Monday, September 01, 2014

Saving God from himself

I think there is an important apologetic aspect to this whole issue of whether God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite infants...We cannot invite men to the source of all goodness and then play a bait and switch. We cannot turn around and say, "Oh, by the way, I told you that God is the source of love, mercy, pity, and the laughter of children. But actually, I also believe firmly that God commanded men to be pitiless upon little children and to cut off their laughter forever by putting them to the edge of the sword. And they carried it through, too. And in the end, I'm okay with that."
Which is why I cannot sit down and simply accept God's ordering the slaughter of the Canaanite children by the Israelites.

One problem with Lydia's position is the notion that she can erect a high wall between God and natural or moral evil. But even if she succeeded in that implausible exercise, it would relocate rather than resolve the problem of evil. It's like a black market arms dealer for a drug cartel who says he's not responsible for the cartel assassinating a prosector because, once the buyer takes receipt of the weapons, what's done with them is out of his hands. But, of course, we wouldn't accept that excuse.


  1. Steve, Totally agree. Are you by chance following Randal on his series of God committing murder. I'd love to see you comment his ideas.

  2. It feels to me like the whole discussion is an exercise in missing the point.

    (1) Is the Flood moral? (Assumed answer: Yes) In that case, we've established that God can justly kill infants.

    So let's go to the other extreme.

    (2) A man is firing mortar rounds from his house at your people, risking killing them. He's already killed some, and is trying to kill more. And he has his young kids with him in the house, gathered near him.

    Your options come down to variations of:
    (1) Send a detachment of your soldiers through a kilometre or so of hostile territory, risking their own deaths in close combat in order to take out the enemy soldier without harming his child (and risking more of your own civilian casualties in the meantime).
    (2) Drop an incendiary round on the house, which will destroy house, enemy, and child, promptly.

    Is option #2 inherently immoral?

    If yes, then you've basically claimed that not being complicit in killing a child associated with the enemy is more important than preventing multiple likely casualties to your own people (possibly including your own children).

    If no, then you've admitted that the "rule" against killing children is not absolute, and thereby admitted that (in combination with #1), it's not a-priori inconceivable that God could have used humans to carry out his morally viable judgement. Arguing whether he did is a separate step, but the absolute moral objection has been defused.

  3. It appears that Lydia's primary objection is that she deems God ordering the Israelites to "murder" Canaanite infants an immoral command, which calls into doubt (in her mind) that the command was genuinely from God.

    Further she holds that if in fact God did genuinely issue the command, then there's no good reason not to expect Him to issue similar infanticidal commands today, and that such a command would call into question His goodness.

    Something no one has explored in this exchange, to my knowledge at least, is that it would not have been necessary to carry out the various "kill all that breathes" commands if the Canaanites had simply fled, or perhaps turned to the God of Israel as did Rahab, or surrendered to Israel as did the Gibeonites (although in their case it was peace through deception).

    But evidently most of them did choose to fight Israel, and Israel was (mostly) faithful to carry out God's commands for warfare against the inhabitants of the land, although as see in Judges they weren't faithful to obey all God commanded, which had disastrous consequences.

    1. I think it's more to do with a rejection of man being God's agent in judgement.

      Observation 1: God prophesied this event to Abraham as judgement on the Amorites half a millennia previously (Gen 15:16).

      Observation 2: There are MANY examples in the OT of God calling his prophets or leaders to execute his (capital) judgement. Sometimes they act and are subsequently commended for it; other time the "word of the LORD" specifically instructs them to do so. The Canaanite purging is unique in its scope, but not in its instance.

      Many objections to the above come down to little more than "it's icky". It's a failure to come to terms with a god who brings judgement. It's why we first need to come to terms with the flood (or any other death-by-natural-disaster scenario) before we ask about God using human agency.

      From there, we consider whether children occupy some special moral category with respect to human agency. It's inane to consider them in some special moral category absolutely, because then it becomes immoral when they die without human agency (or, worse, evidence that God really isn't in control). But given all the above, the onus falls upon the objector to explain why it is moral for God to slay children through natural disaster, and moral for God to use moral human agents to slay adults, but never for God to use human agents against children. Are they arguing from Scripture, or arguing against Scripture because God is too big for their box?

      I realise that some of the discomfort is a fear of generalising. If the Israelites did that, then we should … ? We should obey the word of the Lord, just as they did. But wielding the sword in judgement en-mass seems limited to a specific instances in Israel's history at the specific instruction of his prophets; that we're worried about making it normative speaks to a failure of our wisdom, not God's.

      (Answering the specific question of his goodness: God brings about death even today, and it is clear from Scripture that all death is a form of judgement for sin. Human agency only makes death "worse" if the agent acts without sanction from God. In Romans, Paul condones the state in using capital punishment for evil. Later Christian thinkers have put much effort into "just war" considerations (as mentioned on the linked thread). There's nothing in all of Scripture to suggest that divine sanction can apply to adults but never to children, even though most "general cases" that we consider are for adults.)

  4. Steve, One question. Is "natural" evil even a possibility? I've been pondering this post a bit more and am thinking what would qualify as a natural evil. When people die of natural causes, I don't believe I've ever seen that as evil. Perhaps I'm wrong about that.

    1. "Natural evil" is a term of art. "Evil," in the sense of natural evil, isn't synonymous with heinous, wicked, or vile. Rather, it's synonymous with physical harm, destruction, calamity.

      From a theological standpoint, death by natural causes can be evil in the sense that human death is ultimately the result of the Fall.