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The thought that so many people have actually taken such commandments seriously over the centuries is horrifying (or at least it should be). But the Bible itself, when explaining how God’s followers obeyed even the most vicious of his commandments, describes these incidents with nothing but admiration, celebrating their pious obedience at every turn.
God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders.’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.
NonStampCollector’s satirical dramatization of the event really drives home just how deeply messed up the story is at its core:
The central point of Genesis 22 is not that you should always do what’s good and kind because that’s God’s will; the point is that you must obey God no matter what, even if what he’s commanding you to do is maximally cruel and arbitrary.
It might be tempting to excuse this particular example on the grounds that God called it off at the last second and spared Isaac from actually being killed (although incidentally, there’s some evidence to suggest that in the original version of the Abraham story, he actually did kill Isaac, and it’s only because later editors found this idea so repugnant that they changed the ending to have an angel intervene and stop him). But even if we grant that God spared Isaac in this one particular story, then what about the story of Jephthah (Judges 11:29-40), which follows the same structure, but ends with the sacrifice actually being carried out? Dawkins continues:
In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return’. Jephthah did indeed defeat the Ammonites (‘with a very great slaughter’, as is par for the course in the book of Judges) and he returned home victorious. Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and – alas – she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrificed. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her. God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion.
Regardless of the expected outcome, then, the ultimate message is clear: If God tells you to kill, you kill. Even if the killing is completely gratuitous – even if the victim has done nothing to harm anyone – God’s commands must be obeyed.
This lesson is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. Sometimes it’s in the context of an isolated incident, in which God only demands the killing of one specific person. In Numbers 15:32-36, for instance, the Bible tells the story of the Israelites coming across a man gathering firewood on the Sabbath. They go to God for guidance, and God demands that the man be stoned to death for his crime – so the Israelites dutifully stone him to death. In that particular incident, the only victim is that one unfortunate man. Most of the time, though, the rape, pillage, and slaughter ordered by God are carried out on a much more massive scale. In keeping with the “kill all nonbelievers” commandment mentioned a moment ago, Deuteronomy 20:10-17 orders that if you march on a city in some distant nation and they refuse to become your slaves, then you must besiege that city, kill every last man therein, and keep the women, children, and livestock for yourself as a reward. If the city is part of a nearby civilization, you can’t even leave the women, children, or livestock alive – you must kill everything that breathes. Nothing short of total genocide will do, as Deuteronomy 7 underscores:
When the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them […] Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire […] Thou shalt consume all the people which the LORD thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them […] The LORD thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed. And he shall deliver their kings into thine hand, and thou shalt destroy their name from under heaven: there shall no man be able to stand before thee, until thou have destroyed them.
The Bible then goes on to provide still more examples – practically an unending litany – of God ordering such total scorched-earth genocide, and his followers proudly carrying out those orders. We’ve already mentioned the story of the destruction of Jericho; as Joshua 6:21-24 describes it:
[The Israelites] utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword […] And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.
Two chapters later, in Joshua 8, they massacre 12,000 more people:
And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.
And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua. And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide.
There’s also the slaughter of the Aradites (Numbers 21:1-3)…
Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities.
…and the Amorites (Deuteronomy 2:33-34)…
And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
Following orders from God, [the Israelites] slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive. When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods. So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: “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 a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”
(This wasn’t the only instance of God’s holy warriors forcibly seizing women for their personal use in this way, either. Judges 21, for instance, describes how the Israelites – more specifically, “the most valiant” of the Israelites – kill “the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the children […] utterly destroy[ing] every male, and every woman that hath lain by man,” solely in order to kidnap all the virgin women and force them into marriage.)
And the list goes on. To give some idea of the scale of these atrocities, in Deuteronomy 3:3-6, Moses boasts about how the Israelites, with God’s help, were able to kill every man, woman, and child in the kingdom of Og in Bashan – a kingdom comprising 60 cities altogether. That figure – 60 entire cities’ worth of men, women, and children – is a staggering death toll in itself, but that’s just one kingdom; according to Joshua 12, there were 32 more kingdoms, each with its own collection of cities, that the Israelites wiped out along with that one. Pretty much the entire Book of Joshua, in fact, is just genocide after genocide, bragging at every turn about how God’s people left no one alive. After rattling of a long list of kingdoms that Joshua’s army wiped out, Joshua 10:40 summarizes:
Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.
And the carnage doesn’t stop in the Book of Joshua; it stretches all the way from Genesis to Revelation. Altogether, the number of people killed by God and his followers in the Bible reaches well into the millions – 25 million or so, according to one estimate. (One of the more surreal chapters in the Bible is Psalm 136, which gives a partial list of people God has killed, and after each verse repeats the line, “his mercy endureth for ever.”) How does the Bible justify these genocides? It doesn’t even try to pretend that they were genuine acts of self-defense or anything like that. On the contrary, the biblical God seems eager to order gratuitous killings for even the most trivial offenses, often for no apparent reason other than to show off. In 1 Kings 20:28-30, for instance, he hears some Syrians saying that he is a god of the hills, but not a god of the valleys – and in retaliation he has the Israelites slaughter 100,000 of them in one day (27,000 more escape, but God causes a wall to fall on them and kill them as well). In 1 Samuel 18:25-28, he helps David kill 200 men just so he can use their foreskins as a wedding dowry. In 1 Kings 13:1-2 and 2 Kings 23:20-25, he has Josiah execute the priests of a rival religion on their own altars, then burn the bodies in order to desecrate them, as a tribute to God. In Joshua 11:6 and 2 Samuel 8:4, just to add some animal cruelty to the mix, he has Joshua and David cripple thousands of horses by slashing their hamstrings. (Thousands of other animals, of course, are simply killed outright.) And in one of the Bible’s proudest moment of mass murder (Judges 16:27-30), God has Samson kill 3,000 people in a suicide attack on the Philistines’ house of worship – roughly the same number of people who died in the 9/11 suicide attacks. (This comes shortly after Judges 14:10-19, in which the spirit of God comes into Samson and compels him to murder 30 random people and steal their clothes in order to settle a bet with his friends.) And on and on it goes.
Biblical literalists might try to argue that as brutal as all this killing was, it was nevertheless a necessary evil. If these rival tribes and kingdoms were choosing to rebel against God, after all, then they deserved whatever destruction ultimately befell them. But in a lot of these cases, God’s victims weren’t even trying to rebel against him at all – they just happened to be in the Israelites’ way. In Joshua 19:47, for instance, the Israelites killed everyone in Leshem for no reason other than that they wanted the land they were living on. In Judges 18:27-29, the Bible describes how the people of Laish were peacefully minding their own business, and the Israelites destroyed them all anyway, just so they could take over their city. Worse still, in a lot of cases, the people “rebelling against God” never even had any innate desire to resist in the first place, but God took over their minds and made them rebel, simply so he would have a reason to exterminate them. Here’s Joshua 11:20, for instance:
For Yahweh had ordained that the hearts of these men should be stubborn enough to fight against Israel, so that they might be mercilessly delivered over to the ban and be wiped out, as Yahweh had ordered Moses.
And here’s Deuteronomy 2:30-34:
Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him: for the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand, as appeareth this day. And the LORD said unto me, Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land before thee: begin to possess, that thou mayest inherit his land. Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to fight at Jahaz. And the LORD our God delivered him before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
So although most modern believers would say that they worship a god of infinite mercy and compassion, that simply isn’t the god described by the Bible. 1 Samuel 15 actually goes so far as to raise the possibility of compassion directly, only in order to have God reject it. First, God orders Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul does as he’s told, killing everyone from grandparents to pregnant mothers to newborn infants, but he manages to capture King Agag alive, and he leaves some of the animals alive as well. For this display of mercy, God is furious with Saul. He commands Samuel to finish the job – and despite Agag pleading for an end to all the bloodshed, Samuel kills him with gusto, cruelly taunting him as he cuts him down (1 Samuel 15:32-33):
Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
Mercy and compassion, then, would seem to be the last things on God’s mind during these killings. And if all the above examples aren’t enough to show it, he even makes it explicit in Jeremiah 48:10, expressly condemning anyone who hesitates to kill other people in his name:
Cursed be he who does the Lord’s work remissly; cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.
In light of all this, it doesn’t seem unfair at all to use the word “bloodthirsty” to describe the biblical God. Contrary to the modern conception of Yahweh as a god of peace and love, Exodus 15:3 declares in no uncertain terms that “the LORD is a man of war.” And God speaks of himself in the same terms; here he is in Deuteronomy 32:39-43:
Behold: I am He and there is no God beside me. It is I who kills and makes alive. I wound and I heal. When I have whetted my glittering sword, I will take vengeance on my adversaries. I will make my arrows drunk with blood. My sword shall feed on flesh, on the blood of the wounded and the captives.
And here he is in Ezekiel 8:18:
Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them.
Leviticus 26:14-39 is just an extended passage of God furiously ranting about all the horrific things he intends to do to those who don’t adequately worship him. Here’s a partial sample:
If ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments […] I will appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it […] and ye shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you […] I will bring seven times more plagues upon you […] I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children , and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number […] And I will bring a sword upon you […] I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy. […] And when I have broken the staff of your bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight: and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied. […] And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat. And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you. And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation […] And I will bring the land into desolation […] And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. […] And ye shall perish among the heathen, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.
And Deuteronomy 28:15-68 keeps going (and going, and going) with more of the same:
The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. The Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. And thy carcase shall be meat unto all fowls of the air, and unto the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away. The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed. The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart: And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways: and thou shalt be only oppressed and spoiled evermore, and no man shall save thee. Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof. Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them. Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in thine hand. The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway: So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. The Lord shall smite thee in the knees, and in the legs, with a sore botch that cannot be healed, from the sole of thy foot unto the top of thy head. The Lord shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone. And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee. Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit. Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity. All thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume. The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low. He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail. Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee: And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever. Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the Lord thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee: So that the man that is tender among you, and very delicate, his eye shall be evil toward his brother, and toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the remnant of his children which he shall leave: So that he will not give to any of them of the flesh of his children whom he shall eat: because he hath nothing left him in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee in all thy gates. The tender and delicate woman among you, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward the husband of her bosom, and toward her son, and toward her daughter, And toward her young one that cometh out from between her feet, and toward her children which she shall bear: for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly in the siege and straitness, wherewith thine enemy shall distress thee in thy gates. If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, The Lord Thy God; Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of; and they shall cleave unto thee. Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed. And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the Lord thy God. And it shall come to pass, that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. And the Lord shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you.
Are these the words of an all-loving, all-merciful God? What about these, from Isaiah 13?
Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty. Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt: And they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth: they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames. Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate […] Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished. Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it. Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children.
There’s a seemingly endless supply of these kinds of passages in the Bible. In Ezekiel 35, God vows to fill the mountains (and hills, and valleys, and rivers) with the bodies of those he’s killed. In Numbers 25:4, he demands that people’s corpses be publicly hung up in order to satisfy him. In 2 Kings 10, one of his followers gathers all the followers of another religion together in their church, telling them that he wants to worship peacefully alongside them, but instead he slaughters them all – pleasing God so immensely that he says, “Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart, thy children of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.”
If these passages seem jarring or disturbing… well, it gets worse. You’ve surely noticed by now, for instance, how many of the above verses involve the killing of innocent children; in particular, those lines about smashing people’s children into pieces before their eyes, and forcing parents to eat the flesh of their own children, are hard to read without feeling some measure of horror (which, after all, was their original intent). But there’s plenty more where that came from; for example, Hosea 13:16 says that God’s victims “shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.” Psalm 137:9 adds: “Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” And in Jeremiah 19:9 and Ezekiel 5:10, God vows (once again) that he will force his victims to eat the flesh of their own children, as well as their parents and friends.
It might seem unjust to us nowadays to target innocent children for the sins of their parents – but the Bible regards it as perfectly just. All throughout the Bible, God makes a point of killing and punishing children and adults alike for things that their fathers, grandfathers, and more distant ancestors did. He asserts this as his official policy in Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9, 23:2, 28:15-18; Numbers 14:18; Jeremiah 16:10-11, 32:18; and Isaiah 14:21 – and he even includes it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5): “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” In 2 Samuel 12:14-18, David upsets God, so he kills David’s innocent newborn child in retaliation. In 1 Kings 14:10-18 and 15:29-30, he does the same thing to Jeroboam’s sons (most of whom he kills slowly and violently, but one of whom he kills quickly because he likes him). In 1 Kings 21:29, Ahab upsets God, but instead of punishing him, God punishes his son instead: “Because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house.” In Joshua 7, Achan takes a forbidden object for himself, so God has the Israelites stone and burn him to death along with his sons and daughters. And in 2 Kings 5:20-27, Gehazi dishonestly tricks someone into giving him two sets of clothes and two talents of silver, so God curses him and all of his descendants with leprosy forever. The original case of God punishing people for things they didn’t do, of course, is in Genesis, where God condemns of all of humanity for the fact that Adam and Eve mistakenly ate the wrong piece of fruit. But collective punishments for other people’s crimes – not to mention cruelties that are totally indiscriminate and seem to lack any justification at all – are routine throughout the Bible.
Biblical literalists will sometimes try to excuse a lot of these atrocities by saying that God himself wasn’t actually to blame for them, but that his followers were just acting on their own, and that God would have been just as horrified by their savagery as we are today. But aside from the fact that the Bible explicitly describes so many of these incidents as being directly ordered by God himself, there’s also the fact that in most biblical killings, human perpetrators aren’t even involved at all – God himself is the one doing the killing directly.
In some cases, the mass slaughter is part of a premeditated genocide. But just as often, it comes off as little more than a spur-of-the-moment temper tantrum, with God making a spontaneous snap judgment against anyone who just happens to unwittingly offend him in some way. For instance, Barker cites a story from 1 Samuel 25:
An industrious man named Nabal refused to hand his produce over to David and his troops who were passing through the area. “Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men, whom I know not whence they be?” That is not an unreasonable complaint. Nabal had a moral obligation to his workers. In punishment for protecting what he rightfully owned, “the Lord smote Nabal, that he died.”
Similarly, in Acts 4:32–5:11, God establishes an economic policy of (for lack of a better term) absolute communism among his followers – and then, when a married couple fails to completely submit to it and instead tries to keep some private property for themselves, he promptly kills them for it. There’s also Genesis 38:6-10, in which God kills a man named Er, orders his brother Onan to impregnate Er’s widow, and then, when Onan refuses, kills him as well. There’s 2 Kings 2:23-24, in which God’s prophet Elisha encounters a group of children who poke fun at him for being bald, and rather than chuckling at their youthful cheekiness or responding with a good-humored quip of his own, Elisha calls down a deadly curse upon them, whereupon God sends two wild bears to tear the terrified children to bloody shreds. And in a similar variation on the same method, God sends lions to kill his victims on multiple occasions. For instance, in 1 Kings 20:35-36, one of God’s prophets asks his neighbor to hit him, and the neighbor peacefully declines, so God sends a lion to tear the neighbor apart. In 1 Kings 13:1-24, God sends a lion to kill one of his followers for eating some food rather than fasting. (The victim had thought that the person offering him the food had been told to do so by God.) And in 2 Kings 17:25-26, God even sends lions to kill some foreigners in Samaria for the crime of not yet knowing about him and therefore not being able to worship him properly.
That last offense is the one for which God commits most of his killings; if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get you on God’s blacklist, it’s the misfortune of being born in a region where they happen to worship a different god. In 2 Kings 1:9-12, God rains down fire from Heaven and burns 102 people to death in order to demonstrate that his prophet Elijah is “a man of God” and that the local rival god, Baal-Zebub, is inferior. (Baal-Zebub’s name, of course, would later be changed to “Beelzebub” by the Israelites and Christians and used as a name for the devil.) Similarly, in Joshua 10:11, God wipes out an entire army with giant hailstones for the crime of trying to protect themselves and their families from enslavement or death at the hands of the invading Israelites. In 2 Kings 19:35 and Isaiah 37:36, he kills 185,000 Assyrians in one night. And obviously there are all the other genocides I’ve already mentioned (as well as plenty I haven’t gotten to).
The most famous example of God wiping out a foreign enemy, naturally, is the Exodus story, in which he obliterates practically all of Egypt. You remember how the story goes: God tells Moses to convince Pharaoh to free the enslaved Israelites, Pharaoh refuses to cooperate, and in response God strikes Egypt with a succession of plagues until he finally submits. What’s typically left out of retellings of this story, though (despite being repeatedly emphasized in the story itself), is the fact that God was actually playing both sides of the fence all along. According to Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8, and 14:17-18, “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.” In other words, Pharaoh might have otherwise been willing to free the Israelites, but God wanted an excuse to show off his power, so he intervened specifically to prevent Pharaoh from doing so. This wouldn’t be the first or the last time God would do something like this – I’ve already mentioned Deuteronomy 2:30-34 and Joshua 11:20, and there’s also 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 (in which God causes people to believe false ideas just so that he can condemn them for it), as well as Ezekiel 14:9 (in which he deceives would-be prophets into spreading false messages just so that he can punish them for it). But regardless of the coercive nature of the situation, God is all too happy to use Pharaoh’s “hard-heartedness” as a justification for punishing innocent Egyptians en masse – and once he has that excuse, he starts slaughtering them with abandon. He destroys all of their crops and kills all of their livestock (so they have nothing to eat), turns all of their water into blood (so they have nothing to drink), afflicts them with a plague of festering boils, rains down a firestorm of hailstones that kills everyone who hasn’t taken cover, and then finally goes door to door and kills all their firstborn children directly. None of this was necessary, of course – if God had wanted to, he could have just as easily teleported the Israelites out of Egypt with a snap of his fingers – but he wanted to make a show of how powerful he was, so countless innocent people and animals had to die horribly. (Just to add insult to injury, God also orders the Israelites to steal the surviving Egyptians’ belongings on their way out (Exodus 3:32, 11:2, 12:35-36) – never mind the idea of “thou shalt not steal.”)
Considering this and all the other stories of God mercilessly massacring non-Israelites, then, it’s hard to maintain the belief that this is a god who loves all of his children equally and wants them all to lead peaceful and happy lives. He seems much more like all the other provincial tribal gods of the time, who (as Templeton puts it) could best be described as “intensely parochial: they hate every people but their own.” In fact, Deuteronomy 7:6 explicitly confirms that God considers all other races to be inferior to the Israelites; and in multiple passages, he openly proclaims his hatred of those he considers to have turned away from him, which includes entire races of people (Leviticus 20:23).
But actually, it’s even worse than that – because as it turns out, the God of the Bible is just as quick to punish and kill his own people, for even the slightest of annoyances, as he is to punish and kill his enemies. Take the Book of Numbers, for instance. After the Israelites have escaped from Egypt and are wandering in the desert, the hardship finally becomes too much for some of them to bear, and they start lamenting their situation – but rather than coming to their aid, God responds by blasting their camp with fire and burning them to death for daring to complain (Numbers 11:1-3). When some of the survivors continue to despair – not only shaken by the sudden massacre of their friends and family members but also by their lack of food – God hears their weeping and punishes them by covering their entire camp with a mountain of dead quails (about three trillion of them, by one estimate), and then when they start eating the quails, he angrily strikes them dead with a massive plague (Numbers 11:4-35). It keeps going like this throughout their pilgrimage; at one point, when some of the Israelites start questioning Moses amidst all the death and hardship, God causes the earth to open up and bury them alive along with their families, then he burns 250 more of them to death with fire (Numbers 16:1-40). The next day, when the remaining Israelites start panicking about how many of his own people God is killing, God punishes them too by killing 14,700 with a plague (Numbers 16:41-50). A few chapters later, the Israelites are still despairing, so God sends a horde of “fiery serpents” to bite them to death (Numbers 21:5-6); and a few chapters after that, he kills 24,000 more of them with yet another plague – stopping only because one of his followers takes it upon himself to murder an interfaith couple (an Israelite man and a woman from another tribe), impressing God with his gesture of loyalty (Numbers 25:6-18).
Later on, despite having made such a big show earlier of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God reverses himself and sells them right back into slavery again, repeatedly. As Barker explains:
God sold the Israelites to the king of Mesopotamia for eight years (Judges 3:8). It doesn’t say what God did with the money. He also sold them to the Moabites for 18 years (3:14), to Canaan for 20 years (4:2-3), to the Midianites for seven years (6:1), to the Philistines for 40 years (13:1) and to the Babylonians for 70 years. That’s more than a century and a half of slavery – more than twice as long as slavery existed in the United States.
Fast forward to 2 Samuel 6:6-7, and the Israelites have built a holy relic for God – the Ark of the Covenant – and are doing their best to please him with it. Unfortunately though, as they’re trying to transport it one day, one of them tries to steady it and keep it from being jostled – and God responds in his usual manner:
And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.
In another incident, the Israelites make the mistake of actually opening the ark, and God’s reaction is even more extreme, as Barker describes:
In I Samuel 6, the ark of the Lord was being transported across country and five farmers of Bethshemesh “rejoiced to see it.” They opened the box and made a burnt offering to the Lord, and for this terrible sin God “smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.” Is it moral to kill 50,000 people for a petty offense? And exactly what was the crime? These men were trying to worship this very god, in their own way. Wouldn’t a God of mercy understand their innocent mistake? What if one of my children gave me a birthday card with the words “Daddy, I luv you” and I punished them for spelling the word wrong? (By the way, is it reasonable to think there was a settlement of more than 50,000 at that time in history?)
Similarly, in Leviticus 10:1-2, Aaron and his two sons are preparing their offerings for God, but the sons slip up and use the wrong incense – so God burns them alive. The next few verses are heartbreaking; you can imagine what must have been going through Aaron’s head as he watched God burn his sons to death before his eyes, but Moses warns him that he must not show any sign of grief or anguish, lest God kill him and the rest of the congregation as well – so Aaron, like an abused housewife, has no choice but to remain silent.
The story of Lot’s family strikes some of the same tragic chords: God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah along with all of its inhabitants (men, women, children, and animals) and tells Lot to take his family and flee. As they’re running away from the firestorm, though, Lot’s wife lets her guard down for a moment and looks back over her shoulder at the carnage – and in his unwillingness to forgive this all-too-human reflex, God kills her where she stands by turning her into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:24-26). Later on, having lost their only means of continuing the family line, Lot’s daughters (whom he had earlier offered up to a clamoring mob to freely rape, so that the mob would stop harassing the two angels who were visiting him) decide that their only choice is to get Lot blackout drunk and rape him so that they can bear his children (Genesis 19:30-38). Was this all part of God’s plan? In the story God voices no objection.
This fits the standard pattern throughout the Bible: God’s sense of justice is fundamentally capricious. At times he’ll permit or even command the most heinous atrocities, but at other times he’ll punish and kill people for no good reason at all. Sometimes, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, God will justify his genocide by claiming that he’s punishing evildoers; but other times, his mass killings just seem completely arbitrary, as in 2 Samuel 24:13, where God kills 70,000 innocent people in order to punish David for taking a census – despite the fact that he was the one who told David to do so (2 Samuel 24:1), and despite the fact that the 70,000 people being killed had no involvement in the matter at all. (Later on, the New Testament would seemingly notice the insanity here and try to pin the blame on Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1), but in the original story itself, the only explanation given is that God was angry and wanted an excuse to kill some Israelites. No explanation is ever given at all for why taking a census would have been such an unforgiveable sin in the first place; but that almost seems beside the point from the Bible’s perspective.)
Likewise, the Book of Job illustrates the same point on a more personal scale. In this story, God makes a bet with Satan that he can torture an innocent man as much as he wants to, and destroy everything that he holds dear in life, and that the man will nevertheless continue to worship God. The Bible makes it extremely clear that Job is not being punished for any kind of wrongdoing; he is “perfect and upright,” and deserves none of the agony that befalls him – that’s the whole point of the story. But regardless of his innocence, God tells Satan to destroy Job’s life as utterly as he can (short of outright killing him), and Satan faithfully obeys. He kills all of Job’s children, along with his slaves and livestock. (Whether these innocent bystanders’ lives might have had any value in themselves is never even considered.) He afflicts Job with painful boils, forcing him to sit among the ashes of a dung hill outside the town and scrape his sores with a shard of broken pottery. He turns Job’s wife and his friends against him; despite his rightful protestations of innocence, they insist that he must have been secretly wicked all along to have brought such punishment upon himself. And under the weight of it all, Job is driven to the edge of insanity, cursing the day he was born and longing for death. Just as he reaches his breaking point, God appears before him – but not to comfort him or offer him relief. Instead, God furiously tears into him for daring to wonder why he was being tormented so mercilessly. As Templeton recounts:
Speaking from a whirlwind, [Yahweh] establishes an all-time high in sarcasm: “What do you know?” he says to Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you commanded the mornings? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Tell me if you know: who has cleft a channel for the torrential rain and a passage for the thunderbolt? Tell me: has the rain a father? From whose womb did the ice come? Can you dispatch the lightnings that they may announce, ‘Here we are’? Do you give the horse his strength? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? …”
The tirade continues until, at long last, Yahweh says: “Does a faultfinder dare to contend with the Almighty? You! You who would argue with God … Answer!”
Job responds, “Behold, I am of little account; how can I answer God? I cover my mouth with my hand.”
Whereupon God has at him again: “Have you an arm like God? Can you thunder with a voice like his, see the proud and abase him, tread on the wicked where they are? Who can stand before me? … You know nothing of how God works.”
Then comes the clincher: “Do you really want me to reverse my judgement and thus put me, Yahweh, in the wrong and you in the right?”
Job yields. “I have been holding forth on matters I do not understand,” he says. “But now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract all I have said and in dust and ashes I repent.”
It’s only after God has completely broken Job’s spirit, leaving nothing left of the faithful man but an utterly ruined shell of a human being, that he finally restores Job’s property and allows him to have more children to replace those who’d died. The Bible acts like this is supposed to make up for everything; Job may have lost his children, but he gets more to replace them, so no harm done, right? But this attitude says more about how little the Bible values the lives of children than it does about God’s mercy and beneficence. I doubt that many people with children of their own would consider Job’s experience an enviable one.
Again, it’s worth stressing that Job deserved none of what he got; the Book of Job emphasizes this repeatedly. The whole point of God’s rant in Job 38-41 is that God doesn’t have to justify himself in terms of justice or desert; God is all-powerful, so therefore he’s entitled to do whatever he wants, even if that includes torturing and killing innocent people for no good reason. Might makes right. Our job as humans is to continue praising him anyway, regardless of how much agony he inflicts on us.
But can you imagine a man who treated his wife or child the same way God treats Job? What would you think of a man who destroyed his wife or child’s body, murdered their loved ones, took everything they held dear, and then berated them for not praising him enough? Is it even possible to imagine a more abusive relationship? (This is not a rhetorical question; is it actually possible?)
Either way, as dreadful as Job’s story is, it only involves one person and his household. In terms of sheer wholesale carnage, neither the Book of Job nor any of the other incidents mentioned here even come close to the biggest example – by far – of God crushing his own creations. That honor would go to the worldwide extinction event of Genesis 6-9 – the global flood.
We’ve already talked about the practical issues with the flood – the historical record, the geological record, etc. But there are also the moral issues to consider. The way the story is introduced, it has God feeling dissatisfied with his creation and wanting to start over. (You know what they say: If at first you don’t succeed, kill everyone in the world.) It then tries to justify the slaughter by saying that the people had become wicked in their ways, and that therefore the only way to solve the problem was genocide. But again, if God were truly omnipotent, then none of these deaths would have been at all necessary. As Riggins writes:
Why would God need a lengthy Flood to destroy miscreant humans? Why destroy billions upon billions of other living things? Why not simply snap His fingers and make all the bad people disappear?
Did ALL those people deserve brutal and terrifying deaths? The children? The two-year-old little girls? The newborn infants? The unborn fetuses? Why don’t creationists get all exercised about the murder of those unborn?
And just to add to this point: What about the billions of animals, too? What did they do to deserve such awful deaths? Again, imagine if it were a human being killing all these creatures; how would you react if you found out that, say, one of your co-workers had drowned a puppy? What about if you found a long-lost passage in the Bible that described Jesus himself drowning a puppy? Would you feel any better if it turned out that he’d actually drowned every puppy in the world, plus millions more animals of other species, plus millions of humans on top of that?
You can run this thought experiment for all the other biblical atrocities mentioned above as well. If you go back and re-read the passages about smashing babies’ heads against rocks, burning people alive, and ripping open the stomachs of pregnant women, can you imagine Jesus himself committing these acts? Can you imagine Jesus himself stalking through the streets of Egypt, dagger in hand, and going door-to-door killing the firstborn of every family? The Christian religion, after all, teaches that Jesus is God. It also teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8, 4:16). But how is it possible to reconcile the statement “God is love” with all of these stories in the Bible? How can a god who so readily kills and tortures his own children, for no apparent reason other than “for his own greater glory,” be considered an all-loving or all-merciful god? It hardly seems unreasonable to say that any other being who would willingly inflict so much gratuitous suffering on others, solely to glorify himself, would be considered psychopathic. But somehow, believers (including myself, back when I was a Christian) manage to avoid reaching this conclusion for the God of the Bible. NonStampCollector once again drives home the disparity:
Incidentally, believers have no problem whatsoever recognizing the repugnance of these passages when they think it’s some other religion that’s responsible for them. In the clip below, Dutch pranksters go around asking people about bigoted or violent verses from a book that appears to be a Quran but actually turns out to be a disguised Bible:
When the respondents think the things they’re hearing are coming from the Quran, their reactions are all the same – unreserved, unambiguous shock and disgust. The gentle and loving God that they worship would never approve of such savagery. But of course, the whole point of the prank is that the God of the Bible does approve of these passages, and that any honest reading of them – i.e. any reading that’s unconstrained by the bias of needing to defend one’s own religion – can recognize how terrible they are without any trouble at all. Modern Christians don’t have the benefit of that detached outside perspective, of course, so when they do encounter nasty passages that they know actually are from the Bible, they have to try to figure out some way of justifying those passages’ ugliness in a way that makes them seem acceptable by modern-day ethical standards. But at the time the Bible was written, no such rationalization was necessary, because its lesson was perfectly clear: Anyone who annoyed or offended God in even the most trivial way deserved to die horribly, and that’s all there was to it. The earliest followers of the Bible didn’t need to come up with benign “alternative interpretations” of these commandments, because to them, the obvious literal meanings made perfect sense. Torturing and killing people who deviated even slightly from their tribes’ religious customs was perfectly commonplace and acceptable back then. It might be hard to imagine that anyone truly claiming to be a follower of God could have ever believed such things, even in more cutthroat pre-modern times, but it shouldn’t be that hard to imagine at all – because after all, there are people today claiming to be followers of God who believe (and practice) exactly the same things; we just know them by names like “ISIS” and “the Taliban.” If it’s possible for people in the twenty-first century to genuinely believe that they have a holy duty to kill apostates and homosexuals, why is it so hard to believe that people in the same part of the world thousands of years ago might have genuinely believed the same thing, or that they might have written these beliefs down in a holy book?
I realize I’m probably ruffling some feathers here by comparing the teachings of the Bible to the practices of the Taliban; from the Christian perspective, it undoubtedly comes off as a needlessly inflammatory comparison. But think about what you’d be required to do if you actually followed the laws of the Bible as they’re written. If your teenage daughter talked back to you too much, you’d have to beat her to death, in accordance with biblical law. If a lifelong friend confided in you that he was gay, you’d have to kill him as well. If it turned out that the friendly Japanese couple next door were practicing Buddhists, you’d have to murder them both for their unholy blasphemy. If you went to any place of business on a Sunday and found that they were open, you’d have to kill everyone there for working on the Sabbath. And so on. Frankly, a strictly literalist approach to the Bible would actually make the Taliban look relatively tame by comparison.
Maybe I’m being unfair here by only focusing on the ugliest parts of the Bible. After all, when Christians talk about living according to the Bible’s teachings, they aren’t thinking of laws like those mentioned above; they’re thinking about things like, say, the Ten Commandments. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that part of the Bible, right?
But even the story of the Ten Commandments has its problems. For one thing, it’s not as straightforward as the story most people are familiar with, where Moses goes up to the mountaintop, receives two stone tablets from God with the Ten Commandments engraved on them, and then (after a false start where he breaks the tablets and has to replace them) comes back down and presents them to the people. The way the story actually goes, Moses does go up the mountain, and he does receive an list of commandments from God (Exodus 19-20) – but the list doesn’t just include the commandments that we know today as the Ten Commandments; it also includes commandments like “kill witches” (Exodus 22:18) and “kill disrespectful children” (Exodus 21:17) and many of the other nasty laws we’ve already mentioned. What’s more, none of these laws are engraved on stone tablets or referred to explicitly as “the Ten Commandments.” That part doesn’t come until later, when Moses goes up the mountain a second time. At that point, God gives him a bunch of other laws – like “kill animals every day” (Exodus 29) and “kill anyone who works on the Sabbath” (Exodus 31:14-15) – and finally does give him some sacred stone tablets with the ten most important of these rules engraved on them. Again, though, the rules engraved on those tablets aren’t the ten rules that we currently know as the Ten Commandments. The actual Ten Commandments, according to Exodus 34, are:
- Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.
- Do not make cast idols.
- Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in that month you came out of Egypt.
- The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.
- Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.
- Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.
- Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God.
- Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning.
- Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.
- Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.
These are the ten laws that God apparently considers of the utmost importance. It’s these ten laws that are the cornerstone of God’s sacred covenant with Israel, and it’s only these ten laws that the Book of Exodus actually refers to as “the Ten Commandments.” (It’s only in later writings that Jews and Christians start referring to those other ones as the Ten Commandments.)
If these true Ten Commandments seem a bit… underwhelming, well, it’s hard to argue with that impression; it does seem bizarre that the supreme cosmic ruler of all space and time should be so preoccupied with things like whether his followers are offering him bread with yeast in it, or whether they’re boiling their goats in the right milk. But in context, it shouldn’t be that surprising at all. The Bible is full of rules like this – rules which come off as arbitrary or just totally nonsensical, but which God seems to really care about for some reason. When it’s not going on about who to kill and who to enslave and so forth, the Bible is often spending page after page stipulating that (for instance) eating regular fish is fine but eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10-12; Deuteronomy 14:9-10), or that wearing clothes made from blended fabrics is a sin (Deuteronomy 22:11), or that you must never eat fruit from a tree less than five years old (Leviticus 19:23-25), or that you must never trim the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27), etc.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that the story of the Ten Commandments is just one of silly trivialities. Even here, there’s bloodshed on a massive scale – not just in the commandments themselves, with their sacrificial requirements and orders to make war against God’s enemies, but even in the way the commandments are delivered to the people. That’s the other part of the story that typically goes unmentioned in modern retellings. You might remember that when Moses returns from the mountaintop with his stone tablets, he finds that the Israelites have started worshiping a golden calf, and that he angrily smashes his tablets on the ground and has to go back for replacements. But what you might not remember is that in response to their blasphemy, God promptly forces Moses and his men to start killing their family members, friends, and neighbors, until 3,000 of them are dead (Exodus 32:26-28). At first God actually wants to kill all of them, but Moses talks him out of it (Exodus 32:9-14); it’s only when Moses sees their idolatry for himself that he agrees to assemble his men and start cutting people down.
Why the Israelites would have started worshiping a golden calf in the first place – despite being in direct communication with a god who they knew for a fact was real – is never adequately explained. (There’s actually a historical reason for it, which we’ll get to later, but it’s not one that makes God look particularly good.) Nor is it explained why a supposedly omniscient God would be so shocked and upset by their infidelity – much less why a perfect and unchanging God would have to be talked down from his initial outburst of anger and, duly chastened by Moses, “repent of the evil which he thought to do unto his people,” like some moody child who has to be reminded to control his temper.
But then again, it’s not like this was the first time Moses had to deal with God’s mood swings; in Exodus 4:24-26, as God is preparing Moses to go into Egypt to free the Israelites, he abruptly snaps for no discernable reason and tries to kill Moses – only stopping after Moses’s wife takes a sharp stone, cuts off her son’s foreskin, and throws it at Moses’s feet. You can imagine how terrifying and excruciating this must have been for the son (no anesthetic, no scalpel, just a sharp piece of rock), but apparently this act of seizing an innocent boy and sawing off a bloody piece of his genitalia was all God needed to pacify his wrath.
This wasn’t the last time that God would let his anger get away from him despite his own better judgment, either – nor was it the last time he’d impulsively make a bad decision and come to regret it later. In Genesis 6:6-7, for instance, he regrets his decision to make sinful human beings, and decides to kill them all. In 1 Samuel 15:11 and 15:35, he regrets his decision to make Saul king. In Isaiah 38:1-5, he vows to kill Hezekiah, but then changes his mind after Hezekiah tearfully begs for his life. And so on. Despite verses like Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17 which claim that God is constant and unchanging, the rest of the Bible portrays him as emotionally volatile, thin-skinned, and prone to all-too-human emotions like pettiness, jealousy, and indecision – in other words, much the same as the other gods of the time (the Greek gods, the pagan gods, etc.).
At any rate, maybe none of this matters. If all you want to focus on are the Ten Commandments themselves (the ones from Exodus 20, not the ones from Exodus 34), maybe all these issues surrounding their dubious origins can be overlooked. I can understand wanting to focus on the positive; the commandments like “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” really are among the best that the Bible has to offer (regardless of how often God and his followers disregard them), so this is one instance where I’m certainly happy to give the Bible credit where it’s due.
Still though, it’s hard to give the Bible too much credit here, because it’s not like it was the first to come up with these laws. Rules against murder and theft are pretty much the most obvious, lowest-hanging fruit you can possibly get in terms of moral laws; so prohibitions against theft and murder were commonplace at the time (e.g. the Code of Hammurabi, which predated the Ten Commandments by centuries). It wouldn’t exactly have taken an extraordinary stroke of divine insight to have realized that things like lying and covetousness were morally harmful, either, so it’s hard to accord the Bible any kind of special credit on those counts. And among the commandments that are left, most of them are just variations on the rule that you must worship Yahweh, honor him, and shun all other gods.
Taken as a whole, then, the Ten Commandments just don’t seem all that unique in their insight, considering everything you’d think an all-knowing and all-powerful being might have been able to come up with (which is probably why they weren’t originally given any kind of special distinction or referred to as “the Ten Commandments” at all). And in fact, some of the commandments are just flat-out poorly conceived. A blanket rule like “honor thy father and thy mother,” for instance, while good advice in general, would have been actively harmful in situations where a child was being abused by their parents (which, considering how firmly the Bible supports corporal punishment, would have been all too common). Similarly, the second commandment – “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” – essentially bans art, for the same reasons that the modern Taliban ban art. (The following verse – “thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” – seemingly fails to realize that artistic creations could ever serve any purpose other than idol-worship.) The first four commandments, of course, are flat-out negations of the constitutional right to freedom of religion – which, in fairness, would make sense if it really were true that the biblical God existed and was as jealous and vengeful as he claimed to be – but still, it makes it a bit strange when, for instance, modern-day politicians try to get displays of the Ten Commandments installed in front of public courthouses (which are supposed to be neutral with respect to religion). Arguably the most glaring problem with the Ten Commandments, though, is what they leave out; there’s no mention of rape, abuse, bigotry, slavery, or many of humankind’s other most harmful sins. Well, actually that’s not true – there is one mention of slavery in the tenth commandment – but it’s only in the context of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s slaves.” Owning them yourself is no problem.
Considering the Bible’s embrace of slavery, then – along with its frequent endorsement of misogyny, homophobia, child abuse, prejudice, animal cruelty, and every manner of murderous violence imaginable – we can now circle all the way back around to our original question. The question we have to answer isn’t just, “In spite of all the bad things, are there nevertheless a lot of good things that can also be taken from this book?” Obviously there are. The real question is: Is this book not only a useful moral guide, but literally the single best possible moral guide that could ever have been written? Is the only inescapable conclusion here that this book must truly be the perfect and inerrant word of God?
Thomas Paine, the activist philosopher whose writing sparked the American Revolution, asked himself the same question. He deeply believed in a just and loving God – but ultimately, it was precisely because of that belief that he was unable to bring himself to believe that the Bible was God’s perfect word. Recounting all the Bible’s atrocities – all the murders and genocides, all the heinous commandments ordered by Yahweh – he asks frankly:
Are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned those things to be done? Are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by his authority?
He answers his own question:
To believe […] the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; […] And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.
Incidentally, Paine wasn’t the only founding father who felt this way. Thomas Jefferson likewise considered the Bible to contain a lot of wisdom that was worth holding onto, but couldn’t accept that the entire package must have been divinely inspired. He felt so strongly about this, in fact, that he actually took it upon himself to alter his own Bible by hand, using a razor and glue to cut out the most immoral and implausible passages and only preserve the good parts. In the end, this resulted in a 46-page book that was essentially just a compilation of Jesus’s most laudable teachings from the New Testament (and not much else) which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He praised these excerpts as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” – but added that the process of trying to cherry-pick the good parts out of the Bible, while avoiding the bad ones, was like trying to pick diamonds out of a dunghill. Admittedly, this may not have been the most tactful way of making his point, but it does relate back to our central question in an important way. If we really did believe that the Bible was divine and inerrant – that it was the most perfect book ever written – does that mean that there would be no possible way for us to improve it in any way? Is the Bible literally the absolute best we can do?
As Harris points out, the answer should be obvious. If we wanted to improve the Bible, we could do so in an instant, simply by (say) removing the passage that demands death for non-virgin brides. Even if we left the rest of the Bible completely untouched, just removing that single passage would leave us with a better book than what we currently have. Or if we thought the moral issues were too complicated to mess with, we could just correct one of the empirical claims that are wrong, like that verse in Leviticus 11 that says hares chew the cud. Instantly, just by changing that one verse, we would have a better and more accurate book than the Bible that currently exists.
The conclusion here, then, is hard to avoid; just by recognizing that even the most minor improvements to the Bible are actually possible, we’re implicitly recognizing that the book isn’t perfect or inerrant. By definition, the fact that it has flaws means that it’s not flawless. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all garbage, or even that parts of it weren’t in fact the result of some singular inspiration. But it does mean that we can’t just automatically regard the Bible as the ultimate, unquestionable source of truth – we have to evaluate its claims on their own merits. And once we acknowledge that, it introduces a whole slew of additional questions we have to ask.