19 Jan 2009

Does God Want You to Slaughter Your Enemies?

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For this week’s post involving the finer things, I want to discuss this news story (HT2LRC):

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides’ commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.

In the letter, Eliyahu quoted from Psalms. “I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them.”

Eliyahu wrote that “This is a message to all leaders of the Jewish people not to be compassionate with those who shoot [rockets] at civilians in their houses.”

Now of course, a secular humanist could understandably say: “See what a barbaric book that is? Humanity will never stop senseless warfare so long as people in this supposedly rational age keep reading this garbage.”

Yet things are not so simple for someone like me, who: (a) is a Christian, (b) believes the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and (c) is a pacifist. I can’t simply reject the rabbi’s conclusions, because his reference to scriptural slaughter–some of which was ordained by God–is accurate. So if I recoil from his views (and I do), then I need to reconcile my rejection with his pointing to previous Biblical episodes.

Before proceeding, the two standard caveats on these types of posts: (1) I am not trying to convince a non-Christian here. I am talking to other Christians who may be struggling with this type of cognitive dissonance. (2) This is a quick blog post. I am not claiming that this is a definitive statement of theological truth.

Now then, on to my various reactions on these issues:

#1) If God told the Israeli forces they should carpet bomb Gaza, then they should obey Him. In the Old Testament, when God told the Israelites to wipe out certain cities–even killing the children–it was moral for them to obey Him.

#2) Absent a direct command from God, we need to live our lives the way we believe He wants us to. As a Christian, I do not think God wants me to slaughter my enemies. Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law and gave all (willing) humans a new covenant. He replaced “an eye for an eye” with “love your enemy.” Of course, even born again Christians will disagree on what that means in practice; there are many such Christians serving in the U.S. armed forces. But I think it is safe to say that the rabbi’s views are not compatible with the teachings of Jesus. (To repeat, I am talking to other Christians with this blog post. I am in no position to say whether the rabbi is correctly crystallizing Jewish law.)

#3) This raises a favorite snare of the atheists: Am I now a relativist, saying it was OK for the Israelites to indiscriminately slaughter children thousands of years ago, but it’s not OK for IDF soldiers to do so today? (Note that I am not saying IDF forces are indiscriminately slaughtering children in Gaza. Rather, I am responding to the rabbi’s claim that they have the moral authority to do so.)

Let’s deal with the philosophical issue first. Is an action good because it conforms to an objective moral law, or is it good because God says so? (To put it another way, is God Himself good by definition, or is He good because His actions/nature match independent, objective criteria of goodness?)

As with most theological paradoxes, I think this standard college freshman question sets up a false dichotomy. God is good in the same way that 2+2=4. Now, does 2+2 really equal 4 in objective reality, or does it merely equal 4 by definition? If you can see the strangeness of the dichotomy in the arithmetical context, you can at least understand my thoughts regarding God’s goodness. A final curve ball on this stuff: I also claim that God is good, and 2+2=4, because of decisions that God made. In other words, it’s weird to ask whether God is good merely by definition, versus some objective characteristics of goodness that we can derive using our reason, because God created us, our brains, our minds, and the logical structure of the universe as we perceive it. Reality is the way it is, because God decided He preferred it that way.

After that philosophical tangent, we come back to the practical question: If I’m right, then why would God change the rules? Why was it OK for the ancient Israelites to purposely kill the children of their military foes, but it’s not OK for soldiers today?

The answer is that God didn’t change the rules. It is our human limitations that try to impose a very short list of principles that guide moral behavior. God did NOT say to Joshua, “I want you to lead your men and annihilate the city before you, and by the way, I just laid out a general command for the rest of eternity.”

When I’m taking my son outside, I tell him to put on a different coat in the winter than in the summer. That’s not because I’m a relativist, it’s because I tailor my specific instructions to his specific circumstances. Now it’s true, I also try to teach him general rules to follow in his life, but even if I had perfect foresight and were completely altruistic and honest, I couldn’t give him at 4 years of age the complete list of all rules he would need in his life, because he wouldn’t be able to remember them all. (Suppose for the sake of argument that it was actually possible to condense the information at all. After all, it might not be; he might have to instead see a complete catalog of all future histories depending on his actions, and then just pick the “optimal” choice at every point along the way, in which case the most economical description of how he ought to live would be a listing of every choice he would make until he died.)

Well, I think I’ve given far more than enough in this post to fascinate and/or alienate most readers. In the future we can discuss why in the world it was a good idea (and it must have been) for God to order the ancient Israelites to slaughter babies.

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