It’s always interesting to hear my husband, a militant atheist, and me, a respectful agnostic/atheist, talk about the Bible to the kids. Today, my husband tackled the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. He told the kids that the whole point of the story is to remind religious people that they have to be blindly obedient to their God, no matter how evil or wrong his commands are. I told the kids that it’s a stunningly important story, since it marked the beginning of the end of human sacrifice.
My husband has a different view of the story of Exodus too. He refuses to celebrate Passover, because he says it commemorates the genocide of the Egyptians. While it is certainly troubling that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to the point where the Egyptian First Born had to die (a neat parallelism, of course, to Pharaoh’s decision to kill the Jewish First Born), the fact is that Jews, for thousands of years, have celebrated Passover as a story of freedom — it’s the world’s first recorded slave revolt. As celebrated, it isn’t a blood-thirsty tale of murder but is, instead, a story about Mose’s personal redemption, and about individual dignity and liberty. It’s also a story about overarching human emotions: self-sacrifice, greed, fear, etc. Or, I guess, if you want to see it that way, it’s a story about genocide.
There are many troubling stories in the Bible, whether Dinah’s brothers slaughtering a whole town, Lot offering to throw his daughters to a rape-made crowd, or even the story of the circumcision of Moses’ son. What’s striking about the Judeo-Christian tradition is that these religions have looked at these stories, some of which reach far back in pre-history, and have rejected their randomness and violence. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we tell these stories, but we keep our life lessons focused on justice and morality. Just as it’s troubling that modern Muslims take literally Mohamed’s most violent prejudices and prescriptions, so too is it sad that atheists look at the Bible and see only a book of evil.