Sunday, March 13, 2011

A dying child

i) One of the features of OT history and theology that unbelievers rail against are the holy war passages, especially as they bear on the death of women and children. Many Christian readers also find these passages emotionally disturbing.

ii) More recently, some OT scholars have argued that the scope of the holy war passages has been traditionally misinterpreted. And their arguments merit careful attention. Paul Copan summarizes the argument here:

But even if their arguments are sound, I don’t think that goes to the nub of the issue.

iii) Throughout history, children have died. Died from famine, epidemic, accident, murder, abortion, infanticide, natural disaster, &c.

Whether a child dies by divine precept or divine providence is not a morally significant distinction, that I can see.

iv) The fact that people die is not ipso facto a mark of divine judgment. In collective judgments, a righteous few often suffer on account of the wicked majority. Many pious Jews died in the Assyrian deportation, the Babylonian Exile, and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Likewise, throughout the course of church history, devout Christians have been martyred for their faith.

Yet they didn’t die because of their sin. Their death wasn’t divine retribution for their sin.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which no Christian dies as a punishment for sin, inasmuch as Christ atoned for his sin.

So the fact that Canaanite children died in holy war is not, of itself, a mark of divine displeasure at the children. We can’t draw any inferences on that account. After all, Jewish children also died in OT times, from a variety of causes.

v) It’s natural for us to focus on events rather than nonevents. As a rule, we don’t notice if something didn’t happen, unless we expected that to happen.

Yet there are counterfactual deaths as well as factual deaths. Take WWII. There were undoubtedly many young men and women who planned to marry each other, and have kids by each other. But because so many eligible men died in battle, the women had to find someone else to marry–or remain single. Take German war brides. Most of them probably intended to marry a German boy. But when he died on the front, they married an American G. I. instead.

And this raises the specter of counterfactual death. Instead of having the kids by a German spouse, they had kids by an American spouse. Not only was their German fiancé or boyfriend a casualty of war, but, in effect, the kids they would have had together were also a casualty of war. The counterfactual death of one family made another family possible.

So death can be a source of life. For timing is everything. Change one variable, and that has a rippled effect. Both war and the absence of war have their share of fatalities, whether actual or counterfactual fatalities.

vi) We’re not supposed to like the holy war passages. They are meant to be hair-raising.

There’s a reason that Scripture calls death the “last enemy.” Death is often terrible. A curse. That’s why Christians yearn for the resurrection of the just. 

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