My stand is that we can’t just write off the bits of scripture we don’t like, but must grapple with them and try and understand what they’re telling us.
I accept as a possible – even probable – explanation that the massacre stories – written long after the events they record – ascribe to God the bloodthirstiness of the Israelites. If this is so, then possibly the lesson from the text is:
- Faithfulness to God matters
- God expects us to keep to his ways, and not to allow the surrounding culture to corrupt us
- If we are in danger of corruption, we should separate ourselves from the surrounding culture.
But is this just interpreting the Bible through our own cultural filters and preferences?
As a discussion starter, I’d like to ask three questions. When is it wrong to kill? Who, or what, is it wrong to kill? Why is it wrong to kill? I’ll give you my (provisional) answers. Will you give me yours?
When is it wrong to kill? Under what circumstances? Is it always wrong to kill, or are there circumstances where it is okay? My answer to this question is that it is always wrong to kill a member of a species capable of conscious sentience – but that it is sometimes necessary (for self defense or the defense of others).
Who, or what? My answer is that it is okay to kill members of species not capable of conscious sentience provided that it is for food or in self defense, but such killing should be done humanely. A Buddhist or Hindu would draw the killing line in a very different place to me; I think (perhaps someone can confirm) that the cholera bacillus would be okay, but a beetle wouldn’t.
Why? My answer is three-fold.
First, it seems to be written in our bones – a natural law, if you will – that taking the life of another human is wrong. The tricky bit is defining ‘another human’. Sociopaths live in a universe on their own – a single human being surrounded by potential victims. Primitive cultures punished murder of family members with the full force of the law, but rewarded killing someone from another tribe as a meritorious act. Today in Western culture (thanks in large part to Christianity), we’ve extended the definition of human to most members of our species, though the precise definition still varies from person to person. Some of us would extend it still further, to all self-aware sentient beings, allowing for extraterrestrial life, or surprise discoveries about apes and dolphins.
Second – it also seems to be natural to impose the rule: if you can’t fix it, don’t break it. Taking a life is final. You can’t make it better. There’s no going back, so going forward is an extreme act.
Third, we don’t know what God has in mind for this person to do. Taking their life might interrupt something important.