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Bible passages that appear immoral today

Morality today. Hard passages in the Bible.Part 1 of 5

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletToday's religious and secular moral systems
bulletHard Passages in the Bible
bulletInterpreting hard passages from different Biblical viewpoints

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Today's religious and secular moral systems:

There are thousands of religious group in North America alone which promote systems of morality derived from their sacred texts and tradition; these are primarily Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. There are also dozens of non-religious, secular organizations which promote their own ethical and moral belief systems, as derived from social sciences and logic. Examples are the Agnostics, Atheists, and Humanists

There are many conflicts among this great diversity of beliefs over specific "hot" religious topics like equal rights for gays and lesbians, abortion access, physician assisted suicide, etc. However, there are many fundamental moral themes where the vast majority of these North American groups has reached a consensus: 

bulletDemocracy is the best alternative for civil government, and often for their own organization.
bulletEveryone is to be guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.
bulletGenocide is condemned.
bulletPeople should be punished only for their own criminal acts, not the acts of others. The sins of guilty people should not be transferred to the innocent.
bulletThe murder of innocent people is condemned.

Based on this consensus, there are many incidences in the Bible -- some ordered by God; others perpetrated by humans -- which are profoundly immoral. This has led some people -- particularly religious liberals and secularists -- to conclude that there are passages in the Bible that conflict with the will of God.

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Hard Passages:

There are many "hard passages" in the Bible which appear to conflict with today's moral consensus.  Some verses describe what appear to be unjust instructions or actions by God to commit genocide. Others involve the murder of innocent, defenseless individuals, including the elderly, children, infants and newborns. Still others involve the murdering of a person for a minor transgression. Some are single murders; others are instances of mass murder. 

Hard passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) convinced the ancient Gnostic Christians to believe that Jehovah was a defective, inferior Creator-God. (The Gnostic Christians were one of the three main groups in the early Christian movement. They are undergoing a revival today). They named the Creator-God the Demiurge, and viewed him as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion, and prone to genocide. Gnostics worshiped a different deity, called the Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth who is remote from human affairs; he was seen as unknowable and undetectable by human senses.

This essay describes some horrific Biblical events, as they appear in the King James Version of the Bible. It contrasts these occurrences with today's secular and religious standards of morality.

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Interpreting hard passages from different Biblical viewpoints:

Protestant Christianity is deeply divided into conservative, mainline, and liberal wings.  A great gulf also exists between Protestant and Roman Catholic/Orthodox beliefs. Many of these differences can be traced to the ways in which different Christian faith groups interpret the Bible:

bulletConservative Christians tend to believe that the Bible  is inspired by God, inerrant and infallible.  This includes the "hard passages." One of the main Biblical verses supporting this belief is:
2 Timothy 3:16-17:  "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (King James Version) The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) did not exist when 2 Timothy was written. So, the passage must have referred to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) only. However, the verse is commonly used today to refer to the entire Bible.

Religious conservatives believe that much of the apparent immorality in the Hebrew Scriptures' hard passages are human misunderstanding because Jehovah is both a God of love and of justice. God, as a wholly just being, must sometimes punish rebellious individuals and groups for their sins in ways that we find difficult to understand.  
bulletLiberal Christians tend to regard the Bible as a series of somewhat imperfect documents, which individual authors (and later forgers) used to introduce and promote their own competing religious beliefs. Religious thought is seen as evolving during the period from about 900 BCE to 150 CE when the various books of the Bible were written. Liberals feel that some "hard passages" and other Biblical passages reflect an earlier, lower standard of morality and should be ignored. They are dangerous to the religious belief, spirituality and ethics of today's readers. These passages include verses which condone and regulate slavery, which advocate discrimination against women, which promote religious hatred and intolerance, which denigrate homosexuals, which describe the killing of innocent people, genocide, etc. 

Both conservatives and liberals agree on one factor: these "hard passages" are  rarely cited in church or religious writings. They appear to teach a system of ethics that is profoundly evil by today's religious and secular standards. 

A sampling of these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures follows. If you have the stomach for more, "The born-again skeptic's guide to the Bible" contains brief descriptions of about 70 "mass killings ordered, committed or approved by God." See our book list.

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See also Part 2 of "Bible passages that appear immoral today"

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Copyright 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-JAN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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