Get a stripped-down copy of this page.
Many critics of the Bible use of a tactic called "argument by outrage" (if you like Latin phrases, call it argumentum ad cerebrosus, per a reader's suggestion). It runs more or less like this:
- The critic finds some event in the Biblical text that they find morally offensive: The slaughter of the Canaanites; the stoning of the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath, eternal punishment.
- The critic recounts this event in such a way as to imply that by itself, the event is enough of a moral outrage that there can be no argument or counter to it.
Or as Glenn Miller has put it, similarly:
....an individual's personal moral intuitions, if they run counter to moral intuitions of other experts and peers, may need further analysis and qualification, before they could function plausibly in constructing a logical argument of God's non-existence.
In other words, the argument that I THINK someone might make about this might look like the following:
- The biblical God CANNOT commit any unjust act (Authority: theological tradition)
- God ordered the killing of children (Authority: biblical text)
- The killing of children can never be a 'just' act, regardless of competing ethical demands in a given situation. (Authority: someone's personal moral intuition)
- God, therefore , ordered an 'unjust act'. (authority: substitution of terms)
- The ordering of an 'unjust act' is itself an 'unjust act' (authority: not sure--this is somewhat controversial in ethical theory, but I will grant it here for the purposes of illustration)
- The biblical God, therefore, committed an unjust act. (authority: substitution of terms)
- Therefore, the biblical God CAN commit an unjust act. (authority: from the actual to the possible)
In general reply, we may note that simply stating outrage is not a sufficient form of argument. It is merely a substitute for true argument, with the intention to win over the prospective convert by means of emotional appeal. What must be done -- but I have seldom seen done -- is an analysis proving that a given action/directive by God was indeed unfair and/or cruel.
No doubt the reason I have never seen this done is that no critic has yet been informed enough about the social situation of the ANE to make such judgments. The tendency is simply to assume, "the punishment is undeserved, and can never be justified."
Again as Miller tells us:
But notice the problem--the whole thing stands or falls on the accuracy of the personal moral intuition in Step 3. It there is no reason to believe it applies WITHOUT EXCEPTION, then our attempt at constructing a hard contradiction this way fails....This, of course, puts the ball back in the individual's court to do one of two things: (1) show that these exceptions do NOT hold... or (2) show that although there ARE legitimate exceptions, there could not be any valid exceptions that would be operative in our biblical case.
But in any event, someone would still have much, much work to do, to be able to even offer the 'it is a contradiction' position as an argument. Without such work, this objection is simple assertion, unsubstantiated opinion (e.g, 'hunch'?), or emotional statement.
In light of repeated use of this tactic by critics, it's a good time to issue some advisories on what such an arguer truly needs to do to make their "argument by outrage" more than just an emotional appeal. This world is not their (the Biblical writers') world; our thoughts are therefore not their thoughts; their values are therefore not our values. The critic tends to assume that people who lived in this day and age were "just like us" and would have reacted with the same immediate moral outrage as they did. That is simply not the case.
Mere statement of data on a broad level argues for nothing; a moral hierarchy must be examined and established. Take these two statements:
- Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews.
- Blethkorp exterminated 6 million Refrons.
We are rightly filled with moral outrage at the first one. But why? The obvious reason is that we know about Hitler and we know about his Master race schemes; we know about his attempt to seize power; we know from the data that he was morally wrong.
The core of "argument by outrage" is to take something like the second item, however, and shake out the "least common denominator" so that the moral equivalency is made to seem to be the same.
However, what if we start defining out the second one so that:
- "Blekthorp" is the leader of the Harlanian race, a peaceful people who only wish to be left alone.
- The "Refrons" are a predatory and parasitical race -- say like Star Trek's Borg -- whose only goal is to assimilate others into their culture or destroy those they consider inferior.
Now that we have the context, whence is the "argument by outrage"? I have chosen a clearly extreme illustration, but between these extremes of black and white lie shades of gray which are a combination of black and white. We would suppose that any critic would agree that the Harlanians have a right to defend themselves. If the Refrons refuse to give up -- are willing to fight to the last to achieve their goal -- is it a moral outrage that the Harlanians exterminated 6 million of them? How indeed if the total population of Refrons was somewhere around 70 billion and executing 6 million was the only way to get the Refrons to decide that the cost of conquest was too high?
Lest anyone think this a fanciful idea, consider the key parallels to the arguments over whether or not to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan.
To the end, then, of defusing "argument by outrage" tactics we will offer for consideration the following points that any "argument by outrage" must supply before it can be taken seriously. We will draw here upon a couple of Glenn Miller's items, one on the Canaanites and the other on the Amalekites.
- Point 1: A "God of love" is not a God of sentimentality.
One of the leading points used to assert contradiction about the divine nature is the question, "How can a God of love order such things?"
It is a point to begin that "love" as the ancients understood it was defined within their understanding as a culture that was group-centered, not individual-oriented. as we noted in our essay on agape, in such contexts what is good for the group is what is paramount. Hence when the NT speaks of agape it refers to the "value of group attachment and group bonding" [Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, 196].
Agape is not an exchange on a personal level and "will have little to do with feelings of affection, sentiments of fondness, and warm, glowing affinity." It is a gift that puts the group first and is most closely paralleled to another known concept of today -- not love, but tough love.
The best example of this known in popular culture is the New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark who cleaned out his high school and made it a safe place for those who wanted to learn. Clark valued what was best for his students as a whole versus what the individual wanted.
Clark of course did not have Refrons or Amalekites or Canaanites to deal with. But the principle we wish to illustrate is that he did not see "love" as requiring him to coddle obstinate persons who would continue to be threats to the greater body of people. Someone could easily (as a non-objective or selfish parent of an expelled student might) say: "Mr. Clark is not exemplifying a loving spirit." He is, under the Biblical definition of love, even if not our modern one.
But if inaction, or a different action -- leaving the Canaanites alone; moving the Amalekites to Southeast Asia -- had ended up in the historical view making matters worse, then critics would in hindsight accuse God of being immoral for allowing the worse things to happen (see point below) and it would be an example of non-love or even hatred.
I like a point a friend of mine made about this. One Skeptic asked why God simply did not kill Hitler as a baby. Yet if "baby Hitler" had died, the Skeptic would ask why God did not prevent the death of this innocent baby. This shows that a far more critical view is needed than "argument by outrage." Indeed, "argument by outrage" often assumes a form of omniscience by the critic.
- Point 2: Chances Have Been Given.
We may well imagine the same parent saying, "Mr. Clark needs to give my boy/girl another chance."
Another chance? Here is a question. How many "chances" did the student have before? In fact, is not every second of every person's life a chance to "get right"? There is no problem here with a lack of choice or chances.
er the paradigm, the Canaanites saw and knew of what happened in Egypt; this is why the Gibeonites used deceit to forge a treaty. Egypt itself had many chances -- 400 years for the Pharaoh to stop enslaving the people; 400 years for the people of Egypt to show their own mercies on a personal basis.
Miller adds that the Canaanites "had a long exposure to truth and influences to 'moderation'" -- not just as the Bible records, but also in terms of the more peaceful society they conquered:
There was an abundance of information for these people--perhaps even MORE THAN the other nations around them had!--but they did not respond appropriately. (The other nations in the ANE seemed to respond to 'available' truth with a degree of moderation and correspondingly did not develop the ruthless, cruel, and degenerate practices of their Canaanite neighbors.)
We may further note that in the case of the Canaanites, the primary purpose was to drive out the people and force them to migrate. This is a chance to leave peacefully under one's own recognizance, so to speak. Note that this is not an inconvenience, as it might be today for deported persons; see below. The same may be noted for the Amalekites:
It is only after 200-400 years of opportunity and influences to change, and after 200-400 years of continued (and actually escalating) violence against Israel (who had not even been sanctioned or ordered to occupy Amalekite territory!), that God decides to execute the judgment given earlier.
There is therefore no basis for claiming that God does not show sufficient mercy or discretion in such cases. Critics will need to explain why not, if so.
- Point 3: Second-Guessing God.
We know of the nature of the Canaanites, as Miller has offered:
By the latter part of the Early Bronze Age Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in northwestern Syria had become a city-state of 260,000 people, with lesser "vassal" cities forming a far-reaching empire. It was the center of a vast commercial network, and records of its enterprises contain the earliest mention of such biblical cities as Salim, Megiddo, Gaza, Hazor, Lachish, and Joppa. An indication of the city's sophisticated planning is the audience court of the royal palace, which both architecturally and functionally mediates the space between the quarters with private residences and those with administrative offices." (ISBE, s.v. "City", p.707)
But something happened...something disrupted this advanced civilization...something destroyed the cities...something violently did international damage, driving nations from their homes, reducing this area to 'village life' again:
Sudden and violent destruction occurred throughout much of the ancient world ca. 2300-2100 B.C. Palestinian civilization returned to the village level, with many E.B. sites abandoned and others left unfortified, a situation that continued through the early stages of the Middle Bronze period (until ca. 1950 B.C.). While many factors may have been involved, especially significant were Egyptian raids and mass population movements, at the center of which were the Amorites.
[The Canaanite peoples were brilliant engineers, and put their skills to use building war-culture cities. Their sites include very heavily fortified cities, and advanced design war-chariot ramps and gates. (ISBE: s.v. "Canaan", p.588; POTW:176f; ECIAT:95)]
Politically the Canaanites were aggressive and warlike. Religiously we have this data:
...the list of Canaanite "religious" practices included:
- Child sacrifice (with at least some of it in fire)
- Homosexual practices
- Cultic prostitution--both male and female
Miller concludes, "So, we have international and extreme violence and unusually decadent (and destructive/dangerous) religious practices...." And with this in mind, let's ask the next question: Had the Canaanites been left alone, what would our world be like today?
Critics need to ask themselves this question, especially in light of the definition of agape. As noted above, reform did not change these people. There were not other social alternatives available (see below). Would critics have us live in a world dominated by Canaanite practices today?
- Point 4: Understand the Times and the Values.
The critic who objects to various judgments delivered will first need to realize that it is not acceptable, argumentatively, to assume their own values on the text and assume that the subjects of judgment would have reacted as they would have. Take for example the actions of deporting the Canaanites, as noted above.
Today such a deportation would be regarded as a cruelty; but in this period, it was merely an inconvenience, as again Miller notes:
Migration was not that big of a deal in that time period--the peoples are generally classified into the "mobile" terminological groups: pastoral nomadism, semi-nomadism, transhumance nomadism, etc. Migration and movement was a fact and way of life. With a little notice, whole tribes could migrate in days. The Canaanites had DECADES of notice--authenticated by the miracles of the Exodus--and any sane ones probably DID leave before Israel got there. Abandoned city structures are common all over the ANE and Ancient Middle East from that period.
It was only those who resisted this deportation who were exterminated:
In Joshua 12, the victory list is given as 31 kings (generally petty kings of city-states) this would be around 70,000 people (assuming they all stayed around--a very dubious assumption in light of the international fear of Israel at the time).
But this 70,000 is against a base of close to 2 million people! (Israel was approximately 1.6 million at the time, and these nations are said to be 'more numerous' than Israel in a number of places--e.g. Deut 7.1,7.) This amounts to approximately 3.5% of the 'target population'. The Israelites were specifically told to execute those who remained in the cities (Deut 20.16) and those who hid in the Land--and therefore did NOT migrate out--Deut 7.20. Granted the Israelites were less than thorough in their warfare, but this small percentage is a bit ridiculous! This doesn't seem like serious genocide to me--what's going on here?
There is a strong possibility that most of the 'innocent' people left the country before the actual battles began in each local turf. Those that stayed behind were the die-hards, the "carriers" of Canaanite culture, the ruling, decadent, exploitative elite. We also saw that only a very tiny minority of people were actually killed in this campaign, relative to most military conquests in the ANE.
By the same token, Miller offers in the link above an extensive analysis of social options available for dealing with Amalekite innocents in this period. Lack of social options, and the demeanor of the day, tells us that: "people preferred quick deaths over slow agonizing ones...people preferred quick deaths to 'normal' foreign slavery." We who may not share these values have little to speak of, with no threat of slavery in our lives and a 7-11 on every corner, as I have come to say often.
Miller closes his item on the Amalekites with a comparison to a famous "lifeboat" scenario in which students are asked to select one passenger who will die so that 29 others may live. His assessment should be familiar to us:
Some students will try to avoid the issue altogether, by talking about 'taking their chances' on the boat, on the sharks, or on the rate of travel toward the island. But the scenario is not constructed that way--the 'there must be some other way' fantasy options don't exist...just as in real life tough decisions...just like decisions public leaders in governance have to make some time...If you the captain take a chance (especially given the odds stated above!) and lose all 30, when you could have saved some/most, this is generally considered unacceptable (assuming you value human life, of course).
By the same token, it is not enough for critics to object that there "must have been some other way" for an omnipotent God to have avoided these events that they find morally outrageous. Until they have loaded up their Turtledove Time Machine, such an argument is based merely on emotional speculation; those that argue (for example) that, i.e., God could have provided food for all of the Midianite or Amalekite refugees rather than have them killed are of the same sort who prefer a God that doesn't enforce and rules they don't like, and cannot escape their own hypocrisy.
Our conclusion: "Argument by outrage" as it is now commonly used is not a valid approach to criticism of the Biblical text.
One final, related note. Matthews and Benjamin in Worship and the Hebrew Bible make a similar point about war passages in the OT that speak of such atrocities as ripping open the pregnant or raping the enemy's women. War in the Biblical world was raged on several fronts: The one we relate to is simple "warrior versus warrior" in the present tense.
But there were other confrontations on other levels as well. The actions of killing the young and unborn, were a way of warring against future generations of the enemy and keeping them from rising up against you in vengeance at a future date. Descendants who were of mixed heritage (due to rapes) would not so readily rise up against their own ancestral peoples.
Such tactics were a matter of national preservation as they would not be today. David's bit about dashing infants against rocks (Ps. 137:9) was no sick desire to witness acts of random cruelty, but a lament that such action would be taken as needed to preserve his own people from the future acts of cruelty of the Babylonians, which would inevitably come to pass.