I know I’ve spoken about morality and religion frequently, but each time my understanding moves forward a notch, I feel like I should post something that helps me consolidate my own knowledge.
The Old Testament is a moral mess, almost no one will argue against that. Whether you are a literalist or a moderate, the apologia you must construct for the Old Testament is a mine field of carefully constructed defense and the slightest misstep can end with your argument blown up and out. “Well, the book of Leviticus is just a set of rules for the Levites, so we can ignore that part.” That kind of thing.
But Exodus! That is a good book; it contains the Ten Commandments, and a wonderful story of redemption from slavery and a kind God who saves His people–but that’s the whole point; He saves His people. He goes out of his way to torture an entire nation (as I’ve written about before). His rules for morality and being Good in the eyes of God are a bit of a mess, too; there is specification of when it is OK to kill, there are commandments directly from God to steal from people, and the real ten commandments are odd to the modern reader, to say the least.
But let’s go back even further, to Genesis, and take an internal look at the beginning of the three Abrahamic faiths. Abraham, after whom the faiths were named.
What you have to remember about the story of Abraham is that there was no religion of God before him, whether God interacted with others; it was never formal.
So now we have a guy who heard a voice in his head that he attributed to God telling him to kill his first born son. Whether you believe that having faith in God is the highest calling, you have to admit; if your closest relative, your mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister, came up to you and said “I’m sorry, the voice in my head that claims to be Jesus said I have to kill you,” your first reaction would generally not be “This is a reasonable statement, and I support you.”
But even then, God stopped him! To steal an example that Richard Dawkins has used in the past, what of the Judge of the people, Jephthah? He vowed to God that if he won in an upcoming battle, he would “sacrifice whatever first came out of his door when he arrived home.” That just seems to be a wildly unintelligent thing, though, because what did he expect would come out of his door? Probably not a cow or a sheep, unless he had pets of that kind, so he was left with only two options… Either it would be his wife or his only child. In the fullness of time, his own daughter comes out, and he rents his shirt in despair–but “Did to her as he vowed to do.” The whole story is recounted in the Book of Judges (11:31-39).
Whether you believe this literally happened or did not, a general Christian will accept that it is in the Bible for a reason. I am no scholar of theology, I could not tell you why this is in the Bible, but to me it indicates that “the God of Life” does not shy from death. A man sacrificed his daughter as the price for having killed hundreds of people, maybe thousands! And yet, as per the Arithmetic of Souls, we are not allowed to experiment on Blastocysts, as they may have souls? Jephthah killed without any reason to believe he was protecting lives; yea, the war he was fighting was to protect God, not people. The scientists who perform stem cell research have strong reason to believe that this may be the biggest medical breakthrough of a generation, of several generations.
To quote Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, “A blastocyst is a collection of some 150 cells. To contrast, the brain of a fly has roughly 100,000 cells… But the rights of this blastocyst has the same rights as a seven year old girl with third degree burns over 80% of her body?”
That seven year old girl will likely die, but not before spending days or months in excruciating pain. Obviously, as per Christianity, we cannot just let her die, perhaps even if we know she has no chance of surviving. But stem cells? There is promising research to show we could regrow her skin. There is promising research that we could give quadriplegics the use of their arms and legs back, the horizon for the benefits of stem cell research is so far off we cannot even begin to imagine what this medical breakthrough could do for the good of the world–and all it would cost is a bundle of cells so small a fly would not even notice them.
One would think, as per the morality (if you can call it that) of the God of the Old Testament, we should be in full support of the death of the blastocysts to improve the lives of His acolytes. Using blastocysts to save lives and reduce suffering surely must count as a lesser evil than Moses’ slaughter of the Jews (Exodus 32:25-29), or the countless slaughters and rapes in the book of Numbers or Judges, that God is a direct party to?
How about God’s own chosen righteous? Lot, who said “Oh, you want to rape my guests? No, they’re men. Rape my daughters instead.” (Genesis 19:6-9) Or the Levite priest who was visiting Gibeah. An old man took him and his concubine in (Oh yes, the priest had a concubine), and people came to the house; “Send out your guest so we can have sex with him!”
The owner shouts back “No, this man is a guest, but my daughter is a virgin, do what you want with her. Also, he has a concubine, go nuts with that too.”
So the daughter and concubine are sent out. On the morning, the priest gets up and prepares to leave. When he opens the door to his host’s house, his concubine is laying on the doorstep. “Get up, time to go.” She does not move, for she was dead.
For good measure, the Levite cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends the parts to the 12 tribes of Israel because… Wait, what the hell? What the ACTUAL F***?! What is going on here? What am I supposed to learn?! (Judges 19:22-29) I think, at least in context, that they are supposed to be angry that the woman was killed by the rapists (that, it should be said, had full permission) when they receive the body parts… But killing someone by accident is not really grounds for serious punishment according to God, for He lets accidental killings happen (Exodus 21:12-13).
Now, all of this has been working up to a point. Most people say we can safely ignore the Old Testament, or take from it symbolic lessons — but the thing is, I do not know what I am supposed to learn. What do I learn from God wrestling Joshua, losing, then dislocating Joshua’s hip? (Genesis 32:22-30)
I think I know why Christians are so bitter towards Muslims. Muslims have had the good sense to call the Bible a holy book, but not make it binding, per se. Muhammad (PBUH, for the purposes of cultural sensitivity) cites the Bible frequently in the Qur’an and Hadith, but cites it as lessons–not as binding. I think Christians are bitter that the Muslims had foresight, and the ability to designate canonical readings of their holy books. The Hadith is a sort of magnifying glass through which you are to read the Qur’an.
I think everything the Christian has ever wanted is the ability to feel superior (something that comes directly from the Old Testament) while not opening themselves to moral criticism. So maybe take a page (ehehehehe) from Islam and designate the Old Testament a book of great origin, but which is not part of the True Gospel. Make the Bible contain only the New Testament, then designate the entirety of the Old Testament as the Tanakh; important reading, but nonbinding. Then you could cherry pick to your heart’s content, and close those gaping holes in your theology that let people like me read through the Old Testament and think with pure horror that people believe the Bible is a book of morality. BAM! So many problems solved.
It would seriously be everything you ever wanted.