In my now-famous post Top Ten Worst Bible Stories, I singled out the Massacre of the Midianites in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Numbers 31:1-18 for particular criticism. It is, in fact, a story of genocide, the bloodthirsty and unprovoked annihalation of a people who had done nothing that we can look at today as having been even remotely morally equivalent to what they suffered at the hands of Jehovah’s followers.
An intrepid, intelligent, and earnest apologist has taken on my challenge to offer a justification for this story. I suggest that if you have interest in this exchange, you read his apology for it first, and then come back to the balance of this very long analysis, that appears below after the jump.
Ennis begins his apology with a discourse concerning how the polygamy, slavery, and adultery as depicted in the Bible need to be understood in the context of the social, political, military, economic, and technological world of the Bronze Age Middle East (BAME). This was another time, another place, with different cultural and moral norms than apply today, and the people were in different circumstances than we find ourselves, or so the argument goes.
If this were the entirety of the argument, then my case is already won. If morality is derivative of one’s social, political, military, economic, and technological circumstances, then clearly the morality of the Bible is obsolete. We do not live in the social, political, military, economic, or technological world of the BAME; modern Western society is fundamentally different from the BAME so it only makes sense that what makes good ethical sense today would be very different from what made good ethical sense in the BAME, and therefore the moral guidance offered to us by the Bible is at best uncertain. No such thing as objective morality would exist; there would only be cultural norms and the degree to which one conformed to them.
2. We Have To Look Deeper
If that were the sum of the exchange, it would be a shallow and not very intellectually useful one. And no one is really going there; Ennis is not to be properly understood as making an argument rooted in moral relativism, at least not of that degree of fluidity. To be sure, sometimes there are very obvious moral myths — the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, gives us an example of behavior which does not need profound abstraction. But Ennis’ claim is that at least sometimes, the Bible ought to be understood as trying to convey something deeper than superficial cultural norms.
Fair enough — but even assuming that there is some kind of a discernable signal within the Bible itself that tells us to “look deeper,” we must ultimately confront the question of what qualitatively distinguishes moral from immoral behavior. This becomes particularly difficult in those sections where things that appear superficially to be morally awful are held up as morally good and in some cases even heroic. The Massacre of the Midianites1 is such a story. I cannot find any reference in the Book of Numbers, which describes the military travails of the Israelites under Moses’ leadership, which indicates that the Massacre did not enjoy divine sanction, that Jehovah was somehow displeased with what the Israelites did at Moab.
Ennis concedes that the text of the Bible is silent as to Jehovah’s opinion on some things, but protests that it is Moses and not Jehovah who expresses irritation with the soldiers who incompletely sacked the city by not slaughtering everyone in it but the virgin girls, and it is Moses and not Jehovah who issues the order that sends the soldiers back in to finish the job. He further argues that Jehovah had already punished Moses for his previous sins (that included fits of anger so intense Moses had committed murder earlier in his life) and suggests that maybe Moses made that order independent of the wishes of Jehovah in a spectacular and morally indefensible fit of pique over being denied entrance into the promised land after forty years of wandering in the desert.
If that were the case, I’d have expected some sort of indication of divine condemnation of that act. Nowhere in the text does Jehovah call Moses out for having given that order nor can we find a single jot or line that suggests that Moses was not — as he had usually done for forty years — speaking as Jehovah’s prophet and delegate. And certainly the soldiers would have thought that Moses was speaking in that capacity and therefore believed that what they were doing was sanctioned and indeed ordered by Jehovah.
3. Euthyphro’s Dilemma
Which gets us to the core of the issue. If Jehovah issues an immoral order, does following that order become morally good? Ennis hits this point although he blows by it too quickly in my estimation. Intellectually, we’re at the same territory covered by Plato’s Euthyphro, the purported narrative of Socrates’ trial and execution. Euthyphro urges Socrates to publicly recant his teachings and keep his true thoughts and feelings to himself, so as to save his own life. Socrates protests that this is a lie and to lie would be immoral. Euthyphro says that what is moral is what pleases the gods, and surely the gods will be displeased by Socrates’ death. Socrates then asks, are actions moral because they are those actions that please the gods, or are the gods pleased by those actions because those actions are inherently moral?
If Euthyphro’s response is the first choice, then there is no such thing as objective morality. There is only the arbitrary pleasure of the gods. Translated into Biblical terms, the only evaluation that can be made of any human action is whether it is obedient or disobedient to Jehovah’s instructions; Jehovah’s instructions obey no rules, conform to no standard, follow no pattern, and are themselves the definition of morality. Obedience to Jehovah is, by definition, moral; disobedience is, by definition, immoral. And importantly, Jehovah’s instructions are arbitrary.
If Euthyphro’s response is the second choice, then morality exists independent of the gods and the actions of the gods themselves can be measured. The Greeks would have had little trouble with the idea that one of the gods might behave immorally; however, the Abrahamic religions insist that Jehovah is not only omnipotent but also omniscient and omnibenevolent. So if we go with the second choice in the Abrahamic monotheistic context, then Jehovah becomes the one who applies the moral yardstick to actions as a component of his omniscience, and all of his instructions and actions must conform to this objective morality as a component of his omnibenevolence. Further, although Jehovah may be the best possible evaluator of whether a given act conforms to objective morality, Jehovah is not the architect of morality.2
4. William of Occam In The House
Ennis’ response is: “Yes, God can do anything He wants but because He is righteous there are certain things He will not do, e.g., lie, steal, be untrustworthy or unfair.” This was the argument offered by William of Occam in the fourteenth century. This is the answer I would expect from an intellectually honest apologist: a concession that in theory, God could choose to act in an evil way and they would then in theory be evil; but it in practice, God’s acts are always good and never evil.
So to take Ennis and William of Occam at their word is for Euthyphro to select the second option: objective morality exists, and therefore at least in theory, even Jehovah is potentially subject to moral evaluation.
The necessary and unavoidable result of this proposition is that anyone can evaluate an action based on its inherent moral worth. We can do this without reference to Jehovah or any other deity, because the deities, like us, apply a moral yardstick to an action rather than apply their arbitrary fiat. If you and I disagree about how an act measures up, we can inquire as to how we reached our respective conclusions, and hopefully dialogue so that we can form a consensus.
I would agree that issuing moral judgments and understanding the precise shape of this moral yardstick is sometimes — often — difficult. It is particularly difficult in this context because it is very difficult set aside one’s own social, political, military, economic, or technological context and place oneself in a different set of social, political, military, economic, or technological circumstances. But this is exactly what we must do when we try to identify the moral teachings of the Bible that transcend the brutal realities of the BAME.
If William of Occam is correct in both of his propositions — objective morality exists and Jehovah always conforms to that objective morality — then we should be able to look at the Massacre of the Midianites and find, at some level of abstraction, a valid moral justification for what is described in the Bible. The first step in doing this is to say that what the Israelites did wasn’t really all that bad, and the second step is to say that the Midianites deserved it.
5. Domesticating Atrocities
Elsewhere in the story, we see the sexually licentious nature of the Midianite religion singled out for particular condemnation by the author of Numbers. This is pointed to as evidence for the Midianite womens’ complicity in the “aggression” that led up to the sack of Moab, and offered by Moses as a moral justification for the killing of these women. Ennis points to this as evidence that there was no rape during the sack of Moab.
And he is correct that the text does not refer to any rape as having taken place while it freely discusses the killing, enslavement, and looting. So I will have to concede that I have inferred the rape into the story. Perhaps the sack of Moab represents the one single time, in all the recorded history of urban warfare in both the BAME and everywhere else humans have built fortified cities, that a city was sacked by an invading army and there was no raping going on. Particularly in a situation where the women had been singled out by the leader for particular moral condemnation related to their sexuality.
You, the Reader, will have to decide if my inference was a reasonable one or not.
Ennis also domesticates the enslavement of the Midianites by saying that some of the slaves well have been originally enslaved by the Midianites before the Israelites captured and re-enslaved them. That would make those slaves “booty,” which I’ll address in a moment. More importantly, Ennis would further domesticate the slavery by assuring us that in the BAME, masters were generally benevolent to their slaves.
I don’t care. Slavery is cruel and morally wrong even if the master is benevolent. Maybe someone from the BAME would disagree with me. They would be wrong too. This is not a difficult issue to resolve.
And of course there was plunder, because that’s what it is to sack a city. This war crime Ennis would domesticate because the Hebrews took all the loot and then divided it up “lawfully” amongst themselves. Lawfully? Didn’t that stuff “lawfully” belong to the Midianites? As for the young girls who survived, I’m sure it was a great consolation to them to see their families possessions divided up amongst their new owners after the niceties of procedural due process had been observed. And I’m sure it was also a great comfort to them to know that their possessions would be used to rebuild their city and they would benefit from this new exploitation of what had once been theirs — because they could rest assured that their new owners were going to be so gosh-darned benevolent to them after having slaughtered their parents and brothers.
I’m sorry, Ennis, but I’m not buying a word of this.
Now, when it comes to the execution of the boys too young to have taken up sword and bow to defend their city from the invading Israelites, even Ennis blanches and will not try to water it down. Instead, he shields Jehovah from this, the most indefensible facet of this already indefensible story and says that yeah, Moses was an imperfect sinner (yeah, I’ll agree with that). The suggestion here is that Moses did this on his own initiative because he was embittered at being denied access to the holy land. And as I discussed above, the text does not condemn Moses, portray this order as having been sinful, or give us any condemnation of this most heinous act by Jehovah. At best, we the readers are left to “draw our own conclusions” about whether this was a heroic or a dastardly deed by Moses.
I said before that some moral questions are easy, and this is one of them. These are atrocities.
6. Applying The Moral Yardstick To The Sack Of Moab
But to complete the moral whitewash, we are now asked to examine what the Midianites did that was so very awful that all of this was somehow deserved or morally appropriate. To begin with, Ennis urges us to take the BAME sociopolitical and cultural context into account.
Stipulated that the BAME was a brutal, primitive part of human history, in which people routinely overlooked practices we would today condemn as barbaric. (Query: if there is such a thing as objective morality, then is that morality so flexible as to accommodate those barbaric BAME practices, and if so, how are we to distinguish so relaxed a moral code from no code at all?)
But to frame the Israelites’ actions, we are asked to take certain additional “facts” into account.3 We don’t really need to concern ourselves with the historical authenticity of these “facts” at all. We need only concern ourselves with the “facts” set out within the story itself to understand the moral lessons that the story is trying to teach us. Within the context of the story, then, Ennis points out that the Israelites had a tough time of it during their forty years in the desert and in their mythical journey out of Egypt, they had a lot of military run-ins with other peoples of the area. So by the time they got to the door of the promised land, they had turned in to some pretty tough hombres. But the question before us is — was the attack on the Midianites justified? Ennis provides us with this summary of events preceding the attack:
Balak, the Moabite leader, encourages Midianite leaders to join him in countering Israel.
At his suggestion, everyone agrees to employ a priest, Balaam, to curse Israel.
A contingent of leaders is sent to hire Balaam but, being warned by God, he initially refuses.
Next, a second, and more prestigious contingent of leaders, is sent with more money and greater promises of promotion. Reluctantly, Balaam agrees.
Balaam attempts to curse Israel three times and instead blesses them on each occasion.
Realizing Israel could not be cursed, Balaam counsels Moab/Midian to undermine Israelite morale by enticing them to participate in their sexually oriented religious schemes and it worked (Numbers 31:16). The Israelite camp was divided, morale was lost and progress was impeded. God also passed judgment on their disloyalty. It was an act of war and the Israelites who got involved were committing treason. It rendered them vulnerable to attack and defeat.
It was only following this subterfuge that Israel took action and the first matter of business was the execution of their own people, the traitors who engaged with the enemy in their sexually oriented religion.
Several bigger-picture points emerge from here. Balaam’s magic and worship of false gods fails when he has to tackle the true and mighty power of Jehovah. So Balaam instead tries to take away the Israelites’ source of strength, which is their covenant with Jehovah. He does this by tempting the Israelites with sex. Some of the Israelites go for it and when they worship gods other than Jehovah, Israel as a whole loses strength.
Now, if I were going to argue for the Midianites/Moabites, I would point out (as Ennis has in other dialogues) that ritualized sex was a common feature of worship in the BAME. I would also point out that in that generally polytheistic world, the sharing of worship was a method of diplomacy. It was thought that if peoples worshipped the same gods, they would more likely have peace between themselves. Certainly it would help towards reconciling cultural understandings. While the Israelites may have seen Balaam’s offer to join him in worship as an act of aggression, Balaam and Balak may well have understood it to have been good-faith diplomacy, and wanted to have reciprocated by adding Jehovah to their pantheon as well. And when Israelites responded and joined them in the worship, this would have been seen by Balak and his allies as a betrayal of a diplomatic trust rather than as a “retaliatory strike.”4
So what does this leave us with? What did the Midianites/Moabites do that was so bad that they deserved to be slaughtered to a man and woman, with only the virgin girls left to tell the tale?
They evangelized their own religion.
If there is such a thing as objective morality, as we all seem to agree that there is, and mass murder is an appropriate response to having been evangelized to a different religion, then Christians all over the world are in a great deal of trouble. Now, obviously that’s a ridiculous moral conclusion to reach — but if you think that there is nothing objectively morally wrong with trying to convince someone else that your religion is a good one, then you aren’t thinking like the author of the Book of Numbers.
7. Looking Deeper
That, I think, is the transcendent moral principle of this story and the bulk of the stories I have singled out for moral obloquy. The transcendent moral lesson I take away from this — the principle that I extract that can be severed from time, technology, culture, economics, politics, or military need — is this:
To obey Jehovah is morally good; to disobey Jehovah is morally bad. Whatever Jehovah says to do is good. Doing something other than what Jehovah says to do is evil. Morality is all about obedience. And disobedience will be punished.
Put another way, what they did to deserve death — what they did to justify what would otherwise be unquestionably a war atrocity and what we would today call a crime against humanity — was to discourage the worship of Jehovah, to slight or diminish Jehovah’s mastery and control over the Hebrew people.
Think about this — demeaning the majesty of Jehovah in the form of worshipping another god or no god at all, daring to impose one’s own moral judgment in the place of Jehovah’s, breaching his commands or failing to conform to his strange rituals, not making the appropriate sacrifices of dead baby goats, or pretty much any other kind of disobedience of Jehovah’s commands is, ultimately, the one and only sin of any real significance in almost the entirety of the Old Testament.
So contrary to William of Occam, and to my erstwhile interlocutor, the story is ultimately not a search for an objective morality, not a way to tell us what is right and what is wrong. According to the Bible, all we need to do is obey Jehovah. In fact, we’re better off not thinking about what exactly we’re being asked to do in Jehovah’s name.
While we would all like it if there was such a thing as objective morality, the Bible is not the place to look for it because Jehovah reveals himself to be an arbitrary, capricious, and unreliable moral guide and the laws, rules, and even the transcendent ethical messages derived from that book are, at best, morally suspect. If the Bible is true about God, then there is no such thing as objective morality. There is only that which pleases or that which displeases Jehovah and Jehovah does not conform to any standard other than His own pleasure.
Fortunately, the Bible is not true and we can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.
— Footnotes —
1 Ennis points out that the term “Midianite” can be interpreted to mean a very large group of people and the incident described in Numbers is only the sacking of a single city, so it may be more accurate to refer to this as the “Massacre of the Moabites” instead. If Moabites are a subset of Midianites, that may indeed be a more accurate phrase. But if a terrorist were to detonate a neutron bomb that killed nearly everyone in South Carolina but left people in other states alive, I hope no one would morally defend the terrorist by pointing to the “mercy” thus shown to Tennesseans.
2 It is no rebuttal to that claim to say that Jehovah is necessary the architect of morality because since the universe was created in a certain way, morality is a function of the dynamics of the universe at it was created and Jehovah was the creator of the universe. This suggests that objective morality is somehow written directly into the fabric of existence, like Planck’s Constant or the speed of light. That doesn’t work because if that is the case, Jehovah could have created the universe in a different way and morality would have been different. This line of thinking takes us back to moral relativism, albeit a relativism written on a cosmic rather than an anthropological scale.
3Ennis and I have a running disagreement over what the phrase “fact” means in this context. I maintain that the stories in the Bible, particularly the early books, are purely legendary. There is no evidence that the Exodus ever happened as a historical fact. None. Yet Ennis regards these as facts, and he should not. Ennis points to two historical websites that make reference to wars involving the early Israelites, and neither indicates anything of the sort. One of them from Ohio State University notes the invasion of the western part of the Fertile Crescent in 1479 BCE during the New Kingdom era; the other website, from someone calling himself “War Scholar,” points to multiple wars by but he incorrectly identifies the date of the Battle of Kadesh as having taken place in 1294 BCE; War Scholar is early by about twenty years and there is a very solid and enduring record of substantial peace for nearly fifty years after that battle, because of a highly successful treaty between Egypt and the Hittites. That alone would make me question the accuracy of War Scholar’s claim that the “Hebrew Conquest of Canaan” took place in 1250 BCE. In fact, the Egyptians did not lose military control of that territory until the ambiguous and troubled reign of Ramesses III some time around 1180 BCE. So once again we have some troubles reconciling the actual historical record with what purports to be the Biblical recital of history. Now, I’m of the position that since what we are reading about here are myths. Legends. Not history. Nor were they ever intended to be. They are no more accurate statements about the origins of what became the Hebrew kingdoms than the story of Johnny Appleseed is a story about how America developed its agricultural industry.
4 There is absolutely no evidence for this gloss on events in the Biblical text — but I offer it because I suspect that this interpretation of things has probably never occurred to my apologist webfriend. Maybe it’s not how it actually went down, but in the BAME, the losers never got to write down their version of events because they were usually kind of dead. If we’re going to say that tempting Israelites to worship a deity other than Jehovah is an act of military aggression, then we have to confront the question of whether evangelism is a capital offense.