Friday, August 22, 2014

No magic bullet--Copan's insufficient answer to the slaughter of the Canaanites

Let me say up front that there is not going to be a happy ending to this blog post. I am not going to disagree with someone else's argument merely as a prelude to displaying a solution of my own. I have no solution to the slaughter of the Canaanites. It's that simple. I don't know. As far as I can tell, the text of Old Testament Scripture indicates that God ordered the Israelites to kill children down to and including infants, and this is a problem. (Women as well, but at least one can conjecture that maybe all of the people from the age of reason on up had committed crimes worthy of death. Not the babies, though.) Prima facie, this is in direct conflict with the commandment to do no murder. Any attempt to answer the problem by saying that original sin means that no one is really innocent proves far too much, for it removes the rationale for regarding the killing of infants generally as murder.

There is no particular textual reason to take the problem passages to have been added later. It helps a little bit if one is not a strict inerrantist. But even then, what one is left with, at most, is something like, "Maybe God didn't really order that, but my only reason for thinking that is that, as far as I can tell, it is completely incompatible with divine goodness. I'll hope to have this clarified when I get to heaven." One piece of good news, as far as it goes, is that there is nothing about the slaughter of the Canaanite children that is theologically necessary to the truth of Christianity. Unlike, say, the historical existence of Adam, the killing of Canaanite children is not woven into the warp and woof of Christian theology, doctrine, or ethics. Very much to the contrary.

Lest anyone try to combine this problem with God's destroying Sodom and Gomorrah or with the tenth plague, I want to block that at the outset. God is the author of life and death. God gives life and can always licitly take life. God can take a child to Himself and into life everlasting. God knows exactly what is best for every human being and can bring that about by taking a human being's life. The category of murder applies only to the action of finite creatures. Murder is wrong, even in cases such as euthanasia, precisely because it involves playing God, taking on the power of life and death. But it would be downright silly to call God's taking a suffering patient to heaven "euthanasia." The problem is that this answer cannot be applied to the slaughter of the Canaanites, because God is not just striking the Canaanites dead. The Israelites themselves are being ordered to put them to the sword--to hack infants and children to death. To my mind, the difference should be obvious, but I might as well state it up front so that things are made neither easier nor harder than they should be. On the one hand, Christians shouldn't make their job easier by reasoning that, since God's killing people directly seems obviously not to be a problem, this isn't either. On the other hand, skeptics shouldn't be able to overwhelm the Christian with a much larger list of allegedly problem texts in which God kills people or bamboozle Christians into treating God Himself as just a Big Man In the Sky who cannot morally take life, even by His own hand, without due process.

With all of that made clear, onward to the main subject of this post.

Paul Copan's approach to the issue of the slaughters, as represented in Is God a Moral Monster, is quite popular right now. The impression that I think many people are getting is that Copan has come up with a way to use specialized linguistic and/or archeological knowledge to make the problem simply vanish away by showing that the Bible doesn't really say that God ordered the killing of children. Such a magic bullet would of course come as a great relief to Christians, who are constantly getting hit with the "What about the Canaanites?" question. But for that very reason, I think that Copan's proposed solution requires careful examination to discover if it can really deliver such a marvelous outcome, or indeed if Copan himself even claims that it does. (As we shall see below, he actually doesn't claim that his approach takes care of all the problem passages.)

To begin with, in discussing this question, it's important to bear in mind just how bad the most problematic passages are. In my evaluation of Copan's answer, I will be coming back to the details of the worst passages, so let's get them before our minds before we try to discuss whether Copan has made the problems disappear. To my mind, the three absolutely worst passages are Deuteronomy 20:10-18, Numbers 31:12-18, and I Samuel 15:1-3. Slightly less bad, because descriptive (but it fits perfectly with the prescriptive passages) is Joshua 6:21. Compare also Deut. 2:34 and 3:6.

Deuteronomy 20. The passage is rather long, so I won't quote every word. This passage is directly ascribed to God, through Moses. It is part of the second giving of the Law to the Israelites. First, it tells what they are to do with cities that "are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations" (vs. 15). There, they are to leave alive the non-combatants and cattle:
[W]hen the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies. (vss. 13-14)
This policy is explicitly contrasted with their treatment of the cities in the promised land itself:

But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, and Canaanites, the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods. (vss. 16-18)
The passage could not be clearer. In geographical regions farther from the Promised Land, noncombatants and cattle (both of which are indisputably spoken of as real, not as metaphorical) may be saved and taken as spoil. In the land itself, they are to be destroyed lest contact with the people of the land lead the Israelites astray religiously. The contrast is what makes the passage so impossible to get around. The Bible is here portraying God, through Moses, as expressly envisaging the existence of women and children in the cities, expressly telling them to spare their lives (as spoil) in one geographical location, and expressly ordering that the cities within the entire Promised Land, including whole people groups, be treated differently--namely, by killing every living thing. And that difference explicitly concerns the women, little ones, and cattle, which were singled out to be spared in the farther-away cities.

The next passage that gets my nomination for "extremely bad" is in Numbers 31.

And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle...And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest,...And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord...and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Num. 31:-18)

Here Moses, purporting to speak for the Lord (and there is no reason in the text to think that he is not speaking for the Lord) expressly orders the killing of real infant boys, not to mention all non-virgin women.

We also find express descriptive statements by Moses in Deuteronomy as well as in the book of Joshua that the children of Israel did kill "the women, and the little ones..." (Deut. 2:34), "men, women, and children" (Deut. 3:6), "man and woman, young and old" (Joshua 6:21). An interesting note here, relevant to the "idiom" or "hyperbole" suggestion I will discuss below, is that in the next verses of the early Deuteronomy passages Moses says that they took the cattle as spoil, whereas in Joshua 6 it states that they also killed "ox, sheep, and ass with the edge of the sword." This shows that the animals in these passages are literal; sometimes they are taken as spoil and sometimes killed. (Which fits with the prescription put in the mouth of God in Deuteronomy 20.) This is evidence against taking the women and children to be merely metaphoric or hyperbolic.

An odd point to note in passing is that, in discussing Copan's and Hess's approach (which he does not find convincing in the end), William Lane Craig makes the extremely surprising statement that "It is, in fact, a striking feature of these narratives that there is no record whatsoever that women or children were actually killed by anyone." Since Craig does not specify any narrow set of passages, he appears to be speaking generally of the narratives of the conquest of the Promised Land. There are actually several places where there is definitely a record that women and/or children were killed. It is difficult to understand how Craig could make such a statement.

In a later period of Israel's history we find the third impossible-to-ignore prescriptive passage. In I Samuel 15:2-3, the prophet Samuel, apparently speaking for the Lord, tells King Saul,
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel...Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
Again, the cattle are undeniably real, as is the order to slay them all, for Saul is punished by God for taking some of the cattle back as spoil rather than killing them (I Samuel 15:19-23). God takes away the kingdom from Saul because of this disobedience. And, of course, the words "infant and suckling" are prima facie explicit.

Copan suggests, in the face of these texts, that virtually all of the references to killing children can be explained away as using "stereotypical" or "hyperbolic" expressions that merely refer to "everyone" who happens to be in a particular city or fort, not necessarily real women or children. He also suggests that the places where the Israelites are said to have wiped everyone out were actually military forts and that no non-combatants were actually killed. He further points out that populations of the Canaanites and others were still around after the supposed destruction, so therefore the Israelites did not literally kill everyone; hence, the references to total destruction must be hyperbolic. He manages to suggest that, because of this absence or failure of literal genocide, we should not take literally some passages that imply that the Israelites killed Canaanite infants and children by the command of God.

Copan does not even attempt to explain away Numbers 31 as hyperbole or metaphor. It is simply too explicit a command to kill children. I want to emphasize this, because anyone who thinks that Copan has taken care of everything by way of specialized knowledge should know that even he does not claim that he has done so. In fact, Copan goes so far as to justify Moses' order to kill the Midianite infant boys in Numbers 31 on the grounds that they would have formed a future army against Israel.

As with Israel’s lifelong enemies, the Amalekites (cf. Deut. 25:17–19), the Midianites also posed a serious threat to Israel. Whereas Amalek endangered Israel’s very existence, Midian profoundly threatened Israel’s spiritual and moral integrity as the people of God. With the help of the devious pagan prophet Balaam, the Midianites devised a plan to lead Israel into pagan worship. This involved ritual sex, feasting before their Baal, and bowing and sacrificing to him (Num. 25:1–2; 31:16). When he couldn’t bring a curse down on Israel (Num. 22–24), he sought another way.
This is why Moses gives the command, “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Num. 31:17–18 NIV). This command must be understood in the context of Numbers 25. At Peor, the Midianite women deliberately seduced the Israelite men into orgiastic adultery as well as Baal worship.
The death sentence for all males is unusual. However, males were the potential enemy army to rise up against Israel.
What Copan does not seem to realize is that the indisputable reality of the women and children in this passage calls deeply into question the entire idea that the Israelites were attacking only forts and encountering only combatants as they moved forward. To be sure, this encounter with the Midianites occurred before they actually entered the Promised Land (since Moses himself did not enter the Promised Land), but the entire picture hangs together extremely well--a picture of conquest that includes real women and children and conquerors who believe themselves entirely justified in killing non-combatants and, indeed, required to do so by religious command.

Where does Copan get the claim that the death sentence for all the infant males in Numbers 31 is unusual? We have seen several passages that appear to indicate that all children, male and female, were targeted at various points in the conquest of the land. Perhaps Copan means that this passage is "unusual" in being so utterly specific and explicit and in dealing so clearly with real, undeniable infants that he cannot explain it away as hyperbole. Or perhaps he means (comfortless thought) that it is unusual in targeting male infants, specifically. Either way, he is apparently quite ready to justify the killing of infant boys as a matter of military expediency when he cannot get around it some other way. This shows, if nothing else does, that Christians have a difficulty here for which no simple remedy exists, not even a scholarly remedy.

Bearing in mind, then, Copan's capitulation to the unavoidable interpretation in Numbers 31, here are some typical passages from Copan regarding other texts:

When reading the text of 1 Samuel 15:3, we are led to believe that Israel targeted and obliterated Amalekite noncombatants. However, Old Testament scholar Richard Hess argues that we do not actually have indications that this was so — whether toward the Amalekites or the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 2:34 states that “we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor” (NASB). Again, in the next chapter, we read that Israel “utterly destroyed … the men, women and children of every city” (3:6, NASB).

The sweeping words like “all,” “young and old,” and “man and woman,” however, are stock expressions for totality — even if women and children were not present. The expression “men and women” or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, “without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders."
This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word “city [‘ir]” during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning “women” and “young and old” turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.”9 The text does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have been in these cities — and this same situation could apply to Saul’s battling against the Amalekites.
Remember Moses’ sweeping commands to “consume” and “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, not to “leave alive anything that breathes”? Joshua’s comprehensive language echoes that of Moses. Scripture clearly indicates that Joshua fulfilled Moses’ charge to him. So if Joshua did just as Moses commanded, and if Joshua’s described destruction was really massive hyperbole common in ancient Near East warfare language and familiar to Moses,then clearly Moses himself did not intend a literal, comprehensive Canaanite destruction.


Any conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume. Consider Joshua 10:40: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (NASB). At first glance, it appears that Joshua captured all the land, defeated all the kings, and destroyed all the Canaanites (cf. 10:40–42; 11:16–20). Total obliteration? Not quite. Joshua used typical ancient Near East rhetorical language that exaggerates what actually took place.

Joshua was not trying to deceive people; the ancient audience would have readily understood what was going on. In fact, if we read the text closely, we see this is exactly right. Joshua later refers to nations that “remain among you,” and he warns Israel not to mention, swear by, serve, or bow down to their gods (Joshua 23:7,12,13; cp. 15:63; 16:10; 17:13; Judges 2:10–13).
We read in Joshua (and Judges) that, despite the “obliteration” language, there were plenty of Canaanite inhabitants who Israel did not “drive out”; rather, they lived in the areas where Israel had settled.

Most of Copan's arguments here are heavily dependent upon Old Testament scholar Richard Hess. It is therefore necessary, in order to evaluate Copan's arguments, to evaluate both Copan's representation of Hess and Hess's own arguments. Before I turn to that analysis, let me dispose of the argument that runs, approximately, "There were still lots of Canaanites around after this, so the references to killing everybody, including noncombatants, are hyperbolic and needn't concern us."

The problem with the slaughter of the Canaanites is not chiefly a problem of body count. In other words, this is not about the quantity of Canaanites killed but about the quality of Canaanites killed. If 100% of all Canaanite soldiers were killed in obedience to God but not a single infant, young child, or woman was killed in obedience to a real command from God, and if we could know that, we would have no problem. For that matter, we'd have far less of a problem if only adults were killed in obedience to God, or at least only those of an age to be morally responsible, including (non-pregnant) women, for then all the historical information we can gather about the depravity of Canaanite culture would become directly relevant. But the hyperbole response by itself, bolstered by later Biblical reference to the continued presence of Canaanite populations, simply tells us nothing at all about whether God really ordered the Israelites to target children and/or women. It is not as though the later Canaanite populations were composed of adults who had been carefully taken up and raised by the Israelites as babies and who later turned against them! The idea that this language is hyperbolic and that total destruction didn't really occur applies, as far as it goes, equally to combatants and non-combatants, to adults and children, and to men and women. It is orthogonal to the really important concerns about these passages. Even if the statement that everyone was destroyed is hyperbole in the sense that a substantial number of inhabitants of unspecified ages and genders survived (perhaps by running away or being driven out of the land), there are nonetheless passages that appear to indicate that God commanded that women and children, inter alia, be killed. There are also passages that seem to indicate that the Israelites took that command in that way and attempted to carry it out. The "hyperbole" response, based on later Canaanite presence, is a simple evasion of this point.

Now, to turn to Hess: First of all, a problem arises in that, with a combination of summaries and footnotes, Copan implies that Hess makes and defends stronger statements than Hess actually defends. For example, Copan says that the cities the Israelites destroyed (such as Jericho) "turn out to be" military forts or garrisons. Here is Hess's argument. The reader can see for himself that, on the contrary, Hess's argument is for conclusions such as "could have been," "may have been," and the like. Hess merely shows that Jericho, for example, could have been a military fort. (Nor is his argument for that conclusion very strong, but I will resist the temptation to a digression.) Similarly with the word 'ir. Hess does not argue that the word did mean a military garrison rather than a city with civilian inhabitants, but merely that a military garrison is one of its possible meanings. So with the "military king" Copan refers to. Hess spends pages arguing merely that a military commander is one possible meaning of the word used for the king of Jericho. But the more ordinary meanings of "city" and "king" are also possible! So the statement that it "turns out" that Israel is said to have utterly destroyed only military forts is far too strong even as a representation of what Hess is arguing.

In essence, what Hess is doing throughout is arguing that, if you are determined to conclude that the Israelites didn't kill any civilians by the command of God in Jericho and Ai, you aren't pressed to that conclusion by the text. Even on that point, Hess's argument is weak to the point of being bizarre. At one point he argues from silence that, since no non-combatants other than Rahab and her family are named as living in the city of Jericho, they may have been the only ones! (pp. 38-39) Faced with the uncomfortable fact that Rahab and her family are, after all, there in the story, Hess turns to the ad hoc hypothesis that they are the exception that proves the rule: "Rahab, as an innkeeper, may have been an exceptional non-combatant who, with her family, lived in what was otherwise a militarized camp." (p. 39)

Then we come to the statement in Joshua 6:21 that they destroyed "man and woman, young and old," which seems on the face of it to refute, by express statement, Hess's entire thesis that Jericho may have been a military fort at which no civilians were killed. Hess's treatment of this bit of the text is worth taking time over, because Copan gets such a wholesale return of conjecture out of Hess's argument. From what Hess does on this point, Copan concludes that time after time in the Old Testament (except for Numbers 31), when it says that the Israelites killed men, women, and children, believing themselves to be fulfilling God's command, or when the text says that God actually commanded this, such language is Ancient Near Eastern literary convention that could easily refer to killing only male warriors. Copan even goes so far as to apply this type of literary dismissal to the destruction of the Amalekites in I Samuel 15 where "infants and sucklings" are listed by Samuel.

Prima facie, this is implausible, and there is surely a pretty stiff burden of proof for anyone who wants to argue this. Moreover, as I shall point out later, even if there were evidence that such an expression was sometimes used when there were no women or children present, it would scarcely follow that this is how the phrase is being used in the relevant Biblical passages. In fact, there is clear evidence to the contrary regarding those particular passages.

In fact, though, Hess gives the reader almost nothing in the way of an argument that a statement that women and children were killed was ever used when no women and children were killed. Here is what Hess says, in full (pp. 38-39):

There important verse, 6:21, that states:
     They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword            every living thing in it–men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep      and donkeys.
This text appears to include women, children, and the aged in this mass destruction. However, is this really the case? The actual expression is translated "men and women," literally, "from man (and) unto woman." The phrase occurs elsewhere seven times, referring to the inhabitants of Ai (Josh 8:25), Amalek (I Sam 15:3, here without the waw), Nob (I Sam 22:19), Jerusalem during David's time (2 Sam 6:19 = I Chr 16:3), Jerusalem during Ezra's time (Neh 8:2), and Israel (2 Chr 15:13). In 2 Sam 6:19 (= I Chr 16:3) it describes the joyful occasion of David's entrance into Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant and his distributing food to all the onlookers. Except for Saul's extermination of the inhabitants of Nob in I Sam 22:19, where children are specifically mentioned (unlike the texts about Jericho, Ai, and elsewhere), all other appearances of the phrase precede or follow the Hebrew kol "all, everyone." Thus, the phrase appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders. It is synonymous with "all, everyone."
It would be easy to get lost in the welter of details and Hebrew words here, but this is actually an extremely poor argument, particularly for the use Copan wishes to make of it. It is important to note that, when Hess refers to "the phrase," he is not talking about the entire phrase "men and women, young and old" but only about the portion "men and women." The majority of his examples do not include any reference to age and thus aren't even directly relevant to the entire phrase he wants to explain away in Joshua. On the other hand, Hess errs when he says that only in the case of Saul's destruction of Nob are children expressly mentioned (as if to imply that there are no other places where sweeping phrases about killing children create a problem to address), since the very text he is discussing mentions "young and old" and since children are expressly named in I Samuel 15, where it appears that God is commanding their destruction.

Importantly, this argument does not contain a single case where the phrase "men and women" is used and where we have independent evidence that women were not present! Not one. For example, in I Samuel 6:19 it says that David distributed food to everyone, both men and women. Do we have any reason to believe that David did not distribute food to women on that occasion? No reason whatsoever. Nor does Hess give a single instance where "children" or "young" are mentioned and where we have independent evidence that children were not present. Let that sink in for a moment. This is supposed to be a biggie--a scholarly argument from ancient textual literary convention that a sweeping expression like, "Kill all men, women, and children" or "we killed all men and women, young and old, infants and sucklings" could be used merely to mean something like, "Fight hard" or "We really wiped out that army." And Hess does not give a single example of a case where such a phrase is being used in that way! Not one.

How, then, does Hess get to the "thus" in his conclusion? What, exactly, does his argument even amount to? The entire force of his case as given here apparently rests on what one might call the sing-song nature of binary pairs such as "men and women" and "old and young," together with the fact that the phrase "men and women" is usually combined with some Hebrew expression like "all" or "everyone." Hess is probably thinking of (though he does not mention) the fact that Hebrew, like English, does have idioms that are merely emphatic ways of saying "all" or "everything." For example, I am told that the Hebrew translated as "neither good nor evil" is an idiom for "nothing." A near English equivalent to what Hess wants us to envisage would be the phrase "everything from A to Z," where "from A to Z" is merely a way of emphasizing "everything." From these slight indications Hess concludes that all of this sounds conventional, sounds like it is just an idiomatic way of saying "everyone," and from that derives the quite strong conclusion that the reader wouldn't have been disposed to think anything whatsoever about the ages or genders of the people present from a phrase like "men and women, old and young."

So Hess's argument for the "possible literary convention" conclusion regarding such phrases is exceedingly weak. But more can be said: Suppose that Hess had provided some examples where some Ancient Near Eastern text says that all men, women, and children were killed and where there is independent evidence that only men were present. It would have to be fairly strong evidence, not just something vague like, "Well, it looks like this was a military fort, so maybe there were no women or children there." But just suppose. While that would be somewhat interesting as showing that such an expression could be used in that way, how much would that help with the problem passages?

Not much. The problem passages are just too clear. Even aside from Numbers 31 (where Copan himself gives up and callously suggests that killing baby boys is okay because they are a future army), Deuteronomy 20 gives us, as already pointed out, an express contrast between cities where real women, children, and cattle are expected to be present and can be taken as spoil and cities where they are not to be taken as spoil but where, instead, everything is to be killed. This passage cannot be fit into the "idiomatic expression" concept at all. Where women, little ones, and cattle are listed, they are separated out rather than being part of some sweeping reference to "all" or "everything." And where "everything that breathes" is ordered for destruction in the cities of the Promised Land itself, the only possible thing it can refer to, by way of contrast, is those very women, little ones, and cattle who are, in those cities, not potential spoil or prisoners but must be killed instead. What could such a contrast even mean if killing everything that breathes is merely a reference to fighting really hard or killing a lot of soldiers? That the Israelites are to fight less strongly against the armies farther away from the Promised Land than in the Promised Land? That they are to destroy only some of the male combatants far away but all of them within the land? Any attempt to make such conjectures constitutes a reductio of the application of the "ancient near eastern literary convention" idea to Deuteronomy 20.

Moreover, in Deuteronomy 20 the prescription is for an entire geographical area and for entire people groups. God does not tell the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20 merely to go to such-and-such a named city (which might be a fort, for all we know) and kill everything that breathes in that location. That would be simple enough to dismiss, because who knows whether any non-combatants were breathing in that particular location? But the command isn't like that at all. Whatever one may say about Jericho, surely in the entirety of the land of Canaan there were some women and children! Surely among all the Hittites, Amorites, and Canaanites some non-combatants were to be found. And what about that rationale--that they should not teach the Israelites to do according to their abominations? Is the idea that the soldiers, if left alive, would be teaching the Israelites false religion? No, that seems to be an allusion to the women and to intermarriage with the civilian population.

Similarly with the Amalekites in I Samuel 15. Saul is not sent against some named and possibly entirely military location. He is sent to wipe out a group qua group. It seems reasonable to think that that is why infants, sucklings, women, and cattle are named--to emphasize the destruction of all that pertains to the tribe. One can even go farther: Suppose that Hess had succeeded (as he certainly has not) in arguing that such pairs as "man and woman, infant and suckling," etc., were the literary equivalent of the English "from A to Z." If one said, "Go and kill everyone in that tribe, from A to Z," that would be an extremely bloodthirsty order on its face. To say that these are emphatic ways of saying "everyone" gets one in trouble all on its own when "everyone" refers to an entire tribal group!

And, as I have already pointed out, the animals in these passages are shown to be entirely literal, even when they are listed in pairs ("ox and sheep, camel and ass") and even when they are part of a larger list of types of entities. The literary form does not, it turns out, mean that the animals are merely hypothetical bookends in an idiomatic expression that "would not have predisposed the reader to assume" that there were any real animals present! If the cattle and their destruction are real, why are the women and children not real?

The entire "literary convention" idea simply falls to pieces when one makes the attempt to apply it to the details of the worst of the problem passages.

So after looking into Copan's argument, we are left with the unfortunate conclusion that he has not made the problem go away after all. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to draw this conclusion. In fact, I have hesitated for some time to say anything about the matter, because I have no desire to weaken anyone's Christianity nor to dismiss publicly an argument that I do not understand. But when the scholarly argument simply will not give what many hope for from it, and when this can be discovered fairly directly by a careful investigation of the relevant texts, it is quite certain that some atheist will do that investigation and will be ready to mop the floor with a Christian apologist (or a Christian student) who tries to use Copan's argument as a magic bullet. After gradually realizing the influence that this attempted response is coming to have, I decided that I needed to write something public on the topic. It is tempting, if one does not have the relevant problem texts clearly before one's mind, to think that perhaps there is some esoteric information out there that fixes everything. I am sorry to have to say it, but that does not at all appear to be the case.

Finally, let me emphasize an important point where I agree with Paul Copan. He says,

Despite our remaining questions, we need to look at God’s clear revelation in Jesus Christ — especially His incarnation and atoning death. A concerned, relational God — who made himself known to ancient Israel — showed up on the scene in flesh and blood. He entered into first-century life in Palestine, stooping to share our lot to enduring life’s temptations, injustices, sufferings, cruelties, and humiliations. However we view the Canaanite question, God’s heart is concerned with redemption. Christ’s dying naked on a barbaric cross reveals how very low God is willing to go for our salvation. As Michael Card sang about those who scorned and spurned God’s salvation in Jesus of Nazareth:

They mocked His true calling
And laughed at His fate,
So glad to see the Gentle One
Consumed by their hate—
Unaware of the wind and the darkening sky,
So blind to the fact that it was God limping by.
Since God was willing to go through all of this for our salvation, the Christian can reply to the critic, “While I cannot tidily solve the problem of the Canaanites, I can trust a God who has proven His willingness to go to such excruciating lengths — and depths — to offer rebellious humans reconciliation and friendship.”

However we interpret and respond to some of the baffling questions raised by the Old Testament, we should not stop with the Old Testament if we want a clearer revelation of the heart and character of God. In fact, the New Testament clearly reveals a God who redeems His enemies through Christ’s substitutionary, self-sacrificial, shame-bearing act of love (Romans 5:10). Though a Canaanite-punishing God strikes us as incompatible with graciousness and compassion, God is also light (1 John 1:5) — a God who is both good and severe (Romans 11:22). Yet this righteous God loves His enemies, not simply His friends (Matthew 5:43–48). Indeed, He allows himself to be crucified by His enemies in hopes of redeeming them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NASB).

Philosophers of science are well aware that a theory does not need to have answers to all anomalies in order to be well-supported and rationally accepted. We have ample, to my mind overwhelming, evidence, quite independent of our response to the question of the Canaanite slaughters, that God exists, that He is loving and all-good, that His goal is to redeem mankind, and that Jesus is God the Son who reveals the loving Father to us. That means that we can handle points where we do not know the answer while still retaining a robust confidence in the truth of Christianity. It is a brittle and irrational approach that says, "You must have an answer to everything or else your faith is vain and not founded on fact." Being an evidentialist, as I am, does not at all mean having to have all answers to all questions. On the contrary, it means viewing the totality of the evidence one has and trying, to the best of one's ability, to come to an intelligent and judicious conclusion. I believe that any fair-minded inquirer who investigates the evidence for Christianity will come to believe it to be true. This means believing that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true God and is a necessarily good and perfect God, worthy of all worship.

Someday, in heaven, I hope to know the answer to these problem passages. If I don't, it will be because I don't need to know. Meanwhile, we endure as seeing Him who is invisible, knowing that He loves us better than we can properly love ourselves and knowing, too, that He loves every Canaanite child far better than we, with our questioning minds on the child's behalf, could have loved him.


steve said...

Thanks for your intellectual honesty. Sometimes we have to eliminate bad answers before we can explore better answers.

I'm glad I'm not in a postion where I have to carry out those commands.

That said, I don't think death by divine command is worse than death by divine providence. I don't see that death by God's command presents a special theodicean problem in contrast to death by ordinary providence. Either both are morally problematic or neither is.

I think the efforts by Copan, Hess, and Matt Flannagan are shortsighted in that regard.

Same thing with more liberal theologians. If there's a problem, it's not with God's word but God's world. Even if one denies the inspiration of Scripture, that just relocates the problem to real-world atrocities, for which God remains ultimately responsible.

Conversely, if we have an adequate theodicy for real-world atrocities, why is that inapplicable to Biblical holy war?

Lydia McGrew said...

I disagree there, though, for reasons I put in the post. I think it definitely presents a special theodicical problem. As for real-world atrocities, God permits them but does not command them. God isn't commanding Isis to behead people, for example. It's the idea of someone's going out there and hacking off an infant's head because God, the real God, told him to, that is the problem.

I'm _guessing_ your entire approach to all of this is different from mine because of Calvinism.

steve said...

Why do you think the death of an infant by divine command presents a special problem, but his death by natural evil does not? Your distinction is not self-explanatory.

Yes, my Calvinism may make a difference, but every theistic tradition (e.g. Thomism, Arminianism, Molinism, open theism) must grapple with parallel issues.

On just about every alternative, God is the ultimate cause of natural evil.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, death by natural evil can fall into two categories: Perhaps it partially comes about by divine intervention (unseen) with the intent, in part, to kill the infant--e.g., to bring the infant to heaven. Or perhaps it is simply the result of secondary causes. In the first case, as I said in the main post. God is the giver of life and knows what is best for everyone, so whatever God does to the infant can be presumed to be for its best good. God has a right to take life directly. In the second case, a fortiori, God has a right to _permit_ a death by way of the natural laws which He has put in place and which He preserves.

You also mentioned atrocities. Those come about by the free will of evil men. Allowing free will is a good in itself and is one of the reasons God created man, and if all of the effects of evil free will were wiped out by God (e.g., God makes all the bullets fly in the wrong direction when flying at a child), this would, in the aggregate, undermine the whole point of allowing man to do evil.

In contrast to all of these, when an infant is killed by the direct order of God, the God-fearer who obeys the command is being told to take his own hands, undertake a human means (such as the use of a sword), and kill an innocent human being. For a human being to do this meets the definition of murder which it is necessary for us to use to explain to, e.g., pro-aborts why murder is wrong. (For example, "the direct and deliberate taking of the life of an innocent human being.") Implicitly, this definition means _our_ direct and deliberate taking, etc., not God's. But to do it "by God's command" is still for me to do it, not for God to do it directly. I still must act as an agent to aim the gun or swing the sword, doing it deliberately in such a way as to cut off the life of that particular infant. To all appearances, this is murder *by me*.

steve said...

Sorry, but I'm still unclear on why you think death resulting from a divine command is problematic in a way that death resulting from a divine action is not. Take two scenarios:

i) Ed dies because God ordered Ted to kill Ed

ii) Ed dies because God made a mantrap to kill Ed

Does (i) present a special theodicean problem, but (ii) does not?

(I'm using the mantrap as a metaphor for death by some natural evil.)

Yes, you're focussed on the specific issue of babies, but you're combining two issues: who dies and how they die. My question is why the mode of death is especially problematic in one case, but not the other.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think the two issues are importantly related, because I think Ted should _never_ kill a baby, whereas it isn't similarly true that Ted should _never_ kill Ed. So if Ted has some sort of good reason (whatever we imagine that might be) for thinking that God has ordered him to kill Ed, Ted can at least say to himself, "I conjecture that Ed has committed some heinous act that justifies the taking of his life as a punishment."

We know from St. Paul as well as from the natural light that human beings can sometimes rightfully kill some other human beings as a punishment. That's why "murder" isn't the same thing as "killing." In fact, sometimes killing another human being is required by respect for the imago dei. (Genesis 9:6)

So a human being _could_ be God's agent for killing (adult) Ed without committing murder. Killing (adult) Ed, per se, is not intrinsically wrong, and Ted could simply defer to God's knowledge of what Ed has been up to. But killing a baby is intrinsically wrong. Hence the "how" by which a baby dies is important.

William Luse said...

Yes, it would be too facile to think that, because God has commanded me to kill Ed's infant child, I have not been enlisted in an act of murder.

Very good and thorough post which I'll keep it saved somewhere on my computer for future reference.

steve said...

i) I'm afraid I don't see from your explanation why the mode of death is morally germane. Your key contention is that killing a baby is wrong. So it's still the who rather than the how.

ii) Also, do you really mean that killing a baby is intrinsically wrong, or generally wrong–absent extraordinary mitigating circumstances? What about terminating ectopic pregnancies? What about the double effect principle, viz. if the enemy uses human shields?

"In the second case, a fortiori, God has a right to _permit_ a death by way of the natural laws which He has put in place and which He preserves."

Isn't "permission" a bit weak or euphemistic in that context? Does God merely permit the outcome of natural forces he himself put in place?

To take a comparison: Suppose a car is parked uphill with a wheel chock behind the right rear tire to prevent it from rolling down the hill. Suppose I kick the wheel chock aside, as a result of which the car rolls downhill. I didn't push the car downhill. I merely removed an impediment. Gravity did the rest.

Yet even that action on my part is more than permitting the car to roll downhill. I caused it to roll downhill.

If, moreover, I foresaw that by kicking the wheel chock aside, the car would run over a 2-year-old playing in the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill, I did more than permit his death. I engineered his death.

So I fail to see a morally salient difference between death by divine command and death by divine providence. Adding buffers between cause and effect doesn't avoid divine agency or divine intent.

One could imagine Rube Goldberg machines in which the effect is far removed from the cause. Yet the outcome would still be traceable to God.

(At the moment I'm discussing natural evils, not moral evils.)

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, for one thing, the specific effects even of natural evils are brought about in part by gazillions of free actions of free beings--e.g., the decision to use this medicine rather than that, the decision about when or whether to take the child to the doctor, where a family chooses to live in a certain year, or, if you get right down to it, the way that the wind blew because somebody drove a car down the street that morning (the proverbial "butterfly's wing flapping"). It's simply not true that every natural evil that occurs is the deterministic result of a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine of entirely natural causes set in motion by God alone at the creation of the cosmos. Plausibly this isn't true of _any_ natural evil that happens to any particular person.

As for "who" rather than "how," I really don't know how to make it any clearer. As I said, the two are bound up together, because the "how" of dying by the specific, deliberate act of a human being is even *possibly okay* only for some "whos."

I don't want the entire thread to go into a discussion of double effect. I'm generally quite a hard-liner on that one. But we can all agree that in the case of slaying the Canaanite children no double effect was involved. They were _trying_ to slay _those_ individuals. We're talking about aiming your sword *so that* it will cut off the head of *that* child. As far as I am concerned, that is obviously intrinsically evil for innocents, with no exception.

Jay Richards said...

Indeed, I would think that if a person had a well-formed conscience, and he believed God was commanding him to commit an intrinsic evil, then he would have reason to conclude, not that God was so commanding, but that he (the man) was mistaken or hallucinating.

steve said...

Several issues:

i) Seems to me you're taking a harder line than you did in the body of the post. There you framed the issue in terms of a prima facie conflict between two sets of divine commands. Now, however, you're saying it's intrinsically wrong to kill babies/children.

ii) If, on the one hand, Scripture unmistakably contains commands in God's name to kill babies/children–while, on the other hand, killing babies/children is intrinsically wrong, then either the God of biblical theism doesn't exist, or else he permitted Bible writers to misrepresent his true character. If the latter, this would mean that even though Scripture presents itself as a corrective to false views of deity in ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman religion, in fact the Bible cannot be used as a standard of comparison.

iii) It isn't quite clear to me whether or not you think God has the right to take the life of a baby/child. When you say that's intrinsically wrong, do you mean in reference to human agents, or do you include God in that prohibition? You've said God has a general right to take life, as well as acting in the best interests of the baby/child, but unless I missed something, there's a reaming ambiguity regarding your position on God's prerogative in taking the life of a baby/child.

iv) If you think God has the right to take the life of a baby/child, then I don't see why it would be intrinsically wrong for God to command someone to take the life of a baby/child. That would not be a case of the human agent "playing God" by making life-and-death decisions which only God is entitled to make. Rather, the human would be divinely tasked to carry out a divine decision. Are you saying it would be illicit for God to delegate the implementation of his decision to a second party? Or is the decision itself illicit, even for God?

v) I'm studiously striving to avoid turning this thread into a debate over the freewill defense, but since you keep introducing that consideration, I have to say something about it. I mention natural evils because that would be a case of babies/children dying as an end-result of a chain of events initiated by God. God taking life through intermediate agencies, which is analogous to human agents who carry out divine commands.

Yes, there are cases in which natural evils are partly brought about by the choices/actions of free agents, but surely there are many exceptions. Take miscarriage. Although the pregnancy was partly brought about by human free agency, the miscarriage was not.

Whether a natural disaster kills humans (including babies/children) may be contingent on "where a family chooses to live in a certain year," but God could avert their death by giving them advance warning of an imminent natural disaster. That wouldn't destabilize the natural order or infringe on their freedom. Far from violating their freedom of choice, advance warning would expand their freedom of choice by giving them another, better option. More opportunities to choose from. So I don't see how invoking the freewill defense, even if we grant its key assumptions, will salvage your position.

vi) No, the double effect principle doesn't not apply in this particular case. The question, though, is whether, in principle, it is always wrong to take the life of a baby (or innocent life). If not, then that's not intrinsically wrong.

Lydia McGrew said...

Steve, I don't have time to answer every point, but actually, *all* human death is indirectly the result of man's free will. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that man would not die if Adam had not sinned. So the whole idea of natural evils as coming about through God's having set in motion a set of ineluctable causes at the creation is just plain wrong. It's wrong six ways from zero. As for God's warning people, this shifts the ground from the idea that a natural evil comes about solely because God takes a chock out from under the wheel of the universe to, on the other hand, saying that God would have to interfere via special revelation in gazillions of free human day-to-day decisions to make sure that nobody ever accidentally hurts anybody else, catches a disease, etc. If you can't see the difference between God's not doing that and God's literally causing all the negative events by a Rube Goldberg effect, I don't think I can help much more.

Lydia McGrew said...

Jay's epistemological point is excellent, and it's one that I don't think people are taking due account of. Why would we as Christians _not_ take seriously a "God told me to kill the baby" defense in court? If God just sometimes does kill babies by means of human agents, hey, maybe that was one such case!

steve said...

Thanks. A few final points. I'll leave the last word to you:

i) I don't think the Fall accounts for natural evils, per se. Just human death by natural evil. Actually, natural "evils" are often natural goods. They preserve the balance of nature. I have no reason to think that's a result of the Fall. They only become "evil" in relation to us if humans happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

ii) You seem to be suggesting my response is inconsistent. Keep in mind that I was responding to you on your own terms, as you chose to frame the issue.

iii) To speak of advance warning as "interference" with "free human day-to-day decisions"strikes me as special pleading. Enabling people to make informed decisions about their future is hardly equivalent to interfering with their libertarian decision-making process. To the contrary, that enhances their freedom of opportunity. So I think there's a tension in your appeal which you are reluctant to acknowledge.

Notice I didn't use suggest God suspending the laws of nature. Freewill theists sometimes argue that we need a stable environment with predictable consequences to make free decisions. But even granting that assumption, advance warning is a different principle.

iv) Finally, many kids/babies die every year from natural causes. Death by natural causes can be more painful and prolonged than death by a sword or spear. Although you can say free choices figure in some of the deaths, I don't think it's plausible to universalize that claim.

Thanks for the vigorous exchange of views. No hard feelings, I presume.

Lydia McGrew said...

No, no hard feelings at all. I really was just out this morning running other errands. I actually meant to get back to your other points. I'm always up for a vigorous exchange.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Parker said...

Lydia, have you read Cassians Conference's on the subjects to see how Catholic's have traditionally understood these passages?

Of the meaning of the seven nations

Use NEXT & PREV for navigating. For context you might use the PREV button to see the arguments leading to that chapter e.t.c

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

Parker, I don't have time to look up the Catechism right now, but my recollection is that Catholic understanding has not generally been that the passages are typological *rather than* literal--that is, that there were no *real* nations that were destroyed.

The typological interpretation simply leaves a big hole. I was just discussing this on Facebook with someone the other day, and I really had to press to find out exactly what was being claimed. (Nobody seems to be doing that in the Cassian that you link. :-))

Is the claim that the Israelites didn't really enter the land of Canaan historically? That makes no sense. The people of Israel were a real, historical people. The Exodus is clearly intended to be an historical event, as is the entry into the land. So at the most, a typological interpretation ("these represent the seven deadly sins" or what-not) is going to be *on top of* the literal meaning, and the literal meaning is what is causing the problem.

In the end, after pressing my friend on Facebook for a while, I asked whether the idea is something like this: Yes, they really did kill children, and yes, they really did think God wanted them to do so, and yes, that really is what the text says. But God didn't really command that. We have no idea how the mistake arose, but never mind. God let these passages be recorded as Sacred Scripture because we can _apply_ them to our lives by making them an allegory for fighting sin.

And he said, "Yeah, something like that."

Well, is that very helpful? Not very.

Anonymous said...

How can fundie Christians blindly presume their God "would never" ask them to murder a child? Not only does God not change (Mal. 3:6), but there is nothing in the NT that even remotely suggests that God "would never" command Christians to murder children.
I thought your analogy of the "god made me do it" defense a good argument. If a Christian kills a bunch of kids at a school claiming God told him to do it, what biblical grounds are there for saying that excuse isn't true? Just like God was not prevented by the command against murder from commanding his followers to massacre children, in like fashion any pacifism in the NT does not prevent God from commanding his followers to massacre children.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, this was a borderline comment, but as it contained no profanity I published it.

Actually, I think Christians *do* have reason to believe that their God would never tell them to murder children. There is the commandment against murder, for example! There is the statement in Proverbs 6:17 that God hates "hands that shed innocent blood." There is the command for the death penalty for murderers in Genesis 9:6. And there is St. Paul's discussion of the natural law in Romans 1, which tells us that we have the "law written on our hearts." If there is such a law written on the heart, a prohibition against killing infants is a paradigm instance of its content! That is how natural law thinkers are able to argue against abortion with non-believers.

So, yes, there is a definite tension here *within* Christian thought.

Actually I disagree that the verses you probably have in mind in the New Testament actually teach pacifism, but that's a whole different subject.

William Luse said...

Lydia, if it helps, I don't think you're a fundie Christian.

..there is nothing in the NT that even remotely suggests that God "would never" command Christians to murder children.

People keep saying this sort of thing as if it actually made a dent in the problem.

Andrew said...

I'm not sure "Do not murder" cuts it as a counter-argument.

There are many, many instances in the OT of Jewish religious leaders killing in God's name and being commended for it. (e.g. Levites at Sinai with the golden calf, Num 25:1-15, Elijah vs Baal's prophets at mount Carmel, Samuel vs Saul with King Agag, any of the OT laws prescribing death as a penalty). I agree that there is a blanket prohibition against taking it upon yourself to kill another human, but the OT is filled with examples of doing so with divine sanction, typically in order to purge sin from the people of God.

I basically agree with Steve's argument: if God is just in taking life as he chooses, then he cannot be unjust in commanding human agents to do so (unless it can be shown that this would inevitably taint a human in a way that would not taint God, but I've not seen an argument to this end that doesn't beg the question).

It does not remotely follow from this that all killing in God's name is just. Even when the Apostles speak fatal judgement, they do no more than speak and God carries it out via his own means, not by human hands. For someone to claim authority to kill based on personal direct revelation (as opposed to Law), he would first need to show that his prophetic authority was comparable to Moses or Elijah.

I also argue that the NT scriptures countenance capital punishment by worldly authorities for the goal of justice (e.g. Rom 13:4). Whether this is a good policy for an explicitly Christian government is open for discussion.

Lydia McGrew said...

Andrew, I don't know why you would bring in capital punishment here. And in general, your response concerns killing rather than murder. Surely you must know that there is a difference, but that that doesn't mean that there are no persons whom it is always murder to kill. Infants, for example. Innocents.

The thing is, we pro-lifers have been making these natural law arguments for years about, say, the intrinsic evil of abortion. Now suddenly all of that is supposed to be out the window? If the OT said that God commanded an abortion, that would be no problem either, because God can take life and there is "no difference" between his doing this directly and doing it by human means?

And why would a person who claimed that need to _show_ that he had divine authority? In what way, precisely, did Samuel _show_ that to Saul when Saul was ordered to kill the Amalekites? And if such a showing were made, what better way to know that the "spirit of the Lord had departed" from that leader (something that did happen in the OT) than that he started issuing heinous orders in the Lord's name?

Edward T. Babinski said...

Has anyone read Thom Stark's response to Copan all the way through? I did, and it looks like there's no magic bulletin when it comes to more than just this one question that Copan tries to answer. There's plenty of other questions as well.

Lydia McGrew said...

I haven't read Stark previously, and I wouldn't want to endorse him without doing so. From a brief and highly selective look it appears that in the sections on Hess's and Copan's textual interpretation he is making several of the same points as mine in the main post.

Andrew said...

I bring in capital punishment because that's exactly what the Scriptures claim is happening (e.g. Gen 15:16). It's not the state carrying it out, but it is God's chosen people acting under the explicit guidance of his ruling prophet. It doesn't cease to be a form of capital punishment because multiple people happen to be killed at the same time.

I also don't buy the "innocents" argument. Consider Abraham begging God to spare Sodom. "For the sake of ten (righteous men) I will not destroy it" (Gen 18:32). Neither Abraham or God say "Well, there are a whole bunch of children there; they are innocent, so God best spare it". The children are inheritors of the sinfulness of their fathers (in some cases; contrast Num 16:27 with Deut 24:16).

As for authority, I would have thought Samuel's authority was (by default) obvious, having been marked as prophet over Israel for over half a century. Though your question on the spirit departing is interesting, and shows an interesting bias. We know from the Scriptures that violence and violent living is a hallmark of evil (Gen 4:23-24, 6:13, and so on). We also know that Jesus commends those who seek peace (e.g. Matt 5:9). Further, our culture has a strong "Let's all get along" attitude. That's three good reasons to eschew violence. And yet the Scriptures obviously do not. The Scriptures make a strong case that human violence is, in general, unholy (e.g. Rom 12:18-20). But it is not holiness but squeamishness that leads us to go beyond this to view all human violence as unholy.

Sin demands judgement. Judgement is, ultimately, death (mortal and eternal). And sometimes humans are God's agents, witting or unwitting, in bringing this.

(Yes, I'm aware that there's an argument that goes: "We'll if that's true, are you suggesting that we should go around killing heathens in God's name". It's emotionally strong, but logically weak; that something happened in one situation proves only that it is sometimes applicable, not that it is normative. This calls for wise discernment, not claiming that God wouldn't do something he obviously has done multiple times.)

Lydia McGrew said...

Capital punishment remains irrelevant. The Scripture passages don't even _claim_ that the children are being killed because _they_ are guilty and deserve punishment. Whereas capital punishment is, by definition, deserved. To use the phrase in any other way is simply to play with words and change the meaning of the phrase.

Andrew said...

Fine, leave "capital punishment" out of it. Regardless, the Scriptural narrative is clear - the Israelite invasion and purging of Canaan is foreshadowed to Abraham half a millennia previously, and it is judgement upon the Amorites for their sin. It is unique in scale within the OT, but there are several other incidents recorded where a city is totally destroyed at God's direction, sometimes miraculously, sometimes by human agents.

Lydia McGrew said...

I agree that the narrative is clear. That's the whole point of my post. That doesn't automatically mean that I believe it happened just like that, because there is a moral problem.

But yes, I get that you just come back to your commitment to, "It happened."

The point is that all the attempts to make that position *seem less bad*, such as by using phrases such as "original sin" or "capital punishment" or what-not, fail. And I think people use them because they find it hard to say, "Yes, these were innocent babies, and God ordered them slaughtered. You know, just exactly the sort of thing we're fighting against every day in the culture of death. Well, God actually ordered that done. But I'm okay with that."

I suppose it's good in the way that people feel uncomfortable saying that. But I have a niggling feeling of duty to take away the fig leaves and evasions.

CR said...

This was an exceptionally interesting post and combox thread. Lydia, would you consider a developmentally disabled person - a severely MR adult for example - an "innocent" in a similar vein as babies? Why or why not?

Lydia McGrew said...

I have difficulty seeing why not. It would depend on how severe the disability was, of course. It might also depend on whether the person was capable of being an aggressor. A baby obviously is not.

Andrew said...

I see where you're coming from and going to, and mostly agree. So, can I throw in a few tangential thoughts to see if they go anywhere interesting?

I think God "weeps" (so to speak) at events like the Flood, or the purging of Canaan, or Sodom, or … . We must never think that God gleefully stretches out his hand in judgement to condemn and destroy what he has created. More broadly, while we may cheer to see justice done, we must also remember that those being justly punished are like us.

Even in the OT, I cannot think of a case where the Israelites are commanded to convert by the sword, nor to enslave another community. A few proactively come to Israel to avoid destruction (e.g. Rahab, the Gibeonites (Joshua 9)), but I can't think of an incident where either slaves or conversions is the stated goal.

There is severe judgement on apostasy by those who are already Jews, but this is in the context of a people bought by God out of Egypt and inheritors of his promises, not of converting those outside.

Which leads me to a thought about why God & Samuel are so angry with Saul in 1 Sam 15. God sends Saul out to destroy Amalek utterly, but Saul instead sees the opportunity for looting, taking it upon himself to personally profit from delivering God's judgement on another. In doing so, he perverts and corrupts God's justice for his own ends.

Moving to the modern age, there's something of a hole in the Scriptures. The OT describes how the Jews are to live in their theocracy; the NT describes how Christians are to live under a semi-hostile state, but there's little explicit guidance as to running a Christianised state, especially with respect to judicial justice or inter-state relations.

Finally, there are interesting comparisons in this discussion to Hiroshima. Note that I am NOT suggesting any form of divine sanction for it or suggesting that the Japanese were more deserving than anyone else. Instead, it's a recent example of total devastation of a city for arguably less than immoral reasons. Any complaint that bears against God we must also weigh against humans.

CR said...

As a father of four children (each of which I prayed with at bedtime tonight with the exception of our 4 year old who zonked out early), I would respectfully dispute your contention that a baby is incapable of being an aggressor, at least that certainly hasn't been my experience.

Clearly babies lack the resources to do much with their aggression, unlike an adult severe MR individual, but the distinction is one of physical capability/capacity.

Thankfully my children couldn't pulverize my skull with their sippy cups in a fit of rage. This is yet another small way in which God's wisdom and providential design is quite comforting.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Lydia,

Thanks very much for this post. I wrote a post a few years ago on the same issue here, in response to Richard Dawkins: . (My own, very tentative views are at the end of the post.)

You wrote above: "If the OT said that God commanded an abortion, that would be no problem either, because God can take life and there is 'no difference' between his doing this directly and doing it by human means?" That is indeed a troubling question, as many of the Amalekite, Midianite and Canaanite women slaughtered by the Israelites would have been pregnant, and it is likely that they were killed by being ripped through the belly with a sword.

Re the Catholic Church's stand on the matter: the Church has no official position on the issue, but Church Fathers down through the ages, with the exception of Origen, have defended the legitimacy of killing innocent women and children at God's command. (See my post above - scroll down to Question 9 for a full list or references.) Here are a few:

In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.), in his Letter CCXLI to Eusebius, bishop of Samosata, writes approvingly of Moses praying for the Israelites during Joshua's battle with the evil Amalekites.

In its article on the book of Joshua, the Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that St. Augustine defended the slaughter of the Canaanites, on the grounds that "the abominations of the Chanaanites merited the punishment which God, as Master of the world, meted out to them by the hand of Israel (In Hept., III, 56; P.L., XXXIV, 702, 816)."

St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologica II-II q. 64 art. 6 (reply to objection 1):

"God is Lord of death and life, for by His decree both the sinful and the righteous die. Hence he who at God's command kills an innocent man does not sin, as neither does God Whose behest he executes: indeed his obedience to God's commands is a proof that he fears Him."

In his Summa Theologica I-II q. 94 art. 5, (reply to objection 2), Aquinas applies the same logic to the Biblical commandments against adultery and theft: everything (including goods and spouses) ultimately belongs to God.

"Reply to Objection 2. All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: 'The Lord killeth and maketh alive.' Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner adultery is intercourse with another's wife; who is allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Consequently intercourse with any woman, by the command of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another's property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists."

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on Natural Law, concurs with Aquinas on this point:

"As the Sovereign Lord of all things, He [God] could withdraw from [Abraham's innocent son] Isaac his right to life, and from the Egyptians their right of ownership, with the result that neither would the killing of Isaac be an unjust destruction of life, nor the [Hebrews'] appropriation of the Egyptians' goods the unjust taking of another's property."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church wisely refrains from commenting on the matter, in its section on The Natural Moral Law.

To be continued...

Vincent Torley said...

Back again.

Even St. John Cassian, who was quoted above as endorsing an allegorical interpretation of the Biblical slaughter passages, wrote that God justly commended the slaughter of entire nations (see and scroll down to chapter 19):

"But the reason why that nation in which the children of Israel were born, was bidden not to be utterly destroyed but only to have its land forsaken, while it was commanded that these seven nations were to be completely destroyed, is this: because however great may be the ardour of spirit, inspired by which we have entered on the desert of virtues, yet we cannot possibly free ourselves entirely from the neighbourhood of gluttony or from its service and, so to speak, from daily intercourse with it."

As far as I am aware, Origen was the only Christian Father to defend a purely spiritual interpretation of the conquest of Canaan, in his "Homilies on Joshua" (Homily 5 and Homily 15). Origen interpreted the story of Joshua's invasion of Canaan as an allegory of the battles each person must engage in, against the vices.

I should add that the Biblical Conquest narratives in the book of Joshua were misused by Christians at various times in history, in order to "justify" acts of conquest abroad. Graduate student Anthony Rimell, of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in an online paper entitled, "Origen on Conquering ourselves: Reclaiming the Conquest Texts," describes how this misappropriation of the texts occurred (the Spanish conquest, "New Canaan" and the Boers in South Africa being a few examples). Curiously, according to Rimell, the Conquest narratives were invoked not only by the Europeans who occupied New Zealand, but by a Maori Chieftain resisting European occupation!

By the way, C.S. Lewis denied Biblical inerrancy precisely because he found the Biblical texts you listed above so troubling. See Ed Babinski's article here: .

By the way, I'd be interested to know what you make of this article on the destruction of the Canaanites: . The author's argument is not dissimilar to Copan's, but I think it's more persuasive, although I still think you've got the better of them both.

Finally, I'd like to query your assertion that the person of Jesus makes up for whatever we find troubling about these OT passages. Remember that Jesus would have been raised to view these commands of God to slaughter innocents as just - and there's no evidence that He didn't. What's more, I'd like to put this question to you: suppose God hadn't become incarnate in the 1st century, and suppose that Judaism was the only religion today which worshiped the one true God. Would it be right to reject Judaism on account of these troubling Biblical passages? I would argue that it would not. I think Leviticus 19 alone would be enough to show that Judaism must be true. There is nothing else like it in all the world's holy books, among the non-Abrahamic religions.

B. C. Hodge said...

This is a comment concerning the article (as I haven't read the comments yet).

I'm sorry you don't know ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts very well, but this is often the language of hyperbole. Hence, Copan's statements concerning such is not merely some apologetic fiction manufactured to deflect his ideological opponents.

Having said that, your argument begs the question and appeals to a sense of morality ad populum that then trades on emotion. In essence, it isn't an argument at all, just a strongly worded shaming of the other side for not holding the same opinion that you "feel" is incontrovertible. Some of us "feel" otherwise. What's to decide between us? More ad populum arguments that beg the question?

Your argument also trades on an overly simplistic application of pro-life principles. Is it always wrong to kill a child?

Is it not the case that these children are being killed to save the lives of other children?

If that is wrong, is it wrong to kill one of two conjoined twins who will both die if they are not separated. If your ethic is absolute, you have to say yes, but then you end up killing them by way of passivity, becoming culpable of a murder by omission.

Would it be wrong for an ancient to kill a child who has a virus that will kill everyone else, including all of the other children? What should they do with the child? Just put him outside the village to let the animals kill him? Let him die of starvation out there? Or let him stay and kill everyone, including all of the children. Are you not then guilty of the same crime?

My point is that you have misidentified the situation in which the Israelites live. They are going to be wiped out from the earth, either by the Egyptians, the Amalekites, or the Canaanites. They can escape Egypt, have to fight the Amalekites to pass through, but ultimately have to settle somewhere in the land that will support their lives.

A wicked people under the judgment of God already live there, and after destroyed, their children will rise up in a vendetta to kill of the children of Israel. That's the way it works in tribal culture. So you would condemn the Israelite children to death and save the children of wicked men. Perhaps, some reading in covenant theology is in order?

In any case, I don't see how you can escape this conundrum, given your absolute commitment to "pro-life," since you have to choose which children get to live and which do not in either case.

Anonymous said...

Lydia check your blogspot spambox, my last set of comments seem to have been lost. parker

Lydia McGrew said...

B.C. Hodge, I don't have time to answer everything in your rather snarky comment, but at a quick reading:

a) I did not say that there was no hyperbole in ANE narratives. I said that the "hyperbole" response by itself is orthogonal to the question of innocents vs. guilty. I also _carefully_ discussed the issue of "stock phrases." You are welcome to reread the post if you didn't understand it the first time.

b) Yes, it's wrong to kill one of conjoined twins. Yes, it's wrong to kill a child with a virus. Yes, consequentialism is wrong. Yes, it's wrong to kill children "to save other children." Etc., etc., etc.

As for all your nonsense about "just trying to shame other people," actually, I was making a careful _intellectual_ response to Copan's argument concerning the text and scholarly knowledge to point out that we still have the same issue we started out with concerning what the texts appear to say. This has nothing to do with shaming anybody. It's odd that you say that you haven't read the thread, as it is in the thread that we get into the discussion of the absolute immorality of killing innocent children.

Lydia McGrew said...

Oh, and all this "you are guilty of killing passively" stuff is just the same old boring consequentialist baloney sausage we have been dealing with for umpteen years. So, no, there's a difference between someone's dying by natural causes because you didn't actively murder someone else and actively murdering someone. If you don't get that, I can't help you, but the people I'm more interested in persuading are the people who already share traditional moral principles (i.e., non-consequentialist) regarding murder and nonetheless want to make space for these passages to be literally true.

Lydia McGrew said...

Parker, they aren't in the spambox or I would have moderated them through. I don't know where they've gone.

Lydia McGrew said...

Vince, I hope to say more in response to yours later, but first: That article has only a brief section on the women and children, and it's just a rehash of the Copan-Hess argument which I refute in the main body, so that doesn't help. I was mildly interested in his gloss on Jesus' descent into hell, but that's on quite a different topic (the question of whether pagans have a second chance after death).

I've always been intrigued by your (no offense) zombie theory, which would in essence, at least if some more bells and whistles were added to it, turn the Israelite soldiers into robots killing people and hence not choosing to kill anybody. In which case God might as well have dispensed with them altogether one would think. And robots without a memory, either. I've half-jokingly said that I'd find your theory more intellectually tenable than Copan's, but alas, I have to say that yours really is massively ad hoc, and all the more so if one adds the necessary bells and whistles (e.g., the removal of choice from the Israelite soldiers) to make them truly just extensions of the power of God.

(I haven't re-read your article. I'm going by memory here.)

More on Judaism, Jesus, etc., another time.

CR said...

I'm more interested in persuading are the people who already share traditional moral principles (i.e., non-consequentialist) regarding murder and nonetheless want to make space for these passages to be literally true.

To what persuasion are you seeking to move people regarding the interpretation of these passages other than "literally true"? The alternatives seem rather limited, and fraught with hermeneutical danger.

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, I'm trying to move them to be at least quite uncomfortable with taking the passages to be both literally and also true--that is, that God really ordered this. I think if you have a real, absolute moral prohibition on killing infants, you should be very, very uncomfortable with these passages and especially with saying that it really happened just like that. You should have a serious conundrum. You should not be *just fine* with the, "God ordered it, so I guess then it's okay" response.

Presumably Copan isn't. That's why he tries what he tries.

In fact, I've discovered by doing all this discussion in these threads that Copan is really in _morally_ less danger than someone who just justifies what these passages records. That, despite the fact that I think his theory is not intellectually tenable.

Lydia McGrew said...

Golly, I seem to have a record number of typos in that last comment. Must be the small glass of white wine. Well, I'll leave the comment anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mdm,
I am a big fan of your work and blog.

What do you think about the following comments by Matthew Flannagan regarding the account of the 'apparent' slaughter of all the canaanites. it is a 3 part series.

Though perhaps not addressing your points directly, but I think what he said may have some bearing on the correct interpretation of the biblical account.

Appreciate your time and thoughts.

B. C. Hodge said...


Let's back up for a moment, as you seem a little on edge from what I wrote. I was merely attempting to point out that you're on ground you don't understand and making big swipes at God's Word and those who would interpret it correctly because of that misunderstanding. So now that I've read the comments, let me address your main argument instead of counter other areas I feel are lacking and unfair in your response to me.

Your conclusion that it is always wrong to kill a child seems to stem from the following argument, made both from the Bible (although I'm confused as to why you're making a biblical argument if it's unreliable in its moral witness), and mainly, from intuition (one which most cultures, both now and throughout history, including our own, do not share with you, displaying that it is not universally intuitive at all):

P1: Murder is always wrong.
P2: The shedding of innocent blood constitutes murder.
P3: Children are innocent.
P4: To kill a child is to shed innocent blood.
C: Therefore, to kill a child is murder and always wrong.

Premise 3 is where your argument lacks a biblical worldview of federal headship. The child is not a separate entity from the adult parent. He or she is seen as one with the parent, sharing in both the blessing and cursing of the parent. The biblical argument concerning Adam and humanity's condemnation in him, as well as the argument concerning Christ and humanity's salvation in Him, is based upon this principle, which, if not true, the biblical vision of the fall and our redemption from it cannot exist.

Hence, if the child is one with the parent, then one cannot argue that he is innocent, any more than one might argue that a man's arm should not be punished with him because it is not the man himself.

Hence, in the biblical scheme, these children are not innocent blood. Ergo, they do not qualify for murder, but rather obtain the condemnation of the parent (and if you're thinking that Ezek 18 applies here, it does not).

Now, you may not like this, but that is the biblical worldview of humanity, and God apparently confirms that He considers this valid as well. I realize, therefore, that this offends modern sensibilities, but modern sensibilities are largely based on bad theology and confused ethics at the get go. My only point here is that if you reject inerrancy, you do so due to its conflict with your opinion, not due to an inward conflict the Bible itself has.

If you have not read it, I would recommend Younger's Ancient Conquest Accounts. Of course, arguments concerning ANE language are always more persuasive to those who are immersed in the literature, but it will, at the very least, be a starting place if you wish to pursue the "stock phrases" further.

CR said...

Why is it insufficient to both believe the passages are literally true, and believe that God had a morally just reason for giving the order? This position seems tenable both exegetically and morally as it's restricted to the historical Biblical witness, and is not applicable to a similar claim of a divine order to slay infants today (non-Sola Scriptura).

I realize this poses a conundrum to the Christian who values all lives made in God's image, especially the weakest and most defenseless, but is the conundrum really worth scuttling inerrancy, or conducting exegetical gymnastics to attempt to soften the text, or to attempt to make it seem to mean something other than it plainly means? I don't think faithful Bible-believing Christians should be comfortable with either if applied to the many similarly perspicuous texts, nor do I think we should be comfortable in this case.

I don't deny the tension, I merely point out the Scylla on the one side, and the Charybdis on the other.

CR said...

P.S. - no worries about the typos! Your meaning was clear...

Lydia McGrew said...

B.C. Hodge, I notice that you take all your time trying to undermine the idea that it's intrinsically wrong to kill a child and bother only with sidewise swipes concerning the hyperbole issue. If you are content with saying merely that I don't know what I'm talking about there and don't bother engaging the *argument* I made in the main post that the "hyperbole" claim simply does not _address_ the issue in view here and also that neither Hess nor Copan substantiates the claim that "women and children" includes no women and children. Also the positive evidence in the biblical accounts that there _were_ women and children killed.

If you're going to ignore all of that anyway, why bother with the comments about my lack of knowledge about ANE literature?

It seems especially pointless as you have no problem with the actual killing of children (because they are "one with their parents" or something like that), so why bother? At least Copan thinks he has a problem and needs a solution. It's just unfortunate that his solution doesn't work.

Lydia McGrew said...

Anon., I read Matt Flannagan's arguments several years ago and don't have time to re-read them now, and that was what put me onto Copan's arguments. As far as I recall, they are sufficiently the same as Copan's that I have already answered them in the main post. If you think there is a _specific_ argument that God didn't really order the killing of children that is in Flannagan's work, that you find compelling, and that I have not discussed in the main post, feel free to summarize that.

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, there are plenty of reasons for not just taking it that it must be okay, the most important of which is that that would appear blasphemously to be saying that God ordered the murder of children. It's odd that those who are concerned for the honor of God aren't concerned that perhaps attributing this to Him isn't so honoring to Him.

As I said elsewhere, Scripture is full of statements that God is light, that God is love, that in God is no darkness at all, that God is good, that all goodness comes from God. If we are to consider that God ordered hacking infants to death, surely you can see that any attempt to say that our ideas of goodness are just radically faulty enough that we can't see why that is okay severely calls into question our ability to have any concept of divine benevolence! It raises the very real question of whether the passages could say that God ordered _just anything_ and people would believe it in the name of inerrancy. It also raises the very real question of what we are worshiping and whether we can be worshiping truly, truly adoring God's goodness, while attributing these things to Him. And if one were simply to accept such a thing, it raises the question of whether one who insists on doing that could literally _reverse_ the meanings of "good" and "evil" and still worship the god thus defined.

As for its not being applicable to today, that seems to confuse the situation of the Israelites vis a vis the Canaanites with our situation vis a vis the Israelites. _They_ didn't get this order from a written canon of Scripture, because no such thing existed. _They_ couldn't have believed sola scriptura. Anyone who putatively received such an order today would presumably believe himself to be in _their_ position. He's not interpreting what God said to the Israelites but interpreting what he thinks God is telling him to do today. If you believe God could order the slaughter of infants over three thousand years ago, it seems rather too convenient, and argumentatively unsupported, to use the concept of sola scriptura to argue that God _couldn't_ do such thing today.

Lydia McGrew said...

VJ Torley raises the very interesting question of how all of this relates to evidence for Judaism prior to Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

First, I don't really buy any argument that we should accept that God really ordered this because that is what Jesus was raised to believe. Jesus was God. Jesus was probably raised to believe a lot of things He didn't actually believe, including everything from faulty scientific theories to the legitimacy of widespread divorce (if initiated by the husband). The latter He explicitly called into question, showing us that He didn't automatically accept things from the culture around Him. As for the argument from silence that Jesus never addressed this, I think that is weak. Jesus had a public ministry of only three years. There are _many_ particular things He might have addressed but didn't. For that matter, I consider His comments even on some of the things He did address (divorce being a good example) to be cryptic to the point of being almost maddening. One wants to ask so many questions. Clearly, He did not exist on earth for the purpose of answering every question we could raise, even good questions about important things. Any "Jesus didn't say x, so x is probably not wrong" argument is going to blow up in our faces. (The "Christian" homosexual activists love that argument, for example.)

Lydia McGrew said...

Now, second, I didn't mean really to say anything about the evidential state of Judaism prior to Jesus' coming. That is a topic that has always interested me but on which I don't have extremely strong opinions. I've always been more interested in defending the God who _has_ been revealed to us now, given the evidence we do have now. It should go without saying that our present evidence is greater than the evidence a Jew in the year 50 B.C. had. As for how much greater, I just don't know. A lot depends on how one evaluates the strength of his evidence for the miraculous deeds recorded in what he would have thought of as the Scriptures. Also how one evaluates the strength of the evidence from the sheer existence of the Jewish people, their geneological records, and the like. Then there is the non-Messianic prophecy evidence, which does have weight. The fact that God was not performing miracles at that time _and_ that the provenance of the OT books recording miracles was much less well-tied-down and clear than the provenance and reliability of the Gospels we have now has got to make the case weaker than the case is after Christ.

The putative slaughter of the Canaanites, with its apparent contradiction of the 6th commandment and even other OT statements, _does_ undeniably put strain on Judaism sans Christ, even as it puts strain on Christianity (which is a continuation of Judaism). From a probabilistic perspective, it is negative evidence. The question then is just whether one has sufficient positive evidence to overcome it. I believe that we now do, very strongly. Whether a Jew before Christ did, I'm not sure, but then I'm not sure how strong his evidence was _without_ this strain. It's just a question on which I've never come to a definite conclusion, though I've often toyed with the question.

CR said...

With all due respect, and for what it's worth, the argument you're setting forth is unpersuasive to me.


You're setting Scripture against Scripture. This is utterly self-defeating as I'm sure you can see.

We are to worship God as He is, which is how He has revealed Himself in Scripture. Otherwise we're worshipping a god of our own imagination (an idol) instead of the God of the Bible.

OT Israel was a theocracy and the people obeyed God's duly appointed leaders (Moses, Joshua, et al), so although *they* didn't have God's written word, they had His commands, which they were to obey - to the letter. This is a pretty big deal in Exodus and Deuteronomy for example, plus Joshua. The fact that we have these Scriptures serves to reinforce this idea.

Thus we have the benefit today of the Biblical witness, and we know that although long ago, at many times and in many ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.

This may seem too convenient and argumentatively unsupported to you, but I don't see the problem.

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, a couple of points. First of all, I am not "setting" the Scripture against the Scripture. I am pointing out what seems to me a direct conflict, which would be there even if I never pointed it out. This isn't something I'm just making up. You yourself should be able to see the appearance of conflict, and simply resolving it by saying, "I believe in inerrancy" isn't much of a resolution. Please understand that I am deeply interested in apologetics and that one of the things I have spent time doing is resolving (which is to say researching resolutions to) apparent Bible difficulties. A lot of them _can_ be resolved. Some are created by skeptics out of whole cloth--for example, manufacturing a phony "contradiction" in the Gospels by way of an argument from silence.

So this is not something I do lightly, and as far as I'm concerned, if there really is an apparent contradiction for which no resolution seems to be available, it's better to be honest and admit it.

Second, please recall that the _argument_ for God's right to do this in the OT, at least the preferred argument, seems to be that, as God is the author of life, God has just as much right to order a human being to kill a child as to take that child to Himself by miraculous or non-human natural means. In other words, that there is no difference between the one and the other, morally. In this case, one must wonder why God would *not* do such a thing nowadays. What difference does a theocracy make? If anything, it would be simpler to give somebody some sort of track record for believe that he receives direct divine revelation (e.g., a series of incredible predictions or something via the voices in his head) and then send him off to blow himself up somewhere to punish a corrupt civilization than to set up an entire theocratic ethnic population. And that person could, if anything, be more confident that his orders were coming from God than somebody listening to Moses. As I've pointed out elsewhere, God did sometimes take His hand away from a leader, so why shouldn't an Israelite soldier have worried that that was going on when he received orders to kill Canaanite babies?

What is argumentatively unsupported is "This was just fine then because God can take life and it's just the same if God does it by human means but don't worry God would never do that now."

B. C. Hodge said...

I really was just engaging both arguments you made in the post and the comments, both of which fail to make your point when the evidence is put forth. But I can't really give you a knowledge of ANE literature without your being immersed into it. If you can't see that what I've said destroys your claim that Copan's argument, or mine, doesn't "work," there is nothing I can do to help you further. Perhaps, some people can't get past the box in which they are born. So be it. It's not my job to convince someone who doesn't want to be convinced. Faretheewell

CR said...

Yet it's only because we've been *given* Biblical revelation that we can even begin to speak intelligibly about what God has done, or may hypothetically do. And how is the hypothetical you've proposed even germane? Do we worry that because God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt that he might do the same in response to disobedience today? Or that He begin might striking people dead a la Ananias and Sapphira for covetousness?

Lastly I think you may have moved significantly off your original position in your last statement summarizing the state of the argument since surely (I hope) you're *not* saying that it's "not okay" for God to take life by secondary means (by human means), or that God wouldn't or doesn't do that now. Is someone actually arguing this point?

I thought the position you were staking out was much narrower, to wit affirming God actually commanded the Israelites to murder (although I think justifiable homicide is more accurate) Canaanite babies.

Have I gotten lost in the weeds?

Lydia McGrew said...

B.C. Hodge, I see, so knowledge of "ancient near eastern hyperbole" is sort of like gnosis. It's impossible to explain how it "destroys" someone else's argument to a non-initiate. So anyone who isn't "immersed in it" just has to take the word of the Illuminati like yourself. Thanks but no thanks. And by the way, Hess certainly gives the impression that he is _making_ the argument. It just isn't very good when one pays attention to it. I was, you know, capable of understanding both Copan and Hess, much as that may surprise you.

(Good grief.)

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, in the main post I'm arguing that the passages themselves really are, as far as we can tell, saying that God commanded the killing of Canaanite children. In the main post I took it as a given that this is a problem and that it is therefore understandable that Copan tried to find a way around it. I express regret that his attempt does not work.

In the comments thread people have more or less been responding by saying that there _isn't_ a problem--in other words, that Copan's work isn't really necessary, because it would be just fine for God to command that anyway. I've been responding to them that this position does _not_ appear to be ethically accurate.

So, yes, I think it _would_ be a problem if God commanded the killing of innocents today--suicide bombings, beheading babies, all that stuff we consider atrocities when perpetrated by ISIS.

Mostly people try to make everybody comfortable by saying that it was okay for God to do this (so we don't need to feel unhappy about those passages in the Bible, or reject inerrancy on the basis of them), but that we should never think that anyone would receive such an order today or that we should take it seriously if someone made this a defense in court because...reasons...of some kind. Which never seem persuasive.

So if we realize that we would just think somebody crazy today who claimed that God told him to kill his neighbor's baby so the baby wouldn't grow up to be into the occult and go to hell (the neighbors are into the occult), and if we realize that the _reason_ we would assume he is crazy is because God wouldn't command that, then we should reason backwards as to what this means about the Canaanites. Similarly, if we think that the soldiers of ISIS should reject the religion that is being peddled to them _because_ of the atrocities they are being told to commit.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Lydia,

I quite agree with you that my proposed solution to the slaughter of the Canaanite women and children has no Scriptural warrant (although I don't think it contradicts Scripture), and that it is massively ad hoc. However, it's not a "zombie soldiers" solution, as you seem to think; the Israelite soldiers would have been fully conscious (although I think God protected them from experiencing any trauma in doing what they did). What I tentatively propose is that God mercifully rendered the Canaanite women and children unconscious shortly before they were slaughtered by the Israelites, so that they experienced neither pain nor dread in the process of being slaughtered. The only justifiable reason for God to order a human being to kill an innocent baby would be in order to protect that baby from an even worse fate that death, were it to survive and grow up - in this case, the rampant child abuse that existed in Canaan, which corrupted its victims and turned them into perpetrators of abuse on the children of the next generation, in a never-ending cycle of evil.

As for why God didn't kill the Canaanite women and children Himself: perhaps He wanted to make it publicly known that the Israelites had inflicted this slaughter, so that none of the pagan nations would be tempted to use women and children as "human shields" and thereby stymie the Israelite takeover of Canaan, fatally weakening their Yahwistic religion in the process, which would mean that the Israelites would eventually get sucked into the Canaanite vortex of evil, too.

By the way, I'm a concurrentist: I hold that God's usual manner of giving rise to natural effects is to act in co-operation with created agents as a concurring immediate cause of their own proper effects, and not merely as a remote cause. Hence if if God "turns off" His customary co-operation with a corporeal agent (e.g. the fiery furnace in Daniel 3) for some special reason, then that agent will fail to work as it normally does: it will be rendered powerless (which is why the three men in the furnace were not burnt). Likewise, if God chooses not to co-operate with the normal workings of some person's nervous system, then that person's nervous system will fail to send a "pain message" to his/her brain, so he/she will feel nothing. God would only have had to work this miracle of non-cooperation on those occasions when innocent Canaanite children were being slaughtered by the Israelites. God wouldn't have had to do anything to prevent these children feeling pain and distress in their last moments; all He would have had to do is choose not to do something which He normally does. Hence rendering a baby unconscious before death would require no added work on God's part but actually less: the effect would be to shut down the parts of the baby's brain which mediate consciousness.

As I said, it's a pretty bizarre theory, and it's probably wrong, but I mention it as a possibility.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Lydia,

I'd like to address your question: wouldn't we think somebody crazy today who claimed that God told him to kill his neighbor's baby so the baby wouldn't grow up to be into the occult and go to hell? Certainly we would.

But what if the people carrying out the omniscient Being's command to kill:

(i) had seen a large number of collective (as opposed to private) manifestations of the Being, whose cumulative effect was so powerful and convincing as to leave no reasonable doubt among the people in that community as to the Being's reality, power, knowledge and benevolence;

(ii) had also been told by the omniscient Being that the baby would not suffer any pain or dread whatsoever in the process of dying;

and (iii) additionally knew that the baby was being rescued from an even more terrible fate than death by being killed now?

Would the people's action of killing still be a (morally and/or epistemologically) vicious one, in these circumstances? I'm not sure that it would.

I'm using a version of the Kuzari argument here, as you can see.

CR said...

I guess I'm just not tracking with you.

I understand (I think) your argument in the main post and combox thread, but I can't shake the sense that you 1.) simply disapprove of what God actually and truly commanded the Israelites to do in the passages in view or 2.) disbelieve that God actually and truly commanded the Israelites to do what's chronicled in the passages in view.

Neither seems as tenable as taking the texts at face value, and in the light of the whole of Scripture conclude that God has a morally sufficient reason for issuing the commands. I can't see how believing God's Word can be construed as being blasphemous, for we are not imputing motivations or bringing Him before the bar of our autonomous human reason, we simply bow before Him and say "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, Blessed be the Name of the Lord".

Everything God does by definition is good, and right, and perfect, so it's difficult for me to conceive of applying a fallen human standard of ethics to the Creator. Shouldn't we conclude that if we're having a problem with some part of the Bible that the problem lies in us instead of in God or His Word?

I'm not suggesting this is "comfortable", there's certainly a tension herein, but God put it there for a reason, and maybe part of the reason is that we aren't to get too comfortable with God. Maybe somewhat like the beaver family's depiction of Aslan, God is good, but He's not "safe".

From my perspective as far as the hypothetical about God commanding the same today, there's no good reason for me (nor any Christian I think) to conclude either from Scripture, nor from the arc of history that this should be the case, and as believers we have plenty of solid exegetical reasons to think it shouldn't. Plainly this line of reasoning would be unpersuasive to a non-Christian, but I don't see even an apparent problem from within the Christian-theistic worldview.

I have to ask, do you repudiate inerrancy?

Lydia McGrew said...


I lean in the direction of your #2, which, to the extent I come down on that side, would require me not to be an inerrantist in any but a rather Lollardy sense (that is, a qualified sense involving serious mental reservation).

Let me ask you what I've asked several others: Imagine that there were portions of what we now call Scripture, parts of the Jewish OT canon, that stated that God ordered the Israelites to rape the Canaanite children. Would you _then_ see the concern that it is blasphemous to believe that he actually did so? Or would you still say, "I can't see how believing God's Word can be construed as being blasphemous" because "everything God does by definition is good, and right, and perfect" and "it must just be our fallen human standard of ethics that tells us that raping the Canaanite children was wrong in these circumstances"?

You see?

If our so-called fallen human standard of ethics is as messed up as all that, then the very words "good" and "right" could be literally _reversed_ into what we normally mean by "heinous" and "monstrous," and we would be worshiping a god with _those_ characteristics under a bare definition: "Hey, if he orders atrocities, orgies, etc., I guess those are right and good and beautiful, because everything he does is so by definition."

Lydia McGrew said...


Yeah, that's why I have to add bells and whistles to your theory even to make it helpful as far as I'm concerned. The pain and suffering and terror of the women and children isn't the whole story, though of course it's part of what I think should prick our consciences about the issue. But as you can imagine, I think it's evil to use a painless lethal injection to bump off an old man who is in a coma or asleep and doesn't know a thing about it until he wakes up in heaven, so removing pain and suffering aren't enough in themselves to remove the murder issue.

As for killing someone to avoid a worse fate for that person, if we believe that babies go to heaven, that would be a great reason for killing a _lot_ of babies. All the little Palestinians who are going to be raised to think killing Jews is great sport and to want to grow up to be suicide bombers, for example. All the babies belonging to animists and occultists. I know you try to answer that issue later, but the point I'm making here is just that _if_ that is sufficient as a ground for killing a baby, we have many, many examples. If Hitler had been strangled in his cradle by someone with second sight to create an "alternate future," Hitler would have gone to heaven instead of hell. (There's a sci-fi novel plot for ya'.) Yet God as far as every indication we have shows still considers that murder.

That's really just a somewhat high-minded form of consequentialism. If killing babies can be justified for a higher good, we're off to the races.

Not to mention (I hate to bring this up), but that is _not_ the tone of the passages. One has only to read them. I'm afraid they sound all too human. There is not the slightest indication that anybody thinks twice about the babies. They are brutal conquest passages. Achan at Ai never thinks of hiding a baby in his tent. He's only tempted by loot. Same with Saul and the Amalekite cattle. The women are spoken of (in the mouth of God, for that matter) as loot, prisoners of war, booty, listed _with_ the cattle. Even if we really stretch our charity and assume that they were treated fairly well, the very instrumental, dismissive way in which they are categorized is incredibly dehumanizing. The idea of their being reluctantly killed to help or save them is almost laughably high-minded in relation to the actual passages.

Lydia McGrew said...


On your second comment, I would say that we need to tweak it a bit to keep it from begging the question. I'm not totally convinced yet that there can be only one omniscient being and that He must be the only true God, but _if_ that turns out to be philosophically sustainable, then obviously _if_ the one and only omniscient being in the world orders something, it can't be wrong. Because He must be God, all-good, etc. At which point the question about your scenario is whether it is coherent, for if ordering the babies killed in that circumstance is really wrong, then it is incoherent to imagine its being ordered by the One True, all-good God.

So let's tweak it: Let's say that your ii and iii apply to a situation where this group of people have _some reason to believe_ that the omniscient being has ordered this, but that we aren't stipulating that it _actually_ has been ordered.

In that case, I would say that, as far as I can tell, it would still be wrong for them to do that and that they should conclude that some mistake has occurred and that they are not really receiving the orders of the omniscient being whom they've come to believe on already.

Saying that the baby won't experience pain and will be saved from a worse fate isn't helpful. If it can't be used to rationalize a human decision to kill a baby, I cannot see how and why it should be helpful in rationalizing a human's killing a baby on the basis of what purports to be a divine order. It's a consequentialist rationalization either way.

CR said...

Yet the Bible doesn't make those sorts of claims, so the hypothetical isn't germane to the topic at hand, which is what the actual Bible actually claims.

I can imagine lots of troubling "Scriptural" scenarios that I wouldn't believe (in fact many are articulated by Mormonism), but what does that have to do with believing what the real Bible really says? Nothing.

So rejecting your "what if" scenarios has no parity that I can discern with accepting the "what is" scenarios that are depicted in the Bible.

Our fallen ethics are pretty messed up to be sure, but they're never so foul as when we place God in the dock and submit Him to cross-examination under the bar of our reason as to whether or not we will submit to Him. That particular sin goes all the way back to the garden.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Lydia,

I'm a little puzzled. You wrote:

"God knows exactly what is best for every human being and can bring that about by taking a human being's life. The category of murder applies only to the action of finite creatures."

So you concede that from a God's-eye point of view, taking a baby's life for its own spiritual good is OK. That's a consequentialist rationalization, so it seems that God, being omniscient, can be described as a consequentialist. (I'm not saying, however, that God is a utilitarian who would sacrifice one individual's well-being for the sake of "the greater good," since I hold that the good of the individual is logically prior to the good of society.)

But then you write:

"Saying that the baby won't experience pain and will be saved from a worse fate isn't helpful. If it can't be used to rationalize a human decision to kill a baby, I cannot see how and why it should be helpful in rationalizing a human's killing a baby on the basis of what purports to be a divine order. It's a consequentialist rationalization either way."

Well, it would obviously be a bad thing to kill a baby to save it from a worse fate if we were merely acting on the limited information available to us, but if we knew for a fact that the order to kill did indeed come from God, then why would it be wrong for us to obey the order?

And if you maintain that God could never give human beings such an order then I would ask: why not? Why would it be wrong in principle for Him to do that?

Finally, you seem to think that for finite human beings, the evidence that a purported order did indeed come from an omniscient Being could never be compelling enough for them to be morally justified in following the order. But I see no reason in principle why it couldn't - especially if signs were given to a large group of people.

Maybe there's something I'm not seeing here. By the way, I agree that my solution stretches Scripture to its very limit, but consider the alternative: Biblical errancy, which means we have to decide for ourselves which parts of the Bible we can trust.

One more thought. What do Orthodox Jews today make of these troubling passages?

Lydia McGrew said...


I would not apply the "consequentialist rationalization" label to God, because I've already said at the outset that the entire category of murder does not apply to God at all. It's just a category mistake to try to apply it to Him. So therefore the notion of a consequentialist rationalization of a wrong action cannot apply to God either.

Now, we _know_ that the category of murder applies to us. That's why the category exists at all. And we know that we aren't allowed to kill infants because it's better for them. I submit that the reason we aren't allowed to do so is _not_ solely because our knowledge of what is better for them might be faulty. It's true that our knowledge might indeed be faulty, but we act in many other circumstances with possibly faulty knowledge. I make all kinds of decisions about my children--educational, medical, etc.--based on my own fallible judgement of what is best for them. But many times I really do have knowledge in the sense of true justified belief of what is best for them.

It is therefore possible that, fallible or not, a human being really could know that a baby would be better off dying and going to heaven than being raised by those nasty, wicked parents of his. Maybe that would be *in one sense* a rational and true conclusion. The problem then isn't that the conclusion is fallible but that it's intrinsically wrong for the human being to take the child's life, and the information about the parents and the child's likely future can't change that. Hence, just ratcheting up the knowledge side of that regarding the child's future otherwise doesn't change it either.

By the way, we have no reason to believe that signs were given to large groups of people for these _particular_ purported orders. For example in Numbers 31, Moses just comes out and speaks to them.

Lydia McGrew said...


I'm surprised that you don't see the relevance of the hypothetical to the topic at hand. There are evidently some things that you would not believe to be true, even if found in part of the canon of what is designated as Scripture that has come down to us. Presumably you wouldn't believe those things even if someone said, quite solemnly, everything you are saying to me: Even if someone accused you of putting God in the dock, warned you that you were in danger of committing the sin that goes all the way back to the garden, reminded you solemnly that you are a fallen being and that your ethics might be wrong. And so on and so forth. If those hypothetical things were in there, you would say, "Yes, but I'm not wrong about _this_, and I'm not going to attribute it to God."

You should therefore be able to see why I am not ready to attribute to God the order to slaughter the Canaanite children and why your discussing of "fallen human ethics" seems to _me_ not to be dispositive.

In what sane moral universe, I ask you, do we say, "Raping little kids, that can't be justified. I draw the line there. But cutting off their heads with swords--yeah, I can probably find a workaround to justify that"?

Dimitrios Kavalieratos said...

Lydia, this was a great read and you framed the problems I had with Copan's book much better than I could. I just wanted to get your thoughts on if there could be a possible answer to this question by looking at the census issue with David in 1 Chronicles 21. Could it be in some instances that God is attributed works against his nature out of respect for sovereignty?

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm afraid I don't follow what you are conjecturing regarding David and the census in Chronicles 21. Of course in reality God can never work against His nature. That would be logically impossible. But I'm not really sure what your idea is there.

Dimitrios Kavalieratos said...

Lydia, I am sorry I was not more clear. I have heard the discrepancy between the account of the census in 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24 explained by pointing to God's sovereignty.

Even though God did not tempt David, because of His omnipotence He would still have allowed Satan to test Him. So while one account says Satan incited the census the other says God did. Today we see much the same arguments between Reformed and non-Reformed theologians trying to explain God's actions.

Is it possible that the writers who speak about the command to kill women and children were simply attributing the actions to God out of an appeal to God's sovereign nature? Much like a Calvinist might frame what happens when a Tsunami hits and kills hundreds of thousands of people.

I don't know if this helped at all. I am not sure how to get out what is in my head into a cogent explanation of my position. I hope you see where I am going.

Lydia McGrew said...


Ah, I follow you now.

I don't think that can be what the text is saying, for a number of reasons.

1) The command in Deuteronomy 20 is part of an overall rehearsal of God's law to them. The commands are actually put into the mouth of God--"When you come to this place, do this." The implication is clearly that they might or might not do this otherwise, that God is anticipating the various situations and giving them detailed instructions. There is no more reason to think that this is an allusion to divine sovereignty over human (evil) actions than there is to think that about, say, the dietary laws or other prescriptions in the Mosaic law.

2) In Numbers 31 it actually _states_ that they did not at first kill the women and children but that Moses then told them to do so. Moses tacitly alleges divine sanction for his order by saying that otherwise the women might cause them to commit idolatry. Also, of course, Moses was very often taken to speak for God. I suppose in that case one can say that Moses just got it wrong. I've been surprised that no one takes this line with regard to Numbers 31. In any event, Moses' order itself is not an allusion to divine sovereignty. Rather, Moses is portrayed as thinking that he is telling them what they _ought_ to do and what God wants them to do.

3) The same applies to the Amalekites. Samuel was a prophet of God. Saul wasn't going spontaneously out against the Amalekites in the story. Rather, Samuel comes to him "out of the blue" and says, "The Lord wants you to go and wipe out the Amalekites." Again, there is no good way to take this to be an allusion to God's sovereignly overseeing the spontaneous but humanly evil actions of man. Rather, it's supposed to be a special word from the Lord ordering the slaughter of this tribe when that wasn't happening otherwise.

4) Scripture does have ways of talking about God's sovereignty and use of human evil acts. Joseph says to his brothers, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." Similarly, when the Bible implies that God "sent" Babylon to judge Israel, nobody thinks that God literally sent a prophet to the king of Babylon telling him to go and defeat Israel. Rather, the story shows the Babylonians (Assyrians, etc.) just "doing their thing," conquering smaller countries, and implies that God allowed this to happen to punish Israel for unfaithfulness.

CR said...

Lydia, the reason I don't see the relevance is because the hypothetical appears to be *irrelevant* to the actual state of affairs.

I don't see how, even granting for the sake of argument, a concession from me about my state of mind in relation to an imaginary Bible, has any bearing on the real Bible. In other words rejecting statements in an imaginary Bible doesn't justify rejecting statements in the real Bible because the real Bible doesn't make the imaginary claims..

I don't see how imaginary claims from an imaginary Bible is germane to the actual situation.

As far as my "solemnity" goes, I do judge this as a very serious epistemological issue, with serious implications.

As far as the moral universe goes, we need to deal with the one God has chosen to actualize.

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, I just am at a loss as to how to explain it any more clearly. A counterfactual scenario can show a method to be mistaken. If your method is, as it seems to be, to take it as beyond question that anything that comes down to us in what is designated as the canon of Scripture must be true, even if that means attributing what appears to be an atrocity to God, and redefining our concept of "atrocity" accordingly, then that method is subject to a reductio ad absurdam. That reductio can be understand in terms of a counterfactual as to what that method would require us to do in the hypothetical case I have given. You cannot just say that the hypothetical is irrelevant because it isn't actual, because to do so is to show a failure to comprehend the nature of a reductio for a method of coming to a conclusion. Similarly, suppose that a person said that he believes whatever Joe tells him. So far Joe hasn't told him anything crazy. But I point out that, according to this method, he would be obligated to believe that black is white and that 2 + 2 = 6 if Joe told that to him. This is a reductio of his "Believe whatever Joe tells you" method. It is simply a sign of an ability to follow a reductio form of argument if he responds that my example is irrelevant since Joe hasn't *in fact* told him either of those things.

Moreover, in this case, I think your method is _already_ leading you to a highly problematic conclusion (to put it mildly). In trying to run a different reductio using a hypothetical, I'm simply finding something that you _would_ balk at.

This would be similar to my friend's believing (given his method) that little green men move his lawn furniture around every night, because Joe told it to him. I _already_ think that's crazy, but since he can't see it, I try to think up something else, something different, that he _will_ admit is crazy and point out that his, "Believe whatever comes from Joe" method would also lead to his believing _that_.

Your method of believing whatever is in what is designated as the canon of Scripture _does_ have these absurd consequences as shown in my hypothetical. For some reason you just do not see that I have presented thereby a reductio of your method.

Lydia McGrew said...

CR, I'm not blaming you for being solemn. I'm pointing out, however, that someone could say exactly the same things you are saying, in exactly the same way, about *absolutely any content*. Since you don't apparently really want to say that you would accept *absolutely any content* as being true just because it is in the canon of Scripture, you should realize that what you are saying to me is also not argumentatively moving.

Look, it would be different if this were something frivolous. If I were getting all bent in knots about the Bible's saying that God ordered the Israelites not to own horses (because I love horses and horses are so beautiful, etc.), I would clearly just be making difficulties.

Or even suppose that I were getting all hot and bothered about the Bible's condemnation of homosexual acts, which our own culture has just now suddenly discovered (surprise!) are completely normal and wonderful. Because there are natural law arguments against such acts as well, because these have always universally been seen to be wrong by Christians throughout the ages, and so forth, this would pretty clearly just be my setting the fleeting spirit of the age against Scripture and giving Scripture insufficient weight.

But we're talking here about swiping the heads off of babies, which, on the contrary, *is* one of the things which has been condemned both by natural law and by tradition all along. Therefore all manner of special pleading is necessary to try to justify it in the case of the Canaanites. In that context, to try to move me *merely* by saying, "You can't call that into question. It's in the Bible" is a fairly weak argument and really does invite the sorts of reductios I have been bringing forward.

CR said...

It's not a lack of clarity, I understand your approach, but I don't feel the force of your counterfactuals or reductios because they strike me as diversionary tactics. As I already mentioned, even if I concede rejecting imaginary claims from an imaginary Bible, there's still no reason to disbelieve claims made the actual Bible. There's no parity between the two.

Given the actual revelation we've received from God we can draw inferences about things He would or would not do, but absent this revelation, including its reliability, we lose the very standard required to compare and contrast what God would or would not do. By eliminating the trustworthiness of *part* of that standard, we give up the benchmark.

In your latest hypothetical I'd merely note that "Joe" isn't God. If believing the Bible causes me to appear to reach absurd conclusions from within your worldview, then it would appear that we have different worldviews.

It seems to me that you're beginning with your moral intuitions as the starting point or guiding principle, and then judging the acceptability or unacceptability of Scripture by the standard of your moral intuitions. This makes me wonder how carefully you've thought through the implications of your hermeneutical approach.

Shouldn't the Bible be the norm that norms instead of our own autonomous reasoning? Shouldn't we conform our thinking to the witness of Scripture?

Lydia McGrew said...

Why is this so hard? Why couldn't someone say the _exact_ same thing about "why the Bible shouldn't be the norm" if the Bible contained a record of God's telling the Israelites to rape the Canaanite children? The answer is, someone could.

Oh, but if you rejected that, you'd be placing your own "moral intuitions and judging the acceptability of Scripture on that basis." Why, it would be a homemade approach!

This point has force whether you see it or not. If you have any line at which you would reject what is in the canon of Scripture, then you are prepared to do the exact same thing that I am doing.

For some reason, chopping off children's heads just doesn't do it for you, but raping children does.

William Luse said...

This is just my take, but I think the reason CR cannot accept the distinctions you're trying to make is that he is fearful that if he surrenders the authoritative, literal historicity of these passages (what their defenders believe to be the truth of them), he would have to subject all of God's word to the same interpretive hermeneutic. In effect, that this would fatally undermine our ability to say what is and is not from God. Would this be accurate?

Lydia McGrew said...

I would say that sounds fair, but of course, if one can envisage *some* circumstances in which one would raise the same question that I do, then one's commitment never to question what is in the Bible is not absolute after all.

In which case it's simply a matter of deciding where the line falls.

If the idea is that the reason we don't need to talk about those hypotheticals is that the real-life situation *isn't really all that bad* and hence needn't be compared to such a hypothetical, then that, of course, is where we disagree.

CR said...

Your last salvo could be easily misconstrued as being in poor taste, but I don't think you intended a double entendre, so I'll grant in charity that it's just poorly worded.

Someone could, as people certainly do, assert lots of things about lots of things, but the real Bible as it actually is stands as the Word of God, and is inherently and self-attestingly authoritative on all matters about which it speaks.

In the actual world God has instantiated He's placed certain revelation about Himself in the Bible, and that self-disclosure is authoritative. It stands above all, including our moral intuitions.

Again, a concession from me about imaginary claims in an imaginary Bible has no bearing on my belief in the actual Bible.

Also I don't see how you can contain the skepticism here to *only* the Bible while maintaining natural law and moral intuitions in tact. What is your authority for natural law and moral intuition? What is your response when your anti-theist interlocutor points out counterfactuals and reductios to your position on natural law and moral intuition? Do we start counting noses? I'm not trying to be insulting, it's just that I don't clearly see how if one is logically consistent he or she intelligibly avoids a radical skepticism once abandoning the authority of Scripture.

Lydia McGrew said...

"What is your response when your anti-theist interlocutor points out counterfactuals and reductios to your position on natural law and moral intuition?"

My response:

Bring it.

See, reductios either are available for a particular position or they aren't. It's not like just any position is vulnerable to them. There aren't any to "point out" if there aren't any that actually, you know, work to reduce my position to absurdity.

Lydia McGrew said...

I've been dealing with attempted counterfactuals and reductios of my position on the absolute and intrinsic wrongness of killing babies for twenty-five years, so it's not like the attempt would be anything new. In fact, I'm seeing a lot of old "friends" in these threads. (Unfortunately.)

CR said...

And there's the rub, and we've come full circle. Thanks for the interaction, it's been very instructive. May the Lord richly bless you and yours, and may your tribe increase.

Katelyn said...

Hi Lydia,

I just read this entry today, and so this is coming a little late, but I hope you'd be able to clarify something for me.

If a person believes that the God of the Old Testament commanded the killing of women and children, is that person then immediately committed to believing that Christ commanded the killing of women and children?

I thought that since, from my understanding, Christ just is the God of the Old Testament ("Before Abraham was, I am"), this inference was straightforward, inescapable, and unproblematic from a logical point of view. However, a few months back I saw some resistance from Christians to this very train of thought in a different forum.

Admittedly it does seem ridiculous to imagine Jesus commanding the deaths of women and children. (In fact, just typing that sentence made me feel a bit ridiculous.)

Anyway, since I care about my faith, but am not extremely well-versed in Christian theology and philosophy, I thought I'd ask you about it. At the very least, it does seem to be an impression that a large number of lay Christians could easy come away with.

Lydia McGrew said...

Katelyn, that's an interesting question. If by "Christ" one means "God incarnate," then one can quibble and say that, in earthly terms, at the time that the Israelites entered the Promised Land the Incarnation had not yet taken place.

To get away from that objection, let us ask the question this way: If God commanded the slaughter of the Canaanite children, does this mean that God the Son as well as God the Father commanded the slaughter of the Canaanite children? (This just sets aside the question of the Incarnation, since John 1 speaks of the Son as eternal apart from the Incarnation.)

The Israelites, of course, did not know about the Trinity. From their perspective, there was just God, and that was it. But what we know from Trinitarian theology is that the will of the Trinity is always one will. The Son cannot rebel against or contradict the will of the Father, and the same for the spirit. Therefore, if God wills the slaughter of the Canaanite children, it must be true that all members of the Trinity will the slaughter of the Canaanite children. It may be that, in the experience of the Israelites, it makes more sense to say that they "communicated with" God the Father. (Just as in various places in the New Testament it indicates that a particular person was led by the Holy Spirit to do this or that.) But the Son and Holy Ghost should always be taken to be at one with the commands of the Father. Hence, in that sense, if the Father ordered x, the Son and Holy Ghost also order (desire, will) x.

So I would say that, one way and another, your instinct is right: If God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite children, then God the Son (who, in history, was later Incarnate as Jesus of Nasareth) willed and was at one with the order for the slaughter of the Canaanite children.

This is an interesting argument against the proposition that God ordered it. Jesus even rebuked His disciples when they suggested calling down fire upon a city that rejected them.

grodrigues said...

I am sorry to resurrect what is by Internet standards an old thread, but there is a nagging question that is bothering me. You concede that

(1) God can take any life.

But when it comes to

(2) God can order person X to take any life.

You balk. I have not read everything and so I may have missed something, but as far as I have read, your reasons can be summarized in the following two passages:

"Mostly people try to make everybody comfortable by saying that it was okay for God to do this [...], but that we should never think that anyone would receive such an order today or that we should take it seriously if someone made this a defense in court because...reasons...of some kind."

"Similarly, if we think that the soldiers of ISIS should reject the religion that is being peddled to them _because_ of the atrocities they are being told to commit."

It seems there are two arguments being made: in the first passage, the idea seems to be that if we grant (2) that there is no way for us to; in the second passage the idea seems to be that moral arguing itself is in jeopardy and thereby the critique of ISIS as genocidal is in jeopardy.

I confess I do not understand it; why should we grant this? Someone that accepts (1) and the move from (1) to (2), accepts both that there is a general rule in place ("murder is wrong"), and that that rule can only be overridden by a direct order from God. Now on this point you raise your scenarios, but it is not clear why the defender should be troubled by them. For he could simply say that *if* someone is *claiming* to have received a private revelation from God, then it is also a fact that there is a general rule, also from God, in place, and thus *if* God wanted He could make the revelation public so as to leave no one in doubt. And the fact that He has not given such a public revelation counts as definitive evidence that the general rule *is* in place and the private revelation is false. And if for some reason, whatever reason, we were lead to believe that God did indeed gave a private order but *without* a concomitant public revelation, then since God knows that a general rule is in place that contradicts the private order (after all, He himself gave it), He surely knows that everyone else but the person that has received the order will be acting in accordance to the general rule in place. And since He did not thought fit to inform them otherwise, it follows that everyone that acts in accordance to the general rule in place is acting in good conscience and doing the right thing e.g. either stopping the assailant, with deadly force if needs be, or throwing the perpetrator in jail or whatever.

Lydia McGrew said...

The points concerning ISIS, etc., are meant as intuition pumps to show that we could not be justified in believing that God had revealed that we should kill the manifestly innocent, such as infants. The fact that we _do_ believe in what one might call a reductio for religions and that we _would_ never be convinced that God had actually commanded a person to murder someone shows that we consider these to be inviolable commands such that epistemologically, we could not be justified in believing them to be set aside, even temporarily.

As for "publically revealing," a) we have no evidence that God shook the mountain or something like that *specifically in connection with* a command to kill the Canaanite children. b) If a putative command is heinous enough, it is always going to be possible and I would argue even rational to fall back on some other explanation such as mass hallucination, because the probability that it's okay to slaughter babies, even in an "isolated" set of incidents, is zero. As I keep saying, presumably there is _some_ putative command for which my interlocutors would do this--a putative command to rape children, for example, which they would take to have zero probability of being really from God.

Lydia McGrew said...

Let me add that I consider the solution proposed in this post by Zippy to be rather ingenious. I'm not saying I'm entirely convinced by it, but to my mind it is less strained and dubious than Copan's: Z's idea appears to be, if I'm understanding him correctly, that we can always "blame" the human agent of the command in the offending passages. For example, in Deuteronomy 20, that the phrase in vs. 17 "as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee" can be taken to refer to what _follows_--namely, that God has commanded that they avoid being influenced by the detestable practices of the Canaanites--rather than what precedes it--namely, that they must utterly destroy everything that breathes in these tribes. The application of this type of solution to Numbers 31 is fairly obvious, as the command came from Moses. Similarly to Samuel and Saul.

Don't misunderstand me: I can think of objections to this concerning what one might call the _appearance_ of the text and context that these people really are speaking as authorities from God. However, it's as good a solution as any and better than many, and it would even in a sense permit one to retain some version of inerrancy, if that were considered important.

Lydia McGrew said...

Here is that link:

Matthew Flannagan said...

I note Steve mentioned me in the first comment, in fact almost everything Lydia says is addressed in Paul and my forthcoming Did God really command Genocide? Which comes out in November. This is under copywrite, so let me brief.

1.Lydia interprets the argument about “hyperbole” to be an argument that the reference to animals, women and children, was hyperbolic and denying any non-combatants were present. But that’s not what we argue, the claim we defend is that references to “all” the inhabitants “killing all that breathed” and “leaving no survivors” is hyperbolic, grossly hyperbolic. I in fact explicitly state in the book that I agree non-combatants were killed. The position we defend comes from from Kenneth Kitchen who states that when the war rhetoric is taken into account, what you have is not total destruction and occupation, but disabling raids where less mobile inhabitants were killed and the “alls” are qualified to exclude those that got away to fortified cities, and Isreal immediately return to their camp at Gilgal.

2. Lydia takes the reference to hyperbole to be an attempt to address the charge that God commanded the killing of the innocent. But it’s not. It’s addressing the different charge that God commanded Genocide. The position we take out in the book is that the reference to Genocide is a gross exaggeration based on misreading the text, so that particular charge is unwarranted.

I agree that the lesser, but still serious charge, that God commanded the killing of innocent people is not addressed by these textual issues. Which why in the book I address this second charge a different arguing philosophically that there are conditions under which one can attribute an apparently immoral command to God.

3 Some of Lydia’s arguments she uses against Hess are arguments (such as the appeal to Deuteronomy 20) I myself used against Hess in my review of Copan’s book.

4. Lydia makes some claims which I think are false and which we address directly in our book. Here I’ll focus on two.
(a) she claims in Numbers “Moses, purporting to speak for the Lord (and there is no reason in the text to think that he is not speaking for the Lord) expressly orders the killing of real infant boys, not to mention all non-virgin women.” Actually, Moses in the text does not purport to speak for the lord. The phrase “The LORD said to Moses” which accompanies Moses’s prophetic utterances in the book of Numbers is absent from the command in this text. God did earlier state that they were to “attack the midianites” but the text states the Isrealites had carried out what God commanded when they killed only the men. (v 7) .Lydia’s here argument to the contrary is based on the fallacy of arguing that because there is no reason to deny a thesis it follows we can affirm the thesis.

(b) Lydia states “Similarly with the Amalekites in I Samuel 15. Saul is not sent against some named and possibly entirely military location. He is sent to wipe out a group qua group.” Actually, in the text Samuel is sent against a specific location. The NASB brings this out well:
Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”Then Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, 200,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 men of Judah. 5 Saul came to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the valley..

Amalek in the text is actually a city or encampment of some sort not a people group.

I have much more to say about both these episodes and in our book. But the point is Lydia’s observation about the text is not actually what the text presents and her critique of Copan’s position, actually does not address the position Paul and I actually defend in our latest book.

Lydia McGrew said...

Matt: When I read Copan's article, to which I link in the main post, it was quite clear to me that Copan _did_ mean to use the hyperbole and other answers to try to respond in some way to God's order to kill the innocent. There are specific phrases to that effect. To be sure, he falls back on endorsing the killing of the boys in Numbers 31, so it doesn't _work_, but he clearly has the idea that he can sort of "whittle away" at all of this by these various responses and make it "not so bad." I think this is a poor approach, but to say it isn't meant to be a response to the claim that God ordered the killing of the innocent *at all* is simply to make an artificial cut between murdering babies and genocide as if the one has little or nothing to do with the other and as if worries about the one are not ipso facto worries about the other and also as if Copan does not give the impression that he is addressing both. Perhaps I will have time later to look up some of the quotations in question, as well as the _universal_ impression among interpreters that this "ancient near eastern phrases" approach has *something* to do with making us feel like God didn't really order the killing of innocents.

As for Amalek, of course the name could refer both a people group and to a place, but the very rationale for killing everything belonging to Amalek is a kind of inherited guilt rationale which does not apply to a single, possibly only military, place. The rationale is anger over the treatment of the children of Israel by the Amalekites long ago. It seems to me intensely strained to take this to be the destruction of a specific place *as opposed to* a people group.

Besides, are you really going back to implying that Samuel did not order the real killing of real innocents? Is this the "hyperbole" response all over again, bolstered by a baseless conjecture that "Amalek" was a military fort containing no innocents? But I thought you just said that wasn't what the "hyperbole" and "ancient near eastern text" argument was meant to address!

As for whether Moses attributes his orders in Numbers 31 to God, I would argue that Moses was tacitly invoking his authority as God-ordained ruler by his giving a religious rationale for the killings. Notice that it is the same as in Deuteronomy 20--namely, that if they don't do this killing, they will be led astray. I have acknowledged in the comments here and elsewhere that one can _try_ to squirrel out of it by saying that Moses just got this wrong, but it seems to me highly implausible that he was not giving the people the _impression_ that he had religious, God-given authority to order them to do this on religious grounds.

Lydia McGrew said...

For example, Copan starts his wrap-up of the on-line version like this:

"What if the brief sketch above turns out not to be correct in that Israel also targeted noncombatants? We should remember that the non-Sunday School response above takes a good deal of the sting out of the Canaanite problem. But let us pursue the question of noncombatants being targeted as well."

Okay, first of all, the first sentence implies that the brief sketch above is saying that Israel *did not target non-combatants.* This is clear from his saying that, if the sketch above is _incorrect_, then Israel _did_ target non-combatants. This does not fit with a claim that his "hyperbole" claim is *solely* about total genocide and not about the targeting of non-combatants short of total genocide.

Second, he claims that somehow what he has said "takes a good deal of the sting out of the Canaanite problem." This is a vague statement that implies that somehow we should feel better if _fewer_ Canaanite innocents were targeted or something to that effect--in other words, that somehow one can "whittle down" the problem by means of things like the "hyperbole" claim.

Then there is this paragraph:

"This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word “city [‘ir]” during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning “women” and “young and old” turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.”9 The text does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have been in these cities — and this same situation could apply to Saul’s battling against the Amalekites."

Here Copan clearly implies that these places "turned out" to be military forts--this strong conclusion is *not* supportable, as I argue above--and uses the "stock phrases" claim to argue that it looks like plausibly *no* non-combatants were killed in these locations. This is a really poor argument, as I argue above in the main post. Moreover, the whole _point_ of Copan's making this argument is (as he says at the end) to "take the sting out of the problem" by implying that Joshua and his armies didn't kill any non-combatants in these passages, because they were military forts and non were living there! So obviously, the problem in question is supposed to be killing non-combatants! This goes beyond merely arguing that _total_ genocide did not take place.

Lydia McGrew said...

The entire "ancient near eastern stock phrase" argument is rather extraneous if one is *solely* arguing against total genocide and not addressing the killing of non-combatants per se. In the former case, it would be fairly easy to say that they *did* kill young and old, men and women, but simply that they didn't kill *all* of them. But on the contrary, the whole point of the "stock phrase" argument, together with the (unjustified) implication that these were military forts with no non-combatants, is to imply that such phrases could mean that *no* non-combatants were killed. The very structure of the argument is addressed to concerns about killing non-combatants per se.

Matthew Flannagan said...

Matt: When I read Copan's article, to which I link in the main post, it was quite clear to me that Copan _did_ mean to use the hyperbole and other answers to try to respond in some way to God's order to kill the innocent.

The phrase “hyperbole and other answers tends to reinforce my point. In Paul’s article, he offers several lines of argument. One is an appeal to hyperbole, and another is an appeal to Hess’s work about forts and stock phrases. These distinct lines of argument . Hess’s argument that the cities were forts, could be correct and the language of all being killed could be literal. Similarly, the language of killing everyone leaving no survivors, could be hyperbolic and the targets not forts.

My point is that in the book Copan and I wrote on the topic this year we develop the first line of argument ( the appeal to hyperbole) in much more depth. The appeal to Hess plays almost no role at all in our argument. Moreover, we explicitly state the appeal to hyperbole does not show that no non- combatants were killed.
The dialectic is this: some skeptics claim argue as follows: (a)the bible tells us that Genocide is permissible. That it commands us to engage in genocidal slaughter of unbelievers. And (b) it’s wrong to for us to engage in genocidal slaughter. The response is twofold,
re (a) we point out that the picture they paint of scripture is inaccurate, the text does not present a command for us today, or a (present tense) permission of Genocide. It narrates an episode where God in the past granted an exception to the normal rules that govern warfare ( which require non-combatant immunity) for a particular context within salvation history. Moreover, the picture of genocidal slaughter they paint is inaccurate fails to understand the language is highly hyperbolic and is actually talking about small scale disabling raids on various centres using standard ANE rhetoric.
This refutes (a) and makes (b) superfluous. However it does enable the moral problem to be recast in terms of an objection to the more limited claim: that God could on a specific historical occasion grant an exception to the principle of non-combatant immunity, and the rest of the book addresses this objection without appeal to hyperbole. This appears contrary to our moral beliefs. We then address this different objection another way.

but to say it isn't meant to be a response to the claim that God ordered the killing of the innocent *at all* is simply to make an artificial cut between murdering babies and genocide as if the one has little or nothing to do with the other and as if worries about the one are not ipso facto worries about the other

I don’t think it’s an artificial cut, suppose a person engages in a home invasion and kills a women and child, would any government anywhere in the world insist they go to the Haque and face charges for genocide and crimes against humanity? No, almost every jurisdiction in the world would consider that an over the top extreme and unjustified response. Why ? because genocideis not the same as killing the innocent.
If I have evidence which, on the face of it suggests, my neighbor killed his wife for the money. I don’t get a right to testify in court that he killed five people out of racial hatred. No court I know of would exonerate perjury of this sort by noting that, because both accusations involve killing, it’s all artificial and doesn’t matter, and we can proceed to charge the women with the racially motivated murder of five people.

If skeptics exaggerate and distort the facts they should be called on it, not given a free pass because there is some other more sensible objection that they could raise but they don’t. Of course we do need to address those other objections as best we can, but this doesn’t mean the original objection stands.

Matthew Flannagan said...

As for whether Moses attributes his orders in Numbers 31 to God, I would argue that Moses was tacitly invoking his authority as God-ordained ruler by his giving a religious rationale for the killings.

The claim that Moses ordered it as a God ordained ruler, is very different to saying he commanded it in his role of prophet. According to Romans 13, all civil rulers have authority as God ordained rulers, including Nero ceaser yet civil rulers are fallible and prone to error. No one would say that because Nero was the god ordained ruler of rome, it followed that God ordered Seneca to kill himself in 65 AD . If the claim is that God ordered these killings you need more than to say Moses made the command as an ordained ruler, you need to see him as uttering a prophetic utterance in his office as prophet. The text does not however say that.

Also Moses doesn’t give the religious rationale that God commanded it, nor does he give the rationale that they will be led astray, he gives the simple rationale that the women in question enticed the Israelite men to violate the vassal treaty they had made with Yahweh ( which constitutes treason) no reason is given in the text why the children were killed.

As for Amalek, of course the name could refer both a people group and to a place, but the very rationale for killing everything belonging to Amalek is a kind of inherited guilt rationale which does not apply to a single, possibly only military, place. The rationale is anger over the treatment of the children of Israel by the Amalekites long ago. It seems to me intensely strained to take this to be the destruction of a specific place *as opposed to* a people group.

It’s not strained it’s what the text actually says:
“I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” 4 Then Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, 200,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 men of Judah. 5 Saul came to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the valley.”
The word “Amalek” in v 2 is identified in v 5, as a city, by a valley, the reference to an ambush suggests a single location from which the attack on this city occurred. Just prior to the battle Saul asks the Kenites to depart from amongst the Amalekites suggesting Kenites were close to the likely theatre of battle, not that they were mixed amougst the Amalekite people all over the region. All indicators in the text then suggest Amalek is being used to refer to a particular encampment of some sort.

Besides, are you really going back to implying that Samuel did not order the real killing of real innocents? Is this the "hyperbole" response all over again, bolstered by a baseless conjecture that "Amalek" was a military fort containing no innocents? But I thought you just said that wasn't what the "hyperbole" and "ancient near eastern text" argument was meant to address!

Pointing out that Amalek, in 1 Samuel 15 is a city or encampment and not an entire ethnic group is not the same as claiming it’s a fort and does not contain non-combatants. I think Auckland is a city not an entire people group does that mean I think Auckland is a fort and contains no civilians?? That clearly doesn’t follow.

Moreover, even if that was what I said, that’s not the “hyperbole” response. The hyperbole response is the claim that the language of destroying all people is rhetorical exaggeration. The claim that a particular center is a fort is a claim about literal history, it makes no reference to hyperbole at all.

Hess's argument is a distinct argument from the appeal to hyperbole one.

Lydia McGrew said...

Okay, Matt, perhaps I should clarify. I have used the phrase "hyperbole" in some cases as an umbrella term to refer both to the idea that these phrases referred to a _larger group_ than were in fact killed and to the idea that these phrases referred to _types of people_ who were not in fact killed and who were not envisaged to be killed. Thus I think I've sometimes said "hyperbole or stock phrases" or something like that. I'm afraid this is now causing some confusion, and I apologize for any confusion.

I am _not_ concerned chiefly with strict genocide but rather with _murder_. I think that what you are saying here supports my case that some believe that Copan's overall argument can do more than it can do--that is, that it can resolve our concerns that God commanded what seems like murder. Already in the on-line version of Copan's argument (which I do consider fair game),his capitulation on Numbers 31 shows that that is not the case. If he later merely hammers on the argument that God didn't command literal genocide, that shows even more strongly that he isn't really saying that he's resolved the murder conundrum in a way that dissolves it and that doesn't require falling back on more "traditional" responses.

This should show how my argument applies to Amalek. Your concern is there with God's not literally having them wipe out the entire people group. Therefore, when I used the "people group" phrase as an argument that Samuel really was commanding the killing of innocents, your concern was to show that instead Samuel was commanding killing everyone in a city, not to show that Samuel was commanding killing an entire people group.

I still tend to disagree with you there, because of the rationale based (as the quotation of the passage shows) on the behavior of the ancestors of the Amalekites. But since my concern is with murder by killing innocents, my point is served merely by pointing out that the entire language of the passage suggests going after a large group indiscriminately (you say, a large group in a city) rather than narrowly targeting a military fort.

Lydia McGrew said...

On Numbers 31, by a God-ordained ruler, of course I mean something much stronger than the Romans 13 sense. By "led astray," I mean to refer _precisely_ to the story that Moses tells about the women leading the men into sexual sin. Copan appears to agree with this as well, as I recall. He implies that these women were some kind of specially trained "sexual warriors" all set up to try to get the men to commit idolatry. You're quite right that that doesn't even address the issue of the baby boys. But I was bringing up the rationale only to point out that Moses was invoking the idea that they should listen to him as the "regent of God," not to say that he clearly made a _case_ for killing the baby boys. Of course, I think the whole thing is appalling anyway, so it doesn't surprise me that he doesn't even try to give an argument for killing the baby boys.

Matthew Flannagan said...

Ok, I think that clarifies things, regarding the exegetical issues.

The issue seems then to be over seriousness the question of Genocide vs Murder and how that relates to the problem.

I guess this brings me to the other objection I have to your post. You state: “Prima facie, this is in direct conflict with the commandment to do no murder. Any attempt to answer the problem by saying that original sin means that no one is really innocent proves far too much, for it removes the rationale for regarding the killing of infants generally as murder.”

I agree with the point about original sin, and get frustrated trying to explain this to some over-zealous Christians who dismiss the problem. However, I am not sure that the problem with the text is simply that the command is in prima facie incompatible with the command against murder. All that would be needed to resolve this problem would be to claim that the prohibition against murder in scripture is, strictly speaking, not an exceptionless absolute prohibition. But rather holds unless God commands otherwise.

But we already accepted something like this with the sixth commandment anyway, the commandment literally states something like “do not man slay” and most Christians except that this does not rule out things like killing in self defence, or capital punishment, or just wars, precisely because other commandments in scripture suggest these things are permissible and hence qualify or grant justified exceptions to the rules.

Similarly there are various passages in scripture which suggest its wrong to lie, yet passages about the Hebrew midwives suggests to many orthodox commentaters that the command to not lie is not an absolute. In both cases people follow the interpretative point that if a general prohibition occurs in a text and latter a specific permission is mentioned in the same text, the general probably lays down the general rule to which the specific case is an exception. This is normal in legal interpretation.

I am inclined to think the more problem is whether its possible for God to command otherwise in the first place. We want to claim that God is good, that he has various character traits such as being loving and just. The problem is that, one can't attribute these traits to God and also contend he can command just anything at all. A good God would never command us to do what is morally wrong. And unless we are moral skeptics, we have to accept that we have a reasonably accurate (though fallible) grasp of what it is right and wrong for us to do. Consequently, any command attributed to God can’t disagree too violently with our intuitions about is right and wrong.

Now, Consider the following two claims:

[1] Genocide is morally permissible

[2] While killing non-combatants is almost always wrong there are rare circumstances in which it can permissible.

It seems to me that the appeal to hyperbole (in my sense) changes the problem from having a theological position that contradicts [1] to having a theological position that contradicts [2]

Moreover, I am inclined to think that a theology that entails [2] is significantly more plausible than one that entails [1]. To deny [2] all you have to do is deny a strict absolutism with the prohibition against homicide, to a position where it is an extremely strong prima facie presumption that is almost never overridden. That I think doesn’t do a huge amount of violence to our pre-theoretical moral intuitions, in fact most ethical theories skeptics would countenance today would probably have a far less strict position than that. Whereas the claim Genocide is permissible does violently contradict our pre-theoretical moral intuitions.

Of course this doesn't address everything. But I think it goes some way to resolving the concerns about consistency.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think we need to make a couple of distinctions. First, between killing a non-combatant (such as a woman or man who is a civilian)and killing an undeniable innocent, such as an infant or young child. Second, between killing as collateral damage and deliberately killing--e.g., putting to the sword.

Now, you're certainly right that most moral skeptics have a significantly less strict view than that deliberately killing babies is always morally wrong. Many of them are, for example, pro-choice on abortion. But my concern in all of this has _never_ been merely to answer some non-Christian skeptic, where a tu quoque will do or where I can appeal to his own non-absolutism in moral matters. My concern has always been strictly with what is true, and my own work in the pro-life movement and thoughts about the natural law have led me to believe that it _is_ an exceptionless rule that we must never deliberately target and kill an innocent. Cutting off babies' heads or running them through with the sword is a paradigmatically intrinsically wrong act. The skeptic who doesn't believe this is the sort of person I've been arguing with for twenty-five years, starting with the abortion issue and moving out from there to "Wouldn't you kill a four-year-old to save the world?" and other such scenarios.

As far as killing adult non-combatants, I find it just barely possible to imagine a situation in which one could be epistemically justified in believing that an adult non-combatant had nevertheless done something so bad as to deserve the death penalty and that you were supposed to be the one (or group) to carry it out. This is my hat-tip to "the Canaanites were so bad, and the Israelites were the chosen tool of God's judgement." Fine, I say, let's grant as much rope as possible to the biblical account and God's right to do things differently sometimes, but not the little ones who didn't know what any of it was about. If murder _isn't_ always instantiated by killing infants, then the command to do no murder becomes a sort of joke.

I just disagree about how much worse genocide is. I think that intuition is a result of modern race-consciousness and group consciousness. The problem with genocide is simply that it is murder on a grand scale, not especially that you kill or try to kill every member of a people group. If some mass murderer said, "Ah, but I deliberately left alive two hundred males and two hundred females of that people group who could interbreed so as not to commit genocide" after deliberately slaughtering men, women, and children, it wouldn't be cause for heaving a sigh of relief. In the movie _The Last of the Mohicans_ the Indian chief gives a ruling that one daughter of the British colonel is to be burned at the stake for revenge but that the other daughter is to be kept alive "so that his seed won't die out." This is supposed to be a bizarre and cold-blooded murder, not praiseworthy because they are worrying about whether they are committing micro-genocide against the "seed" of the British colonel.

Lydia McGrew said...

By the way, if Paul Copan thinks Hess is _wrong_, he should come out and say so. In fact, he should either take the earlier article down or put a prominent UPDATE on it if he has changed his mind about the import of "ancient near eastern stock phrases." Until and unless he does that, the article is fair game. Articles don't just sort of magically cease to be relevant for discussion after a couple of years, as if they have a sell-by date on them, unless the article clearly changes his mind. And this isn't a very long time ago, either, though I suppose in the Internet we now have an exaggerated sense of what counts as a long time ago. Copan was quite willing to make use of Hess, and he writes as if Hess has made his case convincingly. If he doesn't think that anymore, he should make that clear. Until that point, there are undeniably people who still think that Copan/Hess have shown that these "turn out to have been" military forts and that phrases like "men and women, old and young," or "men, women and children" don't really mean to include women and children! If Copan is repudiating that, then that's probably good from a scholarly point of view, but it would be better if he said so explicitly rather than hoping people would just forget about material of his that is still readily available.

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

Does Paul Copan no longer believe that these "turn out to have been" specific military forts at which no civilians were slaughtered? That would come as a surprise to many, I suspect. When I was preparing to write this post, I at first was going to focus on the hyperbole-genocide angle. I was told by someone I respect that I was *not* investigating and answering Copan's position sufficiently unless I tackled the claim that these were specific military forts and that "ancient near eastern stock phrases" can explain away the references to women and children.

So it's rather frustrating to have addressed that and then to be told that I shouldn't be bothering with it because his most *recent* book doesn't happen to emphasize those claims! Believe me, there is still a very real perception that these claims are an important part of his position.

12345shushi said...

Great post Lydia! I just wanted to give my response to add on what you have stated! I agree with all that you said and that Paul Copan and other apologists that try to write this off as hyperboles or metaphors, where no one died except soldiers have intellectual problems as well as lack of evidence from their end. Some people were worried on how can we know if someone claimed at court that "god told me to kill my baby because he was the anit-christ" or similar scenarios that are heard of, my response is that I am one of those christians who believe that there was a shift between the relationship between man, sin and god from the old testament to the new testament. For example, the verses that I will use to guide this reasoning are these ones, from the new testament;

Ephesians 6:12 which states that struggles will not be of the flesh but rather in the spirit so after the second covenant, after the sacrifice of Christ, holy battles such as the crusades are unbiblical

Acts 10:9-28 states that through context that the salvation was expanded to the gentiles and every man through god (before the canaanites were and others who were conquered were not protected under god through abraham [the first covenant])

and other passages describe after christ resurrected, the holy spirit was a gift to everyone so salvation was available to everyone, and that god took the keys of life and death away from satan and god bought those welling to follow him through his blood in the second covenant which was the tool to redeem mankind. Now these are just a few things that show how different things were before and how laws of life for mankind in the old testament times were different, not saying that god changes but rather now the holy spirit can become an agent that guides mankind like the father was in guiding the israelites. I'm a trinitarian btw.

Now having that up, I was not surprised by the fact that battles were fought and in the case of god, god knew things that we did not, example is found in Job 38 where although Job does not understand the complete reasons for his suffering, god scorns him when he ask because of his lack of trust, so god's entire actions and reasons for how he acts may not be known to us like you said at the end, but I agree this isn't a blind faith either because christianity has a lot of other things that can make its case for truth better than any other world view I have researched and tested so far. Don't get me wrong we should look into these trouble passages more if we can but our theology is not going to be completely full proof in our lifetimes, we're not going to have answers for everything, but rather our faiths should be tested, in a way like does everything that we know about our beliefs so far make it more reasonable than other world views?

Anyways god could have good reasons for killing anyone, because if past events haven't occurred in the way that they did, then the birth of Christ may not have taken place and that would have prevented the second covenant from taking place, a path of salvation for all generations (arguably Ephesians 4:7-10 and 1 Peter 3:19-20). I am assuming that god, although omnipotent decided not to intervene with human affairs all of the time but rather lets things flow in a natural order, except the importance of the second covenant redeeming mankind was essential and god I would argue pulled some strings while still not violating the free will of anyone (moses throughout this time made mistakes for example he broke the ten commandment tablets and also he told his soldiers to take virgins which I believe was not a direct command from god so moses did many mistakes like king david the adulterer)

12345shushi said...

So basically all I'm saying is that we don't know god's reasonings for ordering the deaths of the canaanites directly in numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15, we have good reasoning so far from all else that we know from the bible that god is a perfect being, just and all loving, so it follows that sense we don't have any direct contradictions/defeaters god might have good reasons here too. If the atheist or any other opponents argue that god was morally unjust, if they wanted to dig deep in christian theology they would have to show how god could have done it better, yes he is omnipotent and his desire is to see us all saved because he is all good, but his just nature is not going to force us to accept him, and those who died before christ also had their opportunity for salvation as I listed above. God is just in allowing thing to flow their natural order and sort of like a calvinist, I believe god tries to intervene when his actions would cause the best results, even though he already knows what the end results would be we are all still going to choose whether we follow god's plan that promises the best end results. Knowing this, theologically speaking I am justified in believing that god has his good reasons for taking the lives of everyone from canaan and other conquered regions under his divine command.

The opponent would really have to prove concretely how these few passages could prove that god's reasons were wrong, I mean it was written in the bible that the canaanites would mix their destructive beliefs with the chosen nation of god, which would of course change history, others had argued that because there were some giants in canaan that the niphilim genes would have corrupted Jesus' bloodline but I wouldn't go that far since I believe we don't have strong grounds to believe in that (and plus that would sort of sound ridiculous to unbelievers)

But I still admit that there are problems with my view such as god commanded men to take the lives of others, would these divine command mean that god made these men commit murder, especially of infants?

All I did was show that most likely the ends might have been justified but we are still left with resolving the means through which the actions to reach those goals were carried out, which it itself would have to fall under logical, and biblical scrutiny, and sense god is all just, understand the laws, rules and actions that he has done and do they contradict one another (if we assume that he is indeed the creator of everything) or if he violates fundamental logical justice laws that we all know are true and that itself would fall under a big category on its own.

12345shushi said...

Hello Lydia, I was hoping if you could check out Walter Kaiser's book
"Tough Questions About God and His Actions in the Old Testament".

He's a distinguished old testament expert and authority. I feel that his arguments about those verses will be very effective in his upcoming book, and he emailed me saying that this book answers those verses specifically (numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15). While my stance is to understand those verses in light of the new testament, I'm very interested to see once this book is released if you'd be able to do a review of its content and how effective are its claims.

Dr. Kaiser is the best person that I can think of in responding to these claims and I've been waiting a long time to see his response to them, here's the amazon link to the book if you'd like to pre-order it, I already did and I'm very certain that it'll be a worthwhile academic read.

John Collinson said...

I think that you are trying to impose 20th century Humanist values on Almighty God. You ought to consider that it's Humanism that is false, and not God.

The killing of the women and children is not murder because they were the enemy in war. Murder is when you kill your neighbour with whom one is legally in a state of peace / non-violence. In Numbers 31 the Israelites try to spare the women and children, and Moses judges that they ought to be put to death (except the virgins); that's a legal judgement from the head of Israel and amounts to a warrant for execution, not murder.

I know it's easy to get sentimental about foreign women and children when you live in the cosy bubble of a western nation, but in those days the nations around you were your enemies and posed a threat to your life. Those foreign women were the mothers of the men that would slaughter you, those children were the men that would grow up to slaughter you, assuming that you didn't slaughter them first. What did you expect the Israelites to do with the captured women and children? Raise them as equals with full citizenship in a welfare state? That's ridiculous. What about enslave them? Impossible, the matrons would be rebellious and dangerous slaves because the Israelites had killed their husbands; the young boys would grow up to hate their slavemasters who had killed their fathers; only the young virgins who could be subdued could exist peaceably in Israel.

Is God evil for commanding the execution of men? No, the Canaanites deserved to be executed, not just because they were the deadly enemies of Israel, but because they were idolaters, cannibals, sacrificers of children. It's not like God commands the Israelites to slaughter every other nation. He only commands it when the nation is either extremely wicked and/or when it refuses to live peacefully alongside Israel.

Lydia McGrew said...

The idea of saying that baby boys deserve to be "executed" because otherwise it is probable that they will grow up to be evil is itself pretty wicked.

If your definition of "execution" doesn't include at least a tacit understanding that babies can't be executed, you have a problem.

barry said...

Hello Lydia,

"I'm a homemaker and homeschooling mom living in the Midwest. I also write analytic philosophy articles."
----------then unless I'm uneducated in this, there's about two other people in the world that are like you. I never thought I'd actually meet a homemaking housewife who was into philosophy. I was surprised as the level of thought you put into the Copan/Flannagan thesis on biblical genocide.

"As for real-world atrocities, God permits them but does not command them."
--------How do you answer the slew of bible passages where God is often not just commanding such things, but forcing people to kill and other sins?

Ezekiel 38-39, God will bring future pagan armies against Israel, in 38:4, the metaphor "hook in your jaws" brings to the minds of the originally intended hearers the ancient farming practice of forcing an animal to go in a direction it doesn't want to go, by putting a hook in its jaws (or gaffing a fish to force it into the boat). That is, a biblical prophet has characterized God's sovereignty over the human will in what appears to be a hyperCalvinist way.

Deuteronomy 32:39, God takes responsibility for all murder.

2nd Samuel 12:15-18, the Lord "struck" the child born to David/Bathsheba, it was very sick, then later it died.

Deuteronomy 28:15-63, God will bring unspeakable horrors on his people if they disobey. Worse, in v. 63, he will "delight" as much to do this, as he "delights" to bring prosperity on those who obey him. I can buy that God can be willing to "discipline" his disobedient people and for this to be consistent with his all-goodness, but to take "delight" to cause rape (v. 30), that's a whole 'nother ball of earwax.

Isaiah 45:7...even assuming the better translation is not "evil", but "calamity", God is still claiming to be the cause of "calamity" which is presented in the verse as the opposite of peace, and the opposite of peace would be war, famine, rape, murder, i.e., the very "evil" that modern translators are trying to avoid by rendering it as "calamity".

Jeremiah 15:1-6, God will "appoint" slaying-by-sword/beasts to devour, over Israel for their disobedience (here's a curious thought...if God chose to delay manifesting himself to Israel until the 20th century, would these kinds of bible verse say God appointed GUNS over Israel, to shoot them?

Hosea 13:16, God will cause Samaria to both fall by the sword, and cause her pregnant women to be "ripped up", because Samaria hath sinned.

Can we infer that when early church fathers characterize Marcion as a fool (who said the god of the OT was really just a demon), they were wrong?

"The idea of saying that baby boys deserve to be "executed" because otherwise it is probable that they will grow up to be evil is itself pretty wicked."
-----------It also contradicts a slew of bible passages about not only God's sovereign ability to turn the hearts of the wicked, but about how Hebrews should be confident their kids will remain in the Lord if they raise them in the Lord.

Since bible inerrancy never had any respectable level of probable truth in the first place, and since nowhere does the NT express or imply that one must harbor any certain view of inerrancy, I don't see any harm in a Christian excising from the bible those passages which he or she think do not harmonize with Jesus' ultimate teaching about love. And that would include possible excision of words of Jesus where he supported infliction of horrible fates on people.