Newsflash: Genocide is wrong – even if it’s in the Bible

In my previous post, I noted that, this Saturday morning, synagogues across the globe will read a Torah portion that includes the story of the Israelites’ genocide of the nation of Midian (one of several genocides commanded in the Bible), at the command of the Israelite god (YHWH) Hashem.  I wrote that one of the many strands of evidence we have for the human authorship of the Bible is that the Bible’s author(s) advocate behaviors that were acceptable in the first and second millennia BCE but are considered morally reprehensible today.  My formal argument went:

  1. If the Bible is the product of an all-good being, the Bible would not advocate behavior that is immoral;
  2. The Bible advocates behavior that is immoral;
  3. Therefore, the Bible is not the product of an all-good being.

If you read the story, found in Numbers: Chapter 31, you would find that:

–          The Midianites send their women to seduce the Israelites into worshipping the Midianite god.

–          Hashem says that, because of this sin alone, the entire Midianite people should be attacked.

–          The Israelite army burns down the entire city of Midian including the people’s homes, murder all the adult men, and take everyone else captive.

–          Moses is angered that the army has let the women live, because they were the ones who had swayed the hearts of the Israelite men to worship the Midianite god.

–          Moses then orders the army to kill all the boys – so now all Midianite males (adults, children, newborns) are dead – and to kill all women who aren’t virgins.

–          As for the virgin girls and women – the only Midianites still alive, Moses tells the soldiers they may keep them alive “for themselves.”  (He doesn’t explain, but I think we can figure it out.  He certainly can’t mean to let them go free, because then he wouldn’t have said to keep them alive “for yourselves.”)

–          Of the virgins, a fraction is given as “tribute” to Hashem, and another portion is given to the Levites – akin to the first fruits of someone’s produce.  I remember my rabbi claimed the tribute to Hashem was that they were put to work maintaining the house of worship.   I’m not so sure, but hey, let’s hope he’s right and their punishment was only forced labor.

Note also that 85-year old grannies probably don’t make the best seducers, and so it’s probably safe to assume that only a subset of the Midianite women had been sent to seduce the Israelite men to worship the Midianite god.  And so:

  • The perpetrators of the crime: some of the Midianite women, as well as those who sent them.
  • The ones punished for the crime: all the Midianite males (adults, children, newborns) and all the females – except for the virgins. I.e. most of those slaughtered had nothing to do with it.
  • The crime: persuading some of the Israelites to worship a god other than Hashem.
  • The punishment: death.

If one carries the bias that the Bible is divine, he may be tempted to ask, “Can I somehow reconcile this story with my assumption that the Bible is the product of an all-good, loving god?”  But I would strongly assert that asking, “Can I reconcile X with my bias?” is never a good way to find the truth, because people can always find ways to explain away anything so that they can hold on to their views.  (That’s how you can still have a Flat Earth Society in 2013.)

Rather, I would humbly suggest asking, “Ignoring all my biases, what is the most likely explanation here?  Millions of stories have been written down over the history of mankind, and every single one was written by a human living in a certain time.  Was this story written by a human being living in a time when genocide was common and accepted as proper, or was it written by an invisible being who is the epitome of love and goodness?  Does this seem like a story taken from a book that God would want his children to be using as a guide to moral behavior for all time?”

Here are some responses I’ve heard over the years:

Perhaps the Midianites did something else to deserve this punishment.

Response: Numbers 25:16-18 states clearly that the reason for the genocide was the seduction of the men by the Midianite women: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.’” [Recall that Peor was the Midianite god.]

Paul Copan, author of Is God a Moral Monster, suggests that this story shouldn’t be taken literally, because the Bible, as was typical in the Near East, wrote in hyperbole when it bragged about victories achieved in battle.

Response: While in general Copan may be right, that explanation can’t work here, it seems, because there’s more to it here than just, “We slaughtered those b****rds,” or “We killed 500,000 Midianites.” The Israelites kill all the men and take everyone else captive, and then we’re taught that Moses issues a second command to go kill the boys and the women.  That’s not your typical Near Eastern hyperbole.  That sounds more like a description of actual events.

Perhaps there’s no such thing as right and wrong without God.  Murder is wrong only because God said so in the “Ten Commandments.”  Here God said committing genocide was the right thing to do, so it’s the right thing to do!

Response: First let’s realize that – whether or not this argument is valid – the fact that many religious people believe this is scary.  A  Modern Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. once told me “God created the world, so shouldn’t He be the one who would know what is right and wrong?”  When I asked him, “So if God told you to rape and murder the 3-year old girl down the street, would you do it, because if God said to do it, it must be the right thing to do?” (a retort I had once heard in a lecture by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker), the rabbi responded that indeed he would rape and murder the 3-year old girl if God tells him to do so.

This idea, known as Divine Command Theory, is a much storied philosophical idea with a long, interesting history.  However, it seems clear that the authors of the Torah don’t believe in it.  For instance:

When Hashem tells Abraham He is going to wipe out the people of Sodom, Abraham argues that what Hashem proposes to do is morally wrong.  If there are a few righteous people in Sodom, Abraham argues, punishing them would be immoral.  “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be that from you!  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Gen. 18:24-25)”  And Hashem accepts Abraham’s argument.  But if there’s no such thing as right and wrong without God saying something is right or wrong, arguing that what God plans to do is wrong would make no sense.  By definition, if God says it’s right, it’s right!

Furthermore, we find several examples where the Torah says, “God said you have to do this” and then gives a moral reasoning for doing so.  For instance:

“If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak as collateral [for an overdue loan], you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? (Ex. 22:26-27)”

“Love the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19)”

“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother.  You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. (Deut. 23:7)”

If there’s no such thing as right and wrong without God’s saying so, it would make no sense for God to say, “Do this; it’s the right thing to do because X,” if the only thing that makes something morally right is God’s saying so.

And so it’s clear that the Torah’s view is that certain things are right or wrong based on moral reasoning – without God’s saying so.  Thus you can’t say that genocide is wrong only when God says so and use that to justify God’s actions and to reclaim divine authorship of this story, because the Bible itself makes clear that whoever wrote it didn’t believe that.

Therefore, it would seem that my argument that an all-good being could not have written a story that advocates something immoral such as genocide remains intact.

Finally, some have said:

“Who cares?  It’s not like the Bible is telling anyone to commit genocide today.  Maybe that command was for a specific time and place.” 

Unfortunately, the God of the Bible IS telling His people to commit genocide today against the people of Amalek (see Deut 25:17-19).  We just have technical issues, such as we don’t know for sure who the Amalekites are.  But if a Jew would find a baby somewhere and would know for sure somehow that baby is an Amalekite, given the right circumstances, the Jew would be under divine command to murder that baby.  (Here too some have tried the “It’s not literal” defense; however, the story of King Saul and Samuel in I Samuel 15 makes clear that this command was understood quite literally as a command to commit true genocide.)

It would seem atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris is correct when he says, “Beliefs have consequences.”

For an alternative, more extensive treatment of the topic of the many genocides advocated in the Bible, written by a theist blogger, see


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