From the Mailbag:
Dr. Baggett, I’ve read your co-[written] book with Dr. Walls on the moral argument and have found it to be very helpful for solidifying my belief in God. I understand that by definition, we should trust our moral intuitions and due to that, we can rule out portraits of God that violate those baseline intuitions (e.g. God commanding rape). I see possible and probable interpretations of the genocide texts via Paul Copan that leave my moral intuitions intact, but I’m not sure how this would work for other texts. Consider Ezekiel 5:10 and 26:8. It seems there that God’s direct punishment leads to cannibalism of children and the killing of young daughters (ESV). As the parent of three young girls I can’t square this with my basic moral intuitions. How would you recommend proceeding?
By the way, thanks so much for your work. I understand if you’re not able to answer this due to time restrictions. If you don’t have time, do you mind pointing me in a fruitful direction?
Thanks for the question, Keith! For illumination on these matters I turned to my colleague, Old Testament professor Dr. Gary Yates. Here’s his reply:
These are direct punishments from God, but the OT prophets do distinguish between God using these enemy armies to carry out his judgments and the culpability these nations have for the moral atrocities they commit when carrying out these judgments. We can see this in Isaiah 10:5-15, where Assyria is the “rod of Yahweh’s anger,” but the intent of the Assyrians is not to carry out God’s intentions or to act in the kinds of humane ways that God demands. The intent of the Assyrians is to “destroy” (10:7) and to usurp God’s sovereignty (10:15). We see the same thing in Jeremiah’s oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51. The Lord uses Babylon as his “hammer” to strike the earth, but the Babylonians were actually only carrying out the evil intentions of their own hearts (Jer 50:11, 29, 33). The Lord uses the evil actions of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies to accomplish his purposes, but he does not compel them to perform their evil actions. They do them of their own accord and out of their own sinful and corrupt motivations. The prophets always make the case that the Lord will temporarily use these nations to judge Israel but then he would then hold them accountable for their crimes (see also Jer 25)—could he really do this if he had simply compelled them to kill, rape, and pillage? The atrocities of siege, starvation, cannibalism, and military defeat are highlighted in the prophets for two reasons—1) the Lord was motivating repentance by showing the people how terrible the judgment would be if they refused to repent; and 2) these were the specific covenant curses that the Lord had warned would come against Israel if they were not faithful to the covenant he had made with them as his chosen people (cf. Lev 26; Deut 28).
Two other points to consider that might help here. In Genesis 9, God establishes the Noahic covenant with all humanity which calls for severe punishment on those who shed blood (Gen 9:5-6). Isaiah 24:1-5 teaches that God will judge the world for violating the “everlasting covenant” (24:5). Since this covenant is with all nations, and since there is reference to bloodshed in Isaiah 26:21, the covenant in view here is the Noahic covenant. God will judge all nations for their violence and bloodshed in the final judgment. Passages like Amos 1-2; Habakkuk 2; and Nahum 3 also indicate that God’s judgment of nations (like Babylon and Assyria) is based on the fact that they have committed crimes that involved bloodshed against other nations and peoples. If God is directly responsible for the bloodshed and other acts of violence, then he is directly violating his own covenant.
The other point is that OT law expressly forbade Israel from practicing the kinds of atrocities against non-combatants that we are talking about here. When waging war outside of the land, they were not to kill non-combatants (Deut 20). They were given explicit instructions as to what to do with female prisoners of war that they wished to take as wives, and observance of these guidelines would have protected against wanton rape and abuse of females (Deut 21:10-13). God’s concern for widows and orphans reflects his concern for the oppressed. When we see Israel taking female captives for sexual purposes at the end of Judges (from their own people), the point there is that the Israelites are acting more like Canaanites than the kind of people that God designed them to be. In sum, we have to look at passages like these from Ezekiel 5 and 10 that you have pointed out in light of the whole canon and in light of the explicit moral commands and structures that God has put in place. I hope this helps.
Dr. Gary Yates
Photo: “Mailbox” by J. Rozler. CC License.