rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself

image courtesy of reverendmom

[This post is the fourth in a series.  Others are: “rahab’s exchange: the lie,” “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories,” and “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism”  Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Was she right to do so?  Is it ever right to lie?]

I’ve argued that the most sensible system of ethics is deontological ethics, in which there exist moral laws to which all humanity are obligated to obey.  I believe those moral laws originate in the person and nature of God. I’ve also offered graded absolutism as the most logical (and useful) subset within the deontological framework.  The graded absolutist (that’s me) holds that God’s laws do, at times, conflict with one another.  The duty of the believer, then, is to be obedient to the weightier of those two laws.  In doing so, the Christian does not sin.

But there are some obvious questions to be asked.  And because I’m not popular enough to be interviewed by anyone else, I’ve volunteered myself to do the job:

Brett, are there any actual scripture references that support your arguments for graded absolutism?  Or is this all just an exercise in logic and imagination?

There are several verses, I believe, that attest to the existence of weightier commands.  Here are a few:

  • Matthew 22:36 – Jesus demonstrates that there is a “greatest commandment,” and even a “second” that is like it.  So there certainly is present some hierarchy of moral commands — of which the chiefest is to love God with all of our being.
  • Matthew 10:37 – Loving Jesus is more important than loving our fathers, mothers, and family.
  • Matthew 23:23 – The scribes and Pharisees tithe even their spices, but they’ve neglected “the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.”
  • Matthew 5:19 – Jesus states that there do exist lesser commandments.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:18 – Sexual sins (committed inside the body) are somehow worse than other sins.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 – God punished and killed an innocent human being in order to save us.  This was an injustice — as we ourselves are incredibly deserving of punishment and death, and Jesus was not.  God’s plan of salvation itself is immoral if there is no graded absolutism.

You made the outrageous claim yesterday that graded absolutism is “demonstrated in scripture a number of times.”  Can you cite a few of those instances for us?  And don’t use the Apocrypha — very few of us are Catholics.

Sure.  I’d be happy to:

  • Acts 5:29 – Peter and the apostles have broken the commands of the authorities in order to teach the gospel.  There was a clear conflict between obedience to God (proclaiming the gospel) and obedience to civil authorities.  Their answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” [The commands to obey civil authorities can be found in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.]
  • Acts 4:18-19 – Peter and John in nearly the exact same scenario.
  • Daniel 3 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship the golden statue even though they were commanded to do so by the king himself.
  • Daniel 6 – Daniel continues to pray to God three times a day, despite the fact that this was illegal.
  • Luke 2:41-52 – Boy Jesus chooses submission to God over submission to his parents.
  • Matthew 12:1-8 – Jesus and the disciples pick and eat grain on the sabbath.  He then relates the story of David having eaten the bread of the Presence (1 Samuel 21) when to do so was unlawful.
  • Matthew 12:9-14 – Jesus heals on the sabbath.

And these are more circumstantial — and may not fit our context exactly, but they’re at least worth looking at:

  • Joshua 2, 6; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:24-25 – This is where the series all began.  Rahab lies to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Her faith is commended in the Hebrews text, and her actions (of receiving the spies) are endorsed in James.  Nowhere is it stated explicitly that Rahab’s lie was approved by God or good.
  • Exodus 1:15-22 – The king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to immediately kill every Hebrew-born male.  The midwives, though, “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”  Instead they lied and said that the Hebrew women were strong and healthy and always deliver before the midwife can even arrive.  “So God dealt well with the midwives… and because [they] feared God, he gave them families.”  This story doesn’t come out and say, “God approved of these lies.”  But it very nearly does.
  • 1 Samuel 16 – Samuel was commanded to go and anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king.  In order to be allowed to enter without being killed by Saul, though, he is told by God to tell what we might consider a “little white lie” — that he has come peacably, to sacrifice to the Lord.  This isn’t a straight out-and-out lie, but surely we’d agree there is some dishonesty and deceit present.
  • Let’s don’t even start the conversation about all the instances in which killing another human being was approved of — or even commanded — by God.  [No, seriously, let’s don’t start that conversation…]

Aren’t you afraid that, if we adopt graded absolutism as our theory of ethics, people will only use it to justify sin?  A fellow could argue that he lied to his wife, because he didn’t want to hurt her.  Or that he only stole food in order to feed his hungry family.

I suppose I’m not very afraid of that.  Any system of ethics is going to be abused; that’s what people do. They sin, they break rules, and they act selfishly (and foolishly).  Are we seriously considering throwing out a valid understanding of scripture and morality because we’re afraid people will abuse it?  Why not throw out mercy and grace while we’re at it — people abuse those?!  [Actually, some of us have attempted to throw these out…]

So you’re telling us you believe God is so imperfect that he was forced to create laws that would conflict with one another?  If God’s perfect laws are in conflict with one another, then his nature itself is necessarily in conflict.

This argument doesn’t make any sense.  If conflict within laws created by God necessitates conflict in the nature of God, then sin in a world created by God necessitates sin in the nature of God. We live in a fallen world; things happen.  In a perfect world, these laws wouldn’t be in conflict.  If my parents didn’t sin in commanding me not to worship God, I wouldn’t be forced to choose between obedience to God or my parents.  But sin breeds conflict.  And Christians are not exempt from conflict.  We are not immune to hard choices.

Are there any examples of Jesus having faced any of these moral dilemmas in his life?

Honestly, I’m not sure; but I think so.  I mentioned above the story of boy Jesus remaining in the temple when he was supposed to be with his parents in the caravan to Nazareth.  He caused them great concern and anxiety, and his only answer was, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business.”  I’m not sure that story is itself a great argument.  But it leans that direction.

It would probably be more productive to look at any of the number of times Jesus argued for mercy in the place of justice.  We know that mercy and justice were both considered by Christ to be “weightier matters of the law.”  But when the two conflicted with one another (the woman caught in adultery or Jesus’ own crucifixion despite his innocence), Jesus forewent justice in favor of mercy.  He spared the adulterous woman, and he chose to die to save the world.  Mercy over justice.

Do you really believe dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth in Old Testament times?

Uhm… yes?  But I don’t see how this is pertinent to our discussion.

Yeah, I was just wondering…

Next post: a cultural argument for lying.


Filed under exchanges

19 responses to “rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself

  1. I agree with your conclusions. Jesus at 12 in the temple really did ”disobey” his parents. Can you imagine being his parents and can’t find the son of God? I woulda freaked. He didn’t go over and huggie kissie his mama either…..He had her think logically about the issue. What was the greater need? Following them back or doing what He was called to do?….I guess He could of donkeyed a message to them…..
    Jesus was also tempted in all things such as we are yet without sin.
    So, if he still chose to heal on the Sabbath which was breaking ”their” laws, not God’s, He wasn’t sinning….but yet faced temptations to do so and looked like he was sinning in the face of his people.
    Isn’t that what still goes on today?
    If a person is trying to live God’s leading, why is it sometimes we put rules, (even apparent scriptural truths) doubts, religion , over them to the point that they end up giving up to spare our wrath?

    • i always have thought the story of 12-year old Jesus odd. it’s the only information we’ve got between baby and 30; so it seems it must be really important. but it does seem to be a strange story. he hangs out with the scribes and teachers of the law for a few days? really?! while his parents went without him? what about those teachers in the temple — did they not think it was strange there was a kid there without his parents? did they try to get him to leave and go home? it’s just a strange story.

      what do you mean about people giving up in order to save themselves from our wrath?

      • Sometimes we do/don’t do things because of the judgement (wrath) of others. I apologize for my formidable language, but coming from my background of being spiritually abused, it’s really not that harsh. Sometimes, I would say ”it’s not worth the hassle” instead of sticking ot my guns on what I know God would have me do, mostly out of fear.
        But, most church’s would just have judgmental or criticism/jealousy issues to deal with that could squeeze out the spirit of God moving in a person’s life. But, for me it was much deeper than that.
        I have supported a lady that works in the strip clubs ministering to the women there. She is doing a great God work! But, there are those that doubt, disagree and scoff at her hanging with the sinners and prostitutes. She is bold enough to stand for what God has called her to do, and not back down from the ”wrath” of her brothers in Christ. This is a big example, but, there are many smaller ones we all deal with to some extent that I think stands in the way of us really living for Him…
        Still pondering and rambling….

  2. Jen

    Hmmm…. I have been chewing on this one all week, ever since the first post. I like your conclusions, not sure I agree, but I have not come to my own conclusions,either.

    I definitely agree with the weightier matters of the law part. Regardless of your faith background, I think it can be so easy to focus on a moral set, sometimes that is not even defined biblically, and stop there. At that point often we are ignoring the poor, the orphan, the widow, etc.

    As I understand the word sin, it is missing the mark, which is something I do on a daily basis. If I am faced with a situation in which I need to lie in order to save a life, I would do it, and I might even feel glad that I did it, but I am not sure I would redefine it as not sinning. Would God hold it against me…..? No, but then all my sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb, so in reality they are not held against me either. I guess my misgiving is that it seems that we are redefining sin….it is sin in this case, but not in this one.

    And on a final note, a lot of people say Jesus broke the “law” by healing on the Sabbath and rather than break the law, I propose that he taught us how to fulfill the law. There were 2 sets of law (much like our own churches today) The laws given by the Lord, known as Torah and then these “oral laws” not given by God, but by various teachers of the law. Many teachers of that day made Sabbath a burden, don’t walk this many steps, don’t do this, don’t do that…..Jesus showed us it was to be a gift, a time of refreshing and healing and rest. Jesus was the emodiement and example of how good and loving God’s instructions were. And if he had truly broken any of God’s laws, it would have rendered him incapable of being our Messiah b/c he would no longer be sinless.

    Sorry, long post with lots of rambling. I have loved this series and I am sure I will be talking and thinking about it for days. Thanks! It was a nice way to have my coffee this morning.

    • i concur with your definition of sin: to miss the mark. it seems we’re very close in our views of a situation in which we would need to lie to save a life. the reason i go the way i do is that 1) perhaps God has set (or sets) particular marks for particular situations? and 2) if Jesus was tempted as we are and was ever in one of these situations, his choice can’t have been sin.

      i see how it might seem as if we’re redefining sin, but i wonder if we might simply be more clearly understanding sin and God’s desires for us in particular situations. Jesus came not to abolish the old law, but to fulfill it. i wonder if the sabbath situation might simply be a lesson in knowing which law is the weightier of two choices — and then making that choice. [i’m with you, by the way, on your sabbath ideas. except that i believe Jesus could break the sabbath without it being sin.]

      i guess i have no problem regarding a particular action as being sin in one time and place and not in another. when we move from one culture to another, this very thing happens with great frequency.

      [and i enjoy the long comments. thanks for the discussion.]

  3. I’m not certain that God is ethical. 🙂

    Ethics, like logic, science, and reason, are relative….really, no matter the extradited association…..

    HOWEVER, absolutely, graded absolutism is scriptural – when it results in placing The Kingdom over worldly institutions.

    Fun stuff here!

  4. After reading all of these thoughtful posts I’m almost afraid to ask, but here goes: Why do you think there were dinosaurs in O.T. times?

    Also, an example of sinning just by doing what we do.: I’ll bet, when push comes to shove, that driving a car is a sin. It pollutes the atmosphere and it’s been fueling (sorry about the pun) conflicts over oil for quite some time.
    When we inadvertantly cause an accident or run over some poor creature that happened to get in the way at the wrong moment, we’ve sinned. Can I stop driving? Not in this country. I live 10 miles from work, for starters. Do I think God expects me to stop driving? Probaly not, or , hopefully, I would. There are a lot of things we’ve brought this world to that we can not change at this point. God will have to do it Himself…..

    • well, i think the “behemoth” and “leviathan” mentioned in the OT are dinosaurs. or the latter a dragon, even. but also, we’ve found all these dinosaur bones all over the world — so they had to come from dinosaurs somewhere. and that would seem to have been before the time of Christ.

      and i think i’m in the camp that says driving a car is not a sin.

  5. I like that you interviewed yourself. ha. I might steal that one day.

  6. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying? | aliens and strangers

  7. gotta say I never gave much thought to the reality of God’s laws conflicting one another – but now that I am aware I also am siding with you.

    Self interviewer: Will people think I’m smarter if I use terms like graded absolutist?
    Charlie: Undeniably. People will think you are brilliant.
    Self Interviewer: Wait people don’t already think I’m brilliant?
    Charlie: Remember when Brett talked about how it’s possibly okay to forgo truth in favor of relationship?
    Self Interviewer: I don’t get it.
    Charlie: Exactly.
    Self Interviewer: Wasn’t helpful – still lost.
    Charlie: (left room)

    • i’m glad i’ve got charlie on my side. and your dialogue is quite funny.

      [i’ve been praying, by the way. not about the dialogue being funny. but for you guys in what’s going on… may God bless you even in this.]

  8. Andrew

    Really wish you’d have more conversations with yourself and Charlie would too. I like listening in. Thanks!

  9. Pingback: the lie of Jesus | aliens and strangers

  10. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism | aliens and strangers

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