Thursday, January 8, 2015

Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture)

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I'm reading through Peter Enns' book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, and like I said last week, it's great. Here are my thoughts about chapter 2, which discusses the question of "WTF?!" in regard to the battles against the Canaanites.

Though the chapter is mostly about the Canaanite genocide, Enns points out that all through the Old Testament, there are stories of God killing people, for reasons that may or may not be justified. On pages 30-31 he says:
As early as the sixth chapter of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, God floods the entire earth and kills every living creature except Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark. Later God tests Abraham by commanding him to slit his son's throat as a sacrifice (though God stops Abraham at the last second once he knew Abraham would go through with it). In the Exodus story, God's tenth and final plague against the Egyptians is to strike down their firstborn, and then a few lines later he drowns the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea.

Later in the book of Exodus three thousand Israelites who built an idolatrous "golden calf" are purged by their own people with God standing by. In the book of Leviticus, Aaron's priestly sons, Nadab and Abihu, are consumed by the fire of God for some unexplained misstep while officiating over the sacrifices. Numerous laws carry the death penalty, like worshipping other gods, blasphemy, working on the Sabbath (the prescribed day of rest), or adultery. And we're only in the third book of the Bible.

God killing people, both Israelites and others, isn't a last-ditch measure of an otherwise patient deity. It's the go-to punishment for disobedience. To put a fine point on it, this God is flat-out terrifying; he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.
Read the Old Testament, and it seems like God's always killing people. And for Christians who have been taught that we must believe that everything the God said or did (according to the writers of the bible) was perfect and right and good and just, this means coming up with baseless embellishments to make God's victims sound especially evil.

Take the story of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), for example. All it says is they "offered unauthorized fire." So uh, what does that even mean? WELL WE DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS BUT WE KNOW IT MUST HAVE BEEN BAD. I mean, of course when God kills someone, they deserve to die, we know that with 100% certainty, right? So in all the sermons or bible studies about this passage, people add to the story with creative fan fiction to help us understand why Nadab and Abihu had to die. OH CLEARLY the reason they did it was deliberate rebellion against God. OH CLEARLY they were selfish and thought they knew better than God did- so this story teaches us that when God gives rules, God is dead serious. OR PERHAPS this was not an isolated event; those guys must have had a history of being sinful and abusing their power as priests, and God finally put a stop to it.

And we sit there speechless, with our bibles open to Leviticus, and someone reassures us, don't worry, they were bad people. It's okay. Move on.

How about when God killed Uzzah (2 Samuel 6), as he grabbed the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling? Well he should have known. He clearly violated God's law. Definitely deserves to die. All is well, folks. Move along.

Or what about the stories where God commands someone's whole family to be killed because of one person's sin, as was the case with Achan (Joshua 7)? Oh, well, CLEARLY they must have been in on it. It's okay. They all deserved it. God did nothing wrong.

In every example, we can find (or imagine) some kind of mistake or sin that the victim made, before God zapped them. Usually it's a small sin and doesn't seem worthy of death. But we believe everything the bible says God did is just, so we have to believe it was worthy of death.

Hey what's it called when we pick apart someone's life and choices and search for some small sins or things they could have done differently, and point to these as proof that they deserved whatever violence happened to them, and therefore declare the case closed and justice done...?

What's that called? Blaming the victim.

Someone got raped? Well she shouldn't have been wearing that. Shouldn't have been drinking. Shouldn't have been dating that guy in the first place. And therefore all is well and there's no reason to press charges.

An unarmed black man was shot? Well I mean, he did get arrested for doing drugs that one time. Sounds like he was a bad person and there's no need to fight for justice here.

Someone was killed by God in the Old Testament? Oh come on, God CLEARLY told everyone what the laws were. He should have known. This is what justice looks like. Yep, what a nice and tidy bible story that teaches us the importance of obedience.

Or perhaps I should have given those examples in the opposite order. Perhaps placing blame on God's victims in the bible trains us to blame the victims when violence happens in our own society.

Furthermore, blaming victims' deaths on their own sins, no matter how small, only really works if you believe that everyone deserves to go to hell for being imperfect. Oh, someone died? Well, you know, they deserved worse, so, whatever! It's an awful theology that results in horrifically insensitive one-liners being thrown around in the aftermath of terrible tragedies. It's a perversion of justice that leaves us apathetic about seeking real justice for the real victims who really live among us right now.

(Jesus said love one another. And that's not love.)

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Enns discusses a few of the justifications commonly given for the Canaanite genocide, and it's so refreshing to read someone straight-up honestly saying, no, that makes no sense. Refusing to settle for some half-baked explanation just because we have to come up with a way to get God off the hook.

And here's his answer: It didn't really happen. In ancient times, when people wrote about their history, they didn't mean it in the same way we would if we wrote the same thing in modern times. Back then, it was common for every culture to have stories about how their gods fought for them against the other nations, who are portrayed as nothing but bad.

The bible stories tell us about the ancient Israelites' view of God, and their interpretation of events that happened. They're important and we can learn from them, but don't take every word as gospel truth.

And really, that makes me feel a lot better. Even though, for those of you coming from an evangelical background, it's terrifying to entertain the possibility that the stories of the bible are anything other than a factual account of events, I hope you accept how much of a relief this is.

How could God do this terrible thing? Well, God didn't.

Thank God.

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Suppose your friend saw a superhero movie, and came back and told you what an awful depressing movie it was. She explained how the movie is about a city which is often attacked by giant monsters, and people constantly live in fear. The police always go out and fight bravely, but they are powerless against the monsters. Unfortunately, the city has to rely on random vigilante superheroes to stop the monsters. These superheroes- who may have been created by similar mutations or nuclear accidents to those that produced the monsters- operate outside the law, and there's no regulation or required training or anything.

Your friend tells you what a sad movie it was, and how she can't stop thinking about how the residents of that city must feel so powerless. They have little freedom; they're dependent on these self-declared superheroes who have too much power to be questioned.

What would you tell this friend? "No no no, you missed the entire point of the movie. It's about courage and the battle between good and evil. See the sacrifices that Spiderman had to make in order to protect others?"

And your friend just gives you a blank look, confused at how you can say it's a good thing that thousands of people were terrorized and helpless, just because at another point in the story a single individual learned to make selfless decisions.

She missed the point, right? Well... no. If the events in the story really happened, then everything she said is true, even though most viewers wouldn't have thought of it from that perspective.

But she missed the point because the story did not really happen. It is not a true story. The creators of the movie were making it for a specific purpose: entertainment (and possibly also to show us what bravery/love/etc looks like). The intended interpretation can be found by looking at the way the story is told, rather than thinking through the logical consequences of every single event described therein.

( likes to write articles about "the horrifying implications of" this or that classic story. For example, 6 Horrifying Implications of the Harry Potter Universe.)

That's exactly what I'm doing when I'm upset about what God did in the bible- I'm discovering the horrifying implications of that particular bible story. The writers intended for it to be a lesson about trusting God or whatever, and wrote in such a way that this would be communicated to their audiences. Modern readers come at it from a different perspective and see these horrifying implications, and are, rightly, horrified. But those aren't the point of the story.

If the story really happened, all the horrifying implications are true too.

If it didn't really happen, the horrifying implications are where we might say "the analogy breaks down." That wasn't the point. You're overthinking it.

What did the writer intend to teach us, in the story of Nadab and Abihu's deaths? Or Uzzah's death? Or any of the deaths ordered or carried out by God? I don't know, but I know what the horrifying implications are. If you make one mistake, God will kill you. And we all deserve to die and go to hell anyway.

That's not what the bible says. That's not what the bible means. 

Thank God those are nothing more than horrifying implications of stories which did not literally happen.


My other posts about The Bible Tells Me So:

The Worst Bible Story
Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture) 

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem 
The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain 
Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context 
The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus 
Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again


  1. Great post! I loved Enns' book. It taught me & made me laugh! These two rarely occur together;)

  2. Love this post. Enns' book is refreshing.

  3. I'm planning to buy this book. Along the same lines, I recently finished "Sacred Word, Broken Word" by Kenton Sparks, which is also very good.

  4. The best explanation of "WTF" that I have ever heard.