Thursday, September 07, 2017

Moral skepticism and Scripture

From an exchange I had with an unbeliever on Facebook:

I have no theory as to why God predestines a particular hurricane to strike a particular area. In general, hurricanes are natural forces which restore the balance of nature. 

It's not as if hurricanes are targeted to hit population centers. That's an incidental consequence of humans living in hurricane zones. In general, humans die in natural disasters as a side-effect of living where natural disasters happen to strike.

God created a world with natural mechanisms. And everything happens according to his master plan for the world. In that respect, even bad things happen for a good reason. And this life is not the ultimate frame of reference.

When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12 then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity (Deut 25:11-12).

i) To begin with, who started the fight? Who threw the first punch? Who's at fault? 

ii) You also disregard the nature of the offense. Grabbing the genitals risks rendering the man impotent. A harsh penalty for a harsh crime. The penalty is completely avoidable by avoiding the crime.

18 If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear (Deut 21:18-21).

i) I didn't say if that was the thing to do now. Not everything that God commanded ancient Israel to do is a direct command to or for Christians.

ii) You fail to grasp the nature of the Mosaic penalty structure. As various scholars contend, the death penalty was generally a maximum penalty, not a mandatory penalty (first degree murder might be a notable exception). 

ii) The fact that the legislator invokes the purgation formula in the case of the incorrigible son indicates to me that in this case (and other cases in kind), the penalty is indexed to the cultic holiness of Israel. If so, that doesn't carry over into the new covenant era. By contrast, the penalty for murder antedates the Mosaic covenant. The penalty for murder is indexed to the image of God rather than holy land. 

Deuteronomy has a refrain about "purging evil" (Cf. Deut 13:5/6; 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:9,21; 22:21-22,24; 24:7). A dramatic illustration is the ceremony to cleanse the land of blood guilt (21:1-9). These penalties operate within a framework of ritual holiness, where the land is culturally holy, and transgressions defile the land, necessitating punitive actions that reconsecrate the land. But that principle doesn't carry over into the new covenant, because the holy land category is defunct.

iii) Your position suffers from self-referential incoherence. On the one hand, you appeal to stock arguments for moral skepticism. If I was born at a different place and time, I'd have different views.

On the other hand, you attack OT ethics. But your moral skepticism neutralizes your ability to attack OT ethics. You can't say that's wrong. At best, you can only say that's not right–in the sense that nothing is right or wrong. 

Ironically, I agree with moral skeptics that moral intuition is unreliable, given the fact that different cultures have different taboos. What's admirable in one culture is abominable in another, and vice versa. So we need something over and above moral intuition to correct or corroborate our moral intuitions. 

You attack OT ethics, but obviously the Pentateuchal legislator didn't share your outlook. You have your convictions and he had his. So what brokers the disagreement? Who's the referee? What makes your moral opinion superior to the viewpoint of the Pentateuchal narrator? You're using the same argument John Loftus employs, but it disqualifies you from assuming the posture of a moralist.


  1. "the penalty is indexed to the cultic holiness of Israel"
    Can you expound on this for me?

    1. He explains it in the following paragraph.

  2. ii) You also disregard the nature of the offense. Grabbing the genitals risks rendering the man impotent. A harsh penalty for a harsh crime. The penalty is completely avoidable by avoiding the crime.

    Presumably even at this time the Israelites were looking/waiting for the Messiah. By crushing the man's genitals it could prevent or delay the coming of the Messiah because he may no longer be able to produce offspring. So this would be a terrible offense.

    Also, just not being able to have children was already a terrible and shameful condition to be in for either males or females. Another terrible deprivation would be the fact that since his testicles were crushed, he would be barred from joining the "assembly of YHVH" for public worship (Deut. 23:1). Crushed testicles could also damage his ability to produce sufficient amounts of testosterone and so render him physically weaker. In the harsh conditions of the ANE, you need all the strength, vitality and ambition you can have. Also, with crushed testicles, one might not be able to produce children who were often essential for economic survival. Later on the man and his wife (if he had been married before the woman crushed his testicles) would also eventually need to be taken care of in their old age by children that never existed because of his forced impotence.

    Semites understood the connection between testicles and masculinity because they could observe how eunuchs lost muscle mass, lost depth of voice, lost strength, lost aggression, lost ambition, lost masculine features in terms of the size and shape of their skulls and facial hair, penile shrinkage and dramatic drop in libido.

    When it comes to the issue of a rebellious son, the son is not a prepubescent child. He's obviously at least as old as a teenager since he's committing sins like gluttony and drunkenness. Any younger and the parents would be strong enough to prevent such sins. Also, the son is clearly incorrigible (so not a recent or very young teenager). He's described as stubborn. So, it's not a matter of a one time offense, but a son with a persistently unteachable spirit/attitude. Furthermore, it seems the law was voluntary. The parents must voluntarily give up the son to the fate of stoning, and the community as a whole must agree to the stoning of the incorrigibly rebellious son. It wasn't a matter of private justice, but public justice. Parents couldn't just unilaterally stone their son to death in the backyard. Parents must (voluntarily) enlist the support of the community. So, both the parents and the community must be in agreement. Finally, in all likelihood, the law served more regularly as a deterrent to scare kids straight. Few parents likely took advantage of the law. Especially since it would be a shame to the family for a son to be stoned to death. Corporal punishment was an accepted form of training for parents to use and they would have availed themselves of that option as much as possible. Regular beatings would remind kids of how much more stoning would hurt and its permanent nature. I'm reminded of how when me and my cousin were around six years old my uncle drove both of us to the parking lot of the Police Station and threatened to give us over to the police if we didn't spot fighting. It's no surprise that that scary experience dramatically decreased our tendency to fight. My cousin and I still laugh about it today. Many adults (like myself) love and are thankful to their parents for having used corporal punishment on them when they were children. We also feel sorry for kids/adults who were never loved enough to be spanked, and the terrible consequences of that deprivation on the development of their character and the respectful attitude for authority (most especially toward God) they didn't develop.

    1. It should also be noted that some extra-Scriptural Jewish interpreters believe that payment was able to take the place of having the woman's hand cut off. John Gill wrote regarding Deut. 25:11-12:

      .....though the Jewish writers interpret this not of actual cutting off the hand, but of paying a valuable consideration, a price put upon it; so Jarchi; and Aben Ezra compares it with the law of retaliation, "eye for eye", Exo_21:24; which they commonly understand of paying a price for the both, &c. lost; and who adds, if she does not redeem her hand (i.e. by a price) it must be cut off:
      thine eye shall not pity her; on account of the tenderness of her sex, or because of the plausible excuse that might be made for her action, being done hastily and in a passion, and out of affection to her husband; but these considerations were to have no place with the magistrate, who was to order the punishment inflicted, either in the strict literal sense, or by paying a sum of money.

    2. Presumably, in the eyes of God crushing a man's private parts could be interpreted as rebellion against and unbelief in God's promise of the Messiah.

      BTW, I've created two blogposts on these topics based on my comments above.

    3. Annoyed Pinoy,

      I too have a blog post on the subject of the rebellious son--going over many of the same points you mention with footnotes to various evangelical OT scholars. I think Steve's notion of the purgation formula and the command being indexed to the cultic holiness of Israel is good (something I did not consider in my study). Another route to consider (which I did in my study) is to try to imagine what kind of person today would the law apply to--it's obviously not an 8 year old who says "no" to mom. I mention some criminal cases of young men who engaged in criminal behaviors which hurt others (including death). My point was that for those who think the OT law is "harsh" the failure to criminally punish certain kinds of rebellious youth is also harsh in that innocent victims are the ones who pay the price.