"The Stoning of Soraya M," and the barbaric god of the Bible

I watched The Stoning of Soraya M. recently, which is a chilling movie based on a true story about a woman in Iran who, being subject to Sharia Law, is stoned to death following accusations of infidelity. It exposes the inhumanity of Sharia Law and its utter subjugation of women. But it's also, in another sense, a look back in time – to the Old Testament of the Bible.

As can be found in books like Exodus and Leviticus, God's execution method of choice in the Old Testament is stoning. What people might not realize is that this was by no means a mercy killing. Stoning is barbaric, and it can take more than an hour for the victim to die from massive hemorrhaging.  When you consider that this brutal form of execution was thrust upon people at God's behest for the pettiest of things, like a woman lacking a hymen on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20,21), it becomes very inconsistent with the modern Christian idea of a loving god. It's not as though the Israelites didn't have swords for a quick and relatively merciful beheading – the Old Testament is full of stories of Israelites taking the sword to rival tribes – often slaughtering women, children, even infants (Samuel 15:3). God is not just commanding his people to execute others for petty crimes – he's commanding them to torture the poor souls.

When believers attempt to reconcile this god with their current hippie-esque version of a god who basks in his unfailing love for our poor lost souls, they are forced to conjure up all kinds of obscure rationalizations for God's behavior in the Old Testament. The most common such rationalization is "progressive revelation," the notion that God revealed his goodness gradually to people because they were so corrupt and primitive. But that argument fails on countless levels. Our biology has not changed much in the last 150,000 years, and there's no biological reason why someone living in tribal Israel could not be just as gentle and merciful as someone today. Further, there were many cultures in which such barbarism was rare or non-existent – and remember, the Israelites were supposed to be God's chosen people. You'd think they would have been a little more sophisticated than slavery, misogyny, torture, genocide, and ritual sacrifices. Moreover, this cannot be rationalized as God merely "tolerating" the inhumanity of his chosen people; the brutality is specifically decreed by God. Believers cannot have it both ways, proclaiming God as an absolute source of moral knowledge while attempting to circumstantially justify atrocious acts of barbarism done at his command.

While Christians (and Jews, for that matter) jump through hoops to conjure up rationalizations for God's behavior, a secular critique of the Bible is infinitely more parsimonious: the god of tribal Israel does not exist. Like all other deities, he was fabricated as primitive, mostly illiterate people attempted to make sense of the world. The people of Israel were not "chosen" by any god, but like many cultures, certainly liked to perceive themselves that way. A look at cultures the world over, particularly Bronze Age Middle East, reveals that the mythologies and behaviors of the people of Israel were not particularly unique. We see great evidence in the Old Testament of brute tribalism, and beliefs that conform to those types of cultures. While all religions and cultures have their quirks, the most informative view of the Old Testament reveals that it is nothing special, nothing that forces us to conclude that the Bible had to have been authored through divine inspiration.

It is certainly no coincidence that most modern believers don't put verses from Exodus on their bumper stickers, or that preachers don't spend much time talking about God's commandments to, say, offer human beings as ritual sacrifices (1 Kings 13:1-2, 2 Kings 23:20-25, Deuteronomy 13:13-19, Judges 11:29-40). Most Christians lack the in-depth knowledge of scripture to even be aware that such scriptures exist, and preachers certainly aren't going to allow the inevitable cognitive dissonance such scriptures foster to creep into their sermons. But such barbarism, while being logically incoherent theologically, is precisely what we would expect to observe from Bronze Age tribal cultures. It is for that reason, among many others, that we may dismiss claims to the divine inspiration of scripture.


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