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It ain’t necessarily so June 17, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics, Religion.

A few thousand years ago (so the story goes), as the people of Israel were wandering through the desert, a well-respected man named Korah came forward and publicly questioned Moses and Aaron’s elevated status and the legitimacy of their leadership. Turns out he didn’t understand what kind of political system he was living under: God reacted by threatening to annihilate the entire congregation.  Thankfully, Moses and Aaron interceded against such collective punishment: “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?” So God switched to Plan B: he opened the Earth beneath Korah, his two lieutenants, and all of their families – burying them alive. God then sent forth a fire to devour the 250 men who followed Korah. Unfortunately, this show of restraint was not enough to teach the people who they were dealing with; they came complaining to Moses and Aaron – so God killed 14,700 of them by plague.

The thing that Vandelay found to be out of the ordinary in this story is the rare use of the title “God of the spirits of all flesh.” Based on scriptural sources, he claimed that this was Moses and Aaron’s way of reminding God that he was a tolerant God who values difference of opinion. I kid you not; there are those who will say with a straight face that the God who repeatedly commands the destruction of those who worship others, of those who blaspheme his name, of those who don’t obey his every command, is tolerant of different opinions.

Well then, said I, why was Korah killed? He went too far, said Vandelay; he crossed a red line. What line is that, I asked. Did he physically harm anyone? Did he threaten to harm anyone? He started a rebellion, said Vandelay, and sometimes rebellions must be put down by force. And there you have it; Ahmadinejad couldn’t have said it better. When you wonder why our world looks the way it does, consider that even an intelligent, educated person, who has lived his whole life under democracy, thinks it’s acceptable to kill a person (and his family) merely for voicing his opposition to a dictator’s authority. After all, the Bible says so.

At this point the conversation was joined by Alice, who insisted that the Bible must be viewed in the context of its time; it would be wrong of us to judge the Bible by today’s standards. There are so many things wrong with this claim, I didn’t get around to mentioning them all at the time. So here we go:

  1. It is simply ludicrous to claim that a code which commands killing your children for talking back to you, exterminating entire nations including women and children, and so on, constitutes a big improvement over the general barbarism of the ancient world.
  2. It is historically ignorant as well: Eastern traditions from around the time of the Bible, like those of the Buddha and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), are far more moral than the Bible, with an emphasis on compassion and nonviolence. It was possible for human beings at that time to realize that killing your children for talking back to you was wrong.
  3. If much of the morality of the Bible is now irrelevant, one cannot claim that the Bible is morally wise. As Sam Harris puts it: it is faint praise indeed for the perfect word of an omniscient God, if the best that can be said of vast parts of it is that they can now be safely ignored.
  4. If some parts of the Bible are no longer relevant, how do we know which ones? By what methodology does one decide that circumcision is still in, but killing homosexuals is out? That keeping the Sabbath remains mandatory, but keeping slaves is now forbidden? The Bible never says that starting in the year 1776, we should disregard commandments 17, 95, and 100 through 519. In fact, the Bible explicitly says the opposite: “All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”
  5. The notion that an action (by God or man) could have been moral in the past but is immoral today contradicts any coherent definition of morality. What exactly has changed in the last few thousand years? The Bible hasn’t changed. Our biology hasn’t changed. There was no divine revelation in the 19th century telling us that slavery is henceforth immoral. (Are we wrong to judge slaveholders? And when exactly did treating women like property officially become a no-no? Because some people apparently didn’t get the memo.) All the political changes we now appreciate were the product of rational human thought and expanding human knowledge. Just as we have discovered more and more about physics and biology, so we have learned more and more about the possibilities of human happiness, about the causes of human suffering, about how societies may flourish or fail. Moral progress was made, an inch at a time, by people who defied the dogmas of their tradition.

Nowadays, God still uses earthquakes and plagues to kill his children, but he is no longer explicit about what their sins were. Not to worry, though, for his instruction and his example live on, with hordes of pious men willing to devote their lives to upholding God’s word. How much more suffering must be visited in the name of the Biblical God before decent people stop teaching their children that an Iron Age manuscript bursting with sadistic, bigoted, oppressive barbarism is a sacred and flawless guide to moral living?


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