Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Biblical inerrancy – The silent lie

Posted on July 19, 2019

Mark Twain




Judge Frank M. Coffin, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, wrote, “The most telling discovery a judge can make is that a brief has neglected to deal with an issue.”[1]  Judge Coffin understood that people who have no intelligent response to an argument will often remain silent rather than say something transparently stupid. Lawyers defending indefensible positions often resort to this sleazy technique, and it can work if the judge decides to ignore the issue as well.

Mark Twain called this sort of conduct the “silent assertion lie.”



For instance. It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the agitators got but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society–the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion–the silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.

The  courage of their convictions

In a previous post, Biblical inerrancy – Crabtree’s Bludgeon, I discussed Crabtree’s Bludgeon – “No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated.” However, I thought that this maxim is not completely true because some “biblical difficulties” are so toxic or so ridiculous that no human intellect would ever try to conceive a coherent explanation for them.

I was wrong.

The Bible contains at least one thousand contradictions, discrepancies and errors, and I have not investigated them all. Nonetheless, my research convinces me that there is no atrocity so vile and no error so absurd that some advocate of biblical inerrancy will not try to explain them

Evangelical apologists advance some truly contemptible explanations for genocide and other divine war crimes. For example, God specifically ordered Moses to slaughter male babies in the Midianite genocide. Numbers 31:17. As to the females, he commanded the Israelites to kill all the women, “But all the young girls who have not known a man lay sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Numbers 31:18. Twain observed that executing this order required the Israelites to inspect the girls to determine who still possessed a hymen. This field-expedient gynecological exam yielded 32,000 virgins who were divided up between the Israelite warriors and the congregation – along with 675,000 sheep, 72,000 oxen, and 61,000 donkeys. Numbers 31:32-35.

It should not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for this horror, and yet evangelical apologists do not shy away from this crime against humanity. Instead, they argue that the Midianites had the genocide coming because of their evil ways, but that God could spare the virgin girls  because they could not – by themselves – propagate the Midianite people.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that evangelical apologists are unfettered by common human decency; they believe in a God bound by no moral constraints. As Gleason Archer put it, those who argue that the Midianite genocide was “cruel and uncalled for will have to argue with God, for He commanded it.”[2]

Evangelical apologists are equally unfettered by common sense, and they can explain anything by the excuse that God did it. Jonah could survive three days in a fish’s stomach l if God willed it to be so.

You may gather that I have little respect for some evangelical arguments, but I must admit that evangelical apologists have the courage of their impossible convictions. Nonetheless, I think there may still be a valid point to be made about Christian employment of the silent lie.

 I have not located  any  error  or contradiction in the Bible that all evangelical apologists  simply ignore.  Perhaps this merely shows that  people  spread all kinds of nonsense on the Internet. However,  I can still say that stalwart defenders of biblical inerrancy can be downright evasive  about some Bible difficulties. Consider one example. 

Jacob’s striped sheep – maternal impression

 Genesis  Chapter 30 tells the story  of  Jacob  deceiving Laban. Jacob  convinced  his father-in-law  to give him  all the speckled, spotted  or striped  sheep in Laban’s flock.  Genesis  30:37-39 explains how  Jacob then  artificially increased  his share of the sheep.

Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. He set the rods that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods, and so the flocks produced young that were striped, speckled, and spotted.

The author of Genesis obviously believed in “maternal impression” or “maternal imagination” – the idea things a mother sees while pregnant can be impressed upon her offspring. This common superstition was “an ancient and well-nigh universal doctrine,” e.g. the Vedas (1500 BCE) and Hippocrates (400 BCE). The notion persisted through the nineteenth century. Many Victorians believed the popular story that the mother of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant.

Before 1900, when the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work revolutionized scientific understanding of heredity, medical doctors used the biblical story of Jacob’s striped sheep as evidence of maternal impression.Of course scientists no longer use Jacob’s striped sheep’s evidence. Instead, the story is now a source of embarrassment for evangelicals because it shows that the author of Genesis believed this discredited superstition.

Evangelical apologists are remarkably silent on the subject. The two most detailed and encyclopedic  books that purport to explain Bible difficulties ignore Exodus 21:20-21. Both the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (page 101-02)  by Gleason L. Archer and The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (page 57-58) by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe discuss the morality of Jacob deceiving Laban, but neither book mentions the story’s scientific absurdity.

I found a few sources online that try to explain away this scientific error in the Bible. Most of them propose a solution to the problem that goes back to the 1800s.

That Jacob believed in the efficacy of the artifice he adopted is apparent; but the multiplication of Parti-colored animals it will be safer to ascribe to Divine blessing than to human craft.

In other words, God did it. Jacob’s striped sticks had no effect, but God worked a miracle to achieve the same result.

Although I cannot say that modern Internet pundits completely ignore Exodus chapter 30, they still maintain the silence regarding maternal impression.  They recognize that Jacob’s trick would not work, but they never address why Jacob would think it would work. They never discuss the prevalent belief in maternal impression. On that issue, they maintain the silent lie.Without ever mentioning maternal impression, apologists claim:

  • It is unclear how or if these striped branches impacted the mating of the animals.
  • I think that he did this in order to tell God what kind of offspring that he was hoping to get when the solid-colored animals in his care began mating.
  • How was it that only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating? Simple. God appointed it to be so in order that Laban’s wealth would be passed on to Jacob.

 A few apologists make a pseudoscientific argument that the striped sticks might have had some sort of medicinal benefit, but they never explain exactly how some unidentified compound might have caused striped pigmentation in sheep. These apologists likewise maintain the silent lie about maternal impression.

[1] Frank M. Coffin, The Ways of a Judge 104 (1980).

[2] Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties 142 (Zondervan 1982).