We made a muddle of it

It had to come. The most unpredictable about this was how long it took because sooner or later some snippy know-it-all will quote an unsuitable verse from the Bible and state: Look here, guys! I have exposed Christianity as a purely evil religion. The British actor Stephen Fry is one of those fearful people who is more than willing to misunderstand:

To be fair, it’s not that obvious that Stephen Fry criticized Christianity because this could be just as much about prejudices against one particular ethnic group (the Jews) as an objective criticism against a religion that has gathered many different ethnic groups from all the corners of the planet. The hateful actor doesn’t seem to have grasped the idea that God created paradise, handed it to us on a silver platter, before we very quickly turned it into a hellhole. God wanted, as I have understood creation, to give us free will, and if we didn’t have the opportunity to do evil, we would not be free. Christianity doesn’t do the job as well as we would like, but we are more honest with than without God.

The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet showed a video a few days ago where two young men in the Netherlands asked people what they thought about some verses they read. The verses were from the Bible, but the cover said the Quran. The message was that this was not something anyone could believe in, and how could we say that this is better than Islam? That’s a hopeless comparison because we are talking about things that are not valid anymore. Let me give an example.

The Book of Deuteronomy is constructed like a speech by Moses and contains a lot of rules and regulation about Jewish life. It’s a kind of summary of what the Jews had experienced so far and what was important to them. If we had taken chapter 21 and verses 18-21 seriously we would have had a huge male deficiency in most countries:

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

"The Cross Hill" in my hometown is an example of stone-crosses that were erected all over the country in the 10th and 11th century. This is our culture.
“The Cross Hill” in my hometown is an example of stone-crosses that were erected all over the country in the 10th and 11th century. This is our culture.

There are a number of verses in the Bible that are not especially beneficial for women, and many websites believe they have rectified this by describing Christianity as pure evil. Personally I don’t believe the Bible is so authoritative that criticism of it should be punished to the extent we see with criticism of the Muslim world. A good part of the Bible are laws that people, not God, formulated. These probably did the job at the time, but times have changed somewhat since Moses. You can find verses about specific situations where God seems to have green lighted slavery, rape, incest, murder of anyone who didn’t know God, but I think it’s pretty clear that this contradicts the clarification Jesus made. That was the whole point of Jesus. The Apostle Paul (died in 67) wrote a series of letters to the early congregations and this quote from the Colossians 3 is interesting:

18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

This sound undeniably negative, bit I think the word submit has been misunderstood, and the next verses make it clear that the husband doesn’t have the Bible’s support if he chooses to treat his wife as inferior to himself:

19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21  Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

It sounds to me that the phrase as is fitting in the Lord is meant to limit the husband’s inclination towards aggression, if he has any, and I can’t imagine God regarding violence as decent behaviour in a marriage. It would very much surprise me if God told me that beating my wife was fitting to him. That’s a situation where I could see Stephen Fry’s point. The next verse deals with how slaves should handle themselves, which indicates that people and not God wrote this, because this is hardly in accordance with the respect the Bible says we should have for each other. Ephesians 5:28-33 is often used to show the instructions God gave to husbands.

I have to honestly admit that I don’t read the Bible nearly as much as I ought to, but I like the end of the chapter from the Colossians:

23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

The comparison with Islam always makes me think of Isioma Daniel. I met her when we lived in Stavanger in 2003/2004, where I had my first job. Isioma was new in Norway after she had fled from Nigeria to Norway (via Benin) assisted by Amnesty International and Committee to Protect Journalists. She worked as a fashion journalist in Lagos, Nigeria in 2002 and wrote about the Miss World-contest that Nigeria would be hosting later that year. She described the Muslim opposition to this event and added a short comment to her article that was meant to be a joke:

The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would Mohammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them.

These two sentences resulted in a riot that left 200 people dead, 1 000 injured and 11 000 homeless. The rebels also set fire to her employers offices. The Islamic government in the Nigerian state of Zamfara issued a fatwa against the journalist.

It also makes me think about Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, which Muslims find blasphemous. The fatwa against him was issued by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomieni. A fatwa is viewed differently within Islam. Some maintain it’s not legally binding as it was issued by people without the kind of authority Allah or Mohammad had, but I suppose the whole point of it is to give any Muslim justification to carry out the sentence. It’s not unlikely that the murderer would have been acquitted if Isioma Daniel had been killed in Nigeria or Salman Rushdie in Iran. I think most people recognize that criticism of Christianity, or even innocent jokes, does not involve the death penalty.

This comparison also makes me think about the racist caricatures that were published in the danish newspaper Jyllandsposten or the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. This aroused a lot of hatred in the Muslim world, and I therefore believe it is legitimate to ask whether Islam and the Western world can go as well together as many people seem to think.

It’s easy, as many do today, to assert that ISIS is not Islam. There are a lot of things we rightly could and should criticize the Quran and Mohammad for, but because few Muslims do, it is not immediately obvious that Islam is the religion of tolerance and peace many say it is. There is, however, a focus on punishment and the fact that most people are infidels. I believe this includes other sects within Islam as well. There won’t be any Christmas mass in the Iraqi city of Mosul this year. It is probably the first time in 2000 years there won’t be a church service there. The Christians have been displaced or killed, and this didn’t start with ISIS.

If I compare the Old Testament of the Bible with the limited knowledge I have of the Quran, I would argue that the Christian Scriptures don’t give us the right to mistreat anyone. People (especially kings and governments) have made a mess of things for the last 2000 years, but I can’t see that there’s anything wrong with the core in the gospel. People are free to act as they please, as long as this doesn’t compromise others, but I have my doubts as to whether Stephen Fry or the Dutch video will help people towards a better life. We are muddled enough as it is.

Isioma Daniel
The Bible quotes are from biblegateway.com


3 thoughts on “We made a muddle of it

  1. Bravo my Viking Brother as you contend for the faith! I think this is quite possibly the best piece of writing I’ve seen you write so far.
    I do disagree with one aspect of the following statement, “Personally I don’t believe the Bible is so authoritative that criticism of it should be punished to the extent we see with criticism of the Muslim world.” As a Christian, I believe that the Bible IS authoritative. If the Bible lacks authority, then it lacks validity given the nature of the text. However, I do agree that the criticism of the Bible should not be punished the way critics of Islam are punished.
    In the New Testament, we are told to contend and defend the faith, but the “sword” that is used is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Christ didn’t command his disciples and followers to go out and physically punish those who criticize His Word. The only “slaying” of critics is like that of Saul the persecutor of the Church who was on the road to Damascus, Syria (how ironic). God “slew” Saul by opening his eyes, allowing him to experience and know Christ, and thereby the great persecutor of Christians became the greatest evangelist the Christian faith has ever known. We believers need to pray that God will give Muslims, particularly those radical, militant ones a “Damascus Road” experience, open their eyes to Christ and Gospel. Actually, I am reading that this is happening increasingly in Syria and also Iran.

  2. I can vaguely remember reading about the different historical theories for the inspiration of the Bible when I studied theology almost 20 years ago. I think one of the theories stated that God had dictated every word.

    I find that problematic, but I believe it would make more sense if God gave the authors of the Bible ideas through dreams and prayers, and they used their own words to express these ideas. I imagine God created the written language so he could create faith across distance and time, but people were probably just as willful and hotheaded then as they are today, so there must be a lot of stuff in the Bible that would not have been there if the authors had been mere secretaries.

    Genesis 34 could be an example of that. Dinah’s brothers were determined to get revenge after she had been raped. The point of this story may have been that rape is an unforgivable violation, but killing all the males and looting the town seems a bit excessive, unless this comes from people and not God.

    What about Genesis 19: 30-38 where Lot’s two daughters slept with him? It seems to me that this should be high on the list of actions that God didn’t sanction.

    Or Deuteronomy 17 where it seems to have been perfectly alright to kill infidels as long as there were witnesses to the transgression.

    Vengeance seems to have been a big thing in those days, as it still is. What do you make of Numbers 31, especially verse 17?

    I agree with you that the Bible speaks with a strong authority, but I still think there is a divine and an human side to the Bible. When theologians today read the Bible critically they tend to go too far towards rationalism and then there is no authority left. The church seems to have adopted a sort of tyranny of tolerance these days where we don’t want any restrictions. You mentioned Saul’s conversion, and surely Jesus is the main thing we need to focus our attention on?

  3. John,

    I understand your concerns, and I will address as best I can based on my own understanding of Scripture.
    First, the only portion of Scripture described as being written with the “finger of God,” was the Ten Commandments. Clearly, the rest of Scripture was revealed in some other fashion. In some cases, Scripture states that God spoke directly to particular authors, such as Moses. This was also the case with some of the prophets. But in other cases, God spoke to the prophets in visions. The Apostle John received the book of Revelations in a vision.

    I am not sure how your example of Genesis 34 about Dinah being “defiled” and her brothers’ over the top vengeance is an example of man’s ideas over God’s revealing? The book of Genesis was given to Moses by God. Genesis chapter 34 is basically a narrative of events that took place during a period of time. I am not sure exactly why God chose to tell the stories of these individuals, except that Dinah and her brothers were the children of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. It was through this lineage that Christ would come. I do not see how the inclusion of this story reveals imposing human ideas. It is simply what happened. God telling Moses to include this story does not mean that God condoned or approved what happened to Dinah or how her brothers avenged her. Later in Genesis 40, when Jacob is dying, he calls his sons to him to bless them. But he does NOT bless Simon and Levi. He rebukes them harshly for their actions. Their actions were not only vindictive, but very deceptive. They decieved the men of Schechem, leading them to believe the prince could marry Dinah, if all the men of the city agreed to be circumcised (something that was part of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents). While the unsuspecting men were weakened from the circumcision, Simon and Levi led a brutal raid on men who were unable to defend themselves. Clearly, neither their father Jacob, nor God was pleased with their actions. This is why that Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manessah recieved a double portion of blessing. This is also why the tribe of Levi did not recieve the same portion of land as the other tribes. Ironically, though, the tribe of Levi became the priests, but they did not have their own land as the other tribes.

    I see Genesis 19: 30-38 in a similar light. It is another “telling what happened.” I think this story suggests the level of depravity of Sodom that Lots’ daughters would even consider something so reprehensible. I suppose living in Sodom could really have warped these young women’s ideas of morality concerning incest with ones’ father! There is nothing to suggest in this story that God approved or condoned their actions. If only the stories of righteous behavior were told in the Bible, consider how hopeless we would feel? The people in the Bible were born into sin just as we were. They needed a Savior just as we do. I think perhaps God includes these stories of his people behaving in sinful, despicable ways, as humans still do, so that we can see that these people were no different, no better than us. Isaac had a dysfunctional family. His wife schemed with his youngest son, because the two of them didn’t think that God could give the birthright and blessing to Jacob without their direct involvement. THis led to the whole crazy thing of Jacob lying to and tricking his father and then running for his life from his brother and going to his Uncle Laben. But what see in all this………is that God still loved these people, and He didn’t give up on them, no matter what they did. For me…….that is hopeful. If the only stories of people told in the Bible were of moral paragons, I would feel, “I’m not like them. I can’t be like them. This can’t apply to me.” God used imperfect, sinful people. He still does.

    Deut. 17—— Well, in this passage, Moses is talking about Israelites that abandon God and worship idols. Idolatry is strongly condemned throughout the Old and New Testaments. The penalty under Old Testament law was death. (though this was not always carried out. Later in his life, King Solomon became an idolator). Technically, under the Law, death was the penalty. This is one reason that Christ gave His life. The penalty of sin IS death. But Christ gave himself as the sacrifice, paid that penalty for us. Then he conquered death itself through the resurrection. It is through sin, in the garden, that death entered the world. Sin entered through rebellion to God. Sin ultimately leads to death. I know it is not politically or religiously correct anymore to say so, but I do believe this directive came from God, not man.

    Numbers 31–An interesting and disturbing passage. In order to get the context, I started reading in chpt. 22 to make some sense as to why they were fighting Midianites in the first place. After all, Moses’ wife was the daughter of a priest of Midian. So in this case, Moses was leading the Israelites against his wife’s people. Strange indeed. But if you start reading in chpt. 22, you see how king of Moab gets worried about the strength and size of the Israelites, and links up with the kings of Midian to concoct a plan to destroy the Israelites. This plan begins with sorcery and divination. These are things described as “abominations,” and like idolatry, severely punished. This story includes the part about Balaam, who is sent to “curse” the Israelites, and whose donkey talks to him when an angel blocks his path. This sequence is covered in chapters 22-25. Then, suddenly, chapters 26-30 give more details about the law. Then in chapter 31, the whole matter of Midian comes up again. I find the sequence very strange. Chpt. 31 would make a whole lot more sense if it had been told in chapter 26. (yes, I think the sequence does matter). As far as God ordering the slaughter of the Midianite, based on the passage and proceeding chapters, it appears that this was punishment for resorting to sorcery and divination to curse and destroy God’s people. However, I cannot be sure, because chapter 31 doesn’t really explain why. However, I think the preceeding chapters DO provide context. As for killing the children………..well, that is the part that doesn’t really make sense to me. In other places in the Old Testament, when God orders the Israelites to kill certain groups of people, I have wondered if those people could have been descendents from the Nephilim? However, in this case, that appears unlikely, as Moses married a woman from Midian, and they were not ordered to destroy these people until after this incident where Midian takes sides with Moab and plots against Israelites. Where the slaughter of babies fits in……..well, that I have no answer for, John. That point better fits your initial concern than any other passage you mentioned here.

    In closing John, I liked the point you made in your last comment, “When theologians today read the Bible critically they tend to go too far towards rationalism and then there is no authority left.” I agree with you wholeheartedly on this point. This is why I stand so strongly for the authority of Scripture. I don’t understand all of it, particularly examples like Numbers 31:17, but I do believe that God guided the authors of Scripture and they operated in divine inspiration by the Holy Spirit. I think the primary area where man’s ideas come in is mainly in the area of translation. The New Standard Version completely omits ALL verses that refer to the divinity of Christ. So, it is not far-fetched to imagine that verses could have been omitted in the past. However, I believe despite this, that God has maintained the integrity of His Word. In both the Old and New Testament, there are dire warnings about adding to His Word and or taking from His Word. I don’t think He would have added those warnings if humans were not inclined to “mess with” stuff. However, I wouldn’t want to be any of those folks on Judgment Day……..

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