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Exodus Sidebar: The Exodus Story Is Morally Obscene

Exodus Sidebar: The Exodus Story Is Morally Obscene July 16, 2021

As you will know, I have been running a series debunking the Exodus account and, in fact, this has now become a huge book project, co-authored with archaeologist Rebecca Bradley and with the foreword to be written by Assyriologist Dr Joshua Bowen.

I am presently writing a chapter on the morality and theology of the plagues. And I am realising, more than ever before, how morally abhorrent the whole story is. It is just terrible, and apologetics appears to be an attempt to excuse the inexcusable.

I had originally decided to include the term “problem of evil” in the chapter title because I thought that the content therein exemplified the many issues concerning the problem of evil (POE) so forcefully (where the POE seeks to explain why there is so much suffering in the world given God’s omni-characteristics). If God is omniscient, he would know what to do about the great amount of suffering and evil there is in the world, as omnipotent, he would have the power to do something, and being omnibenevolent, he would care enough to act.

However, this is an odd scenario. It’s not that there is a tsunami (conveniently forgetting for a while that God supposedly designed and created a world in which tsunamis cause suffering in the way they do) that needs explanation, or a war, or a mass murderer, or even a naturalistic pestilence. The Exodus plagues are events directly sent down by God. Normally, the theist would need to explain God allowing a tsunami or a genocide to happen without intervening – that there is some greater good that comes from (allowing) such suffering. Instead, the theist is witnessing God directly summoning the pestilence and striking down firstborn children. “Why is God allowing this to happen” becomes “Why is God directly doing this?” Passive inactivity becomes active intervention.

In terms of the will, the former is omissive will (not acting when one could) as opposed to simply willing something to happen, or acting. That said, when one is in a position of being OmniGod, there is no effective difference. If I design the universe (including plate tectonics and disease) and set it in motion, and have the ability to intervene to stop a tsunami or disease or war, but choose not to, this is hardly different to actively sending a pestilence down or outright killing children. One is shifting the active will to the design and creation phase and later relying on missive will qua volitional inactivity. After all, believers adhere to God being the ultimate, knowing designer and creator of all that comes to pass anyway.

So, what are the reasons that God has directly instigated such suffering as seen in the Exodus plagues and subsequent conflicts? This is the realm of apologetics – excusing the inexcusable.

Theists tend to employ moral consequentialism here, such that any suffering that took place is necessary to bring about a greater good. We could spend decades and millennia, as theologians and rabbis have, debating what these greater goods might be – the success of the chosen ones, the delivery of the Decalogue, and so on. The problem with such an approach is in the necessity of the suffering. Could God, in all his infinite wisdom and power, have concocted a better way of delivering such greater goods that didn’t necessitate the suffering and death of countless innocent children (and adults!) and animals? Could God have merely created miracles whereby he magically transported the Hebrews to freedom and gave them all personal copies of the Decalogue? There is nothing to say he couldn’t, given his omni-characteristics.

This point about necessity is worth underlining. The literalist really must believe that this is the very best manner in which to deliver whatever good they perceive that these events deliver. Whatever the good is that outweighs the suffering in some moral calculation, there must be no more benign way of delivering it. Nine plagues simply wouldn’t have sufficed otherwise God is acting and bringing about gratuitous suffering. There can be no such thing as superfluous or gratuitous suffering in the theology of an OmniGod – all suffering must be accounted for and must be necessary for some reason. Not one fewer cow or child could have died. Each and every unit of suffering was necessary.

Is this conceptually plausible? I would argue very strongly that it is not. The literalist is duty-bound by their theology to argue that the Exodus events were the absolute best way of delivering whatever it is they needed delivering (justice, mercy, moral teaching, exhibitions of power or whatever). If not, God falls short of OmniGod.

Indeed, one midrash (Shemot Rabbah) justifies this violence as being necessary, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains:

In linking the redemption of the Israelites from slavery with the ultimate redemption of the world, the midrash implicitly justifies any violence as a necessary means of reaching an unambiguously-positive end. Beyond being a punishment to the Egyptians, the plagues are a step in the process of redeeming the world.

Personally, I find the Exodus story quite morally reprehensible for a whole host of reasons, and find any apologetic attempt to harmonise the biblical claims with an all-loving god quite reprehensible.

Rather, the whole story looks very parochial and, well, legendary.

There is a recognition of this tension between modern moral conceptions, and the writings of old concerning the actions of (parochial) deities going about their divine business, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs continues, “Many contemporary explanations of the ten plagues attempt to reconcile the presumed suffering of the Egyptians with modern-day conceptions of ethics and treatment of the other”.

There could be other reasons, as hinted, for slaughtering animals and children, though. Perhaps it was justice and retribution. Perhaps it was fair to punish the children and animals on account of the sins of others (the Pharaoh). We have already seen that God is a fan of punishing people for the sins of others (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9; Numbers 14:18). Exodus 20:5 is clear:

You shall not worship them nor serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, inflicting the punishment of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me…

God is apparently fine with punishing innocent people on account of the actions of their ancestors. Thus, punishing the Egyptian people and the various ecosystems on account of the Pharaoh’s enforced decision is okay?

Did they – the men, women and children, and the animals – deserve the suffering and death? Was this justice? Or, as previous apologetics from the last chapter have elucidated, was this all justified in being a showcase for God’s power and glory? Is might right? Does God simply have the right to do anything, no matter how disturbing it might seem on its face?

Here is a list of various apologetic defences of the plagues:

  • The Pharaoh was evil and deserved it.
  • The Egyptian people were evil and deserved it.
  • It was necessary to show God’s power, especially in relation to the Egyptians.
  • It was necessary to show God’s mercy.
  • It was necessary to show God’s glory.
  • To teach the Egyptians a lesson.
  • You can’t question God.
  • It is God’s right to do as he pleases.
  • God moves in mysterious ways (I don’t know how it makes sense, but it must).

What other theodicies, defences or arguments could we add to this list, thinking as a literalist or believer?

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