Everything I really needed to know about relationships, I learned from the Old Testament

A partial list of things the Old Testament teaches or suggests about sex, marriage, and relationships:

1. Kidnapping and rape are perfectly acceptable ways to find a wife. (Judges 21: 16-23; Deut. 22:28-29)
2. Don’t underestimate the benefits of visiting prostitutes. (Joshua 2)
3. Use sex to get power. (Entire book of Esther; see discussion here.)
4. Women, make yourselves sexually available to powerful men. (Esther.)
5. Men, spice up your relationship by offering your wife to local political leaders for sex. Twice! (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-16)
6. Writer’s block? Go marry a prostitute, then mock her in your writing. (Hosea.)
7. Men, if you’re in danger of rape, suggest the would-be rapists rape your wife (and/or your host’s daughters) instead. (Judges 19)
8. Women, overlook indiscretions like mistresses and occasional murderous rage, as long as the guy is powerful. (Esther)
9. Suspect your wife of cheating? Take her to the priest for a cool magic ritual that will make her barren if she’s unfaithful. Woot! (Number 5:11-31).
10. Feel free to make sex slaves out of female captives, but only if they’re virgins. Otherwise, kill them all. (Numbers 31:7-18)

Also: Polygamy is fine (e.g., Gen. 25; 2 Sam. 19), and homosexual behavior is sinful (Leviticus 18:22).


  1. Kaimi, I trust you’re going to follow this post with one about the positive messages the OT contains? Lest we find ye lacking.

  2. What positive messages? :P

  3. Seriously, though. Of course the OT has positive messages too. It’s got some great stuff.

    Unfortunately, its positives are liberally mixed with a whole bunch of very misogynist, xenophobic, murderous, or otherwise problematic messages.

    My point is not, “let’s make kindling out of the whole book.” Rather, my point is that “it’s in the OT” is almost certainly insufficient, standing alone, to establish the propriety of any particular practice or doctrine.

    And so we have to be like Lot’s wife, and take the OT with a grain (or twenty) of salt.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Just checking.

  5. Or:

    Yes, the list is cherry picked. Absolutely.

    On the other hand, the cherry picking wasn’t particularly difficult. There’s an awful lot of fruit to pick from — this could easily have been a twenty-item list — and that’s even more frightening.

  6. The call letters for Old Testament scholarship in most libraries are… BS ;)

  7. Kaimi,

    Some of your items are laughably stupid. If something appears in a story in the OT it is therefore endorsed by the OT? Is that what we are to understand from this nuanced analysis?

  8. Really, Jacob?

    Almost everything on the list was either done by a prophet, written into commandments, or viewed as cause for celebration. #7 is the only exception, I believe.

  9. Kaimi, let me step in to point out that the Old Testament has more to say about social justice than any other book of scripture. It’s not all rape, murder, and royal successions.

  10. Yea, #7 is sort of like saying you learned that genocide is great from watching Schindler’s List.

  11. Not really, Jacob.

    The action isn’t condemned anywhere in that section. All Israel joins to kill the Benjaminites — and never once does anyone say to the traveler, “you did _what_?”

    At best, it appears to be viewed as neutral. Not particularly recommended, but not condemned, either.

  12. Surely you jest. Try Judges 19:30.

    To be clear, there are others on your list that seem to be terrible paraphrases of the scriptures cited. As an example, Deut 22:28-29 is not really an endorsement of kiddnapping and rape.

  13. matt w. says:

    I am going through the OT this year, and it is difficult, for these and many other reasons. But how can one be a rational believer and reject 90 percent of the old testament? (that’s how problematic it feels, just starting kings. Ruth being the oasis in the sea of morbidity) I guess there is that ‘translated correctly’ bit you can try to hook into, but then you are assigning power to the modern prophets, who were big proponents of those things you are rejecting.

    I mean where is the line where we have to take things we don’t agree with on faith?

  14. On Judges 19, are you looking for the condemnation of the “master of the house”? Is the silence on that point (due to the focus on the rapist/murders) what you are using as evidence of neutrality?

  15. matt w. says:

    and where’s the line between rejecting the divine source of some things in scripture we don’t agree with and rejecting all of it?

    these are not rhetorical questions.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    “and where’s the line between rejecting the divine source of some things in scripture we don’t agree with and rejecting all of it?
    these are not rhetorical questions.”

    Having ourselves the constant companionship of the Spirit, deep aquaintance with receiving personal revelation, AND a ton of patience.

    Sure not a rhetorical question.
    It is _the_ question.


  17. Kaimi,

    Based on the stories that you have mentioned, would you say that the early Patriarchs and their neighbors behaved better or worse than the gods of the Greeks?

  18. Matt W.
    I personally apply D&C 91 liberally to all scripture. Your mileage may vary.

  19. Jacob,

    In Chapter 19, the Levite says to the rapists, “don’t rape me, rape my wife instead.” They kill her. He sends her body to the tribes, and they say (your verse), “There was no such deed done nor seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt unto this day.”

    That very same Levite, the rape-her-instead guy, then calls a council of the 12 tribes in Chapter 20, and they decide to send troops to kill the Gibeah rapists.

    There’s no condemnation of the Levite’s action; and the fact that he calls a tribal council and is listened to, suggests that no one sees any problem with his actions at all. The Isrealites really appear to think that the only party at fault is the rapists themselves.

  20. John (17),

    About the same, I’d say. Odysseus, Theseus, and so on (not to mention Zeus!) were pretty vile themselves.

    On a broader level, is there any way that standard, accepted behaviors for ancient Israelites (or Greeks, or Romans) would be at all acceptable today?


  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    Doesn’t Harold Bloom hold the idea that much of the Pentateuch was written by Bathsheeba as a kind of literary high joke and way of getting even? I think he also said the those books had no heroes, only heroines. Seen in that light, it kind of turns everything on its head. What if we are meant to find the prophets mad bad and dangerous to know, and admire the women who retain thier piety in light of the men’s bufoonery.

    I don’t believe any of this stuff.
    But it’s intersting, all the same.


  22. Kaimi,

    You forgot a few of my favorites:

    Men- if you leave the faith, marry outside the faith, then later return to the faith, you should discard your wife and any of her children, whether you sired them or not (Ezra 10)
    If your starving brother approaches you asking for food, demand his share of the inheritance in return (Jacob and Esau)
    It is possible to obtain special blessings for your favored children by deceiving the priesthood holder giving the blessing, through a swap of offspring under his hand (Rebekah and Jacob)
    Youth- do not make remarks about a prophet’s lack of hair, or you will be mauled by bears. These bears have special powers that keep their prey from fleeing, making just two of these bears capable of tearing apart 42 youth in a single instance (2 Kings 2)

  23. You’re going straight to hell, Ellsworth. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

  24. factorus says:

    Without the Old Testament there would be no foundation for the New Testament. The same God speaks in both. The same God is testified of in both. Christ himself expounded on the Old Testament from the time of Moses up to the day he walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but only after calling them “fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”

    God commanded Laban to be killed for the records of these ancient prophets, and the obedient study of the wisdom contained in those records gave us prophets like Nephi, Mosiah, King Benjamin, Moroni and others. It tells us where we came from, what our history is, and what the future holds.

    No sincere student of the eternal laws of God, or the Logos, or the Priesthood, or the human race, or the House of Israel would ever interpret the messages of the Old Testament as you do.

  25. Without the Articles of Confederation, there would be no foundation for the Constitution. Does that mean it’s a good idea to operate under the Articles of Confederation?

    If no sincere student would interpret Numbers 5 to mean,

    “Suspect your wife of cheating? Take her to the priest for a cool magic ritual that will make her barren if she’s unfaithful.”

    then what _would_ a sincere student interpret it to mean? I await your response. The text is pretty damn clear, I really don’t see another way to read it.

    Similarly, Judges 21: 16-23 is a pretty clear endorsement of kidnapping and rape as a wife-finding tool.

    And so on, and so forth.

    I say this as a very sincere student of the Legos, and of the human race.

  26. (Actually, Dan Ellsworth, those are all very good points. Especially Ezra, which is a relationship-related one that I had forgotten about.

    So many screwed-up tribal relationship norms, so little time.)

  27. Nate Oman says:

    Kaimi: One way of usefully reading the Old Testament is to see it as an ancient book that in most essentials contains an ancient world view, much of which we would rightly find objectionable. On the other hand, to stop at this point is to engage in a bit of anachronistic (and simplistic and lazy) moral backpatting. The next step is to then see the way in which Old Testament authors disappoint and subvert various moral and ethical expectations. The message of the books lies much more in their departures from ancient morality than in their endorsement of it.

    Of course, this sort of a reading requires that one reject a simplistic notion of scripture where one assumes that if it is within the covers of the book or if it is done by a prophet character then it must be endorsed by God. There are no doubt lots of Latter-day Saints who would say this is how one should read the scriptures. (I am more skeptical about how many of them actually DO.) It also requires quite a bit more work in one’s reading.

    Of course, engaging in godhatesshellfish.com level exegesis is always fun. It certainly makes me feel daring and elightened.

  28. Everything depends on what you are trying to know and the lessons for which you are looking.

    I don’t read a mortician’s manual to learn about relationships, either.

  29. Just when I wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, Nate Oman makes me feel hopeful. But then, he usually does.

  30. factorus says:

    All of the modern day prophets that have spoken on homosexuality have declared it a sin, but I’m sure you disagree with them as well and have endless rhetoric with which to defend your position. (I’ve never found real truth to require sophistry or hyperbole in its defense)Keep it handy in the event that the veil is rent and you prove to be right because I’ll totally deserve the I-told-you-so speech then.

  31. Excellent avoidance of the question, F-man. Please focus on things I actually say, though.


    That’s a good question, really.

    Personally, I think that it begins with realization that the Old Testament is a collection of many interesting things. We can attribute some portions of it to God’s interaction with people; but to a large degree, it’s just people — people who lived in a very problematic society — recording the norms of their own problematic society.

    That is, we have to use our brains and ask ourselves, “which portions of this reflect inspiration, and which are simply regurgitation of screwed-up tribal norms?”

  32. Julie M. Smith says:

    The Book of Mormon, with all of its “and thus we see”s and overt moralizing, has disadvantaged us in reading the OT, where the moralizing is far more subtle, or entirely absent. But that doesn’t imply that the behavior got the divine seal of approval. Kaimi is precisely correct when he says that we need to think about what we are reading and not assume that a character is acting in accordance with God’s will.

  33. factorus, is it rhetoric, sophistry, or hyperbole to call your interlocutor’s arguments “endless rhetoric”? Note that I’ve given you three choices; I don’t think you gave Kaimi more than one. So I’m being generous.

    Nate, your position seems reasonable enough. Yet I worry that this kind of middle-ground position ends up giving us wiggle room to avoid any idea that makes us uncomfortable. Surely some of what makes us uncomfortable does so because it’s wrong, but if we’re too able to characterize what makes us uncomfortable as not part of the set of departures from ancient morality that make us uncomfortable, then the Old Testament loses any power to challenge us and call us to repentance. In practice, of course, this is just what has happened to the Old Testament for almost all believing Christians and certainly for Mormons — whose major approach to reading the Old Testament, based on the Sunday School discussions I’ve witnessed, involves analyzing all the characters and incidents and deciding who the good and bad people are according to our current, preestablished morality. Such an approach makes the Old Testament simply a mirror for our current ideas and robs it of any transformative power. Yet I don’t know how to give it such power without requiring us to accept the huge amount of material that seems totally unacceptable.

  34. How about seeing as a bunch of Joes and Janes doing the best they could to understand and explain their interaction with God – all the while seeing through their own glasses, darkly? How about trying to see them as we hope others see us hundreds or thousands of years from now – with a little charity and without condemnation? How about trying to see them as they now see us – hopefully with a little charity and without condemnation?

    I am all for a critical and probing attempt to understand, but I also believe that I will be judged as I judge.

  35. Nate (27),

    I accept that the OT is an ancient book characterized by an ancient worldview. I think Kaimi has a point here, though- I see members of the Church jumping through the wildest logical hoops to try to make some of the crazier OT stories seem spiritually valuable to us. Some of the stories in the OT are immensely valuable (the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, Joseph in Egypt, etc.) but I think perhaps most of the membership of the Church does not feel like we are allowed the autonomy to call an occasional preposterous story (like the she-bears in 2 Kings 2) what it is- preposterous.
    Moreover, I think most Sunday-school treatments of morally dubious OT stories — like Rebekah’s swapping of Jacob and Esau’s blessings — consist of a simple description of what occurred, with no attempt to address the morality of people’s actions, while in other cases, we go to great lengths to extract tidy moral lessons from stories where the moral lesson is in reality not very clear.

  36. Steve Evans says:

    The only thing worse than banning someone is having to ban them again. Factorus has once again shown himself to be highly intelligent and also a jerk. Bye.

  37. Everything depends on what you are trying to know and the lessons for which you are looking.

    I don’t read a mortician’s manual to learn about relationships, either.

    I can fully appreciate the wisdom summarized in such aphorisms as “Seek and ye shall find” or “The answers you get depend on the questions you ask.” These seem to align with Ray’s “Everything depends on what you are trying to know and the lessons for which you are looking.”

    My sincere question, however, is that if we can indeed find answers to many unrelated questions in relatively unrelated texts, then why do we so vehemently regard some texts as scripture (particularly ones that contain so many seemingly strange and heinous acts carried out by those who we are supposed to look to as our examples).

    To broaden the scope of this question: I genuinely think that it is possible to learn almost any lesson from any source depending on what your background is and what you are looking for (or not looking for!). Given this, and given that in the context of our church meetings, and Sunday School discussions most of us learn more from the discussion itself than from the scripture itself, it truly makes me wonder why the concept of “scripture” is so highly valued if in cases such as Old Testament study we blatantly disregard so many of the moral principles taught and instead opt for interpretations that so conveniently filter out any behavior that we find inappropriate in our modern world. (Was that a run-on sentence?).

    What is the point of scripture if we are expected to merely use the spirit as an interpretive and revelatory guide? Why don’t we just regard everything in our scope of experience as scripture, carefully studying it and gleaning truth from wherever it may come? In other words, why continue to use the Old Testament at all if a substantial portion of it must be either overlooked, carefully justified, or regarded as out of date and otherwise superceded by other texts/teachings? Would it be better to regard some texts as ones that “used to be scripture,” or some commandments as “used to be commandments.”?

    Lots of questions and issues brought up here. Please feel free to pick and choose, as we all seem to be doing that as we fabricate and express our own unique interpretations of the Old Testament :)

  38. SamR, you proved your point by picking one possible meaning of what I wrote – and it wasn’t the one I meant.

  39. Kaimi is obviously correct when he says we must consider who is talking and not just assume that a character is acting in accordance with God’s will. Sadly, the post does the exact opposite, assuming that if people did it and were not overtly condemned in the text, we are to take what they did as an endorsement of their behavior. Judges 21 is not necessarily an endorsement of kidnapping and rape. Yes, the elders in the story endorse that, but are we as readers supposed to assume that it was endorsed by God? Isn’t it just as possible that this is an example of the sinfulness of the children of Israel (which comes up pretty frequently in the OT)?

  40. Sorry Ray,

    Didn’t mean to pick and choose. I’m just trying to explore the various issues at stake here (and there are many). If you think it would benefit the discussion to clarify your post which I quoted I would very much appreciate it.

  41. Jacob, in this case I don’t think your interpretation of Judges 21 is plausible given the context.

  42. I could probably perform the exact same exercise with respect to murder, theft, or any sort of criminal behavior you care to mention. But the only reason I would do so would be to undermine or demonstrate disdain for the OT as any kind of reference at all for morality on that particular subject. There are already plenty of atheists doing that same kind of thing; why join them?

  43. SamR, there were two separate statements in that comment. I didn’t make it clear that they were meant to be independent.

    “Everything depends on what you are trying to know and the lessons for which you are looking.”

    That, imo, simply is a truism. Too many people assume they are objective when they read historical texts, but it’s brutally hard to understand “the big picture” in doing so. I tend to parse intently at first and only afterward look to overall context, but that has obvious weaknesses as an approach to ancient texts, especially. Not only is there a paucity of reliable textual commentary of that same time and culture, but when you can’t even be certain if it was meant to be literal or allegorical, for example, the purpose of the search is every bit as influential as the text itself in many cases.

    Iow, when one examines ancient documents and begins to piece together an interpretation of those documents, it generally is an interpretation. Sometimes that is based on extensive related research, but for the average member it is based solely on the record in question. In that scenario, particularly, people tend to “understand” as they read what they already understood before they read.

    “I don’t read a mortician’s manual to learn about relationships, either.”

    I just don’t see many of these passages as having been written with the intent of being lessons on proper interpersonal relationships. That isn’t my purpose as I read them. I think Kaimi is addressing that in his own way here, by showing how ludicrous it would be to take these passages and use them as the basis for that type of lesson.

  44. Great points Ray.

    You mention in your last paragraph that “you don’t see many of these passages as having been written with the intent of being lessons on proper interpersonal relationships.” I completely agree, but perhaps your most important nugget you imply by this statement is that we tend to truly care about the intent of the writing. In fact, it occurs to me that in scripture we tend value the original intent more than we do in other circumstances, texts, and artworks subject to our interpretation.

    That’s very modernist of us, isn’t it? To seek the author’s intent as the primary guide to our interpretation? In the case of the Old Testament we must assume so much in order to fill the gaps to create an interpretation that sits well with us. When filling the gaps most of us tend to give the text the “benefit of the doubt.” But that’s very post-modern of us, . . . isn’t it?

    When we give the text the “benefit of the doubt” we are stepping in and applying our own values, understanding, and interpretation to the text, all while assuming that this is an effective and clarifying process. Practicing Mormons will readily throw away a scarier, if not more likely interpretation, in favor of a much more comforting one. We all do this sometimes. But the pressing question is whether or not re-interpreting the scriptures in order to find personal meaning in them is the “right” thing to do?

    Is it correct to seek the original intent of the text? (Is that part of what makes scripture valuable to us?) Or is it correct to apply our own understanding and find meaning in the scriptures that wasn’t “originally” there?

    Nephi clearly suggested that we apply the scriptures to our unique circumstances. Yet I think most of us like to do some of both. It is an interesting line, however, that we draw for ourselves; between selectively choosing an interpretation based on authorial intent, and those interpretations which we think are most helpful and meaningful to us personally. With a text as complex as the Old Testament it takes great insight to sift through all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” taking texts written in a very different time and place, where even God seems to have acted differently, and successfully apply them to our modern lives. Or maybe the whole process is quite easy and we should just make interpretations that make us feel comfortable. This method, however, does not align itself very well with Jesus’s favored process of challenging his disciples.

    I must stop writing now. Too many ideas. I await their fruitful rebound.

  45. Fwiw, SamR, I parse, then I interpret. Only doing one is boring, and doing so probably would make me wrong about half the time. If for some reason I don’t feel confident that I have found the author’s original intent, I don’t mind getting more than one possible meaning or lesson or interpretation out of many texts – even if only one of them was meant by the writer.

    I believe in likening things unto myself – when the original intent doesn’t seem obvious. There are some times, however, when doing so can create some doozies. For example, I personally am not going to try to call down fire from heaven on anyone in the near future, even though that might be a simple of likening OT scripture to myself.

  46. To the daproff/howsad/factorus troll:

    Take a minute and ask yourself if your internet behavior in the last half hour is commensurate with your pretention to be a member of the Church and one who believes in Christ. I’ve banned you, banned your spoof IPs, banned your multiple aliases, and done all else I can do to keep your destructive participation away from BCC. There’s more that we can do to limit you, but we’re hoping you will go away. You’ve gone beyond arguing and contention into bona fide sociopathic behavior.

    To answer your question you repeatedly ask: we are not banning you for the truth or untruth of anything you’ve said, but simply for the way you are saying it. You’re a troll.

  47. Steve, you could be right. Since I am not up on my Judges I don’t want to take to strong a stance. I have read “my” interpretation of Judges 21 in commentaries, but in fairness they were old commentaries which I would not want to rely on. Can you give me a hint at which context seals the deal as this being portrayed as endorsed by God?

    Also, where do you come down on Deut 22:28-29? Endorsement of kidnapping and rape?

  48. Lest anyone get the idea that I simply hate the Old Testament or something, let me point out some contrary evidence.

  49. I dunno Jacob, I am just reading the text and trying to make sense of it myself. I have no resources re: sealing the deal. I doubt there’s anything like that out there.

    Re: Deut., it’s pretty clear that Deut establishes some pretty harsh rules regarding lots of people. I wouldn’t call it “endorsement of rape and kidnapping,” either, but I would say that is a permissible interpretation.

  50. Kaimi, you should know that you can’t link to that site from this site. Isn’t there a cron job that goes through and disables all such links? There must be since your link is not working for me, and that is the only explanation.

  51. Jacob (39),

    God takes the time in the OT to issue several hundred individual rules about all manner of minutia. God sends prophets to specifically condemn everything from intermarriage to fashion trends to counting troops.
    When God wants to condemn Israel, he does so in no uncertain terms. A lot. A whole lot. At the drop of a hat.

    Given that backdrop, it really says volumes that there’s no condemnation at all of the “take my wife, please” Levite.

    The most reasonable read of the lack of condemnation here is that this act was just not seen as problematic, at the time.

    Yes, that’s disturbing. And that’s really my point. If we don’t do mental gymnastics, if we just take the text as written, its implications are pretty damn awful in places.

  52. I am open to correction on Judges 21, but I don’t see anything resembling divine endorsement in the story. If I read it correctly, it says the elders got together to decide what to do. They followed some rules similar to what Moses gave in Numbers 31 (Kaimi’s #10), so there is certainly a connection there, but I don’t see an endorsement of their decision. On Deut 22:28-29, this seems like a more clear cut case of this being a punishment for rape rather than an endorsement of rape as a way to find a wife. One could argue that it is not a harsh enough punishment, but I simply don’t see a plausible way to argue that it endorses rape.

  53. Jacob,

    My item #1 was using Judges 21 for kidnapping and rape. Deut. 22 is just an endorsement of rape.

    Rape a girl? Well, pay her dad some silver, and then marry her (!), and all’s well.

  54. Kaimi (#51),

    Sure, I can get on board with the possibility that it was not seen as problematic at the time, and yes, that is disturbing. But, that strikes me as very different than saying the Old Testament “teaches” that we should follow the example of the master of the house in Judges 19. I don’t think I am into doing the mental gymnastics Dan mentiones in #35. I simply don’t see how we can take an inference about cultural norms in ancient society found in the Bible to be synonymous with what the Bible teaches.

  55. Kaimi, it doesn’t say the part about “all’s well.” That would be objectional, but it is not to be found in the text cited. The payment and requirement to marry are clearly proscribed as punishments for an evil act done to the woman.

  56. Jacob (52),

    My point exactly.

    The “punishment” for raping a girl is that you have to marry her.

    This is in the context of a document that prescribes capital punishment for, let’s see: Sabbath breaking, hitting parents, cursing, heresy, being gay, being a witch or a fortuneteller, or living in the same town (!) as heretics. (Seriously. Deut. 13. Not kidding.)

    And in the midst of this, the “punishment” for rape, is, “marry her.”


  57. Kaimi,

    It appears that Steve was right and the joke is on me. I’m a little dense today (like everyday) and obviously took your hyperbolic delivery too seriously. I am on board now. The OT is crap, tear it from your Bibles today, I say. Or just black it out like you should have already done with Song of Solomon.

  58. This is an interesting post. I actually just wrote one over at my site because I was asking myself many of the same questions about prophets who do things contradicting what God previously told them to do. It makes it hard to figure out what is truth and what isn’t. The only way I’ve been able to “make sense” out of scripture is to take the parts of scripture out that I feel the Spirit testify to me about. The stuff I don’t understand I just don’t worry about.


  59. Just to compound the problem, much of the cultural wisdom of the times got codified into law. Because they lived in a theocracy, it all got attributed to the will of God.

  60. Nate Oman says:

    JNS: You are no doubt right about the problem of wiggle room. I am not sure if you think that current problem is that modern LDS are too literal in their reading of the OT, accept too much, and therefore are behave in all sorts of immoral ways based on ancient tribal thinking etc, or if you think that modern LDS are not literal enough, doge the implication of the text, and are immoral as a result. I doubt that there is any method of interpretation of scripture that is entirely risk free.

  61. Nate, it’s self-evident that we don’t take the entire Old Testament literally. Indeed, most of us never read 2/3 of it, and our lesson manuals encourage shameless skipping around in the text. Beyond that, we don’t seem to believe that there’s any immorality involved in, for example, sitting on a chair that a menstruating woman has previously sat on.

    I think the problem with the current LDS approach to the Old Testament is that it’s so flexible in its literalness that we dictate the book’s message and don’t allow it to speak to us in its own voice at all. We simply reject most of its contents, but we do pick and choose a handful of phrases to take very seriously indeed — probably a good deal less than 2% of the overall text. Yet those phrases are taken seriously in isolation from their immediate and broader contexts.

    All this means in the end is that the Old Testament has already been informally kicked out of our canon. It has no power for deciding theological questions in Mormon culture; it just provides resources for illustrating or otherwise punching up arguments decided on other bases. I think this is particularly important because the text’s persistent and indeed central message of social justice is entirely muted in our reading. We always miss the fact that, other than idolatry, the central “sin” of the people of Israel in the Old Testament is, over and over, their treatment of the poor and the powerless.

  62. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., I hate to break it to you, but Ruth doesn’t escapte Kaimi’s list. Check out Naomi’s instructions to Ruth as to how to seduce Boaz.

  63. matt w. says:

    kevin, nothing wrong with a little seduction training.

    anyway, this post had an interesting result for me. being that I personlly don’t know what is right, and no spiritual answer has come to me, I now know I would follow president monson on faith alone if I lived in california. that may seem damnable to you, kaimi, and apologies to mikeinweho.

    As for the OT, basically, I could never be jewish…

  64. Matt W., I think your questions really are interesting. Of course, Mormons in general present a large number of case studies: most do in practice seem to reject 90% or more of the Old Testament. Yet they somehow do maintain faith in the scriptures as a whole.

  65. Ross Eldridge says:

    Great discussion!

    I got wondering whether the Prophet Joseph dealt with any of these rather awkward things in his “Translation”. I appreciate that we do not hold the JST to be Scripture, but it was a working, growing project and document. I believe he was ready to publish around the time he was murdered … so Joseph must have felt some sense of completion, satisfaction, with it.

    What’s the point of having a more correct “translation” of a book that is so convoluted and, apparently, at odds with itself? Did Joseph ever speak to this?

    I appreciate that the people in the OT were (supposedly) recently created, and were hardly civilized if we go by other evidence. It looks as if the LORD lowered himself to their level a good deal of the time.

    This certainly makes the mission of Jesus one that was needed, no matter his status, though He is not recorded as denying the OT, is He?

    Has anyone seen the film THE SECOND COMING (2002) starring Christopher Eccleston? In this excellent work, a THIRD TESTAMENT is required … and this time it is MANKIND that must write it.

    Not a bad idea, because if God DID “write” the OT (that is being discussed here) … and we have a fair translation … God really is odd!

    As LDS, aren’t we taught that our FAMILY is our piece of Heaven? If we can do that right … father, mother and the children … surely we are gods. All you need is love, and common sense.

  66. Jim Donaldson says:

    3. Use sex to get power. (Entire book of Esther;
    4. Women, make yourselves sexually available to powerful men. (Esther.)
    8. Women, overlook indiscretions like mistresses and occasional murderous rage, as long as the guy is powerful. (Esther)

    Actually, the whole of Esther (perhaps fictional anyway, no historical or archeological support for it) makes sense if you read it as a comedy, something like Shakespeare–foolish and ineffectual men, hot babes, hidden identities, preposterous premises, etc. If you laugh your way through it, it makes perfect sense. It sort of fits in with that genre-hopping bag of tricks found in “The Writings” section of the OT: Job (reader’s theater), Psalms (hymns), Proverbs (wisdom literature), Ecclesiastes (sermons), and Song of Solomon (erotica).

    It has virtually no religious content (a glancing reference to fasting and prayer), but it was useful to show how a religious minority needs to use all of its resources (including its hot babes apparently) to survive in a hostile world. A lesson not lost on the Jews, and probably more applicable to us than we’d like to admit. My guess is that is how it made its way to the canon.

    None of this, of course, is suggested in the sunday school, seminary or institute manuals, but the set up is so broadly funny (a drunken orgy at which the incumbent queen refuses to appear) it just has to be. This is a good time to actually pay attention to the text and read creatively. It makes perfect sense if you are not trying to make it ‘scripture.’

    It is fascinating to me, however, that between sessions of the most recent general conference, BYU TV programmed a cheesy high-school type musical production of Esther that came pretty close to this–slapstick comedy, jaunty rag-time songs, etc., which gave me hope.

    Many of the troubling OT stories stand, I think, for the end justifying the means. This is troubling in its own way, but that’s what is there, clear as day. Just as Abraham lied about his relationship to Sarah on a couple of occasions (and Isaac did the same), Joseph Smith lied about his polygamous relationships. Another lesson not lost on us.

  67. Judges 21 ends with this comment:

    “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

    I don’t see an endorsement there for any of the events.

  68. Clair,

    I’ve heard that argument made before. I don’t find it particularly convincing. Do we really think that the entire book of Judges is just one big mulligan?

    “Nevermind. Don’t take anything away from this book. We’re not really sure why it’s here, but whatever you do, don’t pay attention to its content.”

    Isn’t that kind of . . . silly?

    This isn’t post-Gutenberg. Papyrus is expensive; most of the people aren’t literate; and the Israelites are spending expensive resources and skill copying this book, verbatim, by hand, word by word, again and again. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that it’s all a wash.

    (Or, is the lesson that once Israel gets a king, _then_ we follow what it says? Cause if so, I can point to a dozen things that Israel did _with_ a king, that were also very problematic.)

  69. Plus, it’s clear that that statement in Judges 21 is _wrong_ as a descriptive matter. It’s _not_ the case that everyone in Israel was just doing what they want during this time, as the book of judges itself makes clear. It’s true that there’s no king, and so central authority is more limited. But it’s not non-existent. There’s a tribal hierarchy, and judges, and people following that hierarchy, which we see again and again in the book.

  70. Kaimi, there are many possibilities between ignoring a book of history and fastening our moral compass on each of its characters.

    The Israelite history is one of a largely apostate nation and its history reflects that, at least in the opinion of its prophets.

  71. #63 I work for a Jewish gentleman who would have absolutely no idea what we are talking about even though he is on the Temple Board where he attends. I believe he belongs to the Conservative group. It would be interesting to attend services with him and see exactly what they do learn. Maybe someday! He is one of the world’s great people and I am sure he would be aghast at what we are reading in to these scriptures.

  72. Your Jewish gentleman is reading the Torah in light of the Talmud, a book that hasn’t come up in this discussion.

  73. Oh, and he wouldn’t be in the least aghast; you should ask him about one.

  74. Joe Geisner says:


    Thanks for the excellent post and insightful comments. What I find interesting about your comments is the debate that has gone on since the beginning of Christianity when it comes to the Old Testament. Marcion is one example of a early Christian who had problems with the Old Testament. I believe your reading also reflects the understanding of many Old Testament scholars who see the same problems you write about.

  75. Kaimi,

    If the Odyssey and the Iliad were invoked as morality tales, I don’t see any reason why these OT stories cannot (or rather could not) have been used in a similar fashion.

    The OT represents a different type of morality than what we currently enjoy. I can’t say if it was superior to its contemporaries because we don’t have enough information to be sure. I can say that, in some ways, it was superior to Hammurabi; in other ways it was not (thinking of the treatment of adulterous couples, in Hammurabi it is only the woman who is killed; in Leviticus, the man gets killed too).

    For that matter, it isn’t as if the other scriptures are abounding with good relationship advice, framed as such. Christ flatly states that a divorced woman should not remarry. Paul is requests that woman shut up and do what their husbands require of them. Of the three named women in the Book of Mormon (aside from Mary), one is a harlot and the marital status of the other two is ambiguous. Even the D&C is mostly mute on this point.

    Finally, if you want actual relationship advice, not just intuited advice drawn from stories and legal mumbo-jumbo, the Bible is your sole source. Paul has some ideas about how couples should behave as Christians (which we generally ignore). Proverbs makes up the majority of what the OT has to say on the matter and it consists mostly of a description of an ideal wife (according to the patriarchal mores of the day) and a whole lot of passages suggesting one should stay away from prostitutes.

    Also, I feel that I must agree with those who are saying that reading the particular passages you chose at face value is not particularly enlightening. As an example, the sage of the Levite and his wife is a, sometimes word-for-word, repetition of the story of Lot and the three angels. It is not meant to be flattering to either Lot or the Levite.

  76. John,

    I really have no problems with the idea that we shouldn’t take these passages at face value as moral guides. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the post.

    In comments over the past few weeks, several people here and on other blogs have used, “but the Old Testament says so” as a moral baseline — either regarding homosexuality or polygamy.

    This post is a response to those assertions. In form, it’s a reductio ad absurdum: It accepts the premise that we should simply accept OT rules as binding, and shows (by cheerfully accepting that premise) that the premise is itself problematic.

  77. Ok then. Carry on. Also, I am slow.

  78. No worries, John. Since most of my posts are absurdum, I’m more used to noticing it.

  79. Matt W. says:

    Kaimi: the problem with this reductio ad absurdem is that it is a bait and switch. In that the topic begins on whether Mormonism is hypocritical or basing there anti-homosexual agenda on some skewed distancing of themselves from polygamy. So it is shown, no they are not in fact basing it on that, but instead are basing it on doctrine they take from the bible (both old and new testaments). Thus your previous discussion now moot, you do the switch and instead attack the authority of the old testament. Next perhaps you’ll show that those letters of Paul which are canon aren’t really pauline, or Paul was uninspired on those points, or so on.

    But, to be honest, stepping away from the sexuality issue for a moment, I do see severe difficulites in the Old Testament. But the Old Testament also has things in it like this guy named God, who I’m not quite ready to reject, so saying the old testament is ridiculous because it has some crap we all obviously don’t agree with in it doesn’t meant everything in the old testament is ridiculous and we should throw it all out. To you, the disapproval of same sex acts (not feelings, but acts) may belong with not eating pork or cutting wives up, but it doesn’t fall in that bucket for everyone, and there are a lot of fence sitters too, who when they don’t know, they follow their leaders, people they trust and believe in.

    Like Thomos S. Monson.

  80. But the Old Testament also has things in it like this guy named God, who I’m not quite ready to reject. . .

    Good thing, because I believe he has quite a temper. ‘Course, if God doesn’t smite you, your community will finish you off.

  81. Steven B.

    Good to know you believe, I guess. Personally, I take a lot of that stuff and put it in the “crap we all obviously don’t agree with” bucket. I don’t know you well enough to know for certain, but if you do believe in God, then you know that rejecting some of the book doesn’t mean rejecting all of the book.

    In any case, I take your ire as an indicator that I came accross rather harshly in comment #79. I may even be accurately called to task for doing a bait and switch of my own. sorry about that.

  82. Matt,

    Really, I’m just addressing the simple point of Old Testament as authority on relationship/marriage issues. As I’ve suggested, the problems in the OT suggest that it does not work well as a stand-alone authority.


    Thanks for the Dylan link, it made me chuckle.

  83. Matt, I don’t know if you did a bait-and-switch or not. But I will say that it seems a misnomer to say that the Bible passages against homosexuality are “doctrines.” That implies a level of elaboration and reasoning that simply isn’t present. A better descriptive word here would be “phrases,” as in “Mormons base their anti-homosexual agenda on roughly three phrases they take from the Bible.” This doesn’t mean those phrases are necessarily wrong. But the doctrines involved in this discussion are of the extrapolated variety, not of the canonized kind.

  84. Mark B. says:

    And the simple point is that we don’t have to rely on ancient scripture to find divine condemnation of homosexual relations.

  85. For polygamy, I think the only basis for believing in it is faith, hopefully confirmed by a spiritual witness, that God has called a modern prophet, and that the principle that the prophet is teaching is true. I couldn’t help but notice that Pres. Eyring encouraged us thrice in the last FP message to pray to know that a specific prophetic counsel (not just prophetic counsel in general) comes from God (e.g., “[Reddick Allred] then knew that the counsel to stand fast was from God. We must pray to know that. I promise you such prayers will be answered.” Emphasis added.)

    The knowledge that polygamy in the OT (or at least some of it) was sanctioned by the true and living God, could come by a spiritual confirmation that (a) Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and (b) section 132 and its contents relating to OT practice are true. In a sense, then, the OT passages relating to it are more secondary evidences that it is a principle that has been practiced before under the sanction of God.

    Thus, in my view, “for the Bible tells me so” is insufficient by itself to justify the practice of polygamy. If this is the point you are trying to make, Kaimi, then I wholeheartedly agree.

    In defense of others, I think I often cite biblical passages in support of a doctrine without explaining my true source of belief in that doctrine. For someone not LDS and/or someone with a different epistemology, this can be confusing.

  86. The Dylan link is too funny! Thanks.

  87. StillConfused says:

    11. It is okay to have sex with your dad as long as you get him drunk first.

  88. #87 My heart stopped and for a moment I thought you were giving the author of #11 permission to do something very perverse. Then I realized you must be adding to the list in the original post. I am going to go lie down now.

  89. Hmm. I think I meant perverted, not perverse.

  90. StillConfused says:

    I remember in high school english we studied the literary aspects of the Old Testament (which I thought was rather interesting). We were assigned the wild stories in the old testament to read for class. I remember the story about the daughters who got their dad drunk so they could have sex with him and get pregnant. Made for some interesting discussions in High School English!!

  91. Noray,
    It is both perverted and perverse.

  92. StillConfused says:

    Oh my Gosh… I just read the Firestorm and comments (sorry busy weekend). When it comes to matters of church history, I am very ignorant and “stillconfused.” I have to admit I never heard about Joseph Smith and polygamy. It seems like it was glossed over with very vague statements. I did hear about Brigham Young having lots of wives. So did Joseph Smith have sex with women who were currently married to other men under the guise of religion? Seriously… if that is the case then no wonder the survey mentioned last week talked about Joseph being potentially a fallen prophet.

  93. SC,

    Joseph Smith was married to about 30 women (historians disagree about the precise number), including several who were married to other men at the time.

    There are a number of sources on JS polygamy. One that puts many of the accounts in one place is Todd Compton’s book, _In Sacred Loneliness_. Also, a sort of cliff-notes version is available at the site, http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/

  94. SC, you have been around here for some time. Are you serious that you had never heard that before?..because if I didn’t know better, your comment smacks of classic trollery.

  95. #56 : Well, duh, of course marriage (for the man) is worse than death. Ask any married man. ;)

  96. Chimminia says:
%d bloggers like this: