04 December 2007

My two cents

I heartily oppose arguing on the Internet, as you probably know if you are one of my readers (I know this because there are not a lot of them). The recent heated conflagration between the owners of two blogs I read, however, has made me want to add a little context to their discussion. I offer nothing like a Hegelian synthesis of ideas (indeed, I'm not sure this particular discussion can have anything like a resolution), but I would like to share a few thoughts with anyone who cares.

Evil Bender's response to I Samuel 15 is a rational one -- I would expect nothing less from him:
Even assuming that every adult had absolutely earned complete destruction, what harm had the children and the animals done? I’ve never been able to understand how such commandments are compatible a all-good, all-powerful divine being. After all, genocide is clearly wrong when humans instigate it: if morality means anything, it must mean that it is also wrong when God engages in it.

EB's response contains these underlying assumptions:

  • People and animals must not be destroyed unless they have earned destruction through wrongdoing
  • People and animals are inherently innocent and must be actively evil in order to merit destruction
  • At least some of the adults of the Amalekites probably had not done sufficient enough evil to merit destruction
  • All children are innocent and therefore do not merit destruction
  • All animals are innocent and therefore do not merit destruction
  • Therefore, evil is a learned activity and can be avoided by those who wish
  • The Hebrew God should abide by universal moral standards* if we are to consider Him a truly good God
  • Genocide** is a universal moral evil in every place and time, without exception
    (*No definition is given here for these universal moral standards, so I will have to assume they at least roughly correspond with the ideals of 18th-21st century Western humanism: basically, not hindering the rights of others to freely have and pursue life, liberty, property, and happiness)
    (**Since "genocide" is a 20th-century term and concept, I feel like I should be invoking Godwin's Law when I see it applied to a document that is at least 3,000 years old, but it is nonetheless convenient as shorthand for "destroying the all of the Amalekites and all of their possessions")

Schumm's response is one that basically defines morality as whatever God wants it to be. Consequently, his God is one who requires either absolute devotion or eternal punishment for those who refuse to submit to His will, no matter how whimsical it may happen to be:
It matters not if God is good if He is allpowerful- the definition of an all powerful God necessitates servitude or punishment. Good becomes a definition solely up to His whim or discretion. In order for there to be someone to hear and defend our accusations of injustice against God, we would have to appeal to an arbitrator independent of God, one who has the power to issue a ruling God has to abide by.

Schumm has these underlying assumptions:

  • There is no universal morality apart from the discretions and whims of almighty God
  • Omnipotence means that God must either enslave or punish
  • It is impossible to accuse God of injustice since there is no higher authority than Him
  • God's goodness is therefore completely arbitrary and established per force, with no room for any questioning by humanity
  • God can do anything He wants and it will be a moral action by default, no matter what it is

I have some serious concerns with both of these viewpoints, but before I get into those, I would like to provide a little bit of context for I Samuel 15.

Exodus 17:8-16
8 Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim.
9 So Moses said to Joshua, "Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand."
10 Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.
11 So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed.
12 But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set.
13 So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
14 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."
15 Moses built an altar and named it The LORD is My Banner;
16 and he said, "The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation."

Numbers 24:20
20 And he* looked at Amalek and took up his discourse and said,
"Amalek was the first of the nations,
But his end shall be destruction."
(*"He" here is Balaam, prophesying in the power of YHWH)

Deuteronomy 25:17-19
17 "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt,
18 how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.
19 "Therefore it shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget."
(This is Moses speaking at the time of the second giving of the Law, after Israel had repented from the sin they committed while he was up on Mount Sinai)

Esther 3:1
1 After these events King Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and established his authority over all the princes who were with him.
(If the name "Haman" sounds familliar, it is because he was the one who, according to the book of Esther, very nearly succeeded in wiping out the Israelites from the face of the earth. He appears to be descended from the royal family of the Amalekites, whom King Saul did not kill -- see I Samuel 15)

I do not pretend to understand the purposes of God, but here are a few of my thoughts regarding the "genocide" of I Samuel 15. Please remember that I am a professing Christian, and so my comments are, of course, the remarks of someone inside what he believes to be an internally consistent system.

1.) On the Rightness of Destroying the Amalekites

Jesus said, "Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (Jn. 3:19). King David said, "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). The prophet Isaiah said, "No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly; They trust in confusion and speak lies; They conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity" (Isa. 59:4). St. Paul said, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

It is incorrect, in the broadest sense, to refer to any of the Amalekites as "innocent," since both the Jewish and Christian scriptures seem to indicate that they, as humans, are sinful and flawed and therefore seek their own way rather than God's. It would seem that even the children have sinful natures, according to these texts.

In a slightly more specific sense, it is also incorrect to refer to the Amalekite nation as "innocent." This is the same tribe that sneak-attacked the Israelite people when they were weak and wandering in the wilderness. God did not simply wake up one day and say, "Hot damn, let's kill us some Amalekites!" Rather, there were concrete historical and cultural reasons that made the elimination of the Amalekite people a necessity. For one thing, the two nations were constantly at odds. For another, the culture of the Amalekites was one of the many in the region that would draw the Israelites' attention to polytheistic, idolatrous rituals and ultimately threaten their "chosen-ness," which the Abrahamic convenant made an absolute necessity in order for God's promises to be fulfilled to His chosen people.*
(*Note that strangers who wished to cast their lot with God's chosen people were allowed to do so -- including any of the Amalekites who wished to become part of Israel. That is why there are Levitical laws dealing with "the stranger in your midst.")

In addition, before the Israelites even entered the land of Caanan, God promised His people that He would give them an ultimate, permanent victory against the Amalekites. At that point, it would have made Him a liar if he had NOT ordered the Israelites to go out against Amalek.

The animals are a little more problematic, as they really are incapable of sin. The Levitical laws make it clear that no animal is to experience undue suffering. Nonetheless, animals are property, not people, in the Judeo-Christian worldview. God made it clear that He did not want his people to profit materially from the destruction of the Amalekite culture... and He even reprimanded Saul for sacrificing some of the cattle he had kept alive. The animals that were killed were destined either to be slaughtered or to continue laboring for their Amalekite masters if the Israelites had not killed them, so I am not sure that excessive concern for the animals is very appropriate here.

2.) The Nature of God and Morality

The prophet Micah said, "He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Moses said, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). Jesus said the greatest commandment was, "YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND," and the second one, which is like the first, is "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF" (Mt. 22:37, 39). James, Jesus's brother, said, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow" (James 1:17).

God is the source of goodness, and we are made in His image. I believe this is where our fundamental notions of right and wrong come from. We know what is good, and we know when we have been wronged. To argue about whether goodness exists because of God or whether it exists independently seems to me to be little more than Platonic sophistry. It also overlooks the real point: God is good, and that does not change.

God commands justice and righteous behavior all through the Bible, but this is especially evident in the Old Testament. Many of the laws that some people take as signs of God's harsh rules are in place to prevent people from taking advantage of one another. And whenever God summarizes the most important rules, they are always twofold: love God, and treat your fellow humans right. The second of these sounds a lot like Evil Bender's concept of morality. So the real question, then, is how the Amalek incident fits into this directive.

If God were a human, I would have absolutely no problem with decrying the destruction of the Amalekites. But I would only do this because he had:
1.) No moral ground for the action, since he would be destroying those who were just as flawed as he was;
2.) No good justification for the action, since he is a mere human and cannot tell whether it is better for the Amalekites to die or to go on thriving; and
3.) Absolutely no authority for the action.

God is good and humans are not. He is blameless, and no human is. He would be justified in wiping us all out at any moment. That He tolerates our flawed existence on earth is a sign of His grace and desire for us to come to know Him.

God is all-knowing. He sees the consequences of every action and reaction, right down to end of the chain. Therefore, he has the necessary knowledge to decide when, where, and how things should happen to achieve the optimal outcome. After the Amalekites ambushed Israel in the desert and the Israelites were reeling from nearly being wiped out in the wilderness, God promised that the Amalekites would pay. And at the right time, God kept his word by commanding Saul to go out to battle against the enemy tribe. God's plans are not half-baked.

The Amalekites attacked God's chosen people, whom He had promised to protect. Moreover, they continued to attack them in every generation. If you were God and had an obligation to protect the Israelite nation in a pre-diplomatic age, how would you handle it without violating the Amalekites' free will and turning them into automatons? If there was a better solution, wouldn't He have found it?

So this turned out to be a lot longer than I thought, and I will wager that almost no one who reads it will be completely satisfied (including me), but it helped me to think through this question, so I am happy.


LQ said...

Ah, pobrecito, to be caught in the middle of these arguments. And this is why we tell our comp students that religion/faith is not truly a debatable point, in the sense that a consensus -- besides perhaps "live and let live" -- can't be reached.

Unknown said...

Completely satisified. I have presented the blunt force case for God's right to do so, and you have made an eloquent case defending His motives. Your insight is deeply appreciated.