The Bible includes some descriptions of divine action which are fundamentally at odds with the moral perceptions of properly functioning human beings. In some cases, God is presented as performing actions that appear to be wicked. In other cases, he is presented as commanding humans to perform actions that appear to be wicked. Of the latter, the single most disturbing passage is arguably found in 1 Samuel 15:3 in which God commands Saul to kill all the Amalekite people as well as their domesticated animals:
3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.
The moral offense of this passage should be obvious to everyone. But if it isn’t, consider how you would react upon reading those directives in the Qur’an or any other extra-biblical source. In all those cases, the Christian’s moral indictment of the directive would be immediate and unqualified. Thus, at the very least, the Christian must concede that 1 Samuel 15:3 appears to present God as commanding wicked actions.
This leaves the Christian with two basic options.
Option 1: deny that the action in question is necessarily wicked.
Option 2: deny that God ever commanded the action in question.
Growing up in the church, we didn’t discuss these passages. (I talk about this problem in What’s So Confusing About Grace?) That left us with the apparent default conclusion that Option 1 was the only game in town. And that, as you can imagine, was a source of deep cognitive dissonance.
One thing I’ve discovered over the last ten years (the time that I’ve devoted particular attention to this problem) is that from Gregory of Nyssa to Greg Boyd, many Christians have explored and defended option 2.
Suffice it to say, no Christian should believe Christian discipleship requires them to deny the most fundamental dictates of their own conscience. And if that requires a Christian to embrace Option 2, then so be it. After all, the core of Christian belief belongs to a special set of doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement. The option 1/2 debate is well outside that core.
Some years ago (six, to be exact) I wrote a couple articles (see here and here) in which I argued against Option 1 by invoking a comparison between devotional killing of non-combatants (the kind of action we find described in 1 Samuel 15:3) and devotional rape. I’m now going to close with a succinct presentation of the argument. The argument focuses in particular on a subset of the actions described in 1 Samuel 15:3, namely hacking apart healthy infants.
Why “hacking apart”? Compare 1 Samuel 15:33 which concludes with Samuel cutting Agag, king of the Amalekites, into pieces. Though many English translations do not describe the killing, the KJV captures the literal description: “Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”
And now without further ado, the argument:
(1) It is always morally wrong to rape a woman.
(2) Raping a woman is not morally worse than hacking a healthy infant to pieces.
(3) If action (a) is always morally wrong and action (a) is not morally worse than action (b) then action (b) is also always morally wrong.
(4) Therefore, it is always morally wrong to hack a healthy infant to pieces.
(5) God would not command an action that is always morally wrong.
(6) Therefore, God did not command Saul to hack healthy Amalekite infants to pieces.