Any Real Theologian Can Probably Outwit Me
You know the tune, so sing along with me.
That is what I’d really like to be.
‘Cause if I was a real theologian,
Somebody might take me seryously!
I have the plot for a “family history” novel in my head. It goes something like this:
A Texas Hill Country Family are trying to eke out a living on land they settled by stealing it from the Spaniards early in the history of Texas. They are being threatened by their neighbors. They finally have enough, so they get together and run the neighbors out in a ruthless surprise attack on their ranch. The leader of the family has seventy legitimate sons (by many wives—polygamy was rampant in them thar hills) and one bastard son. The bastard son gets together with the brothers of his mother (his father’s mistress—just why a man with many wives needs a mistress I haven’t figured out), and they decide to kill all seventy of his half brothers so he can be Sheriff and run the town.
They do it (except they miss one, and he puts a curse from God on the family forever), and they think everything is OK until some other neighbors decide they don’t like this bastard running things, so they attack the family’s ranch. There is a lot of shoot-‘em-up fighting until one of the enemy women throws a rock at the bastard Sheriff and hits him in the head. He’s so badly wounded that he has his best friend shoot and kill him so no one can say a woman kills him.
Now the neighbors are in charge, and everything is OK for years until some Indians attack and start burning down their ranches. So they find this wild man, an outlaw sort of Jesse James type (no one seems to know who his relatives are because he’s another bastard son of someone) to lead them in an attack against the bad Indians. Now he’s a real religious guy, so he tells God that, if God will help him slaughter enough Indians so they won’t be a threat any more, he will offer up as a burnt offering sacrifice to God the first person he sees when he gets home. And, sure enough, God helps him destroy the bad Indians. So he heads home, and when he gets in sight of the house, his only child—a daughter whose name everyone has forgotten—comes running out the front door, and the poor guy realizes he’s got to kill her for God. He gives her two months to play in the hills, and then he kills her and offers her up as a burnt offering to God.
Great story, no? Problem is, of course, I didn’t make it up. It’s all from the Bible, Judges 7 through 11, to be exact. So “family values” in the Biblical tradition are:
1) have many wives so you can have seventy sons, but beware of the one bastard son of your favorite prostitute;
2) if you have seventy brothers, it’s OK to kill all of them (but you better be sure you get them all or the one you miss will cause a lot of trouble);
3) if you’re a Jesse James type and your neighbors ask you to defend them against the rightful owners of their property, be sure not to make any deals with God or you might end up having to kill your daughter.
Last year during the Texas political campaign* to save Family Values by passing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, I pointed out this saga from Judges (along with stories of all the “Patriarchal” founders of the Jewish–Christian–Islamic tradition) to my rhetoric (“critical thinking”) classes. I pointed out that the Bible thinks nothing of a man having “many” wives and a few concubines on the side, of killing off all your siblings, and even of killing your own daughter. I asked how the current fanaticism over “defining” marriage has any basis in Biblical history.
I should have been prepared for the answer one of my fundamentalist students gave, but I wasn't, so I'm grateful to her for explaining things to me. She said that all of that business about polygamy and fratricide and infanticide is in the Bible to show how God eventually revealed to the people of Israel their sin and taught them how he wanted them to live.
So morality in the Bible is not a static, unchanging, written-in-stone concept. It changes with changes in mores and with the redeeming influence of civilization and the progression of human understanding of relationships, both personal and societal, and with God.
Unless, of course, you are gay.
* The amendment, of course, passed by a 75% margin. It was not, however, a victory of any sort. At the time of the election, Texas had 12,577,545 registered voters, and only 616,054 people voted in the election—meaning that fewer than FIVE PERCENT of eligible Texans amended the constitution. My guess is that the fundamentalist, literalist churches provided most of those votes, and that, if anyone had really cared, far fewer than 75% of the 12.5 million voters would have voted “yes.” That’s just my opinion; I have no way to prove it. But hope springs eternal.