Clinton is not an adulterer
by Larry Judkins
Religion Page Editor
Sacramento Valley Mirror
(1998)

I know, I know! After reading that headline, you think I'm a rabid Democrat who's in denial about President Clinton's extramarital affairs.

Actually, long before Mr. Clinton's own admissions, I accepted as true the allegations of both Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers. I have also never doubted Paula Jones or Kathleen Willey.

So how, then, can I maintain that President Clinton is not an adulterer? Simple. From a biblical perspective -- or at least an Old Testament perspective -- he has not committed adultery.

Remember that in Old Testament times, polygamy and concubinage were perfectly acceptable institutions, and no "sin" or immorality was associated with them. Generally speaking, men could have as many women as they could acquire.

A man was considered an adulterer only if he had sexual relations with another man's wife. If a married man had sex with an unmarried woman, he was not guilty of adultery.

Thus, King David was an adulterer only because of his relationship with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. His many other legally acquired wives and concubines did not make him guilty of adultery.

Of course, the same rules did not apply to women in Old Testament times. Unlike men, a married woman could not have more than one husband at a time, nor could she have male concubines.

And what would happen if a wife did cheat on her husband? As most biblically literate people know, the official punishment for adultery was death by stoning.

In fact, the ancient Hebrews were so obsessed with women having sex with other men that the rules concerning adultery even applied in cases of rape. In Deuteronomy 22:23-24, we read the following commandment allegedly given by God to Moses:

"If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor's wife...."

That we are talking about rape here is revealed by the words "and another man finds her in the city and lies with her," and by the instruction that the girl is to be stoned because "she did not cry out." Of course, the possibility that the girl could not have cried out because she was being choked or was gagged, or because she had a knife held to her throat, never occurred to the omniscient Yahweh.

And while we are on this subject, what happened to the rape victim who was not engaged to be married? As incredible as it may seem, she was required to marry her rapist!

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 states, "If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father 50 shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days." How's that for divine mercy and wisdom?

And with that, we now have enough background information to return to President Clinton's sexual adventures and his alleged adultery. Let me caution the readers that I may be mistaken about some of the details in what follows, but I don't think so.

First, regarding Monica Lewinsky: She's definitely single, so the president is in the clear. Under biblical rules, he's no adulterer.

Second, concerning Gennifer Flowers: If memory serves, she was single at the time of her 12-year relationship with Mr. Clinton, so again he's not guilty of adultery.

Third, Paula Jones: I don't think she was married at the time of her encounter with Mr. Clinton, and besides, no actual sex between the two ever occurred. But, as we have seen, even if Mr. Clinton had raped the unengaged and unmarried Paula Jones, from a biblical perspective there would have been no problem here.

And finally, we have Kathleen Willey: This was clearly President Clinton's closest call with adultery, but as it was with Paula Jones, no actual sex act ever took place.

However, even if it had, it appears that Mr. Clinton still would have been in the clear. If my memory is accurate, unbeknownst to both Mrs. Willey and President Clinton at the time of their encounter, Mrs. Willey's husband was dead.

So, she was no longer married. The president could have had his way without committing adultery.

Okay, now I want all you self-righteous, hypocritical sympathizers of the Religious Right to get off President Clinton's case! So far as the Old Testament is concerned, he is not an adulterer.

He is a fine, upstanding, church-going Southern Baptist who adheres to traditional biblical values -- such as they are.

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The Relativity of Biblical Ethics
by Joe Edward Barnhart
from Biblical v. Secular Ethics: The Conflict
edited by R Joseph Hoffman and Gerald A Larue
Buffalo, New York (1988), Prometheus Books

(Thanks to Jeff for alerting us to the typo in Mr. Barnhart's name.)

It is an axiom among fundamentalists and evangelicals that theology is the foundation of ethics and morality in North America culture. Without this foundation, they fear, ethics would fragment into total relativism of dissolve into whim, arbitrariness, and chaos. I would like to contest that view by showing how some organized religions are parasitical to the body of ethics and how the Bible itself exemplifies moral relativism.

Various theologians of the middle Ages raised the interesting questions of whether right and wrong are whatever God decrees them to be. For example, if God commanded "Thou shalt rape thrice daily," would it have been morally right to carry out the command and wrong to disobey it? If divine decree is not only the source but the ultimate criterion of right and wrong, is there any basis for trusting the Supreme Being who concocts the meaning of right and wrong? Indeed, were this putative Being to trick his creatures by scrambling the consequences of commands and prohibitions, it would be irrational to call Him evil; He is the Cosmic Existentialist who invents right and wrong ex nihilo. If he should lie, deceive, order Joshua to slaughter the Canaanites, or command rape, He could do all this and still label Himself as perfectly good.

Apparently having second thoughts about a Supreme Being unrestrained by moral principles, in the year of his death C. S. Lewis wrote: "The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'so there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"[1] Only four months before his death, Lewis wrote in a letter to an American philosopher that there were dangers in judging God by moral standards. However, he maintained that "believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him 'good' and worshipping Him, is still greater danger."[2] Lewis was responding specifically to the question of Joshua's slaughter of the Canaanites by divine decree and Peter's striking Ananias and Sapphira dead. Knowing that the evangelical doctrine of the Bible's infallibility required him to approve of "the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua," Lewis made this surprising concession: "The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.[3]

In short, Lewis came close to saying that the Supreme Might must live up to moral standards if he is to be regarded as God and not as some cosmic sadist unworthy of worship.

In his letter to the philosopher, Lewis expresses the realization that he could not wholly relativize and trivialize the concept of goodness for the Supreme Being he envisioned:

Lewis was not always consistent in his attempt to find a foundation for morality. In some of his earlier books he suggests that God's goodness is incompatible with whatever happens, which, instead of giving theism any advantage over atheism, does little more than make Cosmic Might the personification of moral randomness, of relativism gone out of control.

Recently, I asked a fundamentalist author and apologist who had labeled abortion as murder to tell me whether the killing of pregnant Canaanite women by putative divine decree and Joshua's sword was murder. He replied that the unborn babies killed by Joshua went straight to heaven -- which of course does not answer the question of whether God committed murder or whether God is above (or below) moral standards. The point here is not to determine whether the fetus is a person but to call attention to the fact that there is considerable moral and ethical relativism in theology and the Bible. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy:

Whatever the circumstances prompting these prohibitions, it is noteworthy that fundamentalist and evangelical apologists find it necessary to call upon their own version of situation ethics in order to make it clear that not all moral injunctions in the Scriptures are moral absolutes. Evangelical scholar G. T. Manley, in The New Bible Commentary, tries to justify the morally inferior outlook found in Deuteronomy by noting that it belongs to "the Mosaic age, and [is] quite different from that of the later monarchy."[5]

Unfortunately, to cast the biblical material in historical context (as doubtless it should be) serves only to emphasize the historical relativism of so-called biblical morality. Indeed, the very notion of a complete and self-consistent biblical morality is problematic. The attempt by some evangelicals to borrow the "progressive revelation" principle in order to make the claim that the later revelation (i.e., the New Testament) stands on a higher plane than the earlier revelation (the Old Testament) collapses when one considers the rage against, and hatred of, most of the human race exemplified in the Book of Revelation. And certainly the threat found in Hebrews 6:4-6 -- which proclaims that God will never forgive a repentant apostate -- is more, not less vicious than anything found in the Old Testament. When theologians try to justify the vendetta that the Book of Revelation describes in lurid detail, they demonstrate just how perverse the human mind can sometimes become.

Those who believe that the Bible presents its readers moral absolutes have failed to acknowledge the staggering diversity of its moral perspectives. These differing perspectives are often grounded in the political and evangelical experiences of the early Christian church. Professor Daniel Fuller, noted evangelical scholar and former president of Fuller Seminary, pointed out to me, for example, that the apostle Paul had three major problems to face in the early Christian churches: (1) the wall separating Jew and Gentile, (2) the wall separating male and female, and (3) the wall separating slave from free citizen. According to Fuller, Paul, whose theological interpretation of Christ's teachings formed the foundation of the Church, felt that he had to make a practical decision to concentrate on the problem of the ethnic and religious relationship between Judaism and Christianity to the exclusion of the other two problems. Fuller's point is that, while racism and sexism are in principle undermined by the Christian gospel ("Love thy neighbor as thyself"), Paul was forced to leave to later generations the application of this subversive Christian insight to the problems of racism and sexism. For Paul, getting the church off the ground was the key thing; to try to implement total Christian justice would have scared most potential converts away. I take this to be an example of situational ethics. Whether Paul utilized situation ethics in order to advance the agape principle of 1 Corinthians 13 more effectively is a question open for debate. As Morton Smith ably demonstrated in Free Inquiry (Spring 1987) there is much in the Bible that contributed to the institution of slavery and little that in actual practice moved against it. Even the Golden Rule of the New Testament, because of its abstractness and adaptability, has throughout history often failed to override the deep-seated racial bigotry of the Book of Genesis.

To be sure, the Bible gives conflicting messages regarding the assimilation of strange peoples. Compare, for example, the books of Ruth and Ezra. the moving and humanistic story of Ruth in the Old Testament is viewed by some scholars as a moral challenge to the Deuteronomic injunction to bar Moabites from the Lord's assembly. The book tells the story of an Israelite man who, because of famine in Israel, chose to move to Moab, taking his wife Naomi with him. The man died leaving Naomi with two sons, one of whom married Ruth, a Moabite. In time, the two Israelite sons living in Moab died, leaving Naomi with two widowed daughters-in-law. According to this tightly woven story, when the famine in Israel passed and Naomi returned to her homeland, Ruth the Moabitess moved with her, asserting, "Your people shall be my people and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16 RSV).

The author of the Book of Ruth remarks again and again that Ruth was the Moabitess; she even calls herself "a foreigner." Despite this Boaz (of Bethlehem in Judah) takes Ruth for his wife. He marries her in part because of the goodness she has shown for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz declares that "all my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of worth" (3:11 RSV).

The story closes with a telling blow against racial bigotry: Ruth has a son, Obed, who in time becomes the grandfather of none other than David himself. So, the Moabitess is the great-grandmother of Israel's most beloved king.

The moral conclusion of the Book of Ezra is less savory. According to Ezra 9 and 10 the Israelite exiles returning from captivity had brought a curse on themselves. God had sent a heavy rain to the land as punishment for their sin of marrying foreign women and bringing them back to pollute the land of Israel. Ezra's solution was simple. Those Israelite men who had foreign (even Moabite) wives should demonstrate their faithfulness to God by putting all these wives away. If the story of Ezra 10 reflects an actual historical period, then we must believe that there was wholesale divorce in the land of Israel during Ezra's time. Indeed, Ezra destroyed more than marriages. Upon his command, and in the name of God, the men who had married foreign women were forced to separate themselves from their children as well.

It is interesting to see how this kind of moral relativism is perpetuated by evangelical commentaries. in The New Bible Commentary, evangelical scholar J. Stafford Wright claims that Ezra's morality should be accorded the status of a norm, the biblical story of Ruth merely an exception to the rule.[7] This strange piece of gerrymandering becomes even more strange when set against the background of the apostle Paul's instruction, which is the opposite of Ezra's. Paul advises the Christian woman who is married to an unbeliever to remain with him as long as he consents to the marriage. Paul then says that the children will greatly benefit by the marriage being kept intact. Ezra's justification for commanding divorce is that the mixed marriage is a pollution or defilement. Paul's justification for advising against divorce is twofold: to provide the Christian with opportunities in marriage to spiritually redeem her or his spouse, and to prevent the children from becoming "unclean" (1 Cor. 7:20).

Those who think that the Bible is above situation ethics might find the following worth pondering. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-31, Paul appears to believe that the end of the world is around the corner. In the context of that conviction, the following advice is given: "Every one should remain in the state in which he was called" (1 Cor. 7:20 RSV). Paul elaborates:

It turned out that Paul's judgement of the historical situation was in error. The end was not around the corner, and his miscalculation made his situational advice less than useful. Human miscalculation is one of the weaknesses of situation ethics; but it is a weakness inherent in finite human nature -- and it is finite human nature that pervades biblical thought.

My criticism, however, is not of situation ethics. Rather, I criticize those theologians who tell people that biblical ethics advances moral absolutes. In fact, so-called biblical ethics is situation ethics that often sets itself up as immutable divine decree. The unfortunate consequence of this tactic is that moral positions taken in te bible are denied the useful process of criticism and refinement, a process that is essential if ethics is to escape the brutalizing effects of dogmatism.

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