Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ethnic cleansing and sex slaves

There is almost universal condemnation of the Holocaust (at least in the Western world). We consider it such a horrific crime to systematically wipe out an ethnic group like the Jews or the gypsies that there is almost no one who will seek to justify it (at least publically)

However there are similar crimes described in the Bible that people rather than condemning actually approve of. Consider the following story in Numbers 25 and 31. As a bit of background, Moses had fled to Midian from Egypt and stayed there many years, married a Midianite. His father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite priest. But none of this seems to matter. Here is Numbers 25:

1While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.
2For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.
3So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel.
4The LORD said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel."
5So Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor."
6Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
7When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand,
8and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked.
9Those who died by the plague were 24,000.
The Zeal of Phinehas 10Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
11"Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy.
12"Therefore say, 'Behold, I give him My covenant of peace;
13and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.'"
14Now the name of the slain man of Israel who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, a leader of a father's household among the Simeonites.
15The name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was head of the people of a father's household in Midian.
16Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
17"Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them;
18for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor."

[The story breaks and then continues in Numbers 31:]

1Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2"Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered to your people."
3Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD'S vengeance on Midian.
4"A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war."
5So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war.
6Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, to the war, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with them, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.
7So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.
8They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.
9The sons of Israel captured the women of Midian and their little ones; and all their cattle and all their flocks and all their goods they plundered.
10Then they burned all their cities where they lived and all their camps with fire.
11They took all the spoil and all the prey, both of man and of beast.
12They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest and to the congregation of the sons of Israel, to the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by the Jordan opposite Jericho.
13Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the congregation went out to meet them outside the camp.
14Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who had come from service in the war.
15And Moses said to them, "Have you spared all the women?
16"Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.
17"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately.
18"But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.
19"And you, camp outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves, you and your captives, on the third day and on the seventh day.
20"You shall purify for yourselves every garment and every article of leather and all the work of goats' hair, and all articles of wood."
21Then Eleazar the priest said to the men of war who had gone to battle, "This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded Moses:
22only the gold and the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin and the lead,
23everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean, but it shall be purified with water for impurity. But whatever cannot stand the fire you shall pass through the water.
24"And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day and be clean, and afterward you may enter the camp."
25Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
26"You and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers' households of the congregation take a count of the booty that was captured, both of man and of animal;
27and divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation.
28"Levy a tax for the LORD from the men of war who went out to battle, one in five hundred of the persons and of the cattle and of the donkeys and of the sheep;
29take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest, as an offering to the LORD.
30"From the sons of Israel's half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys and of the sheep, from all the animals, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD."
31Moses and Eleazar the priest did just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
32Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep,
33and 72,000 cattle,
34and 61,000 donkeys,
35and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000.
36The half, the portion of those who went out to war, was as follows: the number of sheep was 337,500,
37and the LORD'S levy of the sheep was 675;
38and the cattle were 36,000, from which the LORD'S levy was 72;
39and the donkeys were 30,500, from which the LORD'S levy was 61;
40and the human beings were 16,000, from whom the LORD'S levy was 32 persons.
41Moses gave the levy which was the LORD'S offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.
42As for the sons of Israel's half, which Moses separated from the men who had gone to war--
43now the congregation's half was 337,500 sheep,
44and 36,000 cattle,
45and 30,500 donkeys,
46and the human beings were 16,000--
47and from the sons of Israel's half, Moses took one drawn out of every fifty, both of man and of animals, and gave them to the Levites, who kept charge of the tabernacle of the LORD, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

So a whole tribe or ethnic group was wiped out by the Israelites on the orders of God. What was their crime? Some of them invited the Israelites to come and worship their gods with them. Should anyone, let alone children, be killed for that? What I find most apalling is Moses' reaction when the soldiers brought back the captives (after killing all the men): "Have you spared all the women? ... Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves." And then he goes on to tell them how to be cerimonially clean. There is not a thought to the lives of the children or the families that already lost their husband and father. What is God's reaction? It is to tell them how to divide the booty and captured women "who have not known man intimately". Eleazar the priest gets 32 virgin women for his own pleasure.

Any way I look at it, this is a horrific crime. There is not much difference between this and the Holocaust; the magnitude is somewhat smaller, but this was more effective in wiping out a people-group. And yet ask a Christian if he approves of it and what will he say? I'm almost sure he'll find some way to justify it! But if he approves of this, then it is hypocritical of him to find fault with someone who approves of the Holocaust.

So why is it that Christians will approve of the slaughtering and enslaving of the Midianites? It is because it is approved by the Bible. If they are to condemn this action of God revealed in the Bible, then either the Bible has errors in its portrayal of God or God is imperfect. Neither of these things is palletable to Christians. So instead he will cling to the Bible, and try to ignore the crimes contained in it and approved by it.

The way I escaped from this, and indeed I used to feel the actions of Israelites in killing the Cananites was justified, was by getting some distance from the Bible. I used to read it every day and finish once a year. But with such an attachment it is almost impossible to see or admit its faults. What is necessary is to stop, get some distance by not reading the Bible for 3 months, and by reading some critical literature on it. For example, read Joseph Wheless "Is it God's Word" (available on While I don't agree with all his points, he does make many good points about the Bible). If someone simply wants to maintain his beliefs, then he should not seek, but if someone pursues truth as the pearl of great worth, then he will give sober consideration to opposing arguments.


  1. All well and good. I doubt your suggestion will do people any good though. When the religious encounter something in their holy texts that jars with their own ethical system, they can and do fall back on the excuse, "I am so small and God is so large, I cannot understand his ways." And that my friend, is the core of the problem. So long as we continue to maintain religions wherein people purport to understand certain facets of God and not to understand other facets when convenient, there is no need for rational thinking and reflection.

  2. Yes, that's true. That gives me an idea for a future post...

  3. Just to let you know, I've tried the 3 months - no bible thing and I don't recommend it. However, I think Daniel's talking about people who read their bibles with pre-conceived notions about what's in there, and maybe more as a routine than to learn anything. Instead, might I suggest asking God your hard questions rather than ignoring them, and searching for answers in the Bible rather than using it as a security blanket. It's scary to step out into the unknown, but then, you'll never know unless you do...

  4. To jennypo: we ought to start with an even more basic question than yours. It's, Why should I bother to ask God my hard questions and look in the Bible for answers? How can I know that God or the Bible would have the right answers? If you already start from an assumption that the Bible is infallible no matter how wrong it is, then you're still talking in circles and not going to get anywhere. (Is that called a tautology, where you assume something is right and then bend all your arguments so that it becomes right?)

  5. Right you are, Daniel. However, I believe you were originally speaking to people who have already made the assumption that God is and are trying to keep themselves in that way of thinking by continually bending what they read in the Bible to match their own thinking. It is indeed foolish to ask questions to a person you don't even think possibly exists - but if you believe God exists, you shouldn't ignore the questions that arise for you by brainwashing yourself. Instead, you should put your beliefs to the test by asking the God you believe in to answer them. If you don't believe that God exists, then of course, it is patently crazy to begin by asking him questions.

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