My latest apologist interloquitor and I are starting to narrow down the issues somewhat in a dialogue aiming to tease out the real moral lessons of the Bible. We’ve agreed to cross-post our responses, and I’m concerned that stand-alone posts without context will be confusing to a third-party reader, so I provide a summary of the discussion so far first, and then my latest entry into the discussion. I’ve jumped most of it because I know there are some Readers here with no appetite for this sort of thing. If you are not one of them, please read on.
To recap, about six weeks ago I criticized a number of stories in the Bible, singling out for particular condemnation the events described in Numbers 31:1-18. I called the events related therein genocide against the Midianites, noting a high degree of moral obnoxiousness when, after the pillage, plunder, rape, and destruction of the sack of the city was completed, Moses sends the Israelites back in to the ruined city, complaining that they hadn’t killed enough people and insisting that the women and boys be killed along with all the men; only the virgin girls were suitable to be suffered to live and only then as slaves. From this, I called the story “genocide” and laid the moral blame for it at the feet of Jehovah.
On Thursday, Ennis opposed my condemnation of the story. His argument, oversimplified and reduced to bullet points (it deserves a full reading) was that we cannot properly consider the moral gravity of the story outside of its historical, military, and social context. He also raised a semantic dispute about whether the recipients of the attack are properly called Moabites or Midianites, pointed out that Moses’ order to the soliders to go back in and finish the job came from Moses and not Jehovah, and indicated that the text did not indicate that any rape happened during the sack of the city, from which we are supposed to infer that there was no rape. Looking to the big points, he then noted that the Israelites were, by the standards of the day, gentle both as warriors and as slavemasters — and then made the claim that the Midianites provoked the attack and that they were the aggressor.
To me, the last two points were risible, but I tried to take them seriously and address them in my rebuttal. I characterized Ennis’ primary argument as “It wasn’t genocide so much as killing, and Jehovah didn’t tell the Israelites to do it, and besides, the Midianites had it coming, even the women.” If the order to go back in and kill some more came from Moses and not Jehovah, then why did Jehovah not condemn that order; why is Moses portrayed in heroic terms for doing this? I suggested the possibility (conceding that the text, written by the Israelites and not the Midianites, does not support this interpretation) that the Midianites were trying to solve the problem of the armed Israelites gathered on their borders through diplomacy rather than violence, and that the attempts of the Midianites to get Israelites to practice their (sexually licentious) religion was a kind of cultural outreach that might be reasonably expected in the context of a religiously-diverse Bronze Age Middle East culture. So in an effort to try and extract a moral point from the story that can be understood beyond the cultural context of the Bronze Age Middle East, I attempted to analyze the story on a more abstract level. My big point, referring to Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro was that while we all want to point to an objective morality by which we can measure something, including the actions of Jehovah, doing so with this story leads us to either morally condemn the story or reaching the conclusion that the Bible describes an arbitrary morality based solely on obedience to Jehovah.
Ennis replied to this by saying that evangelism practiced on a national scale, and done with the intent of sapping another nation’s willingness to fight a war, is itself an act of war, and my suggestion that it was actually peaceful or diplomatic is risible. Ennis’ claim in response to Euthyphro is the same as that of William of Occam, which is that yes, in theory God might make an immoral command and we would have a moral imperative to obey it, but as it happens God is morally good and in practice does not make such commands. So that gives Ennis two avenues of rhetorical defense — first, he is obliged to whitewash something that on its face looks condemnable, and second, if he cannot do that, his fallback is to dissociate Jehovah from the irredeemable bad act and say it was a human being who sinned when it happened.
…Which, by the way, is why I label Ennis an “apologist:” With regards to the question of who initiated the war, Ennis claims: “The intentions of Moab/Midian were clearly violent but their strategy was cleverly deceptive. They tried to divine a curse on Israel and when that failed they used wile, enticing them with their sexually oriented religion, to demoralize them. The second plan worked but not sufficiently enough to destroy Israel’s or God’s resolve.” Between that, and pinning the “go back and kill some more” order on Moses, we have the primary rhetorical weapons of apology deployed here — there is nothing morally wrong about the story, except for the things that really are morally wrong, and even though it looks at first glance like Jehovah is to blame for them, it’s really somebody else’s fault.
Now, we’de reached a point where the issues in the specific case are becoming sufficiently refined that a reply to a blog post can be reasonably brief. Here, then, is my reply from Ennis’ blog, reprinted in full:
Unlike previously, I believe I can offer a sur-rebuttal here with reasonable brevity. You advance two basic premises here, both of which I think deserve critical analysis.
First, you advance the premises that it ought to be patently obvious that Moses ordering the slaughter of the baby Midianite boys was a great moral wrong. So wrong that the author of the Book of Numbers need not even comment on it and we can safely assume Jehovah’s subsequent silence on the issue is indicative of Jehovah’s condemnation rather than approval.
This is not a safe assumption. First, in many other places, the Bible goes out of its way to demonstrate Jehovah’s moral condemnation of many things that are both obviously and non-obviously immoral. David is condemned by Jehovah for his sins regarding Bathsheba; we get several chapters of this in 2 Samuel — and David is ultimately punished by Jehovah inspiring David’s son to rape the king’s other concubines. Let me suggest that David’s conduct with Bathsheba and Uriah is also immoral in a patently obvious sort of way (less bloody than Moses’ conduct in the story in question, but just as clearly wrong) and this seemed to have been a point worth belaboring in the literature.
If the evil nature of Moses’ order is so patently obvious that it need not even be condemned, then of course, we are using our own moral judgment rather than looking to Jehovah to be the judge of morality. That, as I have argued elsewhere, is a grave sin within the context of Biblical morality. Alternatively, if we believe that this was a gravely immoral act and see that Jehovah has failed to punish it, then that calls in to question Jehovah’s competence as a judge of morality.
To that end, we have every reason to believe that according to the Bible, particularly the Bible as read by Christians, Moses is given very special honors in the next world. In three of the four canonical Gospels, we are treated to a vision of Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah attending him. (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9.) That sounds like a pretty big deal, especially considering that according to the Gospels, Jesus is the Son of God Himself, and according to Paul the Evangelist, Jesus IS God Himself. Now, Jehovah either forgave Moses for his ordering mass murder or he did not. If he did forgive the sin, why are we not told about the condemnation, punishment, and subsequent forgiveness, as we are with so many other wrongful acts of others in the Bible? Did Moses gain forgiveness by sacrificing a goat, the way more ordinary sins of obviously less moral gravity could have been forgiven?
Second, you assume that evangelizing on a nation-to-nation level rather than an individual level was what was going on and that this would have been considered an act of war in the context of the story; that I am guilty of imposing my own contemporary moral standards and therefore have blinded myself to the transcendent moral issue. Indeed, you treat my suggestion that this might have been a last-ditch effort by the Midianites to avoid being invaded through non-violent means as risible.
I think that does not afford the notion that this was a form of diplomacy sufficient respect; while I have occasionally thrown in a humorous remark here and there in our dialogue, this was not intended as a joke. I am quite serious. Evangelizing a religion is not a violent act and it should not be treated like a violent act. Not by the Midianites, not by the Israelites, not by the Saudis, not by you or me. It’s an easy moral question as to whether the appropriate response to unwanted evangelism is violence and that is not something that strikes me as susceptible to alteration with a change of historical context.
But let’s think for a moment about how the story fits when oriented in the other direction and keep things in the historical and cultural context of the distant past: In 63 BCE, the Romans under Pompey show up on the Israelites’ northern border, carrying with them their cult of state religion which is used to prop up morale in the military camp. Everyone in the area knows that the Romans have just won a war against Mithridates of Pontus, who had been thought to have been the formidable military leader of the biggest and most powerful kingdom around. So the Romans are clearly not to be trifled with. Pompey asks the Israelites to admit the Romans and to submit to Roman governance. The Romans claim a right to the land by virtue of Pompey’s diplomatic settlement of the land they call “the East” with King Mithridates. The Israelites reply that they aren’t bound by anything King Mithdridates said. Pompey then issues a demand for the surrender of the fortified Israelite cities.
What’s the appropriate thing for Israel to do here? Is it fair for Israel to look around to its neighbors and make an alliance against the invading Romans? (I think it is.) Would it be fair for the Israelites to have prayed to Jehovah to deliver them from this threat? (They did it all the time.) And would it be fair for the Israelites to have tried to have convince any individual Romans that they came across about the falsity of the Roman religion? (Assuming, as you must, that Jehovah-worship is the true and valid religion and that the Romans were worshiping false idols, this would seem to have been an appropriate and moral thing for the Israelites to have done under any circumstances.) At what point in that sequence of events would Pompey have been justified in sacking the cities of Israel?
Either we have to say that the Israelites in this story are the moral equivalents of the Midianites in Numbers and the Romans are the moral equivalents of the Israelites, or we have to invoke special pleading and say that because the Israelites worship Jehovah, they are morally in the right in both stories for that reason.
And I keep on having to come back to this point since I don’t seem to be getting any reaction to it — I don’t care about how “benevolent” slavery was. A human beings is inherently not property, and therefore slavery is inherently morally wrong. Period, full stop, end of line, hit “send,” close the book. By the same token, if I were to penetrate your body with my erect penis without your consent, but I was gentle about it and not leave scars, that would not make what I’d done “kind of like” consensual sex and therefore morally acceptable. It’s not a matter of degree. You did not consent and therefore it’s rape. Same moral analysis with slavery, along with the same degree of moral shock and revulsion you should feel at the notion that such a thing might happen to you and the same understanding that the historical context of the act in question is irrelevant.
Now, where I see slavery as an inherent and immutable moral wrong, you seem willing to forgive it if it is “benevolent.” You, however, seem to see the worship of Jehovah and obedience to Jehovah’s commands as an inherent and immutable moral good. In that sense, you are being true to the transcendent moral lesson of the Bible (or at least of the Old Testament): Obedience to Jehovah is morally good regardless of what Jehovah commands, the morality of one’s action is a direct function of its obedience to Jehovah’s commands, and no other objective standard of morality exists.
I reject this notion, and I urge you to do the same.
At this point, Ennis and I are starting to reach a place where we really are not talking to each other any more, as demonstrated by the fact that he is saying things I have difficulty taking seriously, and he is having difficulty taking some things I am saying seriously. Query if this will always eventually happen when atheists and apologists dialogue.
Also, we’re running up against some problems that eventually will not be smoothed over and reaching core disagreements. Which is not surprising; he is a believer and I am not and those are, ultimately, two different ways of looking at the world. That does not mean he is an immoral person or one given to making immoral choices or that I am or that either of us are approaching the discussion in bad faith.
Since I do not believe that Jehovah exists outside of pious mythology, I see nothing inherently moral in obeying the commands of Jehovah (or more accurately, those who can successfully claim to be Jehovah’s representatives) nor do I feel any need to justify the morality of Jehovah as a character within those myths. My suspicion is that Ennis ultimately will never be able to get his head around the idea that Jehovah gave, authorized, or at minimum contenanced something so shockingly immoral as genocide despite what to me seems to be a very clear description of that found in the book of Numbers. To me, at least, he seems to be going to great lengths and twisting the facts into knots to come up with even a weak justification, and will continue to do so in the future. My guess is that most of my most of my atheist readers will agree with that characterization, and most of my Christian and Jewish readers will not only disagree with it, but accuse me of doing the same thing — Ennis is probably getting the sense that no matter how much or in what direction he pushes me, I will always come up with an argument that the Bible is telling an immoral story. And at this point it’s becoming clear that we’re going to continue getting the same results out of one another.
So my sense is that we’re nearing the end the intellectual value that can be extracted from this dialogue. At this point, what we can really do is refine what the core difference is between our respective world views is, and we’ll probably have to leave it at that: believers think God exists and God is good and worthy of worship; my fellow atheists and I think God very likely does not exist and as a character in the mythology of the Bible God is, at best, morally ambiguous.