Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.

For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.

The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).

While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.

When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.

For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.

Noah’s Nonexistent Nosy Neighbors

This March, the blockbuster film Noah will hit theaters. I’m going to be preaching on the story of Noah and the flood this Sunday.

I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.

I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!

Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.

Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.

And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.

The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.

Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday 😉

God’s Wrath (And Other Inconveniences)

I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.

Does God Have a Temper Problem? from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.

……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?

One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.

Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?

In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.

I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.


Some folks have ledgers,
and in their records
you will always be
in the red,

Even if you have
never met these folks,
and you do not know
who they are,

Nor do they know you
or your place of birth,
or your family,
or your dreams.

Some claim you owe them
to look as they look,
to want as they want,

Here is the fine print:
you only ever
pay the interest
until death.

Here is the loophole:
No one can collect
(though they may call you
and send bills.)

So, already free,
do not pay in hate;
but owe to no one
except love.

—Dave Barnhart, 2014

Romans 13:8

My Favorite Biblical Insults

The Bible is great literature, and some of the joy I get out of studying it is just appreciating a poetic turn of phrase or mapping the rhetoric of an argument. I read the Bible devotionally, too, but I believe appreciating it aesthetically helps me grow spiritually.

You don’t need to read ancient Greek or Hebrew to appreciate some of the insults. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of my favorites:

You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Samuel 20:30). This is what King Saul shouts at his son Jonathan when he realizes Jonathan is loyal to David. “Son of a…” is a construction we still use today, as in “Son of a motherless goat!” Eugene Peterson translates this as “Son of a slut,” although I think I would probably go for the more common “Son of a bitch!”

The second part of the insult is about Jonathan’s mother’s genitals (“nakedness”). Some translators try to censor the obscenity from this phrase by translating it as though Saul is simply asserting that Jonathan is disgracing his mother, shaming the woman who bore him. While you can translate it this way, it effectively leaves out the obscene nature of the statement. I don’t think “shame of your mother’s nakedness” is meant to be read any more literally than “son of a perverse and rebellious woman.” How could Jonathan shame his mother if it were already established that she is perverse and rebellious? I think the reference to Jonathan’s mother’s nakedness is more like the equivalent of our colorful “motherf****er.” It’s not a propositional truth-claim, that someone has a particular incestuous relationship; it’s just an insult, an expression of contempt, and it’s made more insulting by making it about your mama.

“My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kings 12:10). The Israelites of the Northern kingdoms want Rehoboam to cut their taxes. So he goes to his father’s advisors, old guys with gray hair, who tell him it’s a good idea. Notice that that these guys were Solomon’s cabinet. They are the guys who give wise king Solomon advice. But Rehoboam rejects their advice and turns to his buddies from college, who respond with stereotypical immaturity: “Tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.'”

This is another great example of how translators can take the scandal out of a passage with their translating choices. The NIV says, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.” I asked a class of college students what they thought this meant, and they said, “His father was skinny?”

Even “loins” is euphemistic. The phrase “little finger” is actually “little thing.” Rehoboam’s buddies want him to say to the Israelite delegation, “My penis is bigger than my father’s.” This is the kind of crude, childish comment you’d expect from boys who have no place in serious economic negotiations.

Sometimes a modern politician forgets his or her microphone is on and lets an obscenity slip. It makes headlines. This is that kind of scandal. By obscuring the obscenity, translating “loins” as “waist,” and leaving the “little finger” euphemism intact, the translators remove the offense. A casual reader of the Bible will sail right past without ever understanding what’s going on.

The fact is, we often suspect that politicians have childish motivations. Again, by censoring this one out of the BIble, we lose that point of connection with the ancient audience.

“Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?” (Isaiah 36:12) Less an insult than a threat, this verse paints a picture of the terror of siege warfare. Invading armies didn’t have to knock down a city wall. They just had to camp out and prevent supplies from coming into the city. Actually, eating dung and drinking urine is better than the worst terror of siege warfare: cannibalism. Isaiah 49:26 refers to people eating their own flesh, but the chapter-long curse in Deuteronomy 28:53-57 describes fathers eating their own children, and women eating their own placentas. Nasty stuff.

The speaker, the Rabshekah of Assyria, is trying to turn the inhabitants of the city against their leaders, so he speaks this threat in the hearing of the people to the delegation who has come out to negotiate with him. It’s a great speech, and you can hear echoes of it today in conflict between nations.

“You blind fools!” (Matthew 23:17) The Greek word for fool (moros) is where we get the word “moron.” The word “fool” for us isn’t particularly insulting, but in the ancient world it implied not just lack of intelligence, but lack of character and piety. “Fool” just doesn’t carry the same level of contempt for us that the word “moron” does.

The verb form of the word means “to become dull,” as when a blade loses its edge. It’s also the word Jesus uses to talk about salt losing its flavor. The salt becomes dull, or it is moron-ized. It loses its edge. When salt becomes dull, it’s worse than worthless. It’s not even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:35).

Interestingly, Jesus also says in the Sermon on the Mount that if you call someone a fool, you are liable to judgement (Matthew 5:22). But it’s okay when Jesus calls people fools, because he’s Jesus, right?

Seriously, I think it’s interesting that Matthew’s Jesus uses this level of polemic against the religious leaders of his day. Jesus calling someone a fool is a big deal, and we Christians tend to ignore it because we figure the Pharisees deserve it. Imagine how bent out of shape church-goers would be if they heard Jesus calling someone a dumbass. (See? In order to understand, we have to ratchet up the offensiveness). It’s one reason that I think it’s such a big deal for religious leaders today to “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven,” and to “tie up burdens for others” that they do not have to bear (these are part of the chapter 23 rant as well). The only people Jesus ever calls fools are religious leaders—not pagans, not prostitutes, not gamblers or drunks. If Jesus uses the word “fool,” these offenses must be serious kopria. Speaking of which…

“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.” (Luke 13:8) (Luke seems to like using the word kopria for shock value. He uses it twice.)

This is another indirect insult, and it requires some explanation. First. the barren tree was a metaphor the prophets often used about Israel’s failure to be faithful. So Jesus is telling a parable about faithless Israel, or faithless people in general. But rather than cut the tree down immediately, Jesus asserts that God wants to “put manure (kopria) on it” in the hopes that it will become productive.

People tend to take one of two interpretations for this parable: either Jesus is saying God is ridiculously patient, or that judgment is coming. Regardless, the gardener saying, “let me but some more kopria on it” is played up for its vulgarity. “What this unfruitful people really need,” the gardener Jesus says, “is more sh*t.”

This is why religious people wanted to crucify him.

Anyway, as I said, this is not an exhaustive list. Just some of my favorites. I think they are important for a couple of reasons. First, they reveal how our modern English translations censor the Bible. Second, they show that the authors of the Bible were real human beings who used rhetoric that is often familiar to us, thousands of years later.

Be sure to use “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman!” next time someone cuts you off in traffic.