(Updated Dec 2012)
Ecclesiastes 10:2 — The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. (New International Version)
This article explains why the Bible — in Ecclesiastes 10:2 — does not and could not possibly command believers to support right-wing politics. [ Please see more recent post A few more serious problems with literal Bible interpretation for more criticism of literal interpretation of the Bible. ]
During a recent hike at Radnor Lake with one of my hiking buddies who happens to be a Christian fundamentalist, I mentioned a Facebook posting I saw a few days ago by “John,” an even more conservative religious fundamentalist. John’s Facebook post implied that the Bible contains a command from God that we should have conservative or far-right political views. Here is John’s Facebook post:
I have often wondered why it is that Conservatives are called the “right” and Liberals are called the “left.” By chance I stumbled upon this verse in the Bible: The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. ~ Ecclesiastes 10:2
Despite the fact that John plagiarized this comment from another forum (see Resources, below), it is nevertheless an interesting, humorous anecdote; it could even be used to create the “perfect” sound bite for Hard Right political campaigns like those of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and others! The same kind of people who cheer for capital punishment, war, and weapons would probably rejoice upon hearing such inane drivel.
John’s comment about this ridiculous Biblical interpretation elicited a string of Facebook comments from others, most of whom excitedly supported it – in effect, agreeing with one of the most intellectually challenged interpretations imaginable for this Old Testament Bible verse!
There are several problems with such an interpretation.
For one thing, such a reference to modern politics would be an anachronism, since the words right and left were not even used to refer to politics until fairly recently in history (the political references originated a couple of hundred years ago in France, I believe).
Secondly, right and left are relative terms. Attributing the terms right, left, or even centrist to a set of political platforms or opinions is entirely relative to its relationship to empirical data such as the specific history of poltics in a given country or government — to previous political stances in a particular area.
Third, neither the right nor the left in modern politics has any kind of monopoly on genuine ethics, values, spiritually principled behavior, and so on.
In fact, the political Right continues to deviate from basic universal spiritual principles what with their tendencies toward discrimination, favoring the wealthy, failure to address serious concerns about nature and the environment, supporting wars and assault rifles, and on and on…) Interestingly, the more conservative the ideaology, the less basic spiritual principles are taken into account as can be seen in their rantings. If this trend continues — and it certainly seems to be, as of xmas day 2012 — the political Left will soon be the party that’s more closely associated with demonstrating practical spiritual principles. (Samana, 25 Dec 2012)
Also, the specific platforms of the so-called right and left change so substantially over time that such a verse would mean completely different things from one century to another.
But did John really believe this? Could anyone possibly believe the Bible was actually referring to the modern political right and left? Surely not, right? It doesn’t seem plausible that a competent, reasonably intelligent person could actually view the verse as a political commandment (even an ultra-right-wing, hardcore, young-earth-creationist fundamentalist) – that is, until John’s next two comments are considered. They indicate that he actually does believe it…
… Feel free to use this quote. It is the Bible’s word not mine [sic]. And it is open to the world [sic]….:0)
There isn’t a liberal bone in my body Shakey [sic]. You should know that.. let me define [sic]: All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty~Proverbs 14:23
OK, so John really does seem to believe that Ecclesiastes 10:2 contains a political admonishment from God. That makes me wonder: How many other religious fundamentalists would interpret the verse this way? Is is really possible that more than a handful of voting United States citizens could believe such a thing?
Naturally, no Biblical commentary I could find even suggested such a preposterous interpretation of Ecclesiastes 10:2.
Even so, on a much broader scale, these kinds of logically challenged beliefs bring up a more relevant subject than possible interpretations of one mere verse. After all, individual Bible verses can be taken out of context and then used to support many wildly varying ideas and viewpoints – especially when the reader chooses to interpret ancient religious writings at literal face value. Such intellectually thin decisions (believers at some point decided what to believe) are dangerous and foolhardy – and they were almost certainly unintended from the start.
My religious hiking friend, Bill, did not agree that Ecclesiastes 10:2 commands readers to subscribe to right-wing politics; yet, Bill stated that he believes the Bible is supposed to be interpreted "literally."
My response was that there are thousands of degrees of possible "literal" interpretations of the Bible. A poetic collection of writings so open to individual interpretation means that Bill’s comment (I believe the Bible should be interpreted literally) has no practical meaning, especially without specifically defining the word "literal" at the beginning of the discussion.
Our conversation ended there. Bill did not elaborate on his comment that the Bible should be taken literally, and I did not ask.
Since the Bible (for the most part) was written in a largely poetic language of culturally relevant symbolism, metaphor, and parable, in order for a lay person to understand its exact terminology he or she would require schooling in Religious Studies, Greek, Hebrew, English literature, Ancient Culture, and a few other disciplines to boot – otherwise one may foolishly and ham-handedly believe any Biblical quote at face value. In practice, most modern American fundamentalists do not determine the proper interpretation by engaging in objective study; rather, congregants tend to adopt whatever Biblical interpretations their preacher or minister says are proper.
Why should I even bother pointing out these things? Perhaps because the potential consequences of hard right religious fundamentalism are too severe to warrant an ongoing free pass. Radical, extremist, dominionist religious fundamentalism serves little fruitful, rational purpose that I can tell – but harm is certainly done.
Food for thought
Shouldn’t Biblical literalists also believe that faith can actually, physically move mountains? Or that prayer should occur only from within a closet? Or that it’s acceptable to go on an angry rampage, overturning tables and such, when someone is doing something wrong? Or that no one can possibly dwell in heaven unless all their possessions are given away? Or that one should hate one’s own mother and father?
No – religious fundamentalists will continue to choose the Biblical interpretations advised by their preachers and leaders, regardless of whether these interpretations conform to truth, logic, common sense, and reality. Few would admit that their fundamentalist religious beliefs are predictably interpreted in such a way as to conform to current cultural norms – not the other way around.
Fideistic fundamentalism itself is a problem, not a solution. Careful study will reveal this fact to any willing, intellectually honest student with an open mind.
A few more serious problems with literal Bible interpretation
Here are a few more unfortunate examples which serve to reveal the complete inadequacy of literal, or near-literal, Bible interpretation.
NOTE: An expanded version of this list — More serious problems with literal Bible interpretation — was converted into its own post which can be found here. (25 Dec 2012, samana)
- All things originiated from and are ruled by a supposedly loving entity which also happens to be perfectly willing to play Nazi Death Camp with the souls of all those who fail to feed its (the deity’s) ego in a precisely prescribed manner (which Christian sects cannot even agree upon)
- The universe was supposedly created less than 10,000 years ago by an omnicient (all-powerful) entity which lost control of its creation so quickly and so terribly so to have effectively created another virtually omniscient power (known to Christian fundamentalists as Satan) after only a little while in the Garden of Eden (that is, if one believes the talking snake was actually Satan; Genesis doesn’t say)
- The evil entity known as the Devil is supposed to be responsible for the temptation of ALL makind, so it must therefore be everywhere at once (or omnipresent) like Bible God is supposed to be — meaning that even “fallen angels” can have Bible God-like powers… wow!
- If this evil “god” known as Satan were really so crafty and clever, then wouldn’t it eventually wise up and opt to repent? After all, the Evil One must already know it is ultimately “prophesied” to lose. The repentance of Satan would be wonderful, as it would apparently fix everything — instantly.
- The “loving” God also happens to be a genocidal despot and a repeat-offending baby-killer, commanding Old Testament troops on several occasions to kill all women and children and take their possessions as spoils of war.
- Wasn’t one of the ten commandments Thou shalt not kill? How does this jibe with a warring Bible God, exactly? Is Bible God supposed to be any sort of role model at all?
- Why would an all-powerful entity be so guilty of chronic absenteeism, perpetual invisibility & unknowability, and so utterly lack the ability to demonstrate itself powerfully enough to build any consensus whatsoever… even among those calling themselves Christians?
- Believers in Jesus will perform miracles “even greater” than his own. When and where does this occur?
- With the proper type of faith, the Bible says we can “move mountains.” Apparently no one has ever possessed that kind of faith; after all, no faithful Christian fundamentalist can even move a mole or freckle on one’s arm. The only mountain moving is done with massive machinery & equipment built by man.
- The Bible together with its antique view of God express rampant discrimination as implicitly and explicitly acceptable in forms that include slavery, the subservience of women & their total domination by men, and so on.
- Why would an all-powerful deity possess — and thus be so crippled by — a frail, self-serving human-like ego? Undoubtedly, the fact that a literally interpreted Bible God craves worship so badly clearly demonstrates that the deity is, like humans, ruled by its fundamentally egotistical nature.
- On that note, why would an all-powerful deity be saddled with ANY anthropomorphic (human-like) qualities whatsoever? The Bible God — literally interpreted, that is, which we are stressing is the wrong way to read and interpret religious texts — is really nothing more than a human with superpowers.
- Even if ancient religious poetry were meant to be interpreted literally (it certainly wasn’t), we humans have clearly demonstrated time and time again a complete inability to apply religious teachings in a positive, uniform manner — that is, without perverting the basic teachings as modern Christian fundamentalists have done so completely. Christians slaughtered & mistreated the American natives in the name of God; even today, all manner of religious fundamentalists (e.g., Christians, Muslims, Jews) continue to commit atrocity after atrocity in the name of God. Another example: The worst U.S. president in recent memory was a Christian fundamentalist who lied his way into wars, divided the world, made the U.S. the most hated country on earth, and so on. What is loving and spiritual about that, we ask?
- In the beginning, God created “two great lights”… pure poetic fantasy. The sun is a more or less average star, one of countless hundreds of billions of massive lights lumped into galaxies across our universe. The moon isn’t even a light at all but merely reflects it. Assuming divine inspiration were real and trustworthy, shouldn’t the writer(s) have known such basic facts?
This list could go on ad infinitum. There are already plenty of lists on the web that speak to the unfortunate consequences and outright silliness of literal Bible interpretation, as a quick Googling will reveal.
Resources: Literal interpretation of Bible
Sources for the comment about Ecclesiastes 10:2
- Ecclesiastes 10:2
- Political left vs. right explained in the good book
- the same quote in another place
- the same quote in yet another forum
Religious fundamentalism defined
Exploring interpretations of notable Bible verses
- Having a laugh at religion’s expense… with Joe Raiola of MAD Magazine – Excerpt: Making fun of religion, particularly the Abrahamic ones, is like shooting fish in a barrel… I mean, after 4,000 years of theological heritage, the three major Western religions believe that God/Yahweh/The Trinity allowed 18,000 people to die in the recent Japanese earthquake because a woman who never existed was induced by a talking snake to eat an apple.
Anachronisms in the Bible
- Anachronisms in the Bible – Tekton Apologetics Ministry
- Beware of Bible Fundamentalists Quoting Sources, by Farrell Till of The Skeptical Review
- Alleged Anachronisms in Genesis- Dan Wagner’s Web Page: Dedicated to the Glory of God in Biblical Studies
- Anachronism and the Bible – Political Jesus
- The Canon of the Bible (1999) – Secular Web: A drop of reason in a pool of confusion
Updates to this post
12/20/2012: Added the Bible verse to top of post, added the point about right and left being relative terms only, with no concrete meaning apart from perspective and specific history of related views.
9/28/2011: Added a few comments and a new section of resources for anachronisms in the Bible, from various points of view (Protestant religious fundamentalist, Jewish, skeptical, secular)
(John apparently also believes that all hard work actually brings a financial windfall.) I could not say I was surprised; Bill and I are on different wavelengths.
While I hope Bill wasn’t using the word literal in its technically defined sense, I sense otherwise.
To those who value reason and intellect (rather than seeing logic as an enemy of faith), that is obviously not how the Bible was ever meant to be interpreted.