Saturday, March 20, 2010

Immoral God and Immoral Bible? (Article V): God and His Law

Preliminary Notes

[Profanity, Blasphemy and personal attacks will get the poster banned without warning.  If you wish to disagree with the article, please be civil and respectful in doing so.]

[This article, at 7630 words is far longer than I prefer, but I decided to wrap it up here lest someone think I was seeking to avoid the accusations of genocide and slavery by continually pushing them back. I don’t guarantee this article will answer all objections, but I do hope it will demonstrate that some accusations against Christians will be shown to be missing the point.]


There is an article which circulates around the email pages which mocks Dr. Laura (though it had gone through a redraft as a letter to President Bush to attack Christians) and her call for Biblical values. Snopes, in a rather partisan and personal attack, describes it as: “Letter to Dr. Laura highlights fallacy in a particular anti-homosexual argument.” There are many fallacies… but from Snopes. There are Ad hominems about past indiscretions (what she did in the past has no bearing on whether what she says is true), the fallacy of equivocation over what is meant by the term “Biblical values”, and the straw man fallacy about what Dr. Laura was intending to say, false dilemma and so on. The author really ought to have been embarrassed to put her name on this.

So, what is the point of this mentioning of an e-mail spam and commentary? Ultimately, the error Snopes makes is similar to one which many fundamentalists and many atheists make about the Law in the Bible: That the Bible is to be interpreted in a literalistic sense in English and through modern standards by the reader without consideration of the original language or culture or theology. It concludes that just as people do not follow certain dietary laws today, they ought not to follow the moral law either.

The problem is: it makes no sense whatsoever to interpret personally by today’s standards a work which was written some three thousand years ago… this is interpreting out of context and this is what most of these attacks do. One needs to understand the purpose of the teaching and not merely pick out verses to make an appeal to emotion.

We Need to Understand the Christian View of the Torah.

Now I cannot speak for how the modern Jew interprets the Torah. In rejecting Jesus as Messiah, they obviously have a different view of the purpose of the Law than a Christian does. Therefore the reader who wants to know how the Jews today understand the commands in the Law would have to consult with the Jews to understand their perspective.

However, to accuse Christians of “pick-and-choose” hypocrisy without understanding what they understand about what the Law’s purpose was in relation to Christ is rather foolish indeed. We believe that Christ came as a fulfillment of the Law, and prior to his coming, God gradually prepared the nations for the acceptance of the message they could not have understood at the time of the revelations to Abraham.

Therefore, when Christians give a defense of their view of the Scripture, they are not “explaining away” the difficult verses. Rather, we are expressing our faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who fulfills the Law and the Prophets. We trust that, in the revelations of Christ, we know that God is not a merciless judge. Rather, He is a loving Father who seeks what is best for us, and deals with us according to our ability to know the truth.

Recapitulation Revisited

I mentioned in Article III, the idea of recapitulation indicates the Jewish Law was a preparation for the fullness of Christ. The person who condemns the Law generally does so by assuming that the Christian believer, if in power, would enact the Torah much as certain radical Muslims would prefer to enact the Sharia law. This betrays an ignorance of the Scriptures and the Christian understanding of them, and we should start with a look in Matthew 5:

17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.

This verse has often been cited out of context to say Jesus has said Christians need to obey the Jewish Law to the letter. We then stand accused of hypocrisy and picking and choosing. However, such a claim demonstrates a misunderstanding of how Christians understand this teaching. A footnote for 5:17 in the New American Bible tells us:

To fulfill the law appears at first to mean a literal enforcement of the law in the least detail: until heaven and earth pass away nothing of the law will pass (Matthew 5:18). Yet the “passing away” of heaven and earth is not necessarily the end of the world understood, as in much apocalyptic literature, as the dissolution of the existing universe. The “turning of the ages” comes with the apocalyptic event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and those to whom this gospel is addressed are living in the new and final age, prophesied by Isaiah as the time of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). Meanwhile, during Jesus’ ministry when the kingdom is already breaking in, his mission remains within the framework of the law, though with significant anticipation of the age to come, as the following antitheses (Matthew 5:21–48) show.

See how this Christian understanding is quite different from the view of the personal interpretation of a literalistic reading of the Scriptures without context? When Christ fulfills the Law, the reason for the Law will have been met, and the Law will pass away… not to licentiousness and self gratification, but to an even stronger demand for holiness which governs even the internal person and not just the outward observance of commands.

Elements of the Law which have been misunderstood become clear: not only is committing murder wrong, but also hating one’s brother is evil. A legalistic reading of the Law, which permits all sorts of injustice, will pass away in the face of Christ’s teaching and fulfillment of the Law.

Given that Christians understand all people are brethren in Christ, we are not to behave wickedly to anyone.

This is not a modern day attempt to explain away “inconvenient” Bible verses. St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) has said about fulfilling the Law in His Sermo XVI on Matthew:

And how, one may ask, did He not destroy it [The Law]? In what way did He rather fulfill either the law or the prophets? The prophets He fulfilled, inasmuch as He confirmed by His actions all that had been said concerning Him; wherefore also the evangelist used to say in each case, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” Both when He was born, and when the children sung that wondrous hymn to Him, and when He sat on the ass, and in very many more instances He worked this same fulfillment: all which things must have been unfulfilled, if He had not come.

But the law He fulfilled, not in one way only, but in a second and third also. In one way, by transgressing none of the precepts of the law. For that He did fulfill it all, hear what He saith to John, “For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” And to the Jews also He said, “Which of you convinceth me of sin.” And to His disciples again, “The prince of this world cometh, and findeth nothing in me.” And the prophet too from the first had said that “He did no sin.”

This then was one sense in which He fulfilled it. Another, that He did the same through us also; for this is the marvel, that He not only Himself fulfilled it, but He granted this to us likewise. Which thing Paul also declaring said, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” And he said also, that “He judged sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh.” And again, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! yea, we establish the law.” For since the law was laboring at this, to make man righteous, but had not power, He came and brought in the way of righteousness by faith, and so established that which the law desired: and what the law could not by letters, this He accomplished by faith. On this account He saith, “I am not come to destroy the law.”

But if any one will inquire accurately, he will find also another, a third sense, in which this hath been done. Of what sort is it then? In the sense of that future code of laws, which He was about to deliver to them.

For His sayings were no repeal of the former, but a drawing out, and filling up of them. Thus, “not to kill,” is not annulled by the saying, Be not angry, but rather is filled up and put in greater security: and so of all the others.

This point must be understood. Christians (unless they are unfaithful to Christ) do not pick and choose the parts of the Bible we want to follow. We follow the teachings of God as He intends them to be followed. Christ’s teaching is the lens through which Christians look at the Old Testament because He fulfills this Testament.

Revisiting the Understanding of the Brutal Times

I do not bring this up to claim “moral relativism.” However I believe that when God speaks to us, we need to remember this does not happen in a vacuum. He must speak to us through the cultural clutter which is in our society. This doesn’t mean that God’s message is relevant only for the time He speaks in of course, but if He speaks to a time 3000-4000 years in the past, we must be aware of the fact that people once accepted things we know to be wrong, and God had to gradually move us from this sinful understanding.

God speaks to us in history, not in the legendary past. He speaks to us in our fallen state, not in the state we were in before original sin. He speaks to people of all walks of life, not just philosophers and theologians. When God spoke to Abraham, we have a society which had been sinning against God for a long time indeed, and many of these sins had become institutions around the world. Brutal conquests with bitter aftermaths, practices of cruel depravity and so on, were widely practiced from Europe to Asia, and in the Americas. We fall into error if we forget this.

If a person thinks that the Ancient World, before the Jews and Christians appeared, was a time of peace and tolerance and justice, that person knows nothing about the history of the ancient world.

Some of these acts were so wicked (Sins which cry out to God for judgment) they could never be condoned at any time. The Catechism tells us of some of these:

1867 The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are "sins that cry to heaven": the blood of Abel,139 the sin of the Sodomites,140 the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt,141 the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan,142 injustice to the wage earner.143

Other sins were still wrong in the eyes of God, but because they were so ingrained into society and not as readily apparent as others, it would take many generations of placing restrictions before society could come to the understanding it was wrong. Some other acts could be right in certain contexts, but wrong in another.

Societies once commonly practiced all sorts of actions in war which would be considered war crimes today… yet none were seen as wrong practices then. Societies saw nothing wrong with pillage and rape against one’s enemies though this would be condemned if practiced against one’s own people.

We need to remember this is the world which God set out to save: The Bible did not order the taking of slaves or extermination on a whim. The Law, in fact, placed the first restrictions on this kind of behavior, with condemnations for behaving as the neighboring nations did.

With these points in mind, we can move on perhaps to look at some of the more troublesome laws in the Old Testament.

Issue I: A Look at Slavery

A Caveat

I am NOT writing to defend slavery here. Don’t get the impression that I am calling slavery good or justified. I am a part of a religious tradition which teaches all people are children of God and are to be treated as such. I do indeed find it tragic that past generations saw nothing wrong with the practice. However, I also believe that the proper understanding of the nature of slavery is needed to avoid making errors out of ignorance. To assume, for example, that all slavery was of the type the Pre-Civil War America used would be quite wrong and lead one to condemn all slaveholders for conditions which did not apply in all times in history and make a general assumption of all Christians on account of a few. A slave owning society should be judged for what they did and not for what another slave owning society did.

A General Look at Slavery

You may be a fundamentalist atheist if… You believe that when our forefathers are framing the Constitution, they're staunch deists, but when they're beating their slaves, they're Bible-believing Christians.

– From “You may Be a fundamentalist atheist if…”

Slavery is often viewed as a Jewish/Christian institution, where the worst and most dehumanizing aspects of the practice were assumed to have been instituted by Jews or Christians. This would be an error. Slavery existed before the Torah was pronounced by God, and even before God spoke to Abraham.

Slavery was actually an institution held in most of the ancient world. Before Abraham left Ur, slaves were a part of life. Laws about them appear in the Code of Hammurabi for example. The ancient Greeks and Romans and Babylonians and Egyptians all had rules concerning slaves. Some were slaves who were captives in wars. Some were slaves as a penalty for breaking the law. We don’t really see at this time however that any person who was from society X was viewed as a slave automatically. Certain societies may have been oppressed more because they were weaker, but we don’t really see the racial slavery prevalent in the American South.

Slavery differed in practice in different regions of the ancient world, and differed in how it was practiced in different times. For example, we should realize that by ancient standards, the modern practice of prison labor would be considered slavery, though we don’t often call it that today.

A failure to realize this point is to make a mistake about the slavery which was mentioned in the Bible.

Was Slavery a Judaeo-Christian Invention?

In America, slavery is a rather sensitive issue. We have a shameful legacy of racial slavery in this nation which considered the African-American to be less than fully human and good only to be enslaved. Often, we assume all slavery was of this type and forget that it was a type of slavery which only appeared in the west during the mid 15th century, which the Church denounced as soon as it began to be practiced again (beginning with Pope Eugenius IV in 1435).

One of the post hoc fallacies which condemn Christianity runs along the lines of “America was founded by Christians. Americans kept slaves. Therefore Christianity is to blame for slavery. This overlooks the fact that Christians can fail to carry out the Christian message. It also forgets that Christians were also the ones who opposed slavery. Some Christians invoked the Bible to justify their own actions yes. That doesn’t mean Christians accepted slavery. We need to remember that all too often, Christian teaching was subverted by culture in certain regions (which is to be condemned), and even today self proclaimed Catholics (such as Pelosi) promote policies condemned by the Church.

What Does the Bible Say About Slaves?

We see that the Torah had rules about keeping slaves. I have certainly seen some objections that: if God thought slavery was wrong, then why did He not forbid slavery?

I think we need to make a distinction here between the acts of most of the world, which had some pretty harsh rules about slaves, and the Torah of the Israelites which put some pretty strict restrictions on the keeping and treatment of slaves. As I mentioned earlier with recapitulation, it may be necessary to gradually change a society by putting on restrictions a little at a time. If slaves were enslaved because they were felons for example, what is the result of just letting them go? If slaves were totally dependent on their masters, what was the result of suddenly casting them loose? Given the Middle East at this time assumed slavery as a general part of life, the sudden abolition of slavery could have been extremely disruptive and work against the ultimate preparation of the salvation for Gentiles and Jews both.

With this in mind, we can look at what the Bible says about slaves. There were rules considering the Hebrew who, due to financial hardship, would enter into a temporary state of servitude. There were also rules considering the non-Hebrew slaves.

In Exodus 21, we see that among the Hebrews, slavery was a limited thing, and normally employed when a person sold himself for a time (though a sentence for a crime was also an option). They could be a slave for six years, but on the seventh (with the exception of one who voluntarily chose to remain in perpetual bondage), they must be set free. A slave could not be sold to a foreign people. Now if a slave married a wife prior to slavery, the wife and children went free with him. However, if the master gave the slave a wife, the wife remained a slave.

This seems harsh if we think other cultures were as "enlightened" as 21st Century America.  However, in comparison to societies around the Israelites, this was a radical restriction.

Slaves were not to be forced to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), and could not be mistreated. Exodus 21:26-27 tells us that a slave who was struck and suffered a permanent injury was to be freed. This indicates a radical restriction compared to other cultures, in that the slave was not the mere property of the owner, but had some human rights.

One interesting contrast to other societies is that the treatment of runaway slaves.  For example, the Code of Hammurabi mandated the death penalty for the harboring of a fugitive slave, saying in #19:

If he hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.

In contrast, Deuteronomy 23 tells us:

15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you; 16 he shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him.

So we do see a difference in how the slave was viewed.  This law shows us the recognition that sometimes the slave had a need to run away because of cruelty or saving one's life, and the Israelites were not to send a one back to his owner but was to permit him to live among them.

Compared to societies where the slave was under the complete domination of the master, the Israelite was forbidden to treat their slaves in an abusive way (a slave owner could be punished if he mistreated a slave so he died). 

Leviticus 25:44ff is probably the most uncomfortable section on slavery, because depending on how one interprets it, one might consider it a divine sanction for slavery. Now it is true that the chapter seems to make a distinction between Jews in slavery and slaves from other peoples, but the question is whether this is a command or a concession.

A command is where one is ordered to do something or not do something.  A concession is permission to do or not do a thing.  What we see is essentially the Torah did not forbid the keeping of slaves.  Rather it made commands regarded how a slave was treated in the already existing institution of slavery.

One thing we need to remember was that Israel was to be a holy nation, and those of the nations around Israel were pagans and practicing pagan customs which were condemned as evil. This helps distinguish the difference in treatment of the Israelite and the foreigner. From this sense, we can see the idea that slavery of foreign peoples was not done from xenophobia or racial hatred, especially as condemnations of mistreating slaves applied to all slaves.

If Israel was at war, and the people made peace, then enslavement was not allowed (though the nations would be subjugated and take part in certain works of labor). The taking of slaves in war seemed to be limited to conditions when battles were actually fought and peace did not come to be. So what we seem to have here is not a mandate to take slaves, but rather, we have a part of the rules for conflicts (Deuteronomy 20:10-20) and how captives were to be treated was a part of this rule.

Does the Lack of a Commandment against Slavery Mean Slavery was Good?

It does not logically follow that laws which put restrictions on slaves but did not abolish slavery means God approved of slavery. Ultimately, the complaint of atheists seems to be that God should have forbade slavery if He was really good.

The logical form seems to be:

1. If God is [Good], He would have [forbade slavery] (If [A] then [B])

2. He did not [forbid slavery] (Not [B])

3. Therefore God is not [good]. (Therefore Not [A])

It is logically valid in this form (though often the argument is often expressed in the logically invalid ways of Affirming the Consequent or Denying the Antecedent). There is a problem however with the assumption the argument makes. If God tolerates and limits an evil without forbidding it directly (with the intention of leading humanity to where they understand it is wrong), then we have a condition where one can be good and still not meet the conditions of the one presuming to judge God and His intentions.

This is the ultimate problem with the main premise. The lack of the motive prevents us from saying “God is not good because He did not do this.” For example, if I see one man shoot another man, am I right in condemning the shooter? I would be wrong if it turned out the shooter acted in self defense.

Now, this does not mean that slavery was ever good. There are certainly many things which were tolerated because of the hardness of hearts (see Matthew 19:7 and divorce for example). Certainly it would be better if people some 3000+ years ago were less violent in society, but they did not understand… indeed the whole purpose of Scripture is about God bringing man to salvation from his sins. This is not done by mere external observance, but in the heart. God had to gradually bring them to where they could understand. Christians, understanding recapitulation, are not guilty of “picking and choosing” or “defending slavery.” Rather they seek to understand the Scriptures in proper context.

So the accusation of God being evil, because He did not make the banning of slavery one of the Ten Commandments, is a charge which lacks the evidence and motive.  God is not acting in history to create a perfect human society. Rather He is acting to bring all people to salvation, converting their hearts to change the way they treat their fellow man.

Issue II: The Law and Genocide


■ n. the deliberate killing of a very large number of people from a particular ethnic group or nation.

– Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Does the God who commands "Thou shalt not kill" contradict Himself and order the mass slaughter of anyone else who disagrees?  Some of the challenges of certain atheists show that certain practices of 3000+ years ago shock us.  Now while some atheists may ask out of malice, others may indeed be sincere, being deeply troubled by what they cannot reconcile and seem to be in conflict.

I cannot promise I will succeed in answering (or even addressing) all the issues on this topic, I do believe the question to be valid and I hope to at least give a Christian answer to the question "How can you think this is a good God?"

Considering the Concerns of the Troubled Reader of Scripture

This is, perhaps, the most difficult and scandal causing accusation of course.  These are the sections of the Bible where God commands total war (called ērem or the ban) against some of the nations of the chosen land delivered to the Israelites.  This does shock the modern reader who can think of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist today and wonder if the God we believe in could command us at any time to exterminate our neighbors.

What Are The Assumptions?  Why They Should Be Recognized.

One of the problems in the assumptions which are held by certain people who condemn the Bible is that we tend to think of the societies of the pagan Middle East then as being cosmopolitan and liberal as America is today.  We then envision some group of religious zealots coming from out of nowhere killing Americans arbitrarily for nothing more than perhaps being a little "sexually liberated" and practicing different religions.  A lot of the "Religion is intolerant" charges come from this sort of thinking.

This view however seems to overlook the fact that these societies were not like cosmopolitan liberal America.  They practiced some rather barbaric things.  One of the most horrific is the example of human sacrifice, usually of children.  The Canaanites, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians… they all tended to sacrifice infants. City states often raided for profit, slaves and the like.  The losers could expect that those not taken as slaves could be killed. It’s not a time I would want to have lived in.

With this in mind, we need to remember that what we have here is a culture which existed in these conditions and took part in these activities.  The judgment of God against these city-states is not something we Christians are lying in wait to carry out against our fellow Americans.  They were carried out against specifically named nations that practiced things which, if they were done today, would be on the front pages under banner headlines like MAN MURDERS CHILD IN BIZARRE RITUAL!

Looking at Commands of God

Unlike the topics in Article II, where we can say that men behaved evilly, Christians cannot use this defense here.  Since we hold God is perfect and good, and we believe the Bible does not err, we must explain how a good God could give orders which seem so horrific today.

I believe, when we look at the commands of God on this topic, we need to recognize two aspects:

  1. That God commanded the Israelites to act as His agents of judgment in limited circumstances (He didn't command this with every people, but only with certain cities which were condemned for wicked practices).
  2. In other circumstances, God commands, by giving limitations to the cultural conduct of the region, with the view of guiding the people away from the evils done.

Why are these aspects important?  Because it distinguishes the actions of Israel being the instrument of Divine Punishment from the actions which Israel undertook on their own that were restricted.

Understanding What Was Commanded

We need to recognize that this was not a call to exterminate all unbelievers, Allahu akhbar, in the Middle East. It was not a call to forcibly convert all people (Judaism does relatively little converting from the outside). Certainly forms of this wickedness could be found elsewhere (German tribes, Aztecs and the druids would later practice some human sacrifice for example, though we don’t seem to see the depravity that existed in these civilizations mentioned in the Bible). This was a command to cleanse the land God chose to make Holy from all the reprehensible practices within it.

The commands begin in Deuteronomy 7, where we see what God commands:

1 “When the LORD, your God, brings you into the land which you are to enter and occupy, and dislodges great nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites: seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—

2 and when the LORD, your God, delivers them up to you and you defeat them, you shall doom them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

3 You shall not intermarry with them, neither giving your daughters to their sons nor taking their daughters for your sons.

4 For they would turn your sons from following me to serving other gods, and then the wrath of the LORD would flare up against you and quickly destroy you.

5 “But this is how you must deal with them: Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, chop down their sacred poles, and destroy their idols by fire.

6 For you are a people sacred to the LORD, your God; he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth to be a people peculiarly his own.

What is interesting in what is commanded is the word which is translated as “doom” or “destroy.”

The Concept of Ḥērem

The word used for doom or destroy (depending on the translation used) is in fact [הַחֲרֵ֣ם] (ērem, sometimes spelled charam), which has several meanings: ban, devote, exterminate, excommunicate. This may seem to be vastly contradictory, but that is because of the mindset of not understanding the concept behind the word.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary (hereafter referred to as the ABD) speaks of ērem as follows:

A special form of dedication is Heb ḥērem, “severe dedication; ban.” This is found mainly in contexts of war (Josh 6:17–21; 8:26; 10:1, 28, 35, 37, 39, 40; 11:11, 12, 20, 21; etc.) but may apply to one’s own property (cf. Lev 27:28, “field of one’s inheritance”; cf. v 21). Things placed under ḥērem include persons, their buildings, animals, precious objects and metals, and land. Objects, animals, and land so dedicated would be destroyed or become sanctuary property to be used by the priests (Num 18:14; Josh 6:19, 24; Ezek 44:29). Humans would be put to death (Lev 27:29). As with regular dedication, ḥērem can take the form of an unconditional declaration or a vow (Num 21:2–3).

—Freedman, D. N. (1996, c1992). ABD (3:244). New York: Doubleday.

Now I’m not bringing this up to play word games and claim that everyone was in error in thinking meaning ‘A’ when really meaning ‘B’ was meant. However, understanding what ērem means is important to understand what God commands. Consider Leviticus 27:

28 “Note, also, that any one of his possessions which a man vows as doomed to the LORD, whether it is a human being or an animal or a hereditary field, shall be neither sold nor ransomed; everything that is thus doomed becomes most sacred to the LORD.

“Doomed” is ērem and the sense is that what is ḥērem is not to be used for profane purposes

God has made the land of Israel and the people he brought out of Israel ērem which means it is sacred and consecrated to Him. Abominable practices are not to be found in the land He made holy and are not to be performed by the people He has made holy. Because of this, the practices which are abhorrent must be driven out of the land. This is not arbitrary. God acts against wickedness, starting in the Land which will be holy.

The ABD tells us:

Child sacrifice, which often is an accompaniment of idolatry, is a cause of pollution (Ezek 20:26, 31; 23:37–39; Ps 106:37–38). Deuteronomy places idolatrous implements under ḥērem (“extreme dedication”) status which means that as the Israelites conquer Canaan they are to destroy the implements (7:5, 25). One who misappropriates idolatrous materials falls under ḥērem status (Deut 7:25–26; cf. Josh 6:18; 7:12; 1 Kgs 20:42). One under this status is liable to death (Lev 27:29; Deut 13:13–19—Eng 13:12–18; Joshua 7). One who sacrifices to other gods also falls under ḥērem status (Exod 22:19).

—Freedman, D. N. (1996, c1992). ABD (6:734). New York: Doubleday.

It is not denied that these cities within the land God has made Holy to Him are to be destroyed for their abominable practices. The emphasis, of course is on “driving out.” We don’t see a command to destroy those who have fled for example (see Deuteronomy 9 below), but rather the purification of a region from the wicked practices which were limited to the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.

ērem is concerned with things which are condemned to be destroyed because of their idolatrous opposition to God. If the land of Israel is to be made holy and if the abominations of the inhabitants are to be considered so foul that they must be purged… not looted, then it stands to reason that God could make use of the Israelites to punish these nations just as He made use of the Babylonians to later punish the Israelites.

Ḥērem is Limited

Notice, however that this sentence of ḥērem is not to be applied to all the inhabitants of all nations the Hebrews encounter. Rather they are to be done in a certain context. Under Recapitulation, we understand that God’s act of salvation for the world begins with the people and the land He has chosen. The nations driven out of Israel are driven out because of their wickedness, showing how sin is so contradictory to God and the way we are called to live

This is shown in Deuteronomy 9, we see God speaking of these nations that Israel is to “doom.”

3 Understand, then, today that it is the LORD, your God, who will cross over before you as a consuming fire; he it is who will reduce them to nothing and subdue them before you, so that you can drive them out and destroy them quickly, as the LORD promised you.

4 After the LORD, your God, has thrust them out of your way, do not say to yourselves, ‘It is because of my merits that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land’; for it is really because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you.

5 No, it is not because of your merits or the integrity of your heart that you are going in to take possession of their land; but the LORD, your God, is driving these nations out before you on account of their wickedness and in order to keep the promise which he made on oath to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

6 Understand this, therefore: it is not because of your merits that the LORD, your God, is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.

Notice the emphasis on “driving them out” from the lands they held. This is not a case of God saying “always and forever, kill people who are not Jews.” Instead, God is speaking of specific nations in the land He has made holy which were being punished by God. God did not arbitrarily decide to uproot people who were innocent and did no wrong for the benefit of the Hebrews. Rather, these people were to be driven out on account of their wickedness. If they had not practiced this wickedness, they would not have been driven out.

What wickedness? We see this in Deuteronomy 18:

9 “When you come into the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominations of the peoples there.

10 Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner,

11 or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead.

12 Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD, and because of such abominations the LORD, your God, is driving these nations out of your way.

Human sacrifice and some rather sickening practices of magicians of these places was why these peoples were not to be allowed to continue practicing their ways after being conquered. Moreover, we need to remember that the people who consulted these magicians took part in the abominations by making them necessary.

Indeed, when we get to Deuteronomy 20, where we see God giving the command with the nations who were to be exterminated, we can see a very interesting thing about Deuteronomy 20:16-18.

 16 But in the cities of those nations which the LORD, your God, is giving you as your heritage, you shall not leave a single soul alive.

17 You must doom them all-the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites-as the LORD, your God, has commanded you,

18 lest they teach you to make any such abominable offerings as they make to their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD, your God.

This is often interpreted to mean that the Israelites were ordered to slaughter such people wherever they were. This is not so. In those cities in the geographical boundaries of Israel, the culture which did these abominations mentioned in verse 18 (human sacrifice among others) were not to be left standing lest it corrupt the Israelites. However, some of these nations existed outside the boundaries of Israel and the people there were not hunted by the Israelites. For example, the Canaanites existed in Syria and Lebanon, the Hittites lived in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The Amorites lived in Syria and Arabia. The Jebusites and were ethnically and culturally Hittite. These nations, we can see, existed partially in Israel and partially outside.

I believe I have shown that the actions against these nations were because:

  1. God had decreed this land sacred
  2. These nations practiced abominable things against the Natural Law to an extent that God decreed they were to be punished for their crimes.

Because the task was to clear out a purified land and not to destroy the inhabitants of these other cities of this group of people, the charge of genocide does not follow. The purpose of this was not to inflict harm on a group because of a racial or religious hatred, but to perform the judgment God commands.

Here is a dilemma. If God does not exist in the first place, then the charge cannot be that God is evil. If God exists however, and is Judge, one needs to demonstrate how God behaved unjustly in His actions before the charge of genocide can be directed against God.

Certain Objections at this Point

Usually around here, one comes across the objection “What about the innocent people? They didn’t do anything!” When it comes to the adults, the question can be raised with “What innocent people?”

If we go to Genesis 18:20-33 and look at God’s promise, we can see that God exacts punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah because their wickedness is so great that not even ten just men can be found.

If we consider Ezekiel 18, we see that God does not desire the destruction of the sinner but their salvation. In Genesis 15:16, we see an interesting passage which fits in to the concept of God knowing what the future inhabitants of Israel will do without sanctioning it:

16 In the fourth time-span the others shall come back here; the wickedness of the Amorites will not have reached its full measure until then.”

This doesn’t mean God leaves them to their wickedness and then arbitrarily destroys them. We understand this to mean that they have a period of time to repent, but instead they will not avail themselves of this.

From this, we can see the Amorites will grow in wickedness, but that God tolerates it but does not approve it. Haydock’s commentary says:

…during which period of time, God was pleased to bear with those wicked nations; whose iniquity chiefly consisted in idolatry, oppression of the poor and strangers, forbidden marriages of kindred, and abominable lusts. (Leviticus xviii; Deuteronomy vi. and xii.)

So in such a case we need to consider some things when interpreting Scripture. Christians believe God does not take pleasure in destroying the wicked, but wants the salvation of all. Yet if He does punish the wicked, it stands to reason that those He passes judgment on have received their judgment rightly. A claim which disagrees with this requires evidence to the contrary.

Finally there is the issue of the children. It does indeed seem harsh to us that even children were slain, unless we remember that we believe in eternal life and that God only punishes people with damnation for those sins they are responsible for, not for sins which could not be known by them. Bringing the innocent out of the world, away from a culture which will destroy their souls if God had not punished the city can be understood in this context.

Conclusion: The Unspoken and Unproven Assumptions behind Accusations of an “Evil God”

The person who makes the accusation of the immoral God here, accusing Him of maliciously ordering the infants to be destroyed makes some assumptions here. First, he or she assumes that the inhabitants under ērem were innocent (or at least the sins were “minor”) and that the God condemning them was a vicious and intolerant being. Second, the person assumes God was ordering the children punished. Third, the person assumes that the Christian holds to the assumptions the atheist assumes.

Ultimately the accusation of the “evil God” comes from the assumption that sins are unimportant things, and not to be worthy of punishment. Since God punishes sinners in the accounts of Scripture, the act is taken without consideration of motive.

I think I should close this article with a quote from Fr. Thomas Crean O.P.

God is infinite, uncreated goodness. Therefore He has the right to be loved and obeyed unconditionally. This is simply how things are. God can no more abolish His rational creatures’ duty of obedience and love towards Him than He can abolish the laws of mathematics. Sin is a refusal of God’s right to be loved and obeyed. It is a metaphysical monstrosity: a created will trying to raise itself above the Will that created it. God owes it to His own goodness and holiness not to ignore sin, for that would be to allow evil to subject Him to itself. He can forgive sin on condition of repentance, or He can punish it, but He cannot pretend that it is significant, any more than He can cease to be God.

God is No Delusion, page 124

Christians believe God only punished the guilty when necessary, but seeks the salvation of all when they will turn to Him. The Torah was the beginning of the preparation of a nation to be holy and dedicated to Him, but ultimately the fulfillment of what God intends is in the salvation brought to the whole world in Jesus Christ. Failing to understand this, and accusing Christians of “picking and choosing” is to fail to understand anything at all about Christianity.

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