Leaving the Fold

Leaving the Fold

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Old Testament Peculiarities part 3: After the plagues

After the plagues

After going to so much effort to get the Hebrews out of Egypt God finally leads them out, only to kill a large portion of them (probably prompting a ‘what the hell?’ from Moses, without the hell bit). This happens on at least two occasions. The survivors then march through the desert for 40 years until the passing of their leader. According to Exodus 14 there were over half a million Israelite’s that left Egypt (and that’s just counting the men, not children or women, their livestock, provisions and any other goods they took with them). Not only did would this have resulted in a logistical nightmare to provide food (which was given) and water for such a large group, such an enormous number of slaves leaving the country en masse would have destroyed Egypt’s economy and been a disaster within itself.

When it came to killing some of the Israelite’s on the first occasion this is shown to not be entirely God’s idea but even if Moses or Aron were the main people behind this idea, if God was not in agreement with it then why did not he stop Moses or Aron from pursuing it? God had also just told Moses not to kill, yet no acknowledgement that this commandment has been broken right after it was made is given. This is a particularly controversial complaint made by non-believers. While they often complain about God killing people, I have more of a problem with the fact that he condones the Israelites doing it even on his own orders at times. There are several occasions throughout the Israelite’s journey through the desert where this occurs, at one point the Israelite’s complain about these killings which promptly results in more people getting killed (Numbers 16). Understandably such events would have been a huge blow to the morale of the Israelite’s but apparently this reduction in morale was yet another cause for reducing the Israelite’s population once again, although it is not specified by how much in this case (Numbers 11). Had God decided there were too many Israelite’s to journey effectively through the desert and decided on a rather grim means of dealing with this? It would seem that way.Although these killings occurred usually because of people rebelling against God it is little surprise that they did if their countrymen were frequently executed for one reason or another.

Moses is only told idol worshiping is wrong after the Israelites have already started worshiping a golden statue of a cow. He might not have known this was happening at the time, but he would not have been able to tell the Israelites until after the act had been committed and after he had received this commandment. Had the Isrealite’s been told it was wrong to worship the golden cow before this point? If not, then they should not have been killed. Also, they seem to suffer the biggest case of mass stupidity in this chapter, considering they had just witnessed 10 plagues (probably even more than what is mentioned after the Nile was turned to blood), been guided by a massive pillar of flame yet decide to worship an idol instead. They would have been only too aware of what happens when you annoy God-given what just happened to the Egyptians. The bible does make people sound really thick sometimes.

God never teaches the Israelites any diplomacy, nor does he appear very supporting of the idea of diplomacy at almost all of the time (the story of Jonah could be counted as an exception). The Canaanites were not even served an eviction notice before the Hebrews moved in, and they were simply evicted by the conquering of their land, this does not make the Israelite’s look much different from other nations that would do, or try to do, the same thing to them. Nor did anyone attempt to convert a couple of the Canaanites (or the Egyptians even for that matter). Not for the first time, and not for the last, the bible says this was because they were evil. No doubt the Canaanites thought the same thing about the Israelite’s when they were being invaded.

A few Strange Occurrences

The amount of weird, gruesome and unrealistic things that occur in the Old Testament could very well fill this entire blog although I have no intention of going over them all in great detail. The only ones I have included are those which played a significant role in making me question the authenticity of the Bible as God's word.

 One thing I did not understand about the Old Testament from very early is people love dying far too much (with the exception of a few very notable individuals the New Testament continues this trend, especially in Revelations). No justification for this strange desire to be killed is given. Also the Old Testament has a remarkably gross fascination with certain body organs (not including metaphorical references to the heart). It also has an odd fascination with human reproduction and in one incident, the bowel functions of a certain Moab king when he is stabbed by a messenger from God. Amusingly though, the incident with the Moab king is probably one of the closest points the bible comes to being comedy since the king’s attendants and guards think he has gone to the toilet when they smell the mess from outside the throne room. One wonders at the conservation that went on between those guards. The Moabites do not get long to ponder their embarrassment though as the Israelite’s diplomatic shortcomings are made obvious in the next few verses. Following are some of the more unusual verses, in some of them people do not act in a way the reader would expect.

1. In one incident we read about soldiers practically queue up to be incinerated by a prophet (2 Kings 1) after asking him to come down from a hill (in contrast another unlucky group got chewed up for telling a prophet to go up). They appear quite eager, at least until the very end of the tale, to be incinerated and are not in the least bit phased that the groups before them got crisped by a guy who can call fire from heaven which cannot have been something they see every day.

2. The death of 5000 or more people who looked into the Ark of the Covenant between God and the Israelites is a peculiar tale. If the Ark was inside the tent (Tabernacle) it was sometimes kept in, it would have gotten difficult to get inside to see it. The last few people in this incident must have seen it coming considering by the 5000th individual there was likely to have been a large pile of bodies around the ark. One would expect the last few individuals to think-“Hmm this is probably not a smart idea…”
Apparently it was.

Note that touching the dead made you unclean to (from Leviticus), so it looks like whoever dealt with that mess to reach the Ark would have been unclean for the remainder of their life (which would have been short had they repeated the same mistake). The amount of dead is absurdly high, 50,000 in some translations. This would have led to a plague if the bodies were not removed and dealt with properly and anybody witnessing that sight would probably be more likely to freak out and run rather than go near the pile of corpses even if they were under orders to retrieve the Ark. Even the least superstitious of people would have thought it was cursed and kept away. There is some debate over the correct number of casualties in the verse and whether 50, 000 was a mistake, since a village of 50, 000 would have been very rare in the region described and 50,000 people crowding around a small cart carrying the Ark, or in a tent, would have not been feasible, 5000 would not have been very feasible either. Had the victims been described as dying from an unexplained illness days or weeks later following their encounter with the Ark this may have been more realistic.

3.God kills a man who stops the ark falling of an ox cart, the origins of the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, or the guy had horrible karma which is not a belief associated with Judaism or Christianity.

4. The order to Saul, by God, kill the Amekalites down to the smallest infant is extreme. They are not the only nation, which God deems worthy of annihilation either. This order seems strange to, given that God had told the Israelites not to murder as one of the first commandments.

- The justification given by Christians for this is that they were all evil. It seems unlikely, even in the case of the Genesis flood that all man’s thoughts were evil. This may have been the author’s own perception in which case they may have been through a lot and been quite twisted and bitter. The bible focuses a lot on humanity’s ability to do evil. Rarely, if ever, does it focus on man’s capacity to do good sometimes through considerable trial.

- Many religions have encouraged doing good to strangers and others in general. This is not unique in any way to the Christian doctrine.

5. The slaughter of 42 little boys (2 Kings 2:23-24) who called Elisha a baldy (possibly one of my least favourite moments in the Bible, it does not even look like it has much purpose with the text before or after it).
This passage is just gross as is the means by which the kid are executed; by two bears. Prior to this the author had been having an obsession with lions eating people, it looks like at this particular moment he ran out of lions. How Elisha was not emotionally traumatised by sight is anyone’s guess, he just carries on as if it is just an ordinary day. He would have had to have some serious personal issues not to be psychologically scarred by this event. This verse appears out of the blue, it is entirely random, we are not told in the preceding text up to the execution that Elisha was afraid or in any way harassed beyond being called names. Elisha’s personal safety is not mentioned as being jeopardised despite this being the subject of many explanations of this. Elisha is just out walking along and then suddenly that happens. One wonders why none of the victims ran 42 people is a bit of a handful, or rather mouthful, for two bears. Had Elisha repeated this story to anyone it is doubtful they would have believed him or thought he was drunk. There are many excuses for this verse some odd and some distasteful, but the fact is God could have done something other than have the boys torn from limb to limb by a couple of bears. He could have:
- Cursed them with hair loss showing he had a sense of humour.
- Knocked them out
- Swept Elisha away somewhere else.
- Frozen the kids temporarily

Heck there were no limits to what God could have done OTHER than respond to Elisha’s request to have them killed. In keeping with his personality portrayed in the New Testament, he should have told Elisha to turn the other cheek. Even if you argue that Elisha did not murder the boys, the bears did, Elisha was the one who orchestrated the incident by calling them down from the mountain. The text does not indicate the bears were nearby, if they were not then it would appear the boys simply stood and waited for their execution for some time which is most unlikely.

Modern translations of the bible water this down by saying the victims were youths and that the King James was not translated well if God aided these people in translating the bible why did they mess the verse in King James up, among other things. Some will even go so far as to call the 42 boys a mob, a word strongly associated with a group of people intent on violence, such are the negative connotations associated with this word that upon hearing it not many people ask, what caused these individuals to form a mob or commit the actions they did? It won’t be long before some translations start calling the youths thugs, which is extremely effective word at removing any sympathy the audience might have had for the people being referred to as thugs.

- There is an odd difference between this verse and God’s response to another VIP, assuming Elisha was one being a prophet and all, whose personal safety is actually jeopardised in the New Testament.
The difference between God’s reactions to Elisha being teased and Jesus being actually threatened are profound. Elisha is given two bears at his disposal to deal with the menace, when Jesus is threatened however God does nothing, no bears, no lions (or tigers), or anything. Considering Elisha is a prophet, and Jesus is, from the narrative at least, God’s son this is a very big contrast.

6. Lot, who is apparently the only righteous person in either Sodom or Gomorrah, tries to give away his two daughters to some less than nice people, the daughters apparently thought this was totally normal and were okay with it, which seems a bit unrealistic. Nor does his angel companion rebuke him. Lot cannot have been that righteous because the moment his wife is killed he commits incest, he did not seem to have been bothered that his daughters would have been killed had he handed them over either.

- On that distasteful subject, Leviticus tells us that incest is prohibited and abhorrent to God. Yet it would appear Adam and Eve as well as Noah and his family had no choice in the matter.

7. The ‘happy is they that dash their infants against the rocks’ in Psalms, which cops a lot of flak when taken out of context is written by an author portraying their less than friendly feelings toward the Babylonians by saying he or the Israelites would be happy killing Babylonian babies. While this was not entirely without reason, the whole ‘love thou enemy’ found in the New Testament is certainly not followed here. The author certainly shows no love toward his enemies here suggesting this chapter or book was not written in any way shape or form by God.

8. The concubine story is quite odd and disgusting (Judges 19-20). The victim in this story is assaulted and then has their body divided into 12 parts, one for each of the tribes of Israel.

9. In Judges 11 a man (Jephthah) makes an oath to God that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house, maybe he thought it was his wife and he wanted to divorce. However, the person that comes out of his house is his daughter and he sacrifices her. This is more explainable in that swearing an oath to God was forbidden and he had to pay the penalty for breaking that law.

10. In another case of a slaughter-fest in the Old Testament God gets annoyed at the Assyrian army trying to invade Israel and slaughters them all. He does not give them a chance to retreat or kill a few and then tell them to surrender nor does he use any kind of diplomacy, which should be easier for God than any human being. Again on the issue of free will, they were not given a choice to retreat. Given the large number the bible gives, over 100,000 anyone cleaning this mess if they were an Israelite would have been unclean for the remainder of their existence, the dead would have caused a plague to if they remained there for long, and since the dead were on the doorstep of the Israelites, such a plague would not have boded well for them.

11. In keeping with the Bible’s trend of large body counts whenever a protagonist feels either slightly annoyed or threatened, Samson kills a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone. Despite his claim to fame, before his wife cut his hair, this seems highly unrealistic.

11. Although not so much an odd moment in itself, the story of Uriah’s widow who King David fathered a child with, gets some attention due to the unfair punishment given to the child born out of this relationship. If the Bible is taken literally, then yes it does seem unfair that a baby would be punished for his parents crimes despite having no knowledge of those crimes and obviously no involvement in them. However, if the Bible is viewed as a collection of stories which can teach us something, then the story can be viewed as a lesson on how a parent’s actions can have consequences that affect other family members in this case their children.

If I had read these verses in the Old Testament while I was still a Christian I would have tried to form some rationale for why they were there, including the Old Testament is no longer relevant in today’s church. or that people were more cruel and violent then than they are now (which considering there are lots more people on Earth now is debatable). These verses are not even the reason I lost my faith, but they did make me question the credibility of the bible, they certainly made me think God had not written it and that he had indeed had little to do with its writing. Obviously, the Old Testament was still relevant to the New Testament authors, who probably had a decent knowledge of the Jewish sacred texts; otherwise, they would not have referenced them repeatedly. These verses certainly made me think that the bible was not meant to be taken literally, certainly not to the extremes some denominations would take it.

Asking questions, at least at groups in the small semi-rural churches I attended prompted an unusually fast change of subject or a statement along the lines ‘it is not our right to question God’ or ‘God’s ways are mysterious/not our ways. I do not mind mysterious, but I do mind that it makes sense if I have to behave like a pawn in an elaborate chess match between God and the devil (pawns being the ones who are usually missed the least when sacrificed). Despite God’s ways being mysterious many Christians will make statements that give the profound impression that they are somehow privy to the inner workings of God’s mind, his personality, his feelings, emotions and actions. So when a Christian rebuttals a unbeliever’s scepticism by saying ‘God works in mysterious ways’ they should probably examine the fact that they are claiming to understand God’s ways despite having just said that was not possible. As an agnostic I do not claim to know who god is, or even consider assigning it human attributes.