Troubled with the carnage unleashed by Moses, a friend wrote me the following:
I grew up with the Prince of Egypt-type of perception that Moses (upon discovering his identity) was appalled at the mistreatment of his people i.e. the killing of innocent children and the abuse his fellow people suffered at the hands of Egyptian soldiers.
There seems a little irony in what he then goes on to do or orders to have done: killing and genocide in God’s name. It seems strange that in one sermon Moses can remind the Hebrews of the command “Thou shalt not kill” and then the following sermon orders the “destruction” of every people (aggressor or not) that is currently occupying Canaan. What seems just as merciless is the instruction further to kill any Hebrew (his own people) who choose to worship other Gods, amongst other things. A further list of orders are then given designed to keep a pure religion and race, all the time affirming their superiority over others … all of which make Hitler’s ideals seem liberal!
I am asking for your understanding of these scriptures. What insights do you have that would help me see Moses and the Law of Moses in a better light? What info don’t we have that could help justify Moses’ orders, i.e. were the Hebrews the subject of continual aggression from these other nations? What were they doing that was so abhorrent that God wanted them killed for?
The Christianity I am comfortable with today is “humanitarian” if I had to choose a word to best describe it. Jesus affirms this above everything: there is no contradiction between love of ones fellow man and love for God. There are so many tenets we espouse today that run contrary to God’s will in the Torah … Please help before I lump the first five alongside The Songs of Solomon.
Sensing that a legal discussion of justifiable homicide in ancient Near Eastern law was not what my friend was looking for, here’s my response:
First, of all, don’t ditch the Song of Songs, a marvellous exposition of erotic love! (Nothing at all wrong with that under the right constraints.)
As you know I’ve spent a good part of my academic life studying the Old Testament and so certainly understand your concerns. My dissertation was on slavery and it gives one pause that something which is so obviously a moral evil to us — the possession of human chattel — is not condemned by the Bible.
I endorse what [your father] says about the fallibility of the Bible. Certainly we have to be careful to not go too far down that road, but I think it is striking that the carnage evident in the wandering and conquest narratives is eschewed elsewhere in the scriptures, which to me might suggest that a nationalistic human hand has left a trace in the extant Mosaic record. Even the later Old Testament seems to find these stories difficult. Many of the prophets (e.g. Amos) have a less nationalistic view of Israel and some books (e.g. Jonah) demonstrate very clearly God’s love for all people. In the Book of Moses, Enoch sees God weeping because humans love killing. In the New Testament, Jesus quite clearly tells us to love our enemies. And the righteous Book of Mormon people — and note that they are inheritors of the Israelite religion — advocate principles of “just war” not cruel slaughter: why would that be if they believed Moses’ killings to justify the death of the infidel Lamanites? Given all that, I don’t think there is any need to see compulsions to commit genocide and other ills as ethically normative (hooray!) and the weight of the scriptures and the lived Gospel would seem to be on your side.
Bottom line: read as the word of God, the Old Testament is a wonderful but murky old book. There’s a good reason why Jesus preached a renewed Gospel of love both in the meridian of time and in the Restoration. Don’t sweat it, old boy!
Any more advice for my friend? Any good literature on this subject? My friend was hoping, I think, for some justification for Moses’ actions. As an ancient law historian, I think I can do this. As a Christian, I can’t. In this regard, I think Mormons are well placed among Christians to accept the human hand in scriptural tradition and to discard erroneous ideas in favour of better revelation. In this regard, don’t the words of Christ stand as the last testament?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”