Friday, March 16, 2007

In Defense of Genocide (Numbers 31)

I was hoping to put off this topic until I got to Joshua, but unfortunately here it is in Numbers – perhaps the worst atrocity committed by Israel in the entire Bible. The Lord commands the people of Israel to attack Midian to avenge the idolatry they and Moab had seduced them into. The soldiers go to war, sacking the cities, killing the kings and every man (even Balaam, as it turns out), and taking their goods and wives and children back as spoils. This is all standard practice for the warfare of the day.

Then we come to this (reader discretion advised):
And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, 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. Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day.
This is, quite simply, horrible. There is no way I can contort my emotions to side with the Israelites on this one. I see the image of women and young boys suddenly realizing they are all going to die, soldiers approaching with swords in hand, doomed mothers screaming for mercy for their little ones, and tear-filled girls watching helplessly on as their soon-to-be masters and husbands spill the lifeblood of their mothers and brothers into the dirt. Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem can’t hold a candle to this.

This is one of those passages I just wish weren’t in the Bible. What can be said about this? How on Earth do those of us who love this book more than life, who draw such beauty, strength, wisdom, and goodness from these, the oracles of the living God, come to terms with such ruthless cruelty?

Let’s bring on the rationalizations, shall we?

1. The Lord told them to attack the Midianites, but the Bible never explicitly says He wanted them to kill the women and boys. This was to be Moses last act before his death – maybe he acted in opposition to God’s more merciful will.

I don’t think this gets us anywhere. So far, in the books of Exodus and Numbers, God has shown no hesitation to complain and correct quite loudly of anything he disapproves of. His silence strongly implies support of Moses’ policy.

2. In the ancient world, this would not have been seen as brutal so much as wasteful. The lives of slaves and conquered people were always forfeit. The killing of perfectly good spoils was a sign of their commitment to being faithful to God at great expense.

But of course we know that slaves and conquered people are bearers of the image of God – man is not to be used as a means to an end and disposed of when he outlives his usefulness or becomes a liability. Surely they knew at least this much, especially of children of Abraham?

3. The women of Midian had seduced the people of Israel to idolatry – the greatest sin in the Mosaic Law. They were being punished justly.

Well, we certainly don’t feel the same about idolatry today, but, even granted death as a just punishment, was every single woman in Median responsible? Far be it from the Lord to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Shall not the judge of all the Earth do what is just? Balaam seemed at least as good as Lot…

4. The entire history of redemption is at stake. If the people of Israel just fade in with the locals, the project is lost. Nothing short of ruthless implacability will keep them from descending into the paganism of the rest of the world. God will be left with nothing but to destroy everything and start anew.

Is anything too hard for the Lord? He who brought Isaac to old Abraham and Sarah, who saved Egypt from famine, who conquered Pharaoh, who gave the people the law on Sinai, can he not preserve his chosen people without this cruelty?

5. We’ve seen the Israelites, we’ve seen their culture, we’ve seen their character. Would there be any possible way that they would interpret the order to not kill as anything but laxity on their idolatry? This is the growing pains of Israel as a nation, and it’s not pretty, but there’s no other way they will understand the gravity of idolatry. It is only by their cruelty that room can be made for mercy to flow. The Lord is a Jealous God, for the ultimate good of all.

I grudgingly accept some of this as far as it goes – I must not trivialize idolatry unless I truly am prepared to throw away the entire Bible. Even so, I cannot see the cruel slaughter of women and children as anything but evil. Nor should any of us.

I see no virtue in trying to unlearn the great lessons of our time: suspicion of idealistic and utilitarian rationalizations given to justify unspeakable atrocities. We condemn what was done in Auschwitz, Nanking, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, and Darfur with righteous indignation, on God’s authority. We must not lose this, especially in a time when we in the west face enemies who employ similar rhetoric.

This is part of the lesson of Job. God will not be pleased if, out of loyalty to scripture, we end up calling evil good. Will we speak falsely for God? Will we show partiality toward him? Our maxims are proverbs of ashes; our walls are defenses of clay.

So what do we take away from this? What can we gain from this passage? What should be our reaction to it? If Numbers 31 was the extent of the Bible, I would indeed throw the book away in disgust. But I cannot pick and choose what is in the Bible, and I cannot set it aside without throwing away what is the wellspring of my own understanding of justice and mercy.

The Bible has so much more to come. There is forgiveness a thousand times over to idolatrous Israel. There is mercy towards pagan Ninevah despite the anger of the prophet Jonah (to whom Numbers 31 may have been his favorite chapter of the Bible). And there is the embodiment of Israel’s God, Jesus himself, giving his own life so that none need perish, and that all people from every nation may have life, and have it in abundance. By God’s grace, I will grasp hold of this book until it blesses me.

Perhaps the lesson the ancients took from this passage was the perils of idolatry, and we of all people need to be reminded that we must not simply make for ourselves whatever gods suit our fancy. But we will have plenty of material for this lesson in future passages. So let’s pause instead and say a prayer for Midian:
Oh God, who hates nothing you have made, will you not spare the lives of those women and boys? Dear Lord, in your mercy, forgive them their sins. Forgive them for whatever role they played in misleading your people. For the sake of your son Jesus Christ, who forgave the idolatrous Romans even as they nailed him to the cross, raise them up in the last day, to share with your people the joy of your eternal kingdom.

I think a few your theories make good lessons today. But these are the areas where I am convinced the Bible just does not make any sense at all, except as largely myth reflective of its time.

Two theories:

1. Genocide was needed to make room for the Israelites, so they convinced themselves that God wanted it done (I don't particularly buy that).

2. Genocide occurred as part of the conquest and as the stories were told down the ages in the oral tradition, the role of God increased to the point that Moses was told to kill the inhabitants. (I buy that one)

I think by this time we are fast leaving the realm of myth. Though the lines are blurry, I think we pretty much left that after Genesis 11. There's nothing "mythical" about the execution of thousands of Midianite women and children. The brutality is certainly reflective of the time, but that doesn't really make it any more palatable.

But there are reasons I can't jump on board with you on your two theories. And it stems from my conviction that this, even this, is inspired scripture, and therefore I must wrestle with it. I must not go at it with preconceived notions of who God is, and then explain away parts that don't fit into that.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't rightly condemn such cruelty in scripture. But I am saying that those of us who are committed to this book as the very word of God must not seek to protect God from liability. We must not simply explain these passages away as distortions of the truth introduced by oral tradition. That's the easy way out, and it eventually leads to idolatry - us simply making gods to suit our fancies.

If we are to protest and condemn this cruelty (which I do), if we have the hubris to wrestle with God, we need to do it on the basis of God's revelation, with God's authority.

"I must not go at it with preconceived notions of who God is, and then explain away parts that don't fit into that."

Fair enough.

I guess I had the preconceived notion that the person who said all those nice things on the Sermon on the Mount was God. Or, at very least, God's representative on Earth.

And no, the genocide does not fit into that.

re: myth

I guess my rule of thumb is that if the people were looking for myth, I assume myth.

Put another way, I think each book of the Bible should be compared to comparable literature of its era. Given that every other book that I can find in the ancient middle east between 1000-2000 BC incorporated myth and intentionally so, I assume the Biblical books of those times were as well. Numbers would fall into this category.

The assumption is rebuttable, of course, if I see a reason why.

I guess I had the preconceived notion that the person who said all those nice things on the Sermon on the Mount was God. Or, at very least, God's representative on Earth.

Of course, I'm with you all the way here. It is only in looking at Jesus that we truly understand who God is, and he compels us to look back and reinterpret the whole of Israel's story in the light of who he is and what he accomplished. But we also have to wrestle with the fact that Jesus claimed to be the embodiment of Israel's God, and he was steeped in the Old Testament scriptures and invoked their authority.

I do not propose that we try to force ourselves to think that killing huge numbers of women and children out of collective punishment is anything less than horrible. But nor do I think we can throw these bits out without cutting off the branch we are standing on. I insist on fighting with these passages, grasping hold of them 'till the author of both them and the Sermon on the mount blesses me.

Which is how I ended my post - acknowledging the evil of idolatry while still begging God to be merciful for those who've practiced it. It is exactly in the light of Christ that we can look back on the devil-worshipers of Canaan and pray for their ultimate redemption. We can hope that all wrongs - even those committed by God's people in the pursuit of his promises - will be made right.

Put another way, I think each book of the Bible should be compared to comparable literature of its era. Given that every other book that I can find in the ancient middle east between 1000-2000 BC incorporated myth and intentionally so, I assume the Biblical books of those times were as well. Numbers would fall into this category.

Well, let's make sure we define our terms. I see mythology (at its best) as a way of invoking God's guidance of the imagination in telling stories. The myth maker weaves fantastic stories which guide the people into realities higher and richer than they ever would, while peeling back the curtain of the multi-dimensional world we live in. Its a way of seeing the significance of what seem to be mundane things. Most myths are rooted in real events, but the myth maker sees things that someone standing there at the time would not have seen (and so, he would argue, he sees more clearly what "really" happened).

So, sure, there is some of this reflection throughout the Old Testament. But equally strong is the gravity of testimony. Deuteronomy, which I'm coming to now, harps on this really strongly: Do you remember what you saw with your own eyes? What you, and no one else, were privileged to witness? Do not let this be forgotten! Tell it to your children, and have them tell it to their children. You have a testimony to keep alive.

This is not primarily the vision of a myth maker closing his eyes while God shows him the story from the divine perspective. It is the vision of a witness testifying under oath, on pain of death, what he has seen with eyes wide open.

I think you are a little too pat with the "God can accomplish anything" answer: What you are doing is making a normative decision as to what God should do in the situation, which is a very different thing. After all, God could have come up with a manner of salvation which did not involve His own sacrifice. He did what he did, and that is all we can say.

As is was, even with God's help, the tribes of Israel were barely settled in the Land of Promise. But God's plan involved more than just a people and a land, it also involved ideas which took 1000 years to develop (and many early "Christians" still didn't get it).

I don't pretend to understand Numbers 31 any better than anyone else; it is beastly in the extreme. After all, Midian is the people of Moses' own family! Even if he were old and demented, would Moses want to act in such a way? I agree we have to deal with the Biblical text as we have it, not as we might want it. We are not God, and there is much that we do not understand -- perhaps much that we will never understand. So be it.

Kehrsam -

Fair enough on item 4. In my defense, its a pat answer asserting things we don't know to a pat question assuming things we don't know. ;-)


This is Jeff from the comments at Ed's "Dispatches" site. I know you think my take that the moral lesson of the Old Testament -- there is only one law, "Obey God" -- is wrong, but I don't understand why. Could you elaborate?

For me, that realization made passages like this one much easier to understand and deal with. It makes them not troubling chapters that need to be expurgated, but necessary parts to show that God sometimes asks His people to do things that seem horrible, but that we have to do them anyway. That's something I can understand, whereas trying to twist the Old Testament into modern morality seems to me to be fruitless and completely unsatisfying.

It's one of those "gestalt" realizations for me, the kind of thing that makes the whole suddenly snap into focus and resolve itself into coherence. I am curious to hear why you think it is mistaken.

Hi Jeff,

There are some serious problems with your thesis - let me try to address a few of them.

But first let me give a qualifier. Obedience to God is indeed an important point in the Old Testament, and I would be wrong to trivialize it. What I disagree with is that it is the most important point, or that commands to obey are given in a vacuum - like an exasperated Mom saying "because I said so".

1. Your thesis ignores the more overarching message of love for God. The first of the Ten Commandments is "You shall have no other gods before me" and this is not something that we just have to do and who knows why. Rather, this should be a natural outflowing of love for God - if you love your wife, you don't sleep with other women. The Bible says, "If you love me, you will obey my commands", not the other way around.

2. Blind obedience without love or trust in God is actually discouraged. David is described as a man after God's own heart - and his disobedience to the law of God was severe (murdering a man and taking his wife) - and yet he understood an essential point that saved him from utter ruin - "For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." In Genesis we are told that God saw that the heart of man was evil from his youth - blind obedience isn't going to fix this problem.

3. God chooses men who will wrestle with him. This is a major, major theme in the early parts of the Bible. The very name "Israel" means wrestles with God. Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom, and this is commended. Moses is chosen in part for this same feisty spirit, and time and time again he has to go head-to-head with God to convince him not to wipe out the Israelites. The theme of a mediator is essential to the Old Testament.

4. A blind defense of God's actions that whitewashes what a man knows to be evil is, far from commendable, abhorrent to God. This is the error of Job's friends, and they are condemned for it. Job on the other hand, takes God to task for his injustice. Job is eventually silenced by the sheer grandeur of God, and realizes how presumptuous he is, but in the end he is the one God sides with against those who would defend God in the face of injustice.

5. God grounds his commands in a relationship of trust and faithfulness. Take the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, and obeys out of trust in God, though he cannot see how this could possibly fulfill God's purposes. But God only does this after Abraham has been blessed with the impossible fulfilling of God's promise, and proven himself just in the incident at Sodom.

6. With rare exception, God's commands are always given with reasons woven into their context. The Mosaic law is saturated with this: You were slaves in Egypt, therefore do not oppress the foreigner among you. I am the Lord who rescued you out of slavery, therefore do not worship other gods. In six days, God made the heavens and on the seventh he rested, therefore keep the sabbath day. God saved you by striking down the firstborn of Egypt, therefore consecrate your firstborn for my service. Etc.

7. It given all of this that Jesus correctly summarizes the ethic of the Old Testament: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.


Thanks for the reply. I'm glad you approach the study of your faith with integrity and honesty, that's a refreshing change from many of the Christian apologists I've encountered.

After thinking about it more, I believe I've muddled my main argument. My original position (which I still stand by) is that in Christian morality, acts do not have intrinsic moral weight but rather derive their morality by whether or not they are in accordance with God's desires.

I think putting it as "The only commandment is 'Obey me'" is misleading on one hand, although on the other I think practically speaking they come down to the same thing at the end of the day. The generous way to look at it is that God only wishes us to be good, and so acting in accordance with his wishes naturally results in morally good acts. Theologically speaking, however, this means that there is an objective standard out there that God is adhering to, which infringes on God's omnipotence. It raises the spectre that we can somehow judge God's actions, which is blasphemous according to many theologies.

Personally, I don't have a problem with that at all. I think it's good for us to look at any proposed divine being's behavior and to judge it according to our own moral standards. But most Christians I know would recoil at the suggestion; if you're not one of them, then I think we've got more in common than you'd imagine given that I'm an atheist :-)

The less generous way to look at that, of course, is to argue that God is like a mafia don, simply wishing to be obeyed. You can argue, you can cajole, sometimes you can even persuade, but at the end of the day what matters is that once he's decided, you act as he commands you to act.

You give some fine examples, but rather than go over them one by one, I wanted to just address a couple of key points.

1.Your thesis ignores the more overarching message of love for God. The first of the Ten Commandments is "You shall have no other gods before me" and this is not something that we just have to do and who knows why. Rather, this should be a natural outflowing of love for God - if you love your wife, you don't sleep with other women. The Bible says, "If you love me, you will obey my commands", not the other way around.

I think maybe you're reading a different Ten Commandments than I am :-) That first commandment doesn't say, "I am the Lord thy God, love me." In fact there's nothing in there about love at all. The first four are all flat commands, outlining how the Jews are to venerate God. The rest are commands regarding moral behaviors, not ambiguous feelings like "love each other". They are commandments about acting, not commandments about why we should act that way.

It's difficult for me to read the story of the Exodus in any other way. The Jews complain, moan, and fail to love god over and over and over again. The first draft of the Ten Commandments themselves are flung in anger by Moses at their weakness. These clearly are not people motivated by some kind of inherent love of God, they're recalcitrant children who must be commanded into obedience. It's a case of "Hear me now, love me later" -- what matters to God at this point is making them obey by fiat. This isn't a loving relationship between adults, it's an angry parent and his wayward children, and the law's being laid down in no uncertain terms.

I'd say the same thing about Genesis itself. We're told the fruit is not evil, it's not harmful, and in fact it acts in exactly the same way the serpent says it will. What makes its eating sinful is not the act of eating the fruit itself, it's that Adam and Eve have disobeyed God. This is why (we are told) humanity suffers for thousands of years, because our however-long-removed ancestors disobeyed God and we're being actively punished for it.

Even if you believe (as I do and -- if I'm reading your writings correctly -- you do) that Genesis is a myth, myths still exist for a reason. They contain moral truths, intended to guide us and to explain the philosophical meaning of the world. And clearly, what's being taught here and refinforced again and again in the Old Testament is that acting in accordance with God's desires is good, and acting contrary to them is evil, to be punished.

It seems very clear to me, and as I said originally, it makes the entire gestalt of the Bible make sense. There's no more struggling to justify infanticide or murder, there's a very simple and very understandable moral code -- do what God says and you'll be doing good. Don't do what God says and you'll be doing evil. Acts do not have intrinsic moral weight, they matter only in so far as they conform to God's desires.

Your way is much more complicated and difficult to understand, introducing all sorts of opportunities for ambiguity and doubt. It doesn't seem to offer any advantages over a purely naturalistic explanation for a culture evolving a moral code over time, built on a biological foundation of competing survival imperatives. If anything, you start having to deal with questions of "Why did God command us to do some things by fiat, but not the big things like slavery, infanticide, and rape?" If my understanding is correct, the answer to those objections is very straightforward -- "Those acts were not wrong, because the Jews were acting in accordance with God's will. That makes them good. God's will now is for you to not do those things, so that too is good."

OK, there's a discussion in Plato that I remember really gets at what you are talking about - and I think I mentioned it over on that long thread at dispatches. It's basically the debate over whether the things that are "pious" become so because the gods command them, or whether the gods themselves recognize piety as good and command it because of this. And Plato of course arrives at the affirmation of the good, despite whatever fickle preferences the gods might have.

I mentioned over there that monotheism is different altogether - God is not simply part of reality, but the very rock foundation of all existence. So he cannot be separated from the ontological good - ultimate goodness exists in his very being. So I certainly recoil at any suggestion of the good existing apart from God in an philosophical sense.

However, in a practical sense, I think its totally appropriate to judge God by his actions against what we know to be good. We can't help but do this, so why fight it? The Bible is absolutely full of such talk:

And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

The law of the Lord is blameless, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

Seriously, I could fill pages of this stuff - people looking at what God is done, and declaring that he is good because of it. To say that this is simply redundant would be to throw out half the Bible. God is constantly appealing to his people - "See what I did? See what I have shown myself to be? Is this not right and just and good? Should you not obey and follow me?"

So while I insist that philosophically we must see any ultimate goodness as rooted in the foundation of reality - namely God himself - in practice judging God by his actions is fair game.

Now, as to the specifics of looking at the Bible, I have a few thoughts. The story of the fall in Genesis is an interesting one, but I don't know that the command is arbitrary. I think it a mistake to think God has no reason for forbidding the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. I wrote on this a while back. But what is the disobedience rooted in? Is it not out of suspicion of God, rather than loving trust?

Similarly, why does God give the law to Israel? Is it not because he, having rescued them from Egypt, he wants to walk alongside them? The whole drama on the mountain leads up to the moment where the terrifying thundering cloud filled with fire and smoke comes down into a tent to stay right beside the people. He speaks of relationship - of him being like a father to them, like a husband. He wants more than rote obedience - he wants loving faithfulness coming from the heart:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Again, for each of the above ones, I can give many more. The purpose of the law itself is to get the people to behave in a way that they can walk alongside their creator.

Your way is much more complicated and difficult to understand, introducing all sorts of opportunities for ambiguity and doubt.

But Jeff, that's how life is! It's not neat and tidy, fitting flawlessly into nice little models. It is complicated; it is difficult understand; and any theory we posit necessarily has plenty of ambiguity and doubt. I like the example of quantum vs. newtonian physics - one is certainly tidier, but it just breaks down. The other is messy, complicated, and unexplainable, and yet, by golly, it works.

I'll critique you on what seems to be an underlying claim, that women aren't free moral agents. That is, why should we care about their death, as you obviously do, in excess of the men?

Also, why shouldn't children be viewed as potential threats? The police don't have guns in this world. Force is the individual.

You see screaming mothers. I see a people, man woman and child, who were willing to exterminate the Israelites to a person in the face of divine approval. They made their choice. I respect that.

Nick, I'm going to be abrasively frank here. If you don't have difficulty with such texts - if your first reaction to the slaughter of those women and baby boys is simply hearty approval and praise to God for his justice - than I really don't think I have anything to say to you. We're just too far apart to effectively communicate.

There is no moral excuse for genocide. Your God (or the Israelites) failed bitterly there if that was his/their last resort ...

I can't explain or justify the genocide. But I have recently noticed some evidence in the story of Samson that shows God being patient with Jewish culture without approving it. (Here's a link to the details: ) Could that be possible here too?

I also have kind of an ongoing struggle with Moses, whose besetting sin is anger, and who's the one giving the genocide command in this story. There are times when he confuses his own temper tantrums with God's instructions. Could this be one of those times when we're seeing Moses, not God? Once again, the link to my thoughts: (Not that I expect anyone to read all my ruminations! I guess I'm just wanting to show that I've thought about these things more than I can flesh out here in a comment.)

Hi Writer2b,

I think I agree with you - although we can't always easily absolve God of taking part in these things. I think I look at it more of God showing the people what they need at the time to get them to the next step from where they are. And, if you follow everything so far, the people of Israel really are a sorry bunch - and the stern fierceness of Moses is what they need.

But you are certainly right that Moses saw only part of the picture, and not the whole of God's intentions (his desire for mercy and restoration even for idolatrous man).

It seems to me if God is willing to completely wipe out mankind (flood), completely wipe out his people (Sinai but Moses intervened, wipe out armies that come against his people, and all but wipe out his people with Syria, Babylonians, and Romans, he has no trouble wiping out pagans who have no intention or desire to submit to him. He simply chooses to use His people as his instrument of wrath instead of doing it himself.

Post a Comment

<< Home