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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Amping Up the Leafy Greens

In doing research for our “Wacky Old Testament” series (which exists to demonstrate that it isn’t wacky at all), I’ve already come across several different kinds of difficulties people run into when reflecting on the Old Testament laws.

You get people who claim to be Christian (or at least religious) and “just don’t get it”. You get people whose particular brand of systematic theology has confused them about the applicability of the Levitical law to Christians today. Their attempts to graft watered-down versions of God’s commands to Israel into a modern setting are labor-intensive, occasionally funny and more than a little sad.

Then you get people like Valerie Tarico.

Things I’d Love to Ignore

Tarico writes for AlterNet News and Politics and occasionally gets reprinted in Salon, both of which seem to cater to a demographic that is young, leftist and irreligious. If her article entitled “11 Kinds of Bible Verses Christians Love to Ignore” is any indication, Tarico’s thing is making fun of a subject she has never even begun to research and doesn’t remotely comprehend. For bonus points (assuming her willful ignorance is not merely a pose), she appears equally deficient in her understanding of history.

But let’s not be too hard on Valerie Tarico. There was a time when the apostle Paul was an ignorant blasphemer too. And, hey, look how that turned out.

Still, writers like Tarico mystify me. I’d like to think there’s still such a thing as journalistic ethics, though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen much evidence thereof. Maybe I’m kidding myself hoping that purveyors of dismissive anti-religious propaganda might be interested in discovering that their own views about the object of their criticism are unbalanced and ill-informed. Even writers of opinion pieces have a moral obligation to be factual, don’t they?

Answers, Answers Everywhere

But think about it for a moment: we are living in a day when almost every question you can possibly imagine about scripture has been asked and answered over and over again on what may be tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of easily accessible Christian websites and blogs, not to mention in the vast wealth of Christian books that have been written on such subjects over the centuries.

A few hours of actual research and Tarico would have had next to nothing left to write about.

Now, not every answer a reporter might Google is correct, naturally, nor can we be sure a reporter with no background in Christianity would understand what they found even if they did their due diligence. Some Internet attempts to respond to Bible questions are wildly off base. Some are in the “close but no cigar” category. But many are spot on, and most would be easily understood by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Faith. Reading Tarico’s piece, you’d be convinced that no Christian in history has ever attempted to address her concerns from scripture, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Everywhere you look online, serious Christians have studied these issues and offered solutions.

I like to think that young Christians the age of my own kids have some sense of this astonishing availability of answers to difficult questions, and that an article like Tarico’s, rather than skewering their faith, sets them to Googling madly to find out just how easily her arguments can be undressed. For those who don’t read much, YouTube is full of apologetics videos, many of which effectively serve the same purpose. And back in the day, we had things like relatives, friends and older Christians who were able to offer real-world help. Some of these folks may still be around if you search really hard.

I hope young Christians take full advantage of the wealth of resources at their disposal.

Dissecting the Dietary Laws

Here’s just one of Tarico’s (least profane) paragraphs about the Old Testament dietary rules just to give you some idea how easy these sorts of arguments are to dissect:
3. Silly food rules. The early Hebrews probably didn’t have an obesity epidemic like the one that has spread around the globe today. Even so, one might think that if an unchanging and eternal God were going to give out food rules he might have considered the earnest Middle-American believers who would be coming along in 2014. A little divine focus on amping up leafy green vegetables and avoiding sweets might have gone a long way. Instead, the Bible strictly forbids eating rabbit, shellfish, pork, weasels, scavengers, reptiles, and owls. As is, Christians simply ignore the eating advisories in the Old Testament, even though they claim that edicts like the Ten Commandments and the anti-queer clobber verses still apply.”
Where to start? Hmm.

Old Testament Law and Christian Practice

Five minutes on Wikipedia would show Tarico that today not even orthodox Jews still practice all aspects of Old Testament law, and that there are many ideas extant within Christendom as to how much of it still applies to Christians. Wikipedia itself lists nine distinct views on the relationship of the Old Covenant to the believer. It may be argued that the existence of such disagreement gives Tarico legitimate cause to criticize Christians, but Tarico was apparently too busy mocking the original commands to notice.

Let’s just say it is well known in evangelical circles (and it is specifically evangelicals that Tarico singles out for criticism) that though God is unchanging and eternal in nature, his commands are given in specific historical contexts and are addressed to particular individuals and groups. Tarico is confusing character (which is immutable and everlasting) with tactics and strategy (which are dynamic and depend on the specific audience and situation with which God is dealing).

No Greater Burden Than These Requirements …

Again, most evangelicals understand that the dietary rules of Leviticus were directed exclusively to Jews (as even Rabbinic Judaism acknowledges), and even then only until the death of Jesus Christ (see Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:23-35, Ephesians 2:15). When the Christian gospel spread to the Gentiles, even the church in Jerusalem, though almost exclusively made up of faithful observers of the Jewish dietary laws, recognized that compelling non-Jewish believers to observe the Law of Moses was a non-starter.

Luke records the wording of the letter sent by Jews in Jerusalem to Gentiles in Antioch:
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Framed as “requirements” rather than “law”, this simple list directed from one group of Christians to another may leave Tarico with one or two things she might still wish to carp about, but none that she actually does.

Rabbits, Shellfish and Owls

For Christians, rabbits, shellfish and owls really don’t come into it, and meat offered to idols is awfully hard to come by in my neighbourhood. If Tarico had thought to research her piece at all, she may well have discovered this for herself. We are not conveniently “ignoring” the eating advisories of the Old Testament so much as they have nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Tarico has awfully funny ideas about the nature and purpose of Old Testament law. God did not give instruction to his people the way the Surgeon General issues warnings and advisories, or the way the U.S. Congress writes bills. Generally speaking, the Law of Moses does not address a subject unless it was or would soon become a problem for Israel.

There are instructions about slavery because all the nations of the day had slaves. There are instructions about idolatry because every time we turn around, Israel tended to engage in it. On the flipside, there are no laws banning abortion because no Hebrew woman of the day would have considered it. When Pharaoh commanded the killing of Hebrew boys, it was actively resisted. It was women without children who were considered unfortunate, not those who conceived them. Another example: the Law does not contain anti-pornography clauses. In the absence of not only the Internet but the printing press, such considerations were far outside its scope.

When it is understood that the Law is not a university ethics textbook or a comprehensive revelation of God’s views on every possible sin-variant that might develop over the next several thousand years, Tarico’s complaints about what was and wasn’t in it seem a bit silly.

Leafy Greens and Sweets

Thus, if there are no instructions in the Levitical law about leafy greens, it is very likely because devout Israelites tended to eat them whenever they were available (my educated guess is that in the wilderness, where the Law was given, they were not plentiful). In fact, the Israelites complained bitterly in the wilderness that they missed the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they used to eat in Egypt. And Daniel and his friends put their lives at risk to avoid meat offered to idols and happily lived on vegetables in Babylon.

As for her complaint that God should have advised Israel to avoid sweets, I suspect Tarico is just goofing around. But just in case, we should bear in mind that chocolate bars, ice cream, pies and pastries were probably not available in every corner store in Canaan a couple of thousand years before Christ.

Why would God legislate things everybody already agreed on?

The Much-Maligned Clobber Verses

Tarico’s final piece of spectacular ignorance is her complaint that “Christians simply ignore the eating advisories in the Old Testament, even though they claim that edicts like the Ten Commandments and the anti-queer clobber verses still apply”.

Let’s leave aside the issue of Christians claiming that that the Ten Commandments still apply. While they were not formally included in the Acts 15 directions to believing Gentiles from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, it has been demonstrated that with the notable exception of Sabbath-keeping, the moral content of the Decalogue is restated for Christians in Acts, the epistles and Revelation, absent the legal aspect that attached to Jewish practice.

As for the “anti-queer clobber verses” of the Old Testament, as she calls them, Tarico utterly undermines her own case by linking to an essay on the “New Testament clobber passages” at the Religious Tolerance site that demonstrates precisely why the “clobber verses” of the Old Testament still apply by restating and reinforcing them in the words of the apostles. Oops.

Evangelicals can hardly be said to be ignoring commands that were never directed to us in the first place, and there is nothing inconsistent about affirming the ongoing validity of instructions that were given both to Jews and to the church.

2 comments :

  1. Careful, dangerous (to your soul) territory "the Law does not contain anti-pornography clauses" unless you consider some of the NT instructions not to be law-like. There is actually the most potent and serious admonishment (law equivalent?) concerning that topic as specifically taught by Christ. This really addresses the problem we have with pornography nowadays in a very serious manner, see

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5%3A27-30&version=NIV

    I do not think he is solely referring to adultery here but also to porn, which often leads to adultery. To me it is apparent that our entire culture and Media environment nowadays is a high risk environment for all the executives, corporations, businesses and individuals who are perpetuating and propagating soft and hard pornography for revenue or personal gain and in the name of liberal modern progress. I think that Christ specifically issued this very serious warning so that we should have no illusions of how this is seen by him.

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  2. Most Jews and Christians take "the Law" to refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, particularly Leviticus, and stipulate that it was directed to the earthly nation of Israel.

    That said, the Lord's words in Matthew are very much on point with respect to pornography, Q. That might not be the way his original audience would have heard it, but it certainly applies.

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