Given dissertation and job applications and such, I’m pressed for time, so this post might be a little sloppy and quick. At the recent Pacific SCP, Wes Morriston presented on the problem of genocides in the Bible, and he presented what I took to be a very powerful argument that we should not believe that God commanded genocides in the Bible. I will extract one point from his talk, develop the argument, and hope that it creates helpful discussion.
First, some examples:
Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel … to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Pe’or, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Num. 31:8-18)
And Samuel said to Saul, “. . . now therefore hearken to the word of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish what Am’alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Am’alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'” (1 Sam. 15:1-5)
In the Number’s passage, some Midianite women had pulled away Israelite men from God, and these men started worshiping Baal. In the 1 Samuel passage, an earlier generation of Amalekites had caused destruction to Israel, so God was commanding Israel to punish the current generation of Amalekites.
There are a lot of interesting historical/cultural questions here as well as other potential moral problems in these passages I’ll have to skip over. I’ll jump right into an argument from analogy, heavily inspired by Morriston.
Suppose there is a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination whom you consider to be wise, spiritual, and very close to God. Suppose, uncharacteristically, he reports to his mega-church that God spoke to him and commanded him to tell the church that they must go kill all the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Plausibly, we ought to think that God did not tell the pastor that his church should kill all the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
By analogy, we ought to think that God did not tell Israel (or the relevant Israelite leader) to commit genocide. Just as we ought not to believe the pastor when he makes his claim about what God told him, we ought not believe the Bible when it makes a claim about what God told the Israelites. That’s the analogy.
It’s hard not to deny the intuition about the pastor. Suppose we add that the pastor had given the following reasons for committing the killings: “Young Mormon women have been pulling young men in our congregation away from salvation.” Or “Mormons of a past generation have killed many people in our church.” Suppose these things were true. Even so, we would still reject the pastor’s claim. Nothing of the sort of reasons we might think that God had to justify killing the Amalekites, Canaanites, Midianites, and so on would make it so it is rational to believe the pastor.
It is hard to deny the strength of the analogy. Someone might say that the Bible is generally reliable and a good guide to life. We have experienced God through the study of the Bible many times. But that could also be the case for the pastor. The pastor might also be generally reliable and a good guide to life.
Lastly, I have said nothing about the inerrancy or infallibility or inspiration of scripture. I’d like to avoid discussion of what these terms mean and how to interpret them. Perhaps there is a way of understanding “inerrancy” according to which God did not command these things. I don’t know, and for this post, I don’t care. I’m just interested in knowing whether I’m rational in believing that God commanded these things, and this argument suggests that I am not.