Matt Bell will need no introduction to readers who are also members of the Errancy internet list. Bell joined this list in August 1997, introduced himself as a believer in biblical inerrancy, and assured us that he would be defending that position. He did defend it for over two years and, in my opinion, with which I am sure others will agree, took some stunning defeats. Then at the end of 1999, he announced that he could no longer accept the premise of biblical inerrancy and would modify his own web site to reflect this change in his position.
Surprisingly, the change seemed also to bring a change in attitude toward biblical skeptics. Rather than thanking us for having helped him see that he had espoused an erroneous cause, he seemed instead to resent that he had been driven to admit that he was wrong. He had never been one to mince words, a debating style that I personally don't object to, but after maintaining a long silence on his end, he returned to begin posting messages filled with more sarcasm and insults than usual. When asked why, he informed us that his recognition that the Bible is errant had had "no adverse effects on [his] belief in God or reliance upon the Bible for guidance and direction in [his] life." The preceding article was sent to me in January, but because of Roger Hutchinson's attempts to comment on practically every article published in TSR in 1999, I have had to hold Mr. Bell's article until now. I appreciate that Bell's bitterness was somewhat subdued in his article, and I will try to return the gesture by keeping personal remarks out of my rebuttal. I realize from my own experience in having to reject biblical inerrancy that this is a difficult period in Mr. Bell's life. I wish him well and hope that he will continue to progress in his journey toward a more enlightened view of the Bible.
I'm going to reply first to a point that Bell made at the end of his article, because I think it will help us put into proper perspective the question of whether human sacrifices were a cultural practice in biblical times that didn't particularly offend the general population. Bell admitted that Jephthah was named as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11 but insisted that this did not mean that the Bible approved of his actions in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to Yahweh. He argued that this conclusion is necessary "unless one is going to consistently apply that criterion to the acts of the others [heroes of faith], such as Noah's drunkenness, Abraham's and Isaac's half-lies, Moses' killing of the Egyptian, the harlotry of Rahab, Samson's frailty with women, and David's adultery with Bathsheba and killing of Uriah." I'm sure that Bell thought he had a good point here, but he failed to recognize that in listing the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, the writer praised Abraham specifically for his act of offering to sacrifice Isaac.
Hebrews 11:17, By faith Abraham when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son....
The writer, however, did not single out Abraham and Isaac to praise them for the "half-lies" they told, and he did not specify Noah's drunkenness as the reason why Noah was being listed among the heroes of faith. The writer stated that Noah had earned a place in the list of heroes because he had built an ark "by faith" through which he had saved his household and "condemned the world" (v:7). Had the writer said, "By faith Noah planted a vineyard after the flood and drank himself into a drunken stupor," could we not rightfully conclude that the writer had approved of Noah's drunkenness? Likewise, the writer did not praise Moses for killing the Egyptian. He listed other events in the life of Moses as the reasons for designating him a hero of faith.
Hebrews 11:24-28, By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.
By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them.
David and Jephthah were grouped with Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Samuel as men "who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, escaped the edge of the sword," etc. Bell may argue that the list of deeds praised in this grouping of heroes didn't include offering human sacrifices, and so there is no reason to assume that Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter was approved. Such reasoning, however, would not take into consideration that the offering of human sacrifice had already received approval earlier in the chapter when Abraham was praised for his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, so Bell has no basis for comparing Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter with David's adultery or Rahab's harlotry, because he is equating that which was not approved by the writer with that which was approved. Rahab received approval in verse 11 for having "received the spies with peace," but if this verse had said, "By faith Rahab did not perish because she entertained the spies with her skills in harlotry," we would understand that for some reason, the writer approved of her sexual conduct; hence, we would have a basis for concluding that even though he later referred to David, without mentioning his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, the writer for some reason didn't consider adultery a character flaw.
I see no need, then, to modify my position in this matter. The fact that the Hebrew writer praised Abraham for his "faith" in undertaking to sacrifice Isaac indicates approval of his action, so why should I suppose that he would have disapproved of Jephthah's "faith" that had led him to keep a foolish vow that required him to sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering?
Bell's "non sequitur": Bell said I had committed a "non sequitur" in saying that such a story as Abraham's attempt to offer his son as a burnt offering "could have been told only in a culture in which human sacrifice was thought to be an appropriate homage to one's god." I have emphasize the word told in my statement to show that Bell subtly changed what I said. He argued that my statement was a non sequitur, "because it does not necessarily follow that the events could have happened only in a culture where human sacrifice was acceptable and not repugnant." However, I didn't say that the story had happened; I said that the story was told. I personally consider it doubtful that most of the deeds biblically attributed to heroes like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. ever really happened. It is far more likely that they are simply legends that were transmitted by word of mouth until finally written down. Bell, although not a biblical inerrantist any longer, has the responsibility to prove that all of the patriarchal adventures in the Bible actually happened if he intends to pursue this line of argumentation. I'm simply saying that such tales are typical of the national legends of heroes who invariably reflected the qualities that were admired in the cultures where they developed.
Since Mr. Bell is a citizen of the United Kingdom, I'll use an example that should be familiar to him. The legends of King Arthur and the knights of the round table are tales of honor, bravery, chivalry, honesty, loyalty, truth, and justice--all human qualities that would have been admired at the time. Even the adulterous relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere was treated as a sort of honorable human frailty. A debate still rages about whether King Arthur and his knights were based on actual historical characters. Some think they were, but if this is true, we could hardly expect that the real characters were as fine and noble as their counterparts were portrayed in the legends. People generally do not want their heroes to be thieves and rogues or cowards and liars.
The desire for virtue in legendary heroes is evident in the romanticizing of the lives of American frontiersmen like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp. Historians who have dug out the facts about such heroes have shown them to be far from the men of honor romanticized in novels and movies, but the public doesn't want to see flaws in their heroes, so the heroes continue to be portrayed romantically. Who can imagine men like these being depicted as murderers, thieves, liars, and drunkards in the tales that were told of their exploits?
I find it hard to believe that human nature was any different in biblical times. Tales of tribal massacres, slavery, pillage, and such like found their way into the Bible, because they were commonplace at the time. Other records contemporary to biblical times, such as the Moabite Stone and Assyrian temple inscriptions at Nimrud, show that the same atrocities were committed in other nations by leaders who thought they were doing what their gods wanted. These inscriptions reflected what the people of that era considered acceptable moral conduct; otherwise, these tales would not have been memorialized in national monuments.
We can hardly imagine that life was any different just a few miles away in what was then Canaan, but Bell thinks that it is a non sequitur to suggest that the social acceptance of human sacrifice was reflected in the story of an ethnic hero who was willing to sacrifice his son to the god he worshiped. If human sacrifice wasn't socially acceptable at the time, why would so many generations have orally transmitted a tale of such repugnance until "Moses" finally put it in writing centuries later? To think that orally transmitting for generations a tale of a hero with such a repugnant character flaw could have happened would be somewhat parallel to believing that legends that made King Arthur a coward and a liar could have happened as easily as the ones that treated him romantically. Bell, of course, will probably argue that this story about Abraham isn't a matter of legend but of fact, a real story that actually happened, and so whether we can understand why a god would have subjected Abraham to a "test" like this is irrelevant, because it actually happened that way, and the Bible was simply recording history. I will address this in replying to Bell's next point.
The two alternatives: Bell argued that this tale of Yahweh's "testing" of Abraham offered two possibilities: (1) The acceptable and nonrepugnant sacrifice of Isaac, or (2) the unacceptable and repugnant sacrifice of Isaac. Bell argued that commanding Abraham to do something that was socially unacceptable and morally repugnant would have been a greater "test" of Abraham's faith than commanding him to do something that was socially acceptable and nonrepugnant; hence, it doesn't follow that a tale like this could have been told only in a culture that considered human sacrifices morally acceptable.
Bell apparently can't see that he is begging questions that he needs to prove. How does he know that the events in this story happened and that the command to sacrifice Isaac was given so that Yahweh could "test" Abraham's faith? Well, he knows for no other reason than the one discussed in the front-page article of this issue. The Bible tells him so. Hence, the dilemma that Bell thinks he has caught me on is based entirely on an assumption of biblical inerrancy. In order to make the dilemma stick, Bell will have to prove that Abraham was an actual historical person and that during the time of Abraham the god Yahweh consorted routinely with him and selected him as a sort of pet human, whom he would favor over all other people living at the time. The likelihood that this was all actual history is so remote that only the very credulous could believe that it was. When Bell reads stories of gods frolicking and consorting with humans in Greek and Roman mythology, he has no difficulty understanding that these are just myths, but somehow he and people with his mindset think that like tales told in the Bible are real history. It is far, far more likely that biblical tales like these are myths and legends, so unless Bell can show that this story of Abraham and Isaac is actual history, he will have to give a reasonable explanation for why the ancient Hebrews passed down for generations a story that attributed what they considered "repugnant" conduct to one of their heroes. That's a scenario too unlikely to account for this tale, but the story can be easily explained as a legend that developed in a time when human sacrifices were socially acceptable. I really see no "non sequitur" to explain.
The sacrifice of Jesus: In my first reading of Bell's article, which I received as e-mail, I did a double take when I came to his concluding paragraphs. He said that it was "fallacious argumentation" to cite Jesus as an example of "a legacy of human sacrifice, since the Bible implicitly sets out Jesus' voluntary sacrifice for the salvation of man as unique." I recalled an internet debate with Bell, when he defended that often repeated nonsense that Jesus was "fully God and fully man." I won't go into the issues involved in that debate, but if Bell believes that Jesus was "fully man" in addition to being "fully God," then Bell has to believe that Jesus was human. If he believes that Jesus was human and also believes that Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, then he can't very well deny that Jesus was a human sacrifice.
The only question to be resolved, then, is whether the human sacrifice of Jesus was in any way reflective of the past when people believed that the gods could be appeased by incinerating animals and humans in homage to their gods. If Bell believes that the "uniqueness" of the sacrifice of Jesus completely disassociated it from a superstitious past when people thought that the odors of burning sacrifices were "sweet savors" that the gods took delight in (Gen. 8:21), then I suggest that Bell could profit from some studies in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The theme of this book is that the sacrifices of bulls and goats could not remove sins permanently, and so there was a need for a more perfect sacrifice.
Hebrews 9:11-14, When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
The writer went on to argue that the tabernacle and its vessels, which were only "types" of the "heavenly things," had to be purified with the blood of animals, and so it was necessary for the real things in heaven to be cleansed with "better sacrifices than these."
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself (vs:23-26).
All through this book, the writer developed the theme that old covenant sacrifices were merely shadows or types of the more perfect sacrifice of Christ, so Bell can't separate the bloody sacrifice of Jesus from the bloody sacrifices of Old Testament times. The latter is a culmination of the former, and without the former, the doctrine of universal redemption through the sacrifice of a "god-man" would probably never have been. The former gave birth to the latter.
Bell quibbled about the "uniqueness" of the sacrifice of Jesus, but uniqueness, if indeed it was, doesn't keep it from being a clear case of sacrificing a human to appease a god, an idea that dates too far back in antiquity to know when it originated. A familiar biblicist tactic is to argue that if a Christian practice or doctrine is not exactly like a prior pagan belief or practice in every detail, then it cannot be said that the Christians imitated the pagans. That is essentially what Bell is trying to do with his "uniqueness" argument, but it won't work. Ancient cultures may not have thought that the offering of one human would be sufficient to appease their gods forever, but they nevertheless thought that human sacrifices would appease their gods. Christians carried this idea just a step further and said that the one sacrifice of a human who was the "son of God" was sufficient to satisfy the divine thirst for blood forever.
I know of no better way to emphasize the superstitious origin of this central Christian doctrine than to quote again what the former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong said about the barbarity of this belief.
To me it is obvious that unless we expose the barbaric quality of this ancient interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' death and of the God who was said to have required it and remove this spiritual monstrosity from the Christian enterprise, then Christianity has no future. I do not believe that modern men and women will ever find appealing a God whose will is served by the human sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
I know from Bell's postings on the internet that he has no use
for Spong, but this is not a matter of whether Bell likes Spong but
whether what Spong said on this subject is true. I say it is. The idea
of redemption through the vicarious sacrifice of another person is a
barbaric belief that has its roots in ancient superstitions.