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Pastors’ defense of hotel bibles got it all wrong

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In response to the letter Annie Laurie and I wrote to major hotel chains asking for the removal of Gideon Bibles, Billie Hallowell posted a December 14 article at The Blaze—Atheists Claim That the Bible Calls for ‘Killing Nonbelievers’—but These Pastors and Theologians Have a Tough Message for Them—for which he interviewed a number of Christian thinkers who claim that we atheists have got it all wrong.


My December 11 blog already documents bible verses that call for the death of nonbelievers, including:

Death to nonbelievers
2 Chronicles 15:13 “All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.”

More death to nonbelievers
Psalm 78:21–22, 31 “When the Lord heard them, he was furious; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel, for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. . . . God’s anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel.”

A raging fire against nonbelievers
Psalm 78:21 “Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel; because they had no faith in God.”

Devoted to Destruction
Exodus 22:20 “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.”

Kill Followers of Other Religions
Deuteronomy 13:7-12 “If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods . . . Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God.”

Kill innocent babies of the heathen Babylonians
Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

Utterly destroy a city that does not worship the Lord
Deuteronomy 13:12–16 “If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the Lord thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying . . . Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known; Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.”

My upcoming book, GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (based on Richard Dawkins’s famous sentence), documents dozens of biblical God-ordained genocides, bloodthirsty ethnic cleansing, infanticide, filicide, and angry pyromaniacal destruction of whole cities and cultures. All of this was commanded, condoned or committed by the self-confessed jealous and vindictive Yahweh himself. No one who actually opens the bible to read it can deny that these passages exist.

None of the Christians in Hallowell’s article deny them. They excuse and “explain” them. They insist that while those gruesome passages do exist, we atheists are “creating a straw man argument” by complaining about the brutality. They accuse me of having a “flat style of interpretation that does not recognize how themes are developed in the Bible or how some texts are limited in how they are applied.”

But, of course, atheists are no less capable of understanding and interpreting ancient literature than theologians or pastors. We might, in fact, be more capable, since we are not hampered by the ideological requirement that it must be a good book. Believers do not have a corner on literary criticism. I was an ordained evangelical minister who preached from every book of the bible for 19 years until I began to view it in an objective light, not impeded by faith, devotion or loyalty. Isaac Asimov, who wrote the book Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, said: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” We atheists who have read the bible are actually begging people to please, read the bible.

In Hallowell’s blog, author R.P. Nettlehorst, who accuses Annie Laurie and me of “utter ignorance,” asks, “Does the Bible have stories of violence, does it list laws that are harsh, does it portray human beings and human societies behaving badly? Certainly.” But he is dodging the point. Our claim is that it was the biblical God himself, not human societies, who acted in harsh, brutal and immoral ways. He has turned the straw man back on himself.

Nettlehorst posits that Jesus’ words about loving God and loving others are at the center of what the bible “calls for.” It is only a faithful Christian who would make the odd claim that the words of Jesus are the “center” of what the bible demands. Taking the bible as a whole, the center of gravity is not love, but jealousy—the jealous wrath of a deity who cannot stand his chosen people looking at a rival suitor and who must punish his straying lover with the spilling of blood.

The kind of love Jesus was talking about in Matthew 22 is nothing that you or I would recognize by modern standards, or by any standards. It was a fearful covenant, not a freely chosen relationship. In that passage, Jesus, who claimed to be God himself (“I and my father are one,” “he who has seen me has seen the father”), and who called for violence (“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword”) was quoting the genocidal words of the Old Testament war god from Deuteronomy 6:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. . . . When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–15)

So we see, in context, using a non-flat interpretation, that Jesus was approving of his jealous father’s ethnic cleansing, warning his chosen Israelites that when they invade, conquer, kill, and plunder, they should not be tempted by the gods of the inhabitants, lest “the anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.”

No matter how you interpret that passage, that is not love. That is fear and control. It is like a possessive abusive husband telling his wife, “You better love me, and only me. If you look at another man, I will beat you bloody.”

Dr. Michael Heiser complains that we atheists are “contextually and historically illiterate.” He then gives us his superior interpretation: “This sort of killing was limited to the conquest for the land. Unbelievers [and] foreigners in other contexts were welcome in Israel,” he said. “In fact, other than the conquest of the land, the very purpose of Israel was the salvation of the unbeliever. Why is the conquest different? Because the people put under herem/kherem (“holy war”) were believed to be descended from the nephilim.”

Really?! Nephilim? The race of giants, for which there is no scrap of archaeological or literary evidence? (Even Heiser is careful to say “believed to be descended,” but if those enormous brutes did not exist, then his argument evaporates.) Is it “contextually and historically literate” to assert the existence of such mythical creatures?

But he is flat wrong (we atheists can also use the word “flat”) to claim that the killing was limited to the conquest for land (as if even that would make it right). In many Old Testament passages, foreigners were not welcome in the land. Look at this racist hate crime committed in the light of day:

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites. (Numbers 25:6)

The Midianites worshipped Baal Peor, not the Lord Jealous. One of the righteous priests, the furious grandson of the high priest Aaron, observed this blatant miscegenation and took things, literally, into his own hands:

When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. (Numbers 25:7–8)

David Martin (1737-1797), History of the Old and New Testament. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

And how was Pinehas’s brutal homicide of a loving family punished?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:8–13)

Pinehas was blessed by God, not denounced, for a heinous act that would earn him a life in prison in our modern (and more moral) world.

Heiser snidely adds, “If atheists think we’re still living in the sixth century B.C., they have a point. Since we’re not, they don’t. Someone might want to hand them a calendar. The claim is breathtakingly ignorant.”

Someone should give Jesus a calendar. When Jesus quoted scriptures from the sixth century B.C.E., was he also “breathtakingly ignorant”?

When Jesus, claiming to be the God of the Old Testament, whose law should not be changed “one jot or tittle,” said the second commandment was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39), he was quoting the ancient Hebrew scriptures. Reading the original quote in a non-flat manner, we learn what he actually meant by “neighbor”:

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17–18)

So we see, in context, that “neighbor” meant “your kin” and “any of your people.” Jesus reminded his followers that the Israelites were commanded merely to love their fellow Israelites. All groups do that. This love did not extend to anyone who worshipped another god, and certainly not to any neighboring tribes or nations. Neither the Israelites nor Jesus showed much love to nonbelievers.

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6)

Ian Punnett thinks that while the harsh punishments in the Old Testament are certainly “unjustifiable by today’s standards,” they were somehow morally justified during the time of the early Israelites who were facing “a matter of life and death.” Well, all cultures have gone through such tough times, but we don’t “by today’s standards” excuse the barbarity. We don’t put it in hotel rooms. We condemn it. Punnett insists the bloodshed was “for the good of the collective.”

But the Israelites were the invaders! They were the ones inflicting hard times on the Canaanites. This morally bankrupt argument would excuse the European Christians who invaded the Americas and killed (directly or indirectly) more than 90 percent of the native population, because those were “hard times” for those poor “settlers” (interlopers). Punnet’s reasoning would excuse all war crimes.

And if we all agree that those were primitive crimes, then why don’t we rip those pages out of the bible? The fact is that most hotels are pushing a religious text into each room that calls for my execution because I don’t share the same religious views as the Gideons International. (And “pushing” is the right word. When I complained to the manager of the Marriott Hotel in Indianapolis, she told me that part of her required duties is to make sure there is a bible and a Book of Mormon in each guest room.)

Pastor Chad Hovind perpetuates the blinkered ethical defense: “While there are some examples of killing off small cities in the Old Testament, in both Joshua and Samuel they are the exception to the rule and fall under the ethics of war in extreme circumstances,” he said. “They are usually examples of stopping a terrorist-type culture that terrorize the poor, enslaved women, and persecuted the innocent for hundreds of years before their wickedness finally boiled over and required God’s justice.”

In context, those were not “small cities.” Many of them, like Sodom and Gomorrah, had kings. But Hovind has a completely backward and flat view of the bible. It was the Israelites themselves who were engaged in terrorism! As I pointed out in an earlier blog, the God of the bible is described as a terrorist:

“A terror from God fell upon the cities.” Genesis 35:5 NRSV

“I will send my terror in front of you.” Exodus 23:27 NRSV

“I will bring terror on you.” Leviticus 26:16 NRSV

“. . . all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:12 KJV

“Hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:105 NRSV

“The terrors of God are arrayed against me.” Job 6:4 NRSV

“I was in terror of calamity from God.” Job 31:23 NRSV

“They shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.” Psalms 14:5 NRSV

“I will make them an object of terror and of plunder.” Ezekiel 23:46 NRSV

Hovind thinks the Canaanites were massacred by God’s holy warriors because they were “wicked.” But the only reason  he thinks they were “wicked” is because the Israelites said they were. All warring nations tend to demonize their enemies. Looking at the bible, in context, we see that “wickedness” had nothing to do with what we would call harmful immoral actions: it had to do with worshiping the wrong god. People were labeled “evil” for the simple act of choosing the wrong religion.

The pastors’ arguments, besides being inapt, are beside the point. We atheists actually agree that those horrible scriptures “in context” are primitive and irrelevant to today’s modern world (in spite of the fact that Jesus quoted them and they remain proudly in homes, churches, and the Holiday Inn). When I rent a hotel room, I am paying good money to an institution that is allowing an all-male Catholics-excluded evangelical organization to place a bloody ancient book in the drawer that calls for my death because I have the “wrong” views.

How can I not complain?

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