Saturday, 21 November 2015

Trail Mix

But actually you can. No really. It even says so in there.

I often see things like this picture and usually the argument goes on to say that unless you're prepared to go along with all the Old Testament laws you should stop going on about any of it. So you should believe that haircuts (Lev 21:5) are sinful, stoning adulterers is a good thing (Lev 20:10) to do etc. Often this is in the context of taking people to task over their anti gay beliefs. Oddly it doesn't seem to come up in the anti-abortion context perhaps because arguing for 'thou shalt not kill' (Deut 5:17) is a bit awkward for people who are pro death penalty. Though probably not because, strangely, there are plenty of death penalties in there too.

Just so you know where I'm coming from: I'm Christian. I don't have a problem with gays. I do have a problem with death penalties.

So back to picking and choosing.

The early Christians had a problem when non-Jews wanted to join the faith. They weren't sure what, if any, of the Jewish laws should apply to non Jewish Christians. So they came up with a 'lite' version. There were just three things they thought were important. Here's what my KJV says in Acts 15:20

"...that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled and from blood."

The 'things strangled and from blood' count as one thing. There's an earlier passage (Lev 3:17) that 'ye eat neither fat nor blood' which is such a big deal it seems to have influenced Jewish slaughter practices to the present day. It seems to be generally ignored by Christians.

Fornication is, of course, screwing around. I'm not sure how specifically they meant this to be. Other translations render it 'sexual immorality' which, for the practising Jews who put this together, would include homosexual behaviour. But maybe not. It depends what's important here. For me the worst thing about sexual misbehaviour is the associated deceit. When a spouse is cheated on, when a lover is lied to and so on. If everyone is completely honest all the time I don't much care what they do, though I'll stay happily faithful to the wife of my youth.

Finally there's the idols thing. Happily the kinds of idols they had back then are a bit hard to find now. I gather it was common practice to offer food to idols and then pass it around or sell it. St Paul did a long piece about the problems of 'eating meat offered to idols'. It seems to have been a bit hard to know if food you got hold of had been offered to idols or not and that made things awkward. He came to the conclusion that, since Christians believed the idols had no power, it did not matter much. But a larger issue was that people might see you eating food offered to idols and misunderstand your position (1 Cor 8). Maybe we can apply this more broadly to idols of today, such as the worship of material things and so on. It's very easy to get a bit worried about this one if you start thinking about your flat screen TV as an idol etc.

Those are the three, and there's nothing about stoning people or haircuts. The vital point here, in terms of church history is that it made it possible for Christianity to move from a Jewish sect into a religion accessible to everyone. There is no need for Christians to conform to Jewish laws.

I have a sneaking admiration for some of those old laws though. Okay, not the stoning, but I think we miss some of their subtleties when we focus on the penalties. Take the one about stoning for adultery. It says that if it happened in a field then it was rape because if the woman called for help no one would have heard, so she gets no penalty. If it happened in the town then she was complicit because she could have called for help and didn't (Deut 22:23-27). Now, why would they add all that detail? Surely it is to help a judge deciding the case. I'm imagining the judge hearing the evidence and thinking 'okay, so it was in the town, but he was holding a knife to her throat so she couldn't call for help... it isn't the town/field that's the point, it's the calling for help.'

Another one is that it says if you have a kid who is giving you bother you take him along to the city elders and have him put to death (Deut 21:18-21). What? Yes it does say that. But it doesn't say you just kill him yourself. This leaves open the possibility of something more like a counselling session where the elders, who surely don't want to kill the kid, give everyone a stern talking to, including the father and sends them home. I hope that was usually the case anyway.

There are health regulations too. How to work out if a house is unhealthy. They seem to have had issues with mouldy walls (Lev 14). And how to diagnose infectious skin diseases (Lev 13), there's a lot on that. Since pretty much the only people who could read were priests they got to be the health inspectors and judges and that meant, naturally, everything got written down as religious obligations. This is where I expect the blood thing comes into it. There might at one time have been a good reason to avoid eating blood, just as there was to avoid eating pigs. Certainly before refrigeration there were lots of reasons to worry about eating shellfish. But there aren't now.

Then you get less subtle things like 'kill all the witches' (Exo 22:18). No decision criteria there. And the stoning stuff is all very bronze age. Because that is what it is: a bronze age legal system. Quite sophisticated, of course, but of its time. We can move on from it, actually if you're a Christian Bible literalist, you must move on from it because it says so in the Bible.

What I learn from all this is that God is bigger than the book and we must not let the book confine our ideas about God. Take slavery for instance. The Bible is pretty relaxed about it, including the New Testament. Paul actually sends a runaway slave home, though 'Not now as a servant, above a servant, a brother beloved' (Philemon 1:16). Now, there's slavery and slavery. Some kinds of slavery in Paul's time was closer to an employment relationship, other kinds were not. It's fairly obvious Paul's hopes were that Philemon (the guy who owned the slave) would do something much better than either. When later Christians examined those ideas more closely they came to the conclusion that slavery, as practised by Europeans and Arabs in the nineteenth century, was abhorrent and needed to be stopped. Many of them gave their lives to put a stop to it, though sadly in some parts of the world it continues.

So looking for God in the Bible and stopping there is not good enough. He's bigger than that. The Bible is only a starting point. If all you know about God is in the Bible you're missing out.