Wednesday, April 22, 2009

LEVITICUS: An Apologist Rebuttal

In Leviticus: Chapter 10 we read about an utterly violent, brutal, and savage death by immolation dealt out by God to Aaron's two sons Nadab and Abihu. I mentioned in my "thoughts" section, that I was curious as to what the traditional apologist standpoint was on this issue, and I consulted the Christian apologist website to see what their stance on the matter was. I wasn't very surprised to see that they favor the old "times were different back then" line, but I can't justify this stance at all. Due to the scope of their explanation, I have chosen to address it in its own post rather than to have written a lengthy rebuttal in the midst of my thoughts on Leviticus: Chapter 10.

I will address the entire argument as presented here at:, point by point:

Leviticus is a popular book for skeptics to quote when attacking the Bible.
Already is resorting to weasel words defining skepticism as an "attack". Skepticism in it's ordinary meaning refers to:
  • an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
  • the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain; or
  • the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).
You can assert that something is true, for example, that every house on your street had an igloo in its back yard last July. The skeptical response that the temperature in July would make it unlikely to maintain an igloo is not an "attack" it is an observation, as it does not rule out the possibility of a counter explanation - like perhaps, that everyone in the neighborhood had installed refrigeration units in their back yards.

The use of the word "attack" is to bait the reader into feeling that questioning a claim in the bible is an "attack".
The lengthy lists of rules and regulations are much easier to misrepresent than other sections of Biblical text, especially when separated from scriptural and historical context.
First off, I find this a bit coincidental that many religious people also heatedly debate the "rules and regulations" from the book of Leviticus (as well as Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers) to defend their stances on issues such as homosexuality, slavery, and misogyny. Secondly there is very little historical evidence or reference for the book of Leviticus outside of the bible itself.
There is no question that some of what is described in Leviticus would be considered harsh by the standards of modern society. There is, however, a proper perspective with which to examine these descriptions.
I have always had a problem with these kinds of arguments to defend the wrongs of the past. Most often this argument comes up in the defense of human injustices such as slavery. Quite often an apologist will say something to the effect of that slavery was condonable back in biblical times because it was somehow different than the more modern slavery of African Americans in the American south 150 years ago. However, the bible makes it very clear that only the "slavery" of Hebrew males - as a payment of debt - was looked at differently (Exodus: Chapter 22) than the injustices we think of when dealing with African American slavery. The bible condones beating slaves - as long as they don't die for a couple of days - stating that slaves are considered "property", and that any spouse a slave takes while serving as a slave themselves is doomed to a lifetime of slavery.

No matter how you try to justify it, dehumanizing and oppressing other people has never been humane by any stretch. Beating another person for whatever reason besides reasonable self defense is also inexcusable no matter what justification you try to apply. Just because these activities were viewed as acceptable in the past does not mean they were right by any means.
A biblically-based, historically informed approach to understanding the book of Leviticus provides insights on the meaning and purpose behind it.
The skepticism in question - of analyzing particular quotes - is also "biblically based", and furthermore a differing of opinion on meaning does not change the basis. Again, "historically" there is no evidence to support the claim of millions of Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt and wandering the desert for forty years outside of biblical texts, so the "history" angle is rather moot in this regard. Most biblical scholars view the books of Leviticus and Exodus as either non-historical or greatly exaggerated, and more of a collection of parables and metaphorical lessons.
It is important to remember that much of Leviticus is God’s response to sin. God has the sovereign authority to impose laws, as well as consequences for those who violate them.
As for the book of Leviticus, I am not arguing what exactly God is punishing, but the cruel and over excessive methods he chooses to punish people with. Setting two young men on fire for making a simple mistake of using the wrong flame to light incense with is beyond excessive - it's cruel, sadistic, and unnecessary. Even if God feels he must kill someone for making a very human error, why couldn't he spare the two young men with less excruciating deaths? Why must he threaten the surviving family members with death themselves if they even dare to show any grief or mourn?

There is no argument to defend the sadistic death of immolation when God is allegedly endowed with the powers to kill people in far more humane methods - even a quick, yet massive, fatal heart attack would surely be far less traumatic than immolation.
One cannot reject this out of hand without rejecting the entire idea of law and order. completely misses the entire point here and tries to insinuate that someone who opposes condemning someone to die in the electric chair is opposing the death penalty outright. This is a typical apologist tactic of trying to paint the only options as being only either black or white.
Just as modern laws prohibit certain actions, and assign penalties to violators, so did the laws described in Leviticus.
However "modern laws" take into account the circumstances surrounding the violation. Two people can break the same law and get served vastly different penalties. A shoplifter without a criminal record probably won't serve any jail time and might not even be arrested, whereas a first time shoplifter that does have a criminal record is more likely to get a more severe punishment. Police officers often get much lighter punishments if they commit a crime versus a regular citizen.
God’s overall purpose in creating these laws was to set the Israelites apart from the other nations around them.
So God is trying to prove that one group of people are superior to the rest? Placing a value upon people by birthright sounds akin to me like what the nations of Germany and Italy tried to assert in the 1930's.
God made it clear that He expected obedience to His authority; those who violated the laws had every reason to expect a strong response.
Actually, according to Leviticus: Chapter 4 not everyone who violates a law might realize what they have done. Chapter 4 is all about unintentional and accidental "sins", and Leviticus: Chapter 5 even makes it clear that someone is still guilty even if they don't realize it.
Historical perspective is especially important when reading Leviticus. Modern society enjoys a level of technological and social stability that ancient peoples did not. Actions that have little effect on modern society might have been dangerously harmful in millennia past.
This doesn't justify setting two young men on fire for using the wrong flame to ignite incense, and further threatening their surviving family not to mourn lest they be killed themselves.
In the days of the ancient Israelites, the survival of your family depended on all of the families around you working towards the same goals, by the same rules, and without undermining the system.
When you have a magical being that provides you with food and water in the desert, protects you from invading armies by raising magical staffs, and threatens you with death for a myriad of trivial "crimes", your survival would be more apt to depend on not angering him by something like using the wrong flame to light his incense than it really had to do with the actual laws themselves.
Adultery was not merely a moral problem in that day. Undermining the family threatened the safety and welfare of the entire culture.
How does adultery - as it is defined in the book of Exodus - threaten the safety and welfare of the entire culture? Men of these days were polygamists, had slave girls in their concubines, and were expected to take their brothers wives as their own if they died without bearing children? Why is death the appropriate punishment and not perhaps being exiled?
Modern critics would do well to note the concept of martial law. When the stability of modern life is interrupted by disaster, it is necessary to take a much harsher stance towards lesser offenses, for the sake of preserving the society.
Such as setting people on fire for using the wrong flame to light incense, stoning people for working on Saturdays, and having to slaughter a bunch of animals if you accidentally touched an insect.

Once again, is missing the point.
Ancient peoples lived under these conditions almost constantly.
The Israelis in the book of Leviticus had more to fear from angering their deity and getting set on fire than from actually endangering their society by breaking one of God's laws.
The laws of Leviticus were not especially cruel for their time;
Setting two young men on fire and forcing their father and brothers not to grieve under the threat of their own deaths is "not especially cruel"? Perhaps we must have very strong disagreements on what constitutes cruelty.

Even barring the punishment of death itself as a factor, there are far less cruel ways to execute people - even in ancient times - than by immolation and stoning.
in fact, the emphasis on truth, order, and evidence set the Israelites ahead of their more volatile neighbors.
Evidence? Obviously, we must have missed the section of Exodus: Chapter 22 where a man who defends his home against a burglar in the daytime is automatically presumed to be a murderer; or Exodus: Chapter 21 where a person who's innocent of the accusation of murder will have to rely on God to hide him in order to avoid a stoning. Evidence plays no role in either of those laws.
In a general sense, objections to capital punishment are objections to the death penalty itself.
Again, this is complete nonsense. One can be opposed to capital punishment via the electric chair and still be in favor for the death penalty by other means.
God, being the author and creator of life, has the sovereign right to determine what happens to that life.
Not necessarily. If you or I create something, we are not automatically entitled to destroy it by any means that we see fit. I can build my own house, but that doesn't mean that I'm legally entitled to set it on fire - that is arson.
One’s opinion about the death penalty will determine whether or not these punishments are considered “cruel” or not. “Cruel” is a subjective term that, in reality, has nothing to do with whether or not these punishments were “justified” or not.
While the concept of cruelty is indeed subjective, we can reasonably consider an action cruel when the one committing the act has other less painful methods at their disposal and/or has the ability to minimize the suffering of the offender, or in the case of Aaron and his surviving sons - innocent bystanders. God clearly has other execution methods he could have doled out rather than immolation, and denying grief to the immediate family is a sure sign of a lack of compassion.
The ancient Israelites would probably react to these claims of “cruelty” in the same way modern Americans would if someone claimed that placing thieves in a cage (jail) was “cruel.”
There is a lot less permanent consequences from jailing someone than setting people on fire or stoning them. I think even the "Ancient Israelis" would choose "life in a cage" rather than to die by stoning or immolation.
Leviticus 8:24; 14:14; 14:17; 14:25 - "Use of blood, animal sacrifice in rituals"

This is an example of how cultural changes affect our opinion of cruelty. In our modern society, many people feel that it is “cruel” to even keep animals as pets, use them for food, or for clothing. The luxuries of modern farming, synthetic fibers, and so forth were not available to the ancient Israelites. The use of animals for food and as sacrificial offerings was a common and unremarkable part of ancient society. One might as well expect a culture two thousand years from now to think of us as cruel for ever eating an animal in the first place. The “cruelty” of these passages is entirely a question of subjective preference.
The problem with this argument is that the animals in question are not being slaughtered primarily for food and clothing, they were being used as "substitute" scapegoats for the mistakes of people. Most of the parts of the animals that are brutally slaughtered in Leviticus are simply burned on the altar because God finds it "pleasing". The animal skins and meat are not being given to the poor, most of it is burned and discarded, and what little God allows to be used for food or clothing, is strictly for priests. Commoners get a stoning if they consume any of these animal sacrifices, and even the priests themselves will be excommunicated if they eat in the wrong location.
Leviticus 10:1-2 - "Nadab and Abihu"

The event described here is straightforward: two men did something explicitly forbidden by God, and were punished by God for it. See above regarding the rule of law.
Once again, completely misses the point. It is unclear whether Nadab and Abihu's "crime" was an honest mistake, carelessness, or intentional. Regardless of that setting them on fire is far too excessive, as is forbidding their immediate family to grieve over their losses.
Leviticus 20:9 - "Death penalty for cursing one’s father and mother"

The Hebrew word qalal is translated here as “curses”. In context, it implies a severe hatred accompanied by an insult to someone’s reputation. The word is similar in meaning, therefore, to “blasphemy”. God had given a clear and direct commandment to honor parents, not to curse them. As with other offenses, this extreme level of rebellion represented a direct threat to the stability of Israelite culture. The harsh response was in response to the harshness of the offense and its potential social harm.
Completely left out of context is what the parent may have done to cause the child's scorn. Parents who abuse their children physically, mentally, sexually, or emotionally don't deserve a mandatory respect from their children simply by their biological linkage.
Leviticus 20:12-16 - "Death penalty for sins of incest, sodomy, bestiality"

See above about cultural stability and God’s purpose for the law. These kinds of actions were allowed, and even encouraged, by some surrounding nations. Much of this was because of their worship of false gods.
Once again, stoops to "weasel wording". "By some surrounding nations"? Which surrounding nations? What did they "encourage"? Incest? Bestiality? Sodomy? Aside from the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (which no evidence for their existence exists outside of biblical texts) I'm not aware of any religions in the bronze age that encouraged bestiality or sodomy, nor any that encouraged incest to a significant degree aside from what was acceptable to the Israelis (Abraham and Sarah were half siblings; Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel were first cousins; Lot's daughters who had sex and were impregnated by their father; etc.)

The assertion of "false gods" is also laughable as deities are not a provable concept, and thus there's no way of determining which gods are "real", "false", or "imagined" outside of personal faith.
God made it clear that these actions were not only immoral, but abhorrent. There was to be no mixing of immoral pagan practices with God’s commandments.
Much of the bible is borrowed from earlier pagan religions, numerology, and astrology. Even our modern Christian holidays - including Christmas and Easter - are clearly littered with pagan practices: Christmas trees, Easter eggs, fertility (Easter), and winter solstice (Christmas) amongst them.
These kinds of sins also created the kind of dangerous instability that threatened Israelite culture.
I fail to see the "danger" this poses, and again this sounds more like elitism and fascism in its wording here.
Leviticus 20:27 - "Death penalty for 'mediums' and 'wizards'"

See above about the purpose for the law. Such actions were a form of idolatry, specifically prohibited by God’s law.
Again, refer to my answer above as well.
Leviticus 21:9 - "Death penalty for daughters of priests engaging in prostitution"

See above about the purpose for the law. Temple prostitution was a common element in false religions.
Weasel wording again. Please state sources to back up your claim if prostitution being a "common element" of "false" religions.
Prostitution was already prohibited; this law made it clear that the families of religious leaders could not expect special exemptions. They would be held to the same or higher standards than the people, helping to prevent the kind of abuse of power common in ancient theocracies.
Except for Judah's story in Genesis: Chapter 38 where Tamar escapes being set on fire from prostitution simply because she's carrying her father-in-law's baby.
Leviticus 24:14, 16, 23 - "Death penalty for blasphemy"

See above about the purpose for the law.
See above to why this is ridiculous.
Leviticus 26:16, 22 - "Punishments from God for disobedience"

See above about the purpose for the law. This part of Leviticus extends the responsibility for obedience to the entire nation, as well as the individual person. As with other aspects of the law, God has given his commandments, and is now giving the penalties for violating them. As with many of the points above, one has to objectively examine the text; part of this is recognition that severe punishments are not necessarily wrong.
Again, severe punishments are wrong when there are more humane ways to go about it. Even if we stick with capital punishment, there is a major difference between the methodology of lethal injection verses setting someone on fire.
Concluding thoughts about Leviticus:

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible considers all of the above “cruel”. Christians should be willing to admit that much of what appears above is harsh and restrictive. However, the basic concept of law is one that even the skeptic has to accept. If societies have the right to determine laws and punishments, then so does God. It is also important to remember the context of these laws. They were given specifically to the Israelites, during the “Old Covenant”, not to modern believers, who live under the “New Covenant”. Once Christ accomplished His work on the cross, He fulfilled the law and most of what is listed above ceased to be in force.

God was teaching and molding His people with these laws. He wanted to send a clear message that He would punish sin. He expected His people to be separate from the wicked cultures they were surrounded by. Many laws of Leviticus also taught lessons about God’s charity, love, and justness. The fact that the punishments for violating these laws are severe is uncomfortable to modern readers; still, God is well within His authority to set down both rules and consequences for violating them.
Once again, completely misses the point and tries to excuse God's extreme methods - that even Moses himself questioned as evil in Exodus: Chapter 32.

In western society we cringe and condemn the Islamic world for their brutal versions of capital punishment, more on the grounds of the methodology of stoning and decapitations, sometimes more than the crime that was committed. In many ways these lame apologetic excuses for condoning setting people on fire and stoning them for working on Saturdays are no more or less any different than what countries in the Middle East are doing to people nowadays for being gay, for women not covering their faces in public, or having sex out of wedlock and therefore "shaming" their families.

Regardless of the time period or the conditions of "ancient Israel" you simply cannot condone needless suffering and pain for trivial offenses such as using the wrong flame to light incense.

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