Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: slavery is okay-dokey

NT Lesson 40 (Slavery)

“I Can Do All Things through Christ”

Philippians; Colossians; Philemon

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to emancipate themselves from spiritual slavery


This lesson deals with three Pauline epistles — Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — only two of which were written by Paul.

That’s right, Paul didn’t write one of them: Colossians. But how do we know?

The words we use are unique to us, like a fingerprint. We can’t really change our style. That means our word patterns can identify us. So for instance, we could arrange someone’s words into a kind of “top ten most common” list, and see if a new text’s top ten word list matches up.

Or, as Bart Ehrman points out, we could look at unusual words and phrases.

As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Sorry, Not-Paul. You were a good Paul impersonator, but you were detected by science.

My theme for this lesson is slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, even today. I don’t mean to trivialise the really awful kinds. But belonging to the church is a kind of voluntary slavery — and in some cases, it’s not even voluntary. Not only should we not put up with slavery advocates like Paul, we should free ourselves when possible.

Main ideas for this lesson

Real soon!

As we’ve mentioned, Jesus taught that he’d come back within the lifetimes of those living, and Paul appears to have believed this as well. Here he is, telling the members to hang tight until Jesus comes again

Phillipians 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;
1:10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.

That’s right, folks… any day now. And again:

Phillipians 4:5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Paul devalues our lives and our bodies

The LDS Church is a religion that demands of its members their time, talents, and everything they possess. And so, not surprisingly, the LDS manual phrases things in terms of sacrifices.

• Paul told the Philippians that he had sacrificed all things for Christ (Philippians 3:7–8). What had Paul sacrificed? Why is it important that we make sacrifices for Christ? (See Philippians 3:9–12.)

Ask: Why does the LDS Church demand so much from its members?
Answer: There are low-commitment religions and high-commitment religions. You might think that the low-commitment religions would have an edge, since one can belong to them, and barely have to do anything — or indeed believe anything. And in fact, these religions make up the bulk of Christianity.

But there’s a hidden tool that the high-commitment religions have: investment bias (which we’ve mentioned before in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy). It’s hard to get someone to devote their lives to a cause, but if you can get them started on an ever-escalating treadmill of obligations — come to church, stop drinking coffee, pay tithing, home and visiting teaching, and so on — then it becomes more likely that they’ll continue. After all, stopping the commitments would mean admitting that you wasted your time and money, and no one wants to do that after investing so much.

Joseph Smith was well aware of this. From the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things” (Lectures on Faith [1985], 69).

In other words, demand everything from them, and you’ve got them.

There are only a few things that we can say that we truly own. One is our body. Another is our life. If you’re going to own someone — in slavelike fashion — you have to attack their autonomy in both of these areas. In this lesson, Paul does just that.

First, he argues that life isn’t much, really. He’s only sticking around for his fans.

Phillipians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
1:22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
1:24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

And Not-Paul points out that believers are dead anyway.

Colossians 3:1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3:3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Death cults are so creepy!

Then, as he does from time to time, Paul talks about how terrible and debased our bodies are. Bodies always want what’s wrong, and they’re kind of vile.

Phillipians 3:20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
3:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

(Don’t forget that in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that even our body isn’t our own.)

There’s a purpose behind this kind of talk. To get someone to hand their bodies and their lives over to you, you have to lower the cost of forfeiture — to convince them that it isn’t anything really very much.

This is dangerous territory. As I write this, religiously-motivated terrorists around the world have murdered people in Beirut and Paris, blowing themselves up in the process. Who would do this, unless they were certain that they were doing it for a higher purpose, just like the one Paul is offering? Other things contribute — military aggression, a persecution narrative, socio-economic inequality — but religion, with its promise of an afterlife, is a uniquely enabling contributor. Many things may be the fuel, but religion is the fuse.

More misogyny

Christians aren’t just slaves to God — Not-Paul thinks women should be slaves to men.

Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.

Note that husbands are not under any obligation to submit to their wives. Christian marriage comes with a built-in power imbalance.

Every knee shall bow

Not only does Christianity encourage a kind of slavery, but it looks forward to the day when everyone will be subservient to it.

Phillipians 2:10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
2:11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


So it’s no wonder that Paul didn’t think actual slavery was any big deal. Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian. Paul sent him back.

Philemon 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

But why? Not-Paul explains that servants should be obedient.

Colossians 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God

There aren’t many moral decisions easier than whether it’s all right to own people, and Bible whiffs it. Dan Savage points this out.


There’s hope for those in spiritual slavery. This weekend was the scene of yet another Mass Resignation in Temple Square.

Being in Australia, I wasn’t there, but those who were say that there was a great vibe there. Over 2,000 people submitted their resignations over the Church’s surprisingly punitive and harsh policy banning the children of LGBT members from joining the church without denouncing their gay parents.

Getting slightly less press: the LDS Church also defined LGBT people as ‘apostates’. Which led to an interesting observation:

Etymologically, the word comes from Greek: apo– “away from” + stenai “to stand.” But Oxford Dictionaries and Vocabulary.com both point out the “runaway slave” connection.

I think it’s fitting, don’t you? In a sense, those of us who have stopped supporting the church have escaped the slavery we were in. We have emancipated ourselves from a church that used our time, talents, money, and lives for its own benefit and survival. Well done, everyone.

NT Lesson 39 (Ephesians)

“For the Perfecting of the Saints”


LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to live this life, instead of following a false hope for a better one.


Here we see Paul’s words to the Ephesians. This lesson is kind of a quick flyover of two terrible things God apparently didn’t have a problem with: misogyny and slavery.

Paul also mentions two issues that have divided Christianity for centuries. The first one is predestination vs. free will.

Eph. 1:4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
1:5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,

If Paul doesn’t believe that God chose some people to be Christians and to hell with everyone else, then he sure sounds like he believes it. Or perhaps he’s just getting more creative in his explanations for why people don’t believe him. He used to say they were wicked and blind. Now he’s softened that a bit — it’s just that God didn’t choose those people.

The second divisive issue is faith vs. works.

Eph. 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

As an atheist, these are two things that I no longer have to pay any attention to, and this alone is worth becoming an atheist. I’m serious. Believers pull up Pascal’s Wager on me, and it usually goes like this:

Believer: If you believe and you’re wrong, you lose nothing. But if you don’t believe and you’re wrong, you lose everything.
Me: Yeah, but if you believe, then you have to waste years of your life sorting out absurd and unclear ideas like predestination and faith vs works. And wouldn’t it be worth an eternity of torture not having to think about that stuff?
Believer: You’re right. Torture would be much better. I’ve decided to become an atheist now.

Main ideas for this lesson

Is there hope in atheism?

Paul thought that being an atheist was the worst thing in the world.

Eph. 2:11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands;
2:12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:

The Greek word used for “without God” is ἄθεοι (a-theoi), which is etymologically identical to atheist. What do you know — atheism appears in the Bible.

Ask: Is Paul making an accurate characterisation of atheists as ‘having no hope’?

Well, hope in what? If you want hope in angels coming down and helping you on your exams, of sailing up into the clouds to meet Jesus while the rest of doomed humanity dies horribly, or of living forever, then no, atheism doesn’t offer that kind of hope. But considering that these are false hopes — well, I think I could do without that kind of hope, couldn’t you? And while trying to maintain those hopes might seem comforting, there’s ultimately not much utility in believing them.

Sam Harris made a good point at the Global Atheist Con of 2012.

At about 11:30

We are locked in the present moment with our thoughts and our iPads. So what does atheism have to offer people in this circumstance? People like ourselves and people more fearful and self-deceived than us — a great body of humanity that recoils at the mere suggestion that a first century carpenter may not be able to hear their thoughts, much less answer their prayers. Well, atheism as mere disbelief in God, doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a corrective to a whole raft of bad ideas, but it doesn’t put anything in place of bad ideas. It’s a necessary corrective, but what what fills the void is science, and art, and philosophy. Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations, and the problem we face, of course, is a problem of convincing the better part of humanity to have those better conversations.

As for me, my “better conversations” include discussing language with my students, news and (occasionally) philosophy with my friends, life experiences with my sons, and having a wonderful life full of love with my wife. These things are what feed us.

The danger of accepting a false promise of eternity is that it could make us miss this life, the only life we’re sure we’re going to get.

More misogyny

We’ve already treated Paul’s misogyny in a previous lesson. Paul continues the theme here.

Eph. 5:22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
5:24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
5:25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;

As a believer, I tried to ignore these verses. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t ignore them. For them, these are God’s pattern for how women should act. Here’s a report of a sermon from Marc Driscoll, the former pastor of Mars Hill.

Read with me in Ephesians 5:22–33. We’re just going to read it and then talk about it. “Wives” — what’s the word, ladies? Boy, it didn’t take long, did it? One woman quietly said, “Submit.” So, not arousing, enthusiastic, joy-filled response. “Wives, submit.” “What does that mean in the Greek, Pastor Mark?” You can always tell a rebellious Evangelical. They do word studies. They try to go to the Greek and figure out if it perhaps means something else. I’ll just read, OK. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the” — men, what’s it say? — “head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything” — seems like a lot — “to their husbands.

I have a better idea — let’s have partners be partners, instead of trying to force everyone into a preordained mold.

Here’s a long list of other misogynistic quotes in the Bible, in case you missed them.


It’s not just women Paul wants to submit — it’s slaves. Or servants; the Greek doesn’t draw much of a distinction.

Eph. 6:5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
6:6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;

But why would Christianity be against slavery, when it really is a desperate desire to become an eternal slave? Christopher Hitchens points out the connection.

It would have been easy for a god to say, “Don’t have slaves.” Especially when you consider all the other stuff he prohibited.

It’s an easy moral decision. Yet the Bible muffs it. This is why I say that the Bible should be disqualified from being considered a good source for moral instruction. Any book that condones slavery has pretty much forfeited this claim.

Additional lesson ideas

The prince of the power of the air

Paul held to a then-prevalent belief that the devil had control of the air.

Eph. 2:2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:

Silly Paul; everyone knows the devil actually has control over the water.

Steve of the wonderful SAB links to a source on infidels.org that explains the whole air thing.

During the Middle Ages this doctrine of the diabolical origin of storms went on gathering strength. Bede had full faith in it, and narrates various anecdotes in support of it. St. Thomas Aquinas gave it his sanction, saying in his all authoritative _Summa_, “Rains and winds, and whatsoever occurs by local impulse alone, can be caused by demons.” “It is,” he says, “a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven.”

So it seems that Satan has control over air and water. Fire would also seem to be in his court. Looks like earth is the only safe element left.

Until next week.

OT Lesson 34 (Hosea)

“I Will Betroth Thee unto Me in Righteousness”

Hosea 1–3; 11; 13–14

LDS manual: here


This chapter is about Hosea. We’ve seen some unusual behaviour from prophets — genocide, hacking oxen to pieces, bear maulings — but this is one of the stranger ones. To hear Hosea’s side of the story, Jehovah / Jesus commanded him to take a wife that would be adulterous. Her name was Gomer. A popular name, apparently.

1:2 The beginning of the word of the LORD by Hosea. And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.
1:3 So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim; which conceived, and bare him a son.

I have to say something here. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But in this book, plus Job and Jonah recently, we now see that God’s going through a phase where he’s just dicking with people.

Anyway, having married an adulterous wife, Hosea writes an entire book of the Bible excoriating her for having lovers, threatening Israel with death and destruction, and asking the Lord to exact a series of frighteningly specific punishments on his wife and Israel alike.

The picture I’m getting here is that Hosea’s wife had an affair, and he handled it monumentally badly.

Presently, Hosea’s wife has children, and Hosea gives creative names to these adorable tots:

  • a baby son Jezreel, so named because God was going to kill lots of people to avenge the killings of Jezreel. Charming!
  • a baby daughter Loruhamah, which means ‘unloved’. What a cutie!
  • a baby son, Loammi, which means ‘not my people’. Aw, he’s adorable.

Apart from the psychological damage inflicted by these names, the main problem is that it’s just impossible to find personalised baby stuff for them.

Then Hosea tells his kids that their mom is a whore, and that he’s not her husband.

2:2 Plead with your mother, plead: for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband: let her therefore put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts;
2:3 Lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day that she was born, and make her as a wilderness, and set her like a dry land, and slay her with thirst.

I hate when people bring the kids into it.

And, in an extra twisted touch, he’s not going to be merciful to them because they are — as they say — brothel sprouts.

2:4 And I will not have mercy upon her children; for they be the children of whoredoms.

Way to go, Dad. Ironically, this lesson is being taught on Father’s Day all over Australia.

At this point, the text becomes a little unclear, but it appears from commentaries I’ve read that Hosea goes and buys his wife back from someone. In other words, she’s become a prostitute.

3:1 Then said the LORD unto me, Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the LORD toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine.
3:2 So I bought her to me for fifteen pieces of silver, and for an homer of barley, and an half homer of barley:

Read the following scriptures with the class. What does the Lord threaten to do to those who don’t worship him?

9:14 Give them, O LORD: what wilt thou give? give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.
9:15 All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.
9:16 Ephraim is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit: yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb.

10:13 Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men.
10:14 Therefore shall a tumult arise among thy people, and all thy fortresses shall be spoiled, as Shalman spoiled Betharbel in the day of battle: the mother was dashed in pieces upon her children.
10:15 So shall Bethel do unto you because of your great wickedness: in a morning shall the king of Israel utterly be cut off.

13:7 Therefore I will be unto them as a lion: as a leopard by the way will I observe them:
13:8 I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, and will rend the caul of their heart, and there will I devour them like a lion: the wild beast shall tear them.

13:15 Though he be fruitful among his brethren, an east wind shall come, the wind of the LORD shall come up from the wilderness, and his spring shall become dry, and his fountain shall be dried up: he shall spoil the treasure of all pleasant vessels.
13:16 Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.

This has implications for the abortion debate.

No word on whether counselling was effective for Hosea and Gomer.

Main points for this lesson


Why in the world would Jehovah / Jesus command one of his prophets to marry an unfaithful wife? The real manual has it that J/J was getting Hosea to act out an allegory, in which the adultery of Hosea’s wife was meant to symbolise Israel’s apostasy.

Explain that in addition to these smaller comparisons, Hosea also used extended comparisons, which are called metaphors or similitudes (similitude is the word used in the scriptures). The book of Hosea contains several comparisons to help us understand the relationship between Jesus Christ and his people.

Hosea’s quite a short book, but within its pages are some of the ugliest metaphors in scripture. If you’re an ex-member who no longer worships the Abrahamic god, the LDS Church offers these metaphors to help you understand your situation.

  • Worship is like sex
  • People who turn from worshipping God (read: ex-Mormons) are like prostitutes
  • Believers are like property that God has bought, and owns
  • Believers are like animals

Let’s look at each of these.

Worship is like sex

The Book of Hosea hinges on a metaphor that worship is like sex. There’s an explicit connection drawn between idolatry and adultery.

Ask the class: How is worshipping God like having sex with God?
Endure several minutes of uncomfortable silence. Then answer the question yourself:

You see, the church is like a woman. And God gets mad if she has sex with anyone else. But ‘sex’ is standing in for ‘worship’. Which makes you wonder if the sex around God’s place is really boring, like Sacrament Meeting, or if the worship is actually pretty hot and steamy. I’m guessing the former.

As for me, it’s bad enough that I was born into a church that expected me to worship the Abrahamic god for the whole of my life. Now I find that it’s meant to have a sexual element, too. This seems unimaginably creepy, as though not only my mind but also my body was required, and no need for my consent. I suppose the worship / sex thing is an apt comparison, after all.

People who turn from worshipping God are like prostitutes

Let’s consider the central metaphor of this reading, and see what its implications are supposed to be:

  • Hosea’s wife Gomer has left her husband, gone after other men, and become a prostitute.
  • She explicitly represents Israel, which has stopped believing in Jehovah / Jesus.
  • If we are not faithful to God (the church, Hosea, what have you), then we are acting in the role of Gomer.

In other words, insofar as we are intended to connect this metaphor to a modern situation, people who have left the church are cast as the whore. I don’t really see any other way that this could have been intended.

And let’s be clear: I don’t think most Mormons feel this way about ex-members. Yet the church offers this “whoredom” metaphor as a way of thinking about people who have stopped worshipping. Is this respectful? Is it accurate?

I don’t actually have a problem with sex work, so I don’t mind this kind of criticism. Maybe it’s apt: I’ve left someone who was pimping me (the church), and gone into business for myself. However, if I went around saying that Mormons were like prostitutes, not only would I evoke howls of protest from Mormons, I’d probably have ex-Mormons telling me I was going a bit far. Yet here we have the reverse situation, posted not by some weirdo on Facebook, but proclaimed openly in every Mormon Sunday School class this week, using the church’s official teaching materials.

One thing the church has always done very poorly is understanding the motivations of those who leave. Over and over again, we have lessons about the Dangers of Personal Apostasy, and it seems to be beyond their comprehension that people might have good reasons for leaving.

  • The claims of the church turn out not to be true.
  • Prophets do not act with anything resembling inspiration.
  • The church teaches a white-washed and distorted version of its history.
  • The church acts less like a church and more like a corporation that works to advance conservative political views.

I think these are good reasons to leave, but what we hear in church is that ex-Mormons leave because “they were offended” or “they wanted to sin”. These rather trivial reasons are given as a way of invalidating the experience of ex-Mormons.

Check out Jen’s great list of terms she once used to describe ex-Mos.

Inactive, struggling with faith, lost testimony, fell away, gave in to temptation, led away, allowed Satan to have influence, lost the spirit, not truly committed, not truly converted, not obedient enough, having a crisis of faith, didn’t endure to the end, didn’t keep covenants, relied too much in the understanding of man, proud, offended, wandered off the path, focusing on the wrong priorities, complacent, selfish, not worthy, chose to sin, blinded by arrogance.

I hear ya, Jen. I had the same list.

If any readers want to find out why people really leave, you couldn’t do much better than this video from John Dehlin, on why people leave the LDS Church.

Believers are like property that God has bought, and owns

In chapter 3, Hosea buys his wife back. The real lesson manual has this to say:

In Hosea 3:1–2, the husband purchased his wife from her lover (you may want to explain that in Old Testament cultures, women were often considered property and could be bought or sold)…. In what sense has Jesus Christ “bought” each of us? (See 1 Peter 1:18–19.) What does Christ require of us in return?

Hey, we can do better than 1 Peter. Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 6.

1 Cor 6:19 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
6:20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

That’s right — you don’t belong to yourself, and you don’t (or shouldn’t) have control over your own body or your own self. And why not? Because someone allegedly bought you two thousand years ago.

This gives the game away. Christianity purports to set us free, but in actual fact, Christianity requires slaves, and the Bible says this over and over. And if you try to escape, then some very graphic punishments will ensue.

I think slavery is wrong, no matter who the owner is, and I don’t allow myself to be owned. Throwing off religion has served as a reclamation of my freedom and personal autonomy.

Believers are like animals

Finally, the lesson manual offers another — equally unappealing — metaphor.
Another similitude often used in the scriptures to describe the relationship between the Lord and his people is the master-animal relationship. This similitude is used briefly in Hosea 11:4. What do we learn about the Lord’s feelings for his people through this comparison?

Let’s see.

11:3 I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms; but they knew not that I healed them.
11:4 I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love: and I was to them as they that take off the yoke on their jaws, and I laid meat unto them.

Ask: What do we learn about the Lord’s feelings for his people through this comparison?
Answer: God feels like he gets to lead his people around like an animal. But he feeds them and takes off the yoke — after putting it on, of course.

Believers are often characterised as sheep, but in this scripture, they’re beasts of burden. And as I remember the things I used to do in the church:

  • attend hours of meetings
  • work at my callings
  • clean church buildings and temples
  • support activities
  • promise to give everything I had to the church

I think the ‘burden’ idea is appropriate. Church activity is a burden, and an unnecessary one at that. It ties us down with bands, and then claims that they’re “bands of love”. But we all have better things to do with our time than prop up an organisation that exists for its own perpetuation.

To conclude this section, the real lesson manual asks:

How do the similitudes in the book of Hosea help you understand how the Savior feels about you?

Oh, they speak volumes, I can tell you.

Additional teaching ideas

Is God loving and merciful?

The real lesson manual thinks so. In fact, this one point is the entire purpose of the lesson:

Purpose: To help class members understand that the Lord is loving and merciful and will forgive us when we repent and return to him.

But the god of the book of Hosea shows a distinct lack of these qualities.

Ask: Imagine someone said to you, “If you don’t worship me, I’ll kill you. But if you do worship me, I’ll be kind to you.” Would you consider that person loving or merciful?

Answer: This is not love or mercy. If someone is kind to me, then that’s nice. It’s kind of the minimum that I would expect from a normal person. But this does not mean that they’re worthy of worship. And adding threats into the equation just compounds the unacceptability.

The book of Hosea shows us that Christianity is an abusive and immoral religion. It’s abusive to require someone to worship or love you, and it’s immoral to someone them with death and destruction for refusing to love you enough. Jehovah / Jesus is a violent asshole, and worshipping him is a bad deal. Don’t accept it.

OT Lesson 25 (Psalms)

“Create in Me a Clean Heart”


LDS manual: here


Since we’ve just finished with David, the anonymous body of church correlators has decided to take us into the Psalms. Good idea, faceless men; the Psalms are usually associated with David, and they’re a little lighter than the stuff we’ve been reading, so it’s a nice diversion.

There are a lot of Psalms. To be specific, 150 of them. And I read them all. Well, I admit I pskimmed a few of them. They swing pretty sharply between ‘dreary’ and ‘violently bloodthirsty’. Steve Wells has made it easy with the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (which I link to in every lesson) by highlighting all the crazy bits.

The Psalms are essentially song lyrics, which makes it funny when people try to build major points of doctrine onto them. I don’t like to read too much into the Psalms, so I’ve ignored a lot of the silly stuff, like inconsequential contradictions and so forth.

In the last lesson, I compared David to a rock star, but which rock star? I’d say Justin Bieber. I don’t like to pile on the Bieber hate because I think it’s a bit of a cheap laugh, but consider: First of all, the themes in Psalms are kind of monotonous. Second, I have doubts about whether David actually wrote this stuff. The main difference between King David and Justin Bieber is that Bieber only has the potential to become a psychopathic killer, whereas David is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Bieber was just alleged to have spat on them (but maybe not). I think he peed in a bucket once. Hardly Old Testamental.

King David: worse than Bieber.

Here’s my quick rundown of some of the themes in Psalms.

Slavery: still A-OK

Reading the Psalms gave me a lot of Messiah flashbacks, since the text of Handel’s oratorio draws so heavily from them. So for example, the text of Tenor aria “Thou Shalt Break Them” comes from Psalms 2:9.

But what’s the previous verse? Why, it’s about how to own people.

2:8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
2:9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

There are lots of scriptures asking God to smash enemies, or even doing the job yourself — all with divine approval, of course.

18:40 Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me.
18:41 They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the LORD, but he answered them not.
18:42 Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets.
18:43 Thou hast delivered me from the strivings of the people; and thou hast made me the head of the heathen: a people whom I have not known shall serve me.

21:9 Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them.
21:10 Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.

34:16 The face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

50:22 Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.

55:15 Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.

58:10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.

69:23 Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.
69:24 Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.
69:25 Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.

110:6 He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.

140:10 Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again.

144:1 Blessed be the LORD my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

The American right-wing singled out Barack Obama for a special prayer from Psalms:

109:8 Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

But did they read the next few verses?

109:9 Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
109:10 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
109:11 Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
109:12 Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
109:13 Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

109:20 Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.
109:21 But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name’s sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

That’s pretty ugly stuff. “Kill my enemy, but be nice to me, God, because we have a special relationship, okay?”

Mythical animals

Lots of cryptozoology in Psalms, starting with — yes — skipping trees. With a special appearance from a unicorn.

29:5 The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.
29:6 He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Hey, did you see those skipping trees? They were skipping just like a unicorn.

Like the time my sister came to visit in Australia, and I told her to watch out for the drop-bears. And she said, “How big is a drop-bear?” and I said, “About as big as a jackalope.”

Don’t forget the dragons.

44:19 Though thou hast sore broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death.

74:13 Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
74:14 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

91:13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:

Another unicorn.

92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Wow, anointing the horn. I didn’t think we were going to get to that until the Song of Solomon.

God will beat David’s children if they disobey

89:30 If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments;
89:31 If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments;
89:32 Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.

Unscientific things

Remember the firmament? That imaginary ceiling that holds back the rain? It’s a great example of God’s handiwork. Along with the unicorns.

19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

The earth is held up by pillars.

75:3 The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved: I bear up the pillars of it. Selah.

And it doesn’t move.

93:1 The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.

And yet it moves.

In addition, the heavens are stretched out like a curtain.

104:1 Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
104:2 Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
104:3 Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
104:4 Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
104:5 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
104:6 Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.

There are some interesting scriptures that suggest that the Hebrews weren’t really considering the afterlife as a concept yet.

115:17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.

This scripture about how great children are…

127:3 Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
127:4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
127:5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

…has been picked up and used as inspiration for the Quiverfull movement, a very damaging movement seemingly created to keep women popping out as many babies as possible.

And finally, this scripture has gotten a lot of press.

137:9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

I don’t know if I have a problem with this one. Some people say “OMG the Bible says it’s OK to bash children against rocks,”

and I don’t think it does. It seems to me that this is a song lyric, and it’s just a really dark one. Maybe David was going through a black metal phase. I’m okay with that. Not with bashing children against rocks, though, obviously.

Main points from this lesson

Praising the Lord

In Psalms, it’s all about praising God and giving glory to his name. This is the kind of thing we’d expect from a somewhat insecure deity who’s trying to get himself established in a pantheon that’s already kind of full.

29:1 Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.
29:2 Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

86:12 I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify thy name for evermore.

Now I like praise more than anyone. It feels good when people give me attention and approval. But at the same time, I realise that this taps into something about me that’s not very good. It’s like when I have a need for praise, it’s because of some kind of emptiness in myself. There’s a hole there that I want other people to fill with approval. At times when I’m feeling the healthiest in myself, I don’t have that need. I can get approval from myself.

And I’m just a human, not a perfect all-knowing being. So I have to ask: why would a god need or desire praise from anyone else? If he’s so awesome, doesn’t he know that? And why would he desire praise from us, his creations? What kind of narcissistic egomaniac would he have to be to require praise from these insects? Why would we need to tell him “Good job, God. You’re so great” for eternity?

A perfect being lacks nothing and needs nothing, including praise. As Friedrich Nietzsche said:

“I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.”

Prophecies about Jesus

David was having a rough time for some of those Psalms. He was being chased around by Saul, living from cave to cave, and generally having a bad time of it. But some of the Psalms about David’s sufferings have been picked up and retooled as prophecies about Jesus. For example:

22:16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
22:17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
22:18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

And so on. The real manual gives a lot more examples, and says:

• Jesus Christ is the only person whose birth, life, death, and resurrection were prophesied before his birth. Why do you think such detailed prophecies were given about the Savior’s life?

I think the answer is simple: Because his life was rewritten after the fact to match prophecies. How much more obvious an explanation could there be?

So many Christians have said to me: There were hundreds of prophecies in the Bible that Jesus fulfilled. And I always say, “You mean a prediction in that book… was fulfilled… later on in the same book?” That’s so not amazing.

Additional ideas for teaching

Calling atheists fools

A couple of Psalms say that atheists are fools.

14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

53:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.

This seems to me to be just an excuse to call atheists fools, without dealing with their arguments.

(Yes, some of them may not have been atheists in a modern sense. Also: where are the women?)

Atheists have some good questions:

  • What evidence is there for any supernatural being? 
  • Why does God refuse to provide convincing evidence for his existence? 
  • Is it even possible for a being with contradictory attributes (e.g. omnibenevolent, but allows evil) to exist? 

But it’s much easier for believers to avoid dealing with them, and call atheists ‘fools’ instead.

As an atheist, I have a rule I use: Attack the belief, not the person. I avoid saying that Christians are stupid. They’re not necessarily stupid; I wasn’t when I was a believer. But the ideas in Christianity itself are incredibly bad, so I attack them. People deserve respect; ideas don’t.

I guess my idea of attacking ideas and not people is sort of like the Christian idea of ‘loving the sinner but hating the sin.’ Which is strange, when you consider the psalm that says it’s okay to hate unbelievers. Perfectly.

139:21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
139:22 I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.


Language is funny. We talk about things in ways we know are untrue. We know the earth goes around the sun, but we still say the sun comes up. We know the heart pumps blood, but we still say it hurts or even breaks when we feel sad.

But for the ancient Hebrews, the kidneys were thought to have much the same job. The KJV word for kidneys was reins, from which we get the word renal.

7:9 Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins.

16:7 I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

26:2 Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.

73:21 Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.

So the Bible writers were attributing feelings to lots of organs. I’m surprised they didn’t haul in the pancreas for some emotion or other. Perhaps ennui.

What’s interesting is that ancient Hebrews didn’t seem to understand the role of another organ that does some important stuff, too: the brain. Wouldn’t that have been a good idea for an all-knowing being: drop some hints that maybe the brain did something? There it is, just sitting up there. What does it do? Aren’t you curious? God could have popped in a scripture: My brain in my head meditateth upon the Lord in the night seasons, blah blah blah. That would have impressed people when they figured that out for themselves. But no, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to God. A missed opportunity.

Did Shakespeare leave an easter egg in Psalm 46?

Finally, a bit of Bible-Code fun that’s probably nonsense, but here it is.

The King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, when Shakespeare was alive and putting out his plays. It’s been speculated that Shakespeare either worked on the KJV, and put a reference to himself in it — or alternatively, he was known to the translators, and they wished to honour him by slipping in a reference to him.

And the alleged clue is Psalm 46. If you count words, the 46th word from the top is shake, and the 46th word from the bottom (excluding the liturgical word selah) is spear.

46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
46:2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
46:3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
46:4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
46:5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
46:6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
46:7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
46:8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
46:9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
46:10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
46:11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Why 46? Because Shakespeare would have been 46 at the time of translation.

So is it true? Did Shakespeare leave us an easter egg? Well, probably not. Some people think so, but experts take a dim view of the story. But consider: It could be an instructive look at how our human brains try to find patterns in noisy data. We even try and shuffle the data to get the answer we want — like excluding the selah. If spear had come bang on word 46 even with the selah, you can bet we’d still accept it as a hit!

And this is nothing compared to the jiggery-pokery we see in the Bible Code. But that’s a whole ‘nother area, and it’s time to move on to the next meeting. So we’ll close. See you next time.

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 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 14 (Ten Commandments)

“Ye Shall Be a Peculiar Treasure unto Me”

Exodus 15–20; 32–34

LDS manual: here


After picking our way carefully through Genesis in great detail, we’re now blasting through 25 chapters of Exodus in one lesson. Wow, CES, what’s the rush? Do you have to catch a train? Is it because it’s so boring, or is there a lot of weird stuff? Actually, it’s both. Here are the highlights.

Ch. 15: Moses is so pleased that Jehovah killed so many Egyptians that he breaks into song.

15:3 The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name.
15:4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red sea.

Ch. 16: But it’s not all music theatre; the people need food and water. God gives them manna, which is now used to measure health in League of Legends.

Ch. 17: God decides he really hates the Amalakites, and will try to kill them, no matter what. But on this particular day, he’s only going to help the Israelites kill them if Moses hold his arms over his head. When Moses gets tired, Aaron and Hur hold his arms up, so Jehovah gives it to him on a technicality.

Ch. 18: There’s actually quite a good lesson here about delegation.

Chs. 1920: God’s going to appear up on Mount Sinai, so Moses tells all the people to wash their clothes and stop having sex. God gives Ten Commandments, and instructions for building altars. No hewn stones — he’s very fussy about his altars!

Chs. 2123: These chapters are taken with a discussion of rules the Israelites were to live by. Discussed in detail below.

Ch. 24: Moses heads up the mountain for forty days and forty nights for a look at God. What great insight does God give Moses for humanity?

Chs. 2531: How to make furniture! Specifically the Ark of the Covenant, a piece of furniture especially for Jehovah. Also, how to sacrifice animals in just the way God likes. No, seriously, there are seven chapters of this.

Ch. 32: Upon coming down from the mountain, Moses finds that the Israelites have made a golden calf to worship. Result: Moses and the Levites kill three thousand men, right after Jehovah tells them not to kill.

Ch. 33: God thinks all this killing is really cool, so as a special treat, he shows Moses his ‘back parts’.

33:20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
33:21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
33:22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
33:23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

Yes, apparently God moons Moses.

Ch. 34: Oh, look, the Ten Commandments again, for real this time.

Ch. 35: Also, kill anyone who works on the Sabbath. That includes lighting fires.

Chs. 3640: We saw the design for the Ark being described in boring detail. Now it’s being built in boring detail.

Main points from this lesson

No evidence for Israel in the wilderness

This is kind of a reiteration from last time, but it’s worth repeating: There’s no evidence that the Israelites wandered around for forty years in that area.

Could it be that they did such a great job cleaning up? Yes, if Mr Deity is to be believed.

And it’s worth pointing out that if 40 years in the wilderness is what you get from following your god, you’d be better off asking for directions.

Slavery is okay in the OT

These chapters contain rules about how the nascent group of Israelites were to conduct themselves. Along the way, God signs off on slavery.

What sort of instruction do we get from the Bible on slavery? Sam Harris explains.

Here are the highlights:

  • It’s okay to sell your daughter into slavery

21:7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.

God doesn’t say “Don’t have slaves”; he instead gives the conditions under which it’s okay to own people. Wouldn’t it have been simple for God to outlaw it? Three words: “Don’t have slaves.”

Penn and Teller have their take on this:

  • It’s not okay to beat a slave to death. On the other hand, if he dies a few days later, that’s okay because, hey, he is your money after all.

21:20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

You’d think Jehovah wouldn’t be okay with slavery because the Israelites were slaves, but no.

I do get believers claiming that ‘slavery’ in Exodus wasn’t really ‘slavery’ — that after six years, they were allowed to go. As PZ points out, this is only true for other Hebrews. If you weren’t an Israelite — sorry, pal; you’re the spoils of war.

Other interesting or odd things in Exodus

  • A foetus is not the same as a person.

21:22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

In other words, if you cause a pregnant woman to lose her child, the penalty is a fine, not the same as if you’d killed someone. So it seems that God isn’t terribly pro-life, but we already knew that from the last lesson.

  • You have to stone your disobedient children.

21:17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

  • It’s okay to kill a thief, and if he can’t pay back what he stole, you can sell him.

22:2 If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.
22:3 If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

  • Kill witches.

22:18 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Wonder how many people have died over that one.

  • No bestiality.

22:19 Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.

When I was a kid, bored in interminable Sacrament Meetings, I would leaf through the Bible. Imagine my surprise to find rules about having sex with animals.

  • Don’t boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.

23:19 …Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.

Apparently this was a fertility practice. God didn’t like competing fictions, so he put a stop to that. Instead, you’re supposed to kill the animal and wave the meat around a bit.

This scripture is used as a justification for the Jewish practice of not eating dairy and meat in the same meal, which seems like a bit of a stretch. I can imagine how this conversation went down between Moses and God.

God: Moses, I don’t want you to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.
Moses: You got it, God. We won’t have dairy and meat at the same meal.
God: Wha — ? No, I don’t think you’ve understood. I just want you not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.
Moses: No problem! We’ll wait six hours before we switch to meat.
God: Hang on, Moses. Listen. Don’t boil…
Moses: In fact, we’ll have different plates! Separate kitchens!
God: FML.

  • Don’t allow other people to have religious freedom.

23:24 Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.

When I point out the absurdities or injustices in Exodus, believers say something like, “Well, some of those things are a bit strange. But remember that it was probably better than what the other people in that area were doing. These rules represented an advance in morality.” To which I would cheerfully agree. In fact, the rules in every new religion through the ages probably represented an advance in morality over what was available at the time. How could it not? Humans have become more moral over time, so each new iteration of rules had the chance to contain some moral innovations (as well as a lot of horrible new things and irrelevant crap).

When I see the rules in Exodus, I don’t see a god dispensing rules. I see people trying to work out how to make a stable and fair society within their social and political scene. And, you know, some weirdness.

The problem with religious morality is that is gets stuck. Saying “God wants you to do X” may be a good way to get people to believe you, but then it’s hard to get them to update. It’s like some religious groups that still dress in the kind of suits that were popular when their group got started. Fine at the time, but now they’re stuck. A humanistic approach would be better: recognise that we make and teach each other a socially evolved morality that isn’t absolute, and that can change and improve.

Church leaders are, unsurprisingly, as oblivious to society’s moral improvement as they are to the immorality of their hopelessly stuck moral system. They’ve got it so upside-down that better looks worse to them.

The Ten Commandments are not really a great guide for living.

Do you know the Ten Commandments? (Many religious people don’t, as illustrated by this great Stephen Colbert clip.)

Here they are, at least the version in chapter 20.

20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image….
20:7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain….
20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother….
20:13 Thou shalt not kill.
20:14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
20:15 Thou shalt not steal.
20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
20:17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

The first four have nothing to do with how we treat each other, and everything to do with Jehovah protecting his brand. The others are pretty good, except for the distressing tendency to treat people like property; again, not the work of a transcendent being.

George Carlin had a great take on breaking them down to two.

Really, anyone could do a better job of coming up with ten rules for living. How about:

Don’t persecute people who are different than you.
Women are equal to men.
Don’t destroy living things for no good reason.
Think about what you’re leaving for the next generation.

Got any others? Leave them in comments.

Additional suggestions for teaching

Attribution to god

When the people complain, Moses says that they’re not complaining against him, they’re complaining against god. Oh, nice one, Moses. Way to hide behind your delusion.

This is a tactic known as religious attribution, and it’s a fairly common tactic employed by religious people. If they say something ignorant, illogical, or benighted, they claim that they’re just reporting god’s true opinion (which just happens to align with theirs), and who are you to question god? They’re not to blame. Here’s Jesus using it.

God is jealous

Back in the days when Jehovah was just getting started, it made sense that he’d be insecure about his status. And so he said this:

34:14 For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:

Get this; he’s not just jealous — his name is Jealous.
From now on, I’m just going to call him Jealous. Jelly for short.
Jealousy is not a becoming attribute in a person, but for an all-powerful god, it seems especially petty and wrong. I wouldn’t put up with this in anyone.

Did Moses have horns?

When Moses comes down from the mountain, Exodus says:

34:35 And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone

But in the Vulgate, Jerome translated this as

“And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.”

An odd word choice. Perhaps horned as in ‘sending out rays of light like horns’. Anyway, horns it was, and accordingly, Michelangelo made his statue of Moses with a couple of big honkers.

Toot, toot. Until next week.

OT Lesson 10 (Eternal families)

Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

Genesis 24–29

Links to the reading in the SAB: Genesis 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
LDS manual: here


This lesson is about Abraham’s son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Strangely, Jacob’s story is almost a complete rehash of Abraham’s story, in fine detail.

You can read my great summary, or you can watch this video. (Language, casual misogyny, unpleasant depictions of birth.)

Ch. 25: Isaac has two sons, Esau (hairy guy) and Jacob (smooth guy). Esau is starving, so Jacob convinces him to sell his birthright.

Ch. 26: Isaac goes to Abimalech, king of the Philistines, and tells him that his wife Rebekah is his sister. Abimalech believes him, even though father Abraham told him the exact same lie. Won’t he ever learn?

Ch. 27: When Isaac is old, Jacob manages to trick his father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Jehovah approves because he loves a good prank.

Ch. 29: Laban sells his daughter Rachel to Jacob for seven years of indentured servitude. But Laban pulls the ol’ switcheroo on the wedding night, and it’s the older daughter Leah in the sack instead. If Jacob wants Rachel, he’ll have to work another seven years. Since honesty isn’t really Jacob’s thing, I think he’s going to fit right into this family.

Again as with Abraham, there’s polygamous conflict when Rachel turns out barren. The whole thing turns into a baby-making competition, as housemaids are pulled into the action. Hilarity ensues.

What’s the theme for this lesson? I would have thought ‘honesty in your dealings’ was a good candidate, but no; everyone in this story lies like a rug, and they’re all doing fine. Instead, it’s ‘the importance of marrying people who think like you do’. Which for Jacob is… actually very fitting, yes.

Main points from this lesson

Marriage ‘in the covenant’ is intended to create ‘ideological bubbles’.

From the real lesson manual:

• Both Isaac and Jacob were instructed by their fathers to marry women of their own faith. Esau brought sorrow to his parents by marrying wives who did not believe in the God of Abraham. Why is it important to marry a person of our own faith?

Ask: Good question, manual. Why would the church think it’s important for Mormons to marry each other?

Short answer: When Mormons marry each other, it affords the opportunity to create ideological bubbles.

I remember being in the Mormon Bubble. It was great. It consisted of my family, the people at church, and pretty much everyone I knew. Inside the Bubble, it was soft and gentle. Everyone affirmed the group’s beliefs, told you how wonderful the Church was, and how wonderful your life was — but only if you were Inside the Bubble.

Sometimes ideas would get in from Outside the Bubble, but there were ways to cope with that. We were encouraged to evaluate external information against the principles we’d learned in the Bubble, which were considered the only reliable principles.

Then I went on a mission, and that was a real bubble. After the mission, I went to BYU, and that was an even bigger bubble! BYU exists to get young Latter-day Saints together so they’ll marry each other, and form their own bubbles. Eventually, you settle into a ward and join your bubble into a bigger church bubble. The church hopes that by doing so, you’ll be in that bubble for the rest of your life.

Purveyors of delusion have found it very useful to construct ideological bubbles. Religious communities rely on them. It’s why we see fundamentalist religions out in rural areas. Sometimes a religious leader will even move the entire group to a foreign country where it’s easier to control the information.

Here’s a primer on religious bubbles, but with a special focus on the Mormon Bubble.

Bubbles are fragile. Believing in things that aren’t real puts you in a tenuous position. To believe in a delusion is to construct an alternative to reality.

In order to seem plausible, delusional beliefs must be handled specially, in communities that are trained to treat the beliefs deferentially and uncritically. Those in the community may also take offence as a way of protecting the belief, or refusing to examine it themselves.

Essentially, religions are support groups for reality deniers.

True beliefs do not need bubbles to exist. Truth isn’t harmed by reality, but delusions sure are. And because reality is available to everyone all the time, it’s easy for delusions to get knocked down. Which is why religion hasn’t done well on the Internet, with its free flow of information.

Here’s a Facebook post by a bubble advocate. It’s Kim Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho, and he thinks ideological bubbles are a fine thing. This post is an elaborate justification for living in a bubble, and I think this is highly instructive.

Here’s the text from the post.

I often have heard students talk about the “bubble”… referring to BYU-Idaho, the campus, and maybe even Rexburg. They have in mind the fact that there is a different feeling on this campus than they find in what they call “the real world”, a different Spirit, and that they feel protected here, surrounded by people who share their faith. Let me share with you a couple of thoughts about what I have heard:

1) The nickname “bubble” has a negative connotation and seems to indicate that what is inside of it is not real. As President John Groberg taught us about the temple, the real world — the world that will endure forever when everything in the mortal world is gone — is actually what you feel and experience inside the “bubble” — Zion, the Holy Ghost, the Kingdom of God.

Ask: How does he justify living in a bubble?
Answer: He has flipped the situation, and now believes that the universe we live in is not real, and the Mormon universe is. His acceptance of the alternate reality is complete.

2) You are a big part of what you feel inside the “bubble”. It really is the faith and devotion and goodness of the people who study and work here that makes the difference.

3) You can take it with you — you can make your own powerful, protective, enduring, eternal “bubble” in your own home and you should. You can build your own little Zion, first in your heart and then in your home, and then in your wards and stakes.

Ask: Why would it be useful to the Church to have its members in a bubble of their own creation?
Answer: You don’t have to monitor your members if the members monitor themselves, and the family can be utilised for this purpose.

Ask: When you find someone who is an advocate of ideological bubbles, what are they telling you?
Answer: They know their beliefs can’t compete with reality.

Ask: How can we stay out of ideological bubbles?
Possible answers:

  • By being willing to update and change our minds when new knowledge and evidence comes along.
  • By engaging honestly and openly with sincere and intelligent people who hold different views.

I’ve formed a book club with Christians, atheists, and a few undecideds. We’re working our way through one Christian book and one atheist book. If I’m wrong about my ideas, I know I’ll hear about it from them. So far, a lot of arguments, but nothing conclusive.

The doctrine of eternal families means the LDS Church owns your family

If someone were to ask me what the most evil LDS doctrine was, I wouldn’t hesitate a second in saying, “Eternal families”.

The church pretends to have to power to reunite families after death. That sounds like a great promise, but it didn’t sound so good to Stephen Fry on his trip through Temple Square.

Ask: How does Fry explain the appeal of this doctrine? Who is it especially meant to appeal to, and why?

The idea of “being with” one’s family for eternity falls apart for anyone who thinks about it for five minutes. How exactly is this meant to work? I love my family, and we always have a great time on our extended visits, but after a couple of weeks, we’re all glad to go away again and return to our own ways and routines. Being available for eternity seems grindingly tedious, even for family members who get along. What if there’s conflict? What if there’s a family member who loves you, but whom you detest? It wouldn’t be very heavenly for you if they’re always around, so would there be some way to block them? That might not be very heavenly for them. The whole idea raises so many problems, I can scarcely believe no one seems to mention them.

But there’s a much more sinister side.

Read this quote from the real Gospel Doctrine manual.

President Gordon B. Hinckley told of a family who joined the Church in Australia and then sold all their possessions so they could travel to New Zealand and be sealed as a family. The father of this family said: “We could not afford to come [to the temple]. Our worldly possessions consisted of an old car, our furniture, and our dishes. I said to my family, ‘We cannot afford not to go. If the Lord will give me strength, I can work and earn enough for another car and furniture and dishes, but if I should lose these my loved ones, I would be poor indeed in both life and in eternity’ ”.

Ask: What did this man think would happen if he didn’t engage in farcical temple ceremonies, a prerequisite of which is paying ten percent of his income to the church?
Answer: He thought he would lose his family. Consider this.

Ask: What do we call it when someone threatens you with the loss of your family if you don’t do what they say (including paying them)?
Possible answers: Kidnapping, extortion, holding to ransom.

This doctrine is vile. It is emotional hostage taking. A normal person should be disgusted by it.

This doctrine plays out in ways that are destructive to the working of a healthy married relationship, and to the development of a person.

From the real lesson manual:

• After two people have been married in the temple, what must they do to ensure they have a truly eternal marriage?

What, indeed.

They both have to stay in the church and keep all the church’s rules (again, including paying buckets of money for the rest of their lives). But if one partner stops believing in the Mormon religion — or in other words, recognises they’ve been conned — then they’re the bad one. Supposedly, they’re the one throwing the relationship into disarray, jeopardising their eternal future together, and so forth.

A Mormon friend of mine once confided in me. He’d thought thoughts that couldn’t be unthought, and now he was uncertain that there was a god. I congratulated him, offered support, and suggested some online communities where he could talk to people in the same situation.

Finally, desperate to get his struggle off his chest — out of a very human wish to be known by those we’re closest to — he told his wife about what he was going through. She didn’t take the news well.

Over the next year or so, he was hauled in for meetings with the bishop, chided for his lack of belief, and systematically bullied back into the Church, because that was the cost of his relationship with his family.

The former Mormon in me can empathise with his wife. Here you think you know someone, you have the same goals, and then your partner explains that they don’t share your heretofore shared values. That must throw you into a tailspin.

Or at least, it would, if your relationship were based on the church, and not on each other. It would, if your relationship is predicated on always believing the same things.

I still don’t know what’s going on for my friend; he doesn’t write me anymore. If he’s happy participating in and enriching that — here’s a loaded word, but I promise I’ll only use it when I think it’s deserved — cult, then that’s fine. It’s his life, not mine. But I hope that he and his wife can finally get to a place where he’s accepted and valued as himself, and not just as a role.

How can a couple make it? There are a few ways this can play out.

  • The believing partner might follow the deconverted one out.

These are the happiest stories.

  • The deconverted partner can stay in the church, but under deep cover.

You can participate in church, and keep going to keep the peace. (Hello, reader.)

I don’t blame anyone for taking this course, but it seems to me the least desirable option, and the one most destructive to one’s integrity. Is this the kind of relationship where your views can be respected? Or will your disbelief in nonsense be taken as evidence that you’re in league with Satan? Believers can have a hard time with negotiation and compromise when they see it as giving in to the Evil One.

  • One stays in, one stays out, and they work it out in an atmosphere of respect.

This one is a tough row to hoe. The LDS Church doesn’t make it easy for disbelieving spouses. Because of its emphasis on having a ‘righteous priesthood holder’ at the head of the family, it’s difficult not to feel like damaged goods. There are a thousand unintended insults. “Yeah, they’re a great person even though they’re not a member.”

There’s a photo of me at my son’s baptism, before I was out publicly. There’s my son, dressed in white. There’s a friend my age, also dressed in white. And then there’s me in a dark suit (obviously not doing any baptising that day), trying to smile. I’m sure that suit was the talk of the ward.

Free advice to those who have deconverted

Place the relationship before deconverting your partner.
Both partners have to recognise in themselves the tendency for evangelism.

I happen to think this is less of a problem for ex-Mos. Yes, there are some preachy ex-Mos out there, but I think this tendency is mitigated by a few factors:

  • Latent guilt
  • An aggressive church culture that thinks nothing of treating a non-believing spouse as second-best
  • A recognition that your partner won’t be punished in the eternities for believing the wrong thing.

Resist the tendency to feel like you’re damaged or diminished.
You got the right answer. You are now able be moral in a way you never could be when you were getting your moral choices handed to you — and frankly, that morality was often terribly immoral.

Develop boundaries and differentiation
You don’t have to believe the same things or have the same goals. You married a person, and not a role. Or if you did marry a role, now’s your chance to forge a new deal with your partner as a person. See if you meant it the first time, when you said you’d stick it out. You get a second chance to choose your partner.

Divorce is not the worst thing, and keeping it together may have too high a price.

Live a good moral life as an unbeliever, as you define it.

What’s been your experience, and how is it going? What advice would you give? Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear what you think.

Additional ideas for teaching

The church still teaches against interracial marriage.

Since we’re talking about dubious morality, here’s a quote that appears in the LDS Church’s Aaronic Priesthood Manual, both in print and online.

We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).

Is this an organisation that has any business telling anyone who to marry?

No camels.

Camels as a means of transportation abound in the Old Testament. When Abraham sends a servant to look for a bride for his son Isaac, that servant chooses Rebecca. And why? Because of her kindness in offering to water the camels. That’s just one of dozens of camel cameos in the Bible, mostly in the book of Genesis, but scholars have long suspected that those camel caravans are a literary anachronism. And now more evidence from two Israeli archaeologists. Their radio carbon technology dated the earliest known remains of domesticated camels. And yes, they came along after the time of Abraham.

Camels? Oh, well, clearly they meant tapirs.

This is new research, and it may be overturned by more information. But isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just the Book of Mormon that has anachronism issues?

The Bible gets genetics wrong

It also has genetics issues. Laban promises Jacob all the striped and spotted goats, so how does Jacob make as many of them as possible? By having the goats look at striped sticks while mating. Yep, that will do it.

OT Lesson 9 (Killing Isaac)

“God Will Provide Himself a Lamb”

Abraham 1; Genesis 15–17; 21–22

Links to the reading in the SAB: Abraham 1, Genesis 15, 16, 17, 21, 22
LDS manual: here


We’re back to Abraham, and a big story that everyone remembers: the attempted murder of Isaac. But a lot of other markers of tribal identity are also making their first appearance in this lesson. Let’s get right into it.

Main points from this lesson

There would have been no attempt on young Abraham’s life.

The lesson manual makes a quick stop at the Book of Abraham. They want to draw a parallel between Abraham nearly getting sacrificed by Egyptian priests as a boy, and then being asked to sacrifice his own son in turn. Wow, parallelism. Abraham having flashbacks and moments of self-doubt. It’s a neat literary twist.

The problem is that it couldn’t have happened.

First up, it’s disputable that human sacrifice was ever practiced in ancient Egypt.

Second, if human sacrifice was practiced in ancient Egypt, it would have been at one specific time and place: Abydos in 2950–2775 BCE. This may have been a case of ‘retainer sacrifice’, or killing all the servants so they could serve the king in the underworld.

Ask: Doesn’t the idea of the afterlife have the most delightful implications?

Okay, so when would that have been on our fanciful Old Testament timeline? Not in Abraham’s time, that’s for sure. Abraham would have been 1,000 years too late.

Click the graphic for a big PDF, straight from the LDS website.

It would have been at about the time of Noah’s birth, before the Flood, and way before Noah’s grand-daughter Egyptus would have discovered Egypt.

Abraham: “Wait — you can’t kill me! All the available evidence shows that the Egyptians didn’t practice human sacrifice during this period!”
Priest: “Can it, white-and-delightsome boy! I killed Fred Flintstone for his clothing, and I can kill you!”
Angel: “Cease this anachronistic ceremony!”

This is just one more manifestation of how mixed-up the LDS timeline is. The bodies from Abydos date from the 1st Egyptian dynasty around 2900 BCE, but according to the LDS timeline, Egypt wouldn’t have a pharaoh until the alleged Egyptus put her son on the throne — some time after the Flood, some 500 years later. Funny how the Flood didn’t wipe all the Abydos evidence out.

Polygamy rears its head

Abraham isn’t the first polygamist in the Bible — that would be Lamech in Genesis 4 — but you begin to get an idea of the problems that could arise.

Abraham and Sarah are ‘barren’ — her fault, natch — so Sarah suggests ‘going in unto’ her maid Hagar. Apparently Abraham didn’t find Hagar too horrible, because it doesn’t even take him a verse to think about it.

16:2 And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

Conflict arises when Hagar conceives, and Sarah forces her to flee into the wilderness.

Here’s a bit from the real manual:

What can the revelation that Abraham and Sarah would have a son teach us about how God fulfills his promises? (God will fulfill his promises, though not necessarily in the way or at the time we might expect.)

LOL. Right, you might need a concubine to help you with that.

The attempted murder of Isaac embodies the worst idea in religion: “Always obey God.”

It’s a parent’s job to protect their children. No decent deity would try and short-circuit that, but Jehovah does, when he commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

22:2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And any decent parent would ignore any such request, but Abraham doesn’t.

Ask: Why did God command Isaac to be killed?

Some have speculated that Jehovah and Isaac didn’t get on.


Click through for some good analysis.

Others say that God was off his nut.

At one point, I imagined (and mentioned in my Gospel Doctrine class) that God wanted someone to know what it felt like to have to sacrifice his son. Which is crap; God didn’t have to kill his son. An all-powerful god could have created a different way — hey, maybe just forgiving people — but instead chose human sacrifice. What a wacky god, eh?

So now I’m not sure what the rationale is supposed to be, and I’m left with the impression that God really just likes killing children. (The rest of the Old Testament will do little to dispel this, I’m afraid.)

In Tim Minchin’s words, the God of the Bible has a ‘fetish for dead baby blood’.

In considering the Abraham-and-Isaac story for this lesson, it’s taken me a while to come to grips with what it’s about and what it’s meant to teach. And I’ve come to realise that what we’re seeing here is the foundational belief — and the worst belief — of Abrahamic religion: Always obey God.

In the upside-down world of Abrahamic religion, this loyalty test — in which a father is commanded (and willing) to murder his child — is held up to be the ultimate moral act, the thing that proves Abraham’s righteousness.

22:16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
22:17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
22:18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

In other words, the most moral thing to do in an Abrahamic religion is whatever you think the voices in your head are telling you to do, no matter how immoral that is.

It’s an idea that comes up a few times in the scriptures, so this isn’t a one-off:

Matthew 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Ask: What’s wrong with obeying a god above all else?

Possible answers:

  • It short-circuits reason and discourages questioning.
  • It’s an abnegation of the responsibility to think for oneself and make moral decisions.
  • It invokes a trust that hasn’t been earned.
  • It makes immoral actions seem moral. All it takes is for someone to think that God has commanded an immoral action, and poof! it’s magically moral.
  • It brings about a sheep-like mentality that can be readily exploited by leaders.

And speaking of leaders, here’s one who thinks that by ignoring the commandments of a god, non-believers are ignoring morality, and destroying society.

Cheapened civilisation? I think he’s cheapened civilisation by unloading his dogma onto his followers, and taking their 10% for the pleasure. How wrong that those of us who choose to live by the light of reason should get sniped at and hectored by those who make their living from superstition and control.

Oaks is wrong about this, just as he’s wrong about so much else. For me, using human reasoning to supersede divine influence has been the key to understanding, education, and escape from the muck of religion. And why do they rubbish human reasoning, anyway? If logic and reason were on their side, you can bet they’d appeal to it. But they don’t, and that’s enough to tell you where they stand. Human reasoning has brought all the intellectual progress that we have. Oaks is a guy who’s trying to hold all that back.

Obedience to a god above all else is a terrible idea, and it starts here in this chapter of Genesis. The rot of Abrahamic religion starts with its founder. This gets people flown into skyscrapers, gets children killed from lack of medical attention, and sees poor people give their money away to wealthy mall-builders.

Ask: If obedience to a god is the wrong thing to do, what’s the right thing?

The one word answer is: Think.

  • Use your mind and your moral instincts to decide what’s right or wrong.
  • Think about the consequences of your actions, and take responsibility for them.

A good guide for this is Dan Barker’s book for kids: Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong. It focuses on well-thought out principles instead of rules, and the need to decide what’s right in terms of people, not gods.

Click here for a preview on Imgur, or go to all the usual places to buy.

Additional ideas for teaching

What else was in the reading?

God doesn’t care for foreskins, even though he created them

17:10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
17:11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

Slavery, on the other hand, is okey-dokey

17:13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

Casting a mother and child out into the desert to die? A-okay!

21:9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking.
21:10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.
21:11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.
21:12 And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.
21:13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
21:14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Off you go, darlin’. Lotsa luck.