Monday, December 5, 2011

David Marshall: "Is the Good Book Bad?"

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I’ll blog about Chapter 6, “Is the Good Book Bad?”

I agree with Marshall that the Bible is not as bad as new atheists like to present, for it does contain humanitarian and egalitarian material. My biggest problem with this chapter, however, is that it does not deal with certain troubling passages in the Bible. Here are some examples of what I have in mind:

*The law in Numbers 30 which states that men must keep their vows, whereas the vows of women (except for divorcees and widows) can be nullified by their fathers or husbands. That sounds patriarchal and unequal to me.

*The law in Numbers 26-27, 30 that women can only inherit property from their father if the father has no sons. Again, that’s patriarchal, for why couldn’t women inherit if their father had sons? Moreover, there were other ancient Near Eastern nations that were more progressive on women inheriting property.

*God’s command that the Israelites kill the Canaanite women and children. God did not have to go this far, for he allowed the Israelites to take the women and children as plunder when they were from the areas surrounding Canaan (Deuteronomy 20). Why didn’t God have the same policy regarding the Canaanite women and children?

*The law in Leviticus 25:46 that Israelites could own Gentile slaves forever, whereas Israelite slaves would be released.

*The exclusion of mamzerim, Ammonites, and Moabites from the congregation of the LORD in Deuteronomy 23. If God is loving, why does he exclude people for the sins of their parents or ancestors?

Marshall cannot put these passages in the category of things that the biblical author reports but does not approve, like he does for the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, for these passages are in God’s very own law. Marshall could then make some points that he makes in this chapter: that revelation is progressive, that Christ should be the criterion of interpretation, and that the Bible is not a perfect revelation that dropped down from heaven but rather is something that God inspired and uses to speak to us (which is my understanding of Marshall’s presentation of the views of Nicholas Wolterstorff and C.S. Lewis, and I welcome gentle correction on this). But Marshall also likes to make the point that the Bible is so much better than other cultures: the Bible speaks truth to power, whereas other cultures are afraid to challenge kings; the Bible contains the promise that Abraham’s seed will bless the nations, a love for humanity that Mars and Guan Di did not manifest. If Marshall’s claim is that the Bible has good things, then I’m with him on that. If his point, however, is that the Bible is so morally far ahead of other cultures because it was inspired by God, then I would take issue with that argument. If God inspired the ancient Hebrews to be so morally advanced above their neighbors, then why do some of God’s laws appear to be so regressive, patriarchal, and unfair?

I concur with Marshall, however, that God can use the Bible to speak to us and to reinforce our pursuit of a moral and spiritual path. I am for a humble approach to the Bible. I’m just sick of conservative Christians beating me over the head with “the Bible says” when the Bible appears to have problems and to contradict the egalitarian and humanitarian morality that even some conservative Christians have inherited from the world around them (or, as Marshall will argue in a later chapter, contributed to the world around them).

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