* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Numbers 26-36: Men Who Established an Ancient Society Don't Mandate Our Beliefs Today

The remainder of the book of Numbers essentially outlines the decisions that had to be made when the Israelites stopped wandering through the wilderness and established more permanent settlements.  There were a few legal issues to iron out, there were festivals to be established, and there were borders to be set, and every tribe needed to be given a place to settle without the whole of the Israelite community erupting into petty squabbles about who should have which plot of land.  The first step was to count everyone again, so that land could be apportioned based on a group's size.

Of course, they still had to kill the people who were inhabiting the land they were going to be handing out, but those folks really didn't count as "people" per se, since they weren't Israelites.  In fact, Numbers 35 deals specifically with murder and how to legally distinguish between actual murders and accidental deaths.  In this context, Moses (speaking for God) says, "Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it."  We must assume that this is only in reference to Israelite blood, since shedding the blood of people from whom they usurped the land didn't seem to be a concern.  In fact, the Israelites are warned that if they try to inhabit the land peacefully in community with the Canaanites, God will destroy them.  More on that in a moment.  

Two distinct legal matters arise in these final chapters.  One has to do with the preservation of wealth, and the other has to do with the value of a man's word.  There was a man named Zelophehad who died, leaving behind five unmarried daughters and no sons.  According to what had been established, this man's wealth would revert back to his tribe, leaving nothing for the daughters apart from the compassion of their relatives.  So, the daughters brought their complaint before Moses, and Moses consulted with God, and God proclaimed a legal order of inheritance which all Israelites were thenceforth to follow.  

This presented a snag, however.  Some men of Zelophehad's tribe were concerned that if these daughters were to marry men from other tribes, their father's wealth would be shifted into the coffers of these other tribes as well, and they wanted to ensure that Zelophehad's wealth stayed in his own tribe.  So Moses made another proclamation (on God's behalf) that no inheritance should pass from one Israelite tribe to another, meaning that if the daughters wanted to keep their father's wealth, they would have to marry someone from their own tribe.  Which they did.  

This is an important bit of legal precedence that needed to be established.  It is curious, though.  Aside from wondering why the Israelites needed all this wealth if they were just going to slaughter everyone they encountered and plunder the remains, one wonders why God didn't see this coming.  An omniscient god would certainly have known that this issue would arise, but there is nothing mentioned about how to handle an atypical inheritance until these daughters raise their concern.  Even then, the response is imperfect because it allows for a loophole that has to be closed by another proclamation.  While it's necessary to set these guidelines, it's apparent that it was people setting the guidelines and not an all-powerful supreme being.  Once more, the concept of God is invoked to dissuade argument and shift responsibility from a fallible human ruler to an infallible being that could send plagues if you made a fuss.

The other legal matter that is dealt with in Numbers 30 has to do with vows.  If a man makes a promise, he should keep it.  Simple enough.  We get that in one sentence.  If a woman makes a promise, it becomes more complicated.  We need three or four paragraphs to understand the consequences of a female's promise.  It makes sense in the context of a male-dominated culture, but like so much of biblical regulation, it stops making sense when translated to twenty-first century society.  Thus, the concept of the Israelite's god stops making sense.  

If God is assumed to be eternal, unchanging, and constant -- and if the Bible is assumed to be the infallible, inerrant documentation of what God thinks and wants from people -- we are confronted with the fact that whoever drew these conclusions about women thinks of them as "almost-but-not-quite people".  We also are confronted with the fact that any non-Israelite is even lower in status than women -- shedding their blood doesn't pollute the land, it secures property rights.  The New Testament addresses this conundrum, but then we face the issue of scripture being wrong or misguided about something, which is tough for some people to stomach.  

At a certain point, we have to face the obvious truth that Israelite men wrote these words in a very specific place at a very specific time for a very specific purpose.  They were trying to establish a new culture, a new society that promised for them security of power and wealth, but that also promised for all of its citizens a sense of the sacred, a life made more meaningful by participation in a holy culture.  Every decision they made was focused on preserving that ideal.  But they were imperfect human decisions of a certain place and time, not rules for all people throughout eternity. 

It is still possible to believe in a deity today, even a deity that is congruous with biblical truth, but one must distinguish where the line is between truth and cultural perspective.  So much of the Old Testament narrative is about what Israelites should believe about themselves in order to maintain a cohesive cultural identity.  So little of it thus far has been about anything approaching the divine.  It's just insecure men trying to make wise decisions and avoid the pitfalls of other cultures around them.  The further one digs into the biblical narrative, the more one sees that there is not a single, consistent depiction of God throughout.  It is not specific enough to claim belief in "the God of the Bible," because even the biblical view of God changes.  A certain kind of deity was seen as valuable to the men who were establishing Israelite culture.  They needed an unassailable authority that enforced conformity, provided for the ruling caste of priests, and condoned swift and brutal justice.  That kind of god is not necessary for us today. 

So if you're going to choose to believe in something, at least believe in something that makes sense.  If you believe in God, then accept that he gave you your brain for a reason.  Think about your beliefs and what those beliefs actually mean for the way you live your life.  You become little more than a tool when your beliefs are determined by whoever is screaming the loudest, most fear-inspiring message at the moment.  You have the capacity for more depth than that kind of impassioned reactivity.  Beliefs that denigrate women or people from different cultures are not going to help you create anything meaningful in the world.  You will be much better served by beliefs that recognize human value and inspire you to have a positive impact on the lives of those around you.  I believe that everyone has the potential to be aware of what matters most, even though that awareness can be a challenge.  I also believe meeting that challenge is the heart of human spirituality.


  1. I love everything in that last paragraph, but most of all this sentence: "If you believe in God, then accept that he gave you your brain for a reason."

    Preach it, brother!

  2. Well, it doesn't surprise me that you like that sentence! Despite our discussion elsewhere, I don't really want to convince anyone out of their belief in God -- I just want that belief to have real value to them and the people around them. That is a message worth preaching, I think.

    I'm grateful for your encouragement.

  3. I'm not surprised to know that you're not trying to convince anyone out of their theistic beliefs, but I must admit that I don't fully understand who your audience is and what you want their reaction to your writing to be. I'm looking forward to learning more as I continue to follow along.

    Because of your encouragement that theists marry their beliefs with rationality, something I also strongly advocate, I am bold enough to suggest that you might find Pope John Paul II's encyclical titled 'Faith and Reason' of some interest: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html

    You may not find it worth your time to read in its entirety, but there are summaries to be found by way of Google. It illustrates how religion and reason can co-exist, beautifully. No, more than co-exist... faith and reason complement and support each other.

    It took 12 years to write, and it's the first encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason since Pope Leo XIII issued 'Aeterni Patris' in 1879.

    No offense taken if you choose not to investigate.


  4. I don't know exactly who my audience is either, to be honest. I am adapting the Bible to have a sense of organization to the beliefs I'm putting down, and I would love to see authentic Christ-like behavior represented more visibly by American Christians. I also think that there are other people out there who are post-Christian in their beliefs as well, though. I strive to articulate things in a way that encourages people to continue to grow spiritually even if they have outgrown a belief system. If I had to label an intended audience, I would say that I write primarily for thinking people who seek a spiritually meaningful identity outside of organized religion.

    I will check out the encyclical. I honestly don't think there has to be a conflict between faith and reason, I just see a lot of people using the God-concept as an excuse to force their own opinions about right and wrong on other people. When a concept does more harm than good, I think we can dispose of it and create something better. But I will take a look at what the prior pope wrote on the subject nonetheless.

  5. Is it the concept that does more harm than good, or the abuse of the concept? There is a strong baby-bathwater thing going on here...

    Thanks for the clarity about your "mission statement." I hope you find the encyclical insightful!

  6. You're right: The concept is neither capable of doing harm nor good. It's entirely a matter of how people use the concept. I would say that the God-concept has been so manipulated by so many different people in the past few millenia that it is no longer a beneficial concept, but it is the abuse of the concept that has done the harm.

  7. Ah, but we disagree about the benefit of the concept, and I'll tell you why: It's the best explanation of the whole range of data we have available.

    The "kalam cosmological argument" (developed during the Middle Ages by Muslim thinkers) has three components: 1) whatever begins to exist has a cause, 2) the universe began to exist, 3) therefore, the universe has a cause.

    When scientists, namely Einstein, realized that the universe is expanding, this led to the Big Bang Theory, which is the best thing we've got going, science-wise, to explain the expansion. And that bugged Einstein, and still bugs scientists to this day, because The Big Bang points to the fact that the universe isn't eternal, it actually has an origin. And if it has an origin, it has a cause, and if you start to contemplate what kind of properties this cause must have, you quickly get into properties of divinity.

    You seem (and I do NOT want to put words into your mouth!) to dismiss the need for this kind of cosmological analysis -- you don't *need* to know the origins of the universe, because the divinity of the inner self is sufficient**. And if that's the case, that's cool, I respect that. But others of us DO need to know... it's written on our souls to seek the truth.

    And as of right now, as far as I can tell from reading everything I can get my hands on, the "God concept" is the best explanation of everything we know, including the Big Bang. In scientific and philosophical circles, this is called "inference to the best explanation."

    We cannot absolutely prove or disprove the existence of God -- but those who are interested can examine the evidence and use logic and reason to explain things as best we can. Based on my personal experience, God is a pretty stellar explanation -- I highly recommend it. ;)

    (**For the record, I too believe in the divinity of the inner self, as we have been created in God's image, and God's divine love dwells within us. I.e., what I believe encompasses all you believe, and then some -- it does not contradict it. Which is why you get so many "Amen, brother!" comments from me...)

  8. Despite all that we so clearly agree on, it does seem to be our points of disagreement that get the most attention! So, here goes my respectful counterargument(s)...

    What you are describing has been labeled a "god of the gaps" argument for the existence of God. "Inference to the best explanation" does not actually support assuming the existence of God because no other answer is provable. In scientific terms, a Best Explanation still needs to follow known, observable data. The concept of a supernatural being who exists outside of time and who is not bound by physical laws is not a Best Explanation for anything in a scientific sense. Not knowing the answer to a question doesn't mean that there isn't a logical, rational answer. Saying that it must be something supernatural that is beyond reason and logic honestly seems like a bit of cop out.

    But based on the kalam cosmological argument, if everything that begins to exist has a cause, and if God exists, then what was God's cause? Your answer may be that God is infinite and therefore never actually began to exist. I know I have asked this before, but if you believe that God is infinite, why is it so difficult to conceive of an infinite universe? Why must there be a discernible origin? Everything that humans experience has a beginning, and therefore a cause. How can the best and most satisfying answer to your soul's truth-seeking be something that inexplicably breaks all of the observable laws of existence?

    Again, the lack of a concrete scientific answer does not imply that there is no scientific answer to be had. At one point in time, science insisted that the sun revolved around the earth. Even when information to the contrary presented itself, it was the Church that was actually violently opposed to that bit of scientific knowledge. Begin with the assumption that God exists, and your perception will bend to that premise.

    The truth is that we don't know how likely our universe is, or how rare or common life is. We cannot enumerate the elements that are necessary for life to occur by random chance. There could be billions of universes, allowing for billions of chances for life to occur, perhaps even through different processes than the way life emerges on planet Earth. It seems like we have a unique situation because our knowledge is limited, but when one starts looking at large numbers and probability, our situation may not be as remarkable as our limited perception makes it seem.

    One author writes of coins in boxes. If I have ten different coins in a box and I shake the box, I will end up with a certain set of heads and tails. How likely is it that I will end up with the same pattern of heads and tails if I give the box another shake? What if I shook the box a thousand times? How likely would it be that I would wind up with the same pattern at some point in those thousand shakes? What if a thousand people had similar boxes and they all shook their boxes a thousand times? Would there ever be matching patterns?

    The problem is that we don't really know what the odds are, because we have limited and incomplete information. Life could be very rare or it could be rampant in the grand scheme of a multitude of universes. In any case, the existence of the universe and the life we know of within it doesn't require explanation by supernatural means. The supernatural explanation creates more complexity than it resolves, and it opens up a can of worms which is ripe for abuse, as we have discussed elsewhere.

  9. You are exactly right: God never began to exist, therefore he does not have a cause. He *is* the Cause, the First Cause.

    You're also right about the theory that the universe being an eternal, unchanging entity -- but the best and most recent science we have available points to an origin, namely, the Big Bang, as indicated by general relativity. Even Stephen Hawking, while an atheist himself, has conceded (in his book 'The Nature of Space and Time') that there is wide consensus in the scientific community that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang.

    However, as you alluded, science must always be open to the possibility that future evidence will point to a different conclusion. That being said, we can examine the best evidence we have available and reach the best conclusions we can -- and the Best Explanation, right now, is something supernatural, because whatever caused the Big Bang also caused time... even scientifically, cosmologists are admitting that the laws of physics don't apply to the First Cause, so it must be something transcendent.

    Does that prove the existence of God? Nope. As I mentioned, that cannot be proven. But neither can it be disproven, and so the "God concept" is not negated by science.

    If someone refuses to believe in God, that is a matter of personal faith -- but it's not where both the philosophical and scientific evidence currently points.

    So is there a benefit to the "God concept"? Absolutely - it explains everything, and "hangs together" extremely well. Better than anything else, actually.

    Can the "God concept" be abused? In this broken world where every single human being is a sinner, you bet it can.

    Does that mean we should toss the whole thing and bury our philosophical thirst for the truth? To do so would be to deny that inner divinity we all share. :)

  10. Right up front, believing or not believing in any sort of god is a matter of personal faith. I am coming from the point of view that shallow faith benefits no one and leaves people open to manipulation, and I believe that the concept of God has become so distorted and abused that it is no longer beneficial to society as a whole. I will keep coming from this perspective, because I believe that there is something better that can replace both polite, culturally acceptable, empty spirituality and malicious, politicized, oppressive religion. The existence of any kind of god is ultimately a non-issue if people are willing to acknowledge that every human being is worthy of respect. Everything else I profess stems from that basic principle.

    But since we are on the topic, let's talk about the existence of God. ;)

    If I didn't already know, I would ask exactly what you mean by "God" in this context, since it seems that you are making some tremendous unfounded leaps from "First Cause" to "biblical Catholic monotheistic deity". The current scientific stance, as I understand it, is that *something* caused the Big Bang and that we don't know what it was. Claiming that God caused the Big Bang actually blockades any need for further inquiry. It is an unprovable and irrefutable assertion that effectively explains nothing.

    It still baffles me that asserting the existence of God requires ignoring the very reason that the existence of God needs to be asserted. If everything that exists has a cause, what caused God? This special exception is a convenient way of making conjecture unassailable. Yet, if we are going to make an exception for God, why can't we make an exception for the universe? Why do we need to force an intelligent supernatural being to figure into the equation at all? You may say that we know that the universe began to exist, because we can experience the universe. But that's not exactly true. We cannot experience the full totality of the universe. We ultimately don't know where the principle of causality ceases to apply, if at all.

    Even conceding the existence of a First Cause for the universe does not in any way imply the existence of some external divine being. Some unknown thing which cause the Big Bang is in no way required to be intelligent, much less benevolent or omniscient. There is nothing about the principle of a First Cause that suggests a need for that unknown thing to continue to interact with the universe after the Big Bang occurred.

    And even though we can say "after the Big Bang", can we really even speak of "before the Big Bang?" If Hawking is correct that time itself began with the Big Bang, then was there really a "before" to even consider? Isn't asking what was before the Big Bang like asking what's north of the North Pole?

  11. Your conclusion assumes a great many things about how the universe came into being without scientific analysis, which is understandable because you are approaching the question from a monotheistic religious premise. To say that science can't disprove the existence of God is a rather cheeky stance, though. If you're going to assert an identity for the First Cause, aren't you the one that bears the burden of proof? Why can I not assert that a giant space-squid named Linda actually caused the Big Bang and then swam away to some other universe? Science cannot disprove it. Science also can't disprove the existence of leprechauns.

    This is actually a big problem. It's why so many people can say so many things about what God wants without fear of anyone bringing a legitimate argument to bear against them. If no one can prove the existence of God, there's no chance that anyone can say with certainty what God wants or thinks. But as Mr. Hitchens said, "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

    Which brings me back to: it doesn't matter. Not only doesn't it matter, it *can't* matter. If belief in God is completely unprovable and purely based on personal faith, there is absolutely no point in debating it. The debate creates the illusion that we are radically different from one another when the truth is that we have nearly everything in common. And I mean US, all of us, everybody everywhere. What matters is how we are in this life. How we treat ourselves and other people and the world we share. And if God cannot be legitimately established as a common foundation for how we live our lives, we must turn to something else.

    I'm trying to start from a common language because I'm under the impression that redefining terms is easier than inventing entirely new terms. It wasn't my intention to catalogue all of the core arguments in the theist/atheist debate, but perhaps that is necessary to get to the other side and address the things of true importance, which must begin from a point of common ground. I am hopeful that human value will eventually be a sufficient foundation. In the meantime, I'm willing to keep refining my perspective on concepts that are admittedly matters of personal preference and are in no way provable, if only to demonstrate how unuseful those concepts ultimately are in defining human spirituality in an honest, meaningful, and actionable way.