Lawrence O’Donnell and the Old Testament

By Neil Earle

Lawrence O'Donnell

Just recently, MSNBC show host “The Last Word” got involved in a fracas involving pre-emptive reporting which seems to have blown over.

That reminded me of something. This website reported earlier on a January 10, 2013, tirade the fiery O’Donnell (pictured), a former aide to Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, aimed at the Obama team. It concerned their removing an anti-homosexual Atlanta pastor from giving the invocation at President Obama’s second inaugural.

This was interesting for Bible believers because O’Donnell held up his Bible (a true rarity on cable opinion shows) to support his take on the charged issue of homosexuality and the unfortunate Pastor.

Inerrancy or Inspiration?

In order to counter the charges that the Bible is a hodgepodge of errors, misstatements and contradictions many of the Bible’s well-meaning defenders champion the concept of inerrancy.

Inerrancy teachers postulate that the Bible, as originally written, can never be wrong. In the original draft – apart from the copies of copies we have in today’s Bibles every statement made on science, geology, history or whatever is absolutely correct. “The original authors did not and could not make mistakes.” That is the Inerrant position and many God-fearing sincere Christians espouse it. But beware. For one thing, no one has seen an original letter from Paul or a first edition Genesis. These documents have crumbled into dust. We do depend on copies made by highly dedicated men and women across the centuries to bring us the living word for now (Acts 7:38).

Professor Howard Marshal outlined a sensible middle-of-the-road position on this subject when he stated that when it comes to its intended purposes, the Bible is infallible. This is the Christian claim of “inspiration.” “The Bible is entirely trustworthy for the purposes for which God inspired it,” states Dr. Marshall (page 53). And just what was that purpose? 2 Timothy 3:15 says the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” John 20:31 puts it this way: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

In other words it seem fairly clear from these verses that the Bible was not intended to be the last word in objective history, biography, science, chemistry and geology. No. It had an admitted unabashed theological and spiritual agenda and it is very dogmatic. In 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 Paul changes his opinion and corrects himself form one verse to the next. Context is important. Paul makes a mistake but it is just the kind of mistake we all make when we are upset. The “contradiction” adds to the total effect of the message. It has that ring of reality about it.

Marshall says it well: "[T]he Bible does contain what may be regarded as errors and contradictions by modern standards but which are not in fact contrary to its own standards and purpose.” The purpose was to convey the message of salvation in many creative and sometimes highly imaginative ways – by poem, story, allegory, inventory, genealogy, prophetic utterance, conquest reports, riddles, paradoxes, laments, clever witticisms, parables, and its own distinctive pre-modern way of telling the story.

What a task the Bible writers had! They were trying to capture and encapsulate inside its pages some of the glory and majesty and some of the thought patterns of the Great God of the Universe. We can spend all day talking about the Bible's amazing reliability, how it preserved in its pages the memories of the ancients. The fact is that for the Christian reader, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, there is quite simply no other book that possesses the punch and power of the Scriptures.

It has an inspiration that simply will not quit. As James Packer has said: “Nothing brings such balm and such a glow to the sad heart as to find that some part of Scripture, written centuries ago, nonetheless deals with precisely one’s own personal problem, and that central to its resolution of that problem is the abiding reality of the person, place, work and grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (God has Spoken, page 13).

Read any good book lately?

Atheistic Fundamentalism?

Yes, O’Donnell said, the Bible does condemn homosexuality, and yes, the pastor in question does believe in this but the problem was, as O’Donnell said, no-one on the Capitol dais this month will agree with that Biblical position. So – why use the Bible at all?

O’Donnell noted that even President Obama doesn’t believe in the Biblical position and that Michelle Obama, the descendant of slaves, will be holding a book which doesn’t utter one word in condemnation of slavery, but does condemn homosexuality.

Here was a case of a commentator riffing off on the Bible’s alleged inconsistencies but by so doing reinforced a caricature Biblical-believing Christians have of their liberal critics – a lunge towards the sweeping generalization. O’Donnell followed the usual irate tactic of placing most of his remarks on homosexuality by citing Leviticus 18:22 – you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.

No one on the inaugural stand will believe this, summarized O’Donnell, so why are they using this book – or any religious book for that matter?

O’Donnell’s charges to make Christianity look archaic by quoting Leviticus are reminiscent of the attacks leveled on the faith is grist for the mill of a band of TV personalities such as TV host Bill Maher, the late Chris Hitchens and of course Atheist in Chief, Richard Dawkins now followed closely by the Arizona scientist, Lawrence Kraus.

O’Donnell enjoyed his brief rant. But of course major matters of Biblical scholarship do not play well on prime time – even on cable. There are answers to O’Donnell’s mildly amusing spin but they take some working through.

Too many people's impression of the Old Testament.

Amending the Levitical Laws

In his intemperate charge that most of our leaders are either dumb or hypocritical O’Donnell forgets one thing: the consensus that has guided sound Bible scholarship across the generations. In the 1500s Martin Luther said that he is the true theologian who can navigate between the Old and New Testaments. The simple truth is that for Christians the Old Testament is not the final word in church teaching or doctrine. The five books of Moses make a good first word from God but it is very shortsighted to say that the Christian church has not advanced beyond the sometimes exotic-sounding Iron Age prescriptions of the Torah. Even the prophets said that God allowed statutes that “were not good,” a concession granted in some cases because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Ezekiel 20:25; Matthew 19:8).

The rather exotic Jealousy Offering in Numbers 5 is a case in point. Here a suspicious cantankerous husband could not be assured of his wife’s guilt except by the humiliating standards of this bizarre ritual. Read it if you like. This is a law few, if any, modern church-goers know about, let alone practice.

Then, too, Christians believe that One greater than Moses came along and significantly amended large potions of the Torah both in spirit and intent. O’Donnell worked long enough on Capitol Hill to understand amendments. Jesus made significant departures from the Law by saying that all foods were now clean, that he was the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest, and showed his treatment of women and children had moved far in advance of both Jewish and Roman customs of the day.

Setting up Straw Men

A key mistake O’Donnell and others often make is setting up a “straw man” Old Testament, citing Moses’ writings as if they were indeed the rigorous Law for Christians. This issue was answered by Christian writer Alistair McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. McGrath is addressing British atheist Richard Dawkins in this passage but it fits the O’Donnell charges very well:

“The passages that Dawkins finds so shocking (e.g. Leviticus 18) appear alongside other material in the Pentateuch which he ignores, dealing with forgiveness and compassion – the laws urging hospitality toward strangers (Deuteronomy 10:17-19), setting limits on acts of revenge (Leviticus 19:18), prohibiting slavery (Leviticus 25:39-43), declaring a jubilee for debt (Leviticus 25:25-28), and forbidding infant sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2). He also ignores the prophets and the wisdom literature, in which the heights of Jewish moral insight are expressed…,Jesus did not create the wine of the Gospels [brand new] but took the water of the Jewish law and transmuted it to something better” (McGrath and McGrath, pages 90-91).

Careful Bible teachers understand that the prevalence of the death penalty in the Torah is tied to a wandering desert community perpetually surrounded and raided by hostile neighbors. They were under, in some ways, military discipline. Veteran Bible believers know this in reading the Bible – or any book: Context is everything. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ is the prism through which Christians read the Old Testament. The One Greater than Moses has come.

Is there any point to the Law then? Yes, as shown above it is not all rock ‘em and sock ‘em, stonings and witch burnings. Even Christian defenders of homosexuality (showing how dangerous it is to categorize such a diverse faith), even they deplore how conservative Christians use Leviticus 18 as the last word. Liberal Christians argue that this chapter was part of the Holiness Code of ancient Israel, and therefore not for us today.

But hold on.

One greater than Moses has come to fulfill and amend Torah.

What about Leviticus 18:9, you shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister. Is that such a bad law because it is in Leviticus? What about Leviticus 19:18, which reads "you shall love your neighbor as yourself"? Is this not for us today? The church is to live by every word of God in principle, not in bovine-like simplicity. Else Jesus would be accused of telling us to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands (Matthew 5:27-30). Most churches today look to clearer (but not undisputed) New Testament passages such as Romans 1:26-27 for better guidelines in dealing with sexual matters. There is also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 where former homosexuals in Corinth were welcomed to the Faith. O’Donnell did quote this but tried to refute it by raising the issue of translation, which he must know is a tricky issue indeed, demanding more expertise than he or I possess.

No, careful Biblical scholarship usually does not play well on prime time. Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example, addresses the case of a slave-master relationship. Paul pleads with the master, Philemon, to take back his runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). But to bring up a name such as “Philemon” would really be audience overkill on prime time.

I used to watch Larry O’Donnell when he was a skilled critic of certain excesses coming out of Washington. Once he seemed a usually informed critic of much of the extremism in our politics, some of it unfortunately involving Christians. But a rapid-fire sweeping rant posing as sound Biblical scholarship advances no one’s fund of knowledge.

Or, as the Bible itself advises: Stay in your lane (Hosea 8:9).