By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)
I’m sure that this title is neither new information nor in the slightest bit shocking to those familiar with the atrocities found within the so-called Good Book (of which, Ebonmuse, this site’s author, has amply documented). After all, this is the God who cheerfully devastates armies, obliterates nations and once even drowned every living thing on Earth bar a boatful of humans and animals.
And yet for all that – and maybe this is just me – I’ve always found big numbers a bit abstract. Show me a person who has killed a thousand people, and frankly the number loses something of its meaning. It’s not that I don’t understand it, but it’s a little harder to really get a grip on imagining a thousand people, let alone a thousand deaths. I find it far easier to hate a person who has murdered just one – as long as the story of the murder is related to me.
So where do we find God murdering a baby? (‘Lots of places’ is the facetious, and yet not inaccurate reply) The story I’m referring to is found in 2 Samuel 11:2 – 12:18. The Israelites are firmly settled in their promised land and are currently under the rule of King David. Despite being a generally rather good King, David is having a rather large lapse in moral judgement – he forces himself on a married woman, Bathsheba, and when he learns she is pregnant as a result, arranges for the husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle. He then marries Bathsheba himself, who gives birth to a boy. Yahweh, understandably, is less than impressed by David, though his moral high-horse sharply collapses and dies under the weight of the punishment He chooses to dish out (announced through a prophet, Nathan):
Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of the sun.
For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before the sun.
And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.
Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.
And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.
David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth, but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.
And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died.
Again, this is obviously nothing an observant Bible-reader should not expect from Yahweh. The notions of women as property and corporate guilt are deeply ingrained in the Bible. And yet I find something particularly vindictive about this story which adds an especially vicious kick to the gut.
I’m not even sure I could put my finger on why. Perhaps it is the fact that the justification seems so petty – at least with Noah’s Ark or the tenth plague of Egypt, God could be shielded behind a wafer-thin (and bizarre for an omnipotent deity) excuse that He was doing it for a greater good. But here Yahweh is simply a figure in a soap-opera drama, killing out of petty spite. But I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that it’s easier to emotionally connect with a small number of people. One victim is easy to feel empathy and outrage for. A thousand is slightly more abstract.
Of course, for atheists, discussing which of God’s many acts is the most atrocious is as moot as asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But this is the story I think of when Christians describe their ‘loving, merciful’ God. This is the story I think of when hearing the Bible spoken of as a moral guide. This is the story I think of when the religious right preach the sanctity of life whenever abortion is raised as a topic.
This is one of the Bible’s lesser-known stories, and there is a voice that tells me it is pointless to draw attention to this story to ardent believers in the Bible’s morality. After all, if they can find excuses for God’s genocides, they can surely find excuses for this. Then again, that just puts me back playing the numbers game again. To my shame, I have not read too many deconversion stories. But from my own experience of challenging my faith, something started alarm bells ringing. And I’d be willing to bet it’s the stories which pack the most wallop emotionally, not intellectually, which first make people stop and think.