Is the Bible ‘evil’?
Moral accusations against God and Scripture fall flat
Published: 21 September 2010 (GMT+10)
Every so often, we receive emails from Christians who are troubled by anti-Bible websites lurking in the darker hovels of the Internet. One such website (not linked to, since we don’t want to give them any undeserved publicity) accuses God of being morally corrupt, and Scripture of reflecting this in the commands and actions it records. Christians should not be surprised that unbelievers would attack Scripture, and it should not cause us to doubt our faith. For one thing, few of the skeptics’ attacks on the Bible are new, and the ones that did arise in modern times are even more incompetent than the previous ones.
The website alluded to above has a pretty exhaustive list of the passages that nonbelievers object to, so it is ideal to serve as a basis for the refutation of the claims that the Bible condones morally bad behavior.
There is no passage where God condones actual child sacrifice; in fact, some of the worst condemnation comes to those who sacrifice their children (archaeological evidence shows that it was usually infant sacrifice) to Moloch (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5; Jeremiah 32:34–35). In the Bible, human sacrifice is detestable because it falls under the category of the murder of an innocent human being, which is always condemned. But skeptics cite a number of passages where, they say, God condones and even commands human sacrifice:
Genesis 22:1-8: The fact that God never intended for Abraham to kill his son doesn’t let Him off the hook, in the atheists’ mind (neither does the fact that the atheist doesn’t actually believe that He exists). It’s still an incredibly horrible thing for someone to do, the argument goes, and had Abraham lived in modern days, he’d be arrested for child abuse!
But there are several things to consider in this case. Abraham, by this time, is an old man, and Isaac is old enough that he could have struggled and gotten away if he wanted. The fact that Abraham was able to bind him and put him on the altar suggests that Isaac was cooperating with the whole thing. Second, Abraham himself didn’t expect Isaac to die, or at least, he didn’t expect him to stay dead. Abraham told his servants that he and his son would return. Abraham knew very well that Isaac was the son through whom God had promised to build a great nation. So the only options were that God would provide another sacrifice (as eventually happened) or that God would resurrect Isaac.
Exodus 13:1-2; 11-16: An average, rational person would have trouble seeing what this has to do with human sacrifice, so the atheistic argument must be spelled out: apparently, the priests are threatening to kill the kids unless they are redeemed with a burnt offering. This isn’t the case. The firstborn males are consecrated to the Lord, which means the firstborn males of the clean animals are destined to become burnt offerings (and the firstborn males of other animals and of humans must be redeemed with a burnt offering of the clean animals). Atheists unanimously ignore the context and symbolism of the consecration.
Leviticus 27:28-29: These two verses refer to different situations. In the first instance, a man has made a vow to give something over to God; perhaps a family member, or an animal, or a piece of land. This is saying that he can’t pay to get out of keeping the vow. Verse 29 refers to a person “devoted to destruction”; i.e. a person who has committed a capital offense under the Law, so must be killed. Neither one of these is a human sacrifice; in the first case, the person would face life-long Temple service, and in the second, it’s capital punishment.
Judges 11:29-40: No list of Bible atrocities would be complete without the case of Jephthah’s daughter. First, the vow was public—his daughter would have known about it. This makes it likely that she was the first one out of the house on purpose. Second, even if Jephthah had intended to make his daughter into a burnt offering, a Levite would be extremely unlikely to allow that. Third, the book of Judges is all about how bad Israel became when they forgot God and there was no king to enforce the Law. So this is an example of the Bible reporting something that it doesn’t necessarily condone. Most importantly, the fact that Jephthah’s daughter was much more concerned about her perpetual virginity than the end of her life strongly suggests that she was dedicated for lifelong Temple service, not burnt as an offering.
Joshua 7; 1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Kings 23:20-25: Joshua 7 is the case of Achan being killed for taking things that were supposed to be dedicated to the Lord and destroyed. The method of killing happened to include burning the corpses after stoning them. This is again an execution not human sacrifice, for a crime of treason, since Achan’s actions endangered the new nation. The prediction in 1 Kings 13 and its fulfillment in 2 Kings 23 involved people being burned on pagan altars to defile the altars and as a sign of judgment, not human sacrifice.
The passages in the Bible which skeptics accuse of advocating rape fall into several broad categories, so I will cover them according to those categories:
“Rape” which is actually marriage:
Judges 21:10-24: It should be noted that the book of Judges records a lot of atrocities that it doesn’t condone; the whole point of the book is that there was anarchy and that the nation of Israel got worse and worse when they forgot God and had no king to rule them. That being said, this incident doesn’t imply rape; it implies kidnapping and forced marriage. These women became the wives of their abductors. That doesn’t make the incident honorable, but the Bible doesn’t condone it in any case.
Numbers 31:7-18: The Midianites were previously involved in leading Israel into sin which caused God to judge the nation, so the death penalty for those involved was just. The virgin girls who were spared would have been mostly little girls who were too young to be married, and too young to be much good as slaves. So this is a case of the girls being mercifully absorbed into the nation of Israel.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14: This passage laid out the rules for marrying a captive woman from the nations that the Israelites conquered. This is not rape, but marriage. This was actually merciful; the fact that there are any laws to protect captive women shows how far ahead of its time the Mosaic Law was. The woman was not allowed to be sold as a slave if the man disliked her; he had to let her go free.
Exodus 21:7-11: This is one of the most-cited instances of misogyny in the Bible; apparently, the skeptic crows, the Bible regards women as property, so the father can sell his daughter as a slave if he wants to! But this is more like the following situation: A family is destitute. The father has the choice of letting his teenage daughter starve with the rest of the family, or he can ‘sell’ her to someone better off who can take care of her, and the money he gets can help the rest of the family to survive. This is really a form of giving in marriage, but such that the woman’s children do not automatically have inheritance rights (the husband can give her the status of a full wife, and her children full inheritance rights, at a later time if he wants). It isn’t what one would read in a modern romance novel, but in the ancient world (without any social welfare system), it would mean the difference between survival and starvation for the woman and her family.
Passages taken out of context to support rape:
Deuteronomy 22:28-29: To understand the reason behind this law, it is necessary to point out a few details. First, the Hebrew word here is simply the word “to have sexual relations with”; some English translations simply interpret this as “rape.” In the ancient world, women were so closely guarded by their families that it is possible that in this instance, it is not rape at all, and that the woman was willing. Furthermore, even in the case of rape, the woman might well demand that the man marry her because she would be unmarriageable. See 2 Samuel 13:1–22 for an instance where a rape victim demanded marriage.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Like the above, this law uses the word for “to have sexual relations with”; some modern translations assume the meaning “rape” but this is not in the original. This refers specifically to engaged women (in the ancient world engagement was as legally binding as marriage and required a divorce to cancel) who are inside a town. As closely-packed as ancient towns were, she would be helped if she screamed; since she did not scream, there is an assumption that it was not rape, but adultery.
Furthermore, why is the atheist concerned? Two atheistic evolutionists wrote a book with the horrifying claim that men rape for evolutionary reasons1—one of them squirmed in an interview to justify why rape should be considered wrong under his worldview.2
God condemns murder in so many places that to accuse Him of murder (that is, the intentional killing of persons which have committed no capital offense) is ludicrous. But if illogical arguments were eliminated from the atheists’ arsenal, the apologist would have considerably less to answer.
The “atrocity lists” invariably include the death penalty passages from the Mosaic Law. But these are made into capital offenses, so someone who is killed as a result of disobeying these laws is being executed, not murdered. Unbelievers might complain that capital punishment for these reasons is unjust, but the burden of proof is on them to prove that it is unjust. So the death penalty passages will not be dealt with in this article. Killing in the biblical wars is also not dealt with, because criticisms of war killing assume that the war is not just, which the critic must prove.
2 Kings 2:23-24: The mauling of the forty-two youths is a mainstay of the atrocities lists. Once again, the context will show that this is not an unreasonable act at all. First of all, the word that is translated “youths” more accurately means teenagers or young adults. Second, the reference to “bald head” probably refers to Elisha’s shaved head in mourning that his mentor Elijah was taken from him (male pattern baldness was not common in ancient times,3 so this explanation is the most likely). So a group of at least 42 young men is jeering at Elisha’s bereavement, and “go on up” is probably a threatening wish that the same thing that happened to Elijah would happen to Elisha. Elisha is therefore protecting himself by cursing them (and God obviously agrees because he sends the bears). 42 of the young men are mauled (the word can refer to an injury as minor as a scratch). That two bears were able to injure so many indicates that the youths were fighting the bears, and didn’t scatter.
Furthermore, in the ancient world, what were 42 young men doing idle? They should have been helping their families. They were dangerous juvenile delinquents. A modern day equivalent would be finding one-self in a shady, abandoned part of town, and a gang of young thugs starts jeering.
1 Samuel 6:19-20; 2 Samuel 6:3-7: This involves the deaths of some Israelites who looked in the Ark of the Covenant and the death of Uzzah when he touched the Ark. Numbers 4:1–20 has very specific instructions for moving the Ark, with the explicit warning that anyone who touches the Ark or looks in it will die. Multiple instructions had been disregarded in both passages before anyone died; the people moving the Ark were not even Levites—and only Kohathites were supposed to move the Ark. The Ark was moved on a cart instead of on poles carried by Kohathites. God actually showed incredible mercy in only killing those who actually touched and looked into the Ark. This is an example of God upholding His holiness; He had to draw the line somewhere.
Acts 5:1-11: The death of Ananias and Sapphira is often mis-credited to Peter in the atrocity lists. But Peter never lays a hand on them; he simply announces the death sentence, which God carries out. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not holding back some of their own property; Peter says very clearly that the property was theirs to do with as they wished. Immediately preceding this story, Barnabas was noted for selling his field and giving the whole proceeds to the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira sold their field to compete with Barnabas, and by keeping some of the money back for themselves, they were trying to take credit for more than they were actually doing, which involved lying to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit. Especially with the Church in its infancy, such a thing had to be dealt with severely so it would stop others from doing the same thing.
If the antitheists really want to show concern for murder, they could start with all those murdered by atheistic/evolutionary regimes: 77 million in Communist China, 62 million in the Soviet Gulag State, 21 million non-battle killings by the Nazis, 2 million murdered in the Khmer Rouge killing fields.4 See also:
- The blood-stained century of evolution
- Genocide, evolution and the Bible
- Review of The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens by Vox Day
- Review of What’s So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D Souza
The Bible is criticized for allowing slavery, and for not condemning it. At best, it’s seen to be a reflection of the morals of its time, at worst, actively evil. But it is a mistake to view the institution allowed in the Bible as equivalent to the slavery of Africans in American history. The slavery in the Bible is more like a form of indentured servitude. Such an arrangement would allow a poor man to survive. While not ideal, in an era before government welfare programs, slavery would be preferable to death, especially when some forms were more equivalent to modern-day employment than what we think of as slavery.
We also see the rank hypocrisy of atheistic attacks on the Bible. Slavery was an evil that occurred on all inhabited continents, and all races have practised it and been its victims (the word comes from a heavily enslaved “white” race, the Slavs). It was finally abolished only by evangelical Christians in the West using explicit biblical reasoning (see Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero). Yet who do the antitheists single out for the evil of slavery? The Christian West!
Atrocity lists in the Bible are not so much a product of bad hermeneutical skills as a complete lack of knowledge about the social context of the passage, and even basic reading skills. While this article only covered a sampling of the most common “biblical atrocities”, this serves to show that the arguments of those who accuse God of moral depravity based on episodes from Scripture unravel upon closer examination.
- Thornhill, R. and Palmer, C.T., A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2000. Return to text.
- Lofton, J., Rape and evolution (interview with Craig Palmer, co-author of Ref. 1), Creation 23(4):50–53, 2001. Return to text
- Kaiser, W.C., Davids, P.H. and Bruce, F.F., Hard Sayings of the Bible, p. 233, Intervarsity Press, Downer's Grove, IL, 1996. Return to text
- Rummel, R.J., Death by Government, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994. Return to text