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Arguing with Literalists

January 15, 2013

Two fun chats to have with biblical literalists, and the lessons they should learn from each.

What the the Ten Commandments?

Lesson: Read the Bible! It doesn’t always say what you think it says…

The ten commandments are found in Exodus. Every good literalist will know that. But what do they say? Exodus 34 (NIV) reads thus (apologies for the long quote):

10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

15 “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.

17 “Do not make any idols.

18 “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

19 “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. 20 Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.

“No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

21 “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

22 “Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.23 Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel. 24 I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.

25 “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.

26 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenantwith you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”? Since when is that one of the ten commandments we hear so much about? But these are the ten commandments – indeed, Exodus 34:28 is where we get the phrase “the ten commandments” from (“decalogue”, from the greek in the text). While Exodus 20 does contain a list of ten rules to be followed they’re not named as the ten commandments.

They may be separate lists of rules, so the Exodus 20 version is to be read in conjunction with Exodus 34, but then we have redundancy (Exodus 34:17 – “Do not make any idols”), surely not to be expected from a god. Alternatively it could be the case that the original version is wrong – Exodus 34 records the words written by God, while Exodus 20 is, as far as I recall, relaying what God said, presumably from the memory of Moses. Maybe Moses remembered wrong. Or just made it up.

Either way, the ten commandments are not what people think they are. Exodus 34:28 is pretty explicit: these are “the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments” (emphasis added).

The doctrine of election – are we all predestined to go to heaven?

Lesson: Individual verses should be read in context!

This is a fun discussion to have. See if you can persuade the literalist that your interpretation of Ephesians 1:4 is correct, then throw Ephesians 1:12 into the mix.

Predestination is the idea that we can do nothing to determine whether or not we go to heaven; God as already “elected” us for heaven or damned us to hell and there is nothing we can do about it. A favourite doctrine of Calvin for instance. This causes problems for some people, especially in these more liberal times when we really don’t want to say that people can’t go to heaven based on their good works and beliefs unless God chose them. So maybe a doctrine of universal election is called for? Everyone has been elected to go to heaven! One justification for this is taken to be Ephesians 1:4, which says:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Karl Barth uses this passage to say that humans are elected, not just a subset elect. He chose us. He chose us in him. “He” refers to God, “him” is a reference to Jesus – see the next verse. Jesus was elected by God after taking on the sins of mankind, not just a chosen few. This is an integral part of the whole crucifixion story. Therefore, by electing “in him”, God elects us all. Obviously Barth develops this over more than a few sentences, but the thrust of the argument is clear.

So, we conclude that universal salvation is possible. But… Ephesians 12 (in context) says:

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

Herein lies the problem. The “us” in Ephesians 1:4 is the same as “we” in Ephesians 1:12, and these are those “who were the first to put our hope in Christ”, that is, Christians (and possibly only early Christians at that).

So, now the literalist either has a contradiction between two verses from Ephesians, or they have to reconcile non-universal election, the vicarious substitution of the sins of mankind by Jesus and Ephesians 1:4. Fun.

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