Wednesday, August 20, 2014

David and Goliath

I'm going to comment on some related statements by Arminian theologian Randal Rauser:

First, every person is informed in their reading of the Bible by moral (and rational) intuitions. Tolstoy believed that witnessing the act of killing another person punitively allowed him to see it was wrong. I agree with him on that. I suspect we would also agree that this moral perception is a God-given truth-producing faculty. You might consider it one of the deliverances of what is classically called "general revelation".
i) There's an elementary difference between claiming that your moral intuitions transcribe general revelation, and proving it. All we're getting from Rauser is his tendentious assertion. It's very convenient to baptize his radical chic social conditioning as "general revelation."
ii) Clearly, Bible writers and their target audience didn't share Rauser's sensibilities. The same holds true for ancient and medieval people generally, as well broad swaths of the modern world. If Rauser's "moral intuitions" map onto general revelation, why aren't his views more widespread in human history? If anything, his perspective represents a tiny, modern, ethnocentric viewpoint. Something you find among certain Western elites. 
Second, as long time readers of my blog would know, I take a Christocentric approach to reading the Bible. I believe that Jesus unveils the illegitimacy of redemptive violence. And that becomes a key principle to read the rest of the Bible.
What about NT depictions of Jesus as a divine warrior (e.g. 2 Thes 1:6-9; Rev 19:11-21)? 
Finally, we need to deal with the facile assumption that the Bible is a revelation something like the Qur'an. It isn't. While I do believe that every word of the Bible is minimally human words that were divinely appropriated, that doesn't mean that the human voice is equivalent to the divine voice.

I agree with him that the Koran isn't revelatory in the same sense as the Bible. That's because Muhammad was a false prophet. The Koran isn't divine revelation at all. 

The Bible typically identifies prophetic words with God's words. That's what distinguishes a true prophet from a false prophet. A true prophet transmits God's message. 

Last week the world gaped in horror at a photo posted to Instagram by Jihadist Khaled Sharrouf. The photo depicts Sharrouf’s seven year old son proudly holding up the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. The moral judgment was unequivocal. “Appalling!” “Disgusting!” “Evil!”
i) Problem with Rauser's attempted moral equivalence is that he has the hero and the villain backwards. The proper analogy would make Goliath parallel Sharrouf, whereas Rauser implicitly makes David parallel Sarrouf, or his son. 
ii) On a related note, killing, per se, isn't wrong. A particular method of killing, per se, isn't wrong. Who is killing whom for what reason is morally relevant. 
This moral revulsion provides an opportune time to turn to one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, one that has provided fodder for countless Sunday school lessons. As you might have guessed, I speak of David’s defeat of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.
i) Rauser's always on the look-out for a wedge issue to undermine Christian faith in Biblical revelation. Problem is, Rauser's position isn't consistently Christian or consistently secular. Attacking the Bible would make more sense if he were an atheist (although atheism is morally self-refuting). It makes no sense for Rauser to put Christians on the defensive for believing the Bible. Christianity is a revealed religion. Logically, Rauser's view of Scripture should lead him, not to liberalize his theology, but to drop all pretense of Christianity. 
ii) Let's assume for the sake of argument that David's action was morally wrong. So what? In narrative theology, the reader can't infer that the narrator approves of whatever he narrates. Even if David's action was morally wrong, that doesn't mean 1 Sam 17 is morally defective. The Bible records many events it doesn't condone. Historians do that. Historians report events without endorsing the events they report. 
While we don’t know David’s age, he is described as a “youth” (KJV) or “little more than a boy” (NIV) (v. 42). Both of these are translations of the Hebrew “na`ar” . (Cf. “na’ar,” Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, ed. Stephen Renn (Hendrickson, 2005), p. 176.)
According to the narrative, David already had a track record of killing bears and lions (vv34-37). He had to be strong enough to use primitive weapons to kill major predators. Minimally, that suggests a young adult (at least in his upper teens). 
And this refers to past events. He'd been guarding his father's sheep for several years prior to the encounter with Goliath. 
One can surmise that he was not a diminutive child given that Saul, an individual of formidable size, attempts to dress David in his own tunic (v. 38), not to mention David’s impressive claim to have defeated both lion and bear (v. 36). Regardless, even if David was a formidable young man, he was still likely in his pre-teen or early teen years.
"Regardless"? How is it "still likely" that he was in his pre-teen or early teen years if he could kill lions and bears at close quarters? And he was tall enough that wearing Saul's armor (Saul being the tallest Israelite around) wasn't patently ridiculous. 
So how old was David, exactly? We don’t know, but we can make a ballpark guess. David was the youngest of eight sons, the eldest three of whom had followed their father into battle (vv. 12-14), a fact that suggests the youngest five were not yet of battle age.
i) Why would Jesse risk sending all his adult sons into battle? Isn't three more than enough? What would Jesse have to fall back on if all his sons were killed in battle? 
ii) Presumably, Jesse needs some of his sons around to help run the family business. Keep in mind explicit military exemptions (Deut 20:5-8). There's a distinction between compulsory military service and the minimum age of eligibility.  
iii) V12 says Jesse was an old man. So old that he delegated the responsibilities of pater familias to his eldest son. Cf. D. Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (Eerdmans 2007), 447. Since ancient Jews usually married young, Jesse probably began fathering kids when he was in his mid-teens. If he was an old man by the time of the account, all his sons could well be grown men. 
So it is likely that David was about 5-6 years older than the son of Khaled Sharrouf. With this in mind, let’s revisit the horror of witnessing Sharrouf’s son carrying the Syrian soldier’s head. Would our moral assessment have changed if the boy had been 12 or 13? Or would we still consider that an act of indefensible barbarism?
Yes, it does make a difference whether a father is exploiting his prepubescent boy, instead of a young adult acting on his own volition. 
And the issue is not merely about the involvement of children.
David wasn't a "child."
In our day and age we generally consider the desecration of corpses (whether of civilians or soldiers) to be morally indefensible. 
In context, I disagree. Rauser is confusing ethics with etiquette. In context, Goliath was shaming the Israelite army. He challenged the enemy to single combat. Champion warfare. 
This is about winning through dishonoring your adversary, as the representative of his armed forces. Dispatching and dishonoring Goliath spares a lot of lives on both sides. Desecrating his body (assuming that was the motive) is a small price to pay to avoid massive bloodshed on both sides. Rauser's moral intuitions are seriously skewed.
And that includes the beheading of corpses whilst treating the head as a trophy.
That assumes Goliath was already dead when David beheaded him. But the Hebrew is ambiguous. It may just as well be the case that Goliath was stunned, and decapitation was the quickest, simplest way of killing him. With an opponent like Goliath, you wouldn't expect David to take any chances. And this was, after all, a fight to the death. 
Moreover, Goliath was heavily armored, whereas his throat was exposed, in his prostrate position. Beheading him may have been the easiest way to finish him off, rather than trying to impale a vital organ. 
This leaves us with some important questions. Does this divergence between our sensibilities and those of the ancient Israelites reflect merely culturally relative differences? If so, then it follows that we might be mistaken to extend a moral censure to the practice in contemporary Syria. But if we insist that the desecration of corpses in this manner is objectively morally wrong how should we think of the practice in ancient Israel?
If we were living in the ANE, we'd have to adapt to ANE warfare. That doesn't mean we'd do whatever heathen warriors were prepared to do. But demoralizing the Philistine army to make them retreat is preferable to sacrificing your own troops in an unnecessary battle. It says something about Rauser's "moral intuitions" that he thinks decorum is more important than avoiding gratuitous bloodshed.  


  1. Unfortunately Rauser's "moral intuitions" apparently aren't sensitive enough to be aroused by the twisting and prostituting of God's Word.

  2. I'm grateful that there are folks like you able/willing to do the hard work of reading this plodding pseudo-intellectual tripe and debunking it. I fear that the Romans-1-denial that prompts such drivel renders Rauser and his target audience immune to rational thought, however, barring Divine intervention.