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Absurdities in Scripture

From a talk given by Charles Anderson to the North Yorkshire Humanists in September 2009

I've drawn up a list of my favourite absurdities in the Bible. There are plenty of absurd things in that book: the miracles, for instance, or talking snakes. There are also plenty of contradictions. I'm confining myself to logical absurdities rather than scientific or literary.

Let's start at the beginning. An omnipotent being, who is also omniscient, decides to create a Universe. Despite knowing in advance how it will turn out, he creates it flawed. For a start, he allows Satan free access to the garden of Eden and to Adam and Eve. After the inevitable happens (doubly inevitable because, like everything else in history, it must have been pre-ordained), God blames Adam and Eve for disobeying him. He could have prevented them by warning them not to trust talking snakes, or by fencing off the tree of knowledge, but instead he dumps a whole load of guilt and blame onto them, and to all their descendants!

God orders Adam and Eve out of the garden, and stations sword-wielding angels to stop them getting back. Where were they when the snake was around?

Adam and Eve have children, and start the human race. There's a fairly obvious problem here,which seems to get ignored by the Bible's authors. Adam and Eve's children had to have bred with either their siblings or their parents. Maybe God created other humans, though there's no mention of them. Also, they presumably wouldn't have been tainted by original sin.

We get another example of forced in-breeding after the flood, when the population of humanity was reduced to just 8. Noah's grand-children would have had to marry their cousins.

I skip now to Exodus. God rescues the Jews from Egypt. Being omnipotent he could just have magically transported them to the promised land. But that lacked drama. Instead he persecutes the Egyptians with a series of plagues. On more than one occasion Pharaoh realises the error of his ways (Ex. 9:12, 10:16), but God changes Pharaoh's mind so that the torment can continue.

The Jews finally escape, amid much slaughter of Egyptians, all unnecessary (Ex. 14:4), and begin a 40 year wandering in the desert. Despite all the wonders they have seen, the Israelites revert to worshipping false idols at the drop of a hat. Even God appearing to them on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:17) isn't enough to stop them creating the golden calf in chapter 32.

The Israelites continue to be a fickle lot. Consider this from Numbers 17:31+, when God disposes of a bunch of malcontents. 'Next day'! How stupid were these people? I'm an atheist, but after a display like that, I'd be the last person to stick my neck out and criticise Moses.

For the rest of the old testament, several centuries or more, God intervenes at various times in the affairs of the Israelites, usually via a prophet. This is an interesting arrangement: why are God's revelations given to prophets instead of to everyone? Why entrust them to one person, and then rely on them to pass your teachings on to everyone else? A highly profitable arrangement for the prophets though.

His laws are very specific, from keeping the sabbath holy down to what to wear and how to treat your slaves. But they only apply to the Jews. I don't believe there's any point where God tells to get the Israelites to spread his word to the rest of humanity. If he tried it himself, he was spectacularly unsuccessful.

So God, creator of this vast cosmos and the human race, is concerned only with one tiny portion of both: the Israelites and a patch of land on the western edge of the mediterranean.

Eventually, 2000 years ago, God finally decides to take an interest in the rest of Humanity. Perhaps to make up for thousands of years of negligence, he decides to come down in person to spread his message. Where does he decide to go to? Rome would have been a good choice, or the capitals of one of the other great civilisations of the time. Or all of them at once; he is omnipresent, after all. But no. He picks a backwater of the Roman Empire, and the same place he's always been obsessed with.

God becomes Jesus. For some reason Jesus needs to be born. He also needs to be in his thirties before he starts his ministry. What did he do for thirty years, apart from maybe studying carpentry? Why couldn't he just arrive already 30?

A quick aside here. Matthew and Luke both give geneologies to show that Jesus is descended from David via Joseph. The geneologies are completely different, not even agreeing vaguely on the number of generations, but are in any case pointless, as the same two gospels make it clear that Jesus wasn't related to Joseph.

These two gospels are also the two that tell about Jesus's birth. Two completely different stories, buit I'll confine myself to Matthew, which has the bit about Herod trying to kill the baby Jesus. When Herod orders the execution of all children under the age of two, God sends an angel of the lord to Joseph in a dream (one of several such dreams) warning him to flee to Egypt. As it's Jesus's arrival that prompted the slaughter, and as it was the star that brought the magi to Herod, wouldn't God feel some slight sense of responsibility for the deaths of all those children? Could he not have sent the angel of the lord to Herod instead, and ordered the slaughter to be cancelled?

On the life and actions of Jesus I'll mention just one absurdity, the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:37). But then, on the very next page (Mark 8:1), we have the less well known feeding of the 4000. Just how forgetful were these disciples? And why did Jesus need bread and fishes to get going, rather than magicking a three course meal for several thousand people out of thin air?

Alright, just one more absurdity: the lesson of the fig tree. There are two accounts of this, Matthew 21:18-19; 20-22 and Mark 11:12-14; 20-25, which slightly contradict each other, but what the heck? Mark's account is more interesting. Jesus, who went 40 days in the wilderness without food, is feeling hungry and fancies a fig. Even though it's not fig season, he blames the tree and withers it. Why didn't he use his magic powers to conjure up some figs? Why didn't he use them to realise that the fig tree was barren before he walked up to it? (While trying to find the location of this story I chanced upon a Christian web site that was trying to justify this act of pettiness. It's explanation for why Jesus didn't know in advance what he'd find at the tree goes like this:

"One must conclude that this circumstance reveals that though he was deity, Jesus did not exercise the full range of his divine powers constantly; he did not know the details regarding this tree until he was in close proximity."

At the end of his ministry Jesus is executed, by which humanity is finally absolved of its sins, as handed down fron Adam and Eve. Why? Couldn't God have absolved us by diktat? What's omnipotence for?

After this it takes nearly 300 years for Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and 2000 afterwards still only a third of people are Christians, split into dozens of rival churches. Not very impressive for a deity.

Finally, the biggest absurdities of all, to my mind. God, creator of the vast cosmos, is actually bothered about whether I love him or not. He loves me (well, why not?, but if I donÂ’'t love him back, he will punish me for all eternity. But verily, is it not written, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord"?

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