I don’t mean to be obsessed with religion lately, but I keep seeing opportunities to blog about it. Blogger Mark Kleiman sometimes posts notes from his Tanakh study group; I usually skip these posts, but the latest was of interest. It discusses one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible, 1 Samuel 15. I’m particularly interested in this passage because it’s the first place I go if I want to argue that the Bible should not be regarded as having any moral authority.
The Samuel of the book’s title is a Hebrew prophet, and this chapter occurs during Saul’s reign as king of Israel. Now, God is pissed off at another tribe, the Amalekites, for how they treated the Israelites during their escape from Egypt, which was hundreds of years prior at this point in the Bible. So he has Samuel instruct Saul to do the only thing consistent with a just, moral God: kill every man, woman, and child in the Amalekite tribe. Also, Saul is to kill all the livestock to show they mean business and aren’t just after spoils. So, Saul takes the Israelite army and commits divinely mandated genocide, wiping out the tribe—except that they spare the Amalekite king and some of the livestock. Naturally God gets angry with Saul and strips him of his kingship, because his genocidal instructions were not followed to the letter. Samuel’s so angry he personally grabs a sword and messily executes the Amalekite king.
So, you see the problem here. No god that orders such an atrocity is worthy of worship; in fact, basic morality requires that one actively oppose such a god, even if this results in being smited into ash. I was curious to see what Kleiman’s notes would say in regards to this passage; he seems disturbed by it and looks for some justification in the text, but finds little:
We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel’s final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn’t say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.
I don’t buy this bit about “HaShem’s actions are not taken as guides for human actions”. For one thing, it’s humans that are actually carrying out the genocide on God’s orders. And furthermore, it’s not clear why I should hold God to a lower moral standard than I hold mortals. Now, one approach is to say that God is the one who gets to define morality—after all, he’s the one handing down the stone tablets—so by definition nothing God does can be immoral. If that’s the case, then fuck morality; I am going to adhere to a different system of ethics, which I call “schmorality”, that holds (among other things) that genocide is always wrong. Come on, this one doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Another important point, and this is sort of a Humean argument, is that even if it’s ok to commit genocide when God commands it, one should never obey apparent commands from God to commit genocide. After all, if I hear a voice claiming to be God and instructing me to murder a bunch of people, I am going to consider several possibilities. Maybe it’s actually God, or maybe I’ve gone crazy and am hearing voices in my head, or maybe it’s a malevolent being impersonating God. This goes double if it’s not a voice in my head, but some dude named Samuel. Then I’ll consider how probable it is that it’s really God and not one of the other possibilities, and weigh this against the enormity of the crime I am going to commit. Probably it’s not God, and even if it is, the worst that can happen from disobeying is that he smites me and tries to get someone else to do it. Whereas if I’m wrong about it being God, I’ve just killed a bunch of people for no reason. So basic morality demands that one disobey these sorts of commands.
A different defense one can take regarding 1 Samuel 15 is to say that it’s not an accurate description of events, but is fiction. If one still wants to preserve the rest of the Bible as a moral authority, one then has to decide if it was rightfully included as a kind of metaphorical tale or parable meant to teach a lesson, or if it was mistakenly included and is merely Bronze Age tribal propaganda. If I were religious, I would reject the former possibility out of hand. It would seem to me the foulest of blasphemies to ascribe such behavior to God. Whatever lesson this is supposed to impart, it’s the wrong one, since one should actually disobey these commands from God. On the other hand, if it was wrongfully included, the judgement of the mortal editors compiling the Old Testament or Tanakh is therefore suspect. Clearly these guys had no moral or spiritual authority themselves, or they would have recognized that this passage did not belong with the other books. And this in turn undermines the authority of the rest of the Bible: if you can’t trust the inclusion of this book, why trust any of the others? And so I think this chapter is a huge problem for any religion that claims the Old Testament as a holy text.