Samson Gets an “F” in Ethics

Brandon Withrow interviewed me a while back for an article he was writing. The article has now appeared online in On Faith. Click through to read it.

Brandon’s post on his own blog mentioning the article, which is about violence in the Bible, has the provocative title “Evangelical Professors Give Moses an ‘F’ in Ethics.” Since the part of my interview he quotes is focused on Samson, I adapted his title for the title of my own post, flunking Samson too.

While the article situates me firmly in the mainline and on the left, it is worth noting, in relation to the article’s focus on Evangelical scholars, that Evangelicalism is definitely the matrix that brought me to a personal faith and fostered my faith over a period of decades, and one with which I am still closely connected.

I hope the article stimulates interesting discussion about the topic of violence in the Bible!

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  • Michael Wilson

    I think the primary challenge presented by Samson and other Old Testament heroes is to the idea that the Bible’s ethics are those of a good, independent and all knowing God. Craig’s defense of Joshua’s genocide is of appalling consequence if he actually believed it; that the greater good is arrived at by killing the children of immoral people than letting them be raised by their parents. I could not imagine this coming from Jesus and Paul. It also wasn’t the view of the Greek philosophers, and because those two views inform our own perspective, we feel its morally obscene. You know that Jews and Christians have struggled with these passages for centuries.

    However, I don’t feel we can judge that the Old Testament was written by evil men. First, this sort of thing was done by everybody in antiquity, and judging from the archeology, in the late bronze age especially, destroying a city was a standard procedure. Even the depictions of the contemporary sack of Troy in Anatolia across the sea tell of a massacre of the inhabitants. Lest we just assume that people were more evil in the past, I argue that the people engaged in this work felt that they were doing good because they lived in societies that taught genocide was a heroic action to take on behalf of the community. I think people that are tricked into taking evil actions are not them selves evil. Even the individually felt compulsion to pity a fellow human in suffering can be muted by a society that teaches that the only real people are the ones that speak the same language you do and worship at the same shrine. This condition need not have been introduced by some cabal of villains since it seems to be the position of hunter gatherers the world over. I recommend the book, “the Better Angels of our Natures” by Steven Pinker for a historical look at human violence and Jared Diamond, The World Before Yesterday for an examination of contemporary hunter gathers. It is the default position, and we have been training our selves out of that small world mindset because the driver is a sense that makes us compassionate toward what we identify with and we are constantly finding ways to identify with people more and more remote from our selves.

    Second, I don’t judge them as evil because the circumstance of the world was different. I could not be sure if I put 20’000 well bred New England Episcopalians in in the Bronze Age Near East that they would not sink to the level of barbarity around them. Every town then, because of how often genocide occurred, lived in fear that enemies would do this to them. Why did people sack cities? sometimes this may have been the whim of greedy warlords and princes but sometimes it was desperation by people on the verge of starvation. Whatever the case, the belief that ones neighbors in hard times could turn to deadly foes must not have endeared much sense of common humanity. The stakes them selves, total annihilation has the means to self perpetuate. If one eliminates their enemy now, they wont have to deal with them later. simply dispossessing a town would create a band of desperate starving former city dwellers that could attack at any time. Children were extra mouths to feed, and keeping with the way people identified members of the community, genetically alien never possibly adopted members of the tribe. Basically, in this time, virtually everyone felt this was ok to do to an enemy because every one saw the world through the perspective of their own local tribe, not any sort of global view. People who had them selves been sacked would have concluded that the people who did this to them had no right to do so, but any other group that showed any sign of enmity should certainly be treated this way. Perhaps the custom was reinforced by religious superstition that maintained war captives had to be devoted to the god of the victorious people.

    Now you are completely right that Samson’s act was the same as a suicide bomber. And I would argue that the suicide bomber has the same attitude, not truly evil but deluded about the relationship between his community and the targets and deluded about the stakes of the conflict. What this has to say about the value of the Bible as a source of wisdom for us is that we should not try to justify that these are good acts nor see this as a guide to evil, but to take it for what it is, a step in our development of universal humanity and a cautionary tale for stepping away from that goal. From the individual we can admire their courage, determination, and devotion to those that the loved but not their ethics in concrete fulfillment. What does this say about the God of the Bible? We are free to make mistakes. What ever the truth is that God is communicating we are not compelled to act on it except in glimpses. The books of the Bible were all written by people with the same limited ability to know what ought to be. A complete understanding would require a manual explaining how act in every specific incident in our lives. a literal angel would have to sit on your shoulder with a wand that dispels doubt. Anything less might alleviate some suffering, but in the grand scheme would still be an endless parade of failures based on lack of knowledge, and even then, is their any way for a limited being in the world to know what is true with out doubt? Even if the 10’000 commandments were written in English on the moon and stars, could we not imagine that a higher being has a higher law that this god of the heavens is ignorant of?

  • SpontOrder

    “Evangelicalism is definitely the matrix that brought me to a personal faith” – tell us more?

  • Very nice article. Thanks!