by Loren Seibold | 9 June 2023 |
In the little country church where I grew up I remember, one Sabbath, sitting next to my friend Keith in the church service. This particular day he poked me with his elbow and passed his Bible over to me, pointing to 1 Kings 21:21. “Read that,” he said.
Keith had discovered a naughty word in the Bible! So yeah, we had to be about 12 or 13 for this to be as titillating to us as it was. It made me giggle—but it also provoked a deep unease in this good Adventist boy, because the word was one I would have been punished for using at home.
We were too young to have yet discovered very much of what was in that book. The King James Bible translations we carried (whose dialect was so holy that even our farmer fathers prayed up in front using “Thee” and “Thine” and “dost” and “lovest”) was largely indecipherable without it being explained to us with a picture roll and edited memory verses.
As for the Old Testament it was so dense that, apart from some selected stories, it might as well have been written in Hebrew.
A few years ago some well-intentioned folks in the quasi-theocratic state of Utah decided they needed to keep “dirty” books out of the hands of school children. The legislature passed House Bill 374, entitled “Sensitive Materials in Schools.” It gave schools the authority to remove books that are “pornographic or indecent”—and this is the interesting part—without having to go through a formal review process.
If you’re thinking they had certain books in mind, you’re right. Specifically mentioned was George M. Johnson’s memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue—which admits that some children are born LGBTQ. They’re also pretty upset (still, this many years later) about Judy Blume’s honesty about the worries of adolescent girls.
Nicole Mason, a member of Utah Parents United, said, “Our children are right now given unrestricted access to pornographic material in school libraries.” Yeah—no. A stupid observation. There’s no Penthouse magazine on the rack in any school library; there are laws banning such things from schools.
But the enthusiasm was such that the bill was rushed through without thorough attention to its possible consequences.
That dirty Bible
It started with a complaint by a parent:
In March, a parent in Utah wrote to the Davis School District, demanding that the Bible should be taken off shelves based on the new law. “Incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide,” they wrote, accurately and non-exhaustively. “Get this PORN out of our schools… If the books that have been banned so far are any indication for way lesser offenses, [the Bible] should be a slam dunk.”
If you detect a note of insincerity here, you’re probably right. But, as it turns out, it’s also accurate: the things on that list really are in the Bible—though a couple of them sent me back to figure out where to find them.
So I was both interested and appalled to discover Ezekiel 16:17, which is so shocking when you understand what it’s saying that I won’t even quote it here—I’ll just link to it and let you read it for yourselves.
“But… but… but…” someone will protest, “it’s not recommended activity. It’s just a metaphorical picture condemning idolatry. It shows how much God hates sin.” (This last is always trotted out to excuse God’s bad temper. But that’s for another essay.) Nonetheless, what is described here, in the pages of Holy Writ, is a woman creating an image of a certain part of a man and, uh, using it—which history and archaeology say is something that was done in those “good old days.”
And let’s not even talk about Ezekiel 23:20-21. Or whole chapters in the Song of Solomon.
The Bible does contain marvelous promises of hope and life. But, it turns out, it is also a dirty book, which makes it all the more surprising that so many modern Christians are scandalized by any modern book that is honest about sexual matters, such as those admitting that girls have periods and that some people are attracted to their own gender.
The worst pornography
Still, it isn’t sexual candor in the Bible that makes me question it as the every-word-straight-from-God’s-mouth book that conservative Christians say it is.
It is its gruesome violence. So many hideous commands for death and destruction are claimed to come straight from God’s mouth. The one that first disturbed me was an account of a battle in Numbers 31:17-18:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
Seriously? God said you should “keep the little girls alive for yourselves”? Since their virginity is particularly noted—uh, what exactly did God intend you to do with them?
Or how about Deuteronomy 20:16-18—“leave nothing alive that breathes”:
But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee…
Even heaven and the new earth aren’t free from morbid reflections. Note this passage in Isaiah 66:22-24 that we revere for its mention of the eternal Sabbath —plucked out of context, of course, for use in evangelistic meetings:
“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Then there’s this classic, which surely isn’t inspired by my God:
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones (Psalm 137:9).
Undoubtedly some angry person thought God felt that way, but I’d want nothing to do with a God who actually thought that was a good idea.
The New Testament, which introduces us to the wonderful figure of Jesus, is not entirely free of taint in this regard either.
Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh (Revelation 19:19-21).
This references an event much beloved by Seventh-day Adventists: the destruction of everyone who has “the mark of the beast”—that is, in traditional Adventist theology, all your Christian friends who worship on Sunday.
And please note: it is Jesus who supposedly commands all of this to happen!
(A footnote: we are far more offended by sex than by violence. Had I quoted the passages from Ezekiel, our comments section would be filled with notes from highly offended people. No one will mind my referencing the violent destruction of those damned Sunday keepers!)
The words of eternal life
Someone is going to say here, “You’re trashing the Bible.” No, I’m trashing one very bad way of reading it. The Bible contains the words of eternal life, but not every word in the Bible is a word of eternal life. Much of it is terribly hard to understand—but even when understood, there’s a surfeit of really bad theology, a horrible lack of respect for human life, and much that is utterly irrelevant to spiritual growth.
In its pages some great “holy men of God” did convey to us the astonishing love of God and God’s desire to save us. But it appears some of the words in the Old Testament and Revelation were written by angry, vengeful men—or, in Ezekiel’s case, possibly even mentally ill men.
It is impossible for me to believe that God insisted on so much violence—and if God did, that’s not a God I can worship or regard as holy in any way. Thus I do not regard those words as God-inspired as I do the accounts of the gospel writers giving us the words and parables of Jesus.
Still, Christians insist the whole Bible is inspired. But in practical usage, wise Christians carefully curate texts to display good, hopeful, helpful understandings of God and his Son. We make picture rolls and edit memory verses for our children. For Bible studies, we arrange proof texts to come up with something that both makes sense and conveys an attractive and winsome God. In short, we create our theology from a very few carefully chosen words from the Bible
(At least some of the time. And shame on us when we don’t—when we teach all the eschatological nonsense that turns into conspiracies and fear among the angry and impressionable set.)
My point is that no one reads the Bible without interpretation. Because apart from the beautiful things, the good lessons we teach to children, there is indeed a lot not to approve of there. Besides “incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide” that bothered some parent in Utah, there’s slavery, polygamy, tribalism, racism, violence, murder, and some highly questionable acts of God.
Which brings me to this conclusion: that to be a holy and godly person takes more than just following the Bible. It requires understanding. It requires wisdom. It requires the work of God’s Spirit in people’s lives. It requires a careful and intentional study of the life of Jesus. It requires consultation with other sources, wise men and women who have experienced suffering and struggled with life’s contradictions, and have realized that a God worthy of our worship has to be better than the god pictured in Numbers 31:17-18.
That is to say, our God isn’t always accurately depicted in the book that was written about him. So with some people, that book does more harm than good.
Yes, read in a framework of compassion and kindness, of a God who not only loves us supremely, but understands the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that our mortal flesh is heir to, it is life-giving. Without those qualifications, the Bible leads impressionable people astray. It has created Adventists who have no understanding of God’s grace. Adventists who are angry, who believe the world is full of conspiracies, that life’s problems have simplistic answers, that heaven is earned through food, and that imaginary enemies are waiting to persecute them for the crime of going to church on Sabbath morning.
The Old Testament doesn’t describe with consistency the God that Christians worship. Jesus does.
When Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” he was correcting the Old Testament. He was illustrating, by his life, that that picture of God was erroneous. That’s why he didn’t say, “If you’ve seen what the Father did in the Old Testament, well, that’s what I’m like.” Because he wasn’t.
That’s why the Old Testament doesn’t stand on its own: we Christians must read it through the lens of Jesus, which filters out a great deal of the nonsense that makes people more miserable than they’d be without any God at all.
Loren Seibold is the executive editor of Adventist Today.