Objections Series: Killing in the Old Testament: How Can It Be Just?

[This post appeared originally in my series on The Truth and Charity Forum]

One of the most troubling objections made to the Faith is regarding the instances in the Old Testament when God commands the killing of human beings who have committed no obvious wrong. There is the commandment that Abraham kill his son Isaac, though God ultimately rescues the young man (Gen. 22). There are also the commands to slaughter entire groups. In 1 Samuel, God commands King Saul as follows:

‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:2-3).

abraham_sacrificing_isaacAdmittedly, this is one of the most difficult aspects of the Faith because it stems from a very natural proclivity towards valuing human life. And it bears mentioning that this is a secondary or even tertiary consideration after the question of the existence of God in general and the meaning of Scripture have been broached. To understand the Christian answer, both prior aspects are required. We believe in a loving God who is the source of all goodness and truth, even of all life and existence itself. The Catechism, drawing on the Old Testament and New, says:

“God, ‘HE WHO IS’, revealed himself to Israel as the one ‘abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’. These two terms express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all his works God displays, not only his kindness, goodness, grace and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness and truth. ‘I give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.’ He is the Truth, for ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness’; ‘God is love’, as the apostle John teaches (1 John 1:5, 4:8).” (CCC 214)

Theologically, the answer to the question about the supposed murders lies in the application of natural law, “If murder is always wrong, how can God command it?” Natural law is man’s guide to goodness through reason, which St. Thomas Aquinas says is “promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind” (ST I-II, 90, 4). By it, we know that killing innocents is wrong; this is also the fifth of the ten commandments.

However, the Natural Law has both primary and secondary precepts, the latter of which God can rescind according to specific circumstances, the former of which He cannot as it would create a contradiction in His unity (Summa I-II, 94, 5). As God is the source of the bindingness of laws, it belongs to Him to make these laws valid. In the case of killing innocents, killing is forbidden because God both creates and destroys all human life; it does not belong to man to take this upon himself. Because God is the true author of life, He can delegate that authority, to beyond that.

I do not think though that God’s delegation of His authority over life makes Him a voluntaristic God. Indeed, St. Thomas argues against voluntarism. when He deems fit, with no contradiction or injustice. As St. Thomas puts it.

“All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive.’ Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever.” (Summa Theologica, I-II, 94, 5, reply 2).

What this means is that because God brings us all death at some point, and that is no injustice, that it is further not unjust for Him to command it or work through human instruments in bringing about the time of death of a person or people.

If then it is not injustice for God, as the source of life, to command something like this, the further question is whether or not God is a voluntaristic God, a God who by his will alone, makes actions to be bad or good without any intrinsic meaning Voluntarism would be a case where God could make something intrinsically wrong into something intrinsically good. For instance, lying or blasphemy. Spreading falsity or blasphemy, speaking to intentionally insult God or sacred things are intrinsically wrong acts and it would be a contradiction for God to “call” them “good.” So this never happens, and God would/could not ever command this because in God’s unity, He is synonymous with goodness itself.  God always has authority over the beginning and end of human life. He does not contradict himself if He delegates that authority to humans in specific instances.

So in the cases where God does command the killings that we as readers do not understand, it is not contradictory for Him to do this, but it does require Faith in His ultimate goodness. It means admitting that in such cases, we do not fully comprehend God’s providential plan, as we never can. In accordance with the unity of the Scripture though, I trust that all God’s actions are part of His plan to draw humanity back to Himself for the purposes of redemption and our ultimate good.

Granted, this can be a very difficult thing to trust in. Yet the problem becomes a psychological one rather than logical one.

Additionally, we must be very careful with such instances of God delegating this ultimate authority. Likely, only the examples recorded in Scripture or otherwise verified by the Church are authentic cases. Ordinary people should rightly be suspicious of any “voices” that command killing in God’s name. Cases of self-defense and just war notwithstanding, the human members of the church probably do have some historical abuses to answer for here. No one should run around hopping on the bandwagon of “God said I could.”  And yet, it remains possible and reasonable that God could and does/did touch human history in such a way that He assigns to a particular person an instance of His own authority over life and death. Believing in a God of miracles, as we do, there is no prima facie reason to rule such action out even if we find it psychologically troubling.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that God’s sees from an eternal perspective. For him, earthly life is not the end of the person; it is one mode. We do not know the possible joys God has planned for us or anyone, even some whom He commands depart this life, when he or she reaches the other side. Part of the trust issue is made difficult for us humans because we can only see this side of human existence. But if faith is robust, we can trust that the eternal justice is real and more thorough and more satisfying than any human facsimile thereof.

These Biblical examples do present a complex question to wrestle with, and to object to these killings does stem from a rightful insistence on the value of human life, which is a very good thing!

What I’ve intended to show is that there is no contradiction in the tradition by God delegating his authority over life and death. Neither does it make God into a voluntaristic God. What it does require is faith and trust, which I understand that a person may struggle with. Yet keeping the unity of the Scriptures in mind, we recall that God offered His own Son, Jesus Christ, to be slaughtered though innocent, in atonement for our own offenses and misdeeds. In the suffering and redemption of Christ, God has offered more than He has ever demanded from us humans.

Read the original here: http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/killing-in-the-old-testament-is-it-just-objection-series-5/

Have you ever pondered the question of God’s action? Is this a hard issue for you or are other things more difficult? Do you find this a reasonable response? Would you like to hear or learn or ask more? Comment or ask me on Twitter @StephaniesIdeas. I wanna hear from you!!

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2 thoughts on “Objections Series: Killing in the Old Testament: How Can It Be Just?

  1. “What this means is that because God brings us all death at some point, and that is no injustice, that it is further not unjust for Him to command it or work through human instruments in bringing about the time of death of a person or people.”

    Thank you for this! I’ve often struggled with exactly this issue, and your answer here is the first I’ve seen that makes any sense.

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