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Suffer, Little Children
by Farrell Till


1993 / January-February



If you couldn't believe what you were seeing while reading the foregoing article, you probably have no background in Christian fundamentalism. A Christian writer who believes that the massacre of entire civilian populations in time of war, even to the point of genocide, is morally good! Is it possible that anyone living in a modern civilized society could really believe such a thing? Well, I assure you that your eyes weren't playing tricks on you. Bible fundamentalists really do defend all the bloody deeds that were presumably ordered by the Hebrew god Yahweh. Standing by this ancient war-god, even to the point of defending his commands to massacre babies, is an albatross that they must wear around their necks or else surrender their belief in Bible inerrancy. Apparently unable to bear the thought of life without their Bible-inerrancy security blanket, they choose to take a stand for killing babies.

Mr. Lavender, of course, played down the fact that babies were slaughtered in the conquest of Canaan. He twice made passing mention of "children" who were killed, but if the conquest actually occurred as recorded in the book of Joshua, untold thousands of babies had to have been included in the civilian populations that were systematically massacred. As I respond to Mr. Lavender's article, I will focus on the children and babies who were victims of the Israelite massacres, but as I do, the readers should bear in mind that, if the stories are true, there would have also been thousands of women and elderly, as well as children, who were killed.

An idea of the kind of numbers we are talking about can be otained from the story of the slaughter of the Midianite captives in Numbers 31 . Upon hearing that his army was returning from the Midianite campaign with women and children captives, Moses went out to meet his officers and commanded them to "kill every male among the little ones" and to "kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him" (v:17 ). "But all the women-children that have not known man by lying with him," Moses went on to say, "keep alive for yourselves" (v:18 ). The purpose of this article is not to discuss sexual abuse but the massacre of captive children, so the only comment I will make about Moses' orders to keep the virgin girls "alive for yourselves" is to urge the readers to keep in mind that belief in Bible inerrancy ultimately forces one to defend not just the massacre of children but also their sexual abuse. What kind of god would allow his inspired spokesman to tell his soldiers to kill women and children but keep the virgin girls "alive for yourselves"? The answer to that, of course, is the god of the Bible that Mr. Lavender and all his inerrantist cohorts defend.

The matter of numbers involved in such massacres as this one is indicated in the fact that 32,000 virgin girls escaped execution on this occasion (v:35 ). If there were that many virgin girls among the captives, we can reasonably assume that at least this many, and probably more, male children and nonvirgin women were put to the sword. Thus, when Mr. Lavender and his inerrantist cohorts speak about "children" who were killed in these military campaigns, they aren't talking about just a few but THOUSANDS of children--all killed in the name of Yahweh, the god whom he and every fundamentalist Christian worship and serve.

Isn't Yahweh's bloody history at least a little embarrassing to Mr. Lavender and his likeminded cohorts? Not at all. They defend it as absolute truth. "Objection to the fate of these nations," Mr. Lavender said, "is really an objection to the highest manifestation of the goodness of God" (p. 6). Notice again what he said: THE HIGHEST MANIFESTATION OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD! That is exactly what Bible fundamentalists believe about the many Yahwistically ordered massacres in the Old Testament. Such statements as this may shock some of our readers, but they do not shock me. I have heard them too many times to be shocked anymore. In my first oral debate on the inerrancy issue, my opponent said that the massacre of the Amalekites was his "favorite story in the Bible." What happened in this massacre? Yahweh commanded Saul, the first king of Israel, to "utterly destroy" the Amalekites "and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Sam. 15:3 ).

This debate materialized because my opponent, a Presbyterian minister, had led a local effort to boycott the controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ. He thought this movie was obscene yet had the audacity to describe an incident that involved the massacre of "infants and sucklings" as his favorite story in the Bible. There has to be something fundamentally obscene in such a position as this.

Nevertheless, it is a position as common as belief in Bible inerrancy. In my debate with the Church-of-Christ preacher Mac Deaver at Southwest Texas State University, Deaver publicly took the position that the massacre of Amalekite babies had been a morally good thing. In my oral debate with Jerry McDonald, who in his articles published in TSR has offered some rather bazarre solutions to Bible discrepancies, I submitted to him a true or false question that forced him to say that if he had lived in the time of King Saul, he would have participated in the Amalekite massacre by willingly killing women, pregnant women, children, and babies. So there is nothing at all unusual in Mr. Lavender's description of the Canaanite massacres as "the highest manifestation of the goodness of God." To this, I can only say what I said about my Presbyterian opponent's opinion of the Amalekite massacre: there has to be something fundamentally obscene about a position that leads one to proclaim the massacre of babies as "the highest manifestation of the goodness of God."

Mr. Lavender accused those who question the "ethics of God" in the destruction of the Canaanites of failing to "take into account six things." The "ethics of God"? The ethics of God! He has the audacity to imply that the massacre of children and babies is compatible with divine ethics? Indeed he does, because nothing can be too ridiculous or too embarrassing to keep a fundamentalist from offering it in defense of the Bible. Hence, those who question the morality of killing babies for purely ethnic and religious reasons are questioning the ethical conduct of God. Lavender would never put it that candidly, but that is what it amounts to.

So what are "the six things" that we fail to consider when we question the "ethics of God" in this matter? Well, it seems that the Canaanites were so grossly immoral that they just had to be exterminated "to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted" (p. 6). The only problem with this theory is that the Israelites weren't exactly paragons of virtue themselves. After they went in to possess the land they had taken from the Canaanites, their nation became as corrupt as any of the nations they had driven out. In fact, the story of their wilderness wanderings on the way to the promised land is filled with incidents of rebellion, idolatry, and orgy (Ex. 16:2-3 ; 32:1-20 ; Num. 11:1-2 ; 14:1-3 ; 16:1-35 ; 20:1-9 ; 21:4-9 ; 25:1-15 ). Their morality didn't improve after they entered into the promised land. They still practiced idolatry (Judges 10:6 ; 1 Kings 11:4-8 ; 12:28-30 ; 16:30-33 ), offered human sacrifices (2 Kings 21:6 ; 23:10 ; Ps. 106:37-38 ; Jer. 32:34-35 ; Ezk. 16:20-21 ), indulged in orgies and abominations (Jdgs. 19 ; Ezek. 16:44-52 ). These, of course, are just partial listings that could be greatly expanded if space permitted, for the history of Israel from the time of its entry into the promised land until it fall to Nebuchadnezzar was, by the Bible's own account, a history of moral profligacy. What Mr. Lavender is arguing, then, is that the Canaanites were so wicked that God had to exterminate them so that their land could be possessed by a people who were just as profligate. It is an argument that makes sense only to a Bible inerrantist. "When it became clear that they [the Canaanites] were past redemption," Lavender said in another of his points, "their destruction occurred." Furthermore, he said in still another point, "The justice of God demands punishment for sin." So we wonder if this is why God was constantly sending the Israelites into bondage after they displaced the Canaanites (Judges 3:7-8 ; 4:1-3 ; 6:1-6 ; 10:7-8 ; 13:1 ). Was God, in keeping with his perfect justice, just punishing them for their sins? If so, did he ultimately destroy the national identity of Israel and send them into Babylonian captivity because "it had become clear that they were past redemption"? If so again, then why did the inscrutable Yahweh destroy the Canaanites in the first place only to fill their land with a people equally as wicked?

This last question poses a serious problem for Mr. Lavender's position that I will address later, but first let's notice that another of his points was that one would have to be "equal with God" before he could accuse God of wrong in the Canaanite massacres. This is a variation of the old God's-ways-are-higher-than-our-ways argument, which is a catch-all dodge that inerrantists use whenever their arguments make no sense. A major flaw in Lavender's application of it is the obvious fact that it assumes without proof that God was actually involved in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. A more probable interpretation of this aspect of Hebrew history is that they merely thought that their god Yahweh was directing their conquest of the land. Even today nations have a tendency to think that God is on their side in time of war. That belief was even more prevalent in biblical times. Each nation had its god(s) that the people thought rewarded them with victory when they were "good" and punished them when they were "bad."

The Moabite stone, for example, contains an inscription in which the Moabite king Mesha of 2 Kings 3 told of victories that he had won through his god Chemosh who "saved me from all the kings and let me see my desire upon my adversaries." Later in the inscription, Mesha said about a victory his forces had won over Israel, "But Chemosh drove him [the king of Israel] out before me." Pavement slabs in the temple of Urta at Nimud contained an inscription by the Assyrian king Assur-Nasir-Pal in which he described the massacre of 600 warriors and 3,000 captives he had taken in battle "at the command of the great gods" (Crane Brinton, A History of Western Morals, p. 48).

If one were to ask Mr. Lavender if he believes that king Mesha had actually been led to victory by the god Chemosh or that the "great gods" had led Assur-Nasir-Pal in his conquests, he would no doubt openly scoff at the notion of a pagan god leading an army to victory. How then does he account for the undeniable fact that inscriptions left behind by these kings clearly do say that their gods were responsible for their victories? His answer would probably involve some application of Occam's razor. Chemosh didn't really lead king Mesha to victory. Mesha just superstitiously believed that it had happened this way. The "great gods" were not really behind the conquests of Assur-Nasir-Pal. He just thought that they were.

The rule of Occam's razor says that when there are two or more explanations for a phenomenon, the least incredible one is probably the right one. To apply this principle to the claims of the pagan kings Mesha and Assur-Nasir-Pal, two possibilities exist: (1) They won their victories through the intervention of their gods, or (2) they won their victories by means of superior military forces and tactics and merely thought that their gods had led them to win. Of these two explanations, the second one is obviously the less incredible and, therefore, the one rational people would choose to explain the military successes of Mesha and Assur-Nasir-Pal.

If I were to ask Mr. Lavender to make a choice in the matter--and I am asking him to do that--I suspect he would choose the second one. If so, why can he not apply the same common-sense reasoning to the biblical claims that Yahweh led the Israelites to victory in their battles? King Mesha was a Moabite neighbor to the Israelites and was contemporary to Ahab and Jehoshaphat. Now when the Bible says that "Yahweh was with Jehoshaphat" and "established the kingdom in his hand" (2 Chron. 17:3,5 ), inerrantists like Mr. Lavender unhesitatingly declare their belief that this was absolutely true, yet they scoff at a Moabite inscription that says the god Chemosh was with Jehoshaphat's neighbor, king Mesha, and established his kingdom. Why? What is the consistency in such positions as these? If the rule of Occam's razor makes it unlikely that a primitive war-god was leading Mesha to victory, why wouldn't the same rule make it just as unlikely that the god Yahweh was helping Mesha's neighbor Jehoshaphat, just a few miles away, to "establish" his kingdom?

This way of looking at the situation certainly plays havoc with Mr. Lavender's points that were based on the assumption that God directed the Canaanite massacres. If God had had nothing to do with these atrocities, as the rule of Occam's razor clearly indicates, then one doesn't have to be "equal with God" in order to accuse God of wrong in the matter. In fact, the rational person accuses God of nothing, because he is sensible enough to realize that "God" was in no way involved in the incidents. The stories simply evolved in a primitive, barbaric society that believed God was on its side.

So we don't have to be omniscient either "to know that what happened to the innocent children of guilty parents was not the best thing that could have happened" (point 4, p. 6). Why, if these children had grown to adulthood instead of having been slaughtered in the Israelite massacres, they might have "become malignant blights in the society of men like their parents" (p. 6). God couldn't have allowed that, could he? Why, heavens no, he had to wipe them off the face of the earth before they could grow up to practice idolatry and offer human sacrifices, as their parents did, so that their land could be occupied by another people who practiced idolatry and offered human sacrifices (as noted above). About the only thing Lavender didn't say that inerrantists usually say at this point is that God did these children a favor by ordering their destruction before the "age of accountability" so that they could go to heaven rather than hell, where they would have gone had they grown to adulthood. That kind of thinking is so obscene that it deserves no comment, so I won't offer any.

To return to the serious problem that I skipped above, I have to wonder about the omniscience of Yahweh. According to Lavender, the Canaanites were so corrupt that Yahweh just had to vomit them out of the land (p. 6), yet he replaced them with a people who gave him such grief and disappointment that he eventually had to destroy their national identity too. Why? If Yahweh were truly omniscient, wouldn't he have known that his plan to establish a righteous nation in the land would fail and leave him no better off than he had been with the corrupt Canaanites?

Bibliolaters have an answer to that too. Lavender put it like this: "God was preserving a lineage through which the Messiah would come and all nations be blessed." What he didn't do was explain why it was necessary for God to "preserve a lineage" through which he could give the world a Messiah. Lavender can't give one logical reason why, if God wanted to give the world a savior, he first had to preserve a lineage "through which the Messiah would come." At any time in human history, God could have selected a Mayan or an Eskimo or an Ethiopian or any woman of any ethnic orgin to become the Messiah's mother. It didn't have to be a Jewish woman. If not, why not?

Even if Lavender could logically explain why not, he would encounter yet another problem. If the preservation of a lineage was somehow requisite to sending the Messiah, why couldn't Yahweh have preserved a lineage for him without resorting to massacre and genocide? To argue that he couldn't preserve the lineage without massacring the Canaanites would be to argue that God is not omnipotent, because there is at least one thing God can't do. He cannot preserve a lineage without resorting to massacre. So what all of Lavender's talk about the preservation of a lineage really amounts to is nothing but desperation theology intended to explain away an extremely embarrassing problem for the inerrancy doctrine.

One other point that he made requires comment. He said that "(p)unishment was deserved by the Canaanites, whereas it was not in the case of the Holocaust--which was only a vendetta by Hitler and the Nazis against the Jews" (point 6, p. 6). Vendetta? Lavender wants to talk about vendettas? Well, let's just look at a vendetta that was executed Yahweh style. On their journey to the promised land, the Israelites were resisted by the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16 ). This prompted the infinitely merciful Yahweh to order Moses to "(w)rite this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (v:14 ). Among the final instructions that Moses gave to the Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan was a reminder of Yahweh's promise to exterminate the Amalekites:

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore, it shall be, when Yahweh thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which Yahweh thy God hath given thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. THOU SHALT NOT FORGET (Dt. 25:17-19 , ASV with Yahweh substituted for Jehovah). Very well, if what the Amalekites had done to the Israelites on this occasion warranted total extermination as a nation, it should have at least been done to the generation of Amalekites who had committed the offense. But it wasn't. Not until 450 years later during the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, did Yahweh give the orders to massacre the whole Amalekite nation: Samuel also said unto Saul, Yahweh sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of Yahweh. Thus saith Yahweh of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, INFANT AND SUCKLING, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Sam. 15:1-3 , KJV with Yahweh substituted for the LORD). I emphasize that this massacre was ordered for something the ancestors of that generation of Amalekites had done 450 years before! If we could go back in time 450 years, we would have to wait 65 years for the first permanent European settlement in North America to be established at Jamestown. Can anyone imagine the moral outrage that would be expressed if our government should decide to exterminate all Native Americans thought to be descendants of those who may have in some way resisted the establishment of the Jamestown settlement? Yet that would be parallel to what was done in the matter of the Amalekites. So I suggest that if Mr. Lavender wants to talk about vendettas, he forget about Hitler and the Nazis and give some serious thought to the vendettas that his god Yahweh executed against the nations in and around Canaan, who had the misfortune not to have been Israelites, Yahweh's chosen people "above all peoples on the face of the earth" (Dt. 7:6 ).

Of all the attempts that fundamentalists make to defend the inerrancy of the Bible none is more reprehensible than their insistence that the Old Testament Yahwistic massacres were morally justified and even "the highest manifestation of the goodness of God." Anyone who could take such a moral position has earned the contempt of all civilized people--and deserves it. We are told in the New Testament that Jesus once said to his disciples, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me..." (Mt. 19:14 ). A rather complex theological doctrine that I won't attempt to analyze states that Jesus was actually Yahweh in another "person." If so, he merits commendation for the moral improvement in his character over what it was in Old Testament times. Back then, he seemed to have a different attitude toward children, which was simply, "Suffer, little children."
 



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