Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Amalekite Ban and the Doctrine of Individual Responsibility

Here is a discussion critical of my own difficulties with believing that God ordered a ban on the
Amalekites, by Turretinfan. 

Here is the critical passage: 

There is absolutely no question that the Lord commanded the slaughter of the Amalekites.  Moreover, the explicitly stated reason for this slaughter is that they attacked Israel during the Exodus.  That does not mean that God did not have other reasons.

And he goes on to say: 

But Victor does not need to speculate.  God gives a reason.  The reason is retaliation for prior treachery.  Of course, the sucklings were not a part of that treachery, but the crime was performed by the nation and they are in a federal relationship with respect to the nation.  Absent God’s mercy, the judgment on the nation extends even to those who had no personal part in it.  Indeed, given the lapse of time between the Exodus and Saul, it seems unlikely that there were any alive in Amalek who had been in any personal way involved in the attack on Israel.  So, it is not only the sucklings who are receiving judgment from God for the sins of their fathers, but also the adults of Amalek as well.

One of Victor’s problems is that he is attempting to impose an external moral framework on the situation, instead of trying to extract a moral framework from the situation.  What God does is right.  That should be the premise.  Examples like the commanded destruction of the children of Amalek teach us about the heritability of guilt for sin. 

What people find shocking in the Amalekite case is that descendants are being given a kind of "national death penalty" for actions their remote ancestors did which the individuals involved had nothing to do with. We are inclined to suppose that children are innocent, and as such can't be blamed for actions their ancestors performed. We moderns are committed to the doctrine of individual responsibility, and from that standpoint the ban on the Amalekites does indeed seem unjust. If we can swallow the idea that someone can deserve the death penalty for the actions of an ancestor, then the Amalekite ban ceases to be a problem. 

However, the Doctrine of Individual Responsibility has an important biblical foundation, in Ezekiel 18 (NIV): 

The One Who Sins Will Die
1The word of the Lord came to me: 2“What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“ ‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
5“Suppose there is a righteous man
who does what is just and right.
6He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife
or have sexual relations with a woman during her period.
7He does not oppress anyone,
but returns what he took in pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
8He does not lend to them at interest
or take a profit from them.
He withholds his hand from doing wrong
and judges fairly between two parties.
9He follows my decrees
and faithfully keeps my laws.
That man is righteous;
he will surely live,
declares the Sovereign Lord.
10“Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other thingsa 11(though the father has done none of them):
“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13He lends at interest and takes a profit.
Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.
14“But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things:
15“He does not eat at the mountain shrines
or look to the idols of Israel.
He does not defile his neighbor’s wife.
16He does not oppress anyone
or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
but gives his food to the hungry
and provides clothing for the naked.
17He withholds his hand from mistreating the poor
and takes no interest or profit from them.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.
He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. 18But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.
19“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. 20The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
21“But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. 22None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live.23Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
24“But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live? None of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness they are guilty of and because of the sins they have committed, they will die.
25“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? 26If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin, they will die for it; because of the sin they have committed they will die. 27But if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life. 28Because they consider all the offenses they have committed and turn away from them, that person will surely live; they will not die. 29Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
30“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the SovereignLord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!

So I am inclined to think that saying "Just follow the Bible and give up the Doctrine of Individual Responsibility" is a bit of an oversimplified answer. 

16 comments:

BenYachov said...

Actually the Rabbis in the Talmud used to speculate what should happen if it where possible to find the living descendant of a people placed under the ban.

They concluded you could never know with certainty such a person was really a descendant of people under the ban so you could not kill them.

Or if the person accepted the seven laws of Noah they could be spared. Also this all would only apply if it was during the time of the Israelite commonwealth.

B. Prokop said...

... or, one could be a non-literalist like myself as regards the Old Testament, and have serious doubts as to whether the Slaughter of the Amalekites actually occurred at all, historically.

I don't believe it did. Alternatively, if something like it was indeed historical (entirely possible), it was not ordered by God.

After 3000 plus years, however, it really doesn't matter now, does it? What matters is how one reads the passages in question, and the interpretation thereof.

James Chastek said...

God also gave a reason to Moses why the Israelites were to be destroyed, just as he gave a reason to Abraham why Sodom should be destroyed. And yet Israel was not destroyed, and Abraham fought with God for Sodom. We can read the ban of the Amalikites in the same way - as a certain failure on Israel's part to recognize their true vocation as an intercessor to God for mercy to all nations. The truth of this vocation is clearly revealed in Christ.

Bilbo said...

Hi James,

Interesting idea. I think you might be on the right track.

Victor Reppert said...

Actually what a literal reading claims is that God ordered a ban on the Amalekites which Saul failed to carry out.

Bilbo said...

But what literal reading doesn't tell us is what God would have done if Saul had interceded on behalf of the Amalekites.

SteveK said...

I think the Doctrine of "God is God and we are not" plays a huge role in this (also known as the Doctrine of Jeremiah 18).

BenYachov said...

Catholics don't believe in Sola Scriptura. Jewish Tradition also teaches the offending nations under the ban where to be given the opportunity to flee or accept the 7 laws of Noah.

Still I always imagine the town of idiots who choose to stand their ground against the Lord's Armies among them is one survivor.

He would craw out from under his hiding place. Look around at the damage & shout at the top of his lungs you killed all my children quickly you bastards!
Now who am I going to sacrifice to Molech tomorrow with a slow burning death! Who I ask! WHO!!!!".

Screw the Amalekites they brought it on themselves!

OTOH according to Philo really young males where in fact spared.

BenYachov said...

Additional: Unlike Jihad which seems to be a bit open ended the Ban can only be given by a Public Divine Revelation.

With the death of the last Apostle there can be no more public revelation so the whole thing is moot.

I remember Walter our resident Deist admitted God has the right to take any human life he wants to even kids at anytime.

But he objected to God ordering others to do it on His behalf.

So let us sweep away the bullshit shall we & get to the real objection.

Modern civilized people wouldn't want to be ordered to kill women & children by God.

Randal what's his name? The Canadian semi-liberal Evangelical dude talks about how the ancient Israelite troops would have been traumatized like the proverbial Vietnam Vet who shot VietCon Children who where in fact trying to kill them.

God is "good" therefore he could not have ordered this.

If I may wax a little utilitarian here.

Personally I don't buy it. The Israelites grew up in a primitive society that no doubt practiced infanticide all the time. So I doubt the early Israelite Troops fresh from slavery in Egypt would have been traumatized like a modern all American Kid in Nam.

My Father was a Pilot in Nam & he tells me he was grateful he only saw the war from 20,000 feet in the air.

Anyway in principle God given his metaphysical relationship to us has the absolute right of life & death over us.

God is not going to order you to kill kids. He ordered ex-slaves who where already kinda of messed up to kill kids. Kids who would have died as sacrifices to pagan deities in a much more horrible slower way. There is no more public revelation thus no more Bans can be given.

OTOH this all assumes the "hard way" of looking at the Ban even I am open to the idea the commands where not understood literally(i.e. the easy way).

Walter said...

This discussion highlights the problem with Divine Command theories of morality. Setting aside the belief that public revelation ceased with the Apostles, we can still ask ourselves what would we do if God came to us in a vision and demanded that we kill the family across the street. And let's say that the reason given for their death sentence is the fact that their remote ancestors worshiped the devil and offended the Lord. My innate sense of morality informs me that this is seriously wrong. Why would an omnipotent creator not rain hell down upon the original devil worshipers rather than call for the execution of descendants who are innocent of that particular offense? "God's ways are not our ways" is not ample justification for me to respond positively to a supernaturally received demand to commit an act that my inner moral compass informs me is pure evil.

If an omnipotent creator wishes someone dead He can make it happen directly without using me as a tool of secondary causation.

The Hebrew scriptures read as nothing more than a rationalization for land invasion and violence against people who were not of their tribe. This is not a big problem for me because I don't think that these passages were inspired by any deity, they are just the words of ancient men.

oozzielionel said...

Walter said: "The Hebrew scriptures read as nothing more than a rationalization for land invasion and violence against people who were not of their tribe"

The Hebrew Scriptures reflect a time when land invasion and violence against neighboring tribes was the norm. We forget that it is a very modern invention to forbid this. In fact, we have not been altogether effective. The Hebrew (and also Christian) Scripture read as a progressive limitation of these abuses and tragedies with a promise of a future time of true peace. I believe Walter is amiss in his "reading." But this is easy to do with our postmodern approach to reading comprehension. Walter is entitled to his interpretation and I am sure my criticism of his interpretation is politically incorrect.

We should not be surprised that God ordered something that is an affront to our moral sensibilities. He has the right to command contrary to the ethical standards He provides. He may communicate his reason but He is not bound to. God commanded Abraham to kill his son as a human sacrifice. In some aspects, this is worse than genocide of the Amalekites. As the head of the Jewish progeny, the single death would be a genocide of the Jews. At the last instance, God prevented it and offered an alternative.

The ban is defensible 1) as a special sacrifice 2)as a judgment 3)as the ultimate test case that establishes rules of wars prohibiting massacre, attacks on non-combatants, and genocide. "Only if God specifically and undeniably commanded it" would we think such a thing. The Hebrew and Christian witness is that there has been no repeat revelation to that effect.

Sadly, we have not yet learned the lessons. Daily, even in our informed age, such atrocities are now occurring around the world.

Walter said...

"The Hebrew Scriptures reflect a time when land invasion and violence against neighboring tribes was the norm."

Indeed they do reflect such a time period, which is why I state that these passages are just the words of ancient men: storytellers who thought that such genocidal actions were morally commendable. We see things quite differently today, and that is why so much ink is spilled by Christian theologians in a vain attempt to place a halo over these disturbing yet putatively inspired passages.

"We should not be surprised that God ordered something that is an affront to our moral sensibilities."

Seems to me like we should be very surprised that He would do such a thing. What is the point of a God-given moral compass if we may be asked by Him to do things which completely violate that sense of right and wrong that He Himself has instilled in us? What is the point of ordering one human to butcher another when God can kill far more efficiently and directly? The only possible answer is that divinely sanctioned human on human violence would have to serve some kind of nebulous greater good, which for the life of me, I cannot see what that could possibly be ( but hey, God's ways are mysterious, right?). The problem with divine command theory is that no action appears to be intrinsically wrong, just circumstantially so. Butchering your neighbor's ten year old son or daughter is only wrong in the absence of a direct divine command to exterminate the offspring of one of God's enemies. Thus, upon receipt of a properly vetted divine command, I must grab my ax, simultaneously joyous at having been chosen and horrified that I am about to submit to my Father's will and do His wet work.

oozzielionel said...

"Thus, upon receipt of a properly vetted divine command, I must grab my ax, simultaneously joyous at having been chosen and horrified that I am about to submit to my Father's will and do His wet work."

The Christian Gospel is much worse than that when God the Father facilitates the murder of His own Son. He did the wet work. And we are off the hook.

BenYachov said...

@Walter

>The problem with divine command theory is that no action appears to be intrinsically wrong, just circumstantially so.

That is a problem with non-Thomistic divine command theories. They are often too immersed in moral divine volunteerism. Thus some of these voluntarists taught right & wrong are whatever God says. So God could in theory order you to hate Him & it would be "good".

The problem is in the Classic Tradition God can't and won't tell you to do something that is intrinsically evil at any time. God in the Classic Sense can't command you rape children to death or commit sodomy on their persons. Rape and Sodomy are intrinsic evils and contrary to nature. Murder is intrinsically evil. But murder is not mere killing it is unlawful killing. If killing where intrinsically evil then God could not command it as a punishment for capital crimes. As Augustine taught and the Church confirms if a private individual without authority takes it upon himself to slay an evil doer that person shall be counted a murder for daring to usurp that which belongs to God alone. God has absolute authority over all human life and by definition cannot commit murder or command it since any authorization he gives to take a life is a lawful act of killing by nature. God has granted human governments the authority to employ capital punishment against evil doers but not private individuals.

God is not at all obligated to let any particular human being continue to live and may at his good pleasure will that they continue their existence with their souls separated from their bodies. He may also lawfully choose certain nations like the Amalekites who went out of their way to try to wipe out the Israelites (& they practiced child sacrifice) and the Canaanites who according to Jewish tradition had unknown prophets visit them while Israel was held captive in Egypt warning them to repent instead they choose to follow the path of torturing Children to death for heathen sacrifice, worshiping demons, practicing Incest, Sodomy, and Beastality.

To top it off they where according to Tradition given the opportunity to flee or stay and accepting the 7 laws of Noah(which would not constitute any forced conversion to Judaism but laws that prohibit the unsavory practices of idolatry). So if after all that they still managed to stay in the land to stand their ground for the right to continue their civilization's proud traditions of screwing your relatives, goat sex and child torture murder for the glory of Moleck and Baal……then they are responsible for their own deaths & those of their children they would let live. At least the Israelites would be quick unlike the Priests of Baal who would heat up an idol & throw a live infant or young child into it's arms to die horribly.

OTOH maybe the commands where not literal. But I have no problem either way.

BenYachov said...

>>We should not be surprised that God ordered something that is an affront to our moral sensibilities.

>Seems to me like we should be very surprised that He would do such a thing.

Rather He never did even if we go the hard way. He didn't order a bunch of Christians to go back in time & kill Canaanite children. He ordered a bunch of ex-slaves to do it who no doubt lived in a culture where infanticide was rather common and people where as insensitive to it as modern "civilized" people are to partial birth abortion & or abortion in general(at least among those who call themselves "Pro-choice".
Which is another hypocrisy of those who bag on the OT who turn a bind eye to modern child murder).

I may have more to say later but for now. I am going to watch some masterpiece theater.

BenYachov said...

I left one of my thought dangling.


He may also lawfully choose certain nations like the Amalekites ,,,,,,should cease to exist as such.