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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rationalizing Biblical Atrocities: Blame the Victim

It seems to be universally admitted, even by Christians, that many of the the events recorded in the Old Testament are disgustingly bloodthirsty at worst, and offensive to modern sensibilities at best. The obvious conundrum is thus: how to reconcile the concept of a god who "so loved the world" with a deity that unblinkingly ordered the following:
  1. The genocide of the Midianites and sexual captivity of their young girls (Numbers 31)
  2. The genocide of the people of Jericho and slaughter of all their livestock (Deuteronomy 6)
  3. The genocide of the Amalekites and slaughter of all their livestock (1 Samuel 15)
Make no mistake, pious Christians are just as likely as nonbelievers to feel queasy when considering the scale of destruction ordered by Yahweh- the moral justifiability of such acts are not readily apparent from the text, and they are all too aware that having such passages thrust under their noses by nonbelievers or Christian apostates such as myself presents a sticky theological wicket.

What happens next, however, is a series of predictable rationalizations intended to soften the ethical pangs of an uncomfortable truth. The first group in this series all serve to demonize the peoples who were on the receiving end of the Israelite violence - what's commonly referred to as "blaming the victim." I'll address each in turn.

Rationalization #1: The Midianites were a corrupting influence, promoting idol worship and causing sickness among the Israelites.

The genocide of the people of Midian begins without any obvious cassus belli - Yahweh simply directs Moses in Numbers 31 to "Exact the full vengeance for the Israelites on the Midianites. Afterwards you will be gathered to your people." Presumably, the reason for Yahweh's wrath is detailed in the earlier chapter 25, where his anger waxes hot against just about everyone:
Israel settled at Shittim. The people gave themselves over to prostitution with Moabite women. These invited them to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down before their gods. With Israel thus committed to the Baal of Peor, Yahweh's anger was aroused against them.

Yahweh said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people. Impale them facing the sun, for Yahweh, to deflect his burning anger from Israel." Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you will put to death those of his people who have committed themselves to the Baal of Peor."
Wait a minute- I thought this was supposed to be an explanation of why Yahweh was pissed at the Midianites - these were Moabite women, not Midianite. And the retribution is directed against the Israelites themselves, not the foreign people, which seems odd. Impaling is a pretty brutal fate - I guess you can't accuse Yahweh of being soft on anyone, not even his own people. (There's an interesting clue here that Yahweh was considered to be a sun god, but I'll just stash that away for a later analysis). Strangely enough, the narrative continues in the following passage, with an abrupt change of focus from Moabite women to one Midianite woman.
One of the Israelites came along, bringing the Midianite woman into his family, under the very eyes of Moses and the whole community of Israelites as they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, on seeing this, stood up, left the assembly, seized a lance, followed the Israelite into the alcove, and there ran them both through, the Israelite and the woman, through the stomach. Thus the plague which had struck the Israelites was arrested. In the plague twenty-four thousand of them had died.
Wait... what plague? Nothing at all is mentioned of a plague coming among the Israelites in the first part of the story - where did this come from? And why is this woman introduced casually as "the Midianite woman" without any introduction? I thought we were dealing with a larger problem with multiple Moabite women, so what's the significant of this one woman? These hanging details suggest strongly to me that these are two disparate stories, patched together by the lone similarity that they both deal with apostate Israelites being punished by impalement by those in charge. Near the end of the chapter (although out of the natural narrative order), the Midianite woman is identified as Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chief. The narrative is capped by another curse of Yahweh:
Yahweh then spoke to Moses and said, "Harass the Midianites, strike them down, for harassing you with their guile in the Peor affair and in the affair of their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, the woman who was killed the day the plague came on account of the business of Peor.
This explanation is so awkward it belies its own redactional intent- it's clear that the apostasy of the Israelites is considered to be the reason for Yahweh's later wrath, but a story about Moabite women and a Midianite princess were cobbled together to rationalize a justification for retribution against all the Midianite people (although the proximate offenders had already paid for their crimes with their lives).

Rationalization #2: The Canaanites were incredibly immoral, participating in every conceivable disgusting act, up to and including child sacrifice.

The list of sexual prohibitions given in Leviticus are predicated on the statement that they are all (incest, sex with a menstruating woman, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, child sacrifice) practiced by the Canaanites. Although the last item in the list is one that I can endorse as immoral, the rest don't seem to be obvious condemnations of a thoroughly evil people. Certainly all of these are distinctively icky (at least, to my sensibilities), but there is a wide distinction between icky and immoral.

As for the issue of child sacrifice, there seem to be a number of scriptural suggestions that this practice was equally as common among the Israelites. In Exodus 13, it says that "Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, "Consecrate all the first-born to me, the first birth from every womb, among the Israelites. Whether man or beast, it is mine." Later in the passage, it is explained that instead of killing them outright, an animal may be sacrificed to "redeem" the value of the child from Yahweh (the same honor could be given to first-born donkeys, as well). But this still establishes a troubling context - that of the first-born child being Yahweh's property to kill or not. This traces back all the way to Abraham, who Yahweh had commanded to (and presumably, had the authority to command) kill his own first-born as a sacrifice in Genesis 22.

In 1 and 2 Kings, we find that the practice of child sacrifice was robust among the Israelites - no less than Solomon himself built altars to Chemosh and Milcom, the child-hungry gods of the Moabites and Ammonites, respectively. King Ahaz was happy to sacrifice his own son in this way, and although no retribution by Yahweh was recorded against him, the popularity of this practice in the Northern Kingdom is cited as one of the reasons for its later destruction.

Rationalization #3: The Amalekites were a ruthless, evil people who were hell-bent on destroying Israel during the Exodus- thus, their genocide amounted to retribution at worst, self-defense at best.

This is another claim that is found in the scriptures, but seems to be a traditional echo rather than an actual matter of fact. In 1 Samuel, when Samuel orders King Saul on behalf of Yahweh to commit genocide, he gives this reason:
This is what Yahweh Sabaoth says: 'I intend to punish what Amalek did to Israel - laying a trap for him on the way as he was coming up from Egypt. Now, go and crush Amalek; put him under the curse of destruction with all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'
This says nothing about the Amalekites being "ruthless" or "evil," just that they "laid a trap" for the Israelites as they were passing through Amalekite territory during the Exodus. But a passage in Deuteronomy 25 gives a bit more information:
Remember how Amalek treated you when you were on your way out of Egypt. He met you on your way and, after you had gone by, he fell on you from the rear and cut off the stragglers; when you were faint and weary, he had no fear of God. When Yahweh your God has granted you peace from all the enemies surrounding you, in the country given you by Yahweh your God to own as your heritage, you must blot out the memory of Amalek under heaven. Do not forget.
This does sound a little worse than just "laying a trap." The Israelites had passed by, and the Amalekites cowardly attacked the old and sick who were straggling behind? What assholes! But the Deuteronomy passage speaks of the events as a remembrance- Exodus 17 preserves an account of these unholy bastards in action:
The Amalekites then came and attacked Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, "Pick some men and tomorrow morning go out and engage Amalek. I, for my part, shall take my stand on the hilltop with the staff of God in my hand." Joshua did as Moses had told him and went out to engage Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. As long as Moses kept his arms raised, Israel had the advantage; when he let his arms fall, the advantage went to Amalek. But Moses' arms grew heavy, so they took a stone and put it under him and on this he sat, with Aaron and Hur supporting his arms on each side.

Thus his arms remained unwavering till sunset, and Joshua defeated Amalek, putting their people to the sword. Yahweh then said to Moses, "Write this down in a book to commemorate it, and repeat it over to Joshua, for I shall blot out all memory of Amalek under heaven."
The account of the actual confrontation doesn't say anything about laying a trap, preying on the weak, or anything particularly sneaky. It seems like a simple enough clash between two peoples- the Israelites and the Amalekites, in whose territory the former had trespassed. But there's another inconsistency here- in the Deuteronomy and 1 Samuel passages, the implication is that the Amalekites had done some injustice and gotten away with it. However, the account of the actual battle in Exodus shows that not only were the Amalekites not successful in their attack, but Joshua "put their people to the sword." Genocide isn't made explicit here, but it certainly sounds like a crushing enough defeat to make Yahweh's concluding curse seem redundant. It's possible that this curse was inserted into the text in order to establish some continuity with the Deuteronomic understanding of the Amalekites as cowardly opportunists, deserving of genocide.


The main problem with this approach should obvious - two wrongs do not make a right. No matter how incredibly evil a group of people might have been (and none are clearly shown to be so evil as is commonly claimed), taking a sword and hacking them to pieces doesn't seem to be a moral response to the situation. Certainly an omnipotent deity such as Yahweh could have devised some other way to avoid the problem of idolatrous neighbors without having to put the Israelites through such martial paces - after all, he seemed to have no problem whatsoever causing plagues to spread among the Israelites when they allowed foreign women into their midst - was he so powerless that he couldn't have started a few plagues among the nastiest nations before the Israelites even crossed the desert? Or perhaps he could have raised whole mountain ranges or split off Palestine with impassable waters as geographical barriers to protect the Israelites from outside influences - such a solution would have removed the need for any killing whatsoever.

Of course, this assumes that the slaughtered groups were as evil as Christians would have us believe, and this is just not supported by the scriptures. The Amalekites are described in Exodus as reacting just as would be expected if any large foreign group of people trespassed into their territory. The Midianites as a people are only targeted because their women were so attractive to the Israelite men, which unhappily smacks of the kind of accusation leveled at victims of rape. That the men interested in them sought to curry favor by worshipping their gods hardly seems like a prima facie immorality - after all, aren't Christians only too happy when their daughters bring their boyfriends along to church with them? It seems to me to be the natural result of cultural interaction - and thus paints the Israelites as xenophobic. The child sacrifice of the Canaanites is something that I'm happy to condemn as well, but it strikes me as being both hypocritical of the Israelites to engage in the same practice after supplanting the former, as well as an ineffective preventative strategy to use genocide.

In the next part, I'll examine the question of whether anything could be worse than genocide.

Post a Comment


At 6/12/2007 10:17 AM, Blogger James declaimed...

Something to keep in mind: Moses's wife, Zipporah, was a Midianite. In fact, her father, Jethro, was a Midianite priest.

At 6/12/2007 10:23 AM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

An excellent point- there may even be some clues in Exodus that Yahweh was originally a Midianite god- Midian is where Yahweh first appears to Moses in the form of the burning bush, and Jethro seems oddly accepting of Yahweh's existence and sovereignty in the area.

At 6/13/2007 11:00 PM, Blogger Alison declaimed...

Another point I'd like to make: who can really believe that an entire race practices being sexier than most (i.e. "adultery" and being gay)? The 10 year olds? How about 8? 6? 3? What about the oldsters? Come on, Grandma fucks dogs? Is a lesbian, maybe. If they can't rationalize putting gays and divorcees to death, they can't rationalize this.



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