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August 31st, 2009

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11:06 pm - Religious “Sources”
So a week or two ago I got a message from a reader out there (I doubt he reads this blog, but hey, he might (hi there!)), writing to me in my capacity as Samaritan Pentateuch Dude.  He was asking about the laws in Deuteronomy 21:10-13, which details procedures to be followed when a conquering Israelite soldier sees a “beautiful woman” among the captives.  He was troubled by what he saw as an implied sanction of rape by the Bible, and wanted to know if the Samaritan text read this section differently (it doesn't; well, not significantly anyway).

For whatever reason, I didn't simply answer that it didn't change things and leave it at that; I let things develop into a larger discussion about puzzling concepts in the Bible and how they are interpreted.  After all, that particular section is fairly tame compared to some other questionable quotes.  So I mentioned Numbers 31:15-18, which speaks of giving virgin captives to soldiers, and various places in Joshua which discuss destroying whole towns right down to the women and children.  And this led to Deuteronomy 25, which prescribes death for raping a betrothed woman (and death for both if it was consensual), yet raping an unbetrothed woman is a simple matter of 50 sheqels and marrying her (which, at first reading, does seem to imply that she is forced to marry her rapist.  The Rabbinic interpretation of this is that it applies only to a very particular stage of female maturity, between 12 and 12½ years, and that marrying the rapist is at the girl's option.  Even so, it seems pretty mild).

The point I was trying to make was that the Bible is just full of troubling quotes and lines, and this is nothing new: people have been writing commentary to interpret and explain them for centuries.  You won't find anything that can't be explained or interpreted away, simply because someone else would have already found it, and if it really really couldn't be explained, the Bible would have already lost a lot more respect than it has.  And I noted such things as the Bible's dietary prohibitions (in the case of certain fish, an “abomination” no less) and its apparent support of slavery, death penalty for gathering wood on Sabbath, etc.  The Bible certainly does seem, at least, to espouse morals and ideals that are at odds with our modern views, and there are various ways of reconciling the two.  There are various re-readings and re-interpretations of the Bible, or conversely actually rejecting one or the other viewpoint (e.g. rejecting the Bible altogether, or something like Orthodox Judaism rejecting the idea that eating shellfish is permitted).

This tends to lead people (like my correspondent) to appeal to some sort of “logic” or “common sense,” which really means “what I think is right.”  My correspondent reckoned that Biblical dietary laws were really just health advice (and thus presumably are not as relevant today) and death penalty for Sabbath-breaking was a corruption introduced by the generations of scribes passing the text down.  And he thought that death penalty for adultery but a 50-sheqel penalty for rape “makes no sense and lacks consistency,” and that such an explanation was “something bizarre psycho wacko.”  Why?  Because it doesn't fit his expectations, apparently.  At this point people are no longer talking about what the Bible says, but rather what it should have said, i.e. essentially putting words in God's mouth because we know what he should have said better than the text does.  Now, human-based morality is okay (I personally have my doubts that there is any other kind), but people should at least recognize that they are invoking it.  Once you start picking and choosing what the Bible “should” have said or meant, any claim to Divine authority (if any) is severely weakened.  Who are we to say which laws are no longer relevant and which are not?  If dietary laws were just health advice, maybe the prohibition against homosexuality was just to increase fertility, in a society with a high infant mortality rate.  Or conversely, maybe dietary laws have some deep cosmic meaning that is utterly beyond our understanding (God does say, after all, that his thoughts are infinitely beyond ours, see Isaiah 55:9).

Now, Christians perhaps have a slightly better answer to the above, with the concept of Supersessionism, which I readily confess to not knowing very well.  Yes, there are some things more or less explicitly de-emphasized by Jesus (like the dietary laws, see Matthew 15:11), but what can we say about the rest?  Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments; has that one been rescinded?  And generally very few of the reinterpretations credited to supersessionism actually have a basis in the text.  Most are still more variants of “well, that law just doesn't make sense to me.”

So, rape might be a horrible crime to us, and thus not to be discounted with a mere fine, but it wasn't always seen so.  I seem to recall in medieval Japanese literature, at least, rape was considered an expression of powerful, impulsive love: he would not even let her objections stand in the way of his love of her, and thus something actually borderline laudable.  A woman's rights to her own body are a comparatively modern concept, at least in universal application.  Slavery is universally reviled in modern Western culture, but it was a completely normal part of life in ancient times.  The Bible discusses the laws of slavery (as something that is part of its society) in great detail, perhaps a little surprising for a people just rescued from slavery, but not so incredible.  Certainly debtor's slavery was perfectly understood: when you have no money, you have to sell yourself.

OK, so this has been a lot of talking as if I'm trying to push Biblical divinity or something… quite the opposite.  I don't make any such claims, and the point really is that I don't think anyone else should either.  What I mean is, even if you believe that the Bible is divinely-inspired or whatever, unless you're willing to accept all of it at face-value (which itself would require a lot of interpretation), you really have no right to point self-righteously at the text to support your particular morals, since you have essentially rewritten it to your own meaning, and everyone else's rewriting is no less valid.  This is something all too often forgotten by Bible-thumpers.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 1st, 2009 05:37 am (UTC)
At the risk of something...Amen. Well said.
Date:September 1st, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)

Religious “Sources”

Is there any weight to the argument that these were rules given to the Israelites about 1300 BCE or so, and shouldn't apply to us?

Slavery is another issue. True, American Southern Democrats liked to use the Bible's stance on slavery to justify their own, but slavery was not always Southern (or to be more accurate, Arabic) style. Just read Plato's "Meno" for an example. In the middle of a long philosophical discussion with an Athenian general, Socrates calls over one of Meno's slaves. They have a civilized discussion; the boy has been educated in Meno's house - he speaks Greek and knows arithmetic. Socrates talks to him civilly (though that's his way with everybody), and the boy answers directly, with none of the obesiance you'd expect from a slave in today's model.

You got to be a slave by having your country defeated. In Greece at least, there was nothing approaching "sub-human" about a slave. It was just the fortunes of war. Being a slave was still no fun, but at least, at that time, all it meant was that you weren't free. (As if it could ever be "that's all it meant".)

[User Picture]
Date:September 1st, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Religious “Sources”

Is there any weight to the argument that these were rules given to the Israelites about 1300 BCE or so, and shouldn't apply to us?

Sure there is. Of course, that view also invalidates the Bible as a source of morality, and generally destroys its authority to modern people. Which is not necessarily a problem... but for some people it might be. I have no problem with “well, the Bible just doesn't apply anymore,” nor even with “the Bible certainly still applies,” what I'm pointing out is that when people say the latter, the usually really mean “the things I like about the Bible still apply, but not the rest,” and that really is the same as saying “this is what I think is right.” And people often don't realize that last step, and somehow still hold that even though they're picking and choosing from the Bible, it still retains whatever Biblical authority they presume the Bible to have.

That's awfully long-winded and badly put. Sorry. Bottom line: nothing wrong with saying “The Bible is not addressed to modern people,” but this post isn't really addressing people who say that.

As I recall, Aristotle(?)'s view of slaves was more that some people are suited to manual labor and some people are suited to lives of intellectual pursuits. Which seems rather a step back from the conversation with Socrates that you describe. Your point remains valid, of course: slavery is a dirty word now, but wasn't always. More like just “worker” or “servant” in terms of connotation.

Date:May 21st, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Religious “Sources”

you wrote "death for raping a betrothed woman (and death for both if it was consensual)".
raping and consensual? i dont get it
[User Picture]
Date:October 22nd, 2010 07:00 am (UTC)

Re: Religious “Sources”

I understood it as "having sex with a woman who is betrothed: death for both if it was consensual, death for the man if it wasn't".

Or perhaps, closer to the original, "death for raping a betrothed woman (and death for both if it was consensual sex rather than rape)".

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