What's the context?

While I don’t necessarily recommend this, recently I’ve been interacting with an atheist on his blog site (more about this in another post). We were discussing/debating the issue of abortion and his attempt to make a parallel between eating animals and so-called “hypocrisy” of pro-life advocates. His was suggesting that pro-life advocates who think women should be "forced" to view an ultrasound of their unborn baby before being allowed to have an abortion should have to watch a disturbing YouTube video about the horrors of factory farms before they're allowed to eat meat.  (Yeah, that's a strange connection).

Another random person jumped in the conversation, and this individual made the astounding claim that “Jesus Himself makes mums and dads EAT their own childrin (sic).” He cited Jeremiah 19:9, and said, “I dersay (sic) it is Jesus making an eqivalancy (sic) between food and childrin (sic).”

I responded that he didn’t know hyperbole when he read it. His response was to cite even more passages where he claimed some sort of moral crime by Jesus/God: 1 Samuel 15:3 (God kills breast-fed babies), Exodus 11 (killing the first born), Amos 4 (starving babies), Genesis 6/2 Peter 2:5 (drowning people), Deuteronomy (Jesus says he kills and wounds).

My response to this was:

So I could get in a back-and-forth discussion/argument with you about accurate interpretation of ancient near eastern writings, proper exegesis, and textual criticism but instead, consider this:

If you are correct, and God does not exists, then the entire Bible is a bunch of blather. Jeremiah was some ancient Jewish guy who made up the story that God was talking to him and the whole interpretative exercise is pointless.

But if I'm correct and God does exist, then either the being that created the universe is a moral monster, or you're mis-interpreting these passages. And your mis-interpretation is either purposeful or due to ignorance.”

(Thus far, he’s not responded).

Since this guy is clearly not a follower of Christ and not a student of the Word, I suspect he was simply citing some passages he found on some other atheist website that supposedly show how God is some sort of “evil sky daddy.” The biggest flaw in these sorts of challenges is two-fold:

First, if the atheist is correct, and God doesn’t exist, then what is he complaining about? Without God, the Bible is just a bunch of ancient stories written by some very confused and misguided people who thought they were following God’s commandments. At best the atheist could say the ancient Israelites were morally suspect. But he cannot say, “God is evil.” To do so, is actually an admission that God, in fact, does exist.  This may raise the question about God's moral nature, but one cannot complain about God being evil while denying His existence. It’s self-refuting.

Second, (and the main point of this post) is these passages are taken completely out of context. This is a very common technique skeptics and atheist (and I daresay some Christians) use to twist the meaning of scripture. Unfortunately, some followers of Christ may, at first blush, be taken aback by these passages. Certainly, reading them in isolation gives the wrong impression. Here is the passage in Jeremiah my atheist antagonist cited:

And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’” (Jeremiah 19:9, ESV).

Wow! That sounds pretty bad. God is going to make parents eat their kids! And taken in isolation, certainly one might come to that conclusion. But is this what the passage is really saying?

Long ago, I learned a very important point from Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason: Never read a Bible verse. What this means is, never read just one Bible verse. You need to read the entire passage, the entire chapter, or (even better) the whole book, to understand the context and meaning.

We apply this principle in our everyday lives all the time. Have you ever read the sports page, where a reporter writes, “The Georgia Bulldogs slaughtered their rival South Carolina”? Do we really believe that Mark Richt’s players committed mass murder of the players of the opposing team? Of course not! So why do some think it’s acceptable to take the Bible out of context?

Jeremiah is an OT prophet who wrote about God’s coming judgment of Israel and her eventual destruction by and exile to Babylon. Throughout the book, he also writes of God’s concern for repentance and righteousness in certain individuals and nations.

In Chapter 18, we read the famous “potter and the clay” passage, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (Verse 6). Israel, as God’s chosen people, had the benefit of witnessing many instances of God’s miraculous intervention throughout her history. For Israel to turn away from God was abandonment and extreme unfaithfulness.

In Chapter 19, God instructs Jeremiah to proclaim to the elders and priests His coming wrath. “Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle” (19:3b). God tells Jeremiah that because the Israelites have forsaken Him and taken up the practice of child sacrifices to the Canaanite god Baal, God is going to allow Israel’s enemies to invade and place Jerusalem under siege. It is the effects of this siege that God is speaking of in verse 19. The New English Translation (NET) has a very good rendering of this verse: “I will reduce the people of this city to desperate straits during the siege imposed on it by their enemies who are seeking to kill them. I will make them so desperate that they will eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters and the flesh of one another.”

Clearly, God does not condone cannibalism. What is happening here is the extreme situation that will be caused by a prolonged siege of Jerusalem would cause the people to be forced to choose “among options that are equally repugnant—in this case, cannibalism or slow death by starvation. (2 Kg 6:28–30; Is 9:20; Lm 4:9–10; Ezk 5:10). The state into which Jerusalem will fall reflected the curses taking effect: The city will be an object of scorn (Dt 28:37) and its inhabitants reduced to eating their own young (Lv 26:29; Dt 28:53–55).” (Apologetics Study Bible)

So it can clearly be seen, Jeremiah 19:9 is not a situation where God (Jesus) is “making parents eat their children.” When confronted by difficult passages, always remember to read them in context. Study the “big picture” of the paragraph, chapter, or even the entire book to get the real meaning of the passage.

Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J. P., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1117). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.