Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Biblical Interpretation

This post is in response to a post on Stephen Law's blog - see here. Stephen was referring to a book called Outrageous Tales From the Old Testament, and somebody left a comment to say that:

"...I would just like to say that I find that Christian fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists read the bible in the same way. How do they read it? Entirely without sophistication, unable to appreciate irony, humor, metaphor, or purposeful moral ambiguity. They leave everything they may have ever learned about literature behind them..."

Comments along these lines are often heard from liberal Christians, who believe that the Bible requires their particular interpretation in order to be understood correctly. Here is my reply:

There are a number of problems with such interpretation in general, including, but not limited to the following:

1) Many Biblical passages containing contradictions, absurdities, atrocities, or intolerance of one sort or another are, on the face of it, explicitly clear in their meaning, and are not really open to any alternative interpretations.

2) It might be someone's opinion that such and such Biblical chapter or verse should be interpreted metaphorically or ironically. However, the onus is surely upon this person to justify why the passage should be interpreted in such a way, and not as it is explicitly written. For example, try to do this with the following Biblical quotes:

"He that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him." -- Leviticus 24:16

"They found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. ... And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones.... And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses." Numbers 15:32-56

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Lev.20:13

“Whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.” 2 Chronicles 15:13“

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 13:6-10

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” -- Deuteronomy 21:18-21

3) It is evident that the Liberal Christian only feels the need to ‘interpret’ those passages in the Bible that do not accord with our current knowledge and morality e.g. those containing absurdities or preaching intolerance or hatred.

4) If we are to allow the text of the Bible to be interpreted in such a subjective and personal way, then how are we to discriminate between what can and can't be interpreted in a way other than it is written?

For example, perhaps the rejoinders in the Bible to do good were meant to be ironic, and not to be taken literally? Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus was only metaphorical? Perhaps Jesus didn't exist at all, but was only a myth that was intended to be symbolic? Perhaps even the whole concept of God himself was meant to be interpreted metaphorically?

5) For me, as an atheist, I have no qualms about ignoring what is written in the Bible, as I consider it a ragbag collection of myths, superstitions, historical events, and often highly dubious morality. However, surely the self-professed Christian does not have this luxury?

For example, if God actually does exist (as the Christian must believe), and did explicitly command that Sabbath breakers (or gays, or witches, or people of other religions) should be stoned to death, and the liberal Christian ignores this injunction (thinking it to be ironic or metaphorical), then surely they are running a terrible risk? For, if this command was not intended to be interpreted or ignored, then the liberal Christian risks spending an eternity in Hell? To rework Pascals' Wager, if the Christian unnecessarily keeps the Sabbath, then they have little to lose. However, if they mistakenly do not keep it, then they risk an eternity in Hell.

Furthermore, if these commands were issued by God, then who do the liberal Christians think they are to presume to know better than an omniscient and omnipotent being?

And, on a lighter note, here is a bit of fun to finish with.


G said...

Hi Nick! I felt compelled to contribute a little something to that thread at Stephen Law's blog as well, and thought your response was clear and admirable... Then I was reading B&W and found we'd already crossed paths at New Statesman, etc.

Pleased to meetcha, so to speak. I'm definitely adding your blog to my semi-regular reading.


Nick said...

Hi G!

Nice to meet you too ;-)

I will return the compliment by adding your blog to my list too, as I always find your comments on B&W to be particularly incisive and well-written.

Now that I have a new reader, I will endeavour to update my blog more often ;-)