Thursday, April 4, 2013

How is God justified for killing innocent babies in the Bible?

Q. How do you justify God murdering babies and young children? This question is not meant to sound condescending, so I apologize if it does. I'm genuinely curious.

I'll cite the following instances.

1) God murdered the Egyptian first-born, just to prove a point.
2) If you believe that God flooded the world, then he drowned thousands of innocent babies to death.

Why is it okay for God to commit child-murder and sacrifice innocents?

Do you yourself feel morally okay bowing before an entity who slaughters babies en mass?

(This question was posed in the comments after Denmark does not exist. )

A.  This, I think, is one of the most challenging questions to the authenticity of Scripture and thus of Christianity.  I do not know of a perfectly satisfactory answer.  (I suppose if there was one, people would stop asking the question!)  I think part of the difficulty is that a very direct question is given, but the answer is very indirect and nuanced.  Seems that a lot of life is like that, especially regarding things like history and ethics and theology!  So someone like me tackles the question in an indirect and nuanced way, and it is exasperating and maybe the reader will not read to the end.  Others will attempt a more pithy answer, but fail to capture the true nature of the problem.

I can dismiss the flood scenario rather easily, by saying that as a Catholic I am not required to believe that the first 11 chapters of Genesis were intended to be taken literally, that their genre is epic poem, etc. (For more on this, read Sola Scriptura ).  But even as epic poem, it is included in Scripture because though it may not speak to literal history, it does speak to the nature of God, so the problem remains.  And it is even more explicit in Exodus when God kills the first born Egyptians.  This book, I would argue, falls clearly into the historical book form.

So, here's the first indirect, nuanced bit.  The Bible is not dictated word for word by God, but inspired and written by men.  (Unlike the claims about the Koran or Book of Mormon.)  So, the author of Exodus, for the sake of argument let's say Moses, is recounting a series of events but with his own interpretation.  In the ancient world, people would attribute causality to God, saying "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" or "God killed the first born." 

This is yet another difficult theological concept that I don't fully understand today.  What is the distinction between God's active will and His permissive will?  Does he actively Cause everything, or just allow everything, or is the balance somewhere in between?  But if God is who is (Yahweh), and the one in whom everything else that exists exists....  you get the gist.

All of that aside, let's just take the story at face value.  God says let my people go, Pharaoh says no, God warns of consequences, and a series of plagues affect Egypt.  (Each plague, incidentally, relates to one of the Egyptian gods, as if God were saying "I am bigger than your God.  You worship the Nile? I killed it, it's blood!  You worship frogs? Here's some frogs!  You worship the sun? I'll block it out!")  Despite the fact that Egypt is getting destroyed, the economy is collapsing, and everybody is sick, livestock are dead, Pharaoh still refuses to obey God.  So God keeps stepping it up, and finally does what he needs to do to establish justice.

I wonder what would have happened if God had not killed the first born?  Would the Israelites ever have become a nation?

I am always suspicious of the values that we hold today that were not held throughout history.  As we all know, history is replete with errors in the way the culture at that time thought.  I suspect that some of our ideas are wrong too-  and I don't just mean the ones I happen to disagree with.  I often suspect that even my own ideas might be wrong.

I think that if you read the Old Testament, you get a picture of God who is very unlike the picture we have of God today.  We emphasize so much God's love and compassion and mercy, that I think we might overlook some of his other traits, like justice and grandeur and holiness.  The Bible says repeatedly that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  It is thought by many that the most radical concept that was introduced by Christ, the one that got Him killed, and is still considered anathema by Muslims and Jews, was calling God "Father." 

Think for a moment about what modern physics has told us.  There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion galaxies in our universe.  But apply this to theology, and God is much bigger and more powerful than any of our primitive notions ever allowed.  The idea that God would care about humans, and interact with them, and actually become one, is astonishing. 

The idea that we would demand that God comply with our notions about morality while we disobey Him is even more so. But this is precisely what we do.  When God fails to live up to our preconceived notions of who He is, we decide that rather than believe that He is different than we thought, he must not exist.

I suspect that we are wrong both in emphasizing God's mercy at the expense of His holiness, and on the other hand we downplay the guilt of our own sins.  I suspect that the magnitude of both are greater than our culture acknowledges.  (I also suspect that a cursory glance at the writings of saints and prophets would illustrate this point!)

So, how does this tie in with the Egypt story?  I think God, who created and holds the entire universe in existence, and every thing in the universe does His will perfectly, except those that he imbues with free will, who make slaves of each other, and stubbornly refuse to listen when He speaks, even when his words are backed up by miracles.... I think that God needs to act.  But He has put a limit on himself, which is free will.  He cannot simply override the will of pharaoh, pharaoh must learn to submit.  I wonder if to God the death of the first born is not so awful as it is to us. To God (presuming they go to Heaven) he's just bringing a bunch of children out of the broken world and to Himself. 

I suspect that to God, it is not an atrocity, but a mercy, and anyway it is the price necessary to change structural oppression.

So, I should sum up in a pithy way to satisfy the direct question:  God is enormous, and he is Holy, he demands righteousness, he mercifully gives us chances to comply, but He will not stand by indefinitely while we go on imposing suffering on others.  He will do what it takes. 

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