Thursday, February 2, 2012

Permissiveness Hates Righteousness and God’s Law

The God of the Bible is often disdained. Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren terms Him a “dread cosmic dictator” and a “tribal and ugly God” (A New Kind Of Christianity).

Meanwhile, the atheist Steven Pinker harangues:

  • [He] delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists. (The Better Angels of our Nature, 676)
Those who attack the God of the Bible often point to the harshness of Mosaic laws. Atheist Sam Harris protests that God orders His people to,

  • Stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes. (Letter to a Christian Nation)
Although Harris is correct that a number of crimes are punishable by capital punishment, he purposely ignores the rationale – why a God of love would order such harsh measures. For one thing, the justice system had to be protected by stiff penalties:

  • The man who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God must be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel. All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not be contemptuous again. (Deut. 17:12-13)
Sometimes, instilling fear is actually the loving strategy. The price of rebellion against the existing order is high. It often costs thousands of lives. The price of the lives of several “contemptuous” usurpers is little compared to the many innocent who might die if justice is disdained.

However, to acknowledge the weightiness of the atheists’ claims, there are more controversial examples of the use of the death penalty. It was also used against rebellious sons:

  • If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. [20] They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard." Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (Deut. 21:18-21)
This was an option against an incorrigible son – one who couldn’t be reigned in by any other means. Although this provision might seem overly harsh, it provided a social context in which children had to respect their parents. The Mosaic system offered no encouragement to the son who made his parents live in fear of him. Perhaps we would all be better off today if we had a justice system which would stand behind beleaguered parents. Perhaps the fear of this punishment would be enough to foster respect, at least superficially

We recently brought our lovely, well-behaved, and strictly-raised grandchildren to visit my wife’s friend. She was so delighted by them that she couldn’t stop gushing in praise,
“I usually hate children, but these kids are so wonderful.” In contrast, her own children are “out-of-control,” and she wants to abandon them.

I had done some substitute teaching. Sometimes, it was a threatening experience. One of the best schools in which to substitute was comprised largely of students from Asia, or at least their parents had come from Asia. Instead of indulging the whims of their children, these parents disciplined their children to respect their elders. This made substitute teaching almost a pleasure.

Is our God a “dread cosmic dictator” because He requires children to respect their parents, or is His “harshness” really an expression of love and concern for His people? Perhaps instead, the atheists and the Emergent Church gurus are castigating the God of the Bible merely because He fails conform to their own permissive standards?

Interestingly, the more that our culture veers away from Biblical standards, the easier we find it to criticize these standards. However, the critics need to ask themselves, “Do I have an objective and true standard by which I can critique the ethics of the Bible, or am I merely judging according to what feels right for me? Am I just assuming that my cultural biases are a matter of truth?”

These laws may still sound unduly harsh. However, it’s necessary to recognize that mercy is also built into them:

  • If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded. (Exodus 21:29-30)
The guilty party could redeem his life. It is therefore argued that payment could be accepted in lieu of death for all crimes except premeditated murder. Professor of Old Testament, Walter Kaiser, argues in favor of this position:

  • The key text in this discussion is Numbers 35:31: “Do not accept a ransom [or substitute] for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.”…Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or a “substitute.” This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all the other fifteen cases [of crimes that called for death] the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or a “substitute.”
Although the death penalty was often stipulated it wasn’t always required. This helps us to understand the righteous Joseph’s intention of merely divorcing Mary, after it seemed as if she had committed adultery:

  • Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)
If the situation required it, the dire consequences of the law could be set aside. I think that many of the complaints against God’s law could be reasonably addressed if only we would carefully read the text.

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