Episode 111: Goodbye Joey Ratz »« Episode 110: Clever Hermeneutics

Response to Randal Rauser’s criticism of episode 110

The latest episode (rd110) featured a conversation about how Christians interpret some of the most horrendous passages in the Old Testament such as the commanding of genocide and the imprecatory Psalms. We expressed sincere praise for apologist Randal Rauser’s refusal to whitewash these passages, though we did not find much substance in the alternative method of interpretation he presented. After reading his response to our episode it is clear that Rauser does not share the same high regard for us. I’ll get to why that is in a moment but first I would like to summarize Rauser’s position and our critiques of it.

Rauser defends what he calls a “qualified embrace” the scriptures. He maintains that God inspired the authors and that God had a purpose for including all the senseless violence and hateful curses contained in the text. But just because all scripture is inspired by God does not mean all scriptures are morally inerrant. The command to violence and the cursing psalms are examples of moral errors in the text. They represent what the human author intended (sensus litteralis) but God had a different purpose (sensus plenior) for including them. But is there any criteria to guide us in distinguishing between the authors voice and God’s intended message? Rauser says we must look to the overall tone of the Bible. Through the life of Jesus we see God to be a merciful and compassionate God that desires us to love and not curse our enemies. Clearly then, the genocides and imprecatory psalms are the human voice. But what was God’s purpose in including them? Its hard to say, but one possible reason was to carry the story forward. At least in the case of the imprecatory psalms they might also be examples of irony. We gleefully share the hateful sentiment of the psalmist towards the enemies of God but then stand condemned when (centuries later, I’d like to point out) we discover God really wanted us to love them all along .

The doubtcasters offered two challenges to Rauser’s “clever hermeneutic”

1. The genocidal passages play a pivotal role in the overall narrative of the Old Testament. They cannot be removed as merely the human authors prejudice without significant damage being done to our understanding of the OT.

2. it is not at all obvious that the vengeful passages are inconsistent with the overall tone of the Bible. If “overall tone” is our criteria for separating out the sensus litteralis from the sensus pleniur of the text, the merciful statements of Jesus are the ones that should be contextualized.

Let me briefly reiterate the case for both points while adding a  few small details not mentioned in the episode.

First, the OT presents a coherent narrative of the rise and fall of Israel in which the genocidal conquest of the Canaanites plays an pivotal role. Having been promised the holy land by God, the Hebrews, upon reaching its borders do not trust Gods guarantee that they will be successful in their military campaign against these powerful enemies. For their lack of faith they are cursed to wander the wilderness until the nation is purified by repentance. At the end of their conquest it is clear that Joshua and his men once again, have not followed God’s commandment…they have not finished the job of whipping out the Canaanites. This failure will lead to their downfall as God predicts in Joshua (23.11-13) because the Israelites will intermarry with the non-Hebrews who still remain and will eventually be seduced into worshiping their Gods. That is exactly what happens. As punishment for their apostasy, God eventually banishes them to exile. After they are once again purified by repentance they return to the holy land.  Making sure not to make the same mistake twice they send away the families of those who remained and intermarried making sure the “holy seed” (Ezra 9) is not contaminated again.  The whole story turns on the attempted but incomplete genocide of Canaanites. Had they been faithful to God’s commandment they would have benefited from God’s blessing. Instead they “whored” themselves out to the peoples of the land and their gods and must endure God’s curse until they reach repentance. What sense would the Old Testament make if God did not wish a bloody conquest of the promised land but instead for the Israelite to love and pray for their enemies?

Turning to the New Testament we find Jesus who does preach mercy, compassion and forgiveness…that is, when he isn’t warning people to get on the right side and escape the wrath to come.  Christians are quick to emphasize Jesus’ forgiveness but In the synoptic s the “gospel” that Jesus himself preaches is “repent and be baptized for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. One cannot fairly emphasize only the merciful passages and exclude the scores of parables and direct teachings which portray this coming kingdom in apocalyptic terms–God’s mercy is never more than a few breaths away from his judgment in these texts. Even in the Gospel of Luke, which softens Jesus apocalypticism (compared to Mark and Matthew) one of the first word’s out of Jesus mouth is a threat to the Pharisees “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The message is clear: we are all sinners but God has given us yet another chance. Repentance is available for time but then, wrath. This sentiment is echoed by Christianity’s earliest writer, Paul: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:17-19).If overall tone is our guide then we see that the New Testament fits neatly with the vengeance of the Old, only the wrath Jesus warns us of will claim more than a handful of cities and villages. A few will  slip through the narrow gate and enjoy God’s mercy. The majority will wish they could be so lucky as the Canaanites.

I believe these critiques offer a serious challenge to Rauser’s interpretation of the text. Sadly Rauser did not spend any time answering the substance of our critique but instead chided us for cracking a few jokes to lighten the discussion (2 brief, not that funny jokes and one reference to a stunned face, by my count).  These mild moments of humor amidst a rather thorough discussion of his viewpoint is enough for Rauser to dismiss us as a show that has abandoned serious discussion opting instead “for an irreverent, iconoclastic tone and a barely concealed intent to dispatch the views of their chosen interlocutors as quickly (and humorously) as possible.” This was news to me. Our podcast frequently wins praise from fans (including Christians and Christian apologists) precisely because we give strive to present a fair-minded & thorough presentation of viewpoints we oppose. I’ll let our reputation speak for itself in this area but I do want to address a few of Randall’s more serious critiques.

Rauser claims we were addressing a straw-man version of his argument or “something close to it.”  He does so because we took issue with one of his reasons for making the sensus litteralis/ sensus plenior distinction.  Rauser points to a passage in Hosea as an example of where human authors intended one meaning (Israel as the “son” God is calling out of Egypt during the exodus)  but when we turn to the Gospel of Matthew we discover God had intended another meaning altogether (The “Son” is Jesus returning to Nazareth after hiding from Herod). We noted that the Gospel writers lifted many Old Testament passages out of context in order to claim they were prophecies  fulfilled by Jesus. Rauser says he is writing to Christians who accept the inspiration of the bible and ” since the host doesn’t accept the inspiration and canonical unity of Matthew and Hosea to begin with…my proposal is damned at the outset.” It would be a fair charge had the comment not been a brief aside to our skeptical listeners (instead of our primary case as Rauser’s post may lead one to believe) before continuing to consider and critique Rauser’s case on its own terms. Later he accuses us of having no familiarity with literary criticism (Again, news to us. Especially the one of us is who’s degree is in literature and the other who is a professor of ‘Bible as literature’) because we seemed incredulous that one could sort out the authors real meaning from a literal reading of the text. Contrary to Randall’s assertion, we never doubted that possibility. We only asked for a criteria to follow, recognizing that all too often scholars and apologists like to use their own feelings as a guide. Later we are accused of not being fair to Randall because we only cited one verse for a key part of his case—the  compassion of Jesus. This is a ridiculous charge as no one doubts the merciful passages in the gospels are many. If Rauser’s blog was scripture we might be justified in taking his earlier complaint about those who “eschew a nuanced and charitable articulation of [their] chosen interlocutor’s position in favor of over-simplified analysis bordering on a strawman” as a case of irony (will he hear the prophet Nathan saying “you are that man” as he reads this?). We cited only one verse because in the chapter and PowerPoint lecture Randal used to make his case, it was the only verse cited. Presumably, like us, Rauser didn’t think he needed an exhaustive list. Having mentioned irony, Randal also takes issue with our comic dismissal of the genocides as an incidence of this literary tool. Randall only thinks the imprecatory psalms are cases of irony. I’ll humbly concede that we made a mistake at this point in assuming this could extend to the genocidal passages as well. That being said, none of the hosts rejected the notion itself that irony could be used as a literary device in the scriptures, though Randall seems to think so. We only thought it was dubious to apply such a reading to those passages.

Rauser completes his post as he begins: by poisoning the well against us instead of answering the substance of our critiques.  Alluding to our “God Thinks Like You” segment, Rauser says “The hosts suggest that I’m engaged in a type of ‘projection’. It is not surprising that they’d say this. After all, their entire engagement with my position is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is not an inspired, canonical whole…If one has this assumption then it follows trivially that any claim to finding a divine voice in the text is mere projection” As previously mentioned,  with the exception of a short aside, we presented Rauser with an internal critique of his position. But beyond that, the discussion he is referring to was no mere accusation of projection to discredit Rauser. It was a review of research on the tendency of believers to encounter cognitive dissonance over the passages that create tension with their political/moral worldviews. The study and analysis we presented concluded that believers acknowledge such passages exist, and admit inner conflict, but they resolve that conflict by emphasizing the passages that match their own view as the truly important passages to Jesus, in effect, giving heavier weight to them, and ignoring or trivializing as not the essential message. We ended the discussion on a note sympathetic to well intentioned apologists such as Randall. For as frustrated as we get with their selection of evidence it is not always a case premeditated dishonesty…everyone falls into these traps.  It was a study fit to follow our discussion of Rauser’s’ hermeneutic which rests on the case that the overall tone of Jesus message is merciful (to the degree that it is irreconcilable with OT violence) despite many passages to the contrary. While Rauser thinks the other doubtcasters and I regard ourselves as above bias, in reality knowing these cognitive errors are so pervasive is what motivates us to ask for sound criteria when interpreting the scriptures…a criteria Randall has not delivered. Still, the world would be better if the believers of scripture had a sound reason for dismissing its most horrendous passages. We would like to challenge Rauser to offer a stronger version of his hermeneutic by engaging with and answering our actual criticisms of his position.

-JB

Comments

  1. says

    “Rauser does not share the same high regard for us.”

    Untrue. I enjoy your podcast and have absolutely no enmity toward y’all. So let’s keep this disagreement in perspective. When Supreme Court Justice Scalia (a social conservative) was asked on 60 Minutes about his relationship with Justice Ginsburg (a social progressive) he commented:

    “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job. You don’t want to be a judge. At least not a judge on a multi-member panel.”

    That truth doesn’t just apply to judges. So let’s make sure that we always keep separate the criticism of ideas and arguments from the criticism of persons. I’m only engaged in the former.

    Now down to your rebuttal. I will offer a response in about a week. At the moment I am overdue in giving philosopher Matthew Flannagan a response to his claim that William Lane Craig is not supporting genocide. (Flannagan adopts a narrower definition of genocide than do I and I’ll be arguing that he is wrong to do so.) Once I get that (and a few other small things) done I’ll get around to responding to your rebuttal and I’ll provide a link when I do.

    Thanks for the rebuttal too. I look forward to crafting my response…

  2. johnwolforth says

    Looking forward to hearing from you Randall. I happened upon a Karen Armstrong piece today where she says that Augustine said that if we find parts of the Bible that promote violence, we must give them a compassionate interpretation, even if that means going against the intent of the original authors. I don’t know how accurate Karen’s quote was, but it highlights the fact that prominent theologians have realized these stories are allegory for a long time. Augustine was most likely writing to other theologians, but I think it is about time that the word “allegory” comes straight from the pulpit.

  3. says

    Well put, johnwolforth. I tell my Christian friends that any literal interpretation of the Bible is doomed to obsolescence very quickly now.

  4. Steve Greene says

    There are so many things you did not mention that I get the impression you are bending over backwards in order to be too kind.

    For example, there are the remarks by Rauser – typical of evangelical/fundamentalist apologetics – that “After all, their entire engagement with my position is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is not an inspired, canonical whole” and “since the host doesn’t accept the inspiration and canonical unity of Matthew and Hosea to begin with…my proposal is damned at the outset.” But that sentiment – classic case of circular reasoning (‘if you assume it’s true, then it’s true’) – is precisely the problem. The problem such circular reasoning cannot address is precisely that these various issues can’t be justified on their own merits in a rational manner (or, as you put it, using consistent criteria), but instead we’re supposed to just assume the claim (the Bible is the Word of God) and then use whatever special pleading is necessary to try to justify the claim.

    There is the issue of the sheer poverty of imagination (which I think you have not discussed even indirectly), which is that God – remember, we’re supposedly talking about the Supreme Being creator of the entire universe of a trillion galaxies – the same God who magically appears in burning bushes and pillars of fire, can’t figure out how to just peacefully grant His Chosen People (one particular desert tribe; hmmm… how parochial is that? Geeze, what kind of a God is this, really?) a Promised Land, but instead has to have them go in and engage in the mass slaughter (“slaughter” <– look it up, that's the word used in the book of Joshua) of children and women (not to mention the men). I still remember the old explanation (which I'm sure we could find examples of in contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist rhetoric) that this was somehow morally justified/necessary because these native engaged in child sacrifice to their idols. Of course, if the occasional sacrifice of a child to a religious idol is evil, then murdering every single one of the children as commanded by Yahweh the Bible God is obviously the correct remedy for the problem, right? But this just shows the poverty of imagination I mentioned, in regard to the special pleading involved. See, a real god – remember, an omnipotent creator of a universe of a trillion galaxies – could easily just magically move people (no mass murder required) to someplace else – or even have created a whole new Promised Land planet somewhere and magically transport His Chosen People to that planet at the appropriate time. This is just a trivial example.

    I haven't even mentioned creationism yet. Oh… now I have. On the one hand you have the young earth creationists saying the Bible teaches that the earth has only been around for about 6,000 years or so – you know, Genesis chapters 1, 5, and 11 – and was pretty much wiped out by a global flood around 4,300 years ago, and that must be true because that's what the Bible says and the Bible is the Word of God. But then you have the creationists who are a little less unreasonable, acknowledging the geological fact that the earth has been around considerably longer than 6,000 years, and there was no global flood, and thus saying that the Bible doesn't really say the earth was created within the last several thousand years or was wiped out in a global flood, so all that stuff is just metaphorical – because it's the Word of God. God wouldn't be teaching things that are empirically false. (And I haven't talked about the theological issues related to Adam and Even yet.)

    Hermeneutics. Whachya gonna do with it?

    But what all these various issues about the Bible (and other issues, such as about morality) demonstrate is that Bible apologists are strictly reliant on circular reasoning and following that method of just assuming the Bible is true (and thus it's the Word of God because it says so), instead of actually trying to back it up with real world evidence using rational criteria. In the environment of the circular reasoning of religious belief, hermeneutics really means nothing more than coming up with whatever rhetoric seems useful to try to make assuming the Bible to be God's Word seem reasonable regardless of whatever the Bible actually says no matter how unreasonable it actually is. And that's exactly why hermeneutics in the context of religious beliefs is basically meaningless. You can't actually let the text just mean what it means, because the agenda of your religious beliefs is much too important for that, and anyone who doesn't seriously believe Noah's Flood covered the highest mountain and that it's not only perfectly okay but is a deep moral responsibility to engage in the mass murder of children by the command of God in order to clear the Promised Land for God's Chosen People is merely proving this.

  5. says

    Fundamentally it all just seems to be different people twisting different ways to reconcile their personal beliefs and values with a book that supports those beliefs *imperfectly* at best.

    First if all, the omnipotent, perfect God chose to present the most important information in the universe in such a difficult fashion, so that his followers would continually have to make excuses for it? Really?

    Second of all, it really makes the point that faith cannot separate true beliefs from false beliefs, otherwise all these hermeneutics would converge on one correct explanation instead of so many incompatible views.

    It’s so much simpler to take the parsimonious explanation: a chronicle of Bronze Age myths with an apocalyptic sequel that plays fast and loose with continuity, all of it cobbled together from disparate sources which weren’t written to fit together and no expectation that they necessarily have to.

  6. Dumnezero says

    I can’t find a separate contact form or email, so I’m just going to post this request here; please read.

    I’m interested if you can do an episode on the aplogetics and counter-apologetics of “the dark ages”, as there are many historians who dismiss that label try to promote Christianity and the catholic church as being fountains and vehicles of knowledge and science. I have some of my own arguments, some related to the suppression of epicureanism, but I would like to hear from you guys.

  7. says

    What Randal Rauser says seems to be what he always does: throw out a bunch of (unproved) “what ifs” justifying the difficult passages of the Bible and claim that one of them must be true because the Bible is the inspired word of god. With an evidentiary approach, evidence both for and against a particular proposition would be considered, but Rauser merely makes his beliefs unfalsifiable regardless of any evidence or logic against his position.

  8. says

    I’m wondering about the issue with Hosea and Matthew. You mention that Rauser’s charge of your criticism being unfair since he’s speaking to Christians, who share his presupposition that the bible is an inspired canonical whole.

    But this strikes me as a bit off.

    I could put forward a theory of lint-trap-osmosis to explain how the sock-eating dryer monkey is able to get in and out of the dryer while eating socks.

    You could of course mock my theory, but then don’t I have the same reply as Randall?

    “I was only speaking to other people who also believe in the sock-eating dryer monkey, so of course you don’t accept my explanation of how he got into the dryer via the lint-trap! The explanation was for people who already know where their missing socks have truly gone…”

    Sure, he can speak to other Christians, and we can criticize what he says as absurd because there are a multitude of reasons to reject the ideas he’s putting forward. In this case it’s related to the NT writers going through the OT and looking for passages to support their beliefs, and the other issues related to how Jesus supposedly got to and came out of Egypt in the first place – pointing to the idea that it was fabricated.

  9. says

    @ Counter Apologist, I can’t believe that you didn’t use circular spin reasoning in your argument about sock monkey!

    @Steve #4

    demonstrate is that Bible apologists are strictly reliant on circular reasoning

    to convince themselves, as much as anyone else. The real base is that of faith.
    I’m pretty sure that apologetics = damage control for believing that something so insipid is real. There are Christians that I know that say that if there was irrevocable proof that God didn’t exist, they would still believe that He does.

    I mean, yikes!

    @Daniel #8

    unfalsifiable regardless of any evidence or logic against his position.

    Now, proof isn’t even good enough, FFS! ;)

  10. otrame says

    Completely OT, but I remember reading a story in which a man decided to find out what really happens to socks in the dryer and discovered that the spinning drum sometimes created a space whorp allowing the socks to transport to some other place in the universe. The story ends with the remark that the man’s curiosity about a trivial observation (the disappearance of socks) had led to the multi-planet empire of humans in which we live today.

    This not OT: many years ago I read a book about people who write long intricately reasoned explanations for why the various parts of the Canon are contradictory and that there are things in said Canon that are simply incorrect. The Canon in question is, of course, the works of Conan Doyle concerning the life and times of Sherlock Holmes. The people who wrote these long works were doing so as a hobby. Unlike various other defenders of other Canons, they knew what they were doing was intellectual masterbation.

  11. Justin Schieber says

    The challenge was regarding an internal criticism of Randal’s method for interpreting the scriptures and not about whether Christian belief is warranted or whether the bible really is inspired so it’s difficult for me to see how this circular reasoning charge in recent comments against Randal holds much weight. Perhaps I’m missing something?

  12. says

    FWIW, I’m not accusing Randal of circular reasoning.

    I’m just pointing out that his objection to your use of the Hosea example is ridiculous. We have multiple reasons to reject the idea of Hosea’s passage referencing Jesus.

    Trying to use the “I was speaking to people who hold presuppositions that let them accept this” as a defense is absurd in and of itself. Well, sure, other people can accept that as an explanation as an interpretation – but that doesn’t refute the charges that you guys leveled in the podcast against such an interpretation. It also doesn’t make Randal’s interpretation any more plausible vs the one the RD crew presented.

    That’s just my take, if I’m off the mark or am not being charitable – I don’t mind a proverbial 2×4 to the back of the head explaining why. :)

  13. says

    The monkey moves in circular space, to beet the timer, win the race.
    It moves so fast to catch the socks, that times slows down and stops the clocks.

    Sort of like the Bible, frozen in time 2000yrs ago, but no matter how much you spin it you end up back at the beginning, living in the past.
    I fricken sound like my head was just stuck in a dryer.
    – - -

    “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job. You don’t want to be a judge. At least not a judge on a multi-member panel.”

    Yes, but Strip Search Sammy attacks ideas that protect people, like strip searching 10 year olds just because daddy might have stashed drugs up their bottoms.

    Yeah, ideas, not people. I get it.

  14. says

    ( like strip searching 10 year olds just because daddy might have stashed drugs up their bottoms.)
    like unreasonable ‘probable’ cause that prevents strip searching 10 year olds…..

    Promoting demonstrably incorrect interpretations as truth deprives children of their right to learn critical thinking skills, and participate in reality objectively. I’d say that no worse a scourge has ever befallen mankind, don’t you?

    A mere whiff of logic destroys any claims to truth that are based on the Bible.

  15. culuriel says

    Is Rauser suggesting that the god in the OT is a different god? Is there any reason why we should accept the word of Jesus that god is merciful and compassionate, when the actual god shows his character by his actions in the OT? It seems to me that the message is “pick the parts of the Bible that can still be squared with modern-day ethics and rights, and downplay everything else”. I have no philosophical problem with that, but I know some religious people consider that “cherry-picking”. If your god can be whatever you think is best, with morals and ethics that match your own, how is this god NOT an imaginary friend?

  16. Opera Arches says

    the great theatre of ruin

    arrogantatheist.com/forum/index.php?p=/discussion/3164/the-mayan-skeptic-apocalypse

  17. says

    Just a quick, stray thought: Couldn’t one argue that the entire new testament is an exercise in divine irony? After all, here we have a nice guy, who does nothing wrong, heals the sick, feeds the hungry and tells people to be nice to each other… and he’s brutally tortured to death.
    If we step back from orthodox Christianity for a moment and just look at that story, the message seems to be, don’t be a sucker. Don’t think that being nice to other will get them to be nice to you. Security is only found through power and god is the greatest power there is. This would be very much in line with OT ideas; join up with god, or else.

    In addition to all this, I can’t help but notice the problems inherent in trying to read into a text the intention of a god who is necessarily incomprehensible. At the very least, you have to assume that god was trying to communicate with us on our level. That’s an assumption that you simply cannot substantiate via the text itself. It has to come from outside.
    I can’t help but think of that bit in Job where god goes “where you there”. The point of that seems to be that it’s foolish for us mere mortals to even try to understand the plans of god. Once you start down the road of “the text doesn’t mean what it clearly says”, you’re lost. That’s why the fundies cling so hard to inerrancy and literalism. They know damn well that once you give that up, there’s no solid ground until you’ve tossed out the whole bible.

    I guess that turned out to be not so quick after all. Oh well.

  18. Richard Thrift says

    Does Rauser support “inspiration within inspiration” like some would say “a canon within the canon”? That what “all scripture is inspired by God does not mean all scriptures are morally inerrant” sounds like to me. And as for “overall tone”, the Christian scriptures ends with Revelation which does not present a “Jesus, sweet and mild” by any stretch of the imagination.

  19. Hubert Frost says

    Hi, I’m an agnostic Christian like Thom Stark and I find you have a valid point that the conquest narrative plays a very important role in the old testament.
    I personally don’t know what to think about the deepest historical roots of the tale.

    It is a consensus among scholars that the Israelite culture emerged from the Canaanite culture they boasted ironically to have wiped out.
    William Dever thinks that the first Israelites came from Canaanite cities while Finkelstein think they were previously nomads (The Bible Unearthed), a position I agree with. Dever allowed for the possibility that a SMALL group of slaves escaped Egypt under the guidance of a charismatic leader and that this gave birth century later to the Exodus tale.
    This might true. I believe that’s also possible that the conquest narratives can be traced back to the rule and expulsion of the Exodus and then between 1550 BC and 1500 BC the massive destructions of Canaanite towns.
    Everything is entirely speculative but it can likely be ruled out that the slaughter occurred under the orders of a Deity called Yahweh.

    Now you raise also a very interesting objection to Randal’s theology: where can he base his moral knowledge of God?

    Why I cannot answer for him, I can tell you how I personally derive this knowledge or rather this hope (since I don’t know whether God exists or not): first from philosophy and then from my common sense and experience.

    If God exists he is necessarily the most perfect being who exists and can possibly be.
    He has given us our deepest moral intuitions which we can clearly recognize. We know it is wrong to kill innocent lives. Therefore we know that God could not have issued genocidal commands.

    It is true that there are very problematic sayings of Jesus in the gospels (before all his treatment of the pagan woman because of her ethnicity).

    But there are clearly things he said which are much more central than other.
    So when asked what is the greatest command he responded that following the golden rule is akin to loving God. In one of the most striking parable about hell, he said that unbelievers who have loved the poor will be rewarded (what you did to them you did to me) whereas believers having failed to do so will perish.
    (By the way I certainly don’t believe in eternal punishment)

    It stands to reason that this principle (love your neighbor as yourselves and even love your foe) is central in the life and teachings of Jesus and much more important than other things he apparently got wrong.

    Maybe Randal could take that route and argue this is the ground for evaluating the rest of the Bible including the gospel themselves but I find it easier on philosophical grounds.

    “Jesus himself preaches is “repent and be baptized for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. One cannot fairly emphasize only the merciful passages and exclude the scores of parables and direct teachings which portray this coming kingdom in apocalyptic terms–God’s mercy is never more than a few breaths away from his judgment in these texts. Even in the Gospel of Luke, which softens Jesus apocalypticism (compared to Mark and Matthew) one of the first word’s out of Jesus mouth is a threat to the Pharisees “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

    Of course Jesus also did that but these particular examples seem to stem from John the baptist :-)
    For me it is not clearly morally wrong but rather ambiguous. Insulting people because they don’t agree with ones views is of course wrong. (but there is a world of difference between that and genocidal herem warfare, you cannot possibly use such passages for arguing that killing babies and infants is justified)
    However we don’t know who were these opponents of John and Jesus.
    If they were religious bigots like Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson “brood of vipers!!!!” seems quite appropriate.

    Prooftexting me is meaningless since I reject biblical inerrancy.

    And if you want to destroy my faith I fear you arrive too late, my faith has already disappeared :=)

    An interesting question for you: you are materialists and believe that everything which is real can be reduced to particles in space-time (to put it as simple as possible).

    You also believe that the moral truth “Genocide is always wrong is real”.

    Can you show me the particles, molecules, electrons, quarks, strings… to which it is IDENTICAL?

    Greetings from Germany.

  20. says

    An interesting question for you: you are materialists and believe that everything which is real can be reduced to particles in space-time (to put it as simple as possible).

    You also believe that the moral truth “Genocide is always wrong is real”.

    I think you’ve got a problem here. First, many atheists don’t accept moral truths as absolute and objective. Second, regardless of their status, moral truths certainly aren’t “real” in the same way that a table is “real”. You’re using the word “real” in two separate meanings, inadvertently stumbling into an equivocation fallacy.

    “2+2=4″ isn’t “real” in the same way that “two apples and another two apples gives you four apples” is “real”.
    One’s a concept, the other a physical reality. The concept may reflect the reality (and ideally should do so) and the concept, when held in the mind of an individual, will correspond to a certain brain state, but that doesn’t make the two kinds of “real” identical.

  21. Steve Greene says

    Hi Hubert Frost,

    I appreciate all of your comments. Here I’m only going to respond to your point regarding what I shall call ‘reductionism’. You wrote, “…you are materialists and believe that everything which is real can be reduced to particles in space-time (to put it as simple as possible). You also believe that the moral truth ‘Genocide is always wrong is real’. Can you show me the particles, molecules, electrons, quarks, strings… to which it is IDENTICAL?”

    The problem here is that “materialist” does not equal “reductionist”. Reality entails what are called emergent properties on higher scales. For example, the gravitational shaping of relatively large collections of matter (such as planets being shaped roughly as spheres) is a process that takes place at a higher scale than merely “particles, molecules, electrons, quarks, [and] strings”. With biological organisms there’s the example of higher level of consciousness emerging through increasing organization of nervous system – for example, a trout has a considerably higher level of consciousness than, say, a dragonfly. (And even, say, a zebra is considered to have a higher level of consciousness than a trout.)

    Humans possess instincts as social animals, and furthermore we are considered to possess the highest level of consciousness on the planet, so in addition to our instincts we can think about our social interactions and our social structures and think about consequences in the future. Thus, we can ponder what our lives would be like under various systems. So in addition to being personally appalled at mass murder (instinct), we can also be cognizant of the maladaptive nature of life in a culture where genocide is practiced. This is neither theistic, nor reductionist.

  22. Scott Bailey says

    Rauser’s response: I foresee more special pleading and circular reasoning, and I’d say it’s about 50/50 that he will write something along the lines of “I did not know that you had people on staff with a degree is in literature and the other who is a professor of ‘Bible as literature’; however, if that is true then you should know…” then some methodology that “proves” his point, and he wins.

    I have an MA in biblical studies. I specialized in Persian Era Yehud; however, I still had to take my Greek classes and NT studies. I also worked at the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute. I am certainly a tiny, tiny player in the field, but I am quite familiar with the development of the biblical text and the actual context of a book like Hosea, and the many times that the NT authors used OT quotes ridiculously, absolutely ripping them from any historical or literary context and using them ad hoc for whatever their particular purpose was. Also when I look at the social controls in books like Nehemiah and Ezra–how morally reprehensible they are, and how they favour the ruling elite–it is very difficult for me to believe they were ‘inspired’.

    Ultimately Randall is right in one sense. His argument only holds water for those who have already decided what the Bible is contrary to any evidence or argument to the contrary. I love the weird confirmation bias argument too: we let the good stuff in the NT blur the bad stuff in the OT. Good luck trying to change his mind!

  23. says

    I am surprised that you guys are continuing on with this topic even though you really don’t have a case yet. Not that you couldn’t have a case but it doesn’t seem to me like you’re even trying to have one. You keep finding people to debate who are looking for tricky ways to circumvent and excuse the issue when it just isn’t necessary.

    Your entire argument could be summed up like this:

    Genocide is bad ==> God committed genocide ==> Therefore God is bad

    By this superficial logic one might say:

    Cutting people up is bad ==> Surgeons cut people up ==> Therefore surgeons are bad

    Here are some issues you should be trying to address:

    1) The following comment that Justin posted on my blog brings this into perspective:

    “Implicit in this response is a premise that I find unwarranted.

    ‘If person X is the reason for the very existence of person Y, then person X can do whatever he/she wants with person Y.’”

    As of now you guys give the impression of saying the exact opposite of this; mainly that, if person X is responsible for the existence of person Y, person X does not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ever have the right to revoke person Y’s right to exist.

    Is that really what you guys are saying? If so why? If not, when WOULD a creator be justified or not justified in taking a life? How can you even be having a debate on this topic without ever addressing this central issue?

    2) The second problem I see is that you guys seem to have a Calvinistic mentality regarding omnipotence. I.e. since God is omnipotent there is an infinite set of possibilities that He could have chosen that would have accomplished the same thing without having to take the life of so many people.

    The Bible however never makes that claim. Even though God might have access to more possibilities then you or I might have in His position, He is still working within a limited set of possibilities.

    3) With that in mind the question could be summarized like this:

    Given that,

    a) God has set aside a limited time of probation for the human race, say a few thousand years, and
    b) That within those few millenniums He is trying to save as many human beings as possible,

    That there is never an instance where, to accomplish this, God might need to deal with some individual or groups of individuals.

    See, we’re not talking here about a God who randomly zaps people out of existence every few minutes. If we were to compare these types of events in the Bible with the rest of human history they would be incredibly rare events.

    So basically, at the end of the world if all of us were to sit down and evaluate God’s dealings with the human race and decided to do it all over and try some other approach instead of destroying the Amalekites etc., would we really produce better results? Within the limited set of possibilities available to us would we find a way that wouldn’t end up hurting a lot more people?

    So, are you arguing that a creator can never take the life of a created being no matter what? Or are you arguing that a God who is looking at several millenniums of human history and at what’s best for billions of people should still never deal with a few for the good of the many?

  24. says

    Mike M,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think you are have misunderstood our central criticism – perhaps this is our fault. We tend to find the eagerness with which many Christians defend genocide to be disturbing. In this post we are not addressing the defender of genocide rather we are addressing what we see as an unwarranted dismissal of the need for a defense. We think this is a real problem for people who take the bible seriously.

    Now, onto your other criticisms. Here is a large section of your post;

    “1) The following comment that Justin posted on my blog brings this into perspective:
    “Implicit in this response is a premise that I find unwarranted.
    ‘If person X is the reason for the very existence of person Y, then person X can do whatever he/she wants with person Y.’”
    As of now you guys give the impression of saying the exact opposite of this; mainly that, if person X is responsible for the existence of person Y, person X does not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ever have the right to revoke person Y’s right to exist.
    Is that really what you guys are saying? If so why? If not, when WOULD a creator be justified or not justified in taking a life? How can you even be having a debate on this topic without ever addressing this central issue?”

    (Now, In full transparency, I am against capital punishment and I believe the rest of the hosts are as well. Only in cases like self defense do I think such a thing is defensible. With that note aside, allow me to PRETEND for the rest of this post that I think capital punishment is permissible in the typical circumstances that people generally find it to be permissible.)

    Continuing on…
    “If person X is the reason for the very existence of person Y, then person X can do whatever he/she wants with person Y.”
    I do fully reject this as wildly absurd. However, notice that, in no way does it entail the other statement you infer and attribute to me from my comments….

    Mainly this one:
    “If person X is responsible for the existence of person Y, person X does not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, ever have the right to revoke person Y’s right to exist.”

    Now, if we, for the sake of the argument, assume that capital punishment is permissible in some circumstances – which we are doing at the moment – then we should clearly reject this view.

    I can see no justification for giving X special unlimited punishment privileges (If you can call it that) upon Y simply in virtue of his being responsible for the existence of Y. X should have the same broad limitations on possible punishments to Y as all other agents would. (Sure, we generally allow parents to spank their own children and not the children of others but there is a point where we all agree that such punishments cross the line into child abuse – even if we can’t agree where exactly that line is. We generally see this as a freedom to raise one’s children in a way they see fit as long as it stays within the realm of common morality.)

    You ask me “When would a creator be justified in taking a life?” Well, assuming capital punishment is not off the table, I would answer “When anybody else would be justified in taking a life.” This would seem to include self-defense and capital punishment.

    You accuse us of using an overly Calvinistic conception of Omnipotence.
    Put perhaps in overly simple terms, we conceive of God’s omnipotence as the ability to actualize any broadly logical even or state of affairs that is possible for a being with his essential properties. I am sure some could raise objections to this but I also think this is generally the view held by most thinking Christians. Clearly, many have interpreted the bible as conceiving of God’s maximal power in this way. This means, for instance, that even if X was justified in killing Y, he had many means to achieve that end. God could just cause Y to drop dead rather than command P to thrust a broadsword into Y causing significant psychological damage to P. In other words, even if he was justified in his end, he isn’t justified in using any possible means to get there.

    Your post continues…
    “Given that,
    a) God has set aside a limited time of probation for the human race, say a few thousand years, and
    b) That within those few millenniums He is trying to save as many human beings as possible,
    That there is never an instance where, to accomplish this, God might need to deal with some individual or groups of individuals.”

    …Now, I can’t help but scoff with incredulity at the euphemism you bring to bear here. God might need to DEAL with some individual or group?

    The biggest problem here is that BOTH of your ‘givens’ assume that God has a right to put humans under such mortal probation in an attempt to save them – I reject this for similar reasons that I reject his right to slaughter. Where did he get this right from? Usually I will hear that this comes from the fact that he is responsible for their existence and so he has a right to do whatever he wants and I, of course, reject that absurd notion.

    Now as to your conclusion “God may need to deal with some individual or group of individuals.”
    I clearly accept this – God may have to deal with some individuals or groups just as You or I may need to deal with certain individuals or groups. This doesn’t mean we are warranted in slaughtering villages of people.

    Honestly, this discussion has so many facets to go down but I have limited time and comfort in speaking on whether genocide is okay. I hope this clarifies things for you – we reject the notion that God has such special moral rights merely in virtue of his being the author of life that he can command the wholesale slaughter of nation states – even given typical notions of capital punishment being permissible.

    RD

  25. says

    Hey Justin. Thank you for your response.

    Let me start by clarifying a few things:

    - I realize that this particular post was addressing a somewhat different topic but I have been following this conversation from the original debate and was responding to the conversation as a whole. I should have clarified that in my introduction.

    - The statement I made in response to your comment on my blog was not intended to be taken as coming from you or even as something inferred from your comment. Rather it was something that one might infer from the entire debate simply because you never took the time to clarify your position.

    - I’m also pretty busy and don’t have the time to discuss all the possible ramifications so I will just leave you with some things to consider if you ever plan to debate the topic in the future and hope to do it justice:

    1) The capital punishment comparison is not entirely appropriate. After all, one of the main reasons people struggle with the issue is, “we’re not the ones that gave this person life so do we have the right to take it away?”

    2) You really do need to think a little deeper through the question of what rights and obligations a creator would have towards the created. I don’t know if you came back to see my response to your comment on my blog but I think a more appropriate analogy for this issue would be if scientists were ever able to develop a sentient computer program. What rights and obligations would we have towards such program? Could you think of any circumstances under which we would have not just a right but a moral obligation to terminate the program?

    I really don’t see how a sensible debate about the Amalekites can take place without first coming to a consensus on the point of the rights/obligations of the creator vs. the created. And, if a consensus cannot be reached, the Amalekites should be set aside and this point should be debated first.

    3) Regarding omnipotence, I know you guys don’t particularly side with Calvinism but I think quite a bit of Calvinism’s nonsensical logic still permeates much of Christian thinking. Omnipotence refers to what God is capable of doing and not necessarily to what He actually would do in any given situation. For example:

    God could easily implant thoughts in someone’s mind such that, although an atheist, that person might wake up one morning and decide they believed in God without ever realizing foul play. But just because God could do it doesn’t mean He WOULD do it. So refusing to tamper with our free-will puts serious limitations on His omnipotence but tampering with it would make the whole point of free-will meaningless.

    Another example of this, according to the Bible narrative, is that God has placed Himself on trial, sort of speak. The Bible story describes several parties in this equation: God, Satan and His angels, the human race and a large number of other created beings that have never fallen. And God’s interaction with the human race and with the fallen angels affects whether the unfallen beings continue to side with Him or not. His actions are being examined and evaluated by unfallen beings in contrast with accusations brought against Him by Satan. So again there are many things that God could do that He will not do because He is accountable to more than just Himself.

    These are just a couple of examples to which more can be added making the point that, even if omnipotent, God still has to work within a limited set of possibilities in dealing with the human race. I expect that if you and I could stand beside Him and ask Him to explain some of His action to us, He would say that, according to the rules He is bound by, these are all the possible approaches He could have taken with all their pros and cons. And, after you and I evaluated each of those possibilities we will probably conclude that the one He chose was in fact the best one.

    All this to say that one of the issues you will need to address is, whether a creator would be justified in taking the lives of a few if it could be shown that this was the only way to save the lives of many. And you cannot play the omnipotence card here as I’ve already explained.

    4) The next issue I see is that you say you disagree with God placing humanity under “mortal probation in an attempt to save them.” However, virtually all the rest of the Bible is built on top of this one clause and, if there is disagreement here, there is no chance whatsoever that a discussion on the Amalekites would ever get anywhere. This is yet another topic that really needs be addressed in some form of preliminary debate before the issue of the Amalekites is ever taken up.

    And, by the way, another point that I should mention is that this debate is not exactly about whether God is justified in taking a life since He will end up taking that life anyway. Even if a person dies of old age God is still taking the life of that person considering that initially they were created to live forever. The issue rather is whether God is justified in taking a life prematurely.

    5) Finally, one last major problem with debating the Amalekite genocide is that too many different issues are tackled at once making it extremely difficult for the apologist to effectively address all of them within the limited time debates usually afford. And yet, unless he does address all of them adequately his case is lost.

    You guys mentioned that the Amalekite genocide is low hanging fruit but this is not because of the topic itself but rather because adequately responding to the topic requires quite a long chain of prerequisite theology to be addressed.

    In my opinion, the only way to have a fair debate on this topic is to break it down into several parts:

    First, as mentioned earlier, the rights/obligations of the creator/creature should be defined.

    Second, it should be determined how these rights apply (if at all) to other Biblical examples of divine punishment like Sodom and Gomorrah where God does the killing Himself without using human soldiers.

    Lastly, the question of using other human beings to do the killing, as in the case of the Amalekites, should finally be taken up.

    Jumping straight into a discussion about the Amalekites makes it virtually impossible for the apologist to give any sort of satisfactory response to the issue.

    Anyway, thank you for your time. I would like to see more debate on this topic in the future but I think it will be far more beneficial if some of these deeper issues are addressed as well.

  26. Steve Greene says

    ‘The Bible is God’s Word, and Yahweh is God (the Bible says so), and Yahweh is all lovey-dovey, and without Yahweh there is no basis for morality.’

    Except in fact Yahweh is capriciously vicious just like any other ancient tribal god, and as the argument for being the basis for morality is so flimsy that it’s revealed as “‘If person X is the reason for the very existence of person Y, then person X can do whatever he/she wants with person Y.”

    That’s right. So much for “God of Love” (not so much) and “Basis for morality” (anything goes). Not to mention the completely circular nature of the argument in the first place (‘Yahweh is God because the Bible says so’).

    Now, in regard to theism-vs-atheism more generally, there is no doubt that religious believers can conjure up any ad hoc notions that are necessary in order to accommodate their religious beliefs (Mormons do it, Muslims do it, believers in Lord Ganesha do it, and so on), but an atheist would be someone who takes such incoherence at face value. And when Christians, for example, are compelled to use ‘anything goes’ as a justifying argument for what kinds of behavior the Bible’s god engages in (actually, the behavior of those who follow the ‘morality’ of the Bible) such as genocide – and these are the same people who are arguing against atheists by telling them atheism is wrong because you have to have the Bible god or you don’t have any basis for morality – well, the jig is up.

  27. says

    Mike M. Thanks for the response.

    In your response you say…
    “1) The capital punishment comparison is not entirely appropriate. After all, one of the main reasons people struggle with the issue is, “we’re not the ones that gave this person life so do we have the right to take it away?””

    Remember though, I challenged the notion that X has the right to take away Y’s life simply because X created Y. This is one of the issues of debate so we can’t presume that that principle is a valid one without begging the question.

    Regarding your (2) point, I don’t see how that helps your cause. If I bring into existence vulnerable sentient robots, I take on a responsibility to care for them (Or arrange for their care) until they reach a level of self-sufficiency. You seem to be arguing that, if they don’t act according to the plan I have created them for, I am within my rights to kill them – I think this is clearly morally wrong. You ask me to think more deeply on these issues – I am. What I can’t understand is this insistence that one acquires certain rights/privileges simply because one has an ability to create sentient life.

    The issue is a fairly simple one – I don’t grant that God should receive special treatment here. He needs to be judged according to the same rules of common morality that we judge each-other with. We may not be able to inflict any punishment upon him but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve it.

  28. says

    That last paragraph is not only spot on, but also, I think, a major point of difference between theists and atheists.

  29. says

    So if I am understanding you correctly you are saying that,

    If person X is completely responsible for bringing into existence and maintaining in existence both Y and Z then,

    X should have the exact same rights in regards to taking the life of Y as Z would.

  30. says

    In that case Justin, my recommendation is that the next time you have a debate with someone on the Amalekite genocide, you set the Amalekites aside and debate this point instead. This is the root of the entire issue and differing opinions here are the real cause for differing opinions on every other aspect of the issue.

  31. says

    I would interpret that as “god has to follow the same moral rues he sets for his creation”.
    Would you agree or am I missing some distinction?

  32. Reasonable Doubts says

    Well, sure Mike but I was the guest on a show where the topic was already decided.

  33. says

    I understand Justin, I’m not trying to put blame on you for anything. It’s just a general frustration I have with debates that never quite get to the core of the issue, which is virtually almost all debates I come across these days.

    If I get the chance I will try to write an article on my blog regarding the potential rights a creator might have in contrast to the created. I can’t say I have a definitive opinion on this but I can think of at least a few situations that would put the creator in a unique position.

    I hope you guys don’t mind but I am currently making my way through your 100+ podcasts so I will probably leave a few more comments on various posts of your blog. Don’t mean to be stocking you guys.

  34. collin237 says

    The Bible actually is known to be incoherent. It consists entirely of separate parables in an arbitrary sequence. So the narrative thread is simply a patch-up and completely irrelevant, especially since we now know most if not all of it never happened.

    The wars described in the Bible are typical of the atrocities of human nature. In those cases where God supported a war, or where God Himself waged a massacre, the argument depends on how you define God. If you start with Biblical examples of God’s attributes, you do indeed run into contradictions. However, if you start with God’s attributes as axioms, these problematic passages can be dismissed off-hand as being impossible for God to have done.

    The key point is that the believer is the one making the dismissal, based on non-scriptural premises. Then the only way the doubter can continue the debate, considering that any other passage from the Bible or any other scripture could be similarly dismissed, is to provide a non-scriptural argument against these dismissals.

  35. says

    Hi Justin,

    I finally had a chance to write the article mentioned above:

    http://mikemanea.com/unapologetics/how-to-debate-the-amalekite-genocide/

    I also had some thoughts on the imprecatory Psalms

    http://mikemanea.com/unapologetics/the-imprecatory-psalms/

    I was also going to leave a comment on the page with your debate with Scott Smith but I might as well leave it here.

    First, I want to say that I disagreed with Scott more than I disagreed with you. I’m not going to go into it here but I didn’t find much value in any of his arguments.

    As far as your arguments, here are some brief thoughts:

    1) The one major flaw with you first argument (and one you did not even acknowledge as a possible objection) is that your argument disproves the philosopher’s god and not the god of the bible.

    Basically in the Bible God reveals some attribute of himself to a prophet. The prophet looks for the best words in his language to describe that attribute. Then, millenniums later and after several translations some philosopher takes the translated expression for those attributes and interprets it in an extreme sense. Finally, centuries later you come along, take those expressions as interpreted by the philosopher in an even more extreme sense and then argue that God’s attributes contradict each other.

    2) The Bible has a very simple solution to the problem of evil. You might disagree with it but I think you need to address it rather than give the impression that no solution exists.

    It all starts with free will. (I know you guys reject that notion but I’ve listened to all your podcasts on the subject and I think you mistakenly assume that disproving dualism disproves free-will as well.)

    But, assuming free-will exists and that God has created beings with an independent mind who are their own persons, god’s hope was that these beings will choose to coexist in a sin-free universe. When that didn’t happen and some chose to rebel and turn to sin God had the option of either putting a stop to the rebellion right away and risk having it pop up again some time later or, he could let it play out such that, when he does put a stop to it, no one will ever want to do that again for eternity. He obviously chose the latter and, though you might consider something “unnecessary evil,” unless God actually lets the full effects of sin play out, no one will ever fully understand how truly bad sin is which defeats the purpose of allowing it to exist to begin with.

    In any case, thanks for your time. I am almost done listening to all the podcast available on i-tunes. As far as I am concerned you guys are doing the best job of any atheist program I’ve come across, and I’ve listened to quite a few. I recommend you guys any chance I get.

    Not sure if I will be stopping by the blog again any time soon so if you have any comments feel free to email me or stop by my blog.

    Take care.

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