses, utilizing blind faith and forfeiting critical thinking. Thank you for giving me a voice on your blog, and my apologies for me being so long-winded. Your country is more evolved than mine, so I don’t think you can fully relate to what it’s like living in a country where people are hellbent on it becoming a theocracy.

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  5. As my name is mentioned in your post, I thought ,why not?

    I beg your indulgence.

    One of my favorite novels is called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson.
    The hero, Thomas Covenant is a writer who contracts leprosy; is ostracized by everyone and is eventually transported to a magical land where he is believed to be the reincarnation of a former hero. His task : to save the day, naturally!
    But he refuses to accept that his situation might be real and continually affirms he is having a dream./nightmare. He is such a bastard, that he rapes a young girl and causes nothing but trouble for everyone, yet they refuse to judge him.
    The story is a quagmire of twisted morality and ethics and the author makes sure you develop a love hate relationship with Covenant from the word go.
    The whole epic is six volumes, ( thought a third series has now been written) and in the end one is still left wondering…and now?

    And it too is a wonderful story. and Covenant remains an anti-hero to the last.

    Just like the god of the bible

    The difference is, I (and most people) am mature enough to recognise Donaldson’s book is a work of fiction and accept it for what it is. Even though we may encounter such characters in our day to day lives….those in the book are narrative constructs and must be treated as such, even if we wish to extract some goodwill message or moral lesson.

    If someone were to state that they had faith in Covenant as a real person they would be considered to be in dire need of psychiatric help, and rightfully so.

    Yet, because religious texts gets an automatic pass and the churches that run this almighty(sic) scam collect 200 quid from everyone as they pass GO, all are welcome, nee encouraged to believe and they are regarded as pretty normal.

    For the record… once more. The Pentateuch is fiction. Thus the god represented within is also fiction.

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    • It is fun spamming Arkenaten, the comments get more rambling and self-righteous. Here he proclaims

      I am mature!

      I have come across a lot of people who tell me that when I have learned and matured as much as they, I will think exactly like they do.

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      • Oh, and if you are now going to Spam my comments it rather takes all the fun out of visiting your blog.
        I generally walk away when the girls get spiteful.
        I guess you will just have to play with yourself.
        Spiteful girls generally end up doing just that..even if they manage to grow up.

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        • Hmm. After impugning my maturity, integrity, honesty, education, respect for truth, interestingness, level of knowledge, intelligence and open-mindedness, Ark whines I am no fun any more. He will take his ball home.

          Bye. See you at Violet’s place.

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            • To challenge your erroneous posts about religion and god belief.
              If you weren’t so flippant and snide when your religious assertions are challenged then maybe our dialogue could be more cordial?

              You challenge arguments against your religion on other posts, Violet’s for one, do you not?

              If you stand by the veracity of what you believe then
              you should be prepared to answer challenges with honesty and integrity.

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            • Mmm. “Flippant and snide”. I don’t think I am. I think you are. Isn’t perception a strange thing?

              I am Quaker. It is not “veracity of what I believe” it is “value of what I practise”. If you don’t understand the difference, nothing you say in comments will ever be relevant to my posts.

              There we were, with different positions. The gospels quote Jesus as claiming to be God. Or not. I explained precisely what I meant by that particular quote being a claim to divinity. But you just kept repeating TISN’T! TISN’T! TISN’T! viz:

              Before Abraham was I am is not, I am God.
              I hope these are words you can understand? As I said before… Jesus never said he was God.
              Etc., ad nauseam.

              I don’t want you to keep repeating the same thing. Say it once. If it is true, however often it is denied will make no difference. Give me the last word occasionally. If any reader flicks back to my point of view merely because s/he read me last, there is no hope for her/him. I attempted to say things in different ways and explain them further. You kept droning on.

              You seemed to think that a verse in John indicating Jesus was human refuted any argument that there were also verses indicating Jesus is divine. That surprised me, as I would not have thought you eager to deny that the Gospels were contradictory- I would prefer the word “paradoxical”.

              What I said, initially, was ““Before Abraham was, I am” is taken as a claim to divinity”, and I stand by that statement. Replying to you, I explained why it is taken as a claim to divinity, and that I accept this. I did not say “Jesus of history certainly claimed to be God”. I don’t find you good at fine distinctions.

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            • That you wish to use the phrase I AM as some form of major justification for you claim of Jesus’ divinity, especially as I have tried to patiently show you why this is patently false – a Christian interpretation – merely illustrates your level of intransigence specially as I offered you a link that explains why.
              And I have explained several times the Pentateuch is fiction, yet you insist upon including Abraham in your argument for divinity and truth. Why on earth for?

              Such blinkered behaviour is indicative of classic indoctrination.

              ”It is not veracity of what I believe it is “value of what I practice” clearly demonstrates cherry picking at work, as the foundation, the very root of this practice is built upon false premise.

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            • By the link, do you mean this silliness? Or this?

              I am aware of the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion. I had not read the suggestion that Jesus said “I have” rather than “I am”, but still claiming to be older than Abraham is not the same as claiming to be only human.

              You are flippant, snide and occasionally openly insulting. You imagine that I can have no integrity if I disagree with you. You bore me. Such a completely closed mind as yours is not worth more of my time.

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  6. “God punishes the disobedient? Well- the rape of Tamar and the revolt of Absalom proceed from David’s murder of Uriah. David’s lawlessness produces the lawlessness of his sons. It is not so much God, as Reality, which punishes: David sows the wind, and reaps the whirlwind. It is a story against Kingship: power corrupts.”

    I think the problem is many atheists will refuse/or be unable to see God as anything other than some sort of human king whose actions we are supposed to judge. This is why they miss the points of so many old testament stories, and think the ancient Jews must have been daft to select these stories as their most prized possessions.

    I would encourage anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of these texts to consider listening to a course from Amy Jill Levine http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/professors/professor_detail.aspx?pid=163

    Audible.com has these courses for much less money than the website.

    She is not an atheist but a Jew. (I am assuming she is a religious Jew but I could be wrong) So while she won’t share the biases of atheists she also doesn’t share those of Christians. She is a sort of third party in that regard.

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    • The rejectionist view has value. “God does not exist, and God depicted in the Bible is a monster. The stories are stupid.” That helps people free themselves from oppressive Christianity. Those of us who stay inside the tent have to work out better ways of freeing people from the oppression in Christianity.

      Thank you for the recommendation.

      Like

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