Slaughter of the Innocents

Almost every system of values has its supreme goal or highest good. Depending on the ethical theory, this could be something like happiness, or self-interest, or tolerance, or the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. From a Biblical standpoint, the highest good is to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; 1 John 5:2). On this view, my actions are morally right if they demonstrate a love for God and are consistent with what God wants me to do. In ethical circles this is often dubbed the Divine Command Theory (DCT).

A long-standing criticism of the DCT is that it could end up condoning acts of horrific cruelty. We might have to accept, for instance, that torturing animals for fun and profit is right and good if God commands it. As a matter of fact, the God of the Bible has condoned no such thing, but that’s not the point. If God told me to torture animals then I, as a dutiful servant of God, would have to agree that it was the right thing to do. If I don’t agree, then I would have to concede that right and wrong depend on something other than God.

Atheists are fond of this argument because it follows a similar line of reasoning developed by Plato in his Euthyphro dialogue.[1] But the gods in Plato’s sights – the Olympian gods of popular Greek religion – were notoriously cruel and arbitrary. Plato never knew the God of the Bible. He never knew a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. From the standpoint of Biblical morality, it is right to obey a divine command, not because it comes from a God who happens to like the idea, but because it comes from a God who is just and loving.

This is a more nuanced version of the Divine Command Theory, but critics still see chinks in the armor. The problem now is not what a supremely powerful being might command, but of what the God of the Bible actually did command. If God is a just and loving God then why, for instance, did He order the slaughter of innocent children?

We cannot paper over this problem. As the Israelites were preparing to enter Canaan, God ordered the “complete destruction” of its existing inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:2). It wasn’t long before they put this plan into effect at Jericho: “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old” (Joshua 6:21). And it was still in effect when Saul attacked the Amalekites. “Do not spare them,” God says, “but kill both man and woman, child and infant” (1 Samuel 15:3).

How do we respond? First, it was a case of kill or be killed. This might offend our modern sensibilities, but the Israelites faced overwhelming numerical odds (Deuteronomy 7:1). Their opponents would give them no quarter, and the Israelites could afford to give no quarter in return. Like it or not, these were the rules of engagement. But why was it so important to win at all costs? This brings us to the second and most significant point: if the Israelites failed to survive as a covenant people, then there would be no Christ, no Lion of the tribe of Judah, no Root of David, to win a final victory over sin and death (Revelation 5:5).

In rehearsing some of these same points, William Lane Craig reminds his skeptical readers that they are the beneficiaries of an ethical tradition that values human life.[2] Their squeamishness over the treatment of non-combatants would not be possible without the final and full revelation of the Biblical worldview. When Richard Dawkins subsequently denounced Craig as an apologist for genocide,[3] we have to assume that Dawkins has a low opinion of genocide, and then we have to wonder how he arrived at that opinion. It didn’t come from nature or evolution, and it certainly didn’t come from the Bronze Age Canaanites.

The broad sweep of redemptive history reveals a God who is loving and just (Romans 3:21-26). When this same God ordered His own people to destroy or be destroyed then perhaps, and only perhaps, can we begin to understand how desperately we needed His plan to succeed.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, July 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Louise M. Anthony, “Good minus God,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[3] Richard Dawkins, “Why I refuse to debate William Lane Craig,” The Guardian, October 20, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

 

© 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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