The Coercive Logic of the Bible

While reading the book The Riddle of Scheherazade, I was struck by just how forcefully the concept of coercive logic is present within the Bible itself.  Though I originally wished to explore the subject within the book review, I quickly realized the subject was far too massive to deal with in a book review, so I have sought to examine the subject of coercive logic a bit on its own, with the understanding that some people, due to an irrational hostility to logic and reasoning, may not be aware of its presence.

The Eden Paradox

The first of the examples of coercive logic comes in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2 and 3 for the story).  Here we have four characters and two trees.  God tells the two human beings, Adam and Eve, that all trees in the garden are good for food except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which will cause them to die.  A second tree, the Tree of Life, is there that will grant the eater eternal life.  God then leaves the scene and the tempting serpant Satan enters, telling Adam and Eve that God is a liar and that if they eat the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that they will not surely die.  The human beings in the story have two choices–if they believe God they will eat of the Tree of Life and reject the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but if they believe Satan they will eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but, because they believe that it will not kill them, they will not eat of the Tree of Life as well, because they have disbelieved God’s judgment since either God or Satan is a liar.  Therefore the option of eating both trees is taken out of the equation by the “coercive logic” of one’s judgment of who is telling the truth and who is lying.  Either way, one will eat one of the trees and either follow God or rebel against God and join Satan’s ranks.  There is no neutrality in either case.

Similar versions of this paradox appear elsewhere in scripture.  For example, the choice between life and death in Deuteronomy 30:19 is precisely the same choice between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life.  To choose God is to choose life, an eternal life of obedience leading to the development of God’s character and likeness.  To reject God is to believe that there is a way of eternal life without being subject to God’s authority, which is false, leading to death and , if there is a lack of repentance, eternal judgment.  This same choice between obedience to God and destruction is presented at the end of Joshua, and can be said as one of the fundamental “coercive logic” structures of the Bible, the choice of all mankind to either obey God or face eternal judgment.  There are no other options available, since God created the universe and made the rules.

Rehab’s Lie and Solomon’s Riddle

Another example of coercive logic within the Bible that appears several times is the riddle of Rehab’s Lie (which is also Solomon’s Riddle), a type of problem that in the 20th century also earned the name of the problem of the Nazi at the door.  Here there is a choice between lying and causing the death of an innocent person, leading the godly person motivated by love for God and fellow man to lie in order to preserve life.  The fact that this riddle occurs multiple times suggests a certain sort of “limitation” to truth-telling in scripture, or at least an understanding of the tension between the greater and lesser standard of obedience to God that results from seeking to live righteously while dwelling in a wicked world.

The lie of Rehab is referred to in Joshua 3.  Rehab accepts the warning of the spies and gives them a truthful account of their fear, and hides them from the petty king of Jericho while lying about the spies being present in her inn, starting a wild goose chase outside the city.  In return for that protection, the spies promise that her life and that of her family will be spared if they remain inside her inn when the city of Jericho is destroyed.  Though some have criticized Rehab for lying, sometimes in a wicked world there is no room for “Kantian” standards of truth.  The same would be true of the Nazi at the door if one has been hiding Jewish refugees.

This “moral paradox” appears in the days of Solomon, which is not too surprising given his love of riddles, enigmas, and paradoxes (1 Kings 10:1-13, 24, 2 Chronicles 9:1-12).  This involves two prostitutes who are fighting over who is the real mother of a baby.  Solomon’s riddle again forced the real mother to lie by preferring the other woman to the death of the baby, while the false claimant preferred to split the baby in half rather than let the other woman have it (1 Kings 3:16-28).  The “lie” of the true mother showed her genuine love for her child, which is how Solomon recognized the truth of her motherhood.  This type of riddle is an important one as it shows the true priorities of people, allowing the righteous from the wicked to be distinguished.

Coercive Logic in the Life of Jesus

Continuing on, I think it important to briefly examine a few examples of coercive logic from the life of Jesus that served to inflame the hostile audiences of unconverted fellow Jews who nonetheless considered themselves righteous.  In particular, I would like to examine three examples of Jesus’ coercive logic.  The first is the coercive logic of the Nazareth incident of Luke 4:25-27, the second is the incident of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, and the third is the riddle of paying tribute to Caesar in Matthew 22:15-22.  Though there are other such examples in scripture, these provide an example of the scope of Jesus Christ (and, by extension, God’s) capacity for forceful logic.

The first example occurs in Luke 4:25-27, an example of biblical reasoning that led the hostile crowd at Nazareth, Jesus’ own hometown, to try to stone him to death.  The Jews of the time considered themselves a chosen people special not because of God’s choice but because of some inherent goodness inside of them that made them more righteous and special than the heathen Gentiles around them.  Jesus then retorts by pointing to the time of the divided kingdom, stating that the only leper cured during the time of Elisha the prophet was Naaman the Syrian and the only widow Elijah was sent to in his time was a Phoenician one of the region of Sidon.  In other words, the ethnic pride of the Galilean Jews was itself objectively wrong–God’s chosen people are those whom God chooses, not those who have the right ancestry.  Small wonder his audience was so hostile.

In examining the second example of the woman caught in adultery, it must be admitted that some people do not consider this particular passage to be a legitimate passage in John for various textual reasons.  Some also (falsely) claim that Christ is contradicting the law, because of their inability to see the logic Christ used, therefore this example, despite its controversial nature, is worthy of notice because of what it reveals.  We see in this attempted trap for Jesus all the hallmarks of a setup–a woman being put on an illegal capital trial for adultery where Jesus is either going to be forced to violate Roman law (and be worthy of crucifixion) or be shown to act contrary to God’s law, which would have invalidated him as the Savior of mankind.

There is, however, one problem that the Pharisees seeking to trap Jesus forgot to deal with.  The law concerning adultery stated that both the man and woman caught in adultery were to be punished by stoning, rather than just the woman alone (as the biblical law was gender neutral and could not be selectively and partially enforced, see Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22).  Obviously, a woman could not be caught in the act of adultery unless she was caught in the act with someone else, so where was the other person?  As the story in John 8 has Jesus Christ writing in the ground something that convicts the consciences of the accusers, who drop their charges, leaving no “eyewitnesses” to charge the woman with a capital offense (as was the biblical requirement for evidence, see Deuteronomy 19:15-21), and so the case was dropped on biblical grounds.  Presumably the case was dropped because the accusers were not only eyewitnesses but also co-defendants, who could not speak against the woman without convicting themselves of a capital crime.  Not wishing to be subject to the death penalty themselves, they dropped their case.

The third example of coercive logic within the life of Jesus also comes with a bit of a sting, in Matthew 22:15-22.  Here the Herodians and Pharisees (who were on different sides concerning the Roman occupation, normally, but both with a shared desire in trapping Jesus, so they worked together for tactical reasons here).  A dilemma was placed before Jesus about whether the Jews should pay the tribute to Rome or not.  Again, to support paying the tribute would be disloyal to God by supporting the rule of heathen and idolatrous pagans (whose money itself made blasphemous claims) and to deny that Jews should pay the tribute would be an act of rebellion against Rome worthy of the death penalty.  The Pharisees and Herodians thought they had Christ trapped.

Again, though, Christ’s opponents failed to examine all the options and so they left themselves open to a stunning riposte.  Christ told them to bring a coin of the Romans over to him (apparently because he didn’t use them himself) and asked whose picture was on it–the answer, of course, being Caesar himself.  Jesus then replied with an ambiguous reply to render to Caesar that which was Caesar’s and render to God that which was God’s.  Of course, Caesar’s coins were in his own image, and those who sought to work within the pagan Roman system were to give Caesar his own coins back for him to suffer the penalty of blasphemy for himself and not share in his sins.  However, since all human beings are created in God’s own image and likeness (just like the Roman coins were created in the image and likeness of the pagan Roman emperors), then all of humanity is to be devoted to obedience of God their creator.  Again, Jesus foiled the false dilemma by pointing out that all human beings owe themselves to God as living sacrifices and are to be transformed by God working within us rather than being conformed like the false image on the coins to the ways of the world (Romans 12:1-2).

The Metapuzzle of Satan’s House Divided

There is one more example of an intriguing logic puzzle that the Bible presents that I would like to briefly examine before I close.  This example of a metapuzzle can be found in 1 Kings 22:19-23.  What we see in this particular passage is made clear when one uses “outside information” found in the rest of scripture.  For example, angels themselves cannot lie, as they are wholly devoted to God’s ways.  Therefore the angel whose lying brought Ahab to his destruction by giving a false record to his prophets must have been a demon.  But if a demon willingly chose to obey God, not out of coercion but by choice, then Satan’s house must be divided against itself and doomed to failure (Matthew 12:25).

What we see here is very straightforward logic, but something that depends on outside information rather than being said all in one place at one time, allowing the astute reader to see the riddle and enigma and reflect upon its implications rather than being beat over the head with a blunt object.  We must remember that not all of God’s truths are straightforward and direct, but some of them are indirect and require deep study and examination, for there are some truths that if told straightaway they would lead to rejection and judgment, but indirectly and gradually people may be brought to a progressive understanding of God’s truths, and therefore will be won over to righteousness along an indirect path that avoids giving them too much painful self-knowledge at once.


In conclusion, let us examine what we saw concerning the Bible’s use of logic and reasoning.  First, it should be obvious that the Bible is not hostile to logic, merely being concerned with its correct and proper usage in service of obedience to God rather than as a way of weaseling out of obedience through fallacious reasoning.  Second, we see that key logical elements–including the inescapable choice between obedience to or rebellion against God, as well as the placement of priorities in our lives–are repeated over and over again in scripture, for us to realize the common thread and reflect accordingly.  Third, we see that Christ’s own use of devastating logic is a demonstration of God’s use of logic in addition to other qualities of lovingkindness that are more often noticed and celebrated.  To ignore the “head” in exclusive attention to the “heart” leads to imbalance and a lack of completeness in our understanding of God and the qualities He wishes us to develop as we seek to conform to His image.  Finally, we see that the biblical use of logic and reasoning is often indirect, requiring extensive search for evidence and outside information to solve the Bible’s “metapuzzles,” allowing believers to develop a systematic and broad understanding of the Bible to therefore solve its riddles and develop godly wisdom and discernment.  Let us strive to increase our capabilities of discernment by treating the Bible with the seriousness it commands, even in fields like logic.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to The Coercive Logic of the Bible

  1. Pingback: Reducto Ad Caiaphas | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Thoughts On Machiavelli | Edge Induced Cohesion

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