Scriptures that Shaped Our Culture
The Bible is the most published book of all time. Its influence has been powerful in Western culture up to our present day, even if other patterns of thought compete with it as never before.
Here are Ten Statements from the Bible that have had great impact on our culture. I’ve added explanations. Note: I’ve used the language of the King James Version because its influence has been greater than any other version in the English language.
- “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” – Genesis 1:27
“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” – Genesis 9:6
Humans are not merely animals, which is about all science can say. We are unique among all God’s creation. We bear likeness to God. We derive our worth, our dignity, our moral capacity and responsibility from God. This “likeness to God” not only befits the great but also includes the least among us. It embraces both genders, which are clearly demarcated in Genesis 1:27.
Capital punishment for murder is taught in all five of the Books of Moses (the only commandment so widely taught). Instead of the modern notion that human dignity requires opposition to capital punishment, this text makes it the reason for this penalty. However, accepting the legitimacy of capital punishment in principle does not necessarily endorse either the act or the judicial processes that lead to it as we may often find them, past and present.
- “And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’” – Genesis 4:9
Cain, first son to Adam and Eve, refused to subdue his violent anger and consequently killed his brother. His answer to God’s question has become the classic answer through the ages when people seek to live independently of service and duty toward our fellow human beings, especially those in our own family (1 Timothy 5:8). In short, the answer to Cain’s protesting question is always “Yes!”
- “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, ‘Let my people go!’” – Exodus 5:1
God’s call to Pharaoh of Egypt through Moses his spokesman was, in context, a call for the Israelites to have a “worship retreat.” The phrase has become a call for the emancipation of exploited people everywhere. For this I am glad.
- “The Ten Commandments” – Exodus 20:1-17
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
[Note: some Jewish/Christian traditions number the Ten Commandments differently, with no change in meaning.]
1st Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2nd Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…
3rd Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain…
4th Commandment: Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5th Commandment: Honour thy father and thy mother…
6th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
7th Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8Th Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
9th Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10th Commandment: Thou shalt not covet…
The Ten Commandments, given by Moses, have formed our understanding of basic morality—how should we respond to God and how should we treat others? Many, religious or non-religious, accept “The Second Table of the Law” (commandments 5-10) as an important moral code for everyone to follow.
Standing at Mount Sinai in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II said the truth inscribed on the second table of the law, that one must not take innocent human life, is first inscribed on the human heart as a moral truth that could be known by reason (George Weigel, The End and the Beginning, Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, p. 355).
The above three pictures depict these Commandments. They are all features of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
- “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
– Exodus 21:23-25
Many look on these phrases as barbaric, when really they prevent barbaric treatment of others and promote just judgments. Here’s how:
First, these penalties were to be ordered by judges, not executed by vengeful people (Exodus 21:22 – “…as the judges determine.”).
Second, the phrases represent lex talionis—the principle of retributive justice or proportionate judgment, or as we say it, “The penalty should equal the crime.” Consider how much we see disproportionate revenge around the world today. A man is killed for looking at someone the wrong way. A family is killed because of one man’s perceived wrong.
Third, as the context shows, settling a wrong can be done by settling for the value of something. Knocking out another’s tooth might just be vengeance—instead we may ask the judges to determine what the tooth was worth and order payment. Knocking out a slave’s tooth or putting out the eye of a slave led to freedom for the slave (Exodus 21:26-27), not to the loss of the slave-owner’s own tooth or eye.
These points understood, lex talionis still has value as a principle of justice today.
- “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18; 33-34
Jesus said this is “The Second Great Commandment” that follows the command, “Love the Lord your God…” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus taught that all God’s commands emanate from these two, and without them commandments become burdensome legalisms.
- “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:33-34
Israel was to be kind to the “alien living in the land” because she, too, was once an alien nation and her oppression as aliens must be in her memory forever. She was never to become like those who abused her.
“Strangers” bear the likeness of God, just as a country’s citizens do.
How should these verses influence our treatment of the “stranger”?
- “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” – Leviticus 25:10
Israel’s “Year of Jubilee” (every 50 years) was proclaimed this way—a year of emancipation and freedom and restoration. These words were inscribed on the Liberty Bell long before it was the Liberty Bell. They became words of colonial independence. Later they became anti-slavery words, for liberty must be proclaimed unto all the inhabitants of the land.
- “The Golden Rule”
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 7:12
The “Golden Rule” didn’t originate with Jesus. It is found far and wide. Jesus taught it too, and his teaching is recorded in the Bible. The Bible is the main source from which the “Golden Rule” spread through Western culture.
- “The Good Samaritan”
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
“And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
“And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”
– Luke 10:30-35
The moral lesson in the famous story of “The Good Samaritan” is for us to be people of mercy. It is a call to selfless, generous service toward “our neighbor” –the needy who cross our pathway. We often hear someone was a “Good Samaritan.” We even have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect people from liability who in good faith offer urgent assistance to strangers in crisis.
These are my first ten picks. Can you think of other scriptures I should include on this list?
And if the Bible has not been on your reading list, consider adding it. Start with Genesis, the Book of Proverbs and the Gospel of Matthew.
© 2016 Donald P. Shoemaker