1 Samuel 15 and the Problem of a Bloodthirsty God

1 Samuel 15 and the Problem of a Bloodthirsty God May 9, 2010

I’d like to weigh in with some thoughts on the debate concerning the “bloodthirsty” God of the Old Testament.  In particular, Kyle here has noticed the problems that arise when reading many (not just a few) parts of the Jewish Scriptures.  He also points to the most difficult one of all for me: 1 Samuel 15.  This is important for me because I teach Scripture in a High School, and my first impulse is always just to skip passages like this one so that I don’t have to deal with them.  But then I always correct myself with the realization that someday someone might bring this up to one of my students and ask why God used to be so bloody and then suddenly got nice with Jesus.  The big problem verse is 3: “Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.”  Can God really ask someone to kill men, women and child, innocent and guilty?

Kyle offers for critique one popular interpretation:

According to one reading of the Old Testament, God needed to order genocide for the preservation of his chosen people, who could not survive the influences of certain others, so that the way would be made for the coming of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom. The eternal salvation of everyone in every time and every place depended on the Israelites maintaining their purity as the chosen people. God’s response to those who threatened to pervert and corrupt his chosen people was annihilation: God commanded the killing of men and women, infants, newborns, and livestock. The other had to be obliterated to preserve the same. It was a horrid but necessary order, one that is, according to this reading, no longer necessary. Obsolete, one might say. Christ made the world anew, and so God has no need to give such orders again.

God used to have to give such orders for the protection of his people, but now he no longer has to do this.  A convenient response, but vastly unsatisfying.  God cannot tell someone to kill an innocent person, then or now.  Abraham only believed that God wanted him to kill his innocent son because he did not yet understand the nature of God.  But God is able to make a lesson out of it about child sacrifice.

The other common response I hear is that since God created life, he can order its destruction any time.  I respond that yes, God can take life any time he wants to.  But he cannot order a human agent at any time to take innocent human life.  Only God can do that.

So the problem is present in 1 Samuel 15.  It has always been for me the make or break chapter; the one I have to find a way to interpret if I am to continue to accept the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.  And the problem is big.  Not only does God apparently order the massacre of children, but he also punishes Saul for not finishing the job.  He takes away his kingship for not completing his genocide of an entire people.  The problem is starkly posed for us.

Mark Shea offers one possible direction to an answer:

Among other things, this means that our grasp of what God is saying to us could well take all of human history and beyond to fully see what is going on. So it would seem to me quite on the cards that when God reveals himself to a bunch of Bronze Age savages, he will likely be understood in Bronze Age savage terms involving such matters as herem—the ancient Semitic practice of slaying everybody and everything in a village as, ironically, a pious act (“See Lord! I’m keeping nothing for myself!”). One need not, I think, believe that God desires such things to see that he could use such cultural flotsam in a long-term effort (a successful one, by the way) to move Israel away from such barbarism and ultimate to the revelation of Christ, who offers himself as a sort of burnt offering to save us from our sinful barbarism.

But I am still not sure that I can accept this “permit but not desire” response.  Could God really “use” such activities?  And why would he use them?  Don’t they send the wrong message?  Again, we must remember that in the story, God punishes Saul precisely for not killing everyone, for not being fully obedient.

I can really only offer two possible solutions, and these are what I tell to my students.

First, all revelation from God involves interpretation.  And the Old Testament is loaded with “bronze age savages” misinterpreting the will and plan of God.  Their religious sense was simply less developed.  Religion has undergone a very natural and supernatural evolution, and we must always keep that in mind.  Thus, while Jews of that time period had a very clear sense that God desired ritual and national purity, they also misinterpreted the means by which he wanted this purity maintained.

If we respond this way, what do we do with inspiration?  According to the common meaning, it refers to the fact that God intends what the human author intended to communicate, as far as we can make out by careful study.  But doesn’t the human author in this passage “intend” to say that God wanted everyone killed?  Yes.  But it is not the main point of the passage.  The main point of chapter 15 is obedience to God.  The human author, while having minor intentions that misinterpret God, has his major intention correct: That God desires his king to show complete obedience to him.  Without complete obedience, Israel’s reason for existence is gone.  In this case, the “primary” intention of the author is trumping other “secondary” intentional points that he is making, at least the way I’m interpreting.

Second, we can approach this passage in a very different way.  This response goes something like this: The so-called “Historical Books” from Joshua – 2 Kings are more commonly known to scholars as the “Former Prophets.”  The reason they are called prophetic books is because they are basically an unpacking of the book of Deuteronomy and its main message: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.”  In other words, the Deuteronomistic author wrote them in order to explain to the Israel of his time what happens when God is disobeyed.  They are prophetic more than they are historical.  1 Samuel 15 is not about telling a story from the past, but speaking a word to the present, using a well-known story from the past. These books “speak God’s word” through a series of historical tidbits, legends, stories, tales, etc.  Some might be historical, others are clearly legends, and others morality tales.

In this sense, the “literal” meaning of a story like 1 Samuel 15 would be the prophetic message that it embodies.  Who knows whether or not this event actually happened.  However, whether or not it did, the message is clear: Amalek must be destroyed.  Now, according to the legends of ancient Israel, Amalek had taken on a meaning far great than that of a particular nation.  Amalek represented evil, and the enemies of God’s people.  This goes back to the story in Exodus 17.  Amalek opposes Israel’s journey when God is leading them out of slavery.

So, I tell my students, when we read about Amalek in this story, we should think of them like the Persians in the story of the Battle of Thermopylae.  There probably weren’t exactly 300 Spartans and 10’s of thousands Persians.  That just represents very few and very many.  So Amalek in the story of 1 Samuel 15 is a prophetic symbol of the enemies of Israel.  God needs evil to be destroyed.  If we try to keep it for ourselves, it will destroy us (and so later in the story, Saul’s Amalekite shield bearer kills him).

Amalek is a symbol in a prophetic history of Israel.  And we must read the intention of the author to be to use Amalek as a symbolic character in order to make a point.

This is the interpretation that I prefer, and I belief it is faithful to a proper literal reading of Scripture.  If the true literal meaning according to a proper identification of the genre of 1 Samuel 15 is as “symbolic prophetic history,” then the intention of the author is simply to use the nation of Amalek as a symbol of God’s incompatibility with evil.  Israel also cannot now (at the time of the author) go about making alliances with Egypt and Babylon and still think it is being faithful to the plan of God.

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  • Chris Sullivan

    God can take life any time he wants to.

    I suppose the creator of life has in some sense a certain power over that life.

    But taking this too far would lead to justifying abortion and infanticide as the human parents are also creators of life.

    If man is made in the image of God then there is something of God in man and therefore one cannot kill him, even if one is the creator.

    It is not in the nature of Love to kill, which is why God, who nature is Love, never kills or asks anyone to kill. Ever.

    God Bless

  • Rodak

    That’s a nice try. But, I wonder–what do you say when one of your students asks, “What are we to understand that it is in the “real world” that God demands that we destroy even though it is innocent (babes) or useful (donkeys, camels, etc.); what do these things symbolize? And what is it within ourselves that we must utterly destroy, even though it’s good, in order to propitiate our God?
    “It is obvious that evil must be opposed and eliminated to the very end of our strength to oppose it. But how do we move towards the good by destroying the good along with the evil?”

    I myself ask: Why is it important that Jesus be shown to be descended from King David, since His kingdom ‘is not of the world’ and since King David was clearly a morally flawed individual, the reason for whose role as God’s favorite is not readily apparent. Jesus was clearly not the warrior-messiah who was to restore the House of David to its former glory.

  • Chris Sullivan

    For what it’s worth, scripture shows the Hebrews moving sharply away from the Cherem/ban as moral understanding developed.

    Moral understanding develops. It took the Catholic Church a long time to renounce torture, slavery and the death penalty. And we’re still not quite there yet on war.

    Reading scripture as a long slow process of moral and theological development is helpful here.

    God Bless

  • Chris Sullivan

    On the human authors literal meaning: read “thus says the Lord” in this passage as a prophetic forumalae not as a literal claim from Samuel that God literally did say this.

    Everything humans say about God is an interpretation of what God revealed to the prophet/author.

    Sometimes we get the interpretation very wrong (eg St Francis of Assisi on “Rebuild My Church”).

    I think Nathan’s prophetic reading of this text is very much on the ball.

    Determining the genre is an essential starting point in interpreting any text.

    God Bless

  • bill bannon

    The evolutionary model of ancient man getting better gradually (used by John Paul II in section 40 of Evangelium Vitae) as the source of the dooms ignores Deuteronomy 20 which separates out two kinds of warfare for the Jews wherein the total dooms are only…only… to be done against the named tribes and not on other tribes for which there were other rules within chapter 20…strange delineation for ancient barbarians. Arab historians maintained that the Amalekites were Amorites (one of the named doomed tribes).
    If ancient man was simply justifying his barbarity by ascribing it to God, why did he then limit his warfare to other tribes in Dt.20?

    Chapter 12 of Wisdom gives one of the prime reasons for the dooms of these tribes which you are leaving out of your paradigm. It states that what you see in the dooms comes at the tail end of a process wherein God punished those nations for cannibalism, child sacrifice and idolatry “bit by bit that they may have space for repentance”. But they did not accept the gradual and light corrections. And only then did God move to use the Jews as his arm just as He used Abraham to almost sacrifice his only son Isaac…once again using a Jew as though that Jew were part of God’s consequent or permissive will.

    Two Chapters are key: Wisdom 12 and Deuteronomy 20 and both infer that God indeed brought these things about and did not permit such warfare any place else (Deut.20).
    God is Love but this coming week He will permit many children to die from sickness or car accidents or warfare all over the world. And they will die in terrible ways with some being dismembered. Remember, the New Testament says: Ephesians 5:16 “The days are evil”. It is in the New Testament Acts 12 that Herod Agrippa (who killed James) is killed in a disgusting way by God for sacrilege directly through an angel which contradicts John Paul seeing a refinement in the Sermon on the Mount while he ignored Acts 12.

    Those early deaths of children seems early to us and it wreaks great sorrow on the parents. But God brings greater good out of the evils contained in the Fall like early death; and we will only know that greater good in the next life. The reasons may involved the interior lives of the parents or God may foresee greater evil for these children should they live…no one but God knows why He permits such.

  • “I myself ask: Why is it important that Jesus be shown to be descended from King David, since His kingdom ‘is not of the world’ and since King David was clearly a morally flawed individual, the reason for whose role as God’s favorite is not readily apparent. Jesus was clearly not the warrior-messiah who was to restore the House of David to its former glory.”

    It was important at the time, to convert Jews. Lineage, in monarchical societies, is everything. While researching my wife’s genealogy, specifically her father’s side (family name Sicard de Carufel), I was able to trace her back, without interruption, to Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, since her ancestors were aristocrats (moved to Quebec in the 1600s – Huguenots, who then had to re-convert). The family had to prove, in 1699, that they were indeed aristocrats (a special sort of census at the time, in Montpellier), and their nobility was affirmed. If there’s one “commoner” hiding in your family tree, oops. I’d think that the genealogy the author of Matthew presents was done for similar reasons. Matthew in particular was directed at the Jews. Continuity had to be proven. Like…”See ? You’re not really joining anything new.”

  • Nathan, your argument is, grosso modo, the old “Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.”(What is ok for Jupiter/Jove is not ok for a cow). Double standard, no ? Commonly, one expects others to live by the standards they want others to live by.

  • Rodak

    But, again, the suggestion that a lineage going back to David was important to convert the Jews would be important only if the plan was for Jesus to become a political leader. He specifically and explicitly killed that misconception. On top of that, I think it’s the case that neither of the two (conflicting) genealogies provided for Jesus would be certified as legitimate by a knowledgable 1st century Jew.
    The biological fact is that Jesus could not, as the result of a virgin birth, have been a blood relative of either of his human “parents.” Joseph was not his father. And, minus the male genetic contribution, he would need to have somehow been a clone of Mary. But that would have made him female. I suppose one could say that he was an “adoptive” son of David. But, in any case, the strategem did not work to secure the lasting conversion of very many Jews.

  • Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP


    Brilliant. At the very least this is the spirit that ought to animate the theological investigation. Thanks.

    Br. Matthew

  • David Nickol

    In another thread I was discussing John 3:5 — “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” — and the necessity of real baptism (with water) for salvation. Then I read what Raymond Brown had to say in the Anchor Bible volume The Gospel According to John I-XII, pp. 128-149, and I thought to myself how extraordinarily naive all the comments (including my own) were on the passage. (Among other things, there are very good arguments for assuming the original text said “without being born of the spirit” and that “of water” was inserted at some later point.) I think one of the lessons for me is that I should read more and pontificate less. Another lesson, I think, is that to the extent that these kinds of discussions don’t cite authentic works of Biblical exegesis by qualified scholars, they are enjoyable, like dorm-room discussions, but they are more entertainment that scholarship or religion.

    Regarding 1 Samuel 15, I just wanted to quote a paragraph from John L. McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible that I thought would be of interest.

    The above summary also shows that we should speak of the theologies rather than a theology of the book of Samuel. A proper title of the book would be the origin of the Davidic monarchy; this is what the book relates, and it was probably what the scribes whose work lies at the basis of the book were commissioned to write. These men viewed the monarchy as a divine institution by which Yahweh saved Israel in a crisis. The passing of charismatic leadership of the judges became permanent in the king. But as soon as there was a king the problem arose of the relation of the king, a secular ruler, to the sacral character of Israel as the people of Yahweh. The king could not be above Yahweh, and so in some sense he must be subject to the prophet, the spokesman of Yahweh. The historical kingship did not fulfill its early promise; the reflective narratives ask why this happened. Is it the failure of kings to accept the will of Yahweh, or did Israel as a whole rebel against Yahweh in seeking the political form of monarchy? Israel, as we have said, never resolved the problem, and its two aspects are asserted in subsequent books of the OT: the ideal of the monarchy lives in the idea of the king Messiah, and the antimonarchical school lives in the prophets who see no king in the future of Israel.

    Just briefly (and I take this to be what Chris Sullivan is saying), even for those who believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible including some form of “inerrancy,” to believe that all the words in the Old Testament attributed to God and put in quotation marks are actually directly from God and represent his “thoughts” and his will is to take an incredibly simplistic approach to the Biblical texts.

    One further though. To quote the rather limited pronouncements from Rome about Biblical scholarship as authoritative while disregarding how modern Catholic exegetes in good standing in the Church actually engage in exegesis is rather like holding firm to the American Constitution and rejecting everything the courts have done beginning with Marbury v Madison in 1803. Exegesis is done in practice. It is not just a set of theoretical rules. Of course, those who insist that people like Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, and Joseph Fitzmyer are Modernist heretics will not agree!

  • David Nickol

    . . . God may foresee greater evil for these children should they live . . .

    bill bannon:

    It may be that abortion is God’s way of preventing persons from going to hell who, if they were allowed to be born and grow to adulthood, would commit mortal sins and fail to repent before their deaths.

  • Chris Sullivan

    John L. McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible also has an excellent section on the “ban”.

    Anyone know of any good books on 1Sam15 and related issues ?

    God Bless

  • Isaiah

    It seems to me in approaching this texts there are two options:

    the first is to essentialize violence in the text, that is to say locating in the biblical text itself radical difference, say between the E,J and D writes if one subscribes to the documentary hypothesis. To locate the contradictions, between a God who says thou shalt not kill AND thou shalt kill, in the testimony of Israel herself. This is the hermeneutical strategy of Walter Brueggemann, for example.

    The second option is to essentialize violence into the character of God himself, so that God is not simply creative and for life but also brooding and violent. Violence is written into the heart of God himself. Even if you deny the eternity of any of this violence God nevertheless has blood on his hands.

    I worry that these are the only two options; are there others that can blaze and coherent third way?

  • bill bannon

    According to Christ, a sparrow does not even fall to the groung without your Father’s leave. In short no being falls to the ground without your Father’s leave. Aborted babies do not fall into death without His leave either. That has zero to do with the judgement on the behaviour of the person involved in abortion.

  • Chris Sullivan

    On 1Sam15’s “Thus says the Lord” prophetic preamble phrase, it has always been both the Jewish and the Christian understanding that prophetic claims need to be carefully discerned by the community over time.

    Which seems to be very much what is happening here.

    God Bless

  • Chris Sullivan

    The Collegeville Bible Commentary (it comes with a Nihil Obstat and an Imprimatur) points out that 1Sam15:8 has Saul kill all the Amalekites but later on under David 1Sam30 has a whole Amalekite army capture a town.

    These accounts cannot both be historically accurate as they are contradictory; and the human author would have known that.

    It is therefore clear that the passages in question cannot have been intended by the sacred author as exact history.

    The genre of 1 Samuel will need to be read as something other than exact history, something more akin to story.

    God Bless

  • Rodak

    That goes without saying for almost the entirety of the Bible. The issue is not whether the stories are factual, but rather what lesson we are meant to take away from the contemplation of such tales.
    It is clear from what is factual history, that many people, sometimes under clergical direction, have taken justification of such things as war, slavery, racism, and intolerance from these stories. On that list, only slavery has been “evolved” away from in allegedly Christian nations; the rest still thrive, with their practitioners piously quoting scripture in their defense and promotion.

  • David Nickol

    In short no being falls to the ground without your Father’s leave.


    The NAB has “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge” (Matthew) and “Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? 4 Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God” (Luke). The Greek, as best I understand it, would tend to support “knowledge” rather than “will” or “leave.” I think if your point is that everything that happens is the will of God, you are mistaken. In any case, I don’t think citing one verse, on which you put your own interpretation, answers much of anything, since that verse then becomes a subject of debate.

  • David Nickol

    Let’s not forget that the note in the NAB* says:

    Under the ban: in such wars of extermination, all things (men, cities, beasts, etc.) were to be blotted out; nothing could be reserved for private use. The interpretation of God’s will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral, seminomadic peoples such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.

    *Heretical? Modernist? Mistaken?

  • David Nickol

    I think there are two questions.

    1. As Catholics understand the Bible, are we to read 1 Samuel 15 and understand that because a saying is attributed to God in quotation marks, that saying was communicated by God himself?

    2. As Catholics understand God, would he require human beings to slaughter children?

    I think the clear answer to both is NO.

  • bill bannon

    If lesser historical contradictions can void the entire historical nature of I Samuel and make it more akin to story, then the gospel is void also as history. But I don’t think we can be that quick to list books as pure fiction. Matthew had the cleansing of the temple by Christ at the end of the ministry and John has it at the beginning of the ministry. Even Fr.Raymond Brown didn’t conclude from that contradiction that it never happened. He credibly proved that John had died and a redactor who was finishing the gospel knew of the event but not the timing and so placed it at the incorrect beginning of the gospel.
    It is more likely that Saul’s generation had killed what they thought was “all” the Amalekites except Agag just as Jews within Genesis thought a local flood had covered “all” the earth but the dove detail and the live branch brought back by it after only 7 days interim to the ark indicated that the flood was local and within mountain ridges hence there was a fully grown dry plant past the ridge parameter.

    If also “Thus spake the Lord” is vulnerable even once in its historicity, then the Ten Commandments might also not be from God and I can deduct the one that gives me the most problems. The net result is that we can remake the Bible along the lines of our values and along the lines of what commands we would like to see vanish. Shall we depend on Popes to settle such things? Pope John Paul II saw the ancient death penalties as not really from God and signs of an unrefined culture (section 40 of EV)and Pope Sixtus V executed thousands of criminals in Rome in the late 16th century, and executed a priest and his gay companion, and executed a mother who pimped her daughter. Which Pope was plugged into the truth? Always the latter Pope due to evolutionary progress? But Pope Nicholas condemned torture in 866 and Pope Innocent IV brought it back in 1253. So evolutionary progress does not in the long run observe chronology and thus Popes as interpreters outside the infallible charism are not totally reliable.

  • Ronald King

    What we interpret from the bible reveals the underlying disposition of our heart in relationship to God and His creatures. Physical violence first occurred as a problem-solving method when one brother was jealous of a younger brother. The earth cried out in anguish, yet God did not permit Cane to be harmed.
    After the flood God says that there are consequences for men and animals taking another’s life. What are we to understand about that in relation to the rest of the violence that lies ahead?

  • In Matt. 8: 28-34, Jesus is confronted by two demoniacs who are so afraid of Jesus and the fate that awaits them that they beg to sent into a herd of swine. Their plan to evade capture fails of course, when the swine plunge into the sea and drown. Without a host to hide in, God’s holy angels could remove them permanently from the face of the earth.

    How does that relate to the problem of the destruction of the Amalekites? If the people were so infested with demons that to spare any of them would have meant bringing a plague of demons back into the nation of Israel, then the only solution was to kill them all and their animals. The fact that Saul disobeyed may have changed history in a way that lead to centuries of conflict and suffering that could have been avoided.

    If repentance and salvation are not possible, then the length of one’s life and the time of one’s death are of no real significance. Seen in context, God’s command was both wise and just. Indeed, if any of the Amalekite children truly were innocent, this might have been the only way to save them.

  • David Nickol

    If lesser historical contradictions can void the entire historical nature of I Samuel and make it more akin to story, then the gospel is void also as history.

    Bill Bannon,

    But the Gospels are not history, which is not to say they are “fiction” and devoid of historical content.

    If also “Thus spake the Lord” is vulnerable even once in its historicity, then the Ten Commandments might also not be from God and I can deduct the one that gives me the most problems.

    Leviticus 25:44-46

    “Slaves, male and female, you may indeed possess, provided you buy them from among the neighboring nations. You may also buy them from among the aliens who reside with you and from their children who are born and reared in your land. Such slaves you may own as chattels, and leave to your sons as their hereditary property, making them perpetual slaves.”

    Exodus 21:20-21

    “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.

    Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

    Is it not a little strange to imagine that the following (Exodus 21:35) is part of God’s “revelation” . . . . :

    “When one man’s ox hurts another’s ox so badly that it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide this money as well as the dead animal equally between them.”

    … and that God spoke directly to people like King David, but he never gives quotable quotes to the popes to use in encyclicals? Why did God stop talking?

  • David Nickol

    If the people were so infested with demons that to spare any of them would have meant bringing a plague of demons back into the nation of Israel, then the only solution was to kill them all and their animals.


    Why couldn’t God just cause all the Amalekites to walk off a cliff, like the pigs? Why did he order human beings to slaughter children when it would have been sinful of them to obey?

  • bill bannon

    The Bible gives the two reasons for the dooms already:

    1. (Dt.20) So that the Jews who were void of sanctifying grace and hence vulnerable would not be corrupted by the nations involved…”lest they teach you to make any such abominable offerings as they make to their gods”.

    2. (Wisdom 12) The second reason is that God had punished those nations for human sacrifice and cannibalism etc. “bit by bit that that may have space for repentance” but they would not repent so He brought the dooms using the Jews as His method.

  • When a person acts in obedience to God there is no sin. Samuel and Saul would not have understood the command to be immoral. Hence, they could act with a clear conscience. More importantly the command was not immoral if the circumstances were anything like what I described.

  • Lamont, the problem is that God cannot order us to do something contrary to his own laws, i.e, kill innocent people. Also, has God ever spoken to you this clearly? I don’t think there is any communication with God that is not interpretation, so if you’ve never heard God say, “kill so and so” without interpreting that as probably not from God, then how could Saul?

  • Chris,

    I tend to agree with you. This “history” is more like prophetic literature and story wrapped together. This doesn’t void the fact that is was very important that God work closely in history for the Jews. It is just to understand that they understood “history” very different than us. It’s meaning was more important than facts, and they chose to communicate that meaning primarily through the medium of stories.

  • bill bannon

    Slavery is awful not morally evil in all historical contexts; stoning adulterers was awful not evil; asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son that he had waited ages for was awful not evil; actually being sent to Hell for eternity because you despaired right at the end of life is awful not evil; being sent to hell in general is awful not evil.
    It is not just this issue of dooms or slavery that is bothering modern Christians. It is tons of things within both the OT… and the NT whose latter epistles say: Hebrews 10:31 “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God”…James 4:4 “he who wishes to be a friend of this world becomes the enemy of God”. That is the NT where also Herod was killed by God in Acts 12 and so were others in Acts 5.
    Let’s deduct those too from the Bible. Let’s get the Bible to the point where it sounds like Khalil Gibran or Ophra Winfrey by deducting all that is severe which is half the Bible….(which is the reason Catholics do not read the whole thing by the time they die…despite reading tons of theologians or secular matter over the same lifetime).

    The Trent catechism protects slavery in its comments on theft and on coveting; it too is incorrect just as the current catechism is incorrect from the other end of the spectrum.
    Let a Pope step forward and declare slavery “intrinsically evil” but in the infallible formula which John Paul II used on abortion in section 62 of Evangelium Vitae and used on two other issues therein. It will never happen and John Paul could have done it and did not do so as to his list within “Splendor of the Truth”.

    Slavery is evil by context right now in history because there are real alternatives (except in Haiti where it now flourishes with no Catholic or Vatican activism against it that I see…I see no word by Benedict on the matter in that largely Catholic country and the whole Church seems to have moved on to the Portugal trip). Last night Soledad OBrien on CNN showed that parents there in Haiti are selling children for $10 to feed their other children and the new slaves at least have their next meal.
    But slavery is not intrinsically evil so as to have been immoral in all economies. During many times, if you fled slavery you would have starved as in Haiti now for a child. In the context of that economy and that time in history when Christ had not yet brought grace nor relatively subdued the demons (hence now there are very few possession cases), slavery was a widespread sad but not evil reality. Neither the Catechism nor “Splendor of the Truth” nor NAB footnotes nor modern theologians have infallibility. The Pope does not unless he actually uses it.

    The violence of your second cite:

    Exodus 21:20
    “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.
    If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.”

    Yes, that is awful but not evil in context. Stoning those who cursed their parents was awful but not evil. Christ refers to the latter law as coming from God in Mark 7…see caps especially therein:

    For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother SHALL DIE.’
    Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”‘ 4 (meaning, dedicated to God),
    you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother.
    You nullify the WORD OF GOD in favor of your tradition that you have handed on.”

    So Christ saw a awful death penalty as coming from God as His Word.

  • Rodak

    For what “good” act is the killing of a child a functional symbol?

  • David Nickol

    Slavery is awful not morally evil in all historical contexts . . .


    Sorry. Buying, selling, and owning human beings as property was always immoral and always will be. It is one thing not to judge people of other times and other cultures for not realizing this. But it is quite another to say that God gave his blessing to chattel slavery for the Hebrew people. The worth of each human life may not have been apparent to the people who lived in Biblical times, but it was always known to God.

    If slavery isn’t intrinsically evil, then nothing is.

  • Rodak

    People seem to be simultaneously arguing that the same acts in these scriptures are: a) merely symbolic; and that; b) they describe scenarios of actual historical necessity w/r/t the teleology of Jewish Messianic history. Which is it?

  • David Nickol

    Let a Pope step forward and declare slavery “intrinsically evil” but in the infallible formula which John Paul II used on abortion in section 62 of Evangelium Vitae and used on two other issues therein. It will never happen and John Paul could have done it and did not do so as to his list within “Splendor of the Truth”.


    How is this passage — paragraph 80 of Veritatis splendor, quoting Gaudium et Spes — anything less than a declaration that slavery is intrinsically evil?

    Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.

  • David Nickol

    Bill Bannon,

    If you are going to argue that when the pople declares slavery intrinsically evil in Veritatis splendor by noting that Gaudium et Spes lists it as intrinsically evil, he is not speaking infallibly, it nevertheless remains that both Pope John Paul II and Gaudium et Spes declare slavery intrinsically evil. While Veritatis splendor and Gaudium et Spes may not be infallible in whole or in part, nevertheless they carry a lot more weight any arguments presented here that slavery is not intrinsically evil. Surely Pope John Paul II and the authors of Gaudium et Spes were aware of the passages in the Bible in which God gives his blessing to the owning of slaves, so it is difficult to argue that their declaration of slavery as an intrinsic evil was some kind of oversight on their part.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Rodak, it used to be thought, for most of human history, that semen equals child. Like an acorn in the soil (womb). There was no knowledge of the ovum or genetics. This might explain why Augustine viewed masturbation as worse than hetero incest. The genealogies offered in the Gospels indicate that the authors viewed Jesus as the child of Joseph and Mary. Their miraculous belief regarding it seems more like Sarah and Abraham procreating. Indeed, why would the lineage of foster parents matter ? Jesus seems to be viewed as the chosen one among their other children. Obviously, the idea to give birth while remaining a virgin would have seemed strange to people of any knowledge level. It is only accepted by those whose faith depends on it. Not that I fault them within thier context – if it is believed that someone can be resurrected, anything else is possible, too.

  • Nathan,
    We do not know if any of the Amalekite children were innocent. Certainly they were all touched by original sin and all of them may have been possessed by demons. In any case, God could have commanded their destruction without contradiction. I do not think that Samuel misinterpreted God. If this is not an historically accurate account, then it is a very strange story to make up. And stranger still is why God would allow it to be included in the Bible.

  • David Nickol

    We do not know if any of the Amalekite children were innocent. Certainly they were all touched by original sin and all of them may have been possessed by demons.


    Neither being “touched by original sin” nor being possessed by demons makes a child less than innocent when what is being contemplated is its slaughter. Since according to Catholic doctrine, all unbaptized infants are “guilty” of original sin, if they are not innocent, then abortion would not be the taking of an innocent human life.

    A person possessed by a demon is considered blameless by the Catholic Church unless, of course, the demon is invited, and infants are incapable of making a decision to invite demonic possession.

    If this is not an historically accurate account, then it is a very strange story to make up.

    There is an enormous amount of room on the spectrum between a historically accurate account on one end and pure fiction on the other end. We can see examples of events being attributed to God in everyday life. People on the news whose homes (or lives) were spared from natural disasters often attribute it to God. We even occasionally (although rarely) hear people to whom something tragic has happened attribute it to God. I saw someone on television the other day whose teenage daughter had been killed say, “God had other plans for her.” It does not require any stretching of the imagination to assume that those writing the story of Saul and Samuel would describe what they believed to be Saul’s duty to be a direct commandment from God.

  • I’m not saying it’s made up. Just that it is not pure history as we think of it. It is a sixth or fifth century reflection on something that had happened over five-hundred years earlier and been passed on via oral tradition. Must gets lost, and the actual events become stories meant to illustrate a point, etc. There is very little in the patriarch stories of Genesis that we can consider anything close to history. They are legends to communicate a truth. Same here: 1 Samuel 15 is a prophetic symbolic narrative meant to communicate a truth. God would leave the mistaken insights in the story to so later generations of Israelites can see how much they have grown.

  • bill bannon


    “Gaudium et Spes”, a pastoral constitution (not dogmatic) called it “criminal” and John Paul used “intrinsic evil” for it. Read Noonan. Canon Law supported slavery til 1917 as did the majority of theologians and even some of the Popes who wrote the anti slavery bulls but who allowed the exceptions of the theologians century after century.
    I hope the Vatican and the Pope tax each Catholic 3 dollars US for the year which would be over 3 billion dollars and they could resettle all people in Haiti including the Catholic child slaves in the major countries of teh world with housing and training.
    Will it happen? I’m busy raising money each week for Chinese deserted babies. Maybe a modern Catherine of Siena will badger Rome to do something about slavery within a predominant Catholic country…going on right now…rather than in a document. We have become a library.

  • Chris Sullivan


    1Sam15:8 reads:

    Saul routed Amalek from Havilah to the approaches of Shur, on the frontier of Egypt.

    He took Agag, king of Amalek, alive, but on the rest of the people he put into effect the ban of destruction by the sword.

    That is a clear claim that Saul killed all the Amakelites except Agag. Not that Saul said he killed em all. But that he did kill em all.

    One just can’t read these passages literallistically.

    They are prophetic story based loosely on historical events as Nathan O’Halloran, SJ has explained very well.

    The veracity or otherwise of papal actions and teachings depends on whether or not they conform to love. Sometimes that requires a long process of blunder and discernment.

    God Bless

  • bill bannon

    Saul thought he did get all.
    Good then. You are against slavery in your mind. Now let it get into your will and actions. Badger Rome by mail to stop slavery in Haiti, a dominantly Catholic country. Check Soledad O’Brien’s report at CNN once it gets there from last night.

  • Chris Sullivan


    The text doesn’t say that Saul THOUGHT he killed em all.

    The text says Saul DID kill em all.

    Therefore, what the text says cannot be interpreted literalistically as it conflicts with the later passage 1Sam30.

    God Bless

  • David Nickol


    If slavery is awful but not immoral sometimes, than how do we tell when it is just awful and may be tolerated, and when it is immoral? (That is a rhetorical question. I don’t see the point in having a discussion.) I am not big on the concept of intrinsic evil, but if owning another human being as a piece of property is not always wrong, and if slaughtering children (even at God’s command) is not always wrong, I would have to say that anything can be justified with the right arguments. You just have to be convince yourself it is God’s will.

  • david

    I think you’re on the money here. _dave

  • bill bannon

    Out of the library, Chris, that this Church has become and get into badgering the Pope on Haiti’s slavery since he and Rome seem oblivious to it and I expect there will be another Mozart concert in the hall of Castel Gandalfo when the summer comes in. Catherine of Sienna did badger Popes and became famous…though few mention her badgering of the Popes in Avignon.

  • bill bannon

    Killing children will never again be ordered by God because Revelation has closed. And I believe that therein God saved all those children from being evil later on since He did the same thing with the children of Dathan and Abiram who He knew would grow to be like their parents prior to sanctifying grace:

    Num 16:27 So they got up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.
    Num 16:32 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that [appertained] unto Korah, and all [their] goods.

  • Carl

    The two explanations offered here fall short because:

    1) It is the Catholic faith that God did not inspire merely “the main point” of what the biblical writers were “trying” to say, but rather “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted and nothing more” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 11).

    2. I am happy you refer 1 Samuel 15 back to Deuteronomy. This conversation belongs in Deuteronomy, not in 1 Samuel. This episode is rightly seen as a kind of footnote to Deuteronomy. But in Deuteronomy, God not only commands genocides but explains the command. It is not because he is “bloodthirsty,” but because the alternative would mean a greater evil than genocide, namely, these nations would teach Israel “to do according to all their abominable practices” (Dt 20:18).

  • Carl

    Nathan O’Halloran, S.J.,

    There is no evidence in Sacred Scripture that children of sinners are born innocent. Even in the remarkable text of Ezekiel 18: “Why should the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” (vs. 19). The response is that a son can free himself from his father’s iniquity “when the son has done what is lawful and right.” The message here is about repentence being the remedy for sins, whether personal or inherited.

    Although there is not a clearly worked out concept of original sin present in Scripture, it is very clear that our default state is inherited. The children of sinners are sinful. The children of righteous are righteous.

    It cannot be maintained, therefore, that the children of the cursed nations were “innocent.” They were not merely guilty because of the universal state of original sin – it isn’t clear whether the sacred writers of the Old Testament believed in the universal sinfulness of man – but these children were very specifically guilty because of the state of these nations.

    Ezekiel introduces us to the idea that we can change this deposit by our own free choice. St. Paul introduces us to the idea that we’ve all inherited at least some essential guilt from our first ancestor.

    But the general concensus of Scripture is that our default moral character is not universal, but particular to the deposit of righteousness or guilt that our ancestors have left to us.

  • Nathan this is an excellent article! Thank you.

  • I am not a Biblical scholar. Like most Catholic in history, I have a profound aversion to reading the Bible. Nevertheless, my studies in Catholic folklore, history, and even just family stories, make me far more accepting of Biblical violence and death than all of you seem to be. I remember when I was eight and my grandmother told us that someone collapsed and died because he didn’t fast on Good Friday, or the black skull that my other grandmother kept on her altar, or the stories of saints taking their vengeance out on people who do not hold up their end of the bargain for a favor granted. The Catholicism spoken of in these comments seems to be an “enlightened” one that sleeps well at night knowing that economic prosperity and a functional police force protect us from each other. God therefore takes on the characteristics of a society based on prosperity and rule of law. “Surely, God can’t do that! God is not a barbarian!”

    Alas, I have to point out that the vast majority of the world doesn’t live like that. They don’t think things are solved by letter writing or an act of civil disobedience. Perhaps that is why, in our era of globalization, Catholic societies in Latin America are starting to “folk canonize” thugs, historical bandits, and even death itself. Maybe God does act like a gangster in the Old Testament, and we find that appalling. That drives us to try to find ways to weasel out of the “plain sense” of Scripture into something more in sync with the sensibilities of a tolerant, civilized world. The Fathers of the Church did this as well in many places. That’s fine, if you’re in to that sort of thing. I would just point out that most of the world isn’t like that, and neither was the world of the Bible. We have grown accustomed to thinking that violence and the sacred are contradictory, but for the majority of history, they were intimately connected.

  • Rodak

    It is also true that it is the teachings of Jesus Christ (a.k.a. the Prince of Peace) which have given us some of our crazy ideas about the evils of killing and brutality.

  • Carl

    Arturo Vasquez,

    Are you suggesting that we are repulsed by parts of the Bible that the vast majority of humanity would find most attractive? What appears to us as a vindictiveness unbecoming of God should properly be seen as a vindication that is most becoming of him?

  • David Nickol

    Killing children will never again be ordered by God because Revelation has closed.


    Public revelation, according to Catholic teaching, closed with the death of the last apostle. Private revelation still occurs (Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, La Salette, etc.), so what’s to stop a president or a general from having a private revelation commanding him to wipe out an entire population?

  • Carl


    Ricouer is using the term “radical” to distinguish the origin of evil from the origin of good, which he calls “primordial.” In locating death and disintegration in God’s decision to create physical beings, you assigning what Ricouer would not call a “radical” but a a “primordial” origin of evil:

    “The distinction between radical and primordial is essential to the anthropological character of the Adamic myth; it is that which makes man a BEGINNING of evil in the bosom of a creation which has already had its absolute BEGINNING in the creative act of God” (TOB, p. 138).

    This seems to be just Ricouer’s point: The myth exists to help us enter and understand the rupture between the ontological goodness of creation and creation’s undeniable historical state of confusion between good and evil. “The proto-historical myth,” says Ricouer via JP2, “thus served not only to generalize the experience of Israel, applying it to all mankind, at all times and in all places, but also to extend to all mankind the great tension between condemnation and mercy that the teaching of the prophets had revealed in the particular destiny of Israel.” Even as our fallen historical nature calls out for condemnation, our persisting created nature calls out for mercy.

    You assume that the laws of physics and biology come from God. Why? It seems obvious that the laws of physics and biology – the laws of entropy and decay – themselves reflect the rupture between God’s creative intention and the historical state of affairs to which the biblical writer is speaking.

  • bill bannon

    There was a second reason besides feared corruption that the dooms were given and that is found in Wisdom 12: God had previously punished those nations “bit by bit that they might have space for repentance” but they did not repent under that patience of God. So the dooms came only after the “long suffering” patience of God. If you are Protestant, you don’t have that book but you can find it online here:


    Read from verse 3 onward so that if you are Catholic, you can give both reasons to listeners.

  • grega

    Obviously the creator of the universe was not in any particular mood to leave us with anything solid at all. The real miracle is perhaps that such a collection of very dated, extremely contradictory narratives was ever able to inspire billions of people in such a profound way. Then again equally incomplete narratives and moody he said she said write ups seem to have sufficed to inspire folks pursuing other religions. One has to keep an eye on the fact that this sort of thing seem to work for humans of all cultures and walks of life.
    For me Religions are a bit like music – most of us seem to enjoy music as long as we are not forced to go down to a discussion of the single note.
    but certainly some of us can get much pleasure of debating the singularities.
    What is one to make of the fact that ‘holy’ scripture obviously had no problem talking rather openly about slavery and slaves. Obviously this are very dated texts written for the audience of the time by authors in the language of the time. I am not loosing sleep over it.

  • Rodak

    If the laws of physics and biology were not used by God to create the material universe, then Adam wasn’t really created (even metaphorically) from “mud” and the result wasn’t really “human” in the way that we are human. And the “sun” and the “moon”–the lights that God placed in the heavens–weren’t the sun and the moon, nor were the “stars” the stars that we know.
    If the materials that God used to create the universe were not subject to the laws of mathematics, physics, biology, then that universe was good precisely because it was not material. But it was necessarily as remote from anything we know as is heaven.
    So we are only quibbling over the timing. I’m saying that what is material now was always material. You’re apparently saying that it became material from some other state in the instant that Eve bit the fruit–“Poof! You’re material!”

  • Rodak

    I’m disagreeing with Ricoeur (whose name I wish that you would learn to spell correctly) about what it is that is the “root” of the human condition. I think that Ricoeur’s scheme fails to take God’s omniscience into account, for one thing. (How could things have been so badly designed as to fail almost immediately, if God had eternal foreknowledge?) This is always the catch, when one comes up against the Problem of Evil. (I realize that this is not the Ricoeur thread, but to reply to Carl there would only add more confusion.)

  • bill bannon

    And yet Christ said to the devil in the desert: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that cometh forth from the mouth of God.”
    He did not say we live by getting the gist of Isaiah or the gist of Proverbs. Were that the case, we could reduce the Bible to a 30 page summary and save paper and trees.

  • Ronald King

    Bill Bannon, I wrote the pope in September of 2007 and asked him to lead us on a pilgrimage to Darfur to care for the widows and the orphans and show the world through the action of its leader that Catholicism is a faith of the action of love first and explanation later. It was 1500 words in length and calling to sacrifice himself in this holocaust of human evil as Christ and His Mother and Father did.
    I received a letter about a month later from the Vatican’s office in DC stating the pope read my letter and shares my concerns for those suffering in Darfur and that I and my family were given a blessing and prayers from the pope.
    The kicker was a suggestion to read his first encyclical God Is Love.
    I agree with you Bill that we must pressure the pope with action of some sort. However, it seems that our action must be a sufficient enough sacrifice that it cannot be ignored. It must be something that rocks their complacency and comfort within the safety of their intellect.

  • Re: God and brutality:

    No, I am suggesting that people would UNDERSTAND the violence in the Bible more if it is part of their daily lives, if the death of infants is part of their daily lives, etc. And they would definitely understand that it is better for God to just take people out than let them go about the Earth attacking the innocent. They are not given to playing our existential games, and don’t spend their time wondering why bad things happen “to good people”. They have a more fatalistic outlook on life, not given to our prejudices of “realized eschatology”.

    And last time I checked my Bible, Christ said that He would bring the sword and not peace, and He was seen in Revelation as a warrior mounted on a white steed. Maybe that is not in your Bible, but a little bit of balance is appreciated.

  • bill bannon

    Excellent story and point. I once copied each Bishop and many of the auxiliary Bishops about several issues….alot of time writing addresses and a lot of stamps. At least you got an echo. I didn’t even get a form postcard.

  • bill bannon

    Had not seen your reply at first. Yes a political leader could do that; but that is not the fault of Scripture since Deuteronomy 20 limited that type of warfare to the named tribes.

  • grega

    Bill, isn’t scripture in reality a huge religious Rorschach test?
    Of course ALL of us pretend otherwise but really when it comes down to it at any given time in the rather short 2000 year history of the christian religion humans emphasized and deemphasized the passages very much according to the trends of the time.
    We very much follow that scheme today of course – Add to that the layer of ‘interpretation’ and new “translation” and you have a pretty convoluted picture indeed – LOL the opposite of what you fear(30 pages) will happen – with everything going digital the future christian will have ALL the written documents at his/her fingertip.
    I bet in years to come the digital bible available on kindle will offer anything from digitized pictured of the orignal source texts to your 30 page executive summary.
    For me the only real miracle is that despite the obvious contradictions and unbelievable shortcomings generation after generation of us humans likely will continue to find ways to keep ever more balls in the air.
    (IMHO At some point the desire to start new with a fewer balls will have majority appeal – obviously if history is any guidance the days of the latest iteration in specific religious expression are rather finite.)
    What is 2000 years really in light of Millions+ years of human development – not to mention Billions in development of the universe.

  • Carl

    Bill Bannon,

    I don’t think the reason provided in Wisdom 12 explains why God issued the “charam” (the hebrew term for the divine command to indiscriminately slaughter the men, women, children and livestock of the seven nations), but rather it explains why God took so long in seeing the charam through to its final execution.

    A case can be made that God issued the charam in order to confront these nations with the severity of their sins and bring them to repentence. But I’m not sure that if this was the primary goal, it couldn’t have been accomplished more effectively in another way (I’m thinking of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh). Had these nations repented, it would have prevented Israel from taking root in the land.

    What could not be accomplished more effectively in another way – at least according to Dt 20:18 – is the preservation of Israel from the “abominable practices” of these nations, which Wisdom lists in an extremely graphic manner (12:3-6).

    God bless!

  • Carl


    First, let me thank you for pointing out my misspelling of Ricoeur. Very few things in life are more delicious than correcting myself when I’m wrong, even in a matter as small and trivial as this.

    Second, my point is not that the laws of physics and biology do not come from God, but that along with the rest of creation, they were subjected to corruption “from the beginning.” In other words, if man – as the head of God’s creation – cannot be regarded as a totally reliable expression of God’s will, then nothing can. Creation is in “schism” with its Creator. The etymology of the Hebrew word for “evil” is closely related to the etymology of the Greek “skhisma”: We are speaking of a “breaking” or a “division” that pierces creation even into its foundational architecture. Even the laws of physics and biology should be regarded as having been created by God but corrupted through sin.

    Third, the fact that things broke down so quickly is a testimony to the perfection of the design. If God wanted to create a man in such a way that he was immediately presented with a fundamental choice for or against his Creator, the design was really rather perfect. If the goal is to delay that choice as long as possible, then the design was bad. If the goal was for the choice to be immediate and fundamental, the design was really quite good.

    Your problem isn’t with Ricoeur or me, but with the text itself. It completely contradicts your interpretation.

  • bill bannon

    I think both reasons became necessary simultaneously. We are dealing with God who alone knows all things past present and future in one glance according to Aquinas. He did not make a mistake in seeing them to be dealt in a way other than Nineveh. In that latter case, God spoke of their intellectual confusion as ameliorating….4:11
    “And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

  • Rodak

    When a man designs a machine, he doesn’t design it to break down an hour after he starts it running. The question is not whether God could design a world that was going to go into schism shortly after its creation. The question is WHY a rational being would want to do so? What did God prove by making an imperfect creature, telling it to be perfect anyway, and then punishing it with death for failing to do the impossible? This is the problem of evil. And you have yet to address it; you continue only to describe it.
    I think there is one theory that attempts to answer that question by surmising that God made a man who would inevitably sin so that the Incarnation would be necessary. That makes about as much sense as my engineer deliberately building a defection machine in order to make repair men necessary. What one would want is a good machine and a satisfied customer using it to do what it was designed to do.

  • Carl

    I am unconvinced whether the charam was a strictly “necessary” or merely “appropriate” way to confront these nations with the severity of their sin. Scripture doesn’t say, such as it very explicitly says that the charam was necessary to preserve Israel from falling into the abominable practices of these nations.

    I’m certainly not implying God made a mistake in choosing the manner in which to confront the sins of these nations. It merely seems that if the primary goal were to bring about the repentence of these nations, another method of confronting them would be more efficacious. If, however, the primary goal was to preserve Israel, the method was perfect.

    In the case of Nineveh, God was interested in seeing to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. This is why Jonah didn’t want to go. He knew that if the Assyrians got their act together, it would not end well for the Israelites.

    I would therefore interpret Wisdom 12 as an explanation of how God’s mercy was operative even during the charam. As for why God issued the charam, the writer of Wisdom seems to regard it as an impious question: “Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations which you made? … You are righteous and rule all things righteously, deeming it alien to your power to condemn him who does not deserve punishment” (vs. 12, 15).

    The writer of the Wisdom doesn’t really tell us why God issued the charam. To him, the undeniable fact that God issued it is enough to justify it.

  • Chris Sullivan

    The Holy Father said something yesterday on the plane to Portugal which sheds light on how inspiration works:

    As I said in the presentation, there is a supernatural impulse which doesn’t come simply from someone’s imagination but from the supernatural reality of the Virgin Mary. That impulse enters into a subject, and is expressed according to the possibilities of the subject, who is determined by his or her historic situation. The supernatural impulse is translated, so to speak, according to the subject’s possibilities for imagining it and expressing it. In this expression formed by the subject, there are always hidden possibilities to go beyond, to go deeper. Only with time can we see all the depth which was, so to speak, dressed in this vision, which was possible for the concrete person.


    I think this is helpful in interpreting 1Sam15.

    God Bless

  • Carl


    Men don’t design machines for the purpose of enabling consumers to share in their own blessed life and eternal love. Therefore, your analogy stinks: God’s purpose in creating the world was not that of a watchmaker.

    This explains your inability to understand that God’s purpose in designing creation was to fix it after it broke. What man gains by the redemption is greater than what he lost through sin.

    The “machine” that God really wanted to make could not have been made unless the first machine broke. The best season of Tommy John’s career (1979) could never have happened had he not first busted his arm (1974) and undergone that wonderful revolutionary surgery that still bears his name.


    PS. Speaking of extremely old, historically mediocre pitchers….

    Congratulations to Jamie Moyer on becoming the oldest pitcher to ever hurl a complete-game shutout. I’m willing to bet that this record will outlive all of us. Of course, I’m not sure how I’d win that bet!

  • To Carl and Rodak –

    My one fiftieth of a dollar on the issues of the nature of the world before the Fall and after as relating to physics and the concept of matter:

    I don’t see how one can attribute the laws of physics in their entirety to the Fall. The laws of thermodynamics do not exhaust all the laws of physics, nor is it clear that entropy must have its sole ontological origin in the rupture of the world caused by the Fall. There is beauty and order in the world that is due to the fact that it follows laws whose origin must be divine intentionality. It seems obvious to me that some kind of dispersal of energy over space is logically inseparable from the existence of a world that has both. I am also fairly certain that mankind after the Fall shares the same nature, now corrupted by the effects of sin, as mankind before the Fall. Having some kind of physicality and corporeality seems to be part of what remains from the original creation. It may be a terminological quibble, but insofar as God created a material world, is it not clear that it is exactly that physicality and corporeality that the abstract concept of matter is about?

    This is specifically for Rodak – if the world God created before the fall was material in the sense that it was created with physical laws that are more or less the same as they are now (a position I favor), then shouldn’t the scriptural affirmations of the goodness of the world be understood as affirmations of the goodness of that material existence? If so, then equating goodness with spirit and the denial of goodness to matter per se, besides being gnostic, is simply contrary to the intention of the human author of the text, for whatever you think that is worth.

  • FWIW, I really tried to give this interpretation of the literal sense of 1st Samuel 15 credence. I wanted to believe it. But since even the one arguing for it admits that the inspired author meant to assert that God literally commanded the genocide, I don’t see how such a view can be reconciled with the Catholic teaching on scriptural inerrancy.

  • Rodak

    Unlike the controversial parts of Samuel, there was nobody around to hear God pronounce the creation to be good. Therefore, the human author of Genesis must be retrospectively concluding that if God is good, the creation must also be good. But if it’s built to fall apart, then the falling apart is also good. Physical death, however, has never been considered “good” by mortals, so far as I can discern. The physical body falls apart and dies, but the spirit (the “good” component) lives on; hopefully with God (however that is to be understood.)
    It just seems to me (and has seemed to others before me) that the use of the word “good” in Genesis needs a bit of explanation in order for it to conform to our usual understanding of the it usage.

  • Ronald King

    FWIW, Kevin your humility is an example for me to follow. God Bless You. Ron

  • Ronald King

    An ignorant yet thought out opinion on creation since my encounter with several physicists in my life and work capped by God’s Love led me to Genesis through the lens of Love. In the beginning there was not the order of the universe that we now observe. God began with a single thought of light. Light was divided from darkness and contrast was created. Instead of God being the only luminous light that encompasses all light, it appears that God split in different frequencies of light and set it up for the existence of all of creation to be able to have being in these different frequencies each with their own unique physical capabilities within these different frequencies, but still connected with God. Thus God is through all and in all.
    However, within each creation God is experienced through the frequency of that particular existence and thus we have a veil that covers our ability to see.
    The Garden can be seen as the training ground through which man begins to become self-aware. Man evolves from being naive about God, self and others into a state of shock such as birth when the peace of innocence is lost when we are removed from the protection of that naivete. He then must develop in a world that is in its beginning stage of its own evolution.
    However, the kicker is discovering that what really brings order to this chaos is love. Where there is love chaos ends and a new order or creation begins. We did not fall we fell into a state of chaos in which we must create order through the love that God created in us. That is what the world responds to in a cooperative way.
    Too tired to go on. I hope this makes sense.

  • Rodak

    I think you make very good sense. The story of Eden is clearly about the price to be paid for self-awareness by creatures existing on the material plane.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Rodak wrote, “When a man designs a machine, he doesn’t design it to break down an hour after he starts it running. The question is not whether God could design a world that was going to go into schism shortly after its creation. The question is WHY a rational being would want to do so? What did God prove by making an imperfect creature, telling it to be perfect anyway, and then punishing it with death for failing to do the impossible? ”

    This is the exact reason why I’m back to being a “heathen.” (Not that I ever believed in Adam & Eve as actual people). The God of the Jewish Scriptures would be on trial at The Hague, were he around today.

    Then we get the “greater good” argument – God allows evil so a greater good can come from it. I’d like to meet the greater good achieved by 6,000,000 murdered Jews.

    What is the meaning of life ? Reduce the suffering of others. The God described here doesn’t do that. He orders genocide. But – Let’s look outside of acts caused by human free will or ordered by God. There are horrific diseases, atrocious ways to die. What loving being would come up with Lou Gehrig’s disease ? Alzheimer’s ? Leprosy ? Children dying of cancer, you name it. None of that would be necessary for people to die or to grant free will. The kicker is that the “redemptive power of suffering” will be cited. I’ve always found that outrageous. Again, nobody else would get away with this except for the God one believes in. No “loving father” would ever do such things.

    Not to mention that the concept of hereditary guilt is thoroughly immoral, as is collective guilt. That neighboring tribes had to be eradicated because they weren’t Israelites – duh – is an absurd proposition. It reminds me of Charlie Brown saying to Snoopy, “Why can’t you be a pony ?” If any of you read stories like this one from 1 Samuel in any other book not deemed holy you’d be appalled. In the name of this belief, however, anything is excusable. It reminds me of an abused spouse making excuses for her tormentor.

    The all-powerful -good -knowing problem was acknowledged by ancient Greek philosophers. The most I can get myself to is some kind of vague Deism and a “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do” as regards a potential creating entity. In the meantime, we’re peculiar beings on a rapidly moving ball in a vast universe, highly knowledgeable in physics, but entirely clueless in meta-physics.

    I guess, to many, a system of beliefs, no matter how far the stretches one has to make, is preferable to accepting ignorance/unknowability. I don’t believe in reincarnation either, but that at least makes more sense – you get what you had coming because of something you did in a different host body. In the Christian belief, your predicament isn’t even your own fault, but that of the lemons who started the species. A responsible manufacturer would issue a recall.

    And, if your inherited “guilt” weren’t enough, the loving God adds horrific diseases to the mix. One’d think that losing everyone and everything one ever loved should be enough, but no. If you’re unlucky, you vanish before you’re even dead (Alzheimer’s) or suffer pain that makes you wish you were dead.

  • Carl

    Kevin –

    I certainly agree with you insofar as the laws of physics cannot be attributed “in their entirety” to the Fall and that the laws of thermodynamics do not exhaust all the laws of physics.

    My point is that we’ve found very scientific bases for phenomena that the sacred writer simply identified as death, corruption and decay. It would therefore be very contrary to the meaning of his text to follow Rodak in placing these scientific principles into Eden before the fall.

    I don’t see how speculating about the physics and biology of Eden can end anywhere but intellectual suicide or the loss of faith. But it need not be so. If we base our interpretation on the literal sense of Genesis, we should admit that Eden is even now at the foundation of our world, beneath the superficial grime that has been artificially and extrinsically imposed on it. If we base our interpretation on the even most fundamentalist implications of Catholic doctrine, we should say that Eden has been forever lost and only persists in scattered and disparate elements. Eden cannot be reconstructed from what we see in the world before us.

    In all cases, there is an angel standing with a sword between us and the gates of Eden. I think its best to completely abandon any position regarding the similarity or dissimilarity of Edenic physical laws and those of our world. Indeed, although I am absolutely certain that Eden was material, I’m not sure it was “physical.” The material existence of Eden was not physical but “preternatural.”

  • Carl

    Gerald Naus,

    I think you might find something helpful in nos. 42-43 in the Pope’s encyclical Spe Salvi:

    In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone”. This, would mean, however — to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols — that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit”.

    Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God’s first commandment (cf. Ex 20:4). The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater. In any case, for the believer the rejection of images cannot be carried so far that one ends up, as Horkheimer and Adorno would like, by saying “no” to both theses — theism and atheism. God has given himself an “image”: in Christ who was made man. In him who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man’s God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope — the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.

  • Rodak

    I hasten to say that simply because God is not accurately described in Genesis does not mean that God does not exist. I would urge you to read Simone Weil, if you have never done so. She tells of a God and a Christ in whom a thinking person can believe.

  • Or, more succinctly put – Ecclesiastes (King James)

    For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

    All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?

    Set to music by Brahms (using Luther’s translation. The man had serious issues, but he knew how to write). Sung here by Thomas Quasthoff (a victim of Contergan/Thalidomide). Triumph of the human spirit – disfigured, tiny, he has a voice that fills the philharmonic (I was lucky to have heard and met him)

  • Chris Sullivan

    Gerald A. Naus,

    God didn’t command genocide. Men did.

    Human evil, sickness, suffering and death suck and we don’t have a definitive answer as to exactly why a loving God allows them.

    We do know that God doesn’t deliberately cause suffering. Causing and allowing are two different things.

    Just as a loving parent has to let their children leave home and make their own way in the world, make their own mistakes and, yes, sin, so I think the same holds for God. It’s the nature of Love to allow the one loved to go their own way, however evil that may sometimes be.

    Suffering invites us to grow in compassion by reaching out to help and be with those suffering. It helps us realise our own limited humanity. It can be redemptive. Those who have suffered most are often the most compassionate.

    In our moments of suffering and pain God is right there with us, just as he entered into our suffering in the person of Jesus who also suffered terribly.

    That can be hard to see in moments of suffering, but years later we often look back and see our suffering helped us to grow.

    No pain, no gain.

    Hope this helps.

    Will keep you in our prayers.

    God Bless

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, Thank you for the gift I just watched.
    An infinite being can only infinitely create, so, here we are in this particular aspect of creation in which the material is formed into many different expressions of creation unique in its expression and its awareness.
    We happen to be the part of the material that came together to realize and verbalize that we have a love/hate relationship with self and others because of the chaos of creation.
    There was no chaos in what I just watched. Love creates order out of chaos.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    – free will causes things like genocide, yes
    – the “greater good” argument I’ve always found unsatisfactory
    – diseases wouldn’t be necessary to maintain free will (I don’t mean those that are partially or wholly self-inflicted due to, say, obesity)
    – neither would the suffering of animals (I’m a vegetarian with 5 cats, so that particularly upsets me)
    – “the fall” never made sense to me, for the same reasons cited by Rodak
    – Carl, re: resurrection, to quote Shakespeare, “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”. Alas, for the time being at least we don’t know “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”
    – while suffering can be beneficial, the degree experienced by billions is rather sadistic.
    – since the topic of this post is Jewish history, Ernst Bloch wrote an interesting book, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (the Principle of Hope in English I think)

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, I do not believe we have free will because we are enslaved to the reactive primitive brain that is built around survival instincts in response to the chaos and violence we live in. Now we do have choice within what we know but true freedom can only occur through love. It is Love which breaks down psych barriers and allows us to reveal the damage this chaos has done and it is in that first step of honesty with self and others that free will truly begins to evolve into something transcendent and transforms the primitive survival emotions into a source of passionate intelligence which seeks to passionately develop a language that others can begin to comprhend with the message that there is something good and strange outside the known of this chaos.

  • Rodak

    Here is Simone Weil on the beneficial possibilities of suffering:

    “It is wrong to desire affliction; it is against nature, and it is a perversion; and moreover it is the essence of affliction that it is suffered unwillingly. So long as we are not submerged in affliction all we can do is to desire that, if it should come, it may be a participation in the Cross of Christ. …To bear one’s cross is to bear the knowledge that one is entirely subject to this blind necessity in every part of one’s being, except for one point in the soul which is so secret that it is inaccessible to consciousness.”

    What is that “one point in the soul?”

  • Rodak,
    The Tao that can be explained is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.

    Such is the irony of our existence 🙂 Of course, that we exist at all is rather peculiar, isn’t it ? The older I get, the more I am amazed by the things we take as given – breathing, gravity. That I am on this marvelous Mac Pro communicating with people around the globe is completely dazzling. So is language. As a bilingual person, it’s almost like being two people.

  • Ronald,
    Very well put indeed.
    Nietzsche said, Man is something that needs to be overcome. I’ve always felt that we need to overcome nature/the reptilian brain. This of course requires a modicum of peace and stability. I feel that overcoming the base/basic instincts is what I’d call salvation. Not dispassionate, but exhibiting equanimity and magnanimity.

    I don’t share the Catholic view of a “Fall”, but rather view existence as the possibility to get up, to rise. (As opposed to getting a rise out of people, my prior hobby)

    Some 9 months ago, the way I experience reality changed completely. (or you could say, I experienced reality for the first time, apart from scattered lucida intervalla over the years). Having returned to Buddhist studies, mainly Zen, plus Tao, I was introduced to myself. It was akin to a near-death-experience (but without being sick). I almost felt my own death – curiously, I’d always dreaded the death of loved ones, from early childhood on, but never contemplated my own.

    King Yudhishthira of ancient India, when asked, “What is the greatest wonder in the whole world?” replied: “That we see people dying all around us and never think that we too will die.”

    The Zen teacher had warned of the dangers of such contemplation, “You may not like what you find.” Ain’t that the truth. However, since then I’ve felt a great urgency and experience everything more thoroughly. I’m also more peaceable and more kind to others. (an easy improvement, that!) I can only laugh at the nonsense I used to spout for a couple of years. But, as an organic “farmer”, I know that wonderful things feed on and emerge from crap. Bat crap especially. Or, to use Buddhist imagery, the lotus has its roots in the mud. I guess you could call me a syncretist now (OooOOooOOo). I sing the body eclectic, if you will (pardon, Walt Whitman).

    We can’t know for sure what, if anything, lies beyond, but we do know that others are happy if you reduce their suffering. Now, if I could stop asking what the Buddha called “indeterminate questions” (existence of a god etc), that’d be true acceptance. To quote Whitman “for realz”,

    “I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
    To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
    To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
    To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then?
    I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea.

    There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;”

    I am drawn to old places, soon I’ll be in France again, that beguiling country, where even nature puts on its Sunday best. The longer people have lived in an area, the richer it becomes. For good or ill – last year I stood at Omaha Beach looking up at the cliffs. But even there, hope, for instead of German tanks there are now German RVs and the laughter of children. Indeed, love among the ruins.

  • Rodak

    That “one point in the soul” is that which we cannot explain? I like it.

  • Rodak

    Given what you’ve said above, Gerald, what is it that brings you to a site such as this one?

  • Carl

    Chris Sullivan,

    Tsavah Yahveh ‘elohiym. Either God commanded genocide or Scripture lies about God commanding genocide.

    Ronald King,

    I mean this with affection, but you’re starting to sound like the label on Dr. Bonner’s Magical Peppermint Soap. Visit a local Trader Joe’s if you don’t know what I mean.

    Gerald Naus,

    I don’t think there is one answer you could not find in the crucifix if you really looked at it. I mean that I think you need to look at it with “new eyes.” All the best to you.

  • grega

    Gerald it is a pleasure seeing you so full of optimism and compassion for your fellow humans. What a marvelous change from just years ago.

  • Ronald King

    Gerald, Beautifully stated. The longer I live the more I want to touch, laugh and show others that I love them. About 10 years ago I wanted to start the I Hate People Club as a result of reading a statement by Buddha…”You have to know your hate before you can love.” Running and Being by George Sheehan given to me in 1979 but read in ’94 began to really change my understanding of introversion and seeing that within every introvert there is passion waiting to be expressed in the form of ideas and perceptions through the resolution of choosing to be free from the bonds of fear. Get rid of the filter and see what comes out and cast away old beliefs of self and others which only caused chaos in an attempt to create order. To know another rather just imagine I know them like I have done here with Carl in my imagination even though he affectionately states I am beginning to sound like an ad on a bar of soap. At least I am seen as something useful, that’s improvement.
    We become bloodthirsty when we see loved ones and innocent ones mercilessly murdered just because they are seen as less than and we do not know what to do with the axis of evil that caused this except now it is good against evil.
    I think I’ve stated this before but I am old and I am allowed to repeat myself. R. D. Laing said people are afraid of 3 things: death, other people and what is in one’s mind. Evil ceases to exist in the presence of love. It can only exist in fear.
    What are to we learn from 1Sam15?

  • Gerald A. Naus

    What do we learn? Hmm, Ronald – in every preference lies the seed of murder. What a roshi (Zen teacher) told me. “I hate people club” could have been the name of my old blog. The scary thing is how successful it was. I too had tried to create order. Gained 70 lbs as a reward (lost 80 after letting go of that desire, the blog and the Catholic church)

    Rodak – you apparently weren’t around when the Vox Nova writers were “hunting” me a few years back. 🙂 while I wasn’t keen on them, I had not forgotten the Buddha’s saying that enemies can be great teachers. (this was my prior incarnation as self-appointed grand inquisitor). To be shown what one is not is a great service.

    apart from that history, this is a great place, like a “salon” of the 19th century. Enmity is long gone. One need not be Christian to appreciate Jesus, when I was Catholic/conservative I actually found him a bit inconvenient.

  • Rodak

    That all makes perfect sense, Gerald.