Answering An Atheist
Original arguments are found in the post “Top Ten Worst Bible Stories”
On the web site “Not A Potted Plant” (NAPP)
Author – Transplanted Lawyer (TL)
This post is number four in a continuing discussion on the conflict between Israel and Moab/Midian as recorded in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-25 and 31. The original observations – complaints – regarding this event are made by TL which can be read here (number one on his list of ten). My first response is here and his first counter is here.
Because TL is widely read and has an exceptionally quick mind I consider it a privilege to have him as a sparring partner. No doubt his abilities will suit him well for the bench should his aspirations in that regard be realized. His quick thinking has made me sharpen my game.
The discussion with him is incisive without insult and firm but in a respectful way. I know you will enjoy the read also.
Suffice it to say that the event under discussion seems particularly gruesome. It was war and war is never nice even under the best of circumstances. As TL and countless others have pointed out, a certain number of deaths are expected but in the case of Midian it seems a bit extreme. The entire community was destroyed, even young boys, with the exception of virgin girls. I can’t imagine anyone not being disturbed by it.
Obviously, because God was involved in this situation – He ordered the counter attack in the first place – it is easy to assume that everything Moses ordered was exactly God’s plan. I don’t presume to understand everything God does but I do believe there are reasons He should not be implicated every time difficulties arise. He is a third party, sometimes silently so, and we must at least try to see where the fault lines lay before assuming His guilt. Previously I have suggested that Moses acted in the extreme and went beyond God’s original intent.
My primary arguments are:
- Israel was not the aggressor.
- 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.
- God ordered the attack on Midian but did not specify the extent to which it should be executed.
- The women who were destroyed were frontline soldiers or spies, not collateral damage or the subjects of a genocidal frenzy. Without them the ruse would not have been effective. His order to execute them, therefore, is not completely without justification.
- I have argued that the order to destroy every male came from Moses not God. This is the real issue.
Everyone is very quick to take the Midianite side and speak of their anguish but not fair minded enough to spread that love around, ascribing to Israel (and God) a venomous nature. The truth is, Israelites were just as human as any and “rising above” was sometimes out of reach for them as well. Israel had very good reason to be hurting from this event and it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to figure it out.
It was only because Midianites were distant relatives of Moses and because Israel’s first encounter with a Midianite (Jethro – Moses’ father-in-law) was positive that the ruse was as effective as it was.
It is not unreasonable to see this was personal for Moses and it isn’t strange that his response would be so vengeful.
As mentioned previously, his worst characteristic was his anger and it had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. He also had a tendency to take action impulsively and God pronounced a final judgment on Moses as recent as Numbers 20. He was to die before entering the promised land and Joshua would take his place.
Even as God gave the order to counter Midian aggression He reminded Moses that he would be removed from the scene following the battle. I’m sure that reminder laid heavily on his mind. It doesn’t justify his actions but it does explain it.
In his rebuttal TL makes additional suggestions which I would like to answer here:
If God didn’t order the destruction of the Midianite boys why didn’t He say something to censure it?
TL’s exact words are:
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.
He is both right and wrong in this observation. One, God said absolutely nothing in response to this order but silence can be read either way, endorsement or condemnation.
And, it would have been at least condescending and at most intellectually insulting for God to give a full response to every action, faulty or otherwise, in every incident in the Bible. If He had, the Bible would be as extensive as legal journals today and no individual could possibly access the entire text.
Additionally, if Moses’ actions were so reprehensible, and we both agree they were, why would God have to tell us that.
If, as TL says, we are capable of isolating the moral ground without having it specifically pointed out – I agree with that also – then maybe we should see God’s silence as respecting that moral capacity instead of grousing about.
For the same reason, Jesus didn’t re-explain in the New Testament everything previously established in the Old.
What we understand from this, however, is that God respects every person’s ability to think through the issues individually – exactly what TL and every other unbeliever claims to want.
Besides, no worse punishment could be levied. Moses was about to die and be taken out of the picture. A slap on the hand would serve no purpose. By the way, the fact that God allows us to see the faults of His primary servants speaks for the Bible not against it. If Moses was the primary author I doubt he would have included the bad parts.
Additionally, there isn’t one spiritual leader in the Bible who was one hundred percent compliant with God or the Bible or our opinions about morality and there isn’t one who got away with his failure, premeditated or not.
Further, there isn’t a person who has the ability to comply completely with morality. Understanding what is morally acceptable – the easy part – is not the same as living with it. All people are imperfect – not equally – so God worked with people whose actions were not always agreeable. We shouldn’t blame God for the wrong these people do.
Next TL gets to what he refers to as the “core of the issue” and, based on Plato’s Euthyphro, offers only two possibilities:
- We are moral because we obey the command of God (arbitrary and capricious).
- Or we please God because we obey the dictates of morality (objective)
Philosophical discussion stemming from the story suggests that the second option, which most sensible people would agree is the better option, would make morality separate to and apart from God. It’s a long discussion but the logical conclusion is, because morality is objective and separate to God, then God is also subject to morality and therefore not sovereign. Or, that is the philosophical conclusion.
But, before you go to seed on this apparently enlightening discussion please remember that this is philosophical thinking at its best, which is always a bit suspect. There are hundreds of philosophical schools of thought, most of which don’t agree, some of which are diametrically opposed, all of which are fostered by brilliant people, each one aiming to disprove the other and none are absolutely conclusive. If you think I’m overstating the point please read The Free Dictionary reference to philosophy. I enjoy philosophical discussions but have sense enough not worship any.
Therefore, philosophically speaking, I see no problem with God being the architect of morality and even more, morality being the very essence of God.
TL recognizes this and says, if “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.”
We agree but it must be allowed that “morality” is very precise and unbending while “human moral responses” are anything but. The Midianite struggle was ugly and involved rights and wrongs on both sides. The moral high ground for humanity will always be less than the moral absolute.
God must be seen as an independent person who is only one of three parties involved and He does nothing to overrule free will. Those inclined to find fault, complain when He takes action AND when He doesn’t. In this particularly case, God started the action and humans took His order to the extreme. Field soldiers, not their commanding officers, are court-martialed for violating human rights.
Of course, God is still implicated by the actions of people even though we are advanced enough legally to know that second parties are not tried for the crimes of first parties though they do suffer the ignominy of it. I am sure God is at times embarrassed.
TL takes particular issue with the idea of slavery in the Old Testament – or at any time – and I actually appreciate his perspective. He says,
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 would never wish to give a blanket endorsement to the institution of slavery but in antiquity it did, on occasion, manifest some humane qualities. Statutes in the Law of Moses provided slaves equal rights and encouraged their eventual freedom. If the law had been observed strictly slavery would have eventually vanish, at least in Israel. Obviously, I haven’t made my point on the issue clear. Briefly stated, however, please consider the following:
- Slavery was a reality then and for a long time to come afterward. The Hebrews didn’t initiate it but they couldn’t very well avoid it. The Bible indicates they were subjected to it several times. The Roman Empire had a slave-based economy and they weren’t the first. The best way to eliminate an institution completely is to deal with it gradually and humanely.
- Secondly, and very importantly, the term “slave” was not defined in the narrow abusive way we view it today. Even in Egypt and other cultures of the day, allowances were made for the advancement of slaves.
- Benevolence was actually written in the Law of Moses. The word wasn’t used but the spirit was obviously expressed. I won’t repeat everything I’ve said previously but one thing not mentioned was the “bond servant” status. Slavery in Israel was never eternal. It was always viewed as temporary and slaves were expected to eventually earn their independence. That much is specifically stated. But, at the point of independence they could make the choice to sign on permanently as the servant of their master. That is, they could permanently seal their status with that particular master. The question is, If ill treatment and abuse were the norm why would any one choose this option?
- Also, we are still slaves today but we call it “employed” or “mortgaged.” There is little difference between employment today and much of servanthood of yesteryear. We clock in at eight and out at five. We get very little time for vacation and jobs require us to maintain standards of living which leave little for getting ahead. And we think this is the norm. Yes, we choose these things but slavery is slavery whether we choose it or not.
And I don’t think I referred to the division of the Midianite resources as “lawful.” I was merely pointing out that the usual accusation – brawling, drunken, orgy-like pillaging – imposed on the text is not there. If anything the Israelites seemed reserved, almost ceremonial.
What I didn’t point out is Israel’s immediate response to the failure. After giving in to the Midianite ruse the next five chapters (Numbers 26-30) describe them getting reorganized within themselves and realigned with God before proceeding with the counter attack. They took time to remember who they were, who they represented and what their national purpose was. Their counter was reasonable and deliberate, Moses’ order put it in a bad light.
I’ll admit that it couldn’t have been a nice experience for any of the people involved, the victors or the captives, and I do believe excesses occurred. I also admit that Christians tend to be a bit glib in discussing events of this nature but that doesn’t excuse suggesting things that aren’t really there.
Historical integrity of the text
TL makes much of my use of the word “fact” and seems to playfully jests about this. I don’t mind the jesting. Actually I enjoy a good laugh, even at my expense but I’m not sure it serves a purpose.
I understand and accept that he sees the entire text of Scripture, or at least the better part of it, as legend and I have admitted that my intent is not to argue “authenticity.” But, why have a discussion regarding the Bible if we aren’t at least going to stay true to the text.
My use of the word “fact” therefore, refers to two things: what the text actually says and what can be verified historically.
One historical point TL questions, however, concerns the violent militaristic nature of the BAME and he refers particularly to variations in dates to prove the “facts” are not substantiated. I think it’s a smoke screen.
The facts regarding violence in those days is well substantiated and scholars such as Steven Pinker have made the point very nicely and his thesis is, as bad as we are today, they were worse then. The violence may not have happened on this particular day or that but it happened the way it is described in the Bible and there is not doubt the Hebrews had to constantly watch their back. As far as I know, Steven does not believe the Bible either, though he seems conversant with the details.
What that means is, the conflicts mentioned in the Bible, even if you question the validity of the text does not misrepresent the atmosphere of the area or the manners of the people.
TL, I’m not stretching the facts and to argue otherwise just confuses the issue.
Again, TL does mention the Exodus, suggesting that there is absolutely no proof. I would say otherwise and in a previous post referred to sites that offered proofs. But, a good question to ask is, “what would you be willing to accept as proof?” Before you answer, be warned. I’m pretty sure you won’t find a stone inscribed with:
“Yes! The Exodus really happened. Believe it!”
And, as far as oral tradition goes, since the Bible has a written record of the event – and it is a recognized document of antiquity – it would be a little silly to find all the neighbors with their own version. Oral traditions usually thrive when written records don’t exist and besides there is no way to frame this event in a way that doesn’t favor Israel. I’m pretty sure none of the neighbors would want to do that.
For that reason, I’m sure the Egyptians wouldn’t have left details of their spanking by Israel lying around in the sand. If anyone thinks otherwise I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts. I promise they will be respected even if not accepted.
I really got a kick out of the next few observations. They were fun, to say the least.
TL suggests that maybe the religious engagement was, at best, a diplomatic way to develop an agreeably constructive relationship with Israel saying, “in that generally polytheistic world, the sharing of worship was a method of diplomacy.”
Well, they did have common elements in the various religious traditions but those elements were usually “imposed” not diplomatically shared. Religion in those days was forced on you. There was no choice involved and victors regularly imposed their spiritual devotions on those they conquered. They also didn’t allow “personal convictions.” The prominent religion was the only religion and the head of state represented God directly, in some cases was considered God. Moses and Israel would have been viewed as a direct threat.
Your suggestion might be imposing on the BAME the perspective which prevails in the United States. One which champions religious freedom and has fostered one of the most pluralistic communities in the world.
We have to wonder why the Midianites of Moab got involved with the local sexual traditions. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite, wasn’t involved in these licentious practices, why the Midianites of Moab? Was this forced on them?
Even if religion was normally used as a peaceful diplomatic tool, there is nothing in the text to suggest that their original intent, destruction, had changed.
But in stretching the point – way beyond just making it – TL refers to their efforts as “evangelism” and suggests the consequences for aggressive evangelism in that day, annihilation, should be considered for our day. His remarks are clearly hyperbole and I got a kick out of it but it just doesn’t apply.
Evangelism happens one person to another not nation to nation. Done on a national level it is viewed as undermining national security. If you don’t think so, try setting franchises in Saudi Arabia specializing in ham sandwiches and draught beer.
This was an act of war and everything in the text points in that direction. We can surmise about possibilities but the Moabites, Midianites and Balaam were in league to destroy Israel. If they wanted peace they could have said so when Israel first arrived on the scene. Others tried that approach and were honored for it. Instead they were secretive and underhanded and suffered for it in the end.
Remember this, in God’s original instructions, neither the Moabites nor Midianites had been singled out for destruction and they may have been left alone had they not manipulated the peaceful state of Israel. Instead of honoring Israelite sovereignty they chose to undermine them as a nation and EVERY PERSON AGREES THAT ONE NATION INTERFERING WITH ANOTHER EVEN RELIGIOUSLY IS NOT ON. This was not evangelism, diplomacy, peaceful relations or sharing. It was one country trying to undermine the stability of another.
These discussions, obviously, have not answered all the possible questions. Other thoughts will be gladly entertained. Please feel free to suggest ideas you think are pertinent or question those already mentioned.
Although we would like to keep the discussion respectful feel free to rant is you wish. Tell us what you THINK!AboutIt.