bible ethics philosophy

good killing?

Very few people would say that killing humans is categorically wrong (all times, places & circumstances).  Most would have general ideas about extenuating – and tragic – circumstances which justify it.  So, a kind of moral calculus is almost always at work where the weight of the consequences of killing is contrasted with the weight of the consequences of not killing.  (We could – and probably should – include violence that doesn’t result in death, but we won’t go there now)

With that in mind, the most problematic and difficult content of the Bible for me to understand (as a Christian, let alone a dweller in a modern, pacifist, egalitarian context) is the apparent command to kill an entire tribe, including animals, women and children – even babies; if interpreted literally (i.e. 1 Samuel 15:1-3).

(On this, see Matt Flannagan’s various posts providing what I see as good reason to see the ‘total destruction’ language as a culturally normative – and hyperbolic – war language.  The Bible itself records later activity of the very nations who were killed, which indicates that the command cannot be literal.)

But putting to one side the question of how literally we can responsibly read the ‘harem’ command, this is still the annihilation of an entire nation.  I don’t propose to ‘solve’ this one with this post, but I do offer some contributions to the discussion.

  • The literary question: How literally can we read the command to kill a whole nation, babies and all? Hey! I said we were putting that to one side! Go to Matt’s blog for that one!  But yeah, I don’t think it’s a literal command.  But as for the question of in what sense can we say God commanded this, it seems to me (and seems to fit with the doctrine of Incarnation?) that the word of God has to ‘take flesh’ in real time and space, and that a command of God must be intelligible to the recipients – using language and terms that would make sense to them.  It makes all the historical sense in the world that the command would use the ‘war language’ of the times.
  • The biblical theology question: How does this command square with the rest of the Bible? First of all, the supposed contradiction between an only wrathful OT God and an only gentle NT God is rubbish, because God is described as both wrathful and gentle in both the OT and NT.  Second, there seems to me to be both continuity and discontinuity with this command and the rest of the Bible.  Continuity in that God, right throughout the Bible, gives and takes life; discontinuity in that there does seem to be a progression towards non-violence.
  • The ethical question: Isn’t it ‘just wrong’ to command a whole group of people to be killed? Even just the fighting men if it wasn’t a literal command? I actually don’t think it’s so simple as it being ‘just wrong’.  There is a lot we don’t know about the historical situation. ((I’m also entirely bracketing the current buzz of discussion as to the historicity of the accounts up to and including King David.  The evidence is not as clear, methinks, as some want it to be.))  If we grant a) that the command isn’t literal (babies, women, etc.), leaving only militants being killed, and if we grant b) that the ‘rules of engagement’ were applied (allowing non-combatants to leave, making an offer of peace first, etc.) as prescribed in the Torah, and if we grant c) that the people killed indeed practiced cannibalism, human-sacrifice and were bent on killing the Israelites, then it certainly puts things in a very different light.
  • What about someone who doesn’t know all of that about the historical context, etc.?  How do they deal with this command to kill a nation, including babies, etc.? This is a very good question, because the author(s) of these texts certainly did not intend them to become the subject of a historical and ethical evaluation.  These commands reflect a God who is wrathful (and grieved) at human sin.  More specifically a God who is grieved and angered by false religion (namely: worship of – and obedience to – idol non-gods) that leads to such dehumanising and degrading practices as child sacrifice & cannibalism.  Quite apart from 1) the debates over whether the command is literal and 2) the qualifications about progressive revelation, we can understand these commands quite basically: God is saying ‘enough’ to anti-humane nations, and sparing them from their own continued existence.  Putting them out of their own misery, so to speak.  I read this comment here, which takes a similar line – “The great Master of life and death (who cuts off one half of all mankind whilst they are children) has been pleased sometimes to ordain that children should be put to the sword, in detestation of the crimes of their parents, and that they might not live to follow the same wicked ways.”

I don’t think any of this ‘solves’ the issue, which I will continue to ponder.