Thursday, March 17, 2005

God sometimes ordered Hebrews to wipe out a city. Was it immoral?

In the OT, one finds several references to God ordering the Hebrews to carry out his will and destroy entire cities, killing everybody, even including women and children.

For example, 1 Samuel 15:3 (NAB): "Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban [herem]. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.'"

The NAB has the following commentary on verse 3:
[3] Under the ban: in such wars of extermination, all things (men, cities, beasts, etc.) were to be blotted out; nothing could be reserved for private use. The interpretation of God's will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral, seminomadic peoples such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.

I find this commentary to be rather poor. While it doesn't say so explicitly, it implies that 1 Sam 15:3 was a false interpretation of God's will incorrectly attributed to Samuel by the sacred writer. If this is the commentator's implication, it is not in keeping with Catholic doctrine and tradition.

In contrast, the Douay-Rheims Catholic translations has:

1 Kings [aka 1 Samuel] 15:3 "Now therefore go, and smite Amalec, and utterly destroy all that he hath: spare him not, nor covet any thing that is his: but slay both man and woman, child and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. "

The Douay-Rheims has the following commentary for verse 3:
3 "Child"... The great Master of life and death (who cuts off one half of all mankind whilst they are children) has been pleased sometimes to ordain that children should be put to the sword, in detestation of the crimes of their parents, and that they might not live to follow the same wicked ways. But without such ordinance of God it is not allowable, in any wars, how just soever, to kill children.

So which commentary is more trustworthy? More in line with the common teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church?

Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman commented upon Saul's sin, in which Ven. Newman clearly implied that Saul contradicted Divine judgment when he failed to destroy the Amalikites precisely as God directed through his prophet, Samuel.
"When sent to inflict a Divine judgment upon the Amalekites, [Saul] spared those whom he was bid slay; their king Agag, the best of the sheep and cattle, and all that was good." (John Henry Newman, Sermon 9, Wilfulness, the Sin of Saul,

The whole account of Samuel and Saul and Saul's fall from grace makes no sense whatsoever unless one accepts that God did indeed direct the utter destruction of the Amalekites.

I've read many different commentaries on this and find that the commentary by Fr. William Most makes most sense and is most in line with Catholic tradition.

From Fr. William Most's commentary on herem (utter destruction of entire nations per the will of God in the OT):

"80. God sometimes ordered Hebrews to wipe out a city: herem. Was it immoral?
[286] No, the adults had sinned mortally; children in it had not, but life is a moment to moment gift: God decided to stop giving it, using Hebrews as a means. Killing is wrong precisely because it is a violation of rights of God, the Lord of life." (Fr. William Most, Addenda: Course information; study questions and answers)

"In cases of herem, total destruction of a city and its people.... God ordered this as a punishment for the sins of adults. In Gen 15:16 God told Abraham He would give the land to him and his seed, but not at once: the sins of the Amorites who then lived there, had not reached their fullness. But in the day of Joshua, the sins had reached fullness, and so punishment of adults was called for. As to innocent children -- we must recall that life is a moment to moment gift. We are not comparable to robots, into which the maker can put a battery and then walk away or even die. The robot runs as long as the battery has power. But with us, each instant is a fresh gift. In Aristotelian terms, it involves rises from potency to actuality, each of which needs the power of the First Cause. Therefore as to infants if God for His own reasons simply decides to stop giving life--He is the Lord of life." (Fr. William Most, COMMENTARY ON EZEKIEL)

"Some are shocked at the severity of the ban (Hebrew herem), a theme found in many places, e.g. in Dt. 7:1-5, where God ordered them to destroy the nations in the land of Canaan, without mercy. Two things are to be noticed. First, God wants them to be free of the temptation - which later experience showed was fatal - of joining in the idolatrous worship of those nations. Second, God is the supreme Lord of life. If He wills to end the lives of any persons, that is His right. And we recall that in Genesis 15:16 God promised to give them the land, but not until after the fourth time-span (Hebrew dor, which can mean either generation or period of time). He said He would wait, because the sins of the Amorites had not yet reached their fullness. For even one mortal sin, a person merits death. If his sins reach their fullness, go the limit, this is all the more fully true. As to the deaths of children: life is a moment to moment gift from God. If He just stops giving, or uses a human instrument to end it, there is nothing wrong." (Fr. William Most, Basic Scripture, Chapter 11: The Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

"Paragraph 97: could they be just who had many wives at once and killed men and sacrificed animals -- polygamy was permitted in OT-- about the ban, herem :God ordered them to wipe out Canaanites to avoid danger of falling into idolatry - they did fall. Further, already in Gen 15:16 God said He would wait till the sins of the Amorites reached their fullness. By now they did. As to children: life is a moment to moment gift. God can stop giving at any point - or use a human agent for the same effect. The wrong of murder is that it violates the rights of the Creator." (Fr. William Most, Commentary on St. Augustine, I. The Confessions)

"Paragraph 346: On the ban (herem): Basically it was death penalty for grave sins. As to children etc. - God's gift of life is moment to moment - He could just stop giving - or use a human agency for the same purpose." (Fr. William Most, Commentary on St. Augustine, II. City of God)

God bless,



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