Monday, January 3, 2011

Prescription or Description? Deuteronomy 20

I recently posted a link to an article by Anthony Horvath on how to read the Bible.  Ryan Anderson had an interesting comment

I will say, in regards to the section on "Prescription versus Description", he's right in theory, but seems to be glossing over the fact that some of those less than flattering things were in fact prescribed by God, not merely a description of bad Hebrew behavior.
Notice, to his credit, he tacitly agrees that Horvath is right that sometimes some texts are taken out of context where people say that the Bible is commanding violence  when it really describes something that will or did take place not giving a command to do it. However he then suggests that God does command that his followers do "less than flattering things" (read evil and morally bankrupt). I challenged Ryan Anderson  to give an example of such a text and I also asked that he provide a response explaining why the standard response do little in explaining why God said what he said. Ryan Anderson responded as follows:

Deut 20 comes to mind, but that's assuming you believe Moses was actually speaking for a God.

Notice he didn't interact with the reasons we give to understand Deuteronomy 20, but he did provide an example. I expect he really doesn't mean the whole chapter. The verses people seem to have a problem with are verses 14-17. They ask "How could God be moral if he allows women to be raped and their men killed? How can God be good if He tells Israel to kill all the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites? However let's look at the whole chapter in its historical and theological contexts and see what it shows of us as God's character because God - YHWH - did speak through Moses.
1 When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.2 When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. 3 He shall say: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. 4 For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.”
The context of the chapter is the rules Israel was supposed to follow when they waged war. God starts with words of encouragement. Most of times through all the recorded wars in the Bible they are outmatched in almost every conceivable way. The priest is to remind the people that God is with them. The fact that theses are enemies presupposes the context of Israel acting in it's own defense and not as aggressors trying to take what does not belong to them. God is always with you - no matter the challenge.
 5 The officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. 7 Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” 8 Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.” 9 When the officers have finished speaking to the army, they shall appoint commanders over it.
How is this for raising an army? If you had just gotten property, about to get married, or just too scared - you was exempt from serving. I'm willing that mast Israelites would not take fear option to avoid the embarrassment. But that does not sound like something people do. In most drafts you have to go no matter what you feel or your personal circumstances. God is caring - your government is not.
 10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
When dealing with other nations, they were first to make an offer of peace. Give them the chance to surrender. If the enemy surrenders they weren't  supposed to kill anyone. If they resist, kill all the men. All educate people know that Slavery in ancient Israel was not the same as slavery Europeans used in their imperialistic crusades from 1492 AD onward. Not only could you get your freedom you were never to supposed to be thought of as being less than human. I'm not saying that people did not treat their slaves like cattle in ancient times also, but you can't equate the two systems. You weren't enslaved because of your skin color in ancient times.  As for the women given as spoils of war - where is rape implied? Where is forced marriage? No one should be so naive to think that it never happened in Israel, but it was not sanctioned. Given how the Torah says men should treat their wives, the rights wives had - unprecedented in the region - I would find it hard to believe that many of the women would join the community willingly. It's not in this text (See Deuteronomy 21:10-14), but the women were supposed to be given time to mourn their family and friends if they lost them. You could not just marry them the next day. And you you did marry such a woman you could not just discard her like garbage when you were through with her - you know like men do today - running around from bed to bed leaving broken hearts, live, and children in their wake.
 16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

Thing were different with the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites Why? God said that Israel was going to be His instrument of wrath and judgment on them for the evils and sins that they did. Yes, God is love and mercy, but he is also a god of justice and wrath. Did they deserve such judgment? Yes. They practiced human sacrifice of their children and babies to idols! God gave them 430 years to change and they refused (Genesis 15:12-14). Are we any better than they no? We eliminate babies and neglect or elderly all for the sake of convenience. Do you really think we, as a people and nation, won't have to pay for that? I don't think so. Verse 18 tell us why Israel were told to destroy everything and everyone. God knew that if they didn't, Israel would end up doing the same things as the people they displaced. This is exactly what happened.

 19 When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? 20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.
Finally, we see God telling Israel that we should never use up natural resources irresponsibly to fuel a war.

We see God cares about His people, their enemies, and his creation. I find it difficult to see what is so immoral in what He told them to do. I find it amazing that Ryan Anderson defends the relativity of morality  but refuses to give God the same right to define morality that he says everyone has even when they are in conflict. I suspect the reason why is because, by definition , God's moral standards would have to supersede all others because that is what being God means. Therefore one who denies or doubts the existence of such a being can't afford to allow for that being's moral standards to have weight in their lives. Doesn't matter if they give it weight or not - that is the standard by which we will be judged apart from Jesus Christ who was given as our propitiation because none of  us could ever hope to measure up to that absolute standard.
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