Some Food for Thought on Things “Biblical”
The US Supreme Court ruled recently on the contraception-abortion-healthcare issue citing that a person’s biblical understanding of when life begins can be the measure of whether or not that person, or a corporation defined as a person, must provide contraception devices and medication as part of a health-care “package.” Somewhere buried in their decision the justices who so found sided with a notion that the Bible defines human life as beginning at conception. While such a notion may be scientific, it does not appear to be biblical.
From the beginning in Genesis chapter 2, the second of two creation stories in the Bible (the first being Genesis chapter 1), the first human is given life, or a soul (Hebrew: nefesh) with God breathing into a handful of moist dust (clay?): Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
Both the Bible and its earliest commentaries, the Talmud, have asserted that the life or ensoulment of the fetus begins when one draw’s one’s first breath outside the womb. The act of birth changes the status of fetus from non-person to person. Indeed, throughout the Bible the association of breath with life persists. In Job 33:4 we read, “The spirit of God has made me, the breath of the Almighty has given me life.” Similarly the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it…”
It is fair to say that the Bible knows nothing of modern medical notions of fertilization, implantation, viability and so forth. To argue a legal position supporting a “religious” held view based on the Bible, the justices might have done well to research what the Biblical view of life and when it begins. I have no illusions that this will convince anyone to change their point of view, but rather to point out the difficulties that prevail when one declares, “The Bible says….” Surely counter arguments will be made from texts such as Psalm 139 (“…you knit me together in my mother’s womb…”), although it is equally unclear whether it is an individual or the people Israel that is being knit together in such texts.
Further complicating a biblical view is the undeniable fact that although the Bible does not appear to have a view on contraception at all, it does offer conditions under which inducing a miscarriage (abortion) is prescribed (Numbers chapter 5), and in Exodus 21 suggests that if a pregnant woman gets entangled in a fight between two men and accidentally miscarries the fetus, it is the life of the mother that is at stake, not that of the fetus.
All of which is to say that perhaps it is inconvenient at best to rely on there being “a biblical view” on either abortion or contraception. Having wrestled with the texts for decades, the view that life begins with breath outside the womb appears to be what the Bible knows as when “life begins.”
Then there is immigration. It is undeniable that throughout most of the Bible the majority of people addressed by and discussed by the biblical texts are migratory people – Bedouin people who move with their flocks and herds from place to place seeking water and food in a region of the world that offers little of either. It appears that throughout most of human history people have been inherently migratory until relatively recently.
In fact, the people of the Bible are so often on the move that the language of the Hebrew texts is derived almost entirely from verb forms – that is, biblical Hebrew seems to reflect the constant movement of the people who become Israel – those who strive with God.
Further, looking at the current US crisis in immigration, remembering a little US history may be instructive. Under President James Polk, who was entranced by visions of “manifest destiny”, the US-Mexico war was provoked, as we now know, as an intentional land-grab – the US simply provoked a conflict and occupied, stole, forced a settlement to take away much of the constitutional territory of Mexico including present day Texas (annexed before the war, but with no agreement with Mexico), Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, parts of Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming!
All previously Spanish held territories that had been liberated from the European colonizers and made an independent Mexico. Like all of North America, the indigenous peoples had been pushed aside with notions of Manifest Destiny and Progress while an independent Mexico represented an attempt at reclaiming what had been natural migratory lands for peoples who had roamed and lived on these lands for tens of thousands of years.
It seems not to occur to the parties debating “immigration policy” that those of “us” determining who should be let across the borders were all either a) immigrants ourselves, or b) enslaved people forced to come to this continent against their will. And that the ancestors of those crossing the borders illegally or otherwise roamed these lands for tens of thousands of years before “we” even considered the idea that the Earth is round?
There is to be no question that the drug cartels manipulate the situation in an attempt to distract the US from interdiction of illegal drugs – which “business” is no-doubt threatened by the expanding legalization and propagation efforts growing (literally) throughout the US.
But does any of this justify the kind of populist xenophobia that is seeking to deny attempts to process and care for children, teens and women who are being squeezed from both sides, and who, for all we know, have some sort of DNA coding that hearkens back to a time, historically not so long ago, when their people freely roamed what we call the southwest in search of water and food for their herds and flocks?
The biblical view on such questions is clear and unequivocal: like Abraham hosting the three visitors by the oaks at Mamre (Genesis 18): you are to provide food, comfort and hospitality to the strangers in the land who have no resources. Resident aliens are a specific class of people who are to be welcomed and protected. Indeed, that is the original meaning of the Levitical command to love your neighbor – a command expanded to include people utterly unlike ourselves by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).
So, to sell more chicken or more hobby supplies and increase the profit margin, we find persons (disguised as corporations!) hiding behind a supposed “biblical view” of things to get away with providing the least amount of health care possible to their employees, while at the same time we seek to deny safe passage to people whose ancestors never believed that they “possessed” the land, but that the land provided for them in direct proportion to the degree to which they took care of the land, so that we can continue to exploit the land’s natural resources to produce more widgets to sell to the very people we seek to expel from our country. All in the name of being “biblical” Christians!
Sure enough, the biblical view on things is terribly inconvenient when one actually reads the Bible.