Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: Jehovah (page 1 of 2)

NT Lesson 15

“I Am the Light of the World”

John 7–8

LDS manual: here


To discuss how to find out what’s true.


We’re now in Jesus’ later Judean ministry. He’s gotten people to believe in his miracles. His followers think he’s the Messiah. And now in this reading, in one of the most protracted arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, he proclaims that he’s actually Jehovah.

If Jesus was a real person who said these things, he seems to have suffered from Joseph Smith Syndrome: having started on this hero-saviour trip, it’s very difficult to stop.

This theological argument takes up most of our reading, and while in some ways there’s some interesting rhetorical jiu-jitsu going on, in the end it’s all just so much pointless sectarian wrangling. From an atheist’s perspective, I just see people tossing around religious insults. Jesus and the Pharisees call each other devils.

John 8:48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
8:49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.

Jesus threatens them like a pissed-off street preacher.

John 8:23 And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.
8:24 I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.

Now that I’m out of religion, and understanding that nothing based on supernaturalism can be right, I think I can see this chapter for what it is. I’m so glad that I can check out, and I don’t have to concern myself with it. What a relief.

This is an old, old fight, of course. Unfortunately, it’s been playing out over and over again among the world’s religious believers for millennia. The only difference is that, in this discussion, no one got killed.

Main ideas for this lesson


John really didn’t like Jews.

John 7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

Oh, John. You can tell that you wrote this last — somewhere between 70–120 CE. That’s when the conflicts between the Christian Jews and the Jewish Christians came bubbling up. It couldn’t have been written earlier.

How do we know what’s true?

Jesus gives a strange way of telling whether something’s true.

John 7:17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

Jesus seems to be saying that experimentation is the way to find out if he’s the real deal. While a good controlled experiment is an important part of the complete scientific method, that’s not what Jesus is describing here. There’s a phrase for it: “Suck it and see.” That’s not the best way of evaluating claims.

But what’s wrong with trying something out? Well, evidence from our own personal experiences may seem convincing to us. But these kinds of anecdotes are actually the least credible form of evidence because of the way our brains put together our own personal story. If I believe that I have a lucky rock that keeps me from harm, then that belief gets in the way of examining the idea as impartially as I could. I might engage in confirmation bias, ignoring the times when the rock doesn’t work. Other forms of evidence would be better.

It’s telling, then, that missionaries use the least effective kinds of evidence on investigators. Missionaries invite investigators to take on an ever-increasing set of commitments, in the hopes that the investment fallacy will take hold. When you’ve started doing something, it’s hard to stop. Stopping would imply that what you did was pointless, and who likes to admit that?

I’m enjoying this post about the investment fallacy from You Are Not So Smart.

Imagine you go see a movie which costs $10 for a ticket. When you open your wallet or purse you realize you’ve lost a $10 bill. Would you still buy a ticket? You probably would. Only 12 percent of subjects said they wouldn’t. Now, imagine you go to see the movie and pay $10 for a ticket, but right before you hand it over to get inside you realize you’ve lost it. Would you go back and buy another ticket? Maybe, but it would hurt a lot more. In the experiment, 54 percent of people said they would not. The situation is the exact same. You lose $10 and then must pay $10 to see the movie, but the second scenario feels different. It seems as if the money was assigned to a specific purpose and then lost, and loss sucks.

Believers seem okay with this experimentation method that Jesus is advocating, but are they okay with it in other areas? Would they agree that the same is true for Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam? The same people who encourage religious experimentation (for their religion only) also discourage experimenting with recreational chemicals and alternative sexual practices. Clearly, they don’t believe that the method is so great; only insofar as it ensnares people into their system.

Ask: If “suck it and see” isn’t a good way to find out what’s true, then what is? How do you know if something’s true?

I use a way that is partial and incomplete, it’s difficult, and it takes a long time. Sometimes the results get overturned later. But it’s the best thing humans have ever made for finding out what’s true. It’s the scientific method.

My favourite formulation of the scientific method is on this terrible Geocities webpage. It uses the mnemonic O HECK.

“O.H.E.C.K.” is a memory aid developed by your instructor to help you remember the order of events in what is sometimes called the scientific method. It is an acronym, with each letter standing for a word.
Observation: someone (maybe you!) notices some event in the natural world (Phenomena) that makes them wonder about the event’s cause.
Hypothesis: this is a possible explanation developed by somebody (maybe you!) as to the cause of some mysterious phenomena that has been Observed.
Experiment: the Hypothesis is tested in some way. If a hypothesis can’t be tested, it really isn’t scientific.
Conclusion: at the end of the Experiment, either the Hypothesis has been proven false or it hasn’t been proven false. It is never “proven” true!
Knowledge-Sharing: the Conclusion of the Experiment must be shared with other researchers, who will either develop a better test for the Hypothesis or (often) develop a better Hypothesis !

I think this last step is the most important. Knowledge must be peer-reviewed. One person can get it wrong, but it’s less likely (in the very long term!) that everyone will get it wrong. As we share knowledge, the good stuff floats to the top. This is why we need a variety of inputs in our knowledge. If someone tells you that certain sources of information are off-limits, or that some points of view are forbidden — not just worthless (like some are), but are wrong even to consider — that’s a warning sign.

Truth makes you free.

One verse in this reading has some merit:

John 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Testimonials are worthless, as in the chart above. With that established, I would just like to share my own experience. As I’ve learned more about how to find out what’s true, and as my ability to think critically has improved, I’ve been better able to spot poor reasoning and be fooled less often. It’s an on-going process. I try to stay plugged into skeptical topics, keep up with what scientific-minded people are thinking and writing about, and stay open to changing my mind when necessary.

Having a better idea of what’s true means that I have better information that I can use to base decisions on. This has helped me to be freer than I could have been in the church.

Woman in adultery story was added later

I always liked the story of the woman taken in adultery.

John 8:1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
8:2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
8:3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
8:4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
8:5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
8:6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
8:7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8:8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
8:9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
8:10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
8:11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Jesus is so casual, writing on the ground like that.

So I’m totes devs to learn that it’s probably a fabrication.

Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.

Most Bible scholars agree.

“The most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful. Scholars generally agree that this story was not originally part of the Gospel of John.”

Here’s another page of references.

And Nonstampcollector sees a problem that Christians don’t: Jesus is only enlightened insofar as he ignores the law he gave when he was Jehovah the murderous psychopath.

Additional lesson ideas

What didn’t they include in this reading?

One thing they decided not to treat was this story, in which Jesus tells someone not to bury his dead father.

Matthew 8:21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
8:22 But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

Luke 9:59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
9:60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.

Seems a bit heartless, but again, this is right in line with Jesus’ idea that he had to come before everything else, including family obligations. Typical for a cult leader.

Next week: more doubtful miracles. See you then.

NT Lesson 10 (The Yoke)

“Take My Yoke upon You, and Learn of Me”

Matthew 11:28–30; 12:1–13; Luke 7:36–50; 13:10–17

LDS manual: here


To instill readers with a sense of gratitude that they no longer have to engage in time-wasting and self-destructive shenanigans, such as those offered by the church.


In this lesson, Jesus is still in the Galilean phase of his ministry. He’s cruising around, doing miracles, and picking fights with rival religionists. He seems to have outgrown his discipleship with John the Baptist, realising that he’s quite popular in his own right. And when John gets thrown into prison, Jesus realises it’s time for him to step up and take over John’s racket.

John’s not too sure about this. From prison, he sends two of his disciples to Jesus to check him out.

Matthew 11:2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,
11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

It’s a bit odd that John seems uncertain about Jesus. He was supposedly present for the baptism and the dove and the voice from heaven, so you think he’d have made his mind up somehow… oops, unless those things were later insertions like so much of the New Testament.

Not much else to say about John, except that Jesus says some nice things about him.

Matthew 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

You think Jesus / Jehovah mellowed out and got nice after getting a body? Nope. Here, Jesus condemns several cities, Old-Testament style, because they didn’t believe in him enough:

Matthew 11:20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
11:21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
11:22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
11:23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
11:24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

Main ideas for this lesson

The Sabbath

Then there’s some pointless wrangling about the Sabbath.

I would indeed be ungrateful if I did not take of a moment and say that not obeying the Sabbath is teh best. It’s fantastic not taking up your time with tedious meetings or sitting in Sunday School. You get an entire extra day! It’s like doubling your weekend.

And somehow, even though the consequences of Sabbath-breaking are supposed to be so dire, they ultimately fail to eventuate.

And what was I doing last Sunday? I’m glad you asked. I was helping to break the world record for biggest skinny dip! Nearly 800 people here in Perth smashed the record, and I talked about it on the radio.

Listen on RTRFM

Going to the beach, meeting up with great people, and going swimming in the buff was so much better than going to church. It was infinity times better. There’s no comparison. Being an ex-Mormon opens up a new world of possibilities.

The yoke of Mormonism

Jesus, by contrast, invites us to put on one of these things.

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Looks fun, doesn’t it? Usually, yokes are for beasts of burden, but Jesus says you can wear one, too. It looks entirely necessary, and not like something intended to suck the enjoyment out of your life. And Jesus even says how easy it is, so how does that not sound great.

Object lesson for class: Bring a yoke to class. Ask for a pair of volunteers to stick their necks in it.

Ask: If someone suggested that you wear a farm implement like this so you could do his work for him, what would you say? (Invite responses.)

I know, I know: members will say, “The world claims to offer us fun that is ultimately unfulfilling. Taking on the yoke of Christ may seem like a bad deal, but discipleship is much better.”

Having done both, I can tell you it’s just the opposite. The church wants to absorb your life in a series of time-wasting activities that serve only to advance its own aims at your expense. Being able to direct your own life without superstition is not the same as amoral hedonism. Many people, once they take the yoke off their backs, learn to make better decisions with better information, and as a result live better and more fulfilling lives. (And a few people are total disasters. But frightening people into obedience does not give you a better person.)

Ask: What kinds of responsibilities do church members routinely accept?
Possible answers: Church meetings, leadership positions, missions, callings, home and visiting teaching, temple attendance, zzzzzzz…

And now there’s cleaning the church buildings. After I left the church, I was astounded to hear that they’d laid off their professional janitors and custodians, and were inducing members to clean the buildings! This accomplishes three goals simultaneously:

  • establishes dominance over members,
  • cashes in on free labour, and
  • gets ward meetinghouses to smell faintly of wee.

Watch this inspiring video about how great it is to clean the toilets of a church that you’re already paying 10% toward.

It certainly does put a new spin on an old slogan:

Ask: What could possibly make someone accept such a wide and unnecessary set of burdens and constraints?
One possible answer is the investment fallacy, as discussed in this lesson. People born in the church become used to spending a great deal of time supporting it — see these commitment cards aimed at kids, as one rank example —  and converts are treated to an ever-escalating set of commitments. When someone spends a great deal of time on a system, it becomes harder and harder to unplug from it, since doing so would be an admission that they’re wasted their time, and no one likes to admit that they’ve wasted their time.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett gave a TED talk called “Dangerous Memes” that explains this.

Watch the video describing a bizarre behaviour that ants engage in when their brains are infected by a virus.

Partial transcript:

So you’re out in the woods, or you’re out in the pasture, and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it falls, and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs — trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass. What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant? And the answer is: nothing. There’s nothing in it for the ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah, it’s just a fluke. It’s a lancet fluke. It’s a little brain worm. It’s a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant, crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle. So there’s nothing in it for the ant. The ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain, inducing suicidal behavior. Pretty scary.
Well, does anything like that happen with human beings? This is all on behalf of a cause other than one’s own genetic fitness, of course. Well, it may already have occurred to you that Islam means “surrender,” or “submission of self-interest to the will of Allah.” Well, it’s ideas — not worms — that hijack our brains.

Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others.

Ask: Why do these ants work so hard in a behaviour that is of no benefit to them, but of immense benefit to the brain virus that has infected them?

Ask: If one such ant could talk, and you asked it why it was climbing that blade of grass, what explanation do you think it might offer for its behaviour?
Possible answer: It might say that it was doing so of its own free will.

Ask: What behaviours do you see Latter-day Saints engaging in that serve to benefit the church, and not themselves?
Possible answers: Missionary work, apologetics, offering their time, talents, and all that they have to the “building up of Zion”.

In addition to these burdens, the church offers some artificial ones. We yoke ourselves with artificial guilt, even when we do normal things or have normal desires.

A lot of the friction between my parents and me was caused by me not doing or saying or thinking the things they thought I should, in order to be a good Latter-day Saint. My enjoyment of popular music worried them horribly, and it shouldn’t have. They worried about what I read, who I knew, what I watched. The church caused a lot of unnecessary conflict in our relationship.

For me now, I can help my sons by appealing to rational reasons to avoid real trouble (drugs, crime, and so on), while realising that there are many ways to live, and I don’t have all the answers. Rather than imagining that they’ll do well if they follow in my footsteps, I can encourage them to grow in ways I didn’t predict — to find things out about our world and our society, and then come back and tell me about them.

And then there’s a post-deconversion aspect: The artificial concept of the afterlife means that our family members are concerned for our “eternal souls”. I have to tell you: I ain’t got one. None of us do. I’m sure that my dear sister is overly anxious for me to return to the church so I don’t suffer an eternity of isolation, inflicted on me by a cruel and sadistic god. Sadly, she’s spending time in her limited life fretting about my non-existent soul, as we both hurry to the grave. This is unnecessary suffering caused directly by her religious beliefs.

As a missionary, one of the toughest audiences I had was a trio of LDS girls who were sisters. We were giving the family a member presentation about the blessings of church involvement, and it was clear that these girls were fucking done. They’d had a lifetime of it, and they tried to explain that the “blessings” were few and the constraints were many. As a fellow lifelong constrainee, I tried to drum up some enthusiasm, but they weren’t having it. Their answers were monosyllabic and flat.

I wonder what happened to those girls. I hope they managed to escape and be happy, instead of spending a lifetime in the empty church, waiting for a better life to begin. We all have the opportunity to throw off the yoke, and begin a new secular life without gods. Our individual circumstances differ. Some of us feel the need to go along with the church to make peace in our personal relationships, but this freedom is still possible, if not in our behaviour, in our minds.

Additional teaching ideas

Sin against the Holy Ghost

What are the worst sins in the world? In the Book of Mormon, having sex is called the sin next to murder, so sex and murder are likely up the top of the list.

But Jesus teaches that even worse than murder (for which, after all, there may be forgiveness under certain circumstances) is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

Matthew 12:31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
12:32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.

Here’s the entry for “unpardonable sin” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

The gravest of all sins is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. One may speak even against Jesus Christ in ignorance and, upon repentance, be forgiven, but knowingly to sin against the Holy Ghost by denying its influence after having received it is unpardonable (Matt. 12:31-32; Jacob 7:19; Alma 39:6), and the consequences are inescapable. Such denial dooms the perpetrator to the hell of the second spiritual death (TPJS, p. 361). This extreme judgment comes because the person sins knowingly against the light, thereby severing himself from the redeeming grace of Christ. He is numbered with the sons of perdition (D&C 76:43).

It may seem strange — to a normal person — that a crime of unbelief would be more serious than murdering someone, but in a religious context, this makes perfect sense. Unbelief is what kills gods, and so it’s natural for a robust and healthy god-meme to develop an immune system to protect itself. Otherwise, deicide is on the menu.

What’s even stranger is that, as dangerous as this sin would appear to be, there’s very little specificity on just what constitutes the commission of it. I recall a belief in the church that it was well-nigh impossible to commit for a garden-variety member. Aside from that, opinions seem to vary widely on what you have to say or do to merit Outer Darkness. What do you have to do? Trash-talk the Spirit? Kill an innocent person? Find Jesus and crucify him again? It’s not clear. And — what can I say — this resembles what happens when a despotic system levies severe punishments for crimes, but doesn’t make public what the crimes are.

So let me take the opportunity to do the worst thing EVAR. Most of my LDS sources say that you have to know the HG before you can deny it. Well, I’ve felt what I once thought to be the influence of Holy the Ghost, but which I now think was a psychological effect that is easily reproducible across world religions. So let me say this:

I deny the Holy Ghost. 

I deny that I was ever under the influence of any such ghost, as ghosts are non-existent figments of human imagination and wonky pattern recognition. Any such influence can be more easily explained as a desire to believe, and as social pressure to uphold the norms and beliefs of a group.

I say essentially the same thing in a recent promo for my language podcast. Listen:

Your browser does not support this audio

Also, I approve of this cartoon showing a Godhead threesome. Suck it, ghost.

Some Mormons might say that in writing and saying the above, I haven’t actually denied the Holy Ghost or committed the Great Unpardonable. Perhaps they’d say I don’t have the requisite knowledge, or the Unpardonable Sin requires me to murder someone, or crucify Jesus again, or some such nonsense. My response would be that I’ve denied the Holy Ghost as much as I can, and if anyone has any ideas for how I can deny the Holy Ghost more completely, please send them in and I can do them, perhaps in a YouTube video.

But not if they involve killing anyone. I don’t want to kill anyone because I’m actually a good person, and it’s the rules of Christianity and Mormonism that are twisted.

OT Lesson 38 (Deutero-Isaiah 1)

“Beside Me There Is No Saviour”

Isaiah 40–49

LDS manual: here


We’re now in the second of our three Isaiahs, which is why he’s called “second Isaiah”, or “Deutero-Isaiah“.

This section of Isaiah is notable for two new ideas. One innovation is that all the other gods are imaginary. It used to be that other gods — Dagon, Chemosh, and the whole panoply —  were still considered to exist, Jehovah just didn’t like them very much.

Exodus 18:11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods.
Judges 11:24 Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?
Psalm 86:8 Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord.

But at this point, Isaiah has Jehovah / Jesus flatly denying the existence of other gods. Monotheism asserts itself.

Isaiah 44:6 Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.
44:7 And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them shew unto them.
44:8 Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.

46:5 To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like?
46:6 They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship.
46:7 They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble.

And here’s another innovation: This religion is meant to be for everyone. It used to be that Judaism was a tribal religion, and you’d only join it by being born in it, being captured into it, or maybe being married into it. If you didn’t want to join, the Jews didn’t give a crap. It wasn’t for you.

Now, Isaiah says that everyone will eventually accept the supremacy of the Hebrew god. It became a universalising religion.

45:21 Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. 45:22 Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.
45:23 I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

The main problem I see with universalising religions is that they aren’t very good at playing with others. They’re dismissive of other religions that are at least as silly as they are, and as such, they commit the fallacy of special pleading.

Of course, now that Jehovah / Jesus has declared himself to be the Only God in the Universe, and taken on all the credit for creating all the good stuff, he also has the responsibility for all the bad stuff.

45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

Main points from this lesson

When did this author write?

There’s a big clue to when Deutero-Isaiah wrote: He talks a lot about the Babylonian king Cyrus — a real up-and-comer at the time — which would have been meaningless to a reader before 550 BCE.

44:24 Thus saith the LORD, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the LORD that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself;

44:28 That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.

So we can date Deutero-Isaiah to somewhere between 550–539 BCE, and according to Whybray, probably towards the end of that period.

That’s a bit of a problem for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Nephi was meant to take the plates of Laban and leave Jerusalem in 600 BCE. But in the Book of Mormon, Nephi quotes Isaiah at some length. It would be possible for him to quote Proto-Isaiah (who did his thing in the 8th century BCE — well before the alleged Nephi), but not Deutero-Isaiah, who — remember — wrote around 550–539 BCE, some 50 years after Lehi and family would have left Jerusalem.

So Nephi couldn’t have quoted Deutero-Isaiah. Does he? In fact, he does, from this very lesson.

1 Nephi 20Isaiah 48
1 Nephi 21Isaiah 49

How do Mormon apologists explain the unlikely appearance of Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon? Here’s one explanation they kick around at FAIR: All of Isaiah was written by the same guy at the same time, which is how Nephi came to have it. But when Cyrus came around, people in the Old World tinkered with Isaiah’s text to make it clearer that he’d been talking about Cyrus, and that’s what fooled scholars into thinking that the second part was written later. At this point you kind of have to wonder what a lunkhead God is, to allow his word to be tinkered with through generations of editors. And this explanation still doesn’t explain the abrupt stylistic changes between the two Isaiahs.

I have a better explanation: The Book of Mormon was entirely made up. One advantage of this explanation is that it neatly resolves all the problems with assuming the church is true, with no contradictions. You can apply this to Isaiah too, and this makes things a lot easier. Once you realise it’s all made up, it saves you from trying to make any sense out of Isaiah. Ahhh. More time on a Sunday.

Additional teaching ideas

Did the sun go back ten degrees?

Here’s a story I thought I’d missed out on telling. It’s the one about the prophet miraculously turning the sun back. It happened in 2 Kings, I didn’t cover it and I thought it was too late. But like a lot of Bible stories, it comes back into the mix later. So here it is in 2 Kings 20, as a sign to Hezekiah that he’d be healed.

2 Kings 20:7 And Isaiah said, Take a lump of figs. And they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered.
20:8 And Hezekiah said unto Isaiah, What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up into the house of the LORD the third day?
20:9 And Isaiah said, This sign shalt thou have of the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he hath spoken: shall the shadow go forward ten degrees, or go back ten degrees?
20:10 And Hezekiah answered, It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees.
20:11 And Isaiah the prophet cried unto the LORD: and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz.

Oh, wait, sorry — as a sign that Jehovah / Jesus would defend the city against the Assyrians.

Isaiah 38:4 Then came the word of the LORD to Isaiah, saying,
38:5 Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.
38:6 And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria: and I will defend this city.
38:7 And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken;
38:8 Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.

This is the subject of a well-known urban legend so silly that even Answers in Genesis doesn’t recommend that Christians use it. In the legend, NASA scientists are puzzled when their calculations don’t come out right, and they discover the missing day and 40 minutes — right there in the Bible!

It’s just a story, but it makes you wonder: What would really happen if Jehovah / Jesus actually made the sun go back in the sky — or rather, made the earth spin the other way?

Well, first the earth would have to stop spinning. That would play havoc with all of us critters on earth, because stopping the earth wouldn’t stop the atmosphere. And that would mean that the surface of the earth would be scoured clean by winds of 1,100 mph. Everything not anchored to bedrock would be blown away. It would be the worst hurricane ever.

If the earth then spun the other way — even for 40 minutes — it would play all kinds of hell with the earth’s magnetic field, the oceans, the Coriolis effect, and therefore the world’s climate.

So did Jehovah / Jesus do all this just to impress a king with a boil? Well, if he did, let’s just say that no one would have survived to write the Bible.

What else does Isaiah get wrong?

The earth is a circle
Apparently spheres weren’t a thing in ancient Israel.

40:21 Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
40:22 It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:

But wait — couldn’t a ‘circle’ also mean a sphere? Well, probably not. Here’s some analysis of other biblical verses that indicate that in saying circle, the writer was going along with a body of thought that said the earth was flat like a pizza, and not round like a globe.

Stars never fail

40:26 Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth.

Actually, stars are failing all the time, about 275 million per day, estimated over the whole universe.
We estimate at about 100 billion the number of galaxies in the observable Universe, therefore there are about 100 billion stars being born and dying each year, which corresponds to about 275 million per day, in the whole observable Universe.

Handel’s Messiah and Isaiah

The libretto of Handel’s Messiah pulls text liberally from this section of Isaiah, to the point where one can hardly read the thing without having Handel run through your head.

This is kind of a difficult area for me. I perform in a production of the Messiah every year, and every year I sort of grind my teeth over the text. How’s an arts-minded atheist supposed to grapple with this? As for me, I wrote a cartoon about it, which you can check out here.

OT Lesson 22 (Saul)

“The Lord Looketh on the Heart”

1 Samuel 9–11; 13; 15–17

LDS manual: here


This lesson’s about Saul.

Ch. 9: Saul’s a tall young man from the tribe of Benjamin.

9:2 And he had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.

He runs across Samuel the Seer, who thinks he’s a bit of all right.

9:17 And when Samuel saw Saul, the LORD said unto him, Behold the man whom I spake to thee of! this same shall reign over my people.

God’s going to regret that choice. He’s got terrible people over there at Human Resources.

Ch. 10: Samuel anoints Saul to be king, and gives him a smooch.

10:1 Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?

Ch. 11: Conflict time. The Ammonites are going to gouge out the eyes of the Israelites of Jabesh. When Saul finds out about this, he hacks an ox to pieces as an object lesson.

11:6 And the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.
11:7 And he took a yoke of oxen, and hewed them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the coasts of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen. And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.

Gospel Doctrine suggestion: You might want to hew an ox to pieces as a way of inviting the Spirit of the Lord into your class.
You will need: one ax, one ox.

In battle, Saul and the Israelites kill the Ammonites all day long.

11:11 And it was so on the morrow, that Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the host in the morning watch, and slew the Ammonites until the heat of the day: and it came to pass, that they which remained were scattered, so that two of them were not left together.

And when he’s victorious, he refuses to kill those who were against his leadership. That’s a lovely gesture, Saul.

11:12 And the people said unto Samuel, Who is he that said, Shall Saul reign over us? bring the men, that we may put them to death.
11:13 And Saul said, There shall not a man be put to death this day: for to day the LORD hath wrought salvation in Israel.

Ch. 12: Samuel warns everyone to fear the God of the Bible. Really, what else would he say.

12:24 Only fear the LORD, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you.

Ch. 13: Now we have a scene where Saul overreaches a bit. There’s a battle planned, and Samuel the seer said he’d show up and offer a sacrifice, because we all know that’s what makes you win.

13:5 And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude: and they came up, and pitched in Michmash, eastward from Bethaven.

But Samuel doesn’t show up for a week! Where is he? Saul texts him, but he’s not answering his phone.

13:8 And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him.

So Saul performs the sacrifice himself.

13:9 And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings. And he offered the burnt offering.
13:10 And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him.

Samuel’s pissed. Saul explains himself, rather unconvincingly.

13:11 And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash;
13:12 Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering.
13:13 And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.

We also meet Saul’s son Jonathan. He’s going to be the romantic interest in the next lesson.

13:16 And Saul, and Jonathan his son, and the people that were present with them, abode in Gibeah of Benjamin: but the Philistines encamped in Michmash.

Ch. 14: A story the manual skipped. Jonathan is off killing Philistines, and Jehovah/Jesus uses that old trick Gideon used: Confuse them and they’ll kill each other.

14:16 And the watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked; and, behold, the multitude melted away, and they went on beating down one another.

In the meantime, Saul has commanded everyone to fast until evening, under threat of death. There’s even some honey just sitting on the ground, and no one eats it. Must have been made by some of those ground bees.

14:24 And the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food.
14:25 And all they of the land came to a wood; and there was honey upon the ground.
14:26 And when the people were come into the wood, behold, the honey dropped; but no man put his hand to his mouth: for the people feared the oath.

When Jonathan comes back, he doesn’t know about the food ban, so he grabs some of the honey.

14:27 But Jonathan heard not when his father charged the people with the oath: wherefore he put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand, and dipped it in an honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened.

Apparently, the honey makes him reach enlightenment, so his father Saul has to kill him, not just for breaking the fast, but also for becoming a Buddhist.

14:28 Then answered one of the people, and said, Thy father straitly charged the people with an oath, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food this day. And the people were faint.

Saul figures out what happened by casting lots.

14:42 And Saul said, Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son. And Jonathan was taken.
14:43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, Tell me what thou hast done. And Jonathan told him, and said, I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die.
14:44 And Saul answered, God do so and more also: for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.

Now I can see why Jehovah/Jesus chose this guy: he’s willing to sacrifice his son Jonathan over a trivial detail that he didn’t even know about.

But the people come to Jonathan’s defence.

14:45 And the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.

Isn’t it nice that rank-and-file members are often better than the leaders and gods?

Ch. 15: With that out of the way, it’s time for more genocide! Jehovah/Jesus still has it in for the Amalekites for what their parents did a hundred years ago. ‘We believe that every man will be punished for his own transgression’, unless you’re an Amalekite.

15:2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.
15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

The killing begins. But Saul doesn’t obey God to the letter, because he leaves some things alive.

15:8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.
15:9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.

Boy, God sure is sorry that he called Saul. Guess he didn’t foresee what would happen.

15:10 Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,
15:11 It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.

Saul: rejected for incomplete genocide.

15:22 And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
15:23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

Samuel does the job himself: he hews King Agag to pieces. Have you even hewn someone? It’s not a pretty sight.

15:32 Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.
15:33 And Samuel said, As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.

Ch. 16: Saul’s depressed about the Lord rejecting him, and an evil spirit from the Lord comes upon him.

16:14 But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
16:15 And Saul’s servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee.

What to do? Saul finds David, who plays the harp and makes the Lord’s evil spirit go away.

16:21 And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him greatly; and he became his armourbearer.
16:22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.
16:23 And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.

Ch. 17: The well-known story of David and Goliath

This lesson’s long enough as it is. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Just one thing, though. Anthropologists and archaeologists have been working where this story takes place, and there’s no evidence of any giants.

Philistine cemetery uncovered in archaeological dig in Israel, Goliath’s people were ‘normal sized’

A few hundred metres from the dig, at its outdoor laboratory, anthropologist and pathologist Sherry Fox told the skeletons’ story.

“In their teeth, we can see that they did not have an easy life,” she said, holding up a skull.

“We see these lines that indicate a growth interruption as the teeth are forming. There were problems in childhood with either fever or malnutrition.

“We also see from their bones that they were hard workers, they practised inbreeding and they used their teeth as tools, probably in the weaving industry.”

She said they were “normal size” with no evidence of any Goliath-sized giants.

Main points from this lesson

Power struggles

Here’s what the real lesson manual has to say about Samuel’s rejection of Saul:

What did Saul’s offering an unauthorized sacrifice reveal about him? (He was no longer “a man after [the Lord’s] own heart” [1 Samuel 13:14]. He had grown impatient, failed to trust the Lord, and disobeyed. In addition, his presuming the authority to offer sacrifice suggests that he had an exaggerated opinion of his own power and importance.)

This is just another example of the church getting it wrong. By focusing on concerns of authority, they miss the real story: this is part of the ongoing struggle for power between the ruling class and the priest class.

In any society, the priest class has a problem: It is utterly superfluous, and produces nothing of value. But it does have the belief of a lot of people, which gives it a supposed moral authority.

So what’s usually happened historically is that the king tries to make nice with the priest, and gain moral legitimacy. In return, the priest gets access to the levers of power and all the goodies that emanate therefrom.

No wonder Diderot put a pox on both their houses, saying:

Now in the days of Moses, the civil power and the religious power were in the hands of the same person, and we’ve all read the murders that happened as a result. We can see this today in Islamic countries where religion is the basis for law: stoning for adultery, death to apostates, and so on. We can see it in Russia, where the ascendant Russian Orthodox clergy is causing greater persecution of gay people. It’s hell on earth when belief is compulsory.

In the last few lessons, though, we’ve seen a shift: the people have a set of judges, of varying degrees of religiosity.

And then in the last lesson, the people took it a step further down the road by wanting a king. You can imagine what a prophet figure like Samuel must be thinking. He’s watching the power slip away, and he’s not happy. But, hey, he thinks, maybe it’s not so bad as long as I have a king I can control. That way, I can still have some of the power, the king has to do all the admin stuff, and I can get some quality babbling done.

Accordingly, Samuel chooses Saul. But then Saul stuffs up. He gets impatient waiting for Samuel at battle time, offers the sacrifice himself, and by so doing, takes both the civil power and the priestly power into his own hands.

That’s why Samuel’s pissed. Who’s going to listen to him, if the king has both sources of power: ecclesiastical and civil? There goes the job and the house and the Tesla Model S.

And so he screams, as did Lemon Grab:

And Saul’s out from them on. Samuel goes to find a king who knows his place, and finds David.

That’s what’s happening here. It’s not about authority or priesthood or anything like that. It’s the priest class seeing the writing on the wall.

With that in mind, is it any wonder that the church takes Samuel’s side?

“Trust in the Lord, and lean not on your own understanding.”

The stated purpose of this lesson (in the real lesson manual) is:

To encourage class members to trust in the Lord rather than their own understanding.

The quote is actually from Proverbs 3, but we’re going to be busy handling a lot of Proverbs in the one lesson allotted, so let’s take this one now.

Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

This is one of the worst ideas in religion.

The urge to understand is one of the most human impulses, and one of the best. It’s helped us to make sense of the world, cure diseases, invent technology, and discover principles that make the universe operate.

But the idea that there’s a supernatural being whose purposes govern your life, but that you can never understand, short-circuits all that. You’re supposed to turn off your curiosity. Let’s say you find something in your religion that doesn’t make sense — it’s contradictory, or nonsensical. It’s natural to say: what’s the answer? How can we understand this? And then the answer you’ll get is that you should not even try to understand — that you can’t understand. How could you possibly understand it? It’s all being done by a magical and capricious guy in the sky who no one has direct access to, except through shadowy feelings. So don’t lean on your own understanding. Just believe, trust, and obey.

Is it important to listen to others? Undoubtably. Very few of us know very much, and we can learn a lot more by combining our knowledge. That’s how science works. But this is different. This scripture encourages you to ignore your own thought processes, your own ideas about what’s true and right — and replace them with someone else’s. This is intellectual and moral surrender, and this demand for surrender is coming from the least capable thinkers around.

When someone says “Don’t rely on your own thinking”, then that tells me that someone is selling total bullshit, but they don’t want you to figure that out. After all, thinking won’t hurt something that’s true. You can investigate and question something that’s true all day long, and it’ll stand up. But if questioning an idea makes it fall over, then it wasn’t very good in the first place.

That’s why I have this sticker on my laptop.

One of the things that unstuck things for me during my deconversion was a talk that the Stake President gave in Elders’ Quorum. He talked about “man’s reasoning” and how you couldn’t rely on logic and reason. You needed to rely on God. (Looking back, I wonder if that talk was aimed at me. It would have been about the right time.)

Now that the church has had to publish several back-tracking essays, we’ve all seen what happens when you rely on God’s reasoning: you get contradictions and unconvincing rationalisations, which no one would believe unless they were already on board and using all their logic-blocking faculties.

But at the time of the Stake President’s lesson, I thought, “Wait, isn’t this a bit of a giveaway? If logic and reason worked in his favour, you can bet that he’d be appealing to logic and reason! But he’s not! What does that tell me?” And then I realised that he didn’t appeal to logic and reason because he didn’t feel that his own religious views were logical or reasonable.

So this scripture is the giveaway. When a religious system says, “lean not on your own understanding”, this is a tacit admission that the system can’t withstand your scrutiny, and they’re asking you not to think about it, kthanx. They’re demanding that you treat their bullshit with a special kind of reverence and respect — respect it hasn’t earned. This idea is intended to extinguish rational thought, and for too many of us, it works far too well. Don’t buy it. Use your brain, and ignore anyone who tries to discourage you from thinking. They know they don’t have the goods.

Additional ideas for teaching

An evil spirit from God

The Bible says that the evil spirit that troubled Saul was from the Lord.

1 Samuel 16:14 (KJV) But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.

Thanks goodness for the lesson manual, which goes out of its way to assure us that God isn’t sending evil spirits around (except for Satan and 1/3 of the hosts of heaven).

The Holy Spirit departs from Saul, and an evil spirit takes possession of him (16:14–16; note that the Joseph Smith Translation corrects these verses to show that the evil spirit was not from God). (italics in original)

Okay, so let’s take a look at Joseph Smith’s super-duper inspired reworking of the Bible.

1 Sam 16:14 (JST)  But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit which was not of the Lord troubled him.

Wow, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that Joseph Smith just stuck a not in there to resolve any problems.

Any other creative uses of not in the JST? How about the story of Lot’s daughters?

Genesis 19:8 (KJV): Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.
Genesis 19:13 (JST)  And Lot said, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes;

Terribly unconvincing stuff, and the main reason why even as a believer, I could never have very much confidence in the JST. It was such an obviously convenient and ham-handed re-write job.

Anyway, do we really need spirits to explain why Saul is depressed? God’s just rejected him! And he doesn’t exactly reject a whole lot of people.

David and Goliath is a good example of a composite story

There are some inconsistencies in the D+G story.

  • For one thing, David is a little kid, tending sheep. But in the previous chapter, he’s a “brave man and a warrior.”
  • For another, Saul has no idea who David is in the Goliath story. But in the previous chapter, David played the harp for Saul, and found favour in his sight.

How do we explain these contradictions? The best answer is that this is a composite story. We’ve already seen examples of the same story getting retold in different places:

  • two different creation accounts
  • two different flood narratives
  • both Abraham and Isaac saying his wife is his sister (twice, in Abraham’s case)
  • baby Moses and baby Jesus almost getting killed
  • and in this very lesson, going into battle outnumbered, and confusing the other army into killing each other.

And now here’s another. It appears that Bible writers took competing versions of the same story, and wove them together at compilation time. And then elements of old stories would get remixed into new stories. Very human. But not very indicative of real events.

The Lord looks on the heart, but the church looks on appearances

One of the really worthwhile scriptures comes in chapter 16. Samuel is trying to find a more pliable figurehead that he can work with.

16:6 And it came to pass, when they were come, that he looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.
16:7 But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.

A very worthy sentiment. Unfortunately, as someone who’s been to BYU, I have been disappointed to find that good religious folk often evaluate people by a more superficial metric than this scripture would predict. Here’s an interesting article from Dialogue Magazine (PDF) about how BYU prez Ernest Wilkinson used failed political ambition and Reds-under-the-bed paranoia to turn BYU into outward-appearance heaven, as it still is today.

Hugh Nibley was a Mormon apologist who used his intellectual gifts for evil and not for good. For all his faults, though, he sometimes got it right. Here’s Nibley’s characteristically tart comment against the overly harsh and Pharisaical dress standards at the university:

“The haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.”

This hypocrisy is perhaps an inevitable consequence for an organisation that needs to determine worthiness based on intangible and unobservable qualities. How do you know if someone’s ‘spiritual’?  That’s such an undefinable quality. Looking on the heart is difficult. Judging based on appearances is much more practical.

OT Lesson 21 (Samuel)

God Will Honor Those Who Honor Him

1 Samuel 2–3; 8

LDS manual: here


This lesson’s about the beginning of the life of Samuel. Israel is going through some upheaval; it’s still fighting its wars of conquest and there are still Philistines to be smote, but now Israel’s trying to join the developing world and move from religious theocracy to something a bit more secular and regal. Jehovah’s gonna be ticked.

There are some things in this lesson you’re not going to believe (because who would?), so let’s get to them.

Ch. 2: Would you give your child to a priest? Samuel’s mom does. Here’s the cover of the real LDS lesson manual, and it sets off some creep alarms for me.

The old dude is Eli, the high priest. He has a couple of sons who abuse their office as priests. When it was sacrifice time, they’d nick off with Jehovah’s tastiest treats.

2:12 Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the LORD.
2:13 And the priest’s custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand;
2:14 And he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself. So they did in Shiloh unto all the Israelites that came thither.
2:15 Also before they burnt the fat, the priest’s servant came, and said to the man that sacrificed, Give flesh to roast for the priest; for he will not have sodden flesh of thee, but raw.
2:16 And if any man said unto him, Let them not fail to burn the fat presently, and then take as much as thy soul desireth; then he would answer him, Nay; but thou shalt give it me now: and if not, I will take it by force.

And they’d seduce women at the door of the tabernacle.

2:22 Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

Smile, boys!
Darned if I don’t see them making a thumbs-up with those hands, somehow.

Eli, like a good father, tells them to knock it off, but they aren’t having any.

2:23 And he said unto them, Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people.
2:24 Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the LORD’s people to transgress.
2:25 If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him: but if a man sin against the LORD, who shall intreat for him? Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because the LORD would slay them.

You might remember that parents can have their disobedient children stoned to death, but for some reason Eli doesn’t avail himself of this mechanism. Not killing his sons is what the manual calls ‘honor[ing] his sons above the Lord’.

Then a ‘man of God’ comes and tells Eli that, despite his attempts to correct his sons, everyone in his family will die.

2:31 Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father’s house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house.
2:32 And thou shalt see an enemy in my habitation, in all the wealth which God shall give Israel: and there shall not be an old man in thine house for ever.
2:33 And the man of thine, whom I shall not cut off from mine altar, shall be to consume thine eyes, and to grieve thine heart: and all the increase of thine house shall die in the flower of their age.

Ch. 3: A cute story. Samuel’s an imaginative child who hears voices in his head. He thinks the voices are Eli calling him, so he asks what Eli wants. After the third time, Eli thinks maybe it’s God, and tells Samuel to ask what it wants.

In my Gospel Doctrine teaching days, I used to say that many of us have spiritual gifts, but we sometimes need someone to help us recognise them. Now I’d say that childish fantasies are harmless until some god-addled adult gets a hold of us and funnels our youthful imagination into their cookie-cutter religion.

Anyway, what does the Lord tell the child Samuel? Something truly disturbing.

3:12 In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end.
3:13 For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.

In the morning, Samuel tells Eli. The old man seems shattered.

3:18 And Samuel told him every whit, and hid nothing from him. And he said, It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good.

Ch. 4: It all comes to pass; Eli’s sons killed in battle. Even worse, the Ark — Jehovah’s favourite furniture — is captured.

4:10 And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.
4:11 And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.

Eli is so surprised by this that he falls and breaks his neck.

4:16 And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?
4:17 And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.
4:18 And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

Hm. He seemed unfazed by the deaths of his sons; it was the news about Ark that finished him off. Forget what I said about Eli being a good father.

Ch. 5: Now the insanity starts. And you know this part’s good because they left it out of the official reading. So sit down on your special donut-shaped pillows, children, and I’ll tell you a story. Even though other people have probably told it better.

The Philistines put the Ark in the temple of Dagon the fish god. Mysteriously, the statue of Dagon falls over.

5:1 And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod. 5:2 When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.
5:3 And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.

Dagon falls again the next morning. And breaks. They don’t make gods like they used to.

5:4 And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.
5:5 Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.

Think someone could get me one of these for my car?

Dagon: the original fish god.

But God’s not done yet. Whoever has the Ark, he smites with emerods. What’s an emerod? It’s a haemorrhoid.

5:6 But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.

That’s right: whenever they move the Ark to a new city, everyone in that city gets haemorrhoids. In their secret parts.

5:9 And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts.

Haemorrhoids are painful, certainly, but I’m trying to imagine haemorrhoids so bad that you could die from them. All I can imagine is everyone in the Philistine cities running around with blood pouring out of their asses, screaming. It must be true; it’s in the Bible.

So what to do with the Ark? Send it back!

5:11 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people: for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.
5:12 And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

Ch. 6: But when you’re sending back an ass-sundering poison Ark, you can’t just return it like nothing ever happened. You can’t just show up with blood all over the seat of your pants and say, “Uh… here — I found this.” No, in this situation, etiquette dictates that you make an “I’m very sorry I took your Ark” offering. And in this case, the Philistines have a very appropriate gift in mind.

6:4 Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords.

Yes, they made golden versions of their inflamed rectal polyps. And golden mice, which makes some people think that the emerods were actually the bubonic plague, which was spread by rats. But do you get bubonic plague in your ‘secret parts’ specifically? I’m not an expert, but I’m sticking with haemorrhoids.

You know how most of the sentences we say are one-offs that no one’s ever said before and no one will ever say again? I’m realising that “I’m sticking with haemorrhoids” is probably one of those. I’ve never typed it before, and I never plan to again.

When the Ark arrives, it’s still not great news because some of the Israelites take a sneaky peek into the Ark. I’m guessing they wanted to look at the golden haemorrhoids. I’d be curious to see what one looked like, wouldn’t you? I’d be checkin’ out those haemorrhoids.

Because they peeked, God killed 50,070 men.

6:19 And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.

THEM’S MAH POLYPS, MOFO. You don’t just open the Ark to look at Jehovah’s polyps! What were they thinking?

So it seems that the Ark was just as bad for the Israelites as it was for the Philistines, even if the Bible writer blamed it on curiosity.

Since you’re probably curious too, here’s a picture of what a golden haemorrhoid probably looked like. Now your curiosity can be assuaged — ah, le mot juste — and you don’t have to die.

Ch. 7: After years of bumping around with judges, Samuel comes to take control. But he’s a strict Jahwist. He’s what we’d call a hardliner.

7:2 And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
7:3 And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the LORD, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

Samuel firmly takes the reins, and offers a sacrifice. Finally, Israel has a priest-leader again.

7:7 And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines.
7:8 And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the LORD our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.
7:9 And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the LORD: and Samuel cried unto the LORD for Israel; and the LORD heard him.

Ch. 8: Israel, up to this point, has been trying to free itself from the shackles of religious ledership. They’ve flirted with integration and multiculturalism, and now they want a secular king.

8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
8:5 And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
8:6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us.

Jehovah/Jesus isn’t too happy about it either.

8:6 And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
8:7 And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.

Can you guess why a priest would hate the notion of a secular king? Right — because there goes his gig. So every time the people want this sort of thing, the prophet or priest gets very grumpy and threatens them with punishment from god, and blames them when they lose their battles of empire. And very often the people believe him and sink back into the morass of theocracy. (Not that monarchy is great or anything, but secular leadership is a least a step in the right direction.)

Well, this time, the people refuse to capitulate, and persist in demanding a king. So Samuel rather sourly tells them what to expect.

8:11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
8:12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
8:13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
8:14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
8:15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
8:16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
8:17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

Wow, the king is going to take a tenth of their stuff? That’s a weird criticism from a priest. “Hey, you guys! If you have a king, you’ll have to pay him a tenth! You don’t want that; that’s really terrible! And by the way, some of you are falling behind on your tithing.”

8:18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.

Jehovah can be so pissy sometimes.

The king v priest conflict is going to come to a head in the next lesson, so we’ll leave it there for now.

Main points from this lesson

God punishes Eli’s family for his sons’ sins

In this story, Eli’s entire family was killed for the actions of Eli’s adult sons, even though Eli took them to task, and was unsuccessful in bringing them around.

I want to take this opportunity to address what I think is a very damaging aspect of Mormon parenting: the idea that God will hold parents responsible for their children’s behaviour.

Okay, yes, if children are little ratbags, then sometimes we can trace it back to inexpert or neglectful parenting. But I’m talking about something a bit different: a parent’s tendency to
control their children’s activity in the church, and
blame themselves if their children ‘go astray’; that is, grow up and leave the LDS Church.

In one particularly rank example of my experience, the father — a bishop — attempted to choose his children’s habits, friends, activities, and information inputs, in the belief that his god would hold him responsible for things they did before adulthood.

I think having a successful family requires something called differentiation, and that’s the idea that we’re different people, we may have different views, but we work together as a family, and we deal with our differences respectfully. In this model, couples try to have a bit of breathing space, not depending on each other for their good feelings. Parents can allow their children to have different views and grow into their adult status, without feeling threatened.

Compare that to the view promoted by the lesson manual, which asks:

In what ways do we sometimes honor other people more than God?
We fail to correct family members or friends in their wrongdoing because we want to maintain good relations with them.

Correct family members or friends in their wrongdoing? Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly advice, but is it our job to ‘correct’ our friends? I don’t think this is a case of unfortunate wording; this is the view held by people who truly think they know better.

Differentiation is near impossible in a family where

  • only one set of values is considered true or moral
  • those with divergent views or values are marginalised
  • there’s a strict hierarchy of control, and 
  • respect toward the ones in power is expected because of their position in the hierarchy, and not because of their human qualities.

The model promoted by the Eli story (and the murder of Achen’s family), practiced by many Mormons, is one in which it’s very difficult to be a differentiated person because you’ll suffer the consequences of other people’s choices. And spouses or children who deconvert or question can’t have their views respected because they may cause damage to the family unit or the family members themselves (in Eli’s case, bodily).

And there’s something else that this lesson beings into the mix: the idea that Jehovah/Jesus always comes first. The stated purpose of this lesson is:

To help class members understand the blessings of honoring and pleasing the Lord above themselves, others, or the world.

So you have to prioritise Jehovah/Jesus — or should I say his earthly representatives — before your family, before other people, and even before yourself. It’s why I say that the LDS Church doesn’t try to support the family; it attempts to supplant the family.

My parents were wonderful people who did a great job in parenting, despite some really terrible assumptions. But when I look back on my own childhood, what strikes me is how much unnecessary suffering my parents went through with me over ordinary issues like dating, card playing, music, friends, and clothing. They really agonised over this stuff, when really I was doing fine.

Now that I’ve realised that there’s more than one way to live, it’s made my job as a parent a lot easier. There are still things I caution my children to avoid, but I no longer buy into the idea that my children will suffer eternal isolation for failing to obey the arbitrary commandments of a murderous bronze-age deity. They’re responsible for their own actions, and my job is to help them understand the consequences of those actions, and get practice in the little choices, so they’ll be good at the big ones.

Additional ideas for teaching

God’s responsible for the bad stuff, too.

Modern believers tend to give their god all the credit for the good things that happen to them, but if something bad happens, that’s something else. Satan, possibly, or themselves.

Ancient Israelites didn’t feel that way. Remember, they hadn’t invented Satan yet, so everything that happened, they put it all down to God.

So when Samuel’s mom gets pregnant with Samuel, she sings about it:

2:6 The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.

Isn’t that a more honest view? After all, if you’re going to give the credit to the guy who set this whole thing up, you’ve got to blame him for the bad bits.

What if theists had this view today? Hymns might be different, for one thing.

Of course, Samuel’s mom gets no bonus points for noticing that God kills people; he’s only been doing it for the entire book up to this point.

Does the earth rest on pillars?

Samuel’s mom continues.

2:8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and he hath set the world upon them.

Believers sometimes claim that the Bible (or the Qur’an) contains accurate information about the earth that predates its scientific discovery. While it is possible to cherry-pick isolated scriptures and find a match for this or that fact, this strategy counts the hits and ignores the misses. This verse about the earth’s pillars is dismissed as ‘metaphorical’ or ‘poetic’, but other nearby verses are accepted as factual predictions because they happen to match observable reality.

Anyway, everyone knows it’s really turtles all the way down. Let’s have a closing hymn.

OT Lesson 18 (Joshua)

“Be Strong and of a Good Courage”

Joshua 1–6; 23–24

LDS manual: here


After the last few lessons, I’ve gotten a bit tired of slaughter and genocide. Anyone hoping we’d get a break after the death of Moses will be disappointed; Moses has an able successor in Joshua, whose genocidal tendencies (also known as obedience) helped him to, in the words of the lesson manual: “ably [direct] the conquest and settlement of the promised land.”

The atrocities in the Book of Joshua are well known to every child in Sunday School. In addition to the siege of Jericho, the Israelites are alleged to have conducted the slaughter of multiple cities, including men, women, children, and animals.

Again, why is this slaughter necessary? Because Jehovah forgot to reserve some land for the Israelites.

We must conclude that God is an incompetent doofus who murders people to get around the problems that he himself set up. This isn’t out of character, and in fact forms the basis for the Atonement.

Chs. 12: Joshua and the Israelites are to besiege the city of Jericho. Joshua sends to spies to check the place out, and they find a sex worker named Rahab, who tells them everyone in Jericho is terrified of Israel. She hides the spies, and in return they promise that she and her family won’t be killed in the ensuing carnage.

Ask: Would you describe Rahab as a moral person?
Rahab is held up as an example of faith later in the Bible, but it’s hard to see how her actions are moral. She certainly sees which side her bread is buttered on. She lies to protect the enemy of her people, and made a deal for herself and her family. All these things we wouldn’t exactly call moral, but it was to the benefit of the Israelites, and that’s the only kind of morality the Bible seems to be concerned with so far.

This is a pattern we’ve seen all throughout the OT: Murder is wrong, unless God (or the leader) does it. Israel gets what it wants, and no one else matters.

To my way of thinking, this functions like a set of moral blinders, possibly the same set the believer will have in heaven, happy while their disbelieving family and friends are being tortured — or isolated, take your pick — for eternity. And this moral failure will continue through to the last chapter of Revelation.

Chs. 3 – 5: Joshua parts the waters of the Jordan — eh, Moses did it first — and the Israelites cross over. Joshua circumcises the men (owie owie owie), and the magical manna that’s been falling all this time stops.

Ch. 6: Joshua and troops surround the city for six days, walking around it and blowing horns. On the seventh day, they blow their horns and shout, and what happens next is the subject of songs and stories told to children: the walls came a-tumbling down. The kids’ stories gloss over what happens next:

6:21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
6:24 And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Ch. 7: The Israelites lose the next battle against the people of Ai, so when they try to figure out why, blame falls upon Achen, who’d hidden some of the spoils for himself. They murder him — and his family.

7:24 And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor.
7:25 And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the LORD shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones.

Robert Ingersoll was an atheist back in the time of the US Civil War. It’s hard to imagine someone giving fiery denunciations of religion at that time, but that’s what he did. Here’s his commentary.

Joshua took the City of Jericho. Before the fall of the city he declared that all the spoil taken should be given to the Lord.

In spite of this order Achan secreted a garment, some silver and gold.

Afterwards Joshua tried to take the city of Ai. He failed and many of his soldiers were slain.

Joshua sought for the cause of his defeat and he found that Achan had secreted a garment, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold. To this Achan confessed.

And thereupon Joshua took Achan, his sons and his daughters, his oxen and his sheep—stoned them all to death and burned their bodies.

There is nothing to show that the sons and daughters had committed any crime. Certainly, the oxen and sheep should not have been stoned to death for the crime of their owner. This was the justice, the mercy, of Jehovah!

After Joshua had committed this crime, with the help of Jehovah he captured the city of Ai.

Ask: Are children responsible for the crimes of their parents?

Chs. 8 – 12: More genocide:

The city of Ai

8:25 And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.

Tricksy Gibeonites: They were local — and therefore marked for death — but they pretended they’d come from far away, and made an allegiance with the Israelites. When they realised they’d been tricked, the Israelites honoured the deal (plus points for them), but made the Gibeonites slaves forever (many minus points for them).

9:22 And Joshua called for them, and he spake unto them, saying, Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying, We are very far from you; when ye dwell among us?
9:23 Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.

Killing Amorites: The Israelites are killing the Amorites, and this gives God such a hateboner that he decides to wade in and kill them too. He makes sure to kill more of them with hailstones than the Israelites kill with weapons. Apparently this is a big-dick contest for him.

10:10 And the LORD discomfited them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goeth up to Bethhoron, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah.
10:11 And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.

God’s not through; he makes the sun stand still for a day so that more killing can be done in daylight.

10:12 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
10:13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

More cities: none left alive

10:40 So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.


11:11 And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire.

The Anakims

11:21 And at that time came Joshua, and cut off the Anakims from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel: Joshua destroyed them utterly with their cities.

Ch. 13 contains a memorable passage.

13:1 Now Joshua was old and stricken in years; and the LORD said unto him, Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.

I remember reading this on my mission, and God seemed like some kind of evil sprite or something. “Come on, come on! There’s still so much more to kill!” I’m thinking Ryuk, if Kira were an old man. But slightly smaller and more impish.

Chs. 14 – end: A very long denouement, with lots of boring bullshit. The Book of Joshua does end with this well-known verse:

24:15 And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

I’d just like to point out that at this stage of the action — with the slaughter of entire cities; men, women, children, and animals murdered; kings hung on trees; children punished for the crimes of their parents, and all at the command of a being who has an absolute and unchanging standard of morality — I’d say yes, it does seem evil to serve this being. As for me and my house, I’ll have nothing to do with him.

One more time for this graphic:

Main points from this lesson

Celebrating genocide is the mark of a small moral circle

In my missionary days, I was part of a singing quartet. Apparently something that talented young blighters do in the mission field. One of our songs was indeed “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”. We sang “And the walls came tumbling down” with great gusto. Now I hate thinking about that. We didn’t seem to realise that we were celebrating genocide, and if we did, I don’t know if we would have minded.

Since becoming an atheist (and part-time humanist), I’ve become aware of the work of moral philosopher Peter Singer. The metaphor he uses is a circle. We start off caring about the people in our circle — people like us. But if we’re doing it right, we expand our circle of concern so that we care about people who are less and less like us, continuing to animals. Here’s his talk from the Global Atheist Con of 2012.

The view of morality presented by the Bible is firmly focused on the tribe. In a way, we can’t fault them for that; that’s where humanity was at the time. One would think that having input from a timeless, transcendent, all-loving god would have expanded their circle, but quite the contrary. Jehovah has no interest for people beyond his favourite tribe, and participates in the slaughter himself.

This is a hopelessly narrow kind of morality. As humanists, we can do better than religion.

Evidence for Jericho?

Did Jericho really happen? Fortunately, the evidence from archaeology has disconfirmed the Jericho story. Not only did the walls not come tumbling down

Unfortunately for believers in biblical literalism, no strata of destruction that would correspond with such an invasion has yet been identified.

…but at the time of the alleged Jericho story, there was no wall at all.

Most significantly, although the LB was the period when an Israelite conquest would have happened, there was no trace of any fortifications during this period…. Therefore, although the Book of Joshua depicts Jericho as a mighty walled city when the Israelites encountered it, during this period it was in fact a meager, unfortified village. There were no walls to come tumbling down.

Does that mean I’m getting worked up over a genocide that never happened? Perhaps, but there’s more to the story than ‘did it happen’. Also significant is that there are millions of people who think it did happen, think it’s good that it happened, defend the god who they imagine made it happen, and are in fact disappointed and troubled to think that it didn’t happen. To me, it’s the best news I’ve heard all week.

I’m also amused to think that a group of people who today we consider bookish and intellectual imagined up for themselves a history of bloodthirsty carnage. Everyone overcompensates for something.

Did the sun stand still for a day?

According to Joshua, God himself stopped the sun in the sky so the carnage could continue.

10:12 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
10:13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Now you must’ve heard the story about the NASA engineer who found the missing day:

They called in the service department to check it out and they said “what’s wrong?” Well they found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer. Finally, a Christian man on the team said, “You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still.”

Hallelujah! Science confirms scripture! But science communicator Dr Karl debunks the story in his wonderful style:

But ignore the lies and exaggerations, and just think about the idea of a Missing Day. You can measure the length of a piece of string only if you can get to both ends of the string. In the same way, you can find a missing day only if you have known dates on each side of the missing day. Eclipses are ideal for this purpose, because they are such well-documented and memorable events. But at the time of Harold Hill’s lectures, the earliest documented eclipse was in 1217 BC, nearly two centuries after Joshua battled the Forces of Evil. In Harold Hill’s day, there were no eclipses documented before the time of Joshua, and so there was no way to find a Missing Day. It’s mathematically impossible.

The story is so thoroughly implausible that even Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International don’t believe it, and list it as an example of arguments Christians shouldn’t use.

The morality of selective Bible study

Let’s have a look at the real lesson manual. Did they run through all the carnage?

a. Joshua 1. The Lord calls Joshua to succeed Moses and commands him to be strong, have courage, study the scriptures, and keep the commandments. Joshua prepares the Israelites to possess the land that the Lord has promised them.
b. Joshua 3–4; 6. The Israelites cross the Jordan River on dry ground and place 12 stones as a memorial of their crossing. Through the Israelites’ faith, Jericho is destroyed.

Had to stop here. “Through their faith”. I suppose the swords and fire had nothing to do with it.

c. Joshua 23; 24:14–31. Joshua and his people covenant to serve the Lord.

Nope, they stop at Jericho, and skip over to the end. I guess class time is limited, and they would want to skip the bits that might disturb the membership. But is this an honest presentation of scripture?

How about the church’s presentation of Brigham Young? Even to this very day, his bio on the official church website says:

1824: Marries Miriam Works (23).
1832: Baptized into the Church and ordained an elder. Wife dies (31).
1834: Marries Mary Ann Angell.

First wife dies, marries another. There are no mentions of any of his other 53 wives; anyone would come away with the impression that Brother Brigham was a monogamist.

Mormonism has a culture that encourages obfuscation, prevarication, and lying by omission. Check out this video of this Mormon guy, explaining how to sidestep tough questions.

The manual is guilty of lying by omission, and this is a pattern in the church, as FlackerMan points out.

To get into the temple, a member has to affirm that they’re honest in their dealings with their fellow men. Members who can affirm this are certainly doing better than their church. But then what are we to expect from an esoteric mystical religion that teaches that the greater knowledge of godliness is to be held in reserve for those who have been initiated into the mysteries?

Additional ideas for teaching

Evolving ideas about the afterlife

Joshua is about to die, and there’s a curious thing about his death speech:

23:14 And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof.

“Going the way of all the earth” is how he describes it. But do you notice that there’s no follow-up:

  • “And I testify that I shall come forth…” Nope.
  • “My body shall rise again…” Nothing like that.

We won’t see anything about people rising from the dead until Job, and even then it’ll be vague and isolated from anything else in the Old Testament.

At this point in the Bible, the idea of an afterlife seems absent from Hebrew mythology. It’ll be one of Jesus’s big innovations, along with the idea of eternal punishment in Hell for unbelievers and evildoers.

Animal cruelty

In addition to killing all the land’s inhabitants, God commanded them to ‘hough the horses’.

11:6 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Be not afraid because of them: for to morrow about this time will I deliver them up all slain before Israel: thou shalt hough their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.

A ‘hough’ is a hamstring — the word is related to ‘heel’ — and to hough a horse is to cut its hamstrings, rendering it lame.

I suppose the idea is that Jehovah doesn’t want the Israelites to become good fighters on horseback. He wants them to be hobbled in battle, so that when they win, his big dick gets all the credit. That’s what it’s all about. And really, isn’t that worth a few hocked horses?

Remember this if anyone tells you that God cares for animals.

Leaving Joshua

Let’s wrap up the book of Joshua with a reading from “Skinny Legs and All“. You like a bit of Tom Robbins? I do.

The protagonist, Ellen Cherry, is talking to a Jewish character named Spike.

“You’re not exaggerating, Mr. Cohen? Wasn’t Canaan kind of a wilderness area that was open for settlement?”

“Hoo boy! You young people today, you’re knowing nothing very much. An advanced civilization, we’re talking about here. Already two thousand years old when the Hebrews invaded it. A lot of our culture comes from Canaan. You believe, darlink, that God told Moses go invade an advanced civilization, pilfer its territory, and kill all its people? Suppose in Westchester you had a nice house, and I stayed there the weekend as your guest, and then years pass and one day I come back and say, ‘God promised me your house.’ You would believe such a cockamamie story? No, you would not. So, okay, I murder you and your kids and your grandmother what’s in a wheelchair and your cat and your dog and your three goldfishes. And I say to the neighbors, ‘It’s my house now, don’t be peeing on my lawn.’ Hoo boy!”

“I guess we got America the same way,” ventured Ellen Cherry. “From the Indians.”

Spike ran his index finger, stubby and liver spotted, along the rim of his dry glass. “Okay, yes,” he said, “but at least John Wayne never said that God promised it to him. He honestly stole it.”

He paused. “I can tell you something?” He paused again, and Ellen Cherry could detect tearwater magnifying the green gooseberries of his eyes. “I can tell you something? Why I changed my birth name? Abu knows this, but no other body. I quote to you from the Old Testament. Joshua ‘carried off all the livestock of these cities,’ meaning the cities of Canaan, ‘but all the people he put to the sword, not sparing anyone who breathed.’ Joshua ‘plundered,’ Joshua ‘burned,’ Joshua massacred,’ Joshua ‘wiped them out,’ Joshua ‘put to death,’ Joshua ‘turned his forces,’ ‘all were taken by storm . . annihilated without mercy and utterly destroyed,’ Joshua ‘subdued,’ Joshua ‘slew,’ Joshua ‘left no survivors.’ In your Christian Bible you will find this nice story of this nice guy Joshua. You think I could go on living when I wear the name of such a man?”

Joshua (or Yeshua) was the successor to Moses. Later on, there will be another successor to Moses, and coincidentally another Yeshua. This’ll be Jesus. Looks like he didn’t have a problem with that name. Telling.

OT Lesson 17 (Deuteronomy)

“Beware Lest Thou Forget”

Deuteronomy 6; 8; 11; 32

LDS manual: here


The real lesson manual has cherry-picked some scriptures from Deuteronomy — only four books out of the original 34. That’s okay, I suppose; the whole thing is kind of a rehash of Exodus and Leviticus. And in fact the word Deuteronomy means ‘second law‘ — we’ve already seen it the first time. But cherry-picking is not how we roll around here at GDG, so here’s a quick rundown of the whole book.

Moses is giving a final pep talk. “Hey,” he says, “remember the time we killed all the Amorites? And all those giants we defeated?”

2:11 Which also were accounted giants, as the Anakims; but the Moabites called them Emims.

“And we killed all the Heshbonites, including the children?”

2:33 And the LORD our God delivered him before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people.
2:34 And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain:

“And Og, the king of Bashan? and sixty cities, killing everyone?”

3:3 So the LORD our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people: and we smote him until none was left to him remaining.
3:4 And we took all his cities at that time, there was not a city which we took not from them, threescore cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan.

“Well, you have to obey Jehovah, the one who commanded all these killings — in his mercy. ;)”

4:31 (For the LORD thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.

I assume, since the winking smiley emoticon hadn’t been invented yet, that the 😉 in the above paragraph was a typographic convention in Jacobean times.

“So remember to kill everyone when you take their land.”

7:2 And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:
7:16 And thou shalt consume all the people which the LORD thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them

“Oh, but love them.”

10:19 Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

“But destroy the symbols of their religions.”

12:2 Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree:
12:3 And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.

“And if anyone — even in your own family — worships a different god, kill them.”

13:6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
13:7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
13:8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
13:9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
13:10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die;

God hates trees. Deforestation is kind of a problem in our day, but in Moses’s day, it was something of a goal.

16:21 Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.

“When you go to destroy a city, give them a chance to become your slaves first. (That’s called a peace offer.) But if they put up a fight, kill the men and take the women.”

20:10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it.
20:11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.
20:12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:
20:13 And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
20:14 But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.
20:15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.

“Unless God really hates them. Then just kill them all.”

20:16 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
20:17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:

“If you take over a city, and you see a woman you like, take her home and shave her head. Then after a month, she’s yours.”

21:10 When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,
21:11 And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;
21:12 Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
21:13 And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

“Kill rebellious children.”

21:18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
21:19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
21:20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21:21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

“If a woman’s not a virgin when you marry her, kill her.”

22:13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her,
22:14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:
22:15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:
22:16 And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;
22:17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.
22:18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;
22:19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.
22:20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:
22:21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

Stoning for adultery still happens. Brunei will be starting it up next year. Here’s a handy infographic about it.

Just to be clear, religious belief has convinced some people in the 21st century that this is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with people who cheat on their spouses.

“Also, don’t let your wives grab other men’s junk, not even as a method of conflict resolution.”

25:11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:
25:12 Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

The always wonderful Brick Testament, ladies and gentlemen.

“Speaking of junk, here’s the list of people who can’t attend church: Nobody with testicle wounds or dickless; no bastards, and no Ammonites or Moabites. Geez, God really hates them!”

23:1 He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
23:2 A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
23:3 An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever:

“However, he doesn’t mind blind people, strangers, the fatherless, or widows.”

27:18 Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way. And all the people shall say, Amen.
27:19 Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.

“If you don’t obey all these things, then God’s going to give you haemorrhoids.”

28:27 The LORD will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.

This video by nonstampcollector is fitting in so many ways.

28:30 Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof.

“And you’ll eat your own babies when your neighbours besiege your cities.”

28:53 And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the LORD thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee:

Notice that the Israelites brag about their ability to do this to other people when they besiege their cities — they just don’t want it to happen to them.

And endeth Moses: “I think that’s about it.”

Remember: this is God’s chance to give a message to mankind. He could have given us any kind of knowledge: about science, medicine, anything.

What he did instead was tell who you can own, and who you should kill. Spoiler alert: Everyone. And all in the name of brand protection!

Which is why Richard Dawkins was accurate in describing him thus:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

And check out Steve’s blog post, giving scriptural support to each of these charges.

Main points from this lesson

“Beware lest thou forget”

In Dueteronomy, there’s a big emphasis on always remembering the god of the Old Testament.

6:12 Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

In two separate places, God commands the Israelites to put his words on their hands, foreheads, and the posts of their houses.

6:6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
6:8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
6:9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

An unusual choice of fashion accessory, to be sure.

The lesson manual picks up this theme:

Why do you think Moses told the people to place passages of scripture between their eyes, on their hands, on the posts of their houses, and on their gates? How would such constant reminders affect our actions? What can we do in our homes to remind us of the Lord, his words, and our covenants with him? Do the pictures on our walls, the books we read, and the movies and television shows we watch remind us of the Lord, or do they suggest a longing for the world?

Let’s talk about pictures on the walls for a second. In the last ten years or so, Mormons have invented a tradition of putting pictures of their leaders on the walls of their homes. You can go to the homes of many Latter-day Saints and find a picture like this official portrait:

Or this:

Maybe this excellent Photoshop job:

Please not this:

Chillaxin’ in the temple.

There’s like a cottage industry for these things.

Whoops, wrong leaders. Only two of them. But does anyone else get a North Korea thing off of this? Why the leader worship?

Ironically, the “First Presidency portrait” meme is probably in violation of the “no graven images” meme.

4:23 Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.

Now my memory is as bad as the next person, but what’s behind the constant exhortation to remember? If this god is as great as they say, why would someone need to keep him on their mind all the time? Wouldn’t it be obvious that he was real and powerful? Why is his existence and his influence so tenuous that it’s possible to forget it? Why does it need constantly shoring up?

Things that are true don’t need shoring up. They need to be publicised, of course, because information works best when it’s distributed. But things that are true don’t need to be believed in and constantly reiterated, like religious doctrines do.

The constant admonishment to remember religious norms is really about creating a bubble where the religious views won’t be challenged. The accompanying graphic in the manual resembles nothing less than an ideological bubble, where competing ideas just bounce off.


Again, when someone constructs a religious bubble, what they’re saying is that their ideas can’t compete with others on an equal footing. It’s a sure sign that the idea is weak.

Failed prophecies

How do you know if a prophet is a prophet? According to Deuteronomy, a prophet is fake if his prophecies don’t come true.

18:20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
18:21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?
18:22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

By that definition, Moses fails the prophet test. More to the point, Joseph Smith fares no better.

Additional ideas for teaching

Rape in the Bible

How can you get a wife, according to Deuteronomy? Here’s one way: If you “lay hold on” a girl, just pay her father fifty shekels, and she’s your wife!

22:28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
22:29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

Now Christian apologists don’t like this very much, and to get around it, they play some word games.

The best apologist explanation I could find is that in the Torah, the word used for ‘seize’ is ‘tabas’. The word ‘tabas’ has multiple uses and doesn’t necessarily mean seized by force. For example, it could be used to describe the handling of a harp. From what I can tell, there is no formal word in the Hebrew language for ‘rape’, although I could be entirely wrong about the whole thing.

Of course! Since words have multiple meanings, just pick the one that corresponds to what you want. So when it says lays hold on her, it really means: he plays her like a harp. Yow. That’s some imagery.

I suppose that in Deut. 21:9, when parents are supposed to lay hold on their rebellious children (and stone them), it really just means caress them. With stones.

A quick and handy guide to biblical rape:

One more.

An unusual approach to crime investigation

If you find a dead body in the field, and you don’t know who killed him, here’s what you do: Cut off a cow’s head, and wash your hands over it. This will remove the sin.

21:1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:
21:2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:
21:3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;
21:4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley: 21:5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:
21:6 And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley:
21:7 And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.

Well, that would certainly make CSI a touch more surreal. And a lot shorter.

OT Lesson 16 (Genocide)

“I Cannot Go Beyond the Word of the Lord”

Numbers 22–24; 31:1–16

LDS manual: here


Let’s start with a bit of review, just to see where we are in the narrative.

God’s been on a particularly blood-thirsty tear lately. He’s already commanded the slaughter of the Amorites, kicking off the waves of genocide that will typify this part of the Old Testament. But he hasn’t just caused violence against outsiders; he’s also killed the men of Korah by swallowing them up in a great hole, and then killed those who questioned it.

Let’s just pause for a moment, and look at the purpose for this lesson in the real manual:

Purpose: To encourage class members to submit to God’s will without hesitation.

Ponder that for a moment. “Submit to God’s will without hesitation.” Perhaps because of what God’s going to do to you if you hesitate to submit.

I can’t help but think there’s some Stockholm syndrome at work here on the part of believers. What else could be going on in your mind when you worship a murderous jerk who’s got a hair-trigger and a reputation to protect? You hear stories in church every week about how he kills people who get in his way, and you know that unbelievers are going to cop it, but you just try to make sure it’s not you. You’ll be happy eternally in heaven, while others are going to be suffering, but it’s good and just that they’ll be suffering, and God wouldn’t make that happen unless it were the right thing. There’s got to be some numbness going on in the part of your brain that does empathy. There’s a brokenness.

Add in the fact that “submitting to God’s will” translates into “submitting to the will of leaders” and you’ve got a potentially toxic formula. Psychologically, it would be a lot healthier to tell this god to fuck off. Have nothing to do with him and his works of murder.

Ch. 22: Balaam was a prophet, but he was copping some flak from his boss, the Moabite king Balak. Balak had gotten the news about the Ammonite genocide, and wanted Balaam to curse Israel. But Elohim appeared to Balaam, and put a little heat on him. Balaam was no fool and saw which way his bread was buttered; He decided to bless them instead.

Now to the famous story: In the morning, Balaam saddles his ass (LOL semantic shift) and heads off to see the king. Standing in the way is an angel that only donkeys can see, apparently. Balaam thinks the donkey’s just being an ass. After three smotes, the donkey’s had enough, and complains to Balaam using human speech, asking why it’s getting beaten. Balaam takes this with equanimity, and has a bit of discourse with the animal.

This is, of course, not the first inter-species communication in the Bible; that would be the talking snake in the Garden.

Chs. 23 & 24: Balaam refuses to curse Israel, even when the king offers him a houseful of dosh. Instead, he predicts a win by Israel, in bloodthirsty terms:

23:24 Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.


24:8 God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

Ch. 25: God’s brand is threatened, so it’s time for more murders. He plans a plague…

25:3 And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
25:4 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.
25:5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.

But then someone puts a spear through a couple who are (one supposes) having sex. God thinks that’s pretty cool, so he calls off the plague.

25:6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
25:7 And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
25:8 And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

The guy who committed the murders gets a special treat: the Priesthood! (Gee, all I had to do was turn twelve. It’s like God gives it to everyone these days.)

Didn’t this happen in one of the Friday the 13th films? I forget which one. No, wait, it was “Bay of Blood”. If you don’t like horror, don’t watch this link, but remember: it’s fine to throw a Bible with the exact same scene to children because it makes them more moral.

Brother Brigham felt that such a course would in some cases have salubrious effects.

Possible irksome question for those trapped in a real Gospel Doctrine class: Ask if this is a justification of body piercing.

Chs. 26, 27, 28, 29: God is going to show Moses all the land he’s giving to the Israelites, and then Moses will die. But not before some more burning lamb! Mmm… smell that sweet savour.

28:6 It is a continual burnt offering, which was ordained in mount Sinai for a sweet savour, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD.

Ch. 30: Any vow a woman makes has to be okayed by her husband or her father.

Ch. 31: The Midianite massacre: see below.

Chs. 32 and 33: Aaron dies. God tells Moses that they have to conquer people and destroy their religions, or else…

33:55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.
33:56 Moreover it shall come to pass, that I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them.

Ask: If you were the supreme being of the universe, would you be a little more secure in your supremacy? Wouldn’t you think you could ease up on the brand dominance? After all, since you knew everything, you’d know that other gods were non-existent. Yet, Elohim doesn’t seem to know this. He acts like he’s the number-two dog. It seems likely, then, that at this point that’s what he was.

Main points for this lesson

Balaam, unlike modern LDS prophets, rejected the profit

You can say what you like about Balaam’s state of mind, talking to donkeys and all, but what you have to admire is his refusal to say what the king wants. Balak offers him loads of dough if he’ll curse Israel, but he won’t.

Compare this to modern so-called prophets, who are willing to tone down unpleasant doctrines if it keeps people coming in. In 1988, when church leaders were mulling about changing some of the stranger and more off-putting parts of the endowment session, they sent around a survey to thousands of Latter-day Saints.

Discussion at Mormon Curtain | Exmormon | LDS-Mormon | MormonThink

We don’t have access to the results of the survey, but we do know that the penalties — in which temple attendees would mime their own murder in various grisly ways — disappeared in the 1990 revision.

We’ve seen the same pattern more recently: tone down the anti-gay rhetoric when it doesn’t fly, adapt doctrines about race that are distasteful, and do whatever it takes to keep the bottom line from being affected.

So Balaam certainly had more integrity than prophets today. Too bad he doesn’t survive past chapter 31.

The Midianite genocide

God commands the wholesale slaughter of the Midianites. First, they kill the men — including boys.

31:7 And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.

They take captives, burn the cities, and take the booty.

31:9 And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
31:10 And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
31:11 And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.

But Moses is pissed, because they didn’t kill the women.

31:14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.

So they kill all the male children, and all the non-virgin women.

31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

The female children become sexual slaves, or at best, victims of forced marriages.

31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Verse 34 counts 32,000 women.

For as long as I’ve been an atheist, people have asked me where I get my morals from — even wondered how someone could be moral without religion. And religion is often recommended as a way of instilling ‘good moral values’.

This one lesson, all by itself, obliterates any claim that the Christian god is a moral being. Not only is he not the source of all morality, he’s not even a moral being. There are not many moral decisions that are easier to make than “Is genocide okay?” The Bible gets that wrong. And if it gets such an easy question wrong, how is it going to do on the hard ones?

Naturally, Christians have many explanations for why Old Testament genocide is actually fine. Christians of many denominations have cheerfully explained to me that God commanded it, and that means it’s just fine by them. Here’s what happened when I brought the issue up with a couple of very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Here are some of the arguments apologists offer for this repugnant deity:

  • The Midianites were bad people! They sacrificed their children to Molech.

There’s some disagreement as to the extent and the origin of child sacrifice in Canaan, but it’s hardly a remedy for child sacrifice if one kills every available male child. I find it highly likely that just as Bible writers demonised the Moabites as the result of incest, they demonised the Canaanites as child murderers. This allows a community to externalise their enemies as subhuman ‘others’, at which point you can do as you like to them.

  • ‘Destroy’ doesn’t mean ‘entirely eradicate’.

This is a case of redefining words, a favourite apologetics tactic. If the Israelites didn’t wipe out tribes person for person, it was contrary to the commands of Jehovah, and that’s the real problem here.

  • It was better than other cultures at the time.

This is an odd argument. Is God a transcendent being, outside of space and time, presenting an unambiguous and absolute moral code? Or is he not? This line of reasoning reminds me that sometimes if you push a religious absolutist, they inexplicably turn into a moral relativist. They have to. There’s no other way to justify this slaughter.

  • God gets to judge. Everything he commands is right, and he made us, so he gets to decide what to do with us. I’m just going to keep believing, and trust that he knows all.

This is chicken shit. It’s moral abnegation. If someone takes this view, they’re trying to feel okay about something that strikes a normal person as deeply wrong. They are in the process of removing the part of themselves that feels compassion, and replacing it with submission. To say, as in the title of this lesson, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” is really a form of moral cowardice.

I had an experience when preparing for this Godless Doctrine lesson.

I’ve always been kind of haunted by a sense that I wouldn’t have handled moral controversies in the church very well. I’ve never had the chance to be tested in a big way though; I was too young for the ‘Race and the Priesthood’ issue, and I was out of the church by Prop 8. So would I have passed the test? Or would I have sung myself to sleep, convinced that the church was right, no matter what?

Well, when preparing for this lesson, I found something. I went through my old Sunday School notes on the computer, and found the file for this lesson when I taught it in Gospel Doctrine so long ago. And I noticed this sentence:

Does anyone else have a problem with the genocide besides me?

And then I remembered how I agonised over this issue as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I really didn’t have an answer for it, and it really bothered me. Usually I was good at coming up with rationales, but this one was so obviously wrong.

So this was the question I dropped right in the middle of the lesson.

Does anyone else have a problem with the genocide besides me?

It caused the class to shift uncomfortably in their uncomfortable seats. A few people volunteered that, yes, they did. Others offered weak explanations. One RM ventured that the winners write history, which I suppose is true in this case. In the lesson, I left it as unresolved.

So when I read that entry in my lesson plan, I felt relieved. I almost cried, in fact. No, I hadn’t left the church over this issue, but it was a crack in my Mormonness. I knew the Bible was wrong on this issue, and in time I would find more things wrong. The religion had not dulled my sense of what a normal person would see as right. I felt like I was not ‘utterly cast off’.

The other thing I noticed from my lesson notes is that we used to do a whole lesson on Leviticus, but it’s been cut from the current manual. Obviously they didn’t do any of the bits I talked about in the previous lesson.

Additional ideas for teaching

‘Revelation’ can come by petition

The ‘Ordain Women’ movement has been on my mind and in the news lately. Again this year, women asked to be admitted to the Priesthood Session of General Conference, and again they were turned away.

The response to ‘Ordain Women’ from many Mormon men has been a colossal ‘harrumph!’ Why, those women think they can counsel the Lord. They think that revelation comes through them, and not through the prophet. And so on.

I don’t think Mormon women need the priesthood; they need atheism. But things would certainly be better for many Mormon women if they were taken seriously on an administrative level, on an equal footing in the priesthood.

So it was interesting to see this story where women petitioned Moses for property rights for daughters.

27:1 Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
27:2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,
27:3 Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons.
27:4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.

And God says “Oh, that’s a good idea; I hadn’t thought of that.”

27:5 And Moses brought their cause before the LORD.
27:6 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
27:7 The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.
27:8 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

Actually, Mormons should be able to think of lots of cases where a revelation has come because someone asked a question. This is one of the earlier cases that worked to the benefit of women.

Unfortunately, women are put back in their place in chapter 30, when God says that any vow they make has to be approved by their husband (or father).


This is the first Bible verse where unicorns are mentioned —  the first of nine times in the Bible. With nine mentions, this is something to deal with.

23:22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

So did the biblical unicorn exist? Come on down to the Unicorn Museum and find out!

Oh sure, we could explain the biblical unicorn away by saying it’s a fictional beast, like God or Satan.

But the folks at Answers in Genesis think that since it’s in the Bible, it’s totes real.

The Bible describes unicorns skipping like calves (Psalm 29:6), traveling like bullocks, and bleeding when they die (Isaiah 34:7).

It might be extinct now:

The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.).

or it might have described a real animal.

The elasmotherium, an extinct giant rhinoceros, provides another possibility for the unicorn’s identity. The elasmotherium’s 33-inch-long skull has a huge bony protuberance on the frontal bone consistent with the support structure for a massive horn.

This post shows two of the biggest tricks that apologists use when confronted with something foolish in their scripture:

1) Appeal to ignorance: Just because you can’t find a unicorn doesn’t mean it’s not real!

I suppose there might have been unicorns and they might have pooped Lucky Charms,

but with no evidence — no photos, no sightings, no bones, no scat — there’s no reason to believe in them. The same thing goes for leprechauns, genies, or gods.

2) Redefine words until they mean what you want. A unicorn can be a rhinoceros, and a horse can be a tapir.

Isn’t it nice to know that apologists are pretty much the same everywhere you go?

OT Lesson 15 (Leviticus, Numbers)

“Look to God and Live”

Numbers 11–14; 21:1–9

LDS manual: here


Well, we blasted through Exodus pretty fast, and now, according to the church-approved lesson manual, we’re up to Numbers. Wait — did we miss something?

Leviticus. We totally skipped Leviticus, the chapter where the god of the universe gives his perfect law for mankind. So let’s hit the highlights of Leviticus.

Animal sacrifice

God starts out by telling how to sacrifice animals. Why? He likes the smell.

1:11 …it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD.

In every age, people try to make their god into whatever they admire. In the past, people who admired war and conquest said that God was a god of war and conquest. Now Christians who admire science say that their god created science. A bit hard to harmonise those two things: God’s the ultimate scientist, he has enough intelligence to create the universe… and he likes the smell of burning goat.

Eating blood

7:27 Whatsoever soul it be that eateth any manner of blood, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.

This verse shows God’s intention to let as many Jehovah’s Witnesses as possible bleed to death.

God fails biology

God misclassifies rabbits as ruminants.

11:6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

And God doen’t seem to realise that insects have six legs and not just four.

11:21 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
11:22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
11:23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.
11:24 And for these ye shall be unclean: whosoever toucheth the carcase of them shall be unclean until the even.


Here’s an interesting bit on leprosy. Leprosy at this time was a general term for a range of infections that could turn patches of your skin white and maybe do other nasty things; it wasn’t necessarily the skin-falling-off disease upon which so many jokes have been based. Even so, having leprosy meant you were bad news.

13:2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests:
13:3 And the priest shall look on the plague in the skin of the flesh: and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.

And then you’d have to go away. That makes sense from an epidemiology point of view. But what happened if you had so much leprosy that your entire skin turned white?

13:12 And if a leprosy break out abroad in the skin, and the leprosy cover all the skin of him that hath the plague from his head even to his foot, wheresoever the priest looketh;
13:13 Then the priest shall consider: and, behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean.

If you’re all leprous, then you’re fine again! Welcome back in, brother — you’re clean!

The impression I’m left with is that the Israelites didn’t mind leprosy so much; they just didn’t like people with two colours of skin. Well, just like they didn’t like two kinds of cloth mixed together, or two different animals ploughing the field together. All part of their obsession with purity. No mixing.

Sexual discharges

Let’s let the Brick Testament take up the story for the rules about sexual discharges.

(Why does this Lego guy not have a giant yellow dong in his hand? Judging by the size of his hand, he’d have some impressive girth. Might put me off the movie though, so it’s probably just as well.)


The people would symbolically put all their sins onto a goat — using a special Sin Transfer-o-metron — and drive it away.

16:22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

Seems cruel to pretend to put your sins onto a goat and drive it out into the wilderness to die of exposure, doesn’t it? I guess it made them feel better, and that’s what matters.

It’s good to remember, as well, that the idea of a scapegoat would be picked up in the central doctrine of Christianity: you can avoid responsibility for your actions by putting them onto an innocent person.

Gay guys

18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.
20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Jehovah (which, remember, is Jesus) commands the Israelites to kill gay men. Apparently lesbians are okay — everyone likes lesbians! Except Paul, and he didn’t really like anyone.

People tell me that god is just fine with gay people now — that was the Old Testament! Why, Jesus said nothing about gay people at all!

I always respond: I’m not going to support the god of the Bible just because he doesn’t feel like killing gay people… anymore. When and why did he change his mind? Isn’t it more likely that society changed so it’s not okay to kill gay people anymore, and religion had to adapt?

It’s worth mentioning here that a lot of Christians are down with this one part of Leviticus, but not any of the others — like shellfish being an abomination — because it aligns with what they want to believe. This is cherry-picking.

As pilloried by President Bartlett on The West Wing.

One more:

Rules about bestiality.

18:23 Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.
20:15 And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.
20:16 And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.


Love thy neighbour

19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

This sounds nice, but it doesn’t refer to loving everyone; it refers to your literal neighbour; the guy in the next tent. Those people across the river are fair game. However, the rule also extends to non-Israelites living among you:

19:34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Handicapped people shouldn’t come to church. God’s not into them.

21:17 Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.
21:18 For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous,
21:19 Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded,
21:20 Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;

Stones broken. Sounds painful.

Blasphemers are to be put to death.

24:16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.

This scripture was invoked in colonial New Hampshire.

If any pson wthin ye Province professing ye true God shall wittingly and willingly presume to blaspheme the wholly name of God, Father, Son or Holy Ghost, wth direct, express, presumptions or high-handed blasphemy, either by willful or obstinate denying ye true God or his creation or Governmt of ye world, or shall curse God, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, such pson shall be put to death. Levit. 24: 15 and 16.

Notice that you didn’t have to actually say anything blasphemous. All you had to do was deny that a god created the world.
Here was the punishment for blasphemy in Maryland:

[Pg 143] In Maryland blasphemy was similarly punished. For the first offense the tongue was to be bored, and a fine paid of twenty pounds. For the second offense the blasphemer was to be stigmatized in the forehead with the letter B and the fine was doubled. For the third offense the penalty was death. Until the reign of Queen Anne the punishment of an English officer for blasphemy was boring the tongue with a hot iron.

Aren’t you glad we live in a time when religious authority has been largely defanged by secularism? I’m very critical of Islamic countries, where this kind of thing is still going on, but it’s worth remembering that Christians have pulled this stuff whenever they could get away with it. Islam is terrible, but it’s not uniquely terrible. Any religion could assert itself like this if left unchecked.

Slavery again

25:10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

You’re supposed to set free your slaves. Hey, that sounds good! Oh, wait — that’s only if your slaves are Hebrews.

25:44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.
25:45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
25:46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.

You’re allowed to own heathen slaves, and not only that, if they have children, you inherit them. Slave babies!

God threatens those who don’t keep his commandments. With cannibalism.

26:27 And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me;
26:28 Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins.
26:29 And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.

Reading Leviticus is kind of strange. Here’s the word of the god of the universe. He could tell humanity anything about health, the cosmos, or anything. And what does he focus on? A lot of irrelevant, cruel, and discriminatory rules that sounds like they came from a bunch of goat herders. We won’t see much better from this god for a long time.


Now we rejoin the lesson.

Ch. 11: There’s an interesting episode in Numbers 11, in which two men start prophesying. Joshua tells Moses about it, and asks him to get them to stop.

11:27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.
11:28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them.
11:29 And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!

This is a tricky issue. If you insist that all the revelation has to come from the top, you maintain tight control, but you squash the spiritual expression of the rank and file membership, and breed dissatisfaction. On the other hand, if you throw revelation open to everyone, then the religion turns into a circus, with everyone claiming authority for every wacky notion that pops into their heads… including leadership challenges and factional splintering.

Mormonism has hit on an amazingly clever strategy that solves this problem: everyone can have revelation, but only for areas within their domain. One’s domain is a stake if you’re a stake president, a ward if you’re the bishop, a family if you’re a man, or if you’re a woman, just yourself. (See the section below on misogyny.) And of course, the president of the church gets revelation for the whole church.

While I have no admiration for the control that the LDS Church has over its members or for revelation in general, I have to kind of stand in awe of this solution. It allows members to have some control over their own spiritual self-expression, while keeping it within a limited scope that doesn’t threaten the church hierarchy. It also allows leaders to pull the plug on non-hierarchical ‘revelation’ that gets out of hand. Quite brilliant, really.

Ch. 14: Moses does a clever bit of jiu-jitsu on one of the many occasions when God wants to destroy the Israelites, saying in effect, “If you destroy us, what will the other tribes think about your power?”

14:15 Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying,
14:16 Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.
14:20 And the LORD said, I have pardoned according to thy word:

At this point, God has some buyer’s remorse about tying himself too closely with the Israelites. His later attempt to circumvent this by acquiring a bunch of Christians will be unsuccessful, as he finds that they’re equally annoying.

Ch. 15: The Israelites kill a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.

15:32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.
15:33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.
15:34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.
15:35 And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.
15:36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.

It’s issues like this that make me think: Thank goodness the government is in mostly secular hands.

Chs. 11 & 16: God kills a lot of people in Numbers. He kills people with a surfeit of quail for complaining. Then he kills the people of Korah for complaining, and then the people who complained about that. I guess what this lesson is meant to reinforce is that God hates complainers, and loves the docile, obedient, and compliant.

Main points from this lesson

The Bible reflects a profoundly misogynistic worldview

There are all kinds of ways in which these passages either ignore women, or imply that they’re somewhat the lesser.

  • Women are unclean for a week after having a baby boy, but if it’s a girl, the woman is unclean for two weeks.

12:2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
12:3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
12:4 And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
12:5 But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.

  • Notice also that only men are included in the numbering of Israel, including male babies. Women are not counted.
  • And of course, Miriam was punished with leprosy for criticising Moses. Aaron did the same thing, but wasn’t. I’ve had it explained that her sin was especially grievous because she was a woman, and it’s especially bad for a woman to criticise the prophet.

This doesn’t do much to make women feel worthwhile. And we can see echoes of this misogyny all through modern Christianity. Mormons, most recently, have steadfastly refused to ordain women. They’re ready to go to the wall for this, just like they went to the wall for denying the priesthood to people of African descent. And it’s sad to watch Mormons taking this stand because you know they’re going to have to walk it back before too long.

Unfunny joke: What’s the difference between Mormon doctrine and not Mormon doctrine?
Answer: About 40 years.

Do these biblical laws have a practical basis?

Growing up in the church, I was always taught that, while the Levitical laws were unusual, there was actually a point to them. For example, not eating pork. The story was that at that time, pork was unsafe to eat (trichinosis was mentioned), so the anti-pork law served as a kind of protection for the Israelites.

Not quite. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in chapter 3 of God Is Not Great, other people in that area and time ate pork with no ill effects. Archaeologists can tell the Jewish sites from the non-Jewish sites by going through their garbage dumps and finding pig bones or no pig bones.

So why the prohibition? Hitches puts it down to an aversion to anything that might seem like cannibalism — even the Polynesians called people ‘long pig’. This all seems plausible enough. But in the end, who knows why a religious taboo catches on? Why do Jews have a name-avoidance taboo while others don’t? Why do Australian Aboriginal cultures avoid spiritual places, while Western new-age hippies flock to them? Really just cultural build-up.

Why do religions do weird things?

If there’s one thing that characterises the diversity of religions, it’s their interesting and idiosyncratic practices. But why do religions build these up?

I’d say the answer is essentially one of branding. People in groups tend to do things to distinguish themselves as a group. But you can’t distinguish your group by doing normal things. You can’t really make yourself different by using reality because reality is available to everyone. No, you have to do odd things, like eating things on a certain day, or only wearing yellow, or praying in certain ways a certain number of times every day.

Doing odd things also helps group cohesion. How? Well, if you do the odd things that your group does, you might feel odd. Other people outside the group may not understand you, and even oppose you. Opposition and the feeling of being misunderstood can cause you to retreat back into the group, to be with people who do understand. Voilá: group cohesion. And even if people don’t oppose your practices, they might ask questions, and this allows you the chance to explain your beliefs: “We do this because…” Thus: missionary opportunity / meme propagation. This serves another purpose: identifying publicly as a member of a group reinforces one’s identity as a member of the group. It becomes awkward to unidentify later.

Additional ideas for teaching

The Old Testament rules are meant to last forever

A popular dodge that Christians engage in is to say that the laws of the Old Testament were superseded by Christ, and are now unnecessary. In doing so, they’re only following the example laid down by early Christians; Paul, especially, laid a lot of groundwork there, saying that the law was a schoolmaster, and so forth.

However, God says these laws are to be kept forever. Over and over again, it says things like this:

Lev. 23: 14it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
Num. 19:21 And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them…

This makes it difficult to throw the Old Testament under the bus entirely.

Moses probably didn’t write the Pentateuch

It was once believed that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible. But here’s a funny little tidbit:

Num. 12:3 (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)

Wouldn’t it be odd for Moses to write that about himself? So either Moses didn’t write it, or he was bragging about his humility. I might not put it past him.
The next few lessons cover a lot of material, but there are more talking animals, so that’ll be fun. See you next time.

OT Lesson 13 (Exodus)

Bondage, Passover, and Exodus

Exodus 1–3; 5–6; 11–14

LDS manual: here


Ch. 1–2: All Joseph’s family moves down to Egypt, where they reproduce with speed that could only be described as Nephite. In just a few hundred years, from the original gang of seventy, there’s millions of them. But there’s a new Pharaoh in town, who enslaves the Hebrews and orders midwives to kill all the boys. Moses escapes. (We’ll see this story remixed into the Jesus legend.)

Ch. 3–4: Moses is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, but after killing an Egyptian — first making sure no one is watching — he’s forced into hiding. While there, God appears to him in a burning bush.

He explains that he intends to “smite Egypt”.

3:20 And I will stretch out my hand, and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in the midst thereof: and after that he will let you go.

Who the hell listens to a bush anyway? Frankie Boyle, everyone.


Just to be extra convincing, God gives Moses a stick that turns into a snake, and water that turns into blood. And for an encore, by reaching into his cloak, Moses can give his hand leprosy! That’ll do it.

Moses complains that he’s not very eloquent, but God’s like “I know that — who do you think makes people deaf or blind?” Wow, okay, God. Not only that, he explains in advance:

4:21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.

God starts to act a bit erratic, though. He inexplicably decides to kill Moses, but it’s Moses’ wife to the rescue!

4:24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
4:25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
4:26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

I can see why God would be impressed and leave them alone. He probably put his sunglasses on and said, “You just bought yourself six more months,” and walked away.

Bizarre stuff. Could this be why the manual skips chapter 4?

Ch. 5–10: Moses goes to Pharaoh and gives him a rather ominous first discussion: God Has a Plan for You. Pharaoh won’t let the Israelites go, so after a brief magic contest with Pharaoh’s magicians, Moses smites the place with plagues: bloody water, frogs, lice, flies, dead livestock, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, and darkness. With every plague, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart; he wouldn’t miss a chance to kill some kids.

Ch. 11: God says: ‘Okay, so here’s the plan. We’re gonna blow this place, so first, everyone “borrow” everything you can from your neighbours. Then, I’ll kill all the firstborn Egyptian children to create a diversion. Meanwhile, you guys kill lambs, and smear the blood on your door posts.’

Why did he have them do that? Well, the lamb was a symbol of Jesus, and God liked people to act out things symbolically. So when people say that God is a great scientist or a great engineer… no. Apparently he’s an Arts major. Great. That explains everything.

Ch. 12–14: The Israelites flee toward the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. God pulls his shenanigans: he blocks them with a cloud, and personally pulls the wheels off of their chariots. Finally, God parts the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on dry ground. The Egyptian armies follow, but — kersplash — they’re sunk and no trace of them is ever found.

No, seriously, no trace of an Egyptian army has ever been found in the Red Sea.

Main points from this lesson

No evidence for Hebrews in Egypt

There’s no evidence that a large number of Hebrews were in Egypt during this time.

Linguistics: If Hebrews and Egyptians lived in the same place for four hundred years, then we should expect them to have borrowed words from each other. Sure, they both would have had their reasons not to share vocabulary; Egyptians, because the Hebrews were slaves; Hebrews, because the Egyptians weren’t Hebrews. But we should expect a great number of words to have filtered in. Instead, we find only a few words that could be explained by later contact.

Archeology: If a migration of Hebrews came into Canaan from Egypt after living there for 400 years, we’d expect the pots we find in Canaan to change style suddenly. In fact, we see no sudden change.

There’s a Reddit thread for everything, and this one on the imaginary Exodus looks pretty near comprehensive. Browse if you have the time.

Does it matter if god kills people?

If there’s one thing about children that we can agree on, it’s that they shouldn’t be murdered. Yet the god of the Bible kills kids again and again. Knowing this could have certain advantages:

Yet when I bring this point up with Latter-day Saints (and other Christians), they’re quite unbothered by it. Which is very strange — on the one hand, they’re sincerely pro-life when it comes to foetuses, but they’re frighteningly blasé about this tendency of their god to kill them once they’re born. (They seem to forget that their god only allows about one embryo in five to make it to birth, making God the greatest abortionist of all.)

Mormons that I’ve encountered tend to give the following excuses for God’s predilection for filicide:

  • It doesn’t matter because the children get whisked up to heaven where they play with puppies and eat ice cream.

This is a presupposition, not an argument. You can get away with a lot if you’re allowed to magic up a fictional rationale, but it will be unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t share your presupposition.

  • It doesn’t matter because everyone has to die sometime.

Even though I have to die someday, I’d rather not be murdered, especially not in childhood. Being killed often entails some kind of pain, and as a moral person, I have this idea that it’s wrong to cause pain unnecessarily.

  • It doesn’t matter because God made us, so he gets to destroy us.

This argument reminds me of a passage from Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, about a boy with strange powers, including the power to fashion live animals from dirt. This is a longish excerpt, but imagine how you’d feel if you saw this scene.

At last I made bold to ask him to tell us who he was.

“An angel,” he said, quite simply, and set another bird free and clapped his hands and made it fly away.

A kind of awe fell upon us when we heard him say that, and we were afraid again; but he said we need not be troubled, there was no occasion for us to be afraid of an angel, and he liked us, anyway. He went on chatting as simply and unaffectedly as ever; and while he talked he made a crowd of little men and women the size of your finger, and they went diligently to work and cleared and leveled off a space a couple of yards square in the grass and began to build a cunning little castle in it, the women mixing the mortar and carrying it up the scaffoldings in pails on their heads, just as our work-women have always done, and the men laying the courses of masonry—five hundred of these toy people swarming briskly about and working diligently and wiping the sweat off their faces as natural as life. In the absorbing interest of watching those five hundred little people make the castle grow step by step and course by course, and take shape and symmetry, that feeling and awe soon passed away and we were quite comfortable and at home again. We asked if we might make some people, and he said yes, and told Seppi to make some cannon for the walls, and told Nikolaus to make some halberdiers, with breastplates and greaves and helmets, and I was to make some cavalry, with horses, and in allotting these tasks he called us by our names, but did not say how he knew them. Then Seppi asked him what his own name was, and he said, tranquilly, “Satan,” and held out a chip and caught a little woman on it who was falling from the scaffolding and put her back where she belonged, and said, “She is an idiot to step backward like that and not notice what she is about.”

It caught us suddenly, that name did, and our work dropped out of our hands and broke to pieces—a cannon, a halberdier, and a horse. Satan laughed, and asked what was the matter. I said, “Nothing, only it seemed a strange name for an angel.” He asked why.

“Because it’s—it’s—well, it’s his name, you know.”

“Yes—he is my uncle.”

He said it placidly, but it took our breath for a moment and made our hearts beat. He did not seem to notice that, but mended our halberdiers and things with a touch, handing them to us finished, and said, “Don’t you remember?—he was an angel himself, once.”

“Yes—it’s true,” said Seppi; “I didn’t think of that.”

“Before the Fall he was blameless.”

“Yes,” said Nikolaus, “he was without sin.”

“It is a good family—ours,” said Satan; “there is not a better. He is the only member of it that has ever sinned.”

Two of the little workmen were quarreling, and in buzzing little bumblebee voices they were cursing and swearing at each other; now came blows and blood; then they locked themselves together in a life-and-death struggle. Satan reached out his hand and crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief, and went on talking where he had left off: “We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is.”

It seemed a strange speech, in the circumstances, but we barely noticed that, we were so shocked and grieved at the wanton murder he had committed—for murder it was, that was its true name, and it was without palliation or excuse, for the men had not wronged him in any way. It made us miserable, for we loved him, and had thought him so noble and so beautiful and gracious, and had honestly believed he was an angel; and to have him do this cruel thing—ah, it lowered him so, and we had had such pride in him. He went right on talking, just as if nothing had happened, telling about his travels, and the interesting things he had seen in the big worlds of our solar system and of other solar systems far away in the remotenesses of space, and about the customs of the immortals that inhabit them, somehow fascinating us, enchanting us, charming us in spite of the pitiful scene that was now under our eyes, for the wives of the little dead men had found the crushed and shapeless bodies and were crying over them, and sobbing and lamenting, and a priest was kneeling there with his hands crossed upon his breast, praying; and crowds and crowds of pitying friends were massed about them, reverently uncovered, with their bare heads bowed, and many with the tears running down—a scene which Satan paid no attention to until the small noise of the weeping and praying began to annoy him, then he reached out and took the heavy board seat out of our swing and brought it down and mashed all those people into the earth just as if they had been flies, and went on talking just the same. An angel, and kill a priest! An angel who did not know how to do wrong, and yet destroys in cold blood hundreds of helpless poor men and women who had never done him any harm! It made us sick to see that awful deed, and to think that none of those poor creatures was prepared except the priest, for none of them had ever heard a mass or seen a church. And we were witnesses; we had seen these murders done and it was our duty to tell, and let the law take its course.

Ask: How would you feel if you saw someone squash a bunch of people flat, even if he had created them?
Answer: It seems like the kind of thing a morally callous individual would do, and one would wonder if there weren’t something wrong with his moral sense.

Ask: Could God have accomplished his purpose to liberate Israel without killing anyone? If he was able to harden Pharaoh’s heart, could he have softened it?
Answer: If he’s omnipotent, then yes.
Ask: Then why didn’t he?

It’s bizarre and cruel for a god to decide to enact his will in this way, when other avenues are available.

A question on a Facebook thread caught my attention. It’s from Alan Gegax, and I’m sharing it here with his permission:

I was thinking about the God who is presented in the Bible. He had a problem in the beginning when Adam and Eve gained moral knowledge. Part of his solution, introduce death into the world. He had a problem with the world turning to shit. His solution, drown everyone and everything. He had a problem with Jews being kept in Egypt. His solution, kill everyone’s firstborn, then kill the chasing Egyptian soldiers. He had a problem with Jews who needed a homeland. His solution, genocide against the Canaanites. He had a problem with forgiving sins. His solution, kill Jesus.

Has there ever been a major problem in the world that God didn’t solve via murder? I know He’s claimed to heal individuals (though not as often as He smites them), but on large-scale stuff, it kind of seems like murder is His go-to solution. Am I wrong here?

No, I don’t think so. And next year when we get to Revelation, we’ll see how he solves the ultimate problem of evil on earth by killing billions more. This god has a fairly uncreative approach to problem-solving.

Additional suggestions for teaching

The church offers counterfeits

The real lesson manual points to the magicians’ ability to imitate Moses’ rod-snake, and asks:

What are some ways Satan counterfeits God’s power and blessings today?

From time to time, I’d hear in church that Satan had counterfeits for God’s favourite things: Satan’s counterfeit for revelation was divination, the Lord had his church, Satan had counterfeit churches, and so on.

But to say that the LDS Church is real, and other things are counterfeit is upside-down; it’s the church that offers counterfeits.

  • Counterfeit family The church tries to build a counterfeit family by co-opting kinship terms (Brother, Sister), referring to the “ward family” with the Bishop as the “father of the ward”, and of course a Heavenly Father and Mother that children are taught to look to and feel love for. Having a family is a normal human thing, but the church trades on this family metaphor in order to turn the feelings one has for one’s family toward itself. I think the goal of the church is not to strengthen the family; its goal is to supplant it.
  • Counterfeit way of finding information In science, you learn things by observation, experimentation, and careful control for bias. What’s the church’s method? Knowledge from feels! A burning in your bosom means something’s true. This is epistemic hedonism — if it feels good, believe it — and a disastrous counterfeit that sees people making bad life decisions based on no evidence.
  • Counterfeit history We’ve already seen how the church has an alternate version of history that contradicts the evidence that we have from multiple disciplines. There’s no evidence for events like the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and so on, but Mormon doctrine falls flat without them.
  • Counterfeit morality A healthy approach to morality gives guidelines on how to treat other people. When Mormons talk about ‘morality’, what are they talking about? Basically just sex. If you’re engaging in non-church-sanctioned bonking, you’re immoral and unclean, even if you’re doing so consensually and responsibly. If you’re celibate, you can pass for all kinds of morality in the church, no matter how unethical a person you really are. How did they manage to hijack the language this way? This is a one-dimensional view of morality, and it’s a counterfeit.
  • Counterfeit healing Mormons try to cure each other of diseases by rubbing oil on each other. In the 21st fucking century. The largest prayer studies have shown no effect, but medical science does.
  • Counterfeit authority You have to check out the Benson talk “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet“. Here are some of the points:

4. The prophet will never lead the Church astray.
5. The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.

8. The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.

Yep, the prophet is right, he doesn’t have to know anything to be right, and he’s righter than people who do know things. Wow — do you think you could convince people to give you an intellectual pass like this? With religion, you can.

The church offers counterfeit love, counterfeit friendship, and in the form of the Relief Society, its own counterfeit women’s organisation. It takes normal human things and subverts them for its own benefit.

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