Genocide is better than Sacrifice

The prophet Samuel famously rebukes King Saul’s desire to offer sacrifice to the Lord with the following words:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam 15:22)

This text is frequently quoted in LDS contexts, including General Conference, to emphasize how important exact obedience is. But what exactly had Saul failed to obey? What is the context of the rebuke?

In 1 Sam 15, Saul is instructed to practice herem against the Amalikites. This same commandment is given throughout Joshua as well in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. When he commands Saul, the Lord declares: “Now go, attack Amalek, and herem all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.” (1 Sam 15:3)

Obedience is great and all, and I get it as an central spiritual practice in Mormonism. But do we really have to use an example of genocide as the model for obedience that we are following?

The connection between violence and the Lord’s command is something that we need to think about more critically in Mormonism. We have several examples of divinely sanctioned acts of violence and murder, such as the story of Nephi and Laban, we use militaristic imagery in our hymns, and our scriptures and history are full of battles fought for the Lord. I have heard people say that they would kill someone if the prophet asked them. And, depending on who you ask, they have asked for just such a thing in the past.

Are there ethical limits that should simply not be crossed when it comes to obedience? How do we determine them? I’ve reflected on this question before with respect to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the implications of putting ethical constraints on God. But as frequently as Saul’s failure to commit genocide is invoked as a bad thing among LDS teachers surely demands some critical appraisal of this episode. This is a perfect example of why we need ethical evaluation as a component of our interpretation, which will hopefully lead to more careful appraisals of this specific scriptural story.

59 Replies to “Genocide is better than Sacrifice”

  1. Is it too much of a cop-out to just “read it in context”? Which in this case means looking at the ancient world as a horrible and bloody place where the term “genocide” didn’t exist because it was just a normal sort of thing to do in war. Not that all wars ended this way, but that there was no ethical question if a war did end in “genocide.”

    That approach still requires, I think, a bit of a rethink of standard LDS explanations. First, it becomes a bit shaky to think of the genocide as a God-inspired act—which, come to think of it, actually makes the reading easier because then we don’t have to come up with really silly reasons for why it is somehow merciful of God (and therefore consistent with his New Testament image) to have babies slaughtered. Rather, the genocide is just part of war back then, and the specific commandment about how/what to sacrifice is the only place God—and obedience—really come into play.

    Of course, then I’m just ignoring the question of why God would use this moment to teach “Obedience” when he could have used this moment to teach “Not Killing Innocent People.” Maybe because Obedience > Mercy? And now I’m right back where you started. (So much for my brainstorm!)

  2. I find the views of the Marcionites most appealing because of the very things that you speak of. We do not have any direct evidence of their beliefs, but we do have a five volume attack on their tenets by Tertullian. As you will see by its description, it would be virtually impossible for a Church member to be a Marcionite today.

    The God of the Old Testament and the creator of the world was a brutal, vicious and mean God. Genocide was no problem to this God (or dimurge). Thus Marcion rejected the Old Testament and anything that smacked of it.

    The God of the New Testament was the greater God. One whose character is defined in the Beatitudes. Marcion was particularly fond of Luke and anything written by Paul. He rejected any part of the new testament that he believed related to the God of the Old Testament and Judaism.

    People had, and still have, problems with this Christian variant: dual Gods and the belief that Christ was not the son of God (the dimurge). It has always been interesting to me to imagine what would churches be like today if Marcion had convinced early Church Leaders in Rome that his beliefs were correct

  3. But as frequently as Saul’s failure to commit genocide is invoked as a bad thing among LDS teachers…

    As I (and, I’m sure, most LDS teachers) read the story, Saul did commit genocide. But he spared some sheep and oxen to offer as sacrifices. That is what is denounced as a bad thing. The obedience lesson does not hinge on the genocide.

  4. Most libs I know claim that God neither commanded the slaughter, nor was the slaughter committed, but that it’s a made up story to prop up the “national pride” of Israel and teach that “obedience” was good. This completely looses any need to explain it away, right?

  5. “looking at the ancient world as a horrible and bloody place where the term “genocide” didn’t exist because it was just a normal sort of thing to do in war.”

    Actually, genocide was seldom the goal of ancient conquerors. The main idea was to create a vassel city that would swear allegiance to you, pay you tribute, and serve as an outpost where you could station troops to protect your empire. The genocide that we have seen in the past century in Bosnia, Tibet, and several places in Africa are more along the lines of what the Lord seems to be asking Saul and Joshua (fortunately, archaeology does not support the vast distruction mentioned in the OT).

  6. Great comments so far. On ancient warfare, the picture is quite complex. I don’t think total slaughter was ever fully out of the question, depending on which empire was in charge. For Yahweh, the full slaughter was intended to be a demonstration of his power.
    Quickly, on psychochemiker’s point, I don’t think it is just “libs” who don’t think that God commands genocide (at least I hope not), but I am not sure that denying the historicity of this event really solves the problem. For me, the issue is not whether or not God really commanded such a thing, but that we use God’s command of such a thing as an example of the kind of obedience that we think God desires.

  7. Stan,
    I understand the sentiment, but I also think that Marcion read the texts in self-serving ways. Some of the most inspiring passages about God’s love, God’s universalism, and God’s patience are in the OT. Further, the NT doesn’t really get much better when you look at the apocalyptic texts than the bad of the OT.

  8. I’ve always been troubled by this account and have come to see it as a mirror. I think perhaps our interpretations of this event reflect our hearts back on us. Sometimes I don’t like what I see. I would like to think that at least we wouldn’t do these things even if we approve of them, but then I ponder the events of March 9, 1945 in Tokyo.

  9. Stan,

    Thank you for bringing Marcion and Gnostic influences to the conversation. I am one of those “libs” that psychochemiker mentions and I usually reject Old Testament commandments that challenge the divine character described by Christian beatitudes as a “nationalistic” (per say) attitude toward creating the historical memory of a group of people (Israel). Nevertheless, this is obviously very problematic as I often find myself “picking and choosing” passages of the OT and subsequently, I internally classify them as inspired or not inspired (for purposes of my personal study) which is well, questionable.

    That is why, I often find myself fully embracing the totality of OT rejection depicted in Gnostic writings (including Marcion). I’m not sure I agree with TT that Marcion was necessarily “self-serving,” but probably found the problematic of choosing what is inspired and what not from old testament texts overwhelming, thus as other Gnostics, decided to focus on a “purist” religion view of Christianism, completely separate from the “God” of the OT, believing that these new human values were higher than the human values of the OT, thus believing in Christianism as and ideal religion for a community that reflects the true and pure values taught by Jesus Christ.

    Thus we find most Gnostic narratives of the creation in stark contrast to the Genesis story. Gnostics claim the God of the OT is a demiurge called Samael (god of the blind) and that he has limited understanding of the divine nature of man. That the reason why he commanded man not to partake of the fruit of “gnosis” of good and evil was to keep him from becoming what he really is, a God. Thus, when Adam partakes of the fruit, the Demiurge is angry and scared, sinc Adam has become “like the Gods” knowing good from evil and able to understand the limitations of Samael.

    Furthermore, in Pistis Sophia, we find that Sophia (the wisdom of the true God) becomes a prisioner in this earth and is “rescued” by none other than Jesus Christ. Thus giving the strong allegory that the teachings of the OT are an adulteration that keep the true knowledge/gnosis of God (embodied in Sophia) prisioner, and Samael rules over “the blind” (those who cannot see the adulteration of the OT teachings), and that Christianity in a purist context (separate from the God of the OT) is the restoration of the true Gnosis (the liberation of Sophia by Jesus) and the ability of man to get to know the true God (Jesus Christ) and become like Him, as described in the beatitudes.


    TT, I am a big fan of your posts, thank you for bringing these findings to an open discussion.

  10. I find it interesting that many latter-day saints are such scriptural literalists that they will betray their personal ethics in defense of terrible events portrayed in the scriptures. Case in point is our genocide discussion.

    “But the Lord needed to ‘cleanse’ the land of the evil idol worshippers so the children of Israel would not be influenced” they often say. Really? Women, babies, puppies, kitties, everyone? Did Jesus say to do that to the Romans? Joseph Smith to the Missourians? I’m sorry, but if the Lord wants to take out large groups of people he can do it himself the old-fashioned way like he did in the America’s prior to Jesus’ visit. Better that then sending in teenage boys to do the job.

    I’ve always felt that one of the drawbacks of the Nephi/Laban scene is the “uninventiveness” of the Lord in having his young, impressionable prophet chop off a guys head. I mean, what about a heart attack, stroke, liver failure, infected ingrown toenails, gout? Any of those ways would make for a much less bloody outfit and armor that Nephi would then put on. Sure, chopping of somebody’s head means that you are now thoroughly committed to getting out of Dodge, but stealing someones brass plates serves the same purpose, doesn’t it?

  11. “I find it interesting that many latter-day saints are such scriptural literalists that they will betray their personal ethics in defense of terrible events portrayed in the scriptures.”

    I agree, there are many that do think anything found within the covers of the scripture cannon is a pure version of history, because it is what “God told the prophets to write.” It is indeed sad. But then, on the other hand, there are also many who aren’t such scriptural literalists.

    Thus we have many examples in this blog and elsewhere in the bloggernacle. Mormon views can be extremely varied. I believe it depends on a combination of how much exposure they have had to true intellectual scholarship and the nature of their religious upbringing.

    But it is quite unfair to simply pin this on “Mormons.” It is a phenomenon found in every religion and culture. It would be disingenuous to imply this is uniquely a Mormon characteristic. I actually find other belief systems to be much more narrowminded than that of Mormons.

  12. Manuel:

    Agreed. But I think on the part on some LDS, it’s not so much “narrowmindedness” as it is a fear of “where will it stop. If I don’t accept this in the scripture, what about other stuff..?” Religious upbringing, as you say, has much to do with it. But who among us can’t recall the first time we thought “wow, I guess Noah probably couldn’t have fit two of each animal in the whole, wide world on the ark. Bummer!”

    Anyway, my point is that, even being a member of a church that has a built-in “out” (the “as far as it is translated correctly” clause) some saints are are such literalists that they would make an evangelical blush.

  13. Re: Nephi and Laban, and also applicable to the Shiz/Coriantumr thing.

    Just a technicality: To “smite off the head” was an idiom. It was not necessarily a literal nor a 100% decapitation as most people today think it means. What it meant was a mortal, and usually quick, head wound.

    If you ever “pithed” a live frog in biology class prior to dissecting it, that would be an exact example.

    The quickest (and supposedly least painful to the subject) is a complete disruption of the medula oblongata, at the base of the brain, where the spinal cord attaches. That is the “kill switch” so to speak. All neural communication between brain and body ceases, and the subject goes immediately limp. For mammals, I believe the heart immediately stops too.

    The medula oblongata is the point where military and police snipers aim for, centerline and even with the ear canals. With a powerful enough rifle it can be reached from any angle.

    Think of it more as “smiting (a blow) on the head.”

    So if done right, no major blood vessels (carotid/jugular) are breached, therefore it is not messy as a decapitation would be.

    If a blow to the head does not immediately or completely disrupt the medula oblongata, the wound may be mortal, but death may not be immediate, there may be some thrashing about, as in the case of Shiz raising up on his hands and struggling for breath.

    “Smote off his head” was also used to describe the killing of Sisera, in which Jael drove a spike through his temples, which clearly was not a decapitation. Compare Judges 4:21-22 and Judges 5:26. The latter: “she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.”

    I also agree with Last Lemming. The genocide was not the immediate juxtaposition. It was not what was being contrasted with sacrifice. Saul obeyed the part about genocide, except for king Agag. It was the best of the sheep and cattle that Saul had spared.

    As far as the Lord killing people in large numbers, or having them killed, think of what’s going to happen in the time prior to and on the day of the 2nd coming. One third of humanity is going to die off in the time frame (3.5 years?) immediately prior to the 2nd coming. And on that day, everyone who is not “Terrestrial or better” is going to be killed off by the mere act of His arrival.

  14. Obviously I don’t support genocide, and there’s plenty wrong with using a genocidal command to encourage obedience among Latter-day Saints. But on the other hand, I’m not very comfortable either with a kind of Kantian view in which my ethics trump God’s or in which I assume that my ethics are the same as God’s.

    I think the story of Nephi and Laban offers a bit of help, even though it won’t wholly satisfy some; Nephi reasons that while murder is bad (obviously), the worse alternative is that an entire nation lives wholly without the word of God. The implicit question: is one man’s life worth more than that?

  15. aliquis: “…in which my ethics trump God’s…”

    It may just be that anti-genocide ethics trump the ethics of the writers of the OT. That doesn’t require trumping God at all. It just means that they got God wrong.

    “…or in which I assume that my ethics are the same as God’s.”

    Maybe. But what if anti-genocide ethics are God’s ethics, and the reason so many of us feel compelled toward “anti-genocidism” is that God is pulling us there?

  16. BrianJ ~ That’s an excellent point. I do, in fact, believe that a common feeling toward anti-genocide is the result of God’s inspiration. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel there is pedagogical utility in stories that put unconscionable commandments in the mouth of God — if only to get us to ask questions like this.

  17. I recently read some notes from ‘Fear and Trembleing’ by Kierkegaard which deals with Abraham. I particularly liked chapter 1 here

    Bottom line, I think there is something very important to high levels of faith and obedience, that are not fully tried unless they overcome doubt.

  18. “But on the other hand, I’m not very comfortable either with a kind of Kantian view in which my ethics trump God’s or in which I assume that my ethics are the same as God’s.


    For we Kantians, God is just not relevant to ethical decision making. My ethics do not trump God’s, but human dignity does.

  19. Tangentially related, I’ve heard that in the OT, the phrase “before the Lord,” frequently denotes something ritual/sacramental. If this is the case, what is the significance of it’s use in 1 Samuel 15:33?

  20. A god who commands his people to commit genocide is not worthy of my worship. If I have to spend eternity in hell, it will be a heaven knowing that the alternative would be spending eternity with such a being.

  21. My comments are based on a few assumptions:

    – God exists (non-negotiable)
    – God is correct (also non-negotiable)
    – God does not lie (ditto)
    – God does not do anything which is not for the ultimate salvation of His children.

    Regarding the orders to destroy everything/one in the promised land when Israel entered, some things to think about:

    – Death does not mean the same thing to God as it does to the world. The world views death as a horrible end of everything (hence the cringe at genocide). To God, death is not the end, it is a change in the phase of existence. What makes murder or genocide an abomination may not be that it is the taking of another life, but that it is an abrogation of God’s right to decide when to move His children from one phase of existence to another. As an example, recall that in 2 Nephi 2 that the days of the children of men are prolonged that they might repent while in the flesh. There may be a point at which mortality is not longer productive for some of his children. Perhaps He may be eliminating the possibility of having to send more spirit children to a nation where they will not have a chance to learn of Him and complete the purpose of mortality.

    – Additionally, recall that the Lord spells out for Israel exactly what the sins are of the Canaanites that they are commanded to destroy before they are sent in to the Promised Land. Also, recall that they have had the higher ordinances and teachings removed from them because they do not have the spiritual capacity to bear them. Instead, they are given strict laws to give force in their minds to the importance of keeping the commandments. Now recall that there is more than one sin in the Mosaic law that calls for death by stoning to be conducted by the congregation of Israel. Is it possible that God is teaching here? Is God telling Israel that to commit sin is akin to death in a spiritual way? Is it more forceful by requiring members of the congregation to participate in the execution? Do you think they will remember the lesson?

    – In that context, is it possible that God outlined the commandment violations and then commanded Israel to execute judgement upon the Canaanites? I think it is possible. Could He have sent fire from heaven? Of course. There is something different about giving the warning that if you commit their sins, you receive their consequences and then requiring the pupil to carry out the execution. It is a forceful lesson, and unfortunately, even that terrible lesson was not strong enough for Israel to remember.

    Now, are there other possible explanations, such as text corruption? Of course. I think it is important for us to try to understand the Lord and His motivations, and give Him the benefit of the doubt rather than to judge Him. In the Atonement, Christ suffered all the suffering of every individual on the earth and then some. This means He suffered every so-called genocidal act He commanded of ancient Israel. Given His unique perspective and purpose, I think He deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, what if there is no error in the text in that regard?

  22. I think it’s pretty clear that Joseph Smith believed that God always trumps our personal and collective “morality.” He preached entire sermons on how absolutes such as “thou shalt not murder” were not absolute and had exceptions such as Nephi, and the Genocide in the Bible (“thou shalt utterly destroy”); “thou shalt not commit adultery” and “obey the levirate law”. I cannot currently make sense of all of these contradictions, I don’t think I could ever be obedient to a call of genocide from a prophet, but I’m not certain about really believing my ethics, or humanities collective ethics could ever trump God. It’s just too arrogant for me…

  23. psychochemiker,

    I am often touched by your humility.


    I do give God the benefit of the doubt. I will not give the text the same benefit of the doubt, particularly when it comes to the killing of others. I think your view of death is why this whole issue is of concern to me.

  24. The trick in practice is less the question of obedience (although for some that’s the big issue) than it is in figuring out what texts actually are God’s commands.

    I think the story is good, albeit you’ll note GAs referring to this verse never mention the genocide. I think the easiest way out for a Mormon is the Book of Mormon critique of the OT which sees lots of corruption. And as someone else noted the real issue for God within the story was Israel’s looting.

  25. Don’t get me wrong. I would love it if the genocidal issue was a corruption of the text. There are plenty of other instances that suggest Deuteronomist historical revision of the four books of Kings. My tentative conclusion about death has less to do with this passage, and more to do with trying to understand 1 Nephi 4, and then applying those implications elsewhere. I feel I must keep myself open to better explanations, however. Particularly as we do not yet have direct revelation on the issue.

  26. I understand why some might equate Laban with the genocide of Saul. However honestly I don’t think they’re really equivalent in the least given that Laban actually was trying to kill Nephi and company. The reason we rightfully cringe towards genocide is that typically it is the innocent suffering the most.

  27. I can appreciate that concern, and I agree that there is something missing from the text that we don’t know about. I also think that we probably don’t know enough about the situation to effectively judge one way or another. I think my method of coping with the situation is to think of the worst case scenario, and then apply what I know of God (that has been positively revealed) to the situation. I cringe when I see someone say that they would rather go to hell than believe in a God who could ask the Israelites to do something that conflicts with our mortal perception of morality. But then, I am out of place even worrying about that.

  28. “However honestly I don’t think they’re really equivalent in the least given that Laban actually was trying to kill Nephi and company.”

    Though at the moment he was drunk and passed-out. Of course, I am one of the libs psycho mentioned. I think that much of 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi is more nationalistic narrative (as are many ancient histories) than a lesson in morality. There are many great lessons in moral theory within the Book of Mormon, but the book has many purposes.

  29. Chris,

    I think that much of 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi is more nationalistic narrative (as are many ancient histories) than a lesson in morality.

    I recognize that you view it one way, but I was trying to point out, for some reason, I view the Prophet Joseph Smith’s views with more respect and credibility than with yours… and for some reason, he chose to use this example as a way of teaching morality. I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you disagree with JS on this… I’m saying you’re being somewhat dishonest if you don’t at least recognize that JS DID use it… that’s all.

  30. re: 21 @ camrow,

    There are two more assumptions your comment makes that you don’t clearly address.

    The content of the Old Testament is an exact reflection of God’s will.

    People who question that content are judging God.

  31. I can see how you could come to that conclusion. Please allow me to clarify. I do not believe that everything in the Old Testament is is an exact reflection of God’s will. I believe there is strong evidence to the contrary. However, lacking the Wisdom to determine what is and what is not literal, I think it is wise to withhold final judgment of the issue. I don’t believe saying, “I don’t believe God really commanded that,” is wrong. That’s fine. My objection is with, “If God commanded that, He doesn’t deserve my worship.” See comment just before my long one.

  32. Chris,
    He may not have used the BoM, but he certainly used the biblical references for it…

    This is the money part, btw “Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire . . . ”

    God said, “Thou shalt not murder;”,[2] at another time He said, “Thou shalt utterly destroy,.[3]” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted-by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire . . . As God has designed our happiness-and the happiness of all His creatures, He never has – He never will – institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed, and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinances… for all things shall be made known unto them in [His] own due time, and in the end they shall have joy. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 256–7.)

  33. Sorry all to have not had the time to get to this. A few points:

    1. In the OP, I link to a post that treats the problem with collapsing God and ethics into the same thing. This is ultimately King Benjamin’s position, and I am sympathetic to the critique that it entails the death of God. That may be an acceptable consequence of King Benjamin’s teaching, or it may not, but it is worth seriously wrestling with the idea that our ethical judgments are limited, if not by mortal perspective in a theistic framework, then at least in a historically conditioned one. So, I think that the challenge of a extra-ethical deity is ultimately a challenge to the limitations of ethics themselves.

    2. This is not to say that the divine command theory supported by psycho and cam is not without its major intellectual limitations as well. The magic trick of the theory is the hermeneutical leap that is overlooked entirely. How is it that one can confidently say that one is acting in God’s will, with such confidence to violate what one believes to be right? Could not one be deluded into thinking that God has told them what to do, as the countless examples of people murdering, committing genocide, rape, and other such crimes might suggest? Ultimately, to accept that one has been commanded to murder or commit genocide in God’s name is an act of interpretation, even if God appeared directly in front of you. As an act of interpretation, it is always a subjective evaluation. There is no unmediated access to God’s word, and Joseph’s revelations are exhibit A for that claim.

    I think that the interpretive problem that we face is whether it is possible to do something that one thinks is ethically wrong. To commit genocide because God told you is to think that it is right to commit genocide, so long as God tells you. Are there then no limits on what is wrong, so long as one interprets it to be God’s command? Since there is no objective recourse to determining God’s command, according to psycho and cam, so long as one believes that God has commanded it, even if it is murder, one should be exempted ethically. This strikes me as a problem.

    Finally, I think that Joseph’s reading of the contradictions in scripture is an interesting one. It points to more than just a belief in the divine command theory of morality (and I think it is evident that this was his belief), but also the kinds of interpretations that must be done when it comes to scripture. He is acknowledging the hermeneutical problems that scripture creates precisely because the text is radically inconsistent about God.

  34. Thank you for that reply, TT. You made excellent points on both sides. I will clarify that it is not the belief that God has commanded a killing that justifies it in my mind. I think He actually has to command it. That may be splitting hairs to some. I accept that. I don’t put myself in Nephi’s or Moses’ or Samuel’s shoes because I don’t know I will ever be so attuned that God would trust me with such a command. I have to hope that Samuel’s rebuke of Saul stemmed from revealed knowledge that Saul received the command and the testimony of the Spirit that it was valid, and understood such testimony and still failed to comply. That, or the text is not historically correct/accurate (which I am fully prepared to accept). I am a big believer that we still don’t have everything restored yet. I believe my position on whether or not it is within God’s purview to issue such a command has been accurately stated.

    Again, thank you for the respectful restatement.

  35. TT: is it okay to disobey God if he tells you to? Can God impose a ban so heavy that not even he can lift it?

    I can only think of one place in the scriptures where people disobeyed God and were praised for it: Adam and Eve. And the explanation goes that they had two competing commandments and had to break one in order to keep the other. There are additional stories in the scriptures where others were placed in similar predicaments: Abraham, Nephi, etc. But none of those people pulled “an Adam & Eve” and blatantly disobeyed, choosing certain damnation for sake of a higher purpose. What would Eve have done on Mount Moriah?

  36. I can only think of one place in the scriptures where people disobeyed God and were praised for it: Adam and Eve

    I have no idea what really happened, but the proposition of a fortunate fall has got to be one of the most ridiculous propositions ever made, at least in combination with everything else recorded on the subject.

    Whatever God commands is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire

    This is somewhat problematic too. In order for it to be true, one of the following must also be the case:

    (1) God can justify any possible action, i.e. ethics do not apply to him
    (2) God lacks the present power to do anything objectively wrong, i.e. he doesn’t have moral agency
    (3) God never makes mistakes by any objective standard, i.e. he is morally, tactically, and strategically absolutely perfect.

    Of course most Mormons are probably going to go with (3), but that makes one wonder how many Old Testament accounts are seriously in error.

  37. One other very quick point on this. I want to reiterate that the relevant issue here is not whether God actually commanded Saul to commit genocide, or even whether that was in reality a moral act. What is relevant is the way that this text gets used as an example of the kind of obedience that we should also strive for. I’m not sure that saying that we are not at a spiritual level where God would ever ask us to do something directly, let alone something as challenging as murder or genocide really resolves the problem whatsoever that I have raised here.

    The issue is that we invoke Saul’s act of genocide as a model for our own behavior, which suggests that our own moral calculations are not relevant at all when it comes to obedience. God commanding genocide is the extreme example meant to raise the issue of whether the lack of consideration and evaluation of the human implications of our “obedience” to what we interpret to be divine commands is a position worth defending. This applies not only to active, occasional commands, such as avenging a 200+ year old blood feud on women and babies, but even for the everyday, static commands that some might interpret to be immutable.

  38. BrianJ, this is how D&C 20 has it:

    he created man, male and female, after his own image and in his own likeness, created he them; And gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship. But by the transgression of these holy laws man became sensual and devilish, and became fallen man.

    The basic issue is that it is unmitigated nonsense for God to cheer this sort of thing on. And as the preponderance of the scriptural record has it, he didn’t.

  39. I think our own moral calculations are relevant, but not controlling. Sometimes we get commandments specifically because they challenge our own moral calculations. An example is the institution of plural marriage. Often, such commandments are a test of whether we can let go of our own calculations and act in faith.

    Genocide is correctly stated as being an extreme example. As such, it is fallacious to strictly invoke it as a model for our own behavior. However, the principle remains valid, regardless of the specific context (of which we know almost nothing).

    What is the principle? “Saul, if you are going to be My king; if you are going to lead My people; if you are going to be anointed a Melchizedek-king, invoking the name of Immanuel (as Barker suggests), and represent YWHW on earth, you have to trust Me more than you trust yourself.”

    If a commandment is confirmed to you by personal revelation and it conflicts with your personal ethics, perhaps obedience is the sacrifice that God asks. No one is forced to give it, but we can’t ask Him to have us represent Him personally when we can’t put Him before us.

  40. Mark D: I fear that I’m still not getting your point. Are you saying that it is ridiculous to view the Fall as good, or to view Adam/Eve’s choice as good?

  41. Chris H (29) is it the difference between a utilitarian and a kantian whether Laban was awake and able to kill Nephi at the time Nephi kills Laban? (grin)

    It’s interesting to me how people don’t mind violence so long as the person is looking at them at the time. (This is a common Hollywood cliche – especially in the old westerns)

    Mark D (39) I have to agree with the others. Could you unpack why you think the idea of a necessary fall is so ridiculous?

    TT (41) I agree that’s the real issue. I’m not sure it should be taken as the real issue. I think there’s a big difference between God unambiguously demanding something because we have faith God knows what’s he’s doing and thus understand consequences and analysis we simply don’t. The real problem is that all these stories are presented as if the choice were unambiguously about obeying God or not. When really the issue is almost always deciding what really is from God or not. When the cost of the choice increases I think we understandably demand more evidence for it being from God. Justifiably so.

    In the context of the story we simply have Samuel show up one day. Is that really sufficient evidence for what Saul is asked to do? I’d say no. Yet by focusing in on obedience as the problem rather than epistemology I think we end up distorting things more than a little.

  42. Clark,

    My point is that threat and danger level matter when considering claims of self defense. I look forward to the next time we discuss this issue….we seem to do it a lot. 🙂

  43. It is interesting to note that “God” did not command Nephi to cut off Laban’s head; an “angel” did.

    Personally, I have much more respect for Hamlet than for Nephi. According to the record, Nephi did not question the angel. He struggled with the task itself. At least Hamlet asked the right questions: Is the angel from God? Is the angel a deceiver?

    As for the genocide, personally, I left Mormonism and Christianity because, as camrow’s comments illustrate, I refuse to worship a creature for whom human life, and especially innocent human life, is so trivial.

    I have not found a god worthy of my worship since. I don’t consider that “arrogant” because I am always open to the possibility of a non-bloodthirsty, non-arbitrary, non-absurd deity revealing him/her-self, but so far… nothing.

  44. Clark (45): I agree with your assessment. We need to be dead sure that the direction is really coming from God. I think this is a part of where the record fails us in terms of historicity.

    Daniel (48): I see nowhere in the record that states that an angel told Nephi to kill Laban. Rather, I see that the Spirit constrained him.

    I hope you are eventually successful in finding the God that is not bloodthirsty, arbitrary, or absurd.

  45. camrow (49):

    Oh, yes, “the spirit”… actually, that is even more bothersome. At least an angel appears in bodily form (or so I am told). “The spirit” is such a vague and nebulous phenomenon – still, small voices in one’s head, strange “burning” sensations in one’s “bosom” – if such things happened, I would seriously wonder about my own sanity before following the murderous directions of a schizoid experience. All the more reason to question those “feelings” or “promptings” that are telling you to hack the head off an unconscious and defenseless man.

    I have spent many years seeking god, but I have not discovered the pavilion that covers his/her hiding place. I do wonder why you wish me success in finding God. If god is the kind of creature I read about in scriptures, then honestly, I can’t tell whether your “hope” for me is a blessing or a curse – whether you express such a thing out of kindness for a fellow human being, or out of malicious intent.

    I find secular humanistic morality and ethics to be far superior to the “this is a test, this is only a test”-ends-justify-the-means morality the god of Mormonism offers. If I am missing something, I am open to hearing it – I don’t mean that as a “challenge”, but in the spirit of sincere interest.

  46. Daniel,
    Assuming that your last paragraph is sincere, I’d invite you to engage any one of the many solutions to the problem that have been discussed here already in the OP, in the links in the OP, and the various solutions offered by the commenters. Right now you sound more hyperbolic and sarcastic than someone who is really serious about engaging the problem. You’ve proposed another solution–that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, that “secular humanistic morality and ethics” are better. This is one solution that also faces its own problems, and ultimately the problem is an interpretive one that isn’t all that different from the problem that the believer faces: how do you know that that ethical choice you are making is the correct one? Human moral calculations lead to murder and genocide too.

  47. BrianJ, My claim is given what the preponderance of the scriptures say on the topic, it strains credibility to claim that God thought that the choices that precipitated the fall were a good thing.

    The scripture I quoted, from D&C 20:19-20, states that the Fall was caused by the transgression of holy laws to “love and serve” God, and to worship him only.

    Are we to believe that God cheered on the decision to love, serve, and worship someone else in contravention to the holy laws that he himself issued? I don’t think so.

    According to the scriptures, what does he do afterward? He condemns and punishes them. Not exactly the actions of someone who believed that something good had just occurred.

    Now of course there are two passages, one in the Book of Mormon, and one in Moses that claim that without such a transgression, Adam and Eve et al would not have been able to have children.

    Of course you can argue from those passages to the point of view that nearly everything else written about the fall is inconsequential, i.e. that the fall wasn’t a fall. I believe the preponderance of the evidence is in the reverse direction. But that is the great thing about wildly contradictory passages, you can use them to prove anything. In combination, though, irreconcilable nonsense.

    For the record though, I seriously doubt that the events surrounding the fall were precipitated by Adam and Eve as individuals at all, but rather more general conditions. It seems to me that the popularity of the whole “they had to do it” thing is largely apologetic for actions by Adam and Eve that probably never occurred.

  48. Daniel @ 50: I assure you that there is no malicious intent. I don’t know everything about God, but I know there is more to Him than the bare words of a page. They are merely a starting point from which we begin our journey. I say bare because the meaning of any word always lay in the person receiving it. Essentially, we are left to seek clarification or assume we are correct in decoding the message. Sometimes we are, and sometimes we aren’t. I read the same text as you, and I see something totally different. I see a God who is anything but arbitrary, and who agonizes over every trial or punishment we must endure, and searches for any excuse to bless His children. You may never see what I see, but maybe you will. Either way, I respect your opinion.

    Mark D @ 52, may I suggest that a preponderance test is not appropriate? Instead, I find a totality of the circumstances test more appropriate, especially one that weights reliability of text on its distance from its revelatory origin, and when the constructive maxim is that all truth must harmonize with all truth.

    TT passim: Can we have a forum on the letter to honest truth seekers sometime?

  49. camrow, I am sure with other weighting methodologies, you can come up with a principled defense of the evidence for a fortunate fall.

    It would take much more work, however, to come up with a principled defense of the idea of a fortunate fall, in large part because if it were fortunate, it couldn’t properly be considered a “fall” at all, but rather something like a “beneficent transition”. Redeeming mankind from the beneficent transition doesn’t have quite the same ring to it though.

  50. So you’re concern is that a Fall cannot be simultaneously positive and negative? (If I’m wrong, you can ignore everything else from here and just clarify for me).

    Admittedly, the Fall would have been an absolute disaster without the promise of an Atonement. But I think that is only in the context of a promised Atonement that the Fall can be seen as a beneficent transition. Siloed, the Fall is the transition from a glorified vegetative state to a state of misery, death, and servitude to Satan in the second death. Who cares about producing children and knowing good from evil without the hope of any good.

    That’s why Adam and Eve didn’t express joy in Moses 5 until the Atonement was revealed to them.

    Perhaps the Fall is a beneficent transition only inasmuch as we accept the Atonement? That would explain why it is better that sons of perdition never had been born.

    I’m sure there’s a lot more to talk about here, but I appreciate your perspective, and I am interested in hearing your feedback.

  51. Throughout the OT God always warned a people and gave them opportunity to repent before acting. Annihilation was justified (fully immoral character of the indicted nation) but warning was still given (God’s love and mercy). Those that listened had time to leave; if they chose not to, they faced the consequences. Therefore, it is highly probable that many of the innocents had left before the Israelite army arrived.

  52. LOL @ 57… yup, it’s got me cringing too. Those are the dangers of OT literalism. Kind of scary.

    To answer TT’s original question. I asked 3 people (not a representative statistical sample) at church if they would ever use the passage to teach obedience. I read them 1 Sam 15:22. They all said yes. I then proceeded to ask them whether they knew the actual context of the scripture and about the genocide… they all said no.

    Therefore, this is my answer: I think it is wrong to use this scripture because I think the context is harder to understand than most applications like teaching obedience in church; furthermore, I think there is a possibility the context is plain wrong (uninspired).

    Having said that, I think given the average knowledge of the members of the church, I don’t think the use of the passage actually awakens any thoughts on the genocide issue, since most people who hear the passage in the context of teaching obedience is most likely unaware of the context in the OT. Therefore, the OT context becomes irrelevant, and the focus is on the obedience lesson, most people being able to apply it to things familiar to them rather than to God commanding them to kill someone.

    But to relate to the other comments, I think the literalism of people such as Deb in comment #56 is pretty scary, and it may be more common in the Church than I would like to admit.

    I think some people will settle first for a God that commands sinister things, before ever considering the author (authors, translators, etc) of an ancient writing could have been wrong or even biased.

    They will tend to explain away a sinister God either by minimizing their own understanding and and thus insulting (IMO) their own diving light of Christ by saying they just aren’t capable of understanding why God would do such a thing, but He did, therefore, it must have been right. Or else they will explain it with radical theories that lack realistic applicability such as Deb’s, implying that somehow God would actually be justified of the sinister act.

  53. This may be a shocker to some, but I’m going to have to agree with Chris H. @57 and Manuel @ 58. Specifically, Deb @ 56 seems to hint at a retributive God, and I see a God of utility, who only takes actions to promote the eternal progress of His children. That does not mean that God cannot command a servant to take a life (or many), but I find the notion that He would do so in a vengeful, reactive way to be in conflict with revealed doctrine concerning His characteristics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *