Biblical Genocide and Village Atheists

This post springs from an interesting discussion I had with Scott Scheule in the comments section of an earlier post. The issues there are important enough to deserve a deeper look.

Quoting the Bible against believers is one of the hoariest weapons in the freethinker’s war chest. It has been done many times, never more cogently or eloquently than in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Robert Ingersoll’s Some Mistakes of Moses is another fine instance of the genre. The tactic cites cruelties, horrors, and absurdities ostensibly ordered or endorsed by scripture, thereby undermining its claims of divine provenance. One rhetorical advantage of the tactic is that it immediately puts believers on the defensive and presents them with a dilemma: Either bite the bullet and admit that scripture really does say such things, or reinterpret the passages as metaphorical, allegorical, hyperbolic, or as simply misunderstood by the objector.

Either alternative presents problems. Biting the bullet may be courageous but will probably lead the freethinker to see the point as conceded. Reinterpretation has to avoid the charges of special pleading or arbitrariness. Obviously, it is not a legitimate exegetical principle to take the parts of scripture you like as literal and the embarrassing parts as metaphorical. Also, apologists don’t want to be tagged as playing lawyer’s tricks, e.g. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, when my client said ‘I will BLEEPing kill you!’ all he really meant was ‘Golly, I strongly disapprove of your action.’ He was merely using hyperbolic language to make an emphatic point.” Even in this post-Derridean age most people hold that there exist utterances that function to convey definite meanings that can be understood correctly or incorrectly. As an unabashed phallologocentrist, I concur. An interpretation cannot be legitimate if it clearly distorts the meaning.

A common riposte to the citer of scriptural embarrassments is that he is playing the “village atheist.” What is a “village atheist?” I take this epithet as implying that the objector is like the old-time purveyor of cracker-barrel skepticism who enjoys needling his pious neighbors with clever but unsophisticated objections to popular belief. A typical query of the village atheist would be something like this: “The Book of Genesis says that Cain took a wife. OK, where did she come from, if the only people alive were Adam, Eve, and Cain?!? Where did he find Mrs. Cain???” Spencer Tracy asks Frederick March this question in Inherit the Wind. It does present a challenge to fundamentalists, who are not without resources in answering it. I recall that Dr. Duane Gish, the late, not so great, young-earth creationist, replied that by the time Cain killed Able hundreds of years had passed since Eden, and that other descendants of Adam and Eve had multiplied and populated other areas (remember, everybody lived hundreds of years back then). So Cain took one of his great, great, great, etc. nieces for a wife. (Still sounds like dangerous inbreeding to me)

So, does it mark you as a “village atheist” if you cite ostensibly abominable passages of scripture as evidence against their divine provenance? Let’s try it and see.

I Samuel 15: 1-3 contain one of the most notorious passages in scripture. In the OT there are rules for everything, including the conduct of holy war. The rule was that none of the enemy or any of their animals or goods could be taken for use of by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 13: 12-18). This rule, called the ban of hērem, apparently served to show that a war was not being fought for the usual predatory reasons, but upon orders from the Lord and for his holy purposes. The enemy and all he has are to be regarded as a sacrifice to the Lord, not booty to be taken. However, the ban seems to have had the morally perverse effect of preventing pillage by sanctioning genocide. In the passage from I Samuel, the holy prophet Samuel, as spokesman for the Lord, orders King Saul to attack the Amalekites, a fierce desert tribe that had attacked the Israelites during their trek from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 17: 8-16). Here is the passage (The New English Bible):

“Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel. Now listen to the voice of the Lord. This is the very word of the Lord of Hosts: ‘I am resolved to punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel, how they attacked them on their way up from Egypt.’ Go now and fall upon the Amalekites and destroy them, and put their property under ban. Spare no one; put them all to death, men, women, children, and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.”

Now my interpretation of this passage is that the Lord, through his prophet Samuel, is ordering Saul to attack the Amalekites under the rules of the ban. He is to kill men, women, children, and babes in arms, as well as herds, flocks, camels and asses. Prima facie it orders Saul to extirpate the Amalekites utterly, and to destroy all that they possess. Since I see no good reason for taking the passage as saying anything other than what it appears to say, this is my reading of the passage. I also make a moral judgment based on my understanding that the passage commands genocide: This is bad. I think that any morally decent person would say that if anything is bad, genocide is bad. Therefore, as Tom Paine would (and did) say, this passage seems to be more appropriately regarded as the word of a demon rather than the word of God. The Good Book is not so good.

The structure of the reasoning of the above argument is this:

1) Prima facie, this scriptural passage appears to endorse X.

2) As every morally decent person admits, X is bad.

3) Therefore, this scripture seems to endorse bad things.

4) Therefore, this scripture does endorse bad things.

Is this reasoning superficial and shallow, a typical product of a “village atheist” mentality? Well, it appears hasty. Can we so quickly move from “seems to be bad” to “is bad?” Wouldn’t a more careful thinker at least wait to see what sorts of arguments apologists can provide to exculpate these passages?

Not really. Only four interpretations of the passage seem possible:

1) It really does command genocide. All of the Amalakites are to be killed.

2) It commands that only some but not all of the Amalakites be killed.

3) It does not command that any of the Amalakites be killed. The language of genocide is hyperbolic utterance meant to indicate the extent of the Lord’s disapproval of the Amalakites.

4) It never happened. This is a piece of fiction. There was never a historical Samuel that addressed a historical Saul in this way.

Each interpretation produces intractable problems for the apologist.

1) Biting the bullet is brave but not too smart. To defend the passage you would have to argue that genocide is good in some cases. Like when? Well, maybe you could say that the victims were so demonically evil, perhaps even possessed by demons, so that killing them would be justifiable. This response may be contemptuously dismissed. Every genocide has been justified by saying that the victims were atrociously evil. “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” as the cavalry general Philip Sheridan allegedly put it (he later denied saying it). If the Jews had been as bad as depicted in the Nazi film, Der Ewige Jude, then they would have been truly despicable. Before the Rawandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches” before being murdered by the Hutus. That the victims of genocide are uniformly evil is always the justification claimed by their murderers, and it is always a notorious lie.

2) This interpretation is plainly at odds with the rest of the chapter. Verses 7 through 9 say that Saul put all the people to the sword sparing only the Amalakite king, Agag, and the best of the animals. Verses 10 through 19 tell how Samuel angrily confronts Saul and upbraids him for sparing the sheep, cattle, and King Agag. He insists that the Lord had ordered the destruction of that wicked nation and that they were to be wiped out (verse 18). To drive the point home (sorry, I couldn’t resist) he takes a sword and cuts Agag to pieces (verse 33). More basically, trying to get the command to only kill some and not all from the above passage in verses 1-3 is just trying to squeeze blood from a stone. The passage is woefully clear: “Spare on one; put them all to death, men, women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses.” The commentators of the Oxford Study Edition of the New English Bible take it for granted that the passage says just what it seems to say. Rather cold-bloodedly, they note “The ban, making a battle an absolute, relentless struggle, was a powerful psychological force in holy war.” Modern day exponents of holy war, like ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab would certainly agree! The Bible gave the idea of holy war to mankind, and it is a gift that keeps on giving!

3) For the sake of argument, suppose we concede (what I don’t for a second actually believe) that the passage is not to be taken literally, as a command to commit genocide, but employs hyperbolic language to express a strong moral condemnation, or something like that. Even if taken non-literally, the spirit of the passage is still extremely nasty; it is an instance of what Paine called the “unrelenting vindictiveness” that fills so much of the Bible. Also, use of such language does not seem terribly smart. Some literal-minded persons might make the mistake of taking language that apparently calls for genocide as actually calling for genocide. Could happen. Oh, wait. It has happened. Many times. As Paine notes, such passages have served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. How odd that divine omniscience would not foresee that saying hateful things might have hateful effects.

4) Perhaps some very liberal Christians would be willing to see the passage in question and other such passages as fictions. Such things were never really said. Still, the burden would be on such persons to explain just how scripture can be considered inspired when it has so many horrible stories.

The upshot is that with verses such as I Samuel 15: 1-3, there is not much that the apologist can say that will do much to redeem such passages. In such cases, there is nothing superficial or unfair about taking the nasty passages in the Bible to say what they appear to say and then making the appropriate moral judgments. Of course, such a critic’s readings and judgments are defeasible. Perhaps, mirabile dictu, apologists will, after all, have adequate justifications for such passages, and not simply tie themselves into mental and moral knots in the attempt. However, the critic may be excused for not holding his breath until such putative justifications emerge. After all, on far too many occasions we have all heard the sophistries of casuists as they attempt to defend the manifestly indefensible.