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Friday, September 16, 2011

Thinking it Through

One of the very popular spots that skeptics attack the Bible is the passage where God orders the death of innocent men, women, and children (and, in fact, donkeys, camels, and sheep as well). Horrible ... simply horrible.
"Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey'" (1 Sam 15:2-3).
The anti-Christian skeptic accepts the text as written and uses it to point out how contradictory (Is it or isn't it wrong to kill children?) and evil (In all cases, genocide is wrong.) God is. The ... non-anti-Christian simply says, "Yeah, that's what it says, but that's not what it means. It's a ..." and they'll explain that it is myth or legend or epic literature that is only loosely based on genuine events but not an actual representation of what God actually said or it is an actual event but not really commanded by God, but simply an attempt by early Israelite writers to justify what they did. So one side assaults God with it and the other assaults the Bible (my conclusion, not theirs). Is there an alternative? Or are we going to hold that God indeed ordered the deaths of innocent men, women, and children and it's all good?

I will point out from the outset that this logical construct that I've just offered (and is often offered to us) is what is known as the fallacy of the false dilemma. The suggestion here is that either we can concur that either God or the Bible are not quite right in what is given here or God is actually in favor of killing innocent people and we're happy with that. As if those are the only two options. "Mr. Jones, answer yes or no. Have you stopped beating your wife?" But ... but ... there is another alternative!

The other alternative, retaining both the righteous status of God and the historical narrative accurately portrayed in Scripture, is that God did not order the deaths of innocent men, women, and children, but guilty ones. Is there a reason to conclude such a thing?

First, the account itself offers the reasoning behind the command. "I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt." It is not, in the account, simple genocide to remove a group of people that God (or Israel or whomever) doesn't like. These people did something wrong. In the story I like so well in Exodus 17, it was Amalek that came against Israel right after Moses (rightly) struck the rock to give them water. In this event, for no apparent reason, Amalek attacked Israel and it was only by a miracle (Moses holding his arms up) that Israel defeated them (Exo 17:8-16). At the end of that battle, the text says, "The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Exo 17:16). Thus, this event in 1 Samuel was an outworking of that vicious attack in Exodus (as well as another in Numbers 14). What else do we know about the Amalekites? Well, they were part of Canaan, the offspring of Esau. Thus, by birth they were opposed to God's chosen people. And we know of Canaan that Israel was in slavery in Egypt until the iniquity of Canaan was complete (Gen 15:16). In fact, according to Jewish law, among the Orthodox Jews, of the 613 mitzvot (commandments), three refer to the Amalek: to remember what the Amalekites did to Jews, to not forget what the Amalekites did to Jews, and to destroy the Amalekites utterly. These were commands from God to be followed. So, keeping the biblical accounts intact, we see that Amalek was part of the group known as the Canaanites, and Amalek was marked out by God for their sinfulness and their opposition to God's people.

It's not too hard to see, then, that in the list of those to be killed, "men" and "women" would fall into the category of "guilty" rather than "innocent". Reading later texts like Romans 3:23 would certainly confirm this. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That would certainly include all the men and women of Amalek. But we're still left with the question of the children. The passage in question specifies "child and infant". And we all know that children (likely) and infants (certainly) are innocent. I mean, they haven't even had the opportunity to know what sin is let alone commit it, right? How could they not be innocent?

The Bible takes a different view on innocence than we do. David claimed, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa 51:5). That's not a reference to his mother, but to himself. From birth he was a sinner. All humans since Adam have been born spiritually dead, opposed to God, sinners at the outset. The events we recognize as sin are the natural results of this condition, not the other way around. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.

"But, really, are you claiming that infants are not innocent? What could be more innocent than a baby??" Well, I make the claim based primarily on various statements in Scripture. But it's not just me. The Telegraph reports that behavioral experts have determined that children begin lying very early in life. Psychologists thought they couldn't do it before the age of 4, but new studies suggest they're lying as early as 6 months. "Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth's psychology department, says she has identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old." That's science. Scripture says that humans are born spiritually dead and require a new birth in order to be spiritually alive. Scripture says that the best human righteousness is "filthy rags". And while this sounds outlandish on the surface, it becomes not so hard to see when we realize that the fundamental rule of living is "to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31) and "by faith" (Rom 14:23). In fact, in the absolute indictment against all humans of Romans 3:23, the claim is that "all have sinned" -- we got that -- and "fall short of the glory of God". Since this is the baseline rule and since James assures us that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10), who is it that has never failed to bring glory to God and, therefore, who is it that is genuinely innocent? Including babies.

It is true that babies do not have the knowledge that adults do to commit sins. I have seen, on the other hand, where extremely young children respond with guilt when caught doing something they knew they shouldn't before they were told they shouldn't. But experience is not the measure. Nor is ignorance. Sin in ignorance is still sin. The Bible indicates that humans are sinners from birth. If this is accurate, then there is no "innocent infant" in the absolute sense -- in God's standard of measure. And if this is the case, then it would not be an order in the text in question to kill innocent people, but an act of divine judgment on genuinely guilty people (of all ages) using God's chosen people as His tool to accomplish it. In fact, the question would not be "Why would God command the deaths of the Amalekites?" but "Why would God not command the deaths of each and every one of us?" The alternatives to that give us an evil god or a questionable Bible ... and the ramifications of questions to the sin nature, the failure of the New Testament to recognize that the Old Testament wasn't literal history, the error of Judaism and the Church to see this truth, the failure of the Holy Spirit to tell anyone until modern days -- oh, this goes on and on.

One other point. Regardless of whether or not infants are innocent, the history of the Amalekites versus Israel is long and singular. The only relationship was one of tension and attack. Amalek attacked them in the desert. They attacked them at the border to Canaan. They attacked them during the period of the Judges. It was an Amalekite who killed King Saul (2 Sam 1) and it was an Amalekite who planned the annihilation of all Jews. (In the book of Esther, Haman was an Amalekite.) The fact is that offspring of people that hated Israel continued to hate Israel. I would think that God might know that.


Marshal Art said...

Good post in a series of good posts regarding troubling passages.

The issue at hand, for me in ongoing discussions on this topic elsewhere, is how one can truly understand the nature of God and the need we all have for a Savior. These horrible commands give us an indication of His wrath, the very reason we need a Savior at all. How will that wrath manifest for us at Judgement? I, for one, do not want to know. I want to be spared that wrath and as I can't do anything on my own to serve that end, I must rely on Jesus to stand in for me, which He already did.

But this issue has had a variety of explanations, as you have indicated. There's been a recent book on the subject, the author of which I heard interviewed on a local Christian radio station. His explanations seemed more rational that to write off the passages as having been written in some strange style that would have been crystal clear to ancient people apparently, but his are also somewhat a stretch. In a nutshell, he claims the passages are exaggerations of speech common at the time. That to order something in an over-the-top manner expressed the intensity of the request, or the seriousness of it, more than an actual desire to see every living being offed. As regards the Canaanites, he points to verses that state they were still among the Jews even after when their total destruction was to have taken place. But the Jews not being perfect, perhaps they just didn't do an efficient job. Also, if it hyperbole, what are the chances some warriors weren't so quick on the uptake and whacked innocent babies anyway? Would they be held responsible?

Another point made (I think it was the same guy) was that the actual target was not the same as the towns where the families lived, but were more like military posts. But this fails if no women and children were present in such places as well as the fact that the command isn't consistent with the actual target.

My main problem with the objections, however, is simply that it suggests that God must act as we feel He must, rather than to accept that we likely don't understand how what we read is consistent in a God we want to believe is loving and just. I'm sure it'll all be clear to us eventually.

Stan said...

Marshall Art: "his are also somewhat a stretch."

Are you saying mine are a stretch? Or the other side's?

Marshall Art: "he points to verses that state they were still among the Jews even after when their total destruction"

It is abundantly clear that this attack was not a genocide by any stretch of the imagination. Jewish scholars said what your guy said -- it was an attack on a military outpost. Also, the Amalekites were nomads. Taking out one group didn't take out all of them. It couldn't. It wasn't intended to.

Marshall Art: "In a nutshell, he claims the passages are exaggerations of speech common at the time."

That, essentially, is the same argument as the "epic literature" argument. It wasn't actual. It was "hyperbole" (as epic style does) primarily aimed at justifying their own actions. This, of course, is what I have been writing against. The trustworthiness, understandability, and inerrancy of the Bible is at stake here. Did God breathe this stuff and "Oops! I guess I told them to write something I never said! Oh, well, can't be helped"? Makes zero sense.

David said...

Of course there were still Canaanites left, since it was made quite clear that the Jews failed to carry out the annihilation orders given to them. They were later judged for their failure. In some cases, they intermarried with the Canaanites rather than killing them.

Marshal Art said...

Stan: "Are you saying mine are a stretch? Or the other side's?"

The other side's.

Stan: "That, essentially, is the same argument as...etc"

Sorry. I wasn't clear. What I meant to say was that the author interviewed was suggesting that the language used and accurately recorded was similar to a coach telling his players to "Kill 'em!" in stoking their enthusiasm for the game. He obviously doesn't mean to kill anyone, but to play hard and win. In the same vein, God telling the Jews to kill everyone, including infants, is a way of saying to, if you'll pardon the expression in this context, "kick butt". To totally devastate the enemy. To win with extreme prejudice. But as I said, even if "even the infants" was truly meant to convey only a particular emotional state in executing the command to attack, it would difficult to pretend that at least a few of the warriors wouldn't take the command literally and actually kill a few kids.

In any case, I still go with the passage as presented and take it at face value until a more compelling alternative is offered. I don't have a problem with it as is. It's God. He can do what He wants without my approval.