Should people offer God things they got for free?

One time, when David was trying to get God to stop killing thousands of innocent people to punish David for obeying God, David decided he had to make God a sacrifice. When someone offered to give David some free oxen to sacrifice, David said that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be right to offer God something that cost him nothing. That wouldn’t be a real sacrifice at all! So he paid for the oxen and then sacrificed them, and God accepted his offering and stopped killing innocent people.

But what about that other time, when Abraham had just passed God’s test by showing how easily he could be convinced to murder his own children? In that story, God provided Abraham with a free ram, just so he could offer it right back to God. Here God certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with people giving him things that cost them nothing. Instead, he’s actively encouraging it.

And when Joshua had the Israelites destroy the city of Jericho, he said God wanted them to plunder all its people’s valuables and put them in God’s treasury. The Israelites certainly didn’t pay for those stolen goods, but apparently God wanted to have them anyway. As long as you’re giving him valuable stuff, God doesn’t seem to care how you got it.

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Mundane miracles

A miracle is a supposed event that is contrary to the laws of nature.1 The idea is that an event like that can only be explained as the work of a supernatural being like God. But what if it turns out that an apparently miraculous event can actually be explained in terms of ordinary natural phenomena? It may still be amazing, and it may be useful… But there’s no reason to think it’s a true miracle in that case, and it’s not very strong evidence of anything supernatural.

How many of the miracles reported in the Bible (supposing the stories aren’t entirely made up) have possible natural explanations?2

Knowledge

There are a lot of prophecies in the Bible. A lot of them have turned out to be false. A lot of them fail to specify a deadline for fulfillment, making it impossible to tell whether they’re false. Some of them seem suspiciously like they were written after the fact. Some of them predict events that are nothing out of the ordinary. Some of them are so vague that it’s no surprise that something happened that could be considered to fit the description. Some of them have only been fulfilled because people who knew about the predictions fulfilled them on purpose. And a lot of the passages that are considered prophecies weren’t even meant to be predictions at all. That doesn’t leave very many actual impressive predictions, if any.

Jesus and other prophets in the Bible are said to have been able to read minds and demonstrate inexplicable knowledge of other people’s pasts. It’s surprisingly easy to give the impression that you have abilities like that. When people want to believe that you’re psychic, they will perceive your readings as amazingly accurate no matter what you say. They’ll do most of the work for you, interpreting whatever you say as something meaningful and accurate. And they’ll ignore everything you get wrong.

Creation, destruction, and transformation

So, what’s up with that burning bush Moses found that wouldn’t burn up, before he started hearing God talking to him? Maybe it was some kind of Acacia. They can be easily flammable and slow to burn up, and they can even trigger religious experiences.

Moses and Aaron tried to prove that God had sent them by turning a staff into a snake. But the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing. So either they were prophets of God too, or that trick doesn’t prove anything. I’ve heard it’s possible to do the stick-to-snake trick by holding an Egyptian Cobra and applying pressure near its head. That makes it go stiff and motionless so it looks like an inanimate stick, until you put it down.

The Bible says during the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, the water turned into undrinkable blood and killed everything in it. That sounds a lot like a phenomenon known as a red tide, where a certain kind of algae causes water to turn red and toxic. That could explain some of the other plagues, as well. Frogs flee from the unhealthy water and die, bugs get out of control because of the lack of frogs, bugs spread disease among the people and livestock, etc. And the remaining plagues could be explained by food poisoning and a volcano.

The collapse of Jericho could have been caused by a convenient earthquake that the Israelites retconned as being a result of their own actions.

Why did the Philistines keep finding the idol of Dagon fallen over in the morning, bowing down toward the ark of the covenant, and eventually broken to pieces? Might one of the Israelites have snuck in and vandalized the idol during the night? It wouldn’t be the first time.

How could a crowd of over 5000 people eat and be satisfied if Jesus’s disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish to offer them? Well, it never says nobody brought their own food. And why wouldn’t they?

Some branches of Christianity consider the Eucharist ritual to be a miracle. They believe the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus… which just happen to be completely indistinguishable from ordinary bread and wine for some reason. Least impressive miracle ever! No explanation needed.

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The Story of the Plague of Quail
God Solves a Problem by Creating a Worse Problem

The Israelites were getting tired of eating nothing but bread from heaven, so they asked for some meat. Moses didn’t know where to get meat, even though God had already given them meat when they had asked before. So Moses asked God to kill him.

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God Solves a Problem by Creating a Worse Problem
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The Bible is unbelievably sexist

The Bible makes it easy to see how little its writers valued women. It says women are nothing but trouble, and good ones are very rare. It even has a list showing exactly how much God supposedly thinks various kinds of people are worth. So how much is a woman worth? It varies with age, but generally a woman is worth about half as much as a man according to the Bible. Two-thirds as much, at best.

Maybe that has something to do with why having sons was considered more desirable than having daughters. And why it says giving birth to a girl makes a woman “unclean” for twice as long as when she gives birth to a boy. Speaking of reproductive uncleanness, the Bible says everyone has to shun women and treat them as “unclean” about half the time (during and after their periods). Menstruation apparently makes God angry. (So why did he design women that way?)

Judah thought his daughter-in-law should be executed when he heard that she had engaged in prostitution, even though he had just had sex with a prostitute1 himself, and he didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong.2 In the Gospel of John, a woman is caught in the act of adultery and brought out to be stoned to death, as the law commanded. But for some reason they didn’t bring out her partner in crime to be stoned too, even though the law also said the man had to be stoned to death.

Biblical gender roles

The Bible claims that women were made for the purpose of serving men. It also says they were then cursed so that men would always rule over them. And it uses the Eve origin story to justify subjugating women. It says women aren’t allowed to speak at church, or to teach, or to be in any position of authority. It suggests that women don’t make good leaders, any more than children do. Only one queen ever reigned over the kingdom of Israel, and she’s portrayed as a bad one.

The Bible says men and women always have to wear different kinds of clothing. It’s disgraceful for a woman not to dress or wear her hair in the same way that would be disgraceful for a man. But women shouldn’t dress too fancy, either.

God says daughters can inherit their parents’ property, but only if there are no sons.3 Some people who hear this then object to having even that much equality. They argue that if those women marry men from other tribes, that could lead to one tribe losing its wealth to another tribe (due to the male-focused nature of how their society worked). But when “God” responds, he doesn’t have a problem with that last part. Instead, he says they’ve got it right, that’s exactly how it works. And he solves their little tribe problem by telling them to be more discriminatory, not less.

A lot of the time, the Bible just ignores women, because the activities that were considered important were also considered to be for men only. Approved female occupations were mostly limited to things like sewing, cooking, fetching water, having children,4 taking care of people, crying, and other things women could do at home.

Whenever they take a census in the Bible, they only count the males, because women weren’t considered to be capable of fighting. Even when a woman did conquer the enemy, they tried to erase her achievement and attribute it to a man. The genealogies are patrilineal, and only mention the occasional woman as an afterthought. Saying “Let my people go” was considered to be the same as saying “Let just the men go.” When the Bible writers were talking about both men and women, they felt the need to clarify it by mentioning the people “and their women“.

A lot of rules in the Bible, particularly the ones about sex, are for some reason written with only male readers in mind, as if women are never going to be reading the Bible or deciding who to have sex with.5 This leads to some strange implications if you take what’s written literally. Some rules, like the ones against having sex with certain people if they’re engaged to somebody else, don’t appear to apply if you’re a woman. And what about that rule that says nobody can have sex with a man?? Most women aren’t going to like that rule. For that matter, most men aren’t going to like nobody ever being able to have sex with them, either. They did not think this through.

Women as property

In the past, women were usually considered to be the property of men. And rather than providing the visionary moral insights you’d expect from the word of a perfect God, the Bible only encouraged the status quo.

Even among slaves, women were treated worse back then. The Bible’s laws state that male Hebrew “servants” usually have to be set free after seven years,6 but female servants can be kept forever.

The Bible condones taking virgin girls along with the other plunder from enemy nations and using them as sex slaves. Or wives, as it sometimes calls them.7 Not that the Bible really makes any distinction between servant girls and wives. Marriage in the past was basically a form of slavery.

The Bible describes marriage as men giving or selling their daughters to other men. Laban sold his two daughters to Jacob in exchange for 14 years of labor. Boaz bought a piece of land in order to get the woman who came with the land. Saul sold his daughter to David in exchange for 200 foreskins. And after Hosea’s wife left him, God had him buy her back from her other lover. Wives belonged to their husbands. The commandment against coveting lists wives along with cows and donkeys and other things your neighbor might own.

That explains why in ancient times, the only kind of adultery people cared about was when a man had sex with another man’s wife. That was a crime because the man would be using somebody else’s property without permission. Solomon wrote at length to discourage his son from doing that. But Solomon had 700 wives and 300 girlfriends, so he clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with a woman having sex with another woman’s husband. Women didn’t own men, after all. The law generally allowed a man to own as many wives as he could provide for. But a woman could only belong to one husband at a time.

At one point in the Bible, the tribe of Benjamin is in need of wives, because the other Israelites have just killed all the Benjamite women, and have sworn not to “give a wife” to any Benjamite. The only way they can think to solve this problem is to have the Benjamite men kidnap a bunch of women. It never occurs to them that they could just let the women decide to marry Benjamites on their own if they want to, without their fathers having to do anything.

The Bible says if someone hits a pregnant woman, they have to compensate her owner (her husband) for the damaged property, rather than having to compensate her. It says if a man falsely accuses a woman he married of not having been a virgin, he has to compensate her manufacturer (her father) for slandering his product, rather than having to compensate her.

It says if a man rapes a virgin, he has to compensate her owner (her father) for the damaged property, rather than having to compensate her.8 And if you’re a single woman who isn’t a virgin (in which case you’d probably be considered already damaged and unsellable), “God” doesn’t seem to care if you get raped. The Bible has no laws against that, since there’s no obvious way to interpret it as a crime against a man.

Control over women

Right after he tells slaves to always submit to their masters even if they’re violently abusive, Peter says wives need to submit to their husbands in the same way. Paul agrees that wives need to submit to their husbands, treating them like they’re God. He thinks this requirement of extreme submission is fitting and will prevent people from slandering the Bible.9

When a king’s wife disobeyed him, he banished her, so all the other women wouldn’t think they could get away with disobeying their husbands, the rulers of their households. The Bible portrays women as thinking that what kind of behavior is proper is entirely determined by what their husbands think. When women try to make their own decisions, they’re often ignored and overruled by men. The Bible’s laws say a man is always fully responsible for keeping any vows he makes, but a woman’s vow can be nullified by the man who’s in charge of her (her father or husband).

It says a man whose brother dies without a son has to marry his brother’s widow and pretend that the dead man is the one having children with her. A man who chooses not to go along with that custom is to be publicly shamed. But the writers of the Bible don’t even consider the possibility that the woman might not want to marry that man. Only the man’s desires matter.

When Abraham sent a servant to get a wife for his son, her father said to go ahead and take her, without waiting to see if she was willing to marry a man she’d never met. All they needed was the consent of her owner. They didn’t bother consulting her at all until after it was already decided, and they were just sorting out the details of getting her to her new owner. The Bible says a man is allowed to divorce his wife any time he wants, but it never says a woman can divorce her husband if she wants to. Only the owner has the authority to make that decision.

The Bible has the supposedly righteous man Lot decide to send his daughters outside to appease the mob of rapists surrounding his house. The only reason he doesn’t actually do it is that the rapists don’t happen to be interested in them. And God still thinks Lot is worth saving from the doomed city after that. It says sending a man out there would have been wicked and vile and outrageous. But his daughters are his own property, so it must be okay for him to do whatever he wants with them, right?

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Did Paul think he should get a reward for his work?

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that he expects to be rewarded for his work. And not just by God after he dies. He thinks his followers owe him a material reward for his spiritual work, just like any other worker would get. And he says that isn’t just his opinion. God’s law (at least the way Paul interprets it) commands that people pay others for their work, including preachers.

But then he claims that he’s not preaching for profit, that there’s nothing wrong with not paying a preacher, and that he’s not trying to convince anyone to give him anything. So why was he just telling people they owed him, then? Even though he thinks he has a right to be supported by his followers, he now says he would rather die than use that right, because he’s proud not to be a burden to the people he’s preaching to.1

Then he says he doesn’t even deserve a reward, because he can’t help preaching. So why was he just saying he did deserve it? For Paul, preaching the gospel for free is its own reward, and other than that, he doesn’t want any reward.

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The Story of the Offensive Offering
The Lord is Slow to Anger

Two sons of Moses’s brother Aaron made an offering of incense to the Lord. But they did it wrong, so God killed them with fire. Moses explained that this was how God proved that he was holy and honorable. Aaron said nothing.

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The Lord is Slow to Anger
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Did Saul already know that God was with David and that Michal loved David?

In 1 Samuel 18, shortly after David kills Goliath, King Saul has started feeling envious and afraid of David. It says the reason he was afraid of him was that God had abandoned Saul and was now with David instead. Then Saul hears that his daughter Michal is in love with David. This pleases him, because he can use it as an opportunity to try to get David killed. So Saul sends David off to fight the Philistines, to prove that he’s worthy to marry the princess.

It doesn’t go as Saul planned. Instead of getting killed, David succeeds in killing twice as many Philistines as Saul had challenged him to kill, so Saul has to let him marry his daughter. Then Saul suddenly realizes that God is with David and that Michal is in love with David… again? And that makes him even more afraid of him. But how can Saul be realizing those things just now, if he already knew them?

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Everything wrong with heaven and hell

Perverse incentives

  • The expectation of being rewarded or punished in the afterlife is supposed to be a reason to be good in this life. But rewards and punishments are not good reasons to be good. Focusing on personal repayment distracts from the real reasons to be good, which leads to selfishness and moral apathy.1
  • Expecting to be infinitely rewarded or punished depending on what you believe is arguably the worst possible obstacle to true belief.
  • A lot of religious people say it’s very important to God that we have free will. And they say it’s particularly important for us to be able to freely choose whether to accept him. So what’s up with all the threats and coercion? It’s hardly a free choice if you’re threatening to torture people forever if they don’t make the choice you wanted them to make.
  • The knowledge that life is short is an incentive to stop wasting time, focus on the things that matter most, and enjoy your life as much as you can while it lasts. If you think you’re going to live forever, you have no reason to do any of that. Scarcity makes things more valuable, including life. The belief in an everlasting afterlife devalues this life.
  • If you were really going to go to heaven when you died, the logical thing to do would be to kill yourself as soon as possible, after encouraging everyone you care about to do the same. Or maybe you wouldn’t do that, since having all those deaths on your hands might prevent you from going to the right place. But still, it wouldn’t make any sense to fear death, to try to avoid it, and to be sad when people die. A rational believer in heaven would live recklessly. Who cares if you die if you’re just going to keep living? Death would be a good thing if it meant you were going to a better world. And you would be anxious for it to happen as soon as possible, before you had a chance to do anything that might prevent you from getting there. (Of course, death is not actually a good thing, and not caring about death is a terrible idea, since heaven isn’t real. But many people think it is real, which is quite a dangerous belief.)
  • Having children is a terrible idea if it means there will be more people who have a good chance of ending up in hell. The existence of hell would mean that by reproducing, you risk causing infinitely more suffering than you would cause by doing any other bad thing you can imagine. Even if most people weren’t going to hell, as the Bible says they are, allowing any risk of even one person going to hell when you could have avoided it is unacceptable, and makes you an infinitely worse person than every childless criminal in history combined. The risk of causing your children to suffer forever is especially bad if people who die very young go to hell by default.
  • On the other hand, if you believe that people who die very young go to heaven by default, the logical thing to do would be to reproduce as often as possible and then kill all your children as soon as possible, to maximize the number of people who go to heaven. There certainly wouldn’t be any reason to oppose abortion if you believed that. In any case, if people really believed in heaven and hell and acted logically on their misguided beliefs, believers would be extinct by now.
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