Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Rusty Lopez has written a more thorough response to my post on morality. I specifically brought up Numbers 31, and Rusty has taken up the cause to defend the biblical passage and the genocidal command allegedly given by God. Here is his defense:

There are several avenues of response available to the questions posed by Ed and Dark (very good questions, by the way). For one, I could discuss how the instances of God commanding the Israelites to slaughter their enemies varied in application. In other words, the commands were situation specific and had to do, among other things, with God’s judgment regarding the level of depravity of the particular people in question. With regards to the Numbers 31 incident, one must first look at Numbers 25:1-3 to see the type of depravity that Israel had fallen into:

When Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab. These women invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; then the people ate and bowed down to their gods. When Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor, the anger of the Lord flared up against Israel.

By joining themselves to Baal-peor, Israel sinned against God. The initial judgment levied by God was against Israel in which a plague wipes out 24,000 Israelites (Numbers 25:9). In Numbers 31:1-2 we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Exact vengeance for the Israelites on the Midianites—after that you will be gathered to your people.”

The level of judgment is tied to the level of depravity that occurred (i.e., Israel’s sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab). The nation of Israel could not exist in union with both God and the Midianites. That certain nations had degenerated to a state of debauchery which included child sacrifice is a point that some critics seem to conveniently ignore.

Notice how he has to say “certain nations” rather than saying that the Midianites committed child sacrifice? This is because the text does not even make the claim that the Midianites did any such thing. Notice also that the text says that the sexual immorality was between the Israelites men and the Moabite women, not the Midianite women. In Numbers 24, it mentions that the elders of Midian met with the kings of Moab and devised a plan to place a curse on the Isrealites, who were moving into their lands. And of course they worshipped gods other than Jehovah. That’s it. That’s the “level of depravity” that Rusty refers to that the genocidal attack on them was supposedly “tied to”. Now let’s do a little thought experiment…

Let’s say that the leader of England announces that he has spoken to God and God has told him that they are to attack France and kill every man, married woman and male child in the entire country of France, and all of their livestock and animals, except the young virgin French girls who will be passed out to the English soldiers as the spoils of war. The reason why this must be done is that some of the English young men have been having sex with French women. And the French, being Hindu (it’s a thought experiment, remember), worship a different God than the English, making the English God very angry at the idolatry of the French.

Now, is there a single person on the face of the earth who would accept this claim? Not likely. Is there a single soldier in the British military who would follow an order to do that? Not likely. Would the British leader who said such a thing be considered a great and holy man, or would he be considered an utter madman? I’ll vote for madman. I bet Rusty would too. I bet every Christian would hold the exact same opinions I just expressed about that situation. Yet, the situation is absolutely identical. Would Rusty be justifying that genocidal order by saying that it was proportional to the “level of depravity” of the French? Of course he wouldn’t. In logic, this is known as “special pleading”, when one accepts a rationalization in one particular aspect that they would reject completely in any analogous context.

It is also true that God, being allegedly omniscient and omnipotent, could have dealt with the situation in many other ways short of genocide. Why didn’t he appear before the Midianite people and awe them with signs of his power and tell them that their behavior was sinful? If for some reason he was insistent upon getting rid of them entirely, why not just strike them dead? And why on earth keep the virgin girls alive for the soldiers to use? I know, I know – “who are you to question God?”. But I’m not questioning God, I’m questioning these silly rationalizations of actions that I believe were falsely attributed to God.

I don’t think Rusty really believes that genocide is a reasonable response to the “level of depravity” that is mentioned in the text here. I think he just MUST believe that it’s reasonable because the only alternatives – admitting that God is a monster or that monstrous things are falsely attributed to God in the bible – are not even open to consideration for him. Those things simply have to be false or his entire belief system comes crashing down. I know this because I’ve been there before. I went through this myself some 20 years ago and ultimately decided that the only intellectually honest answer I could give was that I could not continue to believe in something so irrational.

The rest of Rusty’s post is devoted to repeating, in a lot of verbiage, the argument that I have already addressed previously. It’s the “how can you know what right and wrong is without God” – the Simon Says argument. He will ONLY accept a moral position if it begins or ends with “God said so”. But as I’ve already noted numerous times, the divine command theory doesn’t make it any more objective and consistent than any philosophical moral position because God can say one thing and do another (as with David and Bathsheba) and the believer has to believe that BOTH are equally moral because they both came from God. And if two opposite actions can both be moral in the same circumstances, you don’t have an objective morality, you have “might makes right” – God is the biggest bully on the block and he can do what he wants, so you better just shut up and take it or he’ll kill you too.

You see how all of this runs around in a circle? You must presume the conclusion, and once you presume the conclusion then you can swat away any and all logical objections to it with “who are you to judge God?”. It’s an absolutely perfect mobius strip of logic, turning back into itself and automatically making the claim impervious to all logic. It’s not logical, it’s alogical.

Comments

  1. #1 OGeorge
    July 26, 2004

    I actually did that a few times in the distant past. I took obscure Biblical stories and disguised them as Native American or Celtic myths and asked my very religious family or other members of their congregation why they couldn’t be true. I was told they were too silly or impossibly horrid. While it’s obvious that Rusty Lopez has actually read the Bible (unlike too many of my parents’ friends), I still think he’s seeing what he wants to see in the translation of the translation he’s familiar with. Animal lover that I am, my favorite little bit of Biblical fun and horror is Samson catching 300 foxes, tying them together in pairs by the tails, and then setting them on fire so that in their agony they would burn down the crops of the Philistines. Nice!

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    July 26, 2004

    I actually did that a few times in the distant past. I took obscure Biblical stories and disguised them as Native American or Celtic myths and asked my very religious family or other members of their congregation why they couldn’t be true. I was told they were too silly or impossibly horrid. While it’s obvious that Rusty Lopez has actually read the Bible (unlike too many of my parents’ friends), I still think he’s seeing what he wants to see in the translation of the translation he’s familiar with. Animal lover that I am, my favorite little bit of Biblical fun and horror is Samson catching 300 foxes, tying them together in pairs by the tails, and then setting them on fire so that in their agony they would burn down the crops of the Philistines. Nice!

    For me, all of the inconsistencies went away when I finally recognized that the God of the bible was simply a tribal war god of the kind that was quite common in ANE societies. When something bad happened, it was because God was angry. When something good happened, it was because God was pleased. When they went to war, God commanded them to kill their enemies because they had offended him. Viewed this way, there are no logical inconsistencies that have to be rationalized away. But viewed as an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God, there are all sorts of logical difficulties one must explain away.

  3. #3 ~DS~
    July 26, 2004

    You silver tongued devil. Well said.

  4. #4 OGeorge
    July 27, 2004

    Well said indeed. And exactly my point even if I didn’t say it as well as Ed. Attach Biblical stories to any other belief system and they become obvious tribal myths; even to professed Christians who haven’t really read their own book.

  5. #5 Ruidh
    July 27, 2004

    Progressive CHristian here probably wearing out my welcome. But this whole bad, Old Testament God concept is getting pretty old. A Christian who is looking to the OT for moral guidance is looking in the wrong place. The Christian claim is that the Bible contains everything necessary to salvation not that everything in the Bible is necessary to salvation. The portion of the Christian CHurch who are Biblical literalists is small — even if we have a vocal group here in the US.

    My take on these OT stories is that they are part of a history of people trying to get it right. And at this stage, they aren’t getting a whole lot right. SO if the OT says that God told the Israelites to slay every man, then it means that some Israelite interpreted the events that occured to mean that God indended this.

    You have to read on into Isiah and the prophets of the Babylonian exile to find out how and why the Isrealites of Judges, Chronicles and Kings were so far off base. You have to read the Gospels to find out why the the descendants of those who returned from Babylon still got it wrong and you’ve got to look at the history of the Church to understand why even some of the New Testament writers don’t exactly say what a naive reading seems to suggest.

    Ed, I enjoy the site and I agree with you on a great many things. Please don’t take the beliefs of a few off-the-wall Christians as a condemnation of all Christians.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    July 27, 2004

    Ruidh-

    First, you are absolutely not wearing out your welcome. Please feel free to post comments or responses any time. I respect your opinions very much.

    I think what you write here is quite reasonable. I suspect those to whom I am responding here will think otherwise, of course. Freed from the requirements of a rigid literalism, you do not need to go through the mental gymnastics of trying to justify what, in my view, cannot be justified. And you stand in a long and honorable tradition that includes men like Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, who believed that religious claims should only be considered true if they accorded with man’s reason.

  7. #7 OGeorge
    July 27, 2004

    Sorry Ruidh…it’s still believing that an animal-abusing “Savior” rose from the dead, and only on the word of writers, one to four generations removed from the supposed events, who were anything but neutral observers

  8. #8 Bill Ware
    July 27, 2004

    OGeorge, “animal abusing”? Please clue me in, if you would be so kind.

    Aren’t the moral principles He taught valid wiether or not He rose from the dead?

    B

  9. #9 Ruidh
    July 28, 2004

    Yes, indeed, the New Testament accounts are a witness. Raymond Brown SSJ describes the gospels as each coming out of a particular community and recording the oral tradition from the particular apostle which was the founder of that community. But we’re taking about chronicles written about 30 years after the events that occurred. When the Gospels were written there were still people alive who knew Jesus.

    Plus, the Gospels went through additional filtering in the 3rd and 4th centuries as the newly declared official religion of the ROman Empire was being formalized. There were dozens of competing gospels with various textual traditions and the Church attempted to choose those which were old and authentic.

    But, fundamentally, we are dealing with witness accounts. That’s all there is. There is no physical evidence. THe documents were written to be persuasive. The documents utilized rhetorical techniques of the time — the birth of an important person should be accompanied by portents and a virgin birth the most importnt of all — to try to convince people about the importance of Jesus’ life.

    Even as a moral philosopher without any claim to divinity, I think you’ve got to accept that there’s something significant about Jesus’ teachings.

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