When prophets of God enslave women

Numbers 31: In which Moses provides inspiration for Boko Haram. @bycommonconsent

The story coming out of Nigeria about the abduction of school girls by Boko Haram and their possible forced marriages is sickening. I find myself thinking about it a lot, the terrible empathy I feel for their parents almost paralysing. I also feel anger at these religious thugs. It’s barely believable that there are people in 2014 who would do such a thing. It is evil.

About this time of year in the LDS Sunday School curriculum, Mormons are reading about the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers. The student manual summarises the end of the story thus:

The Israelites destroy the Midianites and slay Balaam. Moses explains that Balaam had counseled the Midianites to entice the Israelites into sin.

This is a fairly benign rendering of a grotesque story. Let us parse some words.

“Destroy” here means utterly annihilate. They “killed every man . . . captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder . . . burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps” (Numbers 31: 7-10). Moses was furious, not because the Israelites had committed so heinous a crime but because they had spared the women, so he ordered every woman killed except “every girl who has never slept with a man” (v.18), presumably including female babies. These were to be married off to Israelite men. What was the crime these women had committed? The manual suggests that they had “entice[d] the Israelites into sin,” referring, among other things, to the sexual encounters between Israelite men and foreign women in Numbers 25. The evil of enticing women!

The lesson skirts around this story, instead concentrating on Balaam’s failure to obey God, contrasted with Moses’ faithfulness. This faithfulness, if we bother to read all of Numbers 31, included genocide and the enslavement of girls. I cannot help but think of the terrible fate of those girls in the Nigerian jungle whose tormentors seem to be following in the footsteps of Moses, who no doubt felt that Midianite ways — especially when they produced “enticing” women — were “haram” and therefore deserving of violent judgement.

One cannot responsibly use such horrors in a lesson designed to teach the importance of obeying God. Certainly you cannot do it and have any moral credibility to denounce Boko Haram. This is not to draw an equivalence between the gentle souls in a Sunday School class who fail to honestly confront the terror texts of the Old Testament and the Boko Haram thugs, but it is a call for believers to fully and unequivocally distance themselves from any invocation of the name of God in stories that support murder and abduction.

Sam Harris has criticised moderate believers for making belief in the supernatural socially acceptable, which in turn allows fanatics to take that belief and turn it to evil ends. I am not willing to sacrifice my own beliefs on Harris’s new atheist altar but I will grant him this: churches must not give the terror texts room to breathe, for in doing so we give them moral credibility. We who do not mimic Moses’ violence in our religious lives have a responsibility to make them rhetorically anathema. Certainly no religious curriculum should blithely use the Balaam story to teach “obedience to God” when such stories and such obedience can be used for terrible ends then and now.

This is not some liberal, Milquetoast rejection of the Old Testament. On the contrary, as someone who finds the Hebrew Bible endlessly fascinating and theologically compelling, we should be better students of the Old Testament, starting with the difficult stuff. How is it that Moses can, without evident irony, remind the Hebrews in one breath not to kill (Deut 5), and in the other command his people to utterly lay waste to Canaan, sparing no man, woman, child, or animal (Deut 7)?

The fact is that both Christians and atheists often have a simplistic understanding of the biblical text. For example, tradition has it that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible — the Pentateuch. Whatever the reality of the historical Moses and his authorship of any early Hebrew history, biblical scholars, even those with religious faith, have long detected a later human hand in the Pentateuch’s composition. Deuteronomy and the conquest narratives of Joshua and Judges almost certainly belong to the so-called “Deuteronomic history,” named because of their coherence of style and intent. In short, these tales exist in large part to promote a nationalistic view of Israelite history where their claim to the land has divine approval and is thus beyond doubt.

In ancient Near Eastern cultures, the power of the gods and a nation’s claim to be favoured by them was often expressed through military power. It is no surprise, then, that the Israelite theologians wished to cast Yahweh and Israel in the same light. That they often engaged in hyperbole is proven by facts on the ground: the book of Joshua seems to suggest a genocidal annihilation of the Canaanites but it is clear from archaeology and even from later biblical books, that the Canaanites never went away. There is reason to doubt, therefore, the literalness of some of these stories. Unless you are a biblical inerrantist, this should not be a problem.

The harsh punishments meted out to Moses’ own people must also be understood in the context of Near Eastern covenant codes. Just as the king made covenants with his vassal people, so God made a covenant with Israel. The breaking of such covenants always met with a harsh response: when later Israel rebelled against Assyria, the Assyrian king unleashed his army. Similarly, those Israelites who broke their covenant with God were often subject to capital punishment, a point the text uses to highlight the seriousness of God’s relationship with his people. These are theological narratives, first and foremost.

Honest readers of the Bible are right to find these accounts morally troubling, but in this we need not think they are troubling only to our modern moral sensibilities. This is not an exercise in political correctness. In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that later Israelites and Jews, whilst still heralding Moses as a national hero, were not keen on his methods. The book of Jonah is a prime example. Read beyond the account of the whale and you will see how Jonah impatiently awaits the destruction of heathen Nineveh only to be reminded by God that his love and mercy transcend national boundaries: “Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong” (Jonah 9:11). The message here seems to be that the Ninevites, because they do not know God, are also not accountable to him. This was not something which ever seemed to bother Moses and Joshua vis-à-vis the Canaanites; the Jonah narrative thus seems to be a deliberate moral counterweight to the earlier stories.

Amos and the other minor prophets preach social justice and temper the nationalistic rhetoric. Jesus — who generally expects his disciples to follow the Mosaic law — explicitly distances himself from the aspects of the old ways he cannot support: “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” (Matt 5:44). Thus Jesus shows Christians how to read the Old Testament.

Christian defenders of the Old Testament need not feel that they are undermining the text by calling for a more nuanced reading of the Mosaic stories and a revision of their morals. Indeed, this is exactly the approach taken by other biblical figures who seem happy to accept a positive evolution in their national morality. The Bible accepts its own fallibility without denying God’s hand in Israelite history.

As I think about those Nigerian girls, and Moses’ own purported crimes in Midian and Moab, I am drawn to this image in 1 Peter 1:

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors . . . with the precious blood of Christ . . .; you [are now] purified . . . so that you have genuine mutual love (vv. 18-22).

The “futile ways of our ancestors” are many and include both religious violence and the failure to reject the same, even in holy writ. “Genuine mutual love” is the law by which we must abide. Not only do I wish for this to take hold in Boko Haram’s hearts but, strange as it seems, I wish it too for the Israelite soldiers who went up to Midian. Do not put the people to the sword, Moses, and leave those girls with their families where they belong. God forgive you for not doing so, and God forgive us for letting you get away with it for so long. And please, God, do something for those innocent girls in Nigeria.


  1. Bro. Jones says:

    Excellent post. I just delivered this lesson, and was also horrified at Num 31-32. It was worse than I remembered. In the end, I decided not to bring this up in class–not out of devotion to the manual’s view, but because I know my class well. I once tried to have a discussion about Captain Moroni’s behavior in the Book of Mormon and whether we felt it was appropriate leadership, and the response was a pretty unanimous yes. (Which I disagreed with.) I anticipated a similar fruitless disagreement about Old Testament virtue this time, so I focused on Balaam more.

  2. Thank you, Ronan. I sat squirming throughout the lesson yesterday, but I couldn’t solidly land on a way to express my discomfort. This helps tremendously.

  3. Villate says:

    It struck me during the Balaam lesson that if we were studying Mosiah 20, at least one or two people (perhaps including me, since I’m not immune to the tendency to want to feel superior to others whose actions I disagree with) would have brought up the kidnapped Nigerian girls and compared the two situations, using it as an object lesson in how corrupting bad religion/selfishness/entitlement/etc. can be. However, when the guys we’re supposed to identify with do almost the same thing – or worse, since they also wiped out the girls’ families, gods, and homes – we uncomfortably ignore it or try to justify it. I saw another example of this a few weeks ago, when the Gospel Doctrine teacher (our recently-released Bishop and an extremely sensitive and spiritual man) tied himself in knots trying to explain why it was all right that Abraham “allowed” Sarah to abuse Hagar and her son and eventually kicked them out of his home. Several people became visibly distressed when I pointed out that it was unlikely that God smiled favorably on this action. This is one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with how we idolize the scriptures, even here in forums like these. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that the new youth and Sunday School curricula are emphasizing words of living or recently living prophets more when so many of the stories about the long-dead ones are hardly worth emulating, and probably not even factually true in the bargain. It’s hard to negotiate truth when it’s presented by people who live in similar circumstances to us, and much harder when it’s all mixed up with culture and nationalism and ways of life we don’t subscribe to any more.

  4. >how we idolize the scriptures

    That’s exactly it. It’s idolatry. I disagree, however, that we should somehow privilege the modern over the ancient. We desperately have to get to grips with the ancient or others will, and sometimes use it for evil. The terror texts of the Old Testament need to be owned by peaceful people.

  5. I don’t want to throw away the Old Testament, like so many Christians now do – but I absolutely want to teach that “as far as it is translated correctly” ought to include the way ancient people (including their prophet-leaders) attributed things to God that I believe passionately made God weep.

    Ironically, if we could start looking at the Old Testament more critically, it could help us be more charitable toward our own modern prophets. Seriously, if we can read the Old Testament and accept their leaders as prophets, I can’t fathom why we would reject our own modern leaders as prophets. The comparison comes out so much more favorably for our own, even with serious issues with the actions and policies of some of our own. If we could see prophet-hood as evolutionary in nature (as religious understanding is evolutionary in nature) . . .

    Of course, that would challenge our idea that what has been taught by prophets throughout time is consistent – but that’s not a bad thing at all, imo.

  6. I forgot to say it, but wonderful post. It ought to be read throughout the Church, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people feel.

  7. Well-researched and written.

    An enjoyable read. Thank you.

  8. Villate says:

    Yes Ray, I agree. I don’t want to eliminate teaching the ancient scriptures, but I think we need to stop acting like they were written by the very finger of God and stop using them so strictly as models for our own lives. They can provide guidance in some respects, but they are not blueprints, and much of the Christian world treats them as such. I am still working out how to tread the line here myself – where is the middle ground between “If it’s not all the word of God then there IS no word of God” and “It’s all the word of God except this one bit”? I struggle in my mind with this on a daily basis, with greater or lesser discomfort depending on the topic of my reading or pondering that day. Sometimes atheism is appealing, but I have to rely on what I consider (hope) to be the witness of the Holy Ghost that there are some things I can figure out myself and some things I have to wait on the Lord to reveal, or to withhold.

  9. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I think we over stress about the Old Testament. We need to see it in nuance ways. First, there is the translation, second there are the ways of the old nations–violent and destructive–third there is the injection of later–more nationalistic–history and finally there is a God and his prophet who are acutely concerned with the idolatrous ways of those around the people of Israel. What follows is a complicated, often incomprehensive story. God is merciful but in his mercy he is often harsh because he sees what can be harmful to his people in ways that we don’t. The people around his people were so decadent and many beyond hope that he had many of them destroyed. Today we get so caught up with this life that we often forget that it is only one part of our eternal journey. Some people needed to get a chance to start again and they weren’t going to do it in their world, so maybe they were being given a chance in the other before they became so wicked they were beyond hope even in the after life. Did this mean killing women and children? I don’t know–though I doubt it–because of all the problems with the text but I do know that we are naive when we think that all of God’s ways are “fuzzy and nice”. Also, if we are willing to give God the benefit of the doubt why do we not give Moses the same? After all the scriptures call him the meekest man in the world. As a sunday school teacher there are times when I say I don’t know but that I do know that God is all wise and a God of Love. And I teach that we should push back on the scriptures but that we should be careful about prescribing how God or his prophet should have acted back then. We can accept that they might have erred and we can even disagree but we need to be careful of not making our thoughts and views the “scriptures”. Our ways, no matter how enlightened are not his ways.

  10. Kristine says:

    Maybe we should get used to the idea of a God who trusts us enough to let us read R-rated books that present difficult moral problems, instead of a God who only wants to read us Disney versions of fairy tales. The Old Testament gets a lot easier to deal with if one reads it as a text meant for grownups, that presents problems God’s people are supposed to grapple with, instead of as a comic book with readily identifiable heroes and villains.

  11. There is a definition of “brutalize” that focuses on the effect that violent warfare and torture have on the perpetrators of such actions and the degradation that occurs to their own sensibilities and humanity. I wonder if our reactions to these New Testament stories aren’t sometimes shaped by our own brutalization due to the terror events and our reactions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In other words, if we went back 20 years or so, would we find more sympathy for Ronan’s thoughts in the church than we do today?

  12. God can wipe out nations with floods, earthquakes, famine, and disease. With these and other tools of nature available, I don’t think He needs to command one nation to destroy another. That doesn’t mean that He hasn’t, I just don’t think it’s very likely.
    Of course, a predictable natural consequence of showing one group of people how nice the grass is on the other side of the fence (land of milk and honey) is their increased desire to acquire that real estate, at the expense of the current inhabitants. The conquest is much more justifiable if it can be claimed to be God’s will.

  13. I don’t buy this “God’s ways are not our ways” line of reasoning when it comes to the terror texts. We already have a very strong idea of what God’s ways are in this regard — the later prophets and Jesus very much distance themselves from them. That’s not some “warm and fuzzy” modern logic, it’s taking the Bible, as a whole, seriously.

    There is no need for confusion here. Jesus said, very clearly, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you”; therefore, given that the terror texts are utterly at odds with his gospel of love as reported in the New Testament, Christians can confidently reject them. Again, this is not some liberal nonsense, it is to conservatively follow Jesus. For, if good people give the terror texts some moral room, what will bad people give them?

    No ifs, no buts: Boko Haram is evil; Numbers 31 is evil. If one cannot say that, one has no moral standing to denounce the evil perpetrated by religious fanatics in our day.

  14. “The terror texts of the Old Testament need to be owned by peaceful people.”

    Amen. Thank you for this Ronan!

  15. Excellent Ronan. I tried to get at this a little in my post, and failed pretty miserably. I’m giving you a link next week.

    And this-

    “Maybe we should get used to the idea of a God who trusts us enough to let us read R-rated books that present difficult moral problems, instead of a God who only wants to read us Disney versions of fairy tales. The Old Testament gets a lot easier to deal with if one reads it as a text meant for grownups, that presents problems God’s people are supposed to grapple with, instead of as a comic book with readily identifiable heroes and villains.”

    This is why I’m so uncomfortable with Bible board-books for kids. Most of us never grow beyond that level of understanding. The Bible is not a kids book.

  16. If one cannot say that, one has no moral standing to denounce the evil perpetrated by religious fanatics in our day.

    Yes, a million times yes. Only an extreme moral relativism could enable one to gloss over this without calling it out for the evil that it is. As you said, “if one cannot say that, one has no moral standing to denounce the evil perpetrated by religious fanatics in our day.”

    Most importantly, however, let us fine tune our moral compass so that each of us as individuals never becomes one of such religious fanatics today.

  17. Publius says:

    LDS intellectual excommunicates all non-Marcionites; film at 11.

  18. Jason K. says:

    The OP is a powerful argument against modern-day Marcionism, made all the more potent by its focus on a text that many of us would just as well do away with by ascribing it to an evil god. Kristine’s comment is spot-on: we have to learn to grapple with the difficult moral problems presented by texts like this, rather than simply wish them away by one means or another.

  19. Thanks Ronan. An important reminder to apply our critical thinking skills to church education. I don’t think this contradicts a faithful approach, it just forces us to deal with difficult questions. I don’t think there can be any assumption that religion doesn’t contain difficult questions.

  20. Yes, our bowdlerization of much of the cultural landscape long ago began to seep into the religious landscape and interpretation of texts so that all we have left, even at the adult level, is the “Living Scriptures” version of the accounts provided in our holy books. It’s a real shame. Numbers 31, an explicitly R-Rated text, has been made G-rated for Church members in our curriculum. That doesn’t serve us well at all.

  21. I have been reading the Sunday School texts ahead of time for the first time in years, and I have been horrified by the Moses era stories of mass killings. The personal failings and family dysfunction of the patriarchs were bad enough, but the institutionally approved genocide of the last lesson has been too much to make peace with. I’ve been wanting permission to stand up and say, “I reject this! This is not from God!” Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  22. Thank you for this, Ronan.

  23. I find this post’s approach far more satisfying than the bowdlerizing approach of our manuals, and immeasurably superior to the approach favored by certain bloggernacle denizens insisting that we ought to be celebrating God’s (purported) child-sacrificing, misogynistic genocidal bigotry.

  24. This is just wonderful. I love you people.

  25. Another difficulty we have in these scriptures is with our additional scripture in 1 Nephi 17:32-35, adding another witness that the people should have been destroyed by the Israelites. I don’t think this is so easily rationalized either direction.

  26. Old Geezer says:

    Great discussion. Here are my rough thoughts: I think we’ve glossed over many portions of the story, especially Numbers 25. Essentially God convicted the Midianites, and told the Israelites to destroy them. So saving the adult women and children of both genders was an act of defiance towards God. Moses then PARTLY countered that merciful act of disobedience and ordered the “non-virgin” women and boys slain in Numbers 31. Was Moses countering the custom of the time to keep women as war booty? We are so caught up with the young girls that are saved that we don’t ask ourselves what hazard did the boys present? Were the young girls really saved for life as wives/concubines? Is it possible that Moses intervened and “renegotiated” a contract with Yahweh concerning the girls? We should compare this event with Joshua’s treaty with the Gibeonites to serve the Israelites.

  27. For the past few years my go-to response to much of the the OT has been “it’s just too bizarre to wrap my head around.” Thanks for helping me rethink that approach.

  28. Angela C says:

    The only other book that comes close to the bizarreness of the OT is Ether. Go figure.

  29. “Essentially God convicted the Midianites, and told the Israelites to destroy them.”

    or not

    Assumptions are a wonderful way to avoid critical thinking. As has been said, you can’t accept this story and condemn the Nigerian actions – at least not with any moral authority. If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, he either commands things like this or he doesn’t. I vote for, “He doesn’t.”

    “The only other book that comes close to the bizarreness of the OT is Ether. Go figure.”

    For me, that actually is one of the biggest evidences of the inspired nature of the Book of Mormon. Ether is a perfect Old Testament narrative and so very different than the rest of the Book of Mormon – with the compelling difference that it doesn’t try to ascribe the atrocities in it to prophets. The problem is that we often gloss over the actual account in Ether (and the difference I just mentioned) just as much as we gloss over so much of the Old Testament.

  30. kevinf says:

    Thank you for posting this line of reasoning that I have believed to be true for some time. When my wife was teaching OT in seminary a number of years ago, she attended the religious educators week at BYU, and recalls being told that if we ran across something in the OT that didn’t ring true, it wasn’t true. My personal favorite made-up OT story is Elisha and the 42 boys who made fun of his baldness, whereupon he cursed them in the name of God, and two she-bears came out of the woods and killed them all. Really?

  31. RockiesGma says:

    Thank you so much for this post. The Nigerian girls have laid my heart right down upon the ground. As does too much of the OT. These things greatly strain my soul.

    It is very un-godlike to command mass destruction. If a group is too far gone to live, then why not erupt a volcano upon them or bring a great storm, meteor, or earthquake? Having human beings obliterate men, women and children would do terrible things to the slayers’ minds and hearts. What does such inhumanity do to them? How can this make them more righteous and like God? Look at many coming home from war in our day with anxiety disorders, PTSD, and are or become suicidal or abusive to loved ones.

    As to those destroyed going on to the next phase of existence where they might do better, what about Alma’s (Amulek’s?) teaching that now is the time to prepare to meet God and that after this life no labor can be performed.

    I sometimes hear faithful members earnestly declare, “We should just nuke them off the face of the earth.” Especially after 9/11. As if a whole nation deserves mass destruction. Yet we feared weapons of such mass destruction in Iraq. We would never think we deserve obliteration, but too easily believe others do.

    Why, then, did Jesus teach us to pray for our enemies? Jesus doesn’t teach love and cold-hearted hatred and murder. We gloss over these details and we excuse these things by saying our ways are not God’s ways. But, whatsoever causes a man to do good and believe in Christ is of a God. And whatsoever causes a man to do bad and does not cause him to believe in Christ is of the devil. Even prophets can be deceived. All of us can be deceived. Does anyone honestly believe those Israelites were thinking of God while they went about “the work of death”?

    So I want to publicly say, in this matter, this was not of God and was evil. To think otherwise leaves us very vulnerable to flippantly thinking, let’s just blow our enemies off the map.

  32. Great OP. It seems that are squeamishness and Disneyification of the OT is also tied up in our our very modern rhetoric around priesthood leaders. The more and more we approach prophetic infallibility as a mental model for the relationship between God, our leaders and the church the more it requires us to reject grappling with the difficult texts of the OT and other scriptures. If we question whether a “great” prophet like Moses might have been capable of erroneously ordering genocide or Abraham supporting the abuse and abandonment of family members while still maintaining some favorable position in front of God, then the idea that leaders might deny priesthood for very human reasons or might be blind to consequences of structural and cultural sexism seem almost quaintly reasonable in comparison. Truly facing the difficult moral questions in our scriptural texts – Nephi killing Laban, Nephi’s racism/tribalism, Captain Moroni, a huge portion of the OT etc. should be a catalyst for each of us to reflect on how easily our own moral failings can spiral outward to effect others as well as to appreciate how easily we can find ourselves in very morally complex situations where choosing the right is anything but clear. Maybe one of the important functions of our scripture and the documentation of our own church history is force us to face rather than obfuscate our own institutional weaknesses and dangers. Maybe this is how we do more than stumble toward Zion as individuals and as a community.

  33. Norman Wright says:

    Thanks for all of the excellent posts on this issue. I have been rereading the Old Testament and have been struggling with these same issues. I have come to the conclusion that either there is a lot of history there that has been recorded inaccurately or there is a lot of context that we just do not understand being a product of our world rather than the world of the Old Testament. This discussion has added additional elements to my thinking. I am fond of recalling a faculty mentor during my time at BYU who indicated that Abraham failed the test by being willing to kill his own son. It has always seemed to me since that statement that we go through a lot of mental gymnastics to explain behavior by prophets that we find abhorrent today.

    I would point out with reference to the title that not only did prophets enslave the women, they also killed all the men. It has always bothers me a bit that we seem to think that men killing men is ok but we draw the line at enslaving or killing women and children. Both are horrible. I think we justify killing men on the grounds that the men were the combatants but I am pretty sure that a lot of men who were not that talented with swords were also killed as part of the prophet’s obedience.

  34. N. W. Clerk says:

    “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added.” — Some poorly educated 19th century New Englander

  35. N. W. Clerk says:


    What did your BYU faculty mentor have to say about Hebrews 11:17-19, Jacob 4:5, and D&C 132:36?

  36. Norman Wright says:

    N. W.

    My mentor did not mention those scriptures. I suppose he might have said that his decision was accounted unto Abraham for righteousness as his intent/motivation was to obey God but that he did not understand what God expected. That would, of course, be an exercise in mental gymnastics perhaps equivalent to those used by others in the difficult questions raised by the Old Testament. I am unsettled in my own mind as to these questions. I do wonder how much of my own judgment will be based on my honest efforts to obey a God with my limited understanding and openness to the Spirit. I hope and trust He will be merciful.

  37. leonasankhla says:

    Amen, brother. Thank you.

  38. Dog Dreams says:

    Wonderful OP and excellent discussion following. This stuff has troubled me since I was a wee little Beehive reading the Old Testament for the first time out of Primary. As I read all of your thoughts, I said out loud to myself, “I love these guys.” I decided I shouldn’t keep that to myself. So, strangers, I love you guys.

  39. My experience of the lesson was made worse by the Priesthood meeting opening hymn being “Hope of Israel” with the lines “vanquish every foe today” being prominent in the lyrics. And then in the priesthood lesson brought up Nephi killing Laban as a positive example of a scriptural precedent for how prayers are answered. It really wasn’t my day.

  40. Reading BCC is actually convincing me to give the OT another try. Wow. Thanks.

  41. The charge of Marcionism made me chuckle. The Sunday School manual is pure Marcion, pretending as it does that these stories don’t exist.

  42. I don’t mean to make a dramatic topic even more melodramatic, but I can’t help but feel that Mormonism has failed its adherents horribly by the way it has encouraged us to engage the scriptures in such an impoverished, cartoonish manner. There’s something deeply, deeply wrong with people who cannot immediately and unequivocally condemn morally grotesque behavior — behavior that they’d ACKNOWLEDGE as abhorrent in any other context — just because it is endorsed by Hebrew prophets or carried out by Israelite peoples. This doesn’t strike me as a problem at which to sigh, but rather one that merits serious psychological and moral intervention. If there are functioning fire alarms in our church buildings on the days we teach these chapters badly, someone ought to pull them.

  43. clause says:

    Personally, I like the gospel way of interpreting scripture, likening it unto ourselves.
    So here is a question, if you are tasked with stopping the Boko Haram, which scripture story is the best inspiration for actually saving these girls? Are we really prepared to say that under no circumstances we are willing to annihilate Boko Haram even if that would work?

  44. melodynew says:

    “. . . [We] must not give the terror texts room to breathe, for in doing so we give them moral credibility.” Amen. Amen.

    This whole issue calls to mind the nearly universal response most of us have when we witness or become aware of unspeakable violence: We freeze. Or want to turn away. Or convince ourselves its not what it looks like.

    When something is so incredibly wrong, so far outside our experience, so evil, we can’t comprehend it. At least not initially. I often listen to these stories in church in a state of stunned silence. “Wait. Did the teacher just say what I think she said? . . . ” And by the time I figure out what was really going on, the lesson is over and I’m left wishing I had seen things clearly in the moment so I could respond appropriately. Thank you for cutting through the crap RJH. I needed this.

  45. melodynew says:

    Also, when have male prophets of God NOT enslaved women? Shall we talk about polygammy?

  46. clause,
    I like the “love your enemies” approach to scripture. That doesn’t mean letting Boko Haram get away with their crimes, nor shying away from a robust effort to get those girls back, but I would not want to see them annihilated. You have, however, amply demonstrated my point: in not condemning the terror texts of the Bible we make it easier for us today to bandy around concepts such as “annihilation” when it comes to our enemies. This, I do not believe, is Jesus’ way, which is why he said, “but I say unto you . . . ” The hermeneutic I have outlined above is very much a “gospel way.”

  47. DavidF says:

    I admit being unsettled as to how we treat these OT stories. On the one hand, I identify with those posters who find them purely, morally objectionable. On the other hand, I wonder if they are improperly using their own culturally received sense of morality to judge what God saw was right.

    Spending time in the Jordan, among people who still retained strong Bedouin ties, gave me a lot of perspective on these sorts of issues. What is clearly wrong from our perspective would make perfect sense from theirs. Much of the OT does, in fact, make sense from that sort of perspective.

    I suspect God works in a certain degree of latitude with the culture he is working in. In ancient, more violent times, God was more willing to allow people to fulfill his commands with violence. In more egalitarian, modern times, God is more willing to allow us to fulfill his commandments in a more peaceful, equitable way, even if the objectively better path may be more violent. Not that I’m advocating a return to a more violent culture, but a cautionary word to myself that my personal moral compass may not be the best tool to measure what God says is right.

  48. >my personal moral compass may not be the best tool to measure what God says is right.

    Agreed, which is why we have Jonah/the Later Prophets/Jesus of Nazareth WHO REJECT THE TERROR TEXTS.

    Also, any Bedu who advocates genocide, robbery, and the enslavement of women is evil. Trouble is, I’m pretty sure few of them exist.

    David, I know you mean well and are no doubt a peaceful person, but such equivocation in the face of brutality is sickening. (See Aaron Brown’s comment above.)

  49. RJH,

    The problem I have with your post is that it asserts an a priori principle that may not apply to every real world situation. History has shown that not every enemy can be bargained with or merely held at bay.

    By saying that not condemning the Midianite wars gives Boko Haram legitimacy commits a gross reduction in logic that ignores the vast theological and philosophical differences between the scriptures and the claims of this group. By cherry picking scriptures, we are unable to understand all the principles that follow from their entirety. For example, Christ says, as you point out, love your enemies. He also openly denounced the Pharisees and whipped them out of the temple. The same Christ that healed the sick also inflicted horrendous plagues on Egypt. The same Christ who raised the dead killed thousands of Nephites in the New World on the night of His death. Your logic denies us from understanding how these two versions of Christ can possibly exist in the same group of canon.

    However, by looking on what premise these violent acts are justified we learn something new. Violence in the scriptures committed by God and otherwise righteous individuals is justified by protecting others. Instead of creating an a priori principle, the gospel allows for flexibility so the best outcome can be achieved.

    However, a priori assertions about violence not only cherry pick the scriptures, but become their own dogma. We must utterly condemn the slightest infraction to maintain the principle’s legitimacy, regardless of what good was accomplished. All scriptures and prophets who defy our progressive principles are wrong, period. This flies in the face of the Savior’s insistence to promote ethical bonds over ontological assumptions. Hence we can fetch out oxen in mires or pick food on the sabbath. We have an obligation to protect our brothers and sisters, even if that means wiping out their oppressors.

    However, I agree we shouldn’t be cavalier. We should give our enemies every chance to mend their ways, we owe them that. However, we can’t sacrifice current ethical obligations for unreasonable assumptions that don’t pan out in the real world. As for the Midianite situation, I don’t know the full story and whether they historically represented such a large threat that justified Moses tactics (as you pointed out genocide might not have happened historically). However we can’t shy away from this story just because it makes us uncomfortable. We have to face it and explore its full logical implications before we make judgement.

  50. Great post. I have not had time to read all of the replies, so forgive me if what I say has already been said.

    One thing that troubles me about this entire subject (and always has) is just what modern man is to accept as being God-sanctioned/carried out and what is not.

    Making Abraham believe he was to sacrifice his son was cruel and no doubt a terror to ancient as well as modern minds, and perhaps gives us pause for thought as to what misery we must pass through here to prove ourselves (and sometimes its origins); however, that was only a test wasn’t it (perhaps even carried out with Isaac’s consent, depending on what you accept as accurate commentary on the account)? But what about the plagues in Egypt? The scriptural texts suggest that God himself killed the firstborn of every creature, including humans – his own offspring.

    So when does the act of killing another gain divine approval? What acts in the scriptures can we attribute to corrupt and self-serving histories and/or the foibles of men, and what must we ultimately accept as acts which are truly horrifying to modern minds, but which are, in the final analysis, at the behest (or even the doing) of a loving God?

    What about the morality of a loving God who stands back and at times watches truly monstrous acts on unimaginably large scales and over long periods without intervention (the Holocaust, Rwanda etc etc), yet at other times overrides the agency of the wicked and intervenes (Alma and Amulek etc).

    Perhaps there is a way around these problems, but it is difficult to reconcile modern (and many ancient) views of morality and suffering with the many accounts in the scriptures and general history. Perhaps our challenge, as Latter-day Saints, in the relative safety and comfort of the Western World, is to maintain faith in a God that can and does offend modern sensibilities.

  51. clause,

    1. I am happy to stand by the a priori principle of “love your neighbour as yourself.” I would rather be wrong on that than wrong on the a priori principle of “if the prophets are reported to have done terrible things, they must have been God’s will.” We all have our hermeneutical starting points and they are no doubt always limited by human understanding, it’s just that one seems more likely to cause human suffering than the other. That’s where I will place my bets. If I am wrong, I hope God will have mercy on me.

    2. Christ’s limited acts of aggression in the New Testament are worlds away from the terror texts of the Old.

    3. The claims of Boko Haram and Numbers 31 are identical. Western education[of girls]/the Midianites are haram and must be violently opposed. Why? Because God ordered it. That logic is only reductionist insofar as it refuses to privilege one claim to God’s will over another. I cannot escape my Kantian principles here. I simply do not wish for the following maxim to become a universal law: “If you believe God wants you to commit genocide and enslave others, you can do it.”

    4. You clearly have not really read my post. The point was not that *I* refuse to accept two versions of Christ in the canon, it’s that Christ Himself commands us to reject the earlier version. All of the cases you cite are thus morally and perhaps historically dubious. And that is quite apart from the Hebrew Bible’s own later distancing from the terror texts. The Sunday School manual refuses to engage with them — I am doing so here, not based on some liberal heresy, but on the Bible’s own evolution. This is not to “shy away” from the story in any way.

    5. “We have an obligation to protect our brothers and sisters, even if that means wiping out their oppressors.” Wow. This is talk that, in an Islamist content, would find you being monitored by MI5 in my country: “We have an obligation to protect our [Muslim] brothers and sisters, even if that means wiping out their oppressors [through violent jihad].” That’s pure jihadi website talk. Perhaps you will say that it is different when uttered by an adherent of the true religion, but that would be a philosophically bankrupt thing to say.

    6. One can protect the innocent and promote justice without wiping anyone out. I honestly don’t understand why a person would expend their intellectual energy defending the terror texts. Maybe you are right, and the Midian episode, as reported, was the will of a just God. But maybe you are wrong — certainly there is enough evidence to cast reasonable doubt. Why then choose to be a terror text apologist, given the enormity of the suffering described and the modern moral implications of it all? I cannot fathom it. Actually, I can. From Mormons it likely flows from a desire to hold prophets as unimpeachable. That is idolatry.

  52. JJL,
    There is certainly a theology of God’s terror going on in the Hebrew Bible that may or may not reflect the truth. But let’s say it does (the Flood, the plagues, etc.) — then we leave to God what is God’s. Certainly man cannot judge God. There is reason to doubt the Flood or the plagues as historical events, but even if true, death is *God’s* domain so I guess we leave him to it (while, like Abraham before Sodom, begging him to be merciful).

    The reason to reject the terror texts, however, is that they promote *man’s inhumanity to man*. One does not reject them because of an Amnesty International sensibility (admirable though it is), but because they go against the whole tenor of the Gospel. To kill, maim, rob, and enslave another human is to commit a brutality that ruins the lives of the brutalised and poisons the souls of the brutalisers. This is not the way to eternal life, nor to the “joy” which is God’s desire for us in the here and now. And the good news is that the later prophets and Jesus understood this and abolished the moral import of the terror texts once and for all. Terrorists disagree, of course, but they’re wrong.

  53. I am going out for the evening and won’t be able to add much more to what I hope I have already made clear.

    But please, if you find that your argument could be used by Boko Haram to support whatever actions are necessary (including terrorism and abduction) to create an Islamic caliphate in west Africa, then think long and hard before you continue to engage in terror apologetics.

    That is all.

  54. Wonderful comment, Ronan, at 10:39 am — thank you for that.

  55. I’m in the SS presidency of my ward, and we decided to just skip this lesson and to instead have a full lesson on Esther (it’s combined with Daniel in the curriculum).

  56. The principle that says “whatever God commands is right” is really neat, isn’t it?

  57. If the story of the anti-Nephi-Lehis teaches us anything, I think it is the danger of assuming our perception of wickedness (no matter how obvious or ingrained) is a justifiable reason to annihilate an entire people. As Ronan said, there is enough in our scriptures to take us either way – so I choose to err on the side of charity and misapplication of blame / credit to God.

    In the end, I think we blame / give credit to God for a whole lot of things our natural (wo)men feel we should or need to do – without stopping to think deeply about the implications of that natural orientation. I think the examples in this post are a great example of the need to put aside the natural (wo)man and become new creatures in Christ.

  58. To the argument that the OT reflects a “more violent time”: the reason our time is less violent is partly because of the teachings of Christ and others who espouse peace. There were those in earlier times who did the same, they just didn’t write the histories of victorious (in this instance) bellicose nations like ancient Israel. Just think of what the Post-911 USA could look like if someone were to write a fable (remember the talking animal that tells us what kind of text this is) about us a few hundred years from now.

  59. There is really not much evidence to support the claim that the OT was a more violent time. There’s plenty of violence now.

  60. Plenty of evidence – check out Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

  61. clause says:


    I’ve given your argument some thought and so I want to extend an olive branch. I think its a valid criticism to point out how this story can be taken advantage of by malicious people and I not only understand but support efforts to find other ways of thinking to prevent that.

    The thing is I’m not Kantian. I’m a consequentialist. That means even if there is a rule that works 99.9% of the time, I still feel obligated to find an addendum that covers that .1%.

    Thus my stance on this issue is not based in an interest to preserve biblical inerrancy(that’s an a priori assumption after all). What I’m concerned with is the problem posed by someone like the Nazis. I think people so objectively evil create for us a moral obligation to defeat them. We can’t be so reductionist so as to not recognize that the Allies fought for entirely different reasons than the Nazis, even if they used similar tactics. I think defending freedom and civilization justify actions that are otherwise problematic.

    This is moderated by the idea of proportionality ( watch the fog of war for this idea). We have to be careful not to be Curtis LeMay. However, I am not going to risk Nazis or similar people doing harm to others by not at least considering every possible means to prevent it.

  62. Villate says:

    I don’t know whether it was more violent, but it was certainly less thoughtful about the violence. We are violent creatures and the US is a violent society among many other violent societies, but we are also aware of it and often beat our breasts over it. I imagine there was a lot less of that back in the day. I suppose it’s a mark of a maturing civilization to analyze itself, and perhaps it is in part due to the introspection that Christianity and later the Enlightenment encouraged.

  63. Clause,
    I live in Southern Germany at present, in a place that was hit very hard by the events of the two World Wars. A few weeks ago, I visited a church whose walls were covered with hundreds of plaques, each feature a photo or name of a young man from the area who died in the war. That many of them were wearing Nazi uniforms did not lighten the mood or give me a sense of victory, just of lives destroyed by blood and fire. I’m not saying this to excuse the Nazis (what the regime did was inexcusable), but some of those boys had mothers and families who pooled funds during a period of great hardship to get a little plaque nailed to the wall of a small church in the hopes that their lost child would not be forgotten. The Nazis, in the end, were just people, just like us.

  64. The older I get, the more the phrase of one of my bishops keeps repeating in my mind. He stated something to the effect, “I think we are here to have a mortal experience and all ascribed to God is not necessarily from Him.” Perhaps one of the greatest mortal understandings we should leave this sphere of action with is that we (speaking of mankind) really make a mess of things when we do not stand firmly on the first and second greatest commandments (Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself) while understanding that all the other commandments are given as a support system for the first two and are vital to the application of the first two. It may be we are to have the cup of misery filled to the brim in order for us to learn the only sensible form of co-existent living is to follow the teachings of Christ in the New Testament and in order for us to fully understand what consequences follow any other set of trumped up standards.

    C.S. Lewis penned it well when he stated, “Experience is a brutal teacher, but we learn, my God, we learn.” We were handed this world to see what we would do with it and here we are. We can see–up close and personal–the results of our own willfulness. This desire to enslave in one form or another cannot help but be abhorrent to God–considering He allowed a third of his children to have their choice and be cast out of His presence in order to ensure right of choice and agency for the next phase of our existence. War, gore, bloodshed, destruction are consequences of our continued inhumanity to man. Whether Moses accurately pegged what God wanted done in the case of the Midianites is not necessarily our debate. The fact Moses ministered to Christ at the Mount of Transfiguration suggests he got something right.

    When even Christ himself was turn upon and His blood sought over the envying of the followership He had acquired through His genuine love, teachings and healings, what does it take to curb these insatiable desires for control over another for personal gain such as demonstrated by such horrors as Boko Haram?

  65. clause,
    I’ll take the olive branch. I’m not a pacifist because I think loving one’s neighbour as oneself might also require you to forcefully protect them. That’s not what the Midianite episode is about, though, but it is precisely in using such stories in a kind of “just war” calculation that leads you to a Curtis LeMay, as you put it. Just war =/= terror texts.

  66. DCL says: In other words, if we went back 20 years or so, would we find more sympathy for Ronan’s thoughts in the church than we do today?

    I think there’s some truth to this. We as a people may be especially vulnerable to the kind of groupthink that allows us to “otherize” groups of people without regard for their individuality, despite our oft-stated belief in the worth of the individual child of God, the importance of individual repentance, and the eternal potential of the individual human soul. Thus we (Saints and Gentiles alike) can talk about “Boko Haram” and “Nazis” as if those groups were not made up of individual human beings, but were amorphous masses of same-thinking hive units.

    Thus, to avenge the deaths of 3,000 Americans on 9/11, we can light-heartedly kill upwards of 250,000 Iraqis and Afghanis who were completely unconnected with those attacks and think that we do God a service.

    So – every single Midianite had deserted the proper worship of the God of Israel and fallen into idolatry, or in some other way earned the death penalty? (Except the virgins, of course, who could bear children to Israelites and thus serve a redeeming purpose?) Or Israel was just commanded to “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” to quote a once-popular T-shirt?

    I don’t know if those passages (aptly, I think, called the “terror passages” in the comments above) are the result of mistranslation, or of some later Israelite’s post-facto attempt to rationalize their actions by attributing them to God, or some other cause. But I think there’s at least one comment by a latter-day prophet that we’d do well to read again, and I’d like to see the kind of moral courage in a modern General Conference that J. Reuben Clark showed in October 1946:

    Then as the crowning savagery of the war, we Americans wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilian population with the atom bomb in Japan, few if any of the ordinary civilians being any more responsible for the war than were we, and perhaps most of them no more aiding Japan in the war than we were aiding America. Military men are now saying that the atom bomb was a mistake. It was more than that: it was a world tragedy. Thus we have lost all that we gained during the years from Grotius (1625) to 1912. And the worst of this atomic bomb tragedy is not that not only did the people of the United States not rise up in protest against this savagery, not only did it not shock us to read of this wholesale destruction of men, women, and children, and cripples, but that it actually drew from the nation at large a general approval of this fiendish butchery.
    [ . . . ]

    Thus we in America are now deliberately searching out and developing the most savage, murderous means of exterminating peoples that Satan can plant in our minds. We do it not only shamelessly, but with a boast. God will not forgive us for this.

    Some balance in our lessons would be welcome. I recall an Institute teacher telling me once that they were counseled to cover as much of the actual text of the passages we were studying as possible. I realize that would be difficult with only a year to cover the entire Old Testament. However, we do ourselves and our children a great disservice (not to mention the people we end up slaughtering in the name of God) when we gloss over the tough parts and rationalize the violence as “lessons in obedience.”

  67. Ryan Mullen says:

    Really thought provoking post, RJH. I have read it through twice now. I particularly like how you don’t privilege the justification “Gold told me to” simply because this text has Moses name attached. Two questions for you:

    (1) What’s your take on Nephi beheading Laban? Granted there is a large difference between killing one person and commanding genocide and slavery, but there’s still the common core of justifying a criminal act by revelation.

    (2) What allowances do you make for historical context? Previous to reading this post, I would have made allowances for Moses recorded behavior because this text was produced in a time before tribal, racial or gender equality were discovered/invented. I guess I am asking if you condemn Moses/the-scribal-author-of-Numbers personally or just don’t want humankind post-Jonah, Amos and Christ to emulate this behavior.

  68. Iconoclast, that’s a great comment. I am no anti-American pâté-spreader but I think it’s telling that the one use of the atomic bomb against civilians in the world has really not caused much soul-searching in the nation that dropped it. I have an inkling that that is partly to do with the way Americans think about God. And to point the finger at my own nation too, the near-genocide of Native Americans, a crime which began with the Anglo-European settlement of America and continued after the Revolution, seems to weigh pretty lightly on our consciences (to say nothing of African slavery). Again, notions of God-sanctioned ethnic cleansing seem to be a contributing factor here. Someone will no doubt mention the Columbus verses of the Book of Mormon but will, of course, prove my point by so doing.

  69. Good questions, Ryan. I’m not shirking them but give me some time to formulate a decent answer.

  70. Jötunn says:

    What kind of sick tortured logic equates Old Testament prophets with Nigerian terrorists? Deconstrution of the story in 1 Samuel 15 would be more instructive. If you enjoy horrificating about bloody stories in the OT, nothing tops this one, which climaxes with “…And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord”.

    I find no blame in Church Sunday School lesson outlines which seek to derive the positive messages from the scriptures. For those interested in a different focus, there is nothing I know from the Church that discourages independant study.

  71. Steve Smith says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post RJH. It is posts like these that will have an impact on the LDS church and help it change for the better. I am not like you in that I have little patience for the Old Testament. I think that it is a fascinating book, no doubt, but I strongly believe that is a book that is mostly myth, lore, delusion, and a narrative of hate and xenophobia, and that we have no business in trying to derive any moral lessons whatsoever from the stories. If it were up to me, I would push for the LDS church to eliminate the OT from the standard works and stop teaching it altogether in Sunday School. The idea that the Jews were God’s chosen people is diametrically opposed to the much more enlightened idea that God is no respecter of persons.

  72. NO!! The Elisha story is what I use to keep my kids from making fun of my receding hairline. We simply can’t let go of that one.

  73. Steve, I understand that sentiment, but it’s also one that discounts the Jewish experience with the Bible. If one wants to know how to read the Hebrew Bible without doing terror apologetics, conservative and Reform Judaism are good places to start. Rabbi Sacks points out that Dawkins’s distaste for the Old Testament is very Christian.

  74. Jason K. says:

    Steve, those two ideas are only diametrically opposed if you read Galatians as Paul’s central epistle. Romans, while taking an approach that is fraught in all kinds of ways, is pretty strongly bent on reconciling them. See chapters 9-11. I join Ronan in resisting the Marcionite impulse. I think it’s an unfair reading of the OT. Both of Jesus’ great commandments come from the Torah, for instance.

  75. Ryan, fwiw, a very good case could be and has been made that Nephi’s killing of Laban was not as “criminal” as we would see it today – which goes to your question about historical context. Personally, I hesitate to condemn people of the past based on current moral views, even as I have no problem judging and condemning what those people did, especially in the context of addressing justifications for doing the same or similar things now.

    We can reject past actions (e.g., the Priesthood ban) without “throwing the actors under the bus” (e.g., Brigham Young), largely because we can make allowances for historical context – but that is another distinction we fail to make when we teach practical infallibility. Our expectations create caricatures that aren’t fair to the people being put on a pedestal (or to us and others in our time), and those false expectations cause all kinds of stupidity as we glorify OR condemn people from our modern place of privilege.

  76. In other words, I’m fine leaving the judgment of people to God and focusing on judging actions as objectively as is possible. With that focus, I can’t see any way to see the story that is central to this post as anything but abhorrent and wrong. Thus, I only can conclude that the attribution of it to a command from God is wrong. The people who did or and/or wrote about it might have believed it was a command from God, but I can reject that conclusion without throwing out the entire story itself.

    I would rather learn from history than ignore it.

  77. OK, Ryan, here goes, and only briefly.

    1. I’m not sure Nephi is a reliable narrator. As Grant Hardy states, “it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that something is being suppressed here.” I think he felt terrible guilt and wants his reader to know how much he didn’t want to do it. I’m not sure we can make some normative moral point out of this. Plus, as you say, Laban =/= Midianites.

    2. Both! But I’m in good company. It’s the Mormon in me. Some things are wrong, no matter what.

  78. Angela C says:

    “I admit being unsettled as to how we treat these OT stories.” I couldn’t agree more. The stories themselves are far less unsettling than the narrative that crops up around them to “liken them unto ourselves.” I’m reminded of a sister missionary’s blog post in which she gleefully describes their efforts to increase commitment from potential converts by using the Laban story. She explains that they asked converts “Are you just slitting the throat or cutting off the head?” as a way to demonstrate their commitment to the gospel. She did take down the blog post (and hopefully changed her psychotic-sounding teaching method). That’s the natural outcome of these approaches. Members start to think it’s perfectly normal and justifiable to murder if God tells you, or in lieu of that if someone in authority says God wants you to do it.

  79. Yes, the danger is that we cede our inner moral compass to an outside source and then morality becomes a backwards issue for us: something is moral based on the authority we recognize in the figure doing or advocating for it, rather than based on its own intrinsic merit or lack thereof.

    But this is the essence of moral relativism, is it not? We should and must avoid such moral relativism if we are to remain true to the Light of Christ within each of us.

  80. Ryan Mullen says:

    RJH- thanks for the response and again for the post. You can’t lose with me when you quote Grant Hardy.

    Ray- I’m aware of the argument that Laban’s crimes were punishable by death under Mosaic law. I am not aware of any argument that justifies Nephi as the judge and executioner, hence I still classify it as a criminal act. I appreciate your views on judging historical figures by current standards.

    One last note: I read a commentary this morning suggesting that this story was included as an aspersion on followers of the Mushite (we’d say Mosaic) priesthood by the followers of the Aaronid (we’d say Aaronic) priesthood. If so, not even the author of Numbers 31 supports Moses’s depicted behavior.

  81. Ryan, Ray is referring to analysis that posits the slaying of Laban as a manslaughter rather than premeditated murder and, accordingly, the punishment as exile to a designated city of refuge (pretrial) or city of asylum, if the act was found at trial not to be premeditated (see, e.g., Numbers 35:12) or, in Nephi’s case, self-imposed permanent exile from the community, which had the same effect of avoiding inviting blood taint into the land. See this, for example: https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/JBMRS/article/viewFile/19665/18232

  82. Steve Smith says:

    “Steve, those two ideas are only diametrically opposed if you read Galatians as Paul’s central epistle.”

    The ideas are irreconcilable. It is a contradiction to believe that God regards all humans to be equal and that he has a chosen people at the same time. Unless, of course, you believe God to have changed (but the prevailing belief among LDS people is that the proposition that God is unchanging is doctrinal, so perhaps therein lies the contradiction). At any rate, inasmuch as we believe Paul to accept the idea of an unchanging God, he contradicts himself in his epistle to the Romans.

    Compares Romans 10:12 where it says, “for there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him,” with Romans 11:1 where he asks, “I say then, hath God cast away his people?” meaning the Jews. If there is no difference between the Jews and the Greeks before God, how can the Jews be God’s people? He is still suggesting that there is in essence a difference, one is God’s chosen people while the other is not. Of course, the explanation among many LDS people is that before Jesus, God chose the Jews, but then after Jesus, anyone could become God’s people by accepting Jesus as God, or God’s son, or God and God’s son at the same time, and of course it had to be via the LDS church. But like I say, this belief of the Jews being God’s chosen people suggests that God is a changing, somewhat inscrutable being. I prefer the explanation that God has always regarded humans as equals and that the early Hebrew community was under a self-aggrandizing delusion (often for social and political purposes), much like the ancient Egyptian and ancient Persian kings and all their subjects and courtiers (probably mostly the latter) who promoted the idea that they were divine.

  83. Jason K. says:

    Steve: I agree that Paul’s attempted resolution in those chapters is highly problematic. He is certainly trying to have it both ways, and one could argue that in the process he evacuates “chosen people” of any real meaning. That said, I can hardly think of a more charged rhetorical situation than the one he’s trying to navigate there. His arguments depend on appropriating Hebrew Scripture in highly suspect ways as he attempts to show that his new way was ever thus. You may find, and even be right in finding, that Paul contradicts his premise of an unchanging God, but we should at least acknowledge how hard he was trying to hold onto that very premise.

  84. it's a series of tubes says:

    It is a contradiction to believe that God regards all humans to be equal and that he has a chosen people at the same time

    If the narrative of Abraham 3:22-23 is to be believed, God did indeed make preferential selections.

  85. Yes, we should all remember that Paul was also human, trying to unravel and make sense of Hebrew Scripture in light of the universal Christian message.

  86. Steve Smith, fwiw, this is how I approached the idea of an Atonement that has universal scope and the concept of a Chosen People in the Sunday School lesson I taught last Sunday:

    “Sunday School Lesson Recap: Chosen People and the Atonement” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2014/05/sunday-school-lesson-recap-chosen.html)

  87. This is a great post. I was preparing to teach my gospel doctrine class tomorrow and had a big knot in my gut because I plan to hold a discussion about which biblical narratives we accept and which we reject. The point I was hoping to get across to the class is that we believe the bible to be the word of God as long as it is translated correctly. Translation is much more than word for word migration of text from one language to another. It also involves understanding culture, context, history, and most importantly what the text itself is. The story of Joshua crossing Jordan and destroying every living creature in Jericho is a horrific history of genocide if you take it literally, and calls into question the nature of God. But if you understand this story was probably written by some tribesman as an etiology to explain the presence of the ruins at Jericho and some large stones in the river Jordan, while simultaneously intimidating neighboring tribes who might hear the etiology, then it becomes much more palatable. You don’t have to ascribe any crimes against humanity to the God of love, and you don’t have to reevaluate your membership in the church out of moral indignation. The story never actually happened. Just accept the text as a Myth of Origin holding no more scriptural authenticity than the Epic of Gilgamesh, and move on.
    The problem is that people get uncomfortable when you bring up the possibility of ‘rejecting scripture,’ because they see it as a slippery slope. It’s a tough sell – hence the knot in my gut.

  88. RJH

    I think the whole of the BoM makes a lot more sense if you take Nephi to be a unreliable narrator. In my mind, he is exhibit #1 in how assuming infallibility in prophets leads to requiring mental gymnastics that end up justifying truly horrible things. It is hard to come up with a prophet in scripture that we uncritically put on a pedestal more than Nephi largely because everyone knows him because he starts the book and because he can be cast as the super obedient child. A more critical examination of Nephi lets us do things like question whether his pronouncement about curses and skin color were in fact real or directed from God (Jacob seems to try and quash that almost immediately after Nephi dies). I have determined that while I can respect Nephi in some ways I probably would have highly disliked the guy. He comes across as really self-righteous and kind of a twit. At least we get the psalm of Nephi, which in some way redeems him in my eyes. I would especially be more favorable if I thought he left the record full of his self-righteousness and Laban-killing as part of his penance for the indiscretions and the haughtiness of youth.

  89. Steve Smith says:

    it’s a series of tubes,

    My point wasn’t that there is no scriptural account in the LDS standard works about chosenness. There most certainly is. My point was that the accounts in the standard works about the nature of God contradict each other. If you believe the account in Abraham 3:22-23, then you must believe that God either is currently or used to be a respecter of persons. If you believe the latter–that God used to be a respecter of persons but no longer is–then do you believe God to be a changing, mutable being? If so, wouldn’t that contradict passages in LDS cannon where it says that God is unchanging? Do you believe the passages in Acts 10, where Peter concludes that God is no respecter of persons, or Romans 10, where Paul says that Jews and Greeks are equal before God?

    There is logical inconsistency in LDS doctrine, and this is problematic. The LDS correlation department is trying to push two competing and contradicting narratives about the nature of God. 1) The vindictive favoritist God of the ancient Hebrews who makes them a chosen people, commands them to not intermix with outsiders, orders them to massacre foreign groups who have a negative influence on their culture and religion, and orders them to inflict harsh punishment on members of their own community for minor infractions (i.e. picking up sticks on the Sabbath). 2) The benevolent God of the New Testament who invites all regardless of ethnic and racial background to come to him through Jesus, mandates pacifism, and sees all as equals. If we are to hold onto the idea that God is unchanging, we can’t have it both ways. We must reject one concept of God or the other. The OP seems to be in favor of rejecting the God of the OT in some places, but then tries to undertake some reconciliation. My position is that reconciliation is impossible. We must completely reject the concept of God put forth in the OT.

  90. We must completely reject the concept of God put forth in [some of] the OT.

  91. Jason K. says:

    The OP attempts its reconciliation by showing that identifying the God of the Hebrew Scriptures solely with the terror texts is problematic. Not only do both of Jesus’ “Great Commandments” about love come from the Torah, but, as Ronan observes, the Jonah narrative supports the notion of a loving God who is no respecter of persons. Jonah pouts in the end because God’s saving the people of Nineveh offends his sense of chosenness, and God chastens him for that. A stunning example in the Hebrew Scriptures of such an attempted reconciliation is Isaiah 53, read (in keeping with other examples from this part of Isaiah) with the understanding that the servant is Israel. Here, Israel becomes the means of saving the very Gentile nations that inflicted harm on it: chosenness in the service of universalism. I’m personally not very keen on holding onto the God of the terror texts, but I’d feel a profound loss if we were to reject the God of the Hebrew Scriptures altogether. There is much of good report and praiseworthy in the Hebrew Scriptures. Would you honestly like to drop “The Lord is my shepherd”?

  92. RJH –

    I don’t disagree that what you point out is indeed problematic. But you’ve just set yourself up as the interpreter of the scriptures for the entire church (world?) by rejecting the premise of the lessons the modern day prophets have endorsed.

    If there was anyone reading the lesson coming to the conclusions you fear, you might have a point, but I have to say the dogmatic, fundamentalist zeal with which you approach this issue is what’s most surprising.

    The lazy logic with which you connect modern day slave atrocities with LDS biblical lessons approaches “conservative Christians = Taliban” arguments that is still popular in some intellectual wastelands.

    That being said, I whole heartily agree with your approach that we ought to adopt the moral framework of the Savior on these issues. But let’s remember, the Savior did not even come **close** to denouncing the words of the OT prophets like you have (while laying the foundation for others or yourself to denounce the modern ones too). What you’re doing, whether you realize it or not, is not building on the foundation, as the Savior did, but seeking to remove several stones from underneath while supposing you can added more layers to the top without affecting the integrity of the building.

    Let’s suppose an alternate reality where these terror texts, as you refer to them, did not exist. Do you suppose the problem of evil men calling their works good would go away? I would hope you don’t believe that. But now consider a world where we reject various parts of scripture because we judge them from a distance to be uninspired for various reasons. Will the problem of evil men calling their works good go away? No, and you’d further weakened a significant part of God’s plan by actively encouraging people to second guess the Lord servants.

    This isn’t a listen and obey screed, as there is nuance in these issues that is rarely appreciate by the modern fundamentalists who like to beat church members over the head with “the thinking is done” quotes, which are clearly misunderstood or judged with a lessor light.

    But clearly you recognize the potential peril of telling someone the iron rod they clung to in the past was actually a tangled web build by scheming men. If that’s the case, the conclusion is to not trust the rod leading the way in the future.

    The fact is, we must all rely on the spirit, and personal revelation. But as I said earlier, not even the Savior rejected the teachings so thoroughly as you do. His patter was to add to and change the direction, while not destroying the foundation. I believe the lesson manual attempts to do that. I do not believe that’s what you’re doing, even though you get so much of your suggestions right (charity, love thy neighbor) because you are holding on to a fundamentalist rejectionist philosophy.

  93. Steve Smith, you might enjoy reading CS Lewis’s Reflection on the Psalms.

  94. DQ, the lesson destroys any level of basic reading comprehension of the OT. That may not be a foundation people care about, but there it is. How sure a foundation can our lesson manuals provide when they completely sidestep the text?

  95. Ronan, your comment at 8.55 (and the original which it seeks to caveat) sits very comfortably with anyone who abhors violence, inequality etc, but my point is that the issue of a seemingly contradictory God is not just limited to bits of the Old Testament as many of those posting here have noted, but appear with some regularity in other texts, with which we generally have no problem. There is example after example of commands given and actions taken which do not sit well with a Gospel of Peace and a God of Unconditional, Paternal Love. We can chose to disregard some of these abhorrent accounts and discount their authenticity; we can say that I chose to err on the side of peace (who wouldn’t) but that only gets you so far. I fear that we are trying to fashion God in our likeness in stating what he is or is not prepared to condone/commit, in exactly the same way as many now try to fashion ‘His’ rules on sexual morality based on popular, modern views. God can be and often is critical of societal norms; He can be angry and punish; He can chastise publicly; and, He can and has ordered or directed others to act in what we might consider brutal ways. In other words, He does things that we would be most unlikely to consider appropriate. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not agree with what is happening in Nigeria, and it fills me with rage, particularly when I think about it from a parent’s perspective, but we cannot safely use our sense of abhorrence to re-write all scriptural records to suit modern, liberal sensibilities. God is God and we are mere grains of sand, intellectually, morally and socially next to him, no matter how enlightened we think we are. That we should only want peace and love is no doubt approved by Him; as is our wish that scriptural accounts were different and pacifism and peace always ruled. It just doesn’t always appear to be so.

  96. it's a series of tubes says:

    If you believe the account in Abraham 3:22-23, then you must believe that God either is currently or used to be a respecter of persons.

    Wrong. I must believe no such thing. Rather, that account sits comfortably within a cosmology where equality of opportunity is available to all; agency-endowed actors thereafter give rise to outcomes based on their own choices.

  97. fence-sitters in the war in heaven?

  98. I REALLY like this post and the thoughts behind it. As someone who used to use “active Mormon” as the litmus test for good person I have been trying to deconstruct these thoughts and beliefs. This post helps me think about things much more clearly. John F’s comment on May 7 at 12:45 pm is spot on. I have done this, I have been taught to do this, and it is a bumpy road trying to correct it.
    So, to follow up on Ryan’s question about Laban and Nephi…I am not sure, RJH, what the implication is of Nephi being an unreliable narrator? In the context of whether or not Nephi was constrained by the Spirit, e.g. God commanded/inspired Nephi to kill Laban, could you expound on your thoughts more?
    My other question – in terms of Boko Haram. I wonder about the best way to think about them. The suffering they have inflicted makes me so angry. My first thought is to wish destruction on them. ( I am particularly sensitive to systematic raping of women as a way to oppress them.) But I don’t believe that is the correct course of action: Love your enemies as yourself. In the context of your post how would you propose to think about the evil behind the kidnappers?

  99. Ryan Mullen says:

    Amanda- Here’s what I took from the “unreliable narrator” comment: We don’t know why Nephi killed Laban. His claim to revelation came after several decades of introspection. Terryl & Fiona Givens point out that we humans constantly reevaluate our experiences to make sense of them. Nephi was not necessarily as calm and rational during the beheading as he later depicts. Also, his portrayal of events is carefully crafted to create a foundational narrative for the Nephite tribe. Nephi imbued the sword of Laban, after all, as a symbol of Nephite monarchy. So Nephi had motive to put the best possible spin on the encounter. As I recall, Hardy suggests Nephi skillfully mentions his mother Sariah to deflect our attention from Lehi’s lack of reaction about the event.

  100. Peter LLC says:

    “He can and has ordered or directed others to act in what we might consider brutal ways.”

    Let us not be too hasty to ascribe to God what “mere grains of sand, intellectually, morally and socially” may have done in the past.

  101. Steve Smith says:

    “Wrong. I must believe no such thing. Rather, that account sits comfortably within a cosmology where equality of opportunity is available to all; agency-endowed actors thereafter give rise to outcomes based on their own choices.”

    But there is no equality of opportunity made available to all. You can’t decide where you are born and who raises you. Unless of course, you believe that God made equal opportunity for all in the preexistence and that the circumstances that people are born into are actually a product of their choosing. So then, are children to be held accountable for their poverty and wealth, and whether or not they are born into a privileged race and ethnicity? Is privilege something that people acquired in the preexistence because of choices they made there? Did Midianite women and children deserve to die then because of choices they made in the pre-earth life? Was Samuel morally right in ordering Saul to kill all of the Amalekites, even the women and children, because they had sinned in the preexistence?

    So now if you believe in a God who gave equal choice to all in the preexistence, then you must believe children to be accountable for the circumstances that they are born into. But then, do you believe in the age of accountability being eight years old?

    Your problem is that you seem to think that nearly all, if not all, scriptures in the LDS standard works have some sort of divine aspect about them, that they can all be mutually harmonized, that there is no contradiction within them, and that we must reconcile everything that we think about God and nature with them. You need to acknowledge the plain and simple fact that the LDS standard works scriptures are fraught with glaring contradictions and that some of them are just plain wrong. If we are to pick which ones are wrong, I would say let’s go with the genocidal scriptures and much of the OT.

  102. Steve Smith says:

    “He can chastise publicly; and, He can and has ordered or directed others to act in what we might consider brutal ways. In other words, He does things that we would be most unlikely to consider appropriate. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not agree with what is happening in Nigeria, and it fills me with rage”

    OK, you are outraged about the abducted girls in Nigeria, but what about the atrocities of the past? You think that Moses was really obeying God by ordering his people to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him,” but to keep alive the virgin girls for themselves (Numbers 31:17-18)? You’re saying that there was a time and place when that was a righteous, godly choice?

  103. it's a series of tubes says:

    Your problem is that you seem to think that nearly all, if not all, scriptures in the LDS standard works have some sort of divine aspect about them, that they can all be mutually harmonized, that there is no contradiction within them, and that we must reconcile everything that we think about God and nature with them.

    My, oh, my. Thank you for the laugh. I never said, and don’t think, anything of the sort. Check your strawman at the door.

    But there is no equality of opportunity made available to all. You can’t decide where you are born and who raises you.

    Here is where our beliefs appear to diverge. I believe that there is equality of opportunity made available to all, provided the entire scope of the plan of salvation is considered and not merely the limited time in mortality. Gotta know the end from the beginning and all that.

    Let me state this another way: I believe that each child of God has the same opportunity to progress from preexistence to a celestial inheritance, thanks to the Atonement of Christ. And there is no way that child born into a white middle class American Mormon household will be judged by the same standards as a child born into any other, either more or less fortunate, situation. I believe God is a perfect judge and has perfect love for each of his children and will give to each of them every good thing they are willing to receive, even though (to my limited understanding) aspects of his plan seem, from time to time, harsh, brutal, unfair, and inscrutable.

    You may believe otherwise. That’s fine by me.

  104. “OK, you are outraged about the abducted girls in Nigeria, but what about the atrocities of the past? You think that Moses was really obeying God by ordering his people to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him,” but to keep alive the virgin girls for themselves (Numbers 31:17-18)? You’re saying that there was a time and place when that was a righteous, godly choice?”

    Steve Smith, I think your caricature of what I’m saying is plainly unfair. I never said that many of the accounts in parts of the OT are anything other than abhorrent in my eyes. But what I am not prepared to do however, is recast everything I disagree with to fit my views. You, like I, have no idea of what is accurate in those accounts, although we can all agree that there are seeming inconsistencies. However, the Book of Mormon is in a different category. It was translated by JS by inspiration from God (if you share that belief). If that is correct, then God surely did not allow JS to translate the Nephi account of killing Laban in a way which put it dishonestly (or factually inaccurately) at the feet of the Holy Ghost? if that is correct, then the spirit commanded Nephi to (in modern parlance) murder the defenceless Laban- an act most inconsistent with a loving, benevolent, pacifist God, and modern views of morality. The New Testament itself is replete with examples of love and compassion alongside other, less appealing sides of God’s character.

    “Let me state this another way: I believe that each child of God has the same opportunity to progress from preexistence to a celestial inheritance, thanks to the Atonement of Christ. And there is no way that child born into a white middle class American Mormon household will be judged by the same standards as a child born into any other, either more or less fortunate, situation. I believe God is a perfect judge and has perfect love for each of his children and will give to each of them every good thing they are willing to receive, even though (to my limited understanding) aspects of his plan seem, from time to time, harsh, brutal, unfair, and inscrutable.”

    I couldn’t agree more. The problem with much of the commentary on this issue and other issues is that, whilst we say we believe that this life truly is not all – indeed a mere second in our existence, we act argue these and other issues as if this life is the sum of our existence. There are countless events which would be tragedies, if this life is all. If it is not, then surely all tragedies in this life pale into eternal insignificance? Divorce, abuse, brutality, gender identity issues, all are of eternal insignificance, even if they are torments to us now.

    Ryan Mullen, if Hardy says how Nephi’s account came to be written, then it must be accurate. You’re trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, and it won’t work.

  105. Peter LLC, I simply accept that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. I do not have to ascribe acts to God. The scriptures, in respect of which God provided an inspired translation, do that, clearly, unequivocally. I might not like what they say at times, it may offend my political, moral or social views, but I am not free to reject them and maintain that they came by inspiration.

  106. Being translated by inspiration from God does not mean infallibility of the stories. It only means accuracy of what was written by the authors – meaning it still is subject to the interpretations, biases, prejudices, views, cultures, blind spots, etc. of those authors.

    “If there be mistakes, they are the mistakes of men” is a powerful concept – and it puts no limitations whatsoever on the nature, number or importance of those mistakes.

    Thus, Nephi (or any other contributor) could have been totally sincere in his description of the events of his life, Joseph could have translated those events exactly as Nephi wrote them and any one or more of them could be inaccurate in some way, trivial or vital. We, the readers, are asked to remember God’s mercy as we ponder and pray, and I believe part of that process is accepting that mercy as it applies to the writers themselves – doing the best they could in their imperfection, making mistakes along the way, but redeemed for their effort, nonetheless.

    As a social scientist by nature and training, I am fascinated by Nephi’s account – but I view it, in totality, very differently than that of a near perfect paragon of infallibility reporting objectively on the events of his life. Interestingly, I believe that allows me to “liken it unto myself” far more comprehensively than if I took it only at face value and saw it as objective history.

  107. This website, at times, makes me want to vomit, and at other times weep. Mainly because the trend is to place human reasoning above God’s. Your own interpretations seem to hold higher place in your minds and hearts than the Lord’s. Pres. Benson defined this modern construct when he said:

    “The world largely ignores the first and great commandment–to love God–but talks a lot about loving their brother. They worship at the altar of man. Would Nephi have slain Laban if he put the love of neighbor above the love of God? Would Abraham have taken Isaac up for a sacrifice if he put the second commandment first?”

    As Creator, omniscient Judge, and loving Father, it is God’s prerogative both to give and to take life. He knows everything for which the Midianites were worthy of punishment; He knew the sins of the world before He sent the flood. In love, He took the Egyptians babes unto Himself during the Passover, blessing them while punishing their fathers. You all seem to subscribe to a Humanist belief that this life is all we have, so therefore God is evil, or the prophets are evil, for doing things that you arrogantly presume to label “terror.” I suggest, instead, that you remember God’s greatness, and your “nothingness” before Him. If you are humble, you will realize that your lack of understanding of the details does not mean that these things did not take place, but rather that you simply don’t have the whole picture. But, you see, God did. And does.

    I agree with JJL, above, in that we might not like what the scriptures say at times, but the truth of the scriptures does not rest on our opinion of – or agreement with – them.

  108. “You all seem to subscribe to a Humanist belief that this life is all we have, so therefore God is evil, or the prophets are evil,”

    Not one person here has said or even implied that, and, in fact, many have states exactly the opposite. I know my own belief is completely opposite of that.

  109. “This website, at times, makes me want to vomit, and at other times weep.”

    And you’re just a visitor! Imagine how the poor administrator of this establishment must feel.

    PS you’re a total dick.

  110. Steve Smith says:

    “He knows everything for which the Midianites were worthy of punishment”

    Wow, just, wow! Let me remind you of the account in Numbers 31:15-18: “And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” So you’re saying that there was a time in history when it was morally justifiable to kill young boys and young females who had lost their virginity, and then take virgins captive for their own sexual pleasure? Or do you concede, as JJL has done, that that is a myth and didn’t really happen? Because if you believe that that literally happened and that it was a moral decision on the part of Moses, then I have no qualms in pronouncing you a blind fanatical lunatic whose sense of morality, at least as it concerns historical events, is completely backwards.

    And then you go on to write this little doozy: “You all seem to subscribe to a Humanist belief that this life is all we have, so therefore God is evil, or the prophets are evil, for doing things that you arrogantly presume to label ‘terror.'”

    Killing innocent children is not an act of terror? What world do you live in? You need to learn how to think critically!

  111. Easy, Steve Smith. One domineering Steve per blog is ample.

  112. Peter LLC says:

    “I simply accept that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God. I do not have to ascribe acts to God. The scriptures, in respect of which God provided an inspired translation, do that, clearly, unequivocally.”

    JJL, I realize that your assertion “we are mere grains of sand” was used as a rhetorical device to dismiss the OP’s analysis of Old Testament scripture based on, inter alia, its historical context and Jesus’ approach to likening it to himself and others.

    Given your rhetorical aims, I’m sure you did not mean to implicate the prophets and scripture, yet you make no exceptions: “God is God and we are mere grains of sand […] no matter how enlightened we think we are.” Accordingly, there’s no escape from self-deception, particularly when it comes to the divine.

    If this is your position, then even appeals to modern scripture as evidence for the inerrancy of some Old Testament traditions ring hollow, for the Book of Mormon itself clearly and unequivocally states that the divine inspiration it attempts to record has been passed through the fallible filter of mortal experience several times.

    Before you protest that I am attacking the divinity of the Book of Mormon or your testimony thereof, let me assure you that I have limited myself to taking your assertions about the inability of humans to comprehend the divine to their logical conclusions as a means of saying the following: it won’t do to dismiss OP’s argument about the lessons of the Hebrew bible with an appeal to human shortcomings in grasping the mind and will of God on the one hand but then insist on the other that we must be ready to accept arguments that run counter not only to our “views” but also to deeply-held, even intuitive convictions about right and wrong simply because, well, someone else is reported to have said so.

  113. Peter LLC says:

    “the truth of the scriptures does not rest on our opinion of – or agreement with – them.”

    Indeed, D. Rolling Kearney, it does not.

  114. “Or do you concede, as JJL has done, that that is a myth and didn’t really happen?”

    I’m not sure Steve that I am saying that. What I hope is that it is a myth/inaccurate history of the origins for the abhorrent acts, but I do not know, and I do not think that anyone does. I am not prepared to rewrite accounts that do not sit well with me, even if I cannot conceive of circumstances in which I would do likewise, because lots of accounts whose authenticity and accuracy I cannot seriously and consistently doubt, support, even if at a lower level, the principal inherent in the more abhorrent; namely, that God does things that we would not dream of doing.

    Whether it’s in respect of gender sameness, homosexuality, or other issues, what this and many other similar blogs do is to ultimately weaken confidence in the scriptures and the prophets who are called to lead, under the guise of trying to find a more loving, compasionate approach to life. I am glad that the prophets are speaking out robustly and clearly against such attacks. Although I do not naturally warm to Elder Holland’s style of address, I thought this was right on the money:

    “Because I have spoken the word of God ye have judged me that I am mad” or, we might add, provincial, patriarchal, bigoted, unkind, narrow, outmoded, and elderly.”

    The things of God are foolishness to world. I fear that we read that passage, and then carry on trying to intellectualise everything to make God fit to our views. Twain says:

    “The rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or damaging fact approaches.”

    I consider that all too often, our ‘priceless possession’ is our wedding to secular rationality and aggrandisement of intellectuality, and that we are wedded to membership rather than faith, and appear lacking in courage to leave, and instead chose to weaken from the inside. A person I know, whose views would be consistent with most of the blogs and bloggers on this site, and indeed has been a consistent follower, said on Sunday that she could no longer read from here, because it never failed to weaken her faith.

  115. I would like to draw us back to my OP. I was very careful to restrict my thoughts to the so-called “terror texts” of the early Old Testament. I said *nothing* about God’s own acts of terror nor of some of the violence in the Book of Mormon. So, if I am going to be criticised, let it be on my specific rejection of the terror texts in which human beings commit God-sanctioned atrocities against other human beings on a massive scale. Nothing more. I admit to being disturbed that the rhetorical strategies of Boko Haram are identical, but I have laboured that point, perhaps. It was simply the trigger for the timing of the post.

    Furthermore, in the OP I made it clear several times that my hermeneutical starting point was not some modern liberalism (much as I appreciate the progress our civilisation has made in so many ways — for example, I just sat on a jury and marvel at the system of justice we have in the Anglosphere. I would prefer to have English law than ancient Near Eastern law). Rather, my starting point was in the fact that SCRIPTURE itself consciously undermines the terror texts. We have the later prophets, we have Jonah, we have Christ himself. And importantly for Mormons we have the Book of Mormon whose tales of death have very little in common with the terror texts — where in the Book of Mormon do the people of God engage in national-level genocide, forced marriage, and slavery? There is much war in self-defence and there is, of course, the Laban story, but these are very different in every important way to Numbers.

    Let me say that again:

    Not, modern liberals vs. scripture. Rather, scripture vs. scripture. Sure, it’s a human interpretation of the same, but as Peter LLC points out, that is unavoidable for all.

    Like all Mormons, I believe that in the meridian of time the great exemplar came to earth. The closer we are to that event, it seems the closer we are to truth. Thus the Jewish prophetic tradition becomes less and less violent as the ages proceed towards the Messiah; conversely, Christianity became more and more violent the further into apostasy it fell. (Mormons have the Restoration to rely on to reverse that trend; we do not seem to have returned to Numbers in our view of genocide and slavery.)

    So, you are right that we have a choice, do we believe in the terror texts or not? (Again, specifically, the *terror texts*.) But we have another choice, do we believe in the Sermon on the Mount or not? There *is* a contradiction, that is simply plain to see. If I am damned for choosing the Sermon on the Mount, I am confident hell will be full of good people. I will take that risk. Why on earth would someone choose to remain loyal to the terror texts and prejudice them over the Sermon? Can it be it is because some Mormons place prophetic infallibility (in this case Moses’) over Jesus? That would be idolatry. Interestingly, it is the church manuals themselves (divinely sanctioned, no less, as one commenter above points out!) that suggest we abandon the terror texts given that they totally ignore them. Silence tends to be rejection in Mormon pedagogy.

    And James, it seriously grieves me that as a friend you continue on this less-than-subtle mission to encourage me, and others like me, to have the “courage to leave” the church. You have no right to sit in judgement in this way. I will grant you one thing, however: it is true that I do want to “weaken from the inside” people’s faith . . . but only in one specific thing — the divine provenance of texts which celebrate large-scale murder, enslavement and terror in the name of God. I stand guilty, but it really boggles the mind that anyone would find this problematic. Indeed, a case could be made that the insistence that Christians should hold to these texts is more likely to run people out of religion than not. Indeed, I wrote this post (it is part of a larger, published article) in response to a fellow Latter-day Saint, a prominent and faithful member of the English church, who was seriously disturbed by what he read in Numbers and wanted help in interpreting it. As far as I know, it strengthened his faith in the things that matter.

    However, I am very sorry that we perhaps know someone whose faith has been weakened by reading BCC. It is a bit trite, but I suppose no-one is obligated to come here. More to the point, faith in what exactly? A Children’s Bible understanding of scripture? I also can’t quite understand what lies beneath your complaint. You are a good, peaceful man and don’t seem to want to believe in the terror texts but are simultaneously afraid that if you reject them then . . . what? Isn’t this the struggle of grown-up religion? To live with cognitive dissonance?

    You bring up modern prophets and homosexuality. What does that have to do with the terror texts? Again, I’m not prepared to have arguments over things I have not said. This is about rejecting the moral import of Numbers 31.

    Anyway, if I am to be criticised, let it be on my specific points not on some imaginary bogey man. (Of course, other commenters are free to be argued with on what they have said.) Do we stand by the terror texts in Numbers and the Deuteronomic History or not? I don’t. That really is all here.

  116. Kevin Barney says:

    We actually do have an example of forced marriage in the BoM–but it is an example of human wickedness, not the putative enactment of God’s will! For a discussion see this post of mine:


    Loved the post, Ronan. The timing of our GD reading schedule was fortuitous, because I read this OT account just as the abduction of the Nigerian girls was in the news, and the parallel is unmistakable, and truly revolting. I appreciate your strong rejection of the terror texts.

  117. Let me humbly suggest, JLL, as to your friend who says she can no longer read from BCC because it never failed to weaken her faith, that this person obviously has been reading selectively from this site. A cursory review of available posts is sufficient to discover many articles which are faith-affirming and quite wonderful. That’s my way of saying that her characterization (and yours) of the posts and bloggers on this site is demonstrably incorrect. Unfortunate that she was unable to see this, but fortunately, JLL, you’re still around and able to debunk this notion for yourself quite readily.

  118. Ironically, I think it’s Brother Kearney’s comment above that is likely to damage the faith of readers of blogs such as BCC. If his sentiment were a necessary article of Mormon faith, I would struggle to be a member of it. He makes me doubt the moral compass of Mormonism and thus its truthfulness.

    I am happy to report, however, that I don’t think Kearney’s view is the essence of Mormonism. I’m not being cute here; I really believe that the fundamentalists destroy faith. I don’t want them to leave the church, however. Membership of the body of Christ is not for me to decide. I’m sure we’d do good work home teaching together and I’d be happy to have him in my ward.

  119. Amen, Ronan – to both of your last comments.

  120. Ryan Mullen says:

    Can we get a “like” button on here? I cheered reading RJH’s two most recent comments.

  121. Ronan, that really is such a great, insightful, charitable, and pastorly comment at 2:47 a.m. Thank you for taking the time to pen that.

    Love ya, James — I can’t particularly understand your vehemence on this but I know you’re a good person.

  122. This will take the heat off for a while. Who cares about the Midianites when you could be a cylon? My empty eye socket is feeling twitchy.


  123. There are obvious inconsistencies in the scriptural texts, but only if one ascribes to God an ever kind disposition to everyone at every point time. He plainly does not take that approach to his children, and I do not see therefore inconsistencies in the records we do have, even if some *might* be of dubious provenance. If God is prepared to dispatch his children (or allow that to happen when he has all power to stop it), then I do not see accounts in which his children do that to each other, in his name and at his command, as being inconsistent with his nature and bound to be subject to modern revision, even though I might personally wish they were not there. To the extent that the OP reflects the disgust we feel when we see groups Like Boku Haram doing what they do in the name of religion, then I stand shoulder to shoulder with every right thinking person; I just do not happen to think that God is never the author of what we may now class as atrocious acts (or injunctions to do so as in the case of Abraham). When the attempt is made to suggest that God would never do this or that or that any records which do not fit with our modern views should be revised, then I cannot hold that view and still believe in the inspired nature of (particularly recently revealed) scripture. That does not mean that I am vehemently for abuse; nothing could be further from the truth; I just believe that God has not chosen to revise texts for us (when opportunity aplenty was given to do so), and that we must constantly therefore try to maintain an eternal perspective on suffering and death, and acknowledge God’s hand in what goes on down here in the mire.

    To answer your point Ronan about judgment:

    “…it is a call for believers to fully and unequivocally distance themselves from any invocation of the name of God in stories that support murder and abduction.”

    Do we then distance ourselves from belief in the task set by God for Abraham (i.e. intended infanticide – a fairly nasty degree of murder (if one can safely distinguish forms of murder))? You somehow expect to encourage people to move away from scriptural accounts (as above) that do not accord with modern sensibilities, and expect a free ride to do so. I think you know it goes further than that too, for example in respect of faith in our leaders and the way we support them. A review of earlier Posts and threads will confirm that. What you really advocate is a principle which leads inexorably to an overt a pick and choose faith which goes well beyond simply ignoring some unpleasant texts. What I challenge is the seeming ignorance of what these posts can do to one’s faith. And I do still maintain that there are so many who do not really have a belief in the fundamental tenants of our faith, but are not brave enough to leave, and chose to erode from within. Whether you are in that category is thankfully not for me to judge, but I have seen so many (and still do) who are in but are really out, and are not silently dissatisfied.

  124. Ronan, I think you’ve made your points well, and carefully, and I firmly agree with them.

    However, I’m reluctant to enshrine an abstract principal of “X is inconsistent with my feelings/views; therefore it’s wrong” NB: you have clearly not done that, but I think some commenters are understanding that as the takeaway.

    My primary concern is that such reasoning would be a form of cultural ethnocentrism, we’re simply substituting our culturally enlightened certainies for theirs, and attributing (or refusing to attribute) those to deity. Yes, our cultural certainties don’t result in genocide or tales of genocide (and in that sense they are more moral), but they are still *cultural* certainties. This is a somewhat clumsy explanation of my concern, but I lack time to rewrite or flesh it out more.

  125. >I’m reluctant to enshrine an abstract principal of “X is inconsistent with my feelings/views; therefore it’s wrong” NB: you have clearly not done that, but I think some commenters are understanding that as the takeaway.

    I can’t be responsible for lazy readers, man. Anyway, I have a date with Chief Tyrol.

  126. “are not brave enough to leave”

    James, I really think you should reconsider inviting people to leave the Church rather than burden you with their analyses of ancient texts or their (to your ears) insufferable moral compasses.

    Ben S., I understand the idea of cultural ethnocentrism or ethical egoism but must caution against the moral relativism that an overreliance on those concepts could lead to. Genocide, rape, sexual slavery, child sacrifice, etc. are all still morally wrong, whether committed in 2014 or in Old Testament times.

    Remember, the Book of Mormon teaches us that God would cease to be God if he transgressed the moral law. I don’t think that human lives had less worth in ancient times than now. I think Ronan’s recommendations on how to deal with the terror texts are well advised and easily within the realm of objective morality.

  127. James,

    You are being disingenuous, my man.

    You say, “And I do still maintain that there are so many who do not really have a belief in the fundamental tenants of our faith, but are not brave enough to leave, and chose to erode from within. Whether you are in that category is thankfully not for me to judge, but I have seen so many (and still do) who are in but are really out, and are not silently dissatisfied.”

    Actually you have told me privately that you think me in that category as well as at least one other mutual friend. Your being coy in this matter isn’t convincing.

    Also, looking over your comments at BCC, they are almost always on posts that discuss homosexuality or whose discussions can be taken in that direction. This was a post about the terror texts, rejected implicitly by the writer of Jonah and by Christ in the New Testament and yet you, again, use it as an opportunity to call certain classes of members anathema to the body of Christ. Previous comments you have made have laboured the same point:

    “I consider that all too often, our ‘priceless possession’ is our wedding to secular rationality and aggrandisement of intellectuality, and that we are wedded to membership rather than faith, and appear lacking in courage to leave, and instead chose to weaken from the inside.”

    “This is the last days, and it is a shame that for a minority in the church they do not see the devil’s agenda for what it is.”

    “I wonder how many of us who write and express views on here are simply too gutless and/or too intertwined with the social structure of the church to follow through to its proper conclusion what we really believe to be true; namely, that there really is no valid truth claim that can be sustained by the church, and it is not therefore worthy of our continued devotion to it. What I fear we do is to grumble, question, criticise and contend against some of its basic precepts, as the weak alternative to being brave enough to walk away. Too cowardly to go; too unconvinced to really stay.

    “2 Nephi 28:14 sums up the present state of the world and its views, and those of many otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints. We are finding justification in our own minds for changing laws and values that my heart tells me we will come to rue.”

    You never show much interest in actually engaging in the issues and simply want to go on record over and over and over again that I and my ilk are selling-out to secularism and the devil and should leave the church.

    This is trolling.

    I look forward to breaking bread with you again soon. Just not here. It is doing no-one any good.

  128. “I do not see therefore inconsistencies in the records we do have.”

    That is the central difference between us, I guess. I don’t see our scriptures as inerrant, and I think that view is consistent with the scriptures themselves.

    At this point, I have no interest in further conversation about it. The statement I quoted shows we simply are at polar opposites of the spectrum and that there is nowhere to go from here.

    Finally, I am so glad I have been commanded not to judge the welfare of others’ souls. That is such a terrible burden for those who don’t want it.

  129. I believe in the fundamental tenants of our faith as surely as I believe in our fundamental landlord.

  130. Ben, characterizing an aversion to genocide as merely a form of cultural ethnocentrism is pretty interesting. By the same token is there any ethical choice whatsoever that could not be so characterized?

  131. Angela C says:

    I believe in squatters’ rights of our faith. Just try to evict me.

  132. Steve Smith says:

    Yes, indeed, RJH. JJL = inquisitionist Mormon. And these types are essentially driving the fence sitters out of the church.

  133. “Fence sitters”? That’s an unfortunate description, Mr. Smith! Must be why I’m ginger.

  134. I know too many people who have been nothing but faithful, dedicated, active members who are called apostate simply for seeing some things differently than the ones doing the name calling, and it hurts my heart – especially given what Pres. Uchtdorf and others have been saying for the last few years. Those who encourage others to leave over differences of opinion, even doctrinal ones, ought to consider the simple fact that they are speaking in direct opposition to the direction the top leadership is taking and has been taking for some time.

    I think interpretation of Old Testament terror texts is WAY down on the list of concerns at the top of the LDS Church. In fact, I think Elder Holland, for one, would love to be involved in a thoughtful discussion like the one Ronan initiated.

  135. Someone tweet him a link!

  136. Ok, I’ll wade in. I should have been brave enough to do so sooner, but I don’t think my skill in writing is anywhere near the level of many here. There are a number of things bothering me with your connections.
    A, your logic of God being the same always meaning the God of the NT could not have commanded the things done in His name in the OT. The argument against this is the same as anyone saying God “changed his mind” in 1978. While God is the same always, the circumstances we are in change. Jesus would only preach to the Jews, going as far as comparing a woman he knew had faith to a dog begging scraps. It was only afterward that He “changed his mind” and had his servants preach to the Gentiles as well.
    Two, you conflate directives from God with anyone else who does something similar using the rationalization that they’re doing God’s will. This would presumably include the Crusades, Mountain Meadows, Jonestown, Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the KKK, and many, many other things we see as atrocities. Can’t really argue with this, because it depends on personal belief. If you don’t believe Moses or Abraham knew what was commanded was from God, having spoken with God face to face and knowing His voice, then it’s easy to group these all together. And, to head off the inevitable question lately used in the argument that Abraham’s test wasn’t really from God, if commanded to kill someone, even my own son, if God said to, I would, but it would need to meet the same requirements I have for entering into polygamy. I’d need both an angelic visitation and direction from the head of the Church. I’m no Moses or Abraham.
    D. it’s already been mentioned how God is the cause of a lot of suffering and death, and how that will be compensated for by the Atonement and in Judgement. I will submit that this also includes the suffering and pains of those who have to kill, no matter what that circumstance. Some say, “why couldn’t God just call down a meteor or other natural disaster and do the job Himself?” To this, I’d posit, “why couldn’t God have killed the Lamanites/Zoramites/etc who were going to kill Nephites so the good didn’t have to kill to defend themselves?” This falls into the big philosophical question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” Sometimes we don’t just see through a glass darkly, but through a brick wall.
    The OT is replete with instances where the Israelites were really bad at doing the right things. There were many times new laws had to be added to compensate. What were the people doing that necessitated detailed prohibitions on incest? I see the instance in Numbers 31 as trying to deal with an already bad situation. Rather than doing what they were commanded to do, the people kept the women and children. I could see them saying, “these women have possibilities, could we just keep asking if it’s all right until God says yes?” We end up with a lot of really bad sexual practices making their way through the people, evidenced by some really bad STDs. The solution? Kill anyone who could have possibly had sex. Not the best solution, but both Moses and God had to do the best with the people they had.
    We’ve only in the last half century, as a people, learned to treat those we disagree with as actual people, with lives and motivations of their own, rather than a faceless mass that can be disposed of at will. We’re not even all on board with it now, evidenced by the people grouping “Islam” as some monolithic group. There were only brief glimpses of treating others humanely in the NT, and I suspect there were may other times God tried to get us to understand it.

  137. “You never show much interest in actually engaging in the issues and simply want to go on record over and over and over again that I and my ilk are selling-out to secularism and the devil and should leave the church.”

    Mmm. I think I have tried to set out reasoned views rather than attacks on individuals. I just don’t engage in a way which meets with your approval in this post or others. You may make repeated and different attacks on faith; I happen to to think that repeating truth, tailored to the subject raised and supported by scripture and doctrine is perfectly permissible.

    What about Abraham? What about Nephi. I would like to see engagement with what I say in respect of these examples which I say sit ill with the tenor of the post.

    And I don’t think you should leave the church and have not invited it at all (for you or anyone else). I think it is a obviously inaccurate caricature of what I have said. But I do think that you (and others) should recognise that what you say really can have (and has had) an impact on others. I do not see the impact as one that increases faith and testimony but rather weakens it. Your sympathetic compadres will no doubt jump in and say that this is an inspiring, faith promoting post. I would happen to disagree, but I assume that, as with so many posts, agreement is the only safe route to take on this blog.

  138. Scott B. says:

    ^^Dude that’s some seriously quality trolling.

  139. J. Stapley says:

    I’m happy to go on record as believing, and I am quite certain all church leaders would heartily agree with me, that if you feel like God is telling you to kill anyone, including a distant relative with a book you want, or your own child, you should in no way attempt do it. Get immediate psychiatric help, and council with your church leaders.

  140. I am sorry but there is no permissible religious justification for genocide. None. JLL – if that is your litmus test for determining whether someone is really of your faith, then I’ll gladly fail that test. You can come visit me from your homicidal kingdom on high, I suppose. As for the scriptural justifications for such things, they are woefully insufficient and only establish tautologies that require direct confirmation from the Creator to carry their own weight. That is not how sensible discussions are held, my friends! Seriously, if your clarion message of truth is to say that yes, God can command us to commit genocide and it’s OK, then stop this train right now because I want off. Or, more correctly, jump off my train you insane troll.

  141. BCC Admin says:

    A note to all commenters:

    Please do not make private communications public or your comment will be deleted. You can say what you need to say without doing that. It’s bad form. Thanks.

  142. Steve Evans at 7.48pm

    Again, a crude caricature of what I have said, coupled with insults, which I am not prepared to return. I do not, and would not seek to justify genocide or murder by reference to anything, and a careful rather than a caricatured reading of all of my comments would reveal that. Your intimation of my ‘clarion message’ is risible. I am simply concerned that to get to an always palatable modern view of God, we have to throw out a lot more than just ‘the’ horror texts. I don’t understand why God commands somethings, but I do not think that we have a right to revise to suit our own morality. I happen to think the idea of a talking donkey to be ridiculous, but not more or less likely to have happened than water being magically transformed into wine, or any of the other miraculous events recounted in scripture: All are outside of our personal experience, and all are foolish and unsupported by any good evidence, from a modern, rational perspective. What do I do then? Do I say that because these things are improbable (if not impossible) for the modern, rational mind to accept, that the scriptures which recount them should be recast to find a comfortable home in the modern world? That is why this post concerns me. For me, the post inexorably leads to an extension of the principle of ‘I rewrite what I don’t like/believe’.
    I would welcome proper engagement on the subject. Oh, and I think that the Saviour would probably have met your definition of troll, if it is one who disturbs the settled order or consensus and says things which provoke emotion in the readers. To the extent that I have tried to put forward a faithful, nuanced view, I am happy to be insulted with the name troll. In respect of insane; not one I have heard before, but I do recall reading somewhere that the Saviour met accusations of having been mad (Jn 10:20) as have his prophets (Mosiah 13:4) by the intellectual classes of the day.

    J. Stapley at 7.04pm

    So Abraham should have sought psychiatric help, and to counsel with someone, rather than dragging his son off to a mountain with the settled intention of killing him? I find the account horrific. I would rather die than contemplate such an act myself, but does that then permit me to say it never happened and was not initiated by the God of Love? I’m not sure Mr Stapley that ‘all’ church leaders would analyse the Abrahamic test in that way, which is what your modern approach requires; in fact, I would guess that they would not. And therein you make my point for me. You must, if you follow the aim of this post to its logical end, cast Nephi as a poor historian; Abraham as mad and in need of some serious help etc. In other words, you must, to maintain consistency of approach, rewrite the lot, and a lot more still.

    For all of the sophistication of language, I do not think that where this post leads is fully appreciated.

    Ronan, you suggest I am being disingenuous and have categorised you in in private (11.21am). I do not normally make it my practice to refer to private messages, but as you have referred to them explicitly, I looked back on some of our private dialogues in case I had inadvertently said something that I have made it my practice to never do directly. I could not find the reference you imply exists and I do not accept that I have ever come close to saying that for the reasons you will have seen from our my most recent private messages on point. As I am not allowed to refer to the private messages, it’s a bit hard to fully defend myself on this point, which a cynic might argue accounts for the censoring.

    I think you’ll find that I have only ever tried to invite you to reconsider your views, without trading insults.

    This lacks a bit of context without private emails, but I’ll share it anyway:


    “So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others.’

    I think this post (if followed to its logical conclusion) encourages the transgression of picking and choosing our faith, as have many of the most hot topic posts previously.

  143. For the record, James has never told me directly to “leave the church” and if I gave that impression, I was wrong and happily retract it.

    He has, however, repeatedly — in public and in private — accused me, as he states above, of “transgression” and that what I do “weakens faith.” He then, also repeatedly, comes to a forum on which he knows I am active and talks vaguely about people who “appear lacking in courage to leave, and instead choose to weaken from the inside”; who “write and express views” that suggest “that there really is no valid truth claim that can be sustained by the church” but who “are simply too gutless and/or too intertwined with the social structure of the church to follow through to its proper conclusion” and leave.

    I have inferred from this, James, that you at the very least have me in mind. It seems a fairly sound inference given that I seem, according to your characterisations, to do exactly what you describe these “gutless” people doing, but if I am wrong, I am glad to hear it. If I am right then I am sad that you have such contempt for me, given what I thought was our friendship. I also suspect that you represent the views of other Latter-day Saints with whom I have served and broken bread. I can almost hear the tsk-tsk-ing from here.

    To be considered anathema by friends is a difficult thing to bear, especially in this case where I was simply asked to offer my thoughts to a Latter-day Saint struggling to accept that God approved of genocide and enslavement. Your view that God might indeed approve of such things from time to time had almost led him from the church for he believed that if a religion could not unequivocally condemn genocide, it was not worthy of his allegiance. What I laid out above helped him see there was another way of seeing these texts, which helped keep him in the church. Thus two can play at this game of inquisition: Mormons who demand allegiance to the terror texts are damaging to faith.

    I do like your Holland quote, though. I heartily believe that love should “be our watchword.” That is the lens of interpretation that leads me, specifically, to reject the moral standing of Numbers 31. And with that, we seem to have reached an impasse for that is the only claim I have been making here all along.

  144. Jason K. says:

    Since the Akedah keeps coming up in this context, I’d like to throw Rashi’s intriguing reading into the ring. According to Rashi, God did not in fact command Abraham to kill Isaac, but (based on a very close reading of the Hebrew) merely commanded him to bring his son up the mountain and there offer sacrifice. On this reading, Abraham was overzealous and misinterpreted the command. One of Rashi’s later comments show Abraham, even after the angel’s intervention, feeling the need to draw a little blood so that he can feel that he fulfilled the commandment. When Abraham seems confused, God says that he misunderstood, but still honors the effort and reiterates the covenant.

    This reading is interesting for several reasons. First is that one of the greatest medieval Rabbinical commentators can hardly be accused of being a liberal milquetoast. More significantly, we have to think about the reasons why Rashi would want to read the text in this way. Far from being a pick-and-choose interpreter, Rashi is religiously committed to the whole Torah, not one jot nor tittle passing away. I suggest that the passage in the commentary describing Abraham’s confusion reflects Rashi’s own. Why would God command the killing of the son of the promise? This thread of the commentary (Rashi is not trying to present a single coherent view) seems to indicate that the prospect of such a command raises nasty questions about the character of God, which Rashi then attempts to resolve in God’s favor by absolving him of responsibility for the attempted sacrifice.

    His commentary on Numbers 31 suggests that he views it as a different kind of text. Much of this commentary is legalistic in nature, clarifying, for instance, that God commands revenge on the Midianites, but not the Moabites, because their motivations were different. Whereas the commentary on Gen. 22 tries to vindicate God’s character, the effort here is to show that Israel was engaged in a just war. Rashi’s comments only mention a magical test for determining which women are eligible for slaughter.

    Still, I think that a different reading is possible, one that employs the methods Rashi had used for Gen. 22. One can carry out a just war by unjust means, after all. In 31:1, The Lord commands revenge against the Midianites. This is war, yes, but not necessarily genocide. Verse 7 suggests that the Lord only commanded that they mount an attack. It is Moses, not God, who gets angry in verse 14. This suggests that ascribing the genocide to divine command might be mistaken. In any case, the text itself seems not to support it. Whether one agrees with just war theory or not, the text does seem to support the possibility of such a thing, but just war is not the same as genocide. I do not believe that this text can be used to support the notion of divinely ordained genocide. Rather, it shows how humans sometimes go too far in carrying out what they believe to be God’s commands. That is where its terror lies.


  145. JLL: “I don’t understand why God commands somethings, but I do not think that we have a right to revise to suit our own morality.”

    As a general matter I agree with this sentiment. But the Old Testament presents us with extremes of behavior which are so completely at odds with the Heavenly Father taught to us by modern revelation that I believe we simply must put them apart. The alternative is to embrace a notion of a creator who enlists his creations in rape and killing (beyond that of soldiers in a war). Chalk that up to simple-minded modern sensibilities if you like, but again if your notion of God is a divine, perfectly holy man full of love, it staggers understanding to accept these Old Testament stories as manifestations of divine will. You’ve been crying aloud that this post smacks of rewriting scripture entirely to discard stuff we don’t like – that characterization is both false and true. False in the sense that nothing in this post requires or permits us to entirely discard scripture; true in the sense that we must consider the Old Testament record in particular as a broken and partial text from a different people in a different time, and we must read it seeking the face of God, knowing that we will not find it when Israel’s soldiers rape Midianite virgins over the corpses of their fathers.

    Jason, fair enough re: use of the term genocide. I’ll stop using that term, as there are plenty of other intensely problematic things going on.

  146. That’s an interesting interpretation, Jason. Any idea how popular it is? I know that the rabbinical interpretations of the Akedah are many and varied.

    Have you come across the source critical angle? The base story seems to be E with a J interpolation. In the original account (E), Abraham refused the sacrifice and killed the ram without any angelic interruption. That was added later (J). The result is the current JE story. (O. Boehm: “The Binding of Isaac: An Inner Biblical Polemic on the Question of Disobeying a Manifestly Illegal Order”, Vetus Testamentum, 2002 52(1) pp. 1–12.)

    On that reading, even the very earliest biblical writers and redactors were struggling to make sense of the story! Good stuff.

  147. Thank you, Jason. That is a very helpful addition to the conversation, particularly since it explicitly and unequivocally illustrates how the same text can be read in differing ways by faithful people trying to be faithful to the text.

  148. Jason K. says:

    Ronan: as for the popularity of that reading, I really can’t say. I’d count it as one among the many and varied rabbinical interpretations. While I don’t know the article you cite, I am aware of the source-critical angle-though I’ve seen the later intervention ascribed to R rather than J. (For those unfamiliar with source criticism, note that “God” (Elohim) has been speaking in the beginning of the story, but that an angel of “the Lord” (Yahweh) appears to intervene in the sacrifice. Such shifts in the name of God indicate, to many scholars, the presence of different narrative threads.) An interesting implication of the source criticism is that it ties into another rabbinic interpretative tradition, according to which Abraham actually kills Isaac. (Note that verse 19 makes no mention of Isaac coming down from the mountain.) Interestingly, this reading accords with the NT, as Hebrews 11 states that Abraham’s faith lay in the Resurrection.

    Ray: exactly. Rabbinical interpretation in general is a fantastic example of this.

    I’ll add one thing to my earlier comment. Perhaps a take-away from Numbers 31 is that we need to be careful when what we want aligns with what God wants, lest we miss the mark by being overzealous. God commands revenge against the Midianites; apparently Moses wants this too, and in his anger he seems to go beyond the commanded revenge to order the commission of something truly horrible. (At this point it seems pertinent to recall the title of the lesson in the manual: “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord.”)

    Does this overzealous act of Moses’ undermine his prophetic call? Not necessarily. We can see human foibles in all our modern prophets, from Joseph Smith on. That God’s work can go on with only imperfect humans as instruments is truly a miracle—one in which I do not hesitate to affirm my belief.

  149. Hedgehog says:

    So far as I can tell this hasn’t been linked in previous comments, and I found it a helpful discussion of the issues surrounding OT violence (http://www.lafkospress.com/part-19-joshua-the-conquest-of-canaan-and-israelite-holy-war/). It takes Joshua & Jericho as the jumping off point (a lesson I missed today, because one of the kids was unwell), rather than the earlier battles referred to in the OP, but I think the same applies.

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