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Monday, October 15, 2012

Frontier Justice in the Promised Land

I recall attending enough church services whose sermons related various Biblical miracles and uplifting messages of hope. But how many ministers mount their pulpit and deliver a sermon on Moses’ instructions to his forces to execute a My Lai-style massacre, or relate to the listening congregation the scriptures' heartless treatment of women as victims of rape and spoils of war? And yet these and other dark themes are as much a part of the Bible as those stories which get all the attention, and rough and ruthless frontier-style justice is not in some mysterious way made more morally acceptable simply because it appears in scripture. And I, who have in my career illustrated such dark gothic classics as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera and others, am still somewhere struggling to get my head around the realization that it is the Bible, of all books, which reaches into darker places even than these. You doubt me? Then please read on...

This post grew out of the notes which I made for my previous post to reference specific Biblical passages. The more I buried my nose in my [1]Bible to double-check the accuracy of my references, the more surreal everything seemed to become. Was I really still reading canonical scripture? Was I still reading the presumed word of God? Well, yes I was, as anyone reading these cited texts can check for themselves. These passages are mostly either God speaking in the first person, dictating the various laws or Commandments to Moses (yes, there are considerably more than ten), or Moses speaking to the Israelites, and are intended as instructions for social conduct in the Promised Land.

Slaughter: In the Old Testament see the Book of [2]Numbers 31:7-18 for a graphic account of how, having massacred the Midianite army, the victorious Israelite forces nevertheless had mercifully spared the lives of the captive women and children - much to Moses' wrath. He then commanded his forces to put all the married women and boys to the sword as well, but the young virgin girls they 'could keep alive for themselves'. He seems quickly enough to have brushed aside the 13th Commandment ('Thou Shalt Not Kill') which God had so recently given to him personally. And so these captive women and 'young ones' were slain also. But even this brutal episode was not a one-off incident: see also Judges 21:10-24 for a very similar account. This time it was the women and young boys of Jabesh-gilead who were slain. In this case it even specifies the number of young virgins who were taken back to the Israelite camp: there were four hundred of them. Apparently even this many weren't enough to go around - or as the narrator ruefully puts it: 'they sufficed them not'. See other instances throughout the Bible of murder and massacre too numerous to cite here.

Slavery: See Exodus 21:6 and Deuteronomy 15:17, both of which describe the practice of driving an awl through the ear of a slave to mark that slave forever, while bracing him or her (it applied to both sexes) against a door. Incredibly, in both Books this act is described as a reward for loyalty. See Leviticus 25:44-47 for an exposition of slaves as inheritable possessions, and elsewhere regarding the keeping of slaves, and also in the New Testament, such as in Ephesians 6:5 (on obedience to one's master) and Timothy 6:1 (on honoring one's master). Slavery is dealt with in scripture in expositions of the various rules governing the owning of slaves, while never actually being condemned as a practice. Exodus 21:20-21 states that if you beat your servant (whether male or female) to incapacity, if the servant survives for 'a day or two', then you're off the hook because, well... after all, servants cost money. Yes, this is the actual reason given, as anyone reading this can check for themselves.

Rape: In the Old Testament see Deuteronomy 21:10-14 for a description of the treatment of women as spoils of war, which concludes that if a captive woman does not please you, and you show her the door, it is unlawful to sell her for money if you have raped her because she is then regarded as spoiled goods. See also Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which earnestly assures us that the rape victim must marry and remain with her rapist 'all his days'. I would challenge anyone to read these several chapters in Deuteronomy and other books in the Old Testament dealing with Biblical law and not feel revolted by their inhumanity, as anyone with a sense of moral human decency should.

Stoning: See Deuteronomy 21:18-21 for instructions on stoning to death your disobedient son. This particular law is just one of many such Biblical laws which break the 13th Commandment. Homosexuality, loss of virginity before marriage, blasphemy, adultery, fortune telling and swearing at or striking a parent were also among the various Biblical offences punishable by a gruesome and prolonged death by stoning. An exception is Leviticus 20:14, which specifies that if a man 'take a wife and her mother', then all three are to be burned alive. Deuteronomy 13:6-10 also specifies death by stoning for apostasy - in this case, turning away from the Israelites' God - and urges the listener that 'thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death'.

Sacrifice: Judges 11:29-40 relates the grim tale of Jephthah, who makes a pact with God. If God will grant him victory in a coming battle, Jephthah will sacrifice to God whatever is the first thing to come out of his house upon his return home. God keeps his side of the bargain, Jephthah returns triumphant – and is greeted by his daughter, his only child, who rushes joyfully to meet him. Jephthah in despair tells his daughter what he has promised to God. His daughter (whose name we never learn) is reconciled, but asks for two months reprieve. The period passes, and Jephthah then ‘did with her according to his vow’, as the Bible coyly phrases what is in reality a human sacrifice. The body is then burned so that the smoke may waft heavenwards and please the Almighty. God, being all-knowing, would of course have known at the time the pact was made who the victim would be, and being all-powerful, could presumably have arranged for a chicken or some other animal to rush outside instead. But God, as much as Jephthah – and the rest of us – made his choices.

[1] The Bible referred to is my own copy of the King James Version study edition, published by Zondervan. This is a copiously-annotated Apologist edition whose annotations at times make unintentionally chilling reading, such as excusing the Biblical condoning of slavery as 'situations that were divinely-given, practical ways of dealing with the morality of the day.' (annotation to Timothy 6:5). So in the actual words of this edition's editors, for one human being to own another is considered by them to be a 'divinely-given situation'.

[2] My chapter-and-verse citations throughout this post are for others to independently check these passages for themselves should they choose to do so. For those who do not have a Bible, the full text of the King James Version is available online from several websites, including:

The images for this post are adapted from Gustave Doré's illustrations for the Bible.

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