I have been an atheist since 2018 but frequently challenge what I believe to see if it reflects truth. My motto in life is “Believe the truth, even when it’s inconvenient.”
So I decided to read “How (Not) to Read the Bible” by Dan Kimball.
What I hoped for was an elucidating explanation of the tough verses in the Bible about slavery and women. I read the book with an open mind, but it was a huge disappointment.
0. My general assessment
Instead of an honest assessment of the facts, it is packed with fluff, misdirection, and glossing over inconvenient facts (ironic, because this is what the book was NOT supposed to do).
Let’s talk about biggest issues I have with this.
I give it 2 stars and not 1, only because he doesn’t outright lie in this book.
1. This book is about 60% fluff.
Before getting to the actual meat, the verses which people have issues with, the author dallies around the for a full chapter talking about how Christians are pro-women and anti-slavery and how people misuse these verses to give Christianity a bad name.
Yes, that is why we are reading this book and got a good dose of that explanation in chapter one. We don’t need it as bookends for each section, creating 3 chapters when there only needs to be one.
2. The difficult points are addressed with weak conjecture and apology, not with facts.
Let’s look at some examples of this.
2.1 On the section about slavery.
He starts by saying slavery is bad. That people have misused the verses to justify slavery. That Jesus never condones slavery (but doesn’t also criticize it).
He talks about how Paul asked Philemon to take back Onesimus and treat him as a brother (but not asking Philemon to free Onesimus).
Then, he describes how slavery at the time of the Bible was very different from the Race-based slavery of the post-enlightenment era. He mentions that anyone who kidnaps someone is sentenced to death in the Old Testament.
Then, he mentions some verses that reference slavery. In it he says it was common to sell yourself into slavery to pay for a debt or to not starve. That about 30% of the population were slaves, so if God outlawed slavery it would have created an economic upheaval (even though all the Hebrews were slaves just let out of captivity and everyone was free).
He then mentions that the Bible brought positive safe-guards to slavery in that you couldn’t beat a slave to death.
What does he miss?
- The verses that command the Hebrews to take slaves
- The different prices for male and female slaves
- The provision for an owner to keep his slave forever
- The decreed difference in treatment of Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves
2.2 On the section about women.
This section addresses the verses where Paul refuses to let women teach men or speak up at church or lead men.
He starts by saying that women and men were created equal (that Eve was created from the side of Adam) and that Eve is called Adam’s “Ezer” or “helper”, which is used of God in reference to his people Israel.
He talks about Deborah, the female Judge, the women of honor like Ruth and Esther. He talks about Miriam being in the same rank of Aaron and Moses (though she is mentioned as a prophetess, not a leader). He talks about all the other women mentioned as prophesying in the Bible.
When it comes to the verses requiring a woman to be silent in the Church, all he comes up with is conjecture. He plainly says “no one really knows, but maybe it was because the women didn’t know as much about the Bible and so they were asking too many questions and bothering the Church service”.
He also mentions that the local temple of Artemis was female-run, so the influence from that COULD have caused problems in the Church.
Once again, he approaches these uncomfortable sections with conjecture, not fact. He even says to not criticize church leaders who believe women shouldn’t have leadership roles in the Church, but to talk with them.
At the end, he points out 3 more verses:
“But there are others as well, such as:
- Does a woman have to keep he head covered when church gatherings happen? (1 Corinthians 11:3-16)
- Does a woman need to submit to her husband in everything? (Ephesians 5:24)
- Does a woman need to have a baby in order to be ‘saved’? (1 Timothy 2:15)”
And what is his response. To gloss over them:
“Oh the many amazingly weird and wonderful questions the Bible raises! But when you look into the backstory to understand the cultural background, there is sense to be made from what sounds so strange to us.”
Does he go on to explain the background of these verses? No.
In the end, he never addresses the reason why women are not allowed to be leaders in the church. He mentions that they can be prophets, but a prophet is not a leader. He probably hopes the reader will conflate the terms and leave it at that).
3. He uses a double standard
In the verses about unclean food (forbidding Shrimp and Pork), he mentions that these and other similar verses were PROBABLY intended for the Hebrews to act differently from those cultures around them. To separate them and give them a stronger identity that they are God’s, different from the others.
Once again, this is conjecture. He doesn’t give facts. He plainly says “we don’t know for sure.”
But if that were the case, then why wouldn’t God have done the same with the cultural matters of slavery and treatment of women? Instead he justifies the slavery and women verses by saying they were part of the cultural milieu at the time.
Me: Why is shrimp and pork forbidden in the Bible?
Author: Because God wanted his people to be unique in culture and sensibility. Distinct from those around him.
Me: So then what about the slavery and the unfair treatment of women?
Author: Well, the culture at that time was like that, so God didn’t want to be TOO different.
4. He add unnecessary interpretation to bible verses to conform them to his view.
This is the part that really took the cake for me and caused me to stop reading.
The author points out verses that HE SAYS support his point, but he doesn’t include them in quotations in the text. I looked them up and found he unfairly adds interpretation to massage them to conform to his opinion.
“Paul cannot literally mean that women should be totally silent, because just a few chapters earlier in the same letter, he acknowledges (with no sense of disapproval) that women prophesied and prayed aloud in the church. (1 Corinthians 11:13)
1 Corinthians 11:13 –
“Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?”
This says nothing of praying aloud or in the church service.
“With all this in mind, it is important to note that the law requiring a rapist to marry his victim was not forced on the woman It was the woman’s legal right, if she chose, to pursue the law and request marriage or to reject it”
(There is no citation for this)
“We read in other parts of these realy books of the Bible – that the woman could communicate through her father, who was the one responsible for her care, and choose not to marry her violator” (Exodus 22:16-17)
Exodus 22:16-17 (ESV) –
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and leis with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.”
There is no mention of the woman communicating with her father. She is left out of the discussion.
5. My summary of the book.
Here is the summary up to the part I read.
- Yes the Bible says some weird things.
- I thought they were weird, too.
- But they are not weird if you look at them in detail.
- Lets look at how to look at them in detail.
- First, understand that the Bible was not written to us specifically, but to people of a different time.
- Next, never read a verse by itself. Take it in its context.
- Now, about shellfish and pigs. God wanted to do that because he wanted his people to be different from those around him.
- But they don’t apply to us now because the New Testament doesn’t command not to eat those foods.
- But slavery, that was too big for God to change suddenly. It was too different culturally and would cause big problems in the economy.
- Slavery is mentioned in the New Testament, but we don’t take that as a command saying it’s ok to have slaves.
- But slavery is really bad, I promise you. I agree that it’s evil.
- Now, about women. Why does the Bible say that women couldn’t teach men and had to be silent in the Church?
- Well, God originally created man and woman equally because Eve was taken from Adam’s side. It’s sin that messed everything up.
- Polygamy isn’t directly stated as bad, but every time it happens in the Bible problems happen. So there.
- The Bible mentions many women of honor. It is not anti-women.
- Women can be prophets (not leaders) in the church, like Miriam.
- Why must women stay silent? We don’t know for sure, but it probably was because they didn’t know as much as the men and asked too many questions and disrupted the church service.
- The Bible isn’t anti-women. Let’s trust that and not look into other problem verses, ok?
I hope you can understand why I stopped here.