Two wrongs don’t make a right?

You may have heard the moral principle that two wrongs don’t make a right, but you’ve never read it in the Bible. I was thinking of that in connection with the creation/evolution debate, and specifically in connection with the YEC argument that a merciful, loving God would never use millions of years of death and extinction to create the rich variety of life on earth.

This God, you remember, is a God who wants to “mark” baby boys as His by taking an unsterilized knife to their genitals. This is a God who would snuff out the life of every firstborn child in Egypt, down to the tiniest baby of the lowliest (non-Jewish) slave, just to make a point to Pharoah. This is a God who allegedly produced all the fossils in the ground not over the natural course of eons, but in a sudden fit of wrath that destroyed 99.9999% or more of all life on earth, even in places where there weren’t any of the men He was mad at. This is the “merciful” and “loving” God who is supposedly too nice to use evolution to produce biological diversity.

But this isn’t even the half of it, because in pointing out the above Scriptural stories, we haven’t even mentioned animal sacrifice. And that’s where “two wrongs don’t make a right” comes in.

From a moral perspective, animal sacrifice is, at best, a peculiar institution. As a purely pragmatic superstition it might seem vaguely reasonable. When you live in a world controlled by bloodthirsty gods out to feast on the gory remains of your loved ones, why not satiate them first with the blood and flesh of your livestock so they will leave you, your friends, and your family in peace? It’s a kind of predator/prey relationship, with gods as the predators and people as the prey, but it does give a plausible sounding context to sacrificial worship.

As the kind of worship that would be tolerated, let alone required, by a truly moral God, however, animal sacrifice is rather bizarre. Imagine you’ve done something wrong—say you let the fire go out on a cold Saturday morning, and with malice aforethought you deliberately re-light it so you can stay warm, in direct violation of God’s commandment not to do any work on Saturday. Oops.

So now you’ve done something wrong. How are you going to make things right again? Well, you need to find some innocent creature who has never done you any harm, and you need to make it suffer, and bleed, and die, and then you’ve got to burn the corpse completely so that you can’t even justify your cruelty towards it by eating it or taking its hide or anything useful. Then when God sees the harm you have done to the harmless creature, the wrong you did to the animal will right the wrong you did by lighting a fire on Saturday. This is Old Testament morality.

Notice, this isn’t just another case of God being all hard-core in the Old Testament The whole New Testament Gospel is based on the idea that the second wrong—the vicious beating, crucifixion, and death of an innocent Lamb of God—makes all the first wrongs right. The suffering isn’t just an unfortunate by-product of the sacrificial system, as the New Testament reminds us over and over. The harm and the suffering and the death, are the wrongs that make redemption work.

It’s a direct repudiation of the elementary, secular moral principle that two wrongs don’t make a right. The evil you do to an innocent victim somehow has the magical moral power to make right all the rapes and murders and pedophilia and all the other evil things that people do to one another.

This is a terrible moral system. That’s the kind of reasoning you’re supposed to associate with necromancers and evil cults, not with any kind of good, loving, caring deity. But that horrible, perverted moral system is the essence of the “good news” of the Gospel. It’s two wrongs making a right. And that’s just wrong.


  1. John Morales says

    Alas, anyone who subscribes to divine command theory will deny that anything which God commands or does can be wrong — as will anyone who believes God to be omnibenevolent.

  2. Sines says

    “Oh shit, those humans. They’re killing people who haven’t done anything wrong! I need to do something about this. I know! I’ll go and find a human whose never done anything wrong and kill him! That’ll set things straight! What? There’s no human who has never done anything wrong? Guess I’ll have to do it myself!”

    That being said, the Old Testament version does make some sense. When you sacrifice to Yahweh, the sacrifice is not a payment, but a punishment. You’ve done wrong, and now you must pay the fine. By completely destroying something, it would even discourage the priests from claiming people had done a crime in order to profit off of the fines.

    In this sense, animal sacrifice would actually make perfect sense in the context of a primitive society. This still creates problems wherein god apparently enjoys the smell, and that menstruating is a crime wherein you need to pay the turtledove fine, but the basic idea of it isn’t really that bad of a justice system for our ancient forefathers.

  3. Carol Lynn says

    But not every offering was burnt up entirely. There’s a whole classification of sin in Leviticus for people who mistakenly eat ‘holy meat,’ the non-blood portions meant for the priest and his family from some classes of sacrifice. From what I’ve read about Leviticus, the peace, sin, guilt, and atonement sacrifices seem to be only the blood of the sacrificed animal, unlike ‘burnt offerings’ which do seem to be the whole animal, minus the hide. It does not make it any better, but at least not every sacrificed animal was wasted entirely. I’m sure the priests and their families ate very well.

    I remember seeing a TV news report when I was a child of some Middle Eastern leader being welcomed back into his country – the Shah of Iran maybe? – where some portion of the populace had dragged sheep into the street and slit their throats as the motorcade went by as a sacrifice to the leader. The voice-over the film footage said they did it to honor the returning dignitary. Very Biblical! I am still squicked by that fifty years or more later.

  4. Nmudbone says

    Hmmm. What you are saying sounds to me strikingly similar to the “…can’t handle the truth!” argument. Has the truth today somehow lost that uniquely biblical ability to make us free?? Or is it just when that “truth” is rooted in “perspectives validating the divine” that it somehow retains its magical powers? Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly disagreeing with you! This same dynamic of denial is particularly prevalent this time of year when the “sacrifice” of indigenous peoples is brought up in relation to what is called the “Thanksgiving” holiday: “But it doesn’t mean that to me!” Alas, it means exactly what it is “supposed to” mean concerning a massacre–absolutely nothing! IF (I repeat “IF”!), Jesus were able to come during this time of year, I think he would say something similar to what he told the religio/patri-idiots of his day who were sticklers about not working on the holy day “You have corrupted your humanity through your traditions!”

  5. Francisco Bacopa says

    And don’t forget that Pharoah was ready to give up just a few plagues in but God hardened his heart just so His power would be more manifest.

    I was not raised in any Abrahamic tradition and I am almost as familiar with Greek myth as I am with the Bible. The Greek gods are assholes, but not as big a jerk as Tetragrammaton. Zeus just wanted the belly fat and thigh bones of the cattle as a burnt offering. The meat went to the people. The hecatomb was a huge rodeo where the wealthy gave food and goods to the poor to prevent uprisings. Very similar to the Potlatch of the pacific Northwest and the Mumi festivals of Polynesia.

    In parts of the US we follow this tradition today. Late in February we have the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Rural kids bring in sheep and cattle that they have raised from birth with loving care and are given college scholarships by the wealthy. Other rural young folk are given money for the ritual torture and harassment of large animals. A despised class, the carnies, are given a chance to fleece the middle class and raise enough money for their long trek north to their profitable midwestern summer homes. And after the sun sets the poor people of the city are allowed to see our demigods, pop stars, at very reasonable prices.

    The Rodeo is straight out of Minoan culture. If they want to avoid class warfare they need to double the scholarships and make the shows just cost five bucks. However, they already have the rural folk and the urban lower class divided against each other, so they can screw em both.

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