Richard Dawkins

Sticks and Stones (Part 2)

In a recent post (Sticks and Stones) I asked what would you say to someone who asked about the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath.  In case you’re not familiar with the story in Numbers 15:32-36, when the Israelites asked what should happen to the Sabbath stick-gathering man, God told them to stone him as a community.

Ouch!

What kind of God commands death for such a minor offense?  New Atheist Richard Dawkins likes to focus on this story in his book The God Delusion (p. 281) so, while those of us who are Christians might want to ignore this story, the atheists aren’t.

There were some great comments to this post.  Here is a summary of the comments (in italics), with my responses (not in italics):

Cindy asks if we can compare Num. 15 to Mark 2 and Luke 6, where Jesus’ disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath, and while the Pharisees seem to want to punish (stone?) them, Jesus thinks its OK.  A great connection.  Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude toward the Sabbath makes Num. 15 so troubling.  I think part of the solution to this conundrum is context.  In Jesus context legalism was a huge problem.  In Num 15, disobedience and rebellion were the problem.  There were rebellions on either side of this story, in Num 14 (refusal to enter the land) and in Num 16 (the rebellion of Korah).

Elizabeth points out how difficult it would be to participate as part of the “firing squad”.  Yes.  I don’t even like to think about what it would be like.  When I spoke on this at church 2 weeks ago, a woman came up and said almost exactly the same thing as Elizabeth.  I hadn’t thought of that before.  It would be brutal, but memorable.

Colin is honest about his desire to cast stones (yet he resists temptation).  It is good to be honest.  And to be totally honest, we don’t always resist these types of temptations.  Jesus said when we call our brother a fool it’s like killing him (Matt. 5:21-22).  And the troubling part here is God is mandating the killing.

Dave (not me) thinks God must place a high value on Sabbath rest and points out what a blessing rest is in general.  Dave makes many good points here, particularly the one about Sabbath breaking being a capital offense (Exo. 31:15; 35:2-3).  This guy would have known about the penalty and he was blatantly ignoring it.

In the two versions of this command in the 10 Commandments (or as I like to call them The 14 Commandments), both go into more far depth about the Sabbath than any other command, which should tell us something about its importance.  The Exodus version (Exo. 20:8-11) explains that the Sabbath is important because it reminds the people of God creating the world in 7 days (I don’t think this was literally 24 hours).  The Deuteronomy version (Deut. 5:12-15) explains that the Sabbath is important because it reminds the people of God’s deliverance from enslavement and oppression in Egypt.

So, ignoring the Sabbath is like forgetting about God’s two most dramatic acts in the Old Testament, Creation and Exodus.  I’m still troubled by this story, but it helps to remember what the Sabbath was supposed to remind people of.  God creates.  God delivers.  God wants us to rest.  I need rest.

So, would these “answers” satisfy you?  I’d love to hear more comments about the stick-gathering man and why God wanted him dead.

Image of the Stoning of Stephen from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/annibale-carracci/the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1604.

Don’t ignore the problem

Richard Dawkins highlights the problematic texts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Canaanite genocide in Joshua; the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6).  Atheists like Dawkins, after they bring up one of these problematic passages, like to say, “I bet you didn’t hear about that in Sunday school?”  And they are usually right.   Because Christians focus on the nice parts (e.g., Psalm 23; Jeremiah 29:11–“I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not harm”).

While I understand the desire to avoid the nasty bits of the OT (they are confusing and take work to understand), those of us who teach the Bible are not serving people when we skip over the parts we don’t like.  It’s a bit trite, but it’s hard not to think of that proverbial ostrich.

If the problematic bits of the OT get ignored in church, when will people encounter them?  At least 3 places.

1) When they are reading through their Bibles on their own.  What are they going to do when they get to the Levites concubine (Judg. 19)?  Since they’ve never heard a sermon on it, or never discussed it in Sunday school or in a small group, they will be confused without anyone to help them make sense of texts like that.

2) When talking to an atheist, who, like Dawkins, knows more about the problematic bits (Psalm 137:9- divinely authorized infant head-bashing?) than they do.  They will be surprised that there are passages like that in their Bible, and they will be embarrassed that the atheists know more about the Bible than they do.

3) When they go off to college and their Intro to the Bible or Intro to Religion prof, who is a big fan of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, brings up the story of the angel of YHWH killing 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35).  Or perhaps, a bit more familiar, the story of the flood, where God drowns all humans except Noah’s family.  (At what age is it appropriate to first expose people to the horrors of the flood narrative?  College?  Mid-20’s?)

As I’ve been talking to people about God Behaving Badly, people tell me story after story of being shocked by what they find in their Bibles and being angry that their church never taught on problematic texts.  The word that gets used frequently is “betrayed”.

If you teach the Bible, don’t ignore problematic texts.  They teach profound lessons about God and his character.  And people need to know how to deal with them.  Books like God Behaving Badly, or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? can help us understand texts like these.

In what contexts have you talked to people about problematic texts?  What texts do people ask you about?