Diminishing the Work of Messiah

06 November 2011

A friend of mine named Robert and I recently got together for lunch.  Robert had passed along a link to a CNN.com article entitled "Bible has some shocking 'family values'” and wanted some help answering the claims that were made in it.  He wanted to provide a good, solid, Biblical response to his brother-in-law who had sent it to him.

Once we had ordered lunch, we got down to business.

"The guy who wrote the article, Michael Coogan, makes three claims that we should discuss", I said.  "Let's start at the top."

 

G-d is not the author of Scripture

I read the first part of the article out loud.

When talking about so-called family values, pastors, popes, and politicians routinely quote the Bible as if it were an unassailable divine authority -- after all, they assume, God wrote the Bible, and therefore it is absolutely and literally true.

But that is a misconception.  As the Bible itself makes clear, its authors were human beings, many of whom are named: David, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul.

 

"First off, Coogan claims that G-d is not the author of Scripture", I said.  "If by 'author' he means 'the person who took a pen and wrote all the words of the Bible in a scroll' then he is correct.  Over three dozen Jewish men (Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, John, Peter, Paul, etc.) wrote the words that we call 'The Bible'."

Robert had a funny look on his face so I stopped and asked, "What?"

"Are you telling me that the entire Bible, front to back, was written by Jews?"

"Yes.  Why, is that surprising?"

"It is.  I guess I never really thought of the Bible as a Jewish book", he said.

"Well, technically, it's G-d's book.  G-d did, however, choose Jewish men as the means to deliver its message to humanity.  Israel is very special to G-d.  In the book of Romans, Paul actually mentions that there are many great benefits of being a Jew and the first thing on his list was that they were 'entrusted with the oracles of G-d.'

"In actual fact, there is only a single instance mentioned in Scripture where G-d, himself, literally 'wrote' the words found in the Bible:

When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.  (Exodus 31:18)

 

"I don't think that's what Coogan is talking about, though", I said.

"No, I think by 'author' he means 'the source' or 'the originator' of Scripture.  I think he is dead wrong and this part of his article I can answer", Robert said confidently.

He continued, "At Mt Sinai, with over a million witnesses present, G-d spoke the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel."

Then God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before Me..."  (Exodus 20:1-3)

 

Robert chuckled.  "If G-d had not spoken these words or if they were incorrectly recorded in Scripture then surely somebody would have pointed out the error to Moses!"

"You’re right", I said.  "There are over 50 passages in the Bible that begin with the phrase 'Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying...'.  These are simply transcriptions of the exact words that G-d spoke to Moses.

"Consider this analogy.  If an executive dictated a letter to his assistant (who recorded it verbatim), nobody would claim that those were the words of the assistant.  Everyone would recognize that the executive was the source of the message.  Coogan, however, is claiming it was the assistant who wrote it!"

Robert smiled.  "Good analogy.  For those types of passages, it entirely makes sense but most of the Bible isn’t simply a transcription, right?  The vast majority of Scripture was inspired and I had a verse in mind that supports that understanding."

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

 

"That is a great example," I said.  “Consider this verse, too.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  (John 1:1-2)

 

"In their original languages, the written words of Scripture that we have today are G-d's expression of Himself into this world.  G-d is so unique, so rare, and so absolutely other that He had to express Himself to us in our terms so that we could even begin to comprehend the tiniest bit of Who He Is and what He desires for us."

Robert nodded and agreed, "That's why Scripture is so important to believers."

We paused for a minute while the waiter refilled our glasses and then moved on to the next claim from the article.

 

G-d's Law is merely a reflection of shared cultural values

We read the next few paragraphs from the CNN.com article together.

These human writers wrote over the course of more than a thousand years, and their writings reflect their own views and the values they shared with their contemporaries.  So it's not surprising that inconsistencies are frequent in the Bible, both trivial and profound.

Opponents of same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, which says that when a man sleeps with a man as with a woman it is an abomination.  They're right: It does say that.  But it later calls for the death penalty for such activity, which only the most rabid opponents would insist on.  The Bible also calls eating pork and a woman wearing a man's clothes abominations, yet many would no longer enforce such prohibitions.  [Ed: after our article was written this last paragraph has since disappeared from the original CNN web page.]

 

We pulled up our Bible apps on our phones so we could see what Leviticus actually says.

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.  (Leviticus 18:22)

 

“Sure enough,” said Robert.  “That's what it says.”

I pointed out, “Here’s the important part, though.  Go to the very first verse of that chapter.  What does it say?”

Robert read it out:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying…  (Leviticus 18:1)

 

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “The article claims ‘These human writers wrote over the course of more than a thousand years, and their writings reflect their own views and the values they shared with their contemporaries.’  In Coogan's estimation G-d did not really say that.  The prohibition against homosexuality was just part of the values Moses ‘shared with his contemporaries’.  In making such a statement, Coogan is calling Moses a liar and uses the exact same tactic as the serpent in the Garden of Eden: ‘Has G-d really said...?’”.

Robert shook his head.  “So either the Bible is true and G-d said homosexuality is an abomination to Him or the Bible is false and Moses said homosexuality is an abomination because that was the standard in his culture.  I know what my choice is between those two options!”

Robert then got that same slightly confused look on his face.  “But what about the other points he makes?  You know… the part about eating pork and cross dressing being abominations to G-d?”

I smiled.  “Personally speaking, I agree with what the Bible says and think those are abominations in G-d's eyes.  That can get into a really long discussion, however, so we’ll have to save that for another time,” I said.  “Let’s move on to the next point so we can finish before lunch arrives.  I think this was the primary point of the CNN article anyway.”

 

Scripture promotes slavery

We went back to the article…

According to biblical law, a father could sell his daughter as a slave, and the last of the Ten Commandments lists as off-limits a neighbor's possessions -- his house, wife, slaves, and livestock.  But the majority of modern Jews and Christians no longer accept the biblical view of women as men's property and hence subordinate to them, as they have also abandoned the biblical practice of polygamy.

 

“This one’s tough because he’s right,” Robert said.  “If we have abandoned a few of G-d’s standards from the Bible because we live in a different culture then what’s to keep us from abandoning more of them… or all of them?  In his letter to Titus, Paul tells people who are slaves to remain as slaves and be subject to their masters in everything.  How can I respond to my brother-in-law about this?”

“It’s not as tough as you would think,” I replied.  “First off, in most places where the Bible mentions slavery it is not describing the types of horrid conditions that most Americans think about that occurred in the 1800’s.  If I were to have sold myself in Bible times as an indentured servant/slave then my master would be responsible for feeding, clothing, and sheltering me.  If I were destitute and had no food or shelter then servitude would be an improvement to my situation, right?  There is also a fixed period of time for my servitude and if I earn enough from my service then I could actually shorten that period.  There were also stiff penalties for a master mistreating his slaves so Biblical slavery was a much better situation than what we normally think of as slavery.

“Biblical slavery was not too much different from getting a car loan today.  I agree to work and earn enough money to pay back the amount I borrowed from the bank.  The primary differences are that the bank doesn’t have to feed, clothe, or shelter me nor are they responsible for employing me to enable me to pay back the loan.

I grinned.  “Okay…  I’m exaggerating a lot there but you get my point.”

“Secondly, the Bible never actually commands people to be involved in slavery.  It doesn’t tell the father that he has to sell his daughter as a slave.  The Bible simply sees this situation and says ‘look, if a family is so poor that a father feels he has to put his daughter in a situation where she would be fed, clothed, and sheltered then there are certain protections that must be in place to safeguard the girl.  It’s not as if people were having babies and selling them on the slave market as their family business.  This horrible situation was much like what happens today when parents are unable to care adequately for their child and they put her up for adoption.

“Rather than promoting slavery, the commandments are a reflection of G-d’s mercy and grace towards humanity in the midst of terrible circumstances.  The laws and the cultural standards of America prohibit slavery so the commandments given in Scripture simply don’t need to be brought to bear on our lives.  If everybody stopped driving and started walking then the laws that govern the operations of motor vehicles simply wouldn’t be relevant to us.  The law doesn't require you to drive a car, right?”

Robert shook his head.  “I think I see your point but how can we still uphold the prohibition against homosexuality when we don’t maintain the Biblical laws regarding slavery?  Doesn’t abandoning one mean that we have to abandon the other?”

“Let me put it this way,” I said.  “I have a rule in my house for visiting children that says ‘do not go into the study.’  The room is not child safe and has some very breakable things in it so children are not allowed.  I also have a rule that says ‘if you come in my house you should take off your shoes.’  There is a difference between the way these rules are structured.

“One rule says do not do ‘x’.  Period.

“The other rule says if you ‘a’ then you must also do ‘b’ as well.

“The commandment against homosexuality is the first type of rule.  The commandment regarding slavery is the second kind of rule.  Since we don’t do ‘a’ then ‘b’ is not required but that doesn’t change the prohibition against ‘x’.  Does that make sense?”

This time Robert nodded his head.  “I get it.  The rules for slavery only apply when slavery exists.  If we aren’t involved in slavery then the rules for it do not apply.”

“You’ve got it", I said with a smile.  "Here is the biggest issue I have with all of this.  If anyone says the commandments in the Bible are simply the common moral standards during Bible times and they are not G-d’s standards then they diminish Messiah and His work.

 

Diminishing the Messiah and His work

“If I were to take a Bible and literally cut out the passages that are ‘just commonly held standards’ (as the CNN article claims) then I would be physically diminishing the contents of that Bible, right?”

Robert nodded.

“In a similar way the author of that article diminishes the Word of G-d by saying, ‘these aren’t really G-d’s standards’.  If he diminishes the Word of G-d (that same Word that became flesh and dwelled among us as John chapter 1 tells us) then he is also diminishing Messiah.  Such thinking also diminishes the work of Messiah.

“If these are not G-d’s standards by which He will judge all humanity then humanity hasn’t sinned and doesn’t need a redeemer: we don’t need the Messiah.  Even if somebody says only some of them are G-d’s standards and not all of them then Messiah’s work is diminished.  I don’t believe that Messiah came and died for us because of a few trivial sins.  Paul actually says that G-d’s commandments were given so that sin would become utterly sinful.  This magnifies the work of Messiah rather than diminishing it.

“Let me give you an example.  If I pay your debt by buying your lunch then I have blessed you in some small measure.  If I pay off your car loan, however, then the measure of what I have done is far greater and if I pay off your mortgage then it is greater still.”

Robert grinned and I said with a laugh, “Don’t get any ideas, buddy.  You’re still buying lunch.”

“Speaking of lunch,” Robert said as the waiter arrived at our table.  “Here’s one last quote I wanted to mention from the CNN article.

… it is time to recognize that the values of the biblical writers are no longer necessarily our own.

 

I shook my head sadly.  “It appears that many people in the world are taking that position more and more often but I know those who believe in G-d and cling to Him will choose the values and the standards that He has expressed in His Word.”

Robert said, “Amen!  Let’s give thanks and eat.  Father in heaven, we thank You for Your Word and the truths it contains and for Your Son, the Messiah who has redeemed us…”

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