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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rationalizing Biblical Atrocities: It Could Have Been Worse

Another common claim among Christians attempting to rationalize Biblical atrocities is that although genocide and forced marriage were ordered by Yahweh and enforced without compunction by the Israelites, these otherwise horrific acts are rendered the most morally viable option due to the alternatives, which would have been worse.

This is a particularly attractive argument - it conjures up the idea of a deity who really wanted to spare all humans, even the corrupt pagans, any unnecessary pain and suffering. I'm reminded of the climactic scene in Old Yeller, where Travis has to blast the dog into smithereens because it's contracted rabies. The tears stream down his face as he puts the rifle to his shoulder, and pulls the trigger - isn't this the way Christians would like to think of Yahweh targeting the women and children of his enemies?

As I pointed out in the previous entry, there are three instances in the Bible where genocide is clearly ordered and carried out by the Israelites. These orders are clearly punctuated by specific commands from Yahweh, as in Numbers 31:
They made war on Midian, as Yahweh had ordered Moses, and put every male to death. What is more, they killed the kings of Midian, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba, the five Midianite kings; they also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. The Israelites took the Midianite women and their little ones captive and carried off all their cattle, all their flocks and all their goods as booty. They set fire to the towns where they lived and to all their encampments. Then, taking all their booty, everything they had captured, man and beast, they brought the captives, spoil and booty to Moses, the priest Eleazar and the whole community of Israelites at the camp on the Plains of Moab, near the Jordan by Jericho.
There still seems to be some confusion about the Midianites and the Moabites here, belied by the geographical details. The Midianites lived far to the south of Jericho, either on the Arabian or the Sinai peninsulas bordering the Gulf of Aqaba- the Moabites lived in close proximity to Jericho, across the Jordan river. For the Israelites to travel deep enough into Midianite territory to destroy "all their encampments," it would require a journey roughly equivalent to that across the Sinai peninsula, from Egypt to Palestine - no simple war campaign. As was suggested by the mixed-up justification given in Numbers 25, there seems to have been a Midianite element laid over a story about Moabites, and for some reason the redactor didn't care or wasn't aware of the geographical contradictions his efforts contributed to the story. But I digress.

Instead of the total genocide that was ordered for the Canaanites in Jericho and the Amalekites, the Israelites had thought initially to lay claim to the Midianite women as war booty, saving them from the sword, but Moses makes it clear that only the young girls are appropriate for whatever the men had in mind:
Moses, the priest Eleazar and all the leaders of the community went out of the camp to meet them. Moses was enraged with the officers of the army, the commanders of the thousands and commanders of the hundreds, who had come back from this military expedition. He said, "Why have you spared the life of all the women? They were the very ones who, on Balaam's advice, caused the Israelites to be unfaithful to Yahweh in the affair at Peor: hence the plague which struck Yahweh's community. So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves.
This is perhaps the most disturbing scene for Christians to have to deal with. There's a certain amount of military logic to the idea of killing all the men - these were the dangerous ones. Moses' point suggests that the women were the real targets all along- although again, we're faced with a garbled patchwork narrative as the editor of this passage tried to make sense of Moses' reasons. Again, we're referred back to the situation at Peor, but as you recall, that was caused by Moabite women, not Midianites. There was a story about one Midianite princess tacked on to the end of the tale, but it was done so too clumsily to make sense of what Moses claims. These nonexistent Midianite women had supposedly sought advice from Balaam? If so, there's no record of this in the preceding passages. Balaam was a soothsayer (Moabite, presumably) who was hired by Balak the Moabite king to curse the Israelites (although he never did so, and is depicted as being familiar with and enjoying discourse with Yahweh, even worshipping him at every opportunity - I smell another narrative discontinuity here, but I'll leave it be for now), but he never consulted with the Midianites, nor suggested that they attempt to seduce the Israelites with their foreign deities.

The idea of killing women simply because they practiced a different religion should be obviously immoral, and the average Christian is going to shift more than a little bit in his or her seat when reading this, especially the cold way the following passages detail how the young girls were split up among the Israelites:
The spoils, the remainder of the booty captured by the soldiers, came to six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep and goats, seventy-two thousand head of cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, and in persons, women who had never slept with a man, thirty-two thousand in all. Half was assigned to those who had taken part in the war... sixteen thousand persons, of which Yahweh's portion was thirty-two. Moses gave the priest Eleazar the portion set aside for Yahweh, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.

As for the half coming to the Israelites which Moses had separated from that the the combatants... sixteen thousand persons. From this half, the Israelites' share, Moses took one out of every fifty, man and beast, and gave them to the Levites who were responsible for Yahweh's Dwelling, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.
It doesn't look good for young girls to be counted up and divided like so much livestock - even I feel a little sick to my stomach as I'm copying it. Thirty-two thousand young girls, having just witnessed the slaughter of their mothers, older sisters, and young brothers, were being parceled out like so much property. And Yahweh is careful not to forget about his priests - 320 of these girls were reserved for distribution among the Levites, and an additional 32 were saved for the High Priest's private enjoyment.

It's no surprise that any Christian with a pre-pubescent daughter is going to have a lot of trouble with this passage - it's no secret that priests and other religious officials have helped themselves to the sexual opportunism that is frequently afforded them, but this practice has always been publicly denounced - imagine the cognitive disconnect to read a passage where Yahweh specifically bestows 32 virgin girls to his High Priest.

But if there's one thing that I've learned during my interactions with Christians following my apostasy, it's to never underestimate the power of religiously-motivated rationalization.

Rationalization #1: Captured women were treated with dignity, and allowed to worship the true god Yahweh.

There is an oft-cited passage in Deuteronomy 21 that outlines the rules for Israelites who take wives from military prisoners:
When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, and among the prisoners you see a beautiful woman, and you fall in love with her, and you take her to be your wife and bring her home; she must shave her head and cut her nails, and take off her prisoner's garb; she must stay inside your house and mourn her father and mother for a full month. You may then go to her and be a husband to her, and she will be your wife. Should she cease to please you, you will let her go where she wishes, not selling her for money: you must not make any profit out of her, since you have exploited her.
I suppose that a female slave could be treated worse than this, but the main immorality implicit in this passage is the sheer fact that any captured woman could be coerced sexually - this is rape we're reading about, make no mistake about it. I hardly think a rapist would be afforded moral leniency if he bought flowers for a woman before he pushed her to the ground and forced himself on her. Another claim within this rationalization is that the insistence for the woman to shave her head and cut her nails were enforced to make her ugly, thereby ensuring the man's true intentions - that is to say, if he raped her after a month of seeing her at her most unattractive, it would be only the sweetest, most caring kind of rape. I suppose the idea of the man forcing himself on the captive woman, even with the best intentions (?) is still not quite enough to clean it up morally, so a final claim is that the women were allowed to go free if the relationship failed. That's somewhat accurate - the women were not to be sold into further slavery if the men were "no longer pleased" with them, but the text is clear that the woman did not enjoy the same prerogative. That is, she was allowed to go free if and only if her husband/captor decrees it - she has no freedoms of her own. I'm reminded somewhat of the fundamentalist Mormon communities that often marry off young girls to older men - that this practice is decried by modern Christians but similar passages in the Bible are cleared for approval is a profound irony.

Rationalization #2: The children killed in genocide were spared life in a corrupt and evil pagan society.

A common theme of the Pentateuch is that all cultures other than the Israelites were evil through and through - if for no other reason than that they worshiped gods other than Yahweh. And indeed, there is often no other reason given. We are led to assume that the worship of other gods leads to utter depravity, although the Yahweh-worshipers seem to indulge in just as many sickening displays of violence and slavery. In fact, we can find sympathetic pagans all throughout the Pentateuch, from Melchizedek in Genesis 14 and Abimelech in Genesis 20 to Moses' wife and father-in-law, who are introduced in Exodus 2 and are both Midianites! To say nothing of the fact that two of the women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 are pagans - Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabite! Was Jesus himself derived from a line tainted with such immorality? I'd wager that such an admission would be unlikely by the average Christian, and without any other meaningful examples of pagan immorality (other than the audacity to worship a god other than Yahweh), it seems that this rationalization falls flat.

Rationalization #3: The young children who were killed went to Heaven automatically, and thus received a greater reward than even the Israelites.

This is perhaps the most perverse of the group. It brings to mind the imagery of Psalm 137:
Daughter of Babel, doomed to destruction,
a blessing on anyone
who treats you as you treated us,
a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies
and shatters them against a rock!
It's one thing entirely to posit that the children would have had a horrible life living among the depraved pagans, and thus their death was actually a better outcome, but it's quite another to argue that their death was actually the best possible outcome. You don't have to be particularly astute to realize that this line of reasoning is quite unexpected from people that argue unequivocally against abortion and claim that the pagans were evil for committing infanticide. If the destination of prematurely killed babies is Heaven, then abortion is the most reliable way to ensure salvation, and the babies sacrificed by the Moabites had expressed tickets to eternal bliss given to them. Imagine the shock for a Christian who, upon entering Heaven, finds it overwhelmed with aborted fetuses and sacrificed infants - to say nothing of the billions of miscarried fetuses there. The Heavenly occupant that actually lived on Earth will be in the vast minority, but I digress...


The argument that sexual slaves were treated with respect just isn't supported by the scriptures - it's clear, whatever the case, that the young Midianite girls were forced into sexual servitude by all the Israelites, up to the High Priest himself, and that this was supported and even commanded to take place by Yahweh himself. The requirement for female captives to shave their hair and cut their nails was more likely a purification ritual than a guard against lusty Israelite conquerers - similarly to the ritual washing of the Midianite virgins as seen in the above painting commanded by Yahweh along with the rest of the war booty. The bottom line is that these women, these thirty-two thousand young girls, were forced to become wives to the men who had killed their families. I'm somewhat skeptical that this would be a preferable fate to death.

And as for those babies that were killed, even Christians realize how implicitly dangerous the line of reasoning is that supposes them to have been short-cutted to Heaven. They're quick to remind us that although God is free to give and take life when he so desires, we don't have to prerogative to loose the mortal coils of infants as he can - even though by doing so we would be guaranteeing them an eternity of happiness.

In the final part, I'll examine the question of whether God can even be called on the carpet to answer for the blood on his holy hands.

Post a Comment


At 6/13/2007 11:28 AM, Blogger olly declaimed...

I'd also add one of the more common rationalizations I hear:

"That was all old testament stuff"

Oh, ok, so God used to be an asshole, but after he had his son tortured and killed, he changed his ways.



At 6/15/2007 12:07 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...


Re: your comment...

whats funny is that I just started reading Hitchens' "God is Not Great" and there is a chapter in there that claims that the new testament god is more evil than the old testament. LOL I cant wait to get to that chapter :)

Excellent analysis of the slavery/slaghter/rape story of the medianites. I also liked how you mentioned that the moabite/medianite thing is likely an error due to some asshole author being unable to keep all his lies and fables consistent.



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