Monday, October 26, 2009

NUMBERS: An Apologist Rebuttal

In Numbers Chapter 31 we read about two verses that are absolutely appalling, where Moses tells his army to kill every male child and every non-virgin woman, but that the soldiers could keep the virgin girls for themselves.

The verses in question are Numbers 31:17-18:
31:17 "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
I find both of these verses completely beyond any rational justification, so I was curious as to how biblical apologists attempt to defend these two verses. I have chosen to address why I strongly disagree with these arguments below:

Apologetics Press.Org

The Killings of Numbers 31
by A.P. Staff

The first five books of the Bible are full of stories of the conquest of Caanan. But one story that sometimes stands out in the minds of skeptics is the one found in Numbers 31, where God seemingly gives no reason for killing defenseless women and male children.
Actually, it is Moses who calls for the killing of defenseless women and male children. This chapter does not state that this is explicitly a commandment or judgment from God, although it could be argued that when God commanded the Israelites to "vex the Midianites" in Numbers Chapter 25, perhaps he meant instead to "commit genocide upon the Midianites".

Secondly, the problem I as a skeptic have, is not that God "gives no reason" (most of people realize why Moses commanded the killings) it's that I simply don't find this a moral or ethical justification for rape and murder.
In addition, it has been suggested that the young girls mentioned in the account were spared so that the Israelite men could rape them.
If this were not the case, there would be no reason to ensure that the girls were virgins ("have not known a man by lying with him"). What other possible reason could there be to make a stipulation that a person's life was dependent on their virginity and that soldiers were to "keep [the girls] alive for [them]selves"?
Such accusations are baseless, however, as is evident when they are viewed in light of other related passages.
They are not baseless. The argument is based on the facts that 1) Moses laid out a stipulation for the girls' survival - their virginity, and 2) that the soldiers were told that they were to keep the virgin girls for themselves.
The most widely questioned section of Numbers 31 is verses 17-18: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women-children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
Agreed. This is the basis of my topic as well.
To understand this passage, one must realize that Numbers 25 is the “prequel” to the events recorded in Numbers 31. Numbers 25 tells how the Midianites, specifically the women, led the Israelites astray into worshiping the Baal or Peor.
This is incorrect. According to the first three verses of Numbers 25 it was the Moabites not the Midianites who "led the Israelites astray" into "worshiping Baal of Peor". Numbers 25:1-3 reads as follows:
25:1 "And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.
25:2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
25:3 And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel."
Strangely, the rest of the chapter shifts its attention to the Midianites without explanation. It's a popular assumption among theologians that there's a possibility that the chapter is actually two separate stories merged together.
The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He struck them with a plague. The plague ended when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, killed an Israelite man and the Midianite woman he brought into his family (Numbers 25:6-9). The relations with Midianite women were in direct violation of God’s commands in Deuteronomy 7:3-4: “[N]either shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of Jehovah be kindled against you, and he will destroy thee quickly.”
This argument has two problems, the first being that Deuteronomy appears sequentially in the bible after the the book of Numbers. While it's a possibility that the bible could be out of sequence, or that this law was somehow known to the Israelites prior to the events in Numbers 25 there is no basis to support either explanation.

Secondly, Moses' own wife Zipporah was a Midianite herself (see Exodus Chapter 2) and therefore Moses would in violation of this law himself. Therefore why did Phinehas not thrust a spear through Moses and Zipporah as well?
As a result of these events, God instructed the Israelites to “Vex the Midianites, and smite them; for they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 25:17-18).
I addressed this point in my thoughts on Numbers 25, and God is shifting the blame here. We're villainizing the Midianite women to partially excuse and soften the "sins" committed by the Israelites, because for some reason the Israelites apparently have no minds of their own and will do anything women from other cultures tell them too, even when it violates their own laws.
When, in Numbers 31, the army brought back the women, it was in direct violation to God’s order in Numbers 25 to destroy the Midianites, who would lead the Israelites into apostasy.
The apologist here is completely forgetting that we're also dealing with not just women but children. Even if we were to accept the apologist's point at face value, the virgin girls that Moses tells the soldiers to "keep for themselves" would also be a "direct violation to God’s order in Numbers 25".
But how can we explain the destruction of the young boys? Why were they not spared along with the young girls?
God does not seem very concerned about the deaths of male children as evidenced by the story of the Egyptian plagues in Exodus Chapter 11.
Skeptics read of events such as the conquest of Canaan, and contend that no God could be so cruel as to call for the destruction of an entire nation.
No, you're completely missing the point. If we can assume for the sake of argument that god(s) exist, then there is absolutely no argument why such a god couldn't exhibit cruelty - even if he himself claims to be "merciful". All sorts of tyrannical rulers have had inflated egos and distorted self images, and many of the people being ruled by them go along with the charade in a variant sort of Stockholm Syndrome. One only needs to examine 1930's Germany to see that Hitler had overwhelming public support despite the tyranny of his regime.

The problem is that I simply don't agree that the god of the bible is either "loving" or "merciful" when those attributes are in direct contradiction to his depiction in the bible. I have no problem with saying that God is cruel, I have more of a problem defining him as "loving" and "merciful".
The mere idea of the God of heaven ordering the death of women and innocent children so outraged infidel Thomas Paine...
I had to interrupt here due to the humor I find in this apologist calling one of the Founding Fathers of the United States (who many evangelical christians claim founded this country on christianity) an "infidel".
...that he said such a scenario was sufficient evidence in and of itself to cause him to reject the divine origin of the Bible (1795, p. 90).(p. 95 on Google Books)
Upon finding a copy of Thomas Paine's book "Age of Reason" on Google Books, I have failed to see where this apparent "fact" (the above reference corresponds to page 95 on the Google Books document) is derived from. For the sake of argument, I would agree that using the reason that "God is cruel" would not be a valid argument for not believing in the "divine origin" of the bible. There are much more compelling and stronger arguments for reaching the conclusion that the bible is man-made.

However, insinuating that "the infidel" Thomas Paine does not believe in the bible's authenticity simply because he doesn't like the way God acts, is using a strawman argument to make Thomas Paine's argument seem ridiculous. It doesn't surprise me to see an apologist stoop to such a ridiculous argument and resort to name calling to further villainize their opposition.
In fact, he condemned the Bible for its alleged moral atrocities,
I would have to agree with our Founding Father on this point.
and even went so far as to blame the Bible for virtually every moral injustice ever committed. He wrote:

Whence arose the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Bible is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that since that time have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? (p. 185).
(p. 190 on Google Books)
Claiming that Paine was blaming "the bible" for "virtually every moral injustice ever committed" is quite a bit of a stretch. In the above quote he is neither singling out the bible, nor is he encompassing "virtually every moral injustice". In the above quote he is speaking of the moral injustices specifically that plagued Europe, which mostly were fueled by religious atrocities.
However, to allege that the God of the Bible is some sort of “monster” for ordering Israel to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan exhibits an ignorance of biblical teaching.
To justify the killing of children except for the female virgins, which we can keep for ourselves against their will, exhibits a complete lack of an understanding of morality.
Those inhabitants were destroyed because of their wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4; 18:9-14). They were so evil that their Creator no longer could abide their corruption.
Yes, because we know that according to the bible everything is measured in absolutes - this entire nation over here is entirely good, and that nation over there is entirely bad. No bad people live in the good nation, and no good people live in the bad nation.

This is an asinine outlook that has no semblance to reality.
That they had numerous opportunities to repent is evident from the prophetic books (Nineveh did repent, for example, and for a time stayed the day of destruction).
I find this to be a weak argument that God and/or the Israelites had any cares as to whether any of the surrounding tribes "repented" or not. God's commandments as they appear in the bible condoning slavery, mass killings, and beatings never are excepted with a line that says "unless they repent".
Complaining about Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the children were spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin.
And just who says that death is a better fate than slavery? If one were to put up a poll and give an entire nation a choice of either euthanasia or a life in slavery, how many do you truly believe would choose to be killed to spare themselves from a life of slavery?
Instead of having to endure the scourge of a life of immorality and wickedness, these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise.
If it was such a blessing to be "ushered early into the bliss of Paradise" why not kill the virgin girls as well, or is it more of a blessing to marry them off to rapists?
If the male children had been allowed to mature, they most likely would have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on the Israelites.
"Most likely"? If they were allowed to live amongst the Israelites, what chance would they even have at being exposed to the "pagan ways" of their fathers?

So it's morally ethical to kill people on the assumption of what "possibly" could happen?
Killing the males not only prevented them from falling into the same abominable sins as their parents, but also kept Israel from having to battle them later.
How can we be certain that their parents were "abominable sinners" and not apostates in their own "pagan ways"? We're simply supposed to believe in biblical absolutes, I suppose, in order to justify our preventative killing of children who *might* grow up to be our enemies.
Man hardly can blame God and His Word for the awful consequences of sin;
Sure we can, just the same as we can blame any leader, dictator, ruler, or king for the consequences of their unjust and sadistic laws. When we hear about a woman being stoned to death in the Middle East for the "crime" of being a rape victim, we certainly can blame the people who made this law and those that enforce it.
rather, he has only himself to blame (Romans 3:23; 5:12).
Children are not to blame for where they were born and who they were born to.
A parent who warns a child of the consequences of disobedience, threatens an appropriate punishment,
The problem with this analogy is using an "appropriate punishment".
and then is true to his word at the event of infraction, generally is considered to be a firm-but-loving parent by clear-thinking people.
The problem here is that the analogy is flawed and does not fit with the context of the story. A more appropriate analogy would be:
A parent who was warned about the consequences of committing a crime, was made aware of the criminal penalty, and then when commits a crime, is greeted with the police breaking down his door and shooting his entire family - except for his virgin pre-teen daughter whom the police chief takes home with him to make her his wife.
Yet, critics ask us to view God as some type of ogre for following the same course of action.
Again, the apologist analogy is not the same course of action - nor is it even close - to the one God has taken.
The discrepancy is not with the Almighty, but with His cowering critics.
I would argue that the discrepancy is actually with the apologist who can't make a proper analogy.
The allegation that the Israelite men spared the young girls in order to rape them is nothing but baseless supposition predicated upon a lack of biblical knowledge.
Because obviously there's absolutely nothing telling in Moses' statement that only the virgin girls would be allowed to live.
In the custom of the time, marriages were conducted at a young age. Therefore, the reference to the young girls who had not “known man by lying with him” would indicate that they were very young, likely under the age of twelve.
This assumption is reaching. The way it is written is that it simply means "a virgin". If God wanted only twelve year old girls and younger to be spared, he surely could have stated that.
These girls were too young to be able to lead the men of Israel away from Jehovah; therefore, these girls were allowed to live.
Virginity has nothing to do with a woman's ability to manipulate people, nor to a degree, would her age.
As to raping them, it is more logical to assume that they wanted these girls for servants.
It is not logical to assume that the Israelites wanted these girls "for servants", when they specifically were spared on the basis of their virginity and not their age, or another more reasonable factor. Secondly, foreign "servants" were not by any means servants, they were slaves. In Leviticus 25:44-46 the following verses make it clear God's laws on enslaving surrounding "heathen" nations:
25:44 "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.
25:45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
25:46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour."
Trying to soften the image of slavery into "servitude" also contradicts what Exodus 21:20-21 has to say about how you can beat your slaves:
21:20 "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21:21 Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."
So, it is perfectly okay to beat your slaves to death as long as they don't die right away in a day or two after the beating. You won't receive any punishment because they're "your money" (your property).

Third, why weren't these female children "spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves" and instead of allowing "these innocents" to be "ushered early into the bliss of Paradise"?
This would be similar to Joshua 9, where Joshua allowed the Gibeonites to live in compelled servitude to the Israelites.
Joshua Chapter 9 makes a very bad case for attempting to downplay slavery as "servitude", as evidenced in Joshua 9:23.
9:23 "Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God."

Moreover, it would have been sinful for the Israelite men to rape the Midianite girls because rape was (and still is) abhorrent to God (Deuteronomy 22:23-28, esp. 25).
Deuteronomy 22:23-28 treats rape a lot differently then the apologist would like us to believe. Verses 23 through 27 deal solely with a woman who is engaged to be married, which the Midianite girls obviously wouldn't be - at least to any suitor that is alive that is.

Verses 23-24 state that both the rapist and the engaged to be married, virgin, rape victim must be punished by mean of being stoned to death if the rape occurs in the city and the victim didn't cry loud enough:
22:23 "If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
22:24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you."
This has more to do with the "crime" of depriving a husband of his right to consummate his marriage than it does with punishing rapists, which is why the victim is to be stoned to death along with her rapist.

Verses 25-27 deal with a woman being raped out in the field where only the rapist is to be killed, simply because there wouldn't be a way to judge whether the woman screamed out or not, thereby proving whether the sex was consensual or not:
22:25 "But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die.
22:26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:
22:27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her."
Verses 28 and 29 deal with rape in the sense in which it would apply more closely to the Midianite girls, assuming they were to be given the rights of an Israeli woman. Not surprisingly the apologist doesn't include verse 29 in his references which clearly states how to handle a rapist and his victim if the victim is not engaged to be married to anyone:
22:28 "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
22:229 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days."
Yes, this is what the bible says about a woman who is not engaged to anyone who gets raped - she gets the privilege of becoming her attacker's wife, and her attacker simply has to pay 50 shekels to her father. That's quite a different point of view on rape than what the apologist was attempting to portray these verses to mean.
The simple answer to the questions surrounding Numbers 31 is that God ordered the Midianites to be killed in Numbers 25:17-18. When the army did not carry out this order at the time of the Midianite defeat, it was carried out in a delayed fashion when the army returned with the captives.
This is an attempt to shift the question into why were the prisoners of war killed, and away from what the real question is - how do we justify the killing of innocent children?
As to Moses allowing the young girls to remain alive, that was a judgment call from the man with God’s authority over the Israelites.
A "judgment call" that hinges on whether a woman has retained her virginity or not.
God is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and all-righteous “I Am” Who is over all things—
These are baseless attributes that the bible contradicts in many chapters. I've dealt with many arguments in previous chapters about problems with God's "omniscience" and "omnipresence" and therefore I'd rather not side track from the main point of this rebuttal.
so He may do whatever He wishes,
This argument from apologists always bugs me. With this baseless argument we can justify God's mass genocides, his demands to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and all sorts of immoral acts "just because he's God and he can do what he wants". This is not a logical argument at all.
[He may do whatever He wishes,] so long as it is not in violation of His character.
And what may I ask is a violation of "his character"? If he has limits on his actions, that would also shoot a gaping hole in the claim of God being omnipotent.
However, God does everything for a reason. Sometimes that reason may be unclear to us.
The better argument would be that the "reason" has probably been lost due to the change of the human culture of the bronze age human authors of the bible.
In the case of the destruction of people like the Canaanites, God’s reasoning had to do with His justice.
More likely "God's reasoning" probably served as a fictional rationalization story to justify the ancient Hebrew's military conquests of other lands.
Deuteronomy 32:3-4 records: “For I will proclaim the name of Jehovah: Ascribe ye greatness unto our God. The Rock, his work is perfect; For all his ways are justice: A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, Just and right is he” (emp. added).
Just because the bible gives God certain attributes doesn't mean that contradictions are impossible - in fact, there are quite a number of contradictions about God's attributes throughout the bible.
Men may not always understand God’s justice, or His reasons for exercising it as He does.
Not understanding someone's reasoning does not justify their actions. I have no idea why Germany embraced the Nazi Party and antisemitism over seventy years ago, that doesn't justify what happened simply because I don't understand why people went along with it - their actions were still immoral.
As Job 4:17 asked: “Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?” (emp. added).
If the bible is to be the means by which to measure God's morality, then yes, I would argue that many - and in fact most - mortal men are far more moral than the character of God in the bible.
The fact is, God does condone killing—in the name of justice (whether it be justice in regard to one person, or a whole nation).
Most moral people can agree that condoning killing and raping children is not what defines "justice".
Even in modern times, the death penalty is an acceptable means of administering justice (Romans 13:1-7; cf. Genesis 9:6).
Speaking from personal opinion, I do not find the death penalty to be "an acceptable means of administering justice". There are flaws in our justice system because humans cannot be perfect in our judgment, and allowing the possibility of even one innocent person to be executed due to our very human flaws of occasionally making mistakes - even if it is a rare occurrence - is a position I cannot support.
While God is all loving,
I find it impossible to classify God as he is presented in the bible as "all loving" for a plethora of reasons.
He also is a God of justice, and He will execute that justice in the most propitious manner—including by means of death.
I certainly wouldn't call immolating priests for using the wrong fire when lighting incense, then threatening the surviving family members not to grieve over their deaths, on the threat of killing them as well very "propitious" or "just".
Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).


  1. wow, that's frigging insane. the more i read your blog posts, the more it baffles me why christians adhere to this book.

  2. The simplest answer is that most Christians actually haven't read the bible. Of those that have, some are mentally disturbed enough to justify biblical atrocities as "just" and "moral" (like the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church), while the rest simply cherry pick which passages are meant to be taken literally or not. If more people actually read and understood the stories in the bible, there would be a lot less people professing to be Christian.