Lessons from Old Testament Harshness

Stephen Marsh Mormon 14 Comments

Deuteronomy 6:10-12 seems incredibly harsh.  As the Lord’s people enter into Canaan, they are given cities that they haven’t built, produce they haven’t grown, and all manner of things they don’t deserve, while the inhabitants of the land are wiped out.  It is as if the only and true path to prosperity is to plunder those who have worked, built and sweated to create.  Indeed, scriptures of that sort have been used to justify that very type of activity.  In context with the next 27 chapters or so, it is an extended metaphor that no matter how we think we have earned prosperity or results, we have not, we are dependent on circumstances.

Some times it seems obvious.  A performer born now has much more they can receive than those born a thousand years ago before radio and royalties were invented.  Most of this world does not do as well as we do, and it has little to do with how hard we work or how smart we are.  Some times it is easy to lose sight of, some times it terrifies.  I had a young man whose care was important to me, who came to the realization that the Hispanic families he was involved in charitable service to were filled with people harder working and smarter than he was, with better physical capacity.  He became terrified as a result.  On the other hand, I remember reading an oil and cattle heiress in the newspaper who was certain that if money was equalized tomorrow, she would naturally become rich again, in spite of never having done any work or exhibited any skill other than being able to create vanity artworks.

It is the power of circumstance and grace that Deuteronomy 6:11 is all about — reminding us that the foundation of our prosperity is not something we created or earned, but is a gift, one that can be preserved or lost, but not one that we have earned.

It is a compelling reminder of how important humility and gratitude are in understanding our place in the world and the importance of grace in our lives, a metaphor for the spiritual in the physical.

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  2. Indeed, as Nietzsche taught, those with the health are grateful, and affirm the life they are given. Rising above our tendency toward pity can be the hardest lesson to learn.

  3. I think the lesson to be learned is that ultimately it is up to The Lord to decide who gets what. Nephi clearly explains that the Canaanites were not righteous, they had rejected the word of God, and they were ripe in their iniquity. (I’m not really sure who had done the preaching to the Canaanites, as most of God’s chosen folks had been occupied in Egypt for the last few centuries; I dunno, it could have been folks like Jethro, who based on their cameos in the Bible are somewhat wandering random priesthood holders remnant covenant type folks, but whatever…) Unlike some other instances where The Lord uses one wicked (or at least somewhat ignorant, yet barbarous) people to punish a different group of wicked people, in this case he gave the covenant nation orders to go annihilate groups of wicked people. The Lord COULD have told them to destroy everything and burn all the buildings and fill in the wells, and ruin all the crops, and then start from scratch as they built up their own infrastructure. But The Lord didn’t see fit to do that. It was somewhat of a windfall, and as far as I can tell, is tangential to the main point, which is to be righteous and then you won’t have to worry too much about your stuff being taken, unless of course The Lord is trying to teach you a lesson anyways.

  4. Or, it could be that the story in Deuteronomy was fabricated in order to defend the political aspirations of Josiah and centralize temple worship in Jerusalem hundreds of years after the events of Deuteronomy. There is actually no archeological evidence to suggest that the Israelites destroyed the towns recorded in Deuteronomy, some of which hadn’t even been founded at the time during which the events were said to occur. It is conspicuous, however, that the Deuteronomy record just happened to be “found” at the temple (2 Kings 22) in time to justify a massive military campaign of Josiah’s in these same lands; so that he could reclaim them for Israel.

    However, I do agree with the interpretations of wealth not equating righteousness. I suppose I worry sometimes that in trying to make sense of brutal acts recorded in history we attempt to justify the unjustifiable. I simply cannot conceive of a God who orders grown men to kill children and take their toys…whether or not he is trying to teach a lesson about “easy come, easy go.”

  5. As Pioneer Day approaches in Utah, I’m reminded of the Wasatch Front implications of this verse. With reservoirs in place, canals dug, orchards planted, cities established, I’m more like the oil and cattle heiress in the OP, I guess. If nothing else, it proves the world is not fair.

    Either there’s more to the pre-moral life than has been revealed, or the cosmic Board of Equalization is going to be making some massive redistributions of wealth come Judgement Day.

  6. “reminding us that the foundation of our prosperity is not something we created or earned, but is a gift, one that can be preserved or lost, but not one that we have earned.”

    The Parable of the Talents, together with practical experience, suggests that it’s more a mixture of “gift” and “earned.”

    I can’t help the accident of my birth here, as opposed to someplace where those who went before hadn’t found and built on a winning civilizational formula, any more than I can help the cards I’m dealt at poker. But what I do with those cards — the only thing I can control — isn’t nothing.

    I don’t necessarily believe that the Lord personally selects each and every person’s circumstances. (Maybe I’m a little Deist in that way.) Rather, I believe that the Lord issues us one working contingent universe, and judges us as to how we react to whatever cards we’re dealt.

  7. (Stephen, feel free to delete this comment and let me know in email if you think this is inappropriate.)

    A lot of good points are in the comments. Divine providence seems to dictate the place, timing, and circumstances of our birth. But once the parameters have been set, then individual efforts do make a difference. Yet to temper that statement, even the best of our efforts don’t necessarily justify the apparent rewards, nor do they necessarily guarantee commensurate rewards/consequences. Bad things happen to good people, and the Lord causes his rain to fall on the wicked as well as the just.

    In viewing some of the wall-paintings that survived in the excavated ruins of Pompeii, Spencer Kimball remarked that God used the volcano to destroy the city due to the inhabitants’ depravity that was depicted in the paintings. Genesis says that the destruction of the flood was due to wickedness of the people. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their wickedness. Exodus also talks about the exceeding wickedness of the Canaanites, and how they were “ripe for destruction”.

    I don’t have links handy, but I’ve heard tell of some of the depths of the depravity of the Canaanites of the time-period of the Exodus. If I remember correctly, much of the information came from secular history and archealogy, and not just modern interpretation of the scripture.

    According to the scriptures, the destruction and bondage of Isreal and Judah also came about as a consequence of their individual and collective sins, which, also according to the scriptures, eventually exceeded that of the Canaanites whom they dispossessed. The scriptures mention idolatry, but it went further than just giving lip-service to false gods. Prostitution became institutionalized in those idolatrous rites, and children were being sacrificed.

    I fear that sexual immorality and depravity in our generation in this nation is approaching or has reached those levels. How many children go missing each year and are _never_ found or heard from? Tens of thousands. And most are presumed dead. Does it matter if they were killed on an actual altar to a false god? Has sexual immorality reached a cult-like status in our society? Is it as widespread as it was among the doomed Canaanites, or in Israel/Judah when they were conquered?

    I think our country has been at a point where we’ve started to lose some of the Lord’s protection. I think He’s been slowly withdrawing His “hand of protection” from us, and is protecting us less and less, both from ourselves, and from those who actively wish us harm. The Lord doesn’t have to “actively” punish. He can just remove His protective hand, leave people alone, and let natural events follow.

  8. Bookslinger.

    A number of the assumptions you write about the Canaanite people have been shown to be overstated of false (http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/wes/DidGodCommandGenocide.pdf). Even if they were not, however, it would be hard to imagine why innocent children were murdered along with their sinning parents. We have strong doctrine that men are punished for their own sins. And the killing here and taking of property is not of the “incidental civilian casualty” variety. In the account they are specifically commanded to kill “all that breathes” (Deut.20: 16). In the Deuteronomy account it is not just that YHWH allows this to happens, he actually commands it.

    Justifying this becomes the most problematic, for me, because the strategy didn’t even work. Okay, so maybe innocent children were killed, but at least Israel now has a homeland defunct of the worship of Baal and Ashtaroth and has eliminated temple prostitution and human sacrifice. Only, this never happened. The land was not cleansed from these evils. These issues continue to plague Israel. So, why give a command to kill the children? To take all that this other group had? It simply doesn’t make sense.

    Either our concept of god is wrong (maybe he does punish the innocent for the sins of the parents, maybe God is not morally perfect or consistent) or maybe these actions were from men who used God as pretext to do something awful. This shouldn’t come as too difficult for the LDS who certainly do not believe in a univocal bible or biblical inerrancy. Maybe the record is incomplete or misleading?

    I tend to side with earlier poster who comments that “I don’t necessarily believe that the Lord personally selects each and every person’s circumstances.” Maybe God isn’t sending punishment as much as we believe but that natural consequences from a multitude of actions are interacting simultaneously to produce our experience. I think the trick is taking our experience, whatever it is, and behaving as God would have us. Knowing this also helps us understand that we probably don’t have favorable or unfavorable circumstances because of our righteousness. Just because I was born into middle class America doesn’t mean I was more righteous than someone born in the favalas of Brazil.

  9. Bookslinger, I can’t find any reputable information that indicates that “tens of thousands” of American children go missing and are presumed dead every year.

    See, in contrast, this: http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/documents/nismart2_overview.pdf

    [N]early all of the caretaker missing children [i.e., the broadest measure of “missing” children”] (1,312,800 or 99.8 percent) were returned home alive or located by the time the study data were collected. Only a fraction of a percent (0.2 percent or 2,500) of all caretaker missing children had not returned home or been
    located, and the vast majority of these were runaways from institutions who had been identified through the Juvenile Facilities Study

    The best number I can find for “kidnapped/killed” incidents is about 100 cases per year. Individually horrendous, but hardly, I would think, an excuse for God to let loose a genocidal horde of savages on the whole United States. (If that’s his sense of justice, then we need to make “God is dead” a reality. Not in the Nietzschean symbolic sense, but in the physical one, as in, let’s find his address and hit him with every nuke we’ve got.)

  10. Rico, the question “why the children too?” is often asked about Noah’s flood, too. I’ll assume you’re familiar with some of the church’s past leaders’ standard answers on that topic. Though in the past 10 years at least, leaders seem to avoid those kinds of sticky issues. Personally, I assume that the same answers for the flood are relevant to the question of the Canaanites.

    According to the scriptures, the idolatry and human sacrfice remained in the Israelites’ area because the Israelites did not exterminate or remove all the people they were commanded to. So it’s not accurate to say the strategy didn’t work, because the strategy wasn’t implemented. It was only partially implemented. The scriptures seem quite clear that the tribes/nations that weren’t removed/exterminated (but should have been) were one of the sources, if not the main source of Israel’s trouble with idolatry. (Though the skeptics would say that the revisionist historians who wrote the OT were using the Canaanites and the early Israelites’ failure to get rid of them as their excuses.)

    To be precise, some of the nations were to be _displaced_ (ie, moved out of the area), and some were to be exterminated. And some were to be left alone (Edomites, Moabites and Amonites.) The tribes/nations to be exterminated were mentioned several times by Moses and Joshua.

    I have a hard time trusting the document you linked to because the author was so obviously pre-disposed to his conclusion. And to be fair, many believers are similarly predisposed to trust the scriptures. Since Joseph Smith didn’t change those parts in his translation, I try to lean towards believing the OT. But the OT doesn’t always tell the _whole_ story either; I realize it’s a summary, not a detailed history.

    Thomas: thanks for that link. I wonder what figures I was conflating. The report you linked to does show about 33,000 non-family abductions/year. Maybe that’s the kind of figure I was thinking of. Or maybe I was going by adult figures, because what sticks out in my mind is a figure over 10,000 per year for those who go permanently missing.

    Did you find another link for the kidnapped/killed? I may have missed it, but the report you linked to doesn’t further speculate the status of the 2,500 that are not located.

    Also, a disturbing item in the report is the “returned alive _or_ located”. I’m not sure how to parse that. Whether the “located” means “located alive, but not returned to parents” or whether it includes “located the remains.” In other words, the authors may want us to assume all the killed are a subset of the 2,500 “still missing” figure, but that may not be the case.

    And thanks for coming up with a study to refer to.

  11. Bookslinger (#10) In the Deuteronomist (1 Samuel) account Saul kills everyone except the King and the best animals. After Samuel finds this out, he butchers the King. So, in essence the commandment was eventually fulfilled, but Saul loses his place because of his failure to kill everything. Even after these people are dead, however, the Israelites continue to worship other gods until Josiah. The strategy did not work. I do not find anything in the scriptures that says idolatry continued because of the failure to commit a complete genocide.

    Even if the strategy would have worked, however, one must ask why it was necessary to kill innocent children, not responsible for their parents sins. Why not adopt them in and teach them Israelite ways?

    As for the analogy of the flood, I just don’t get it. I think it is very difficult to have a literal interpretation of the flood. Maybe a localized flood, but certainly not a universal flood that killed every man, woman, and child. As far as I know the church has no official position on this topic.

    As for the JST manuscript, I don’t think anyone claims that this is meant to correct every bible error—if so, it would be canonized as scripture. The only thing we have is “we believe the bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” I am consistently flabbergasted that while most church members acknowledge that the bible in inerrant, they will not admit any errors.

    Can we still get something valuable from these stories? Sure, but I think it is dangerous to take each story as a literal event; both because modern scholarship casts many doubts on this, and because it leads us to accept a God who can potentially call on us to commit genocide. That is not my God.

  12. In the Deuteronomist (1 Samuel) account Saul kills everyone except the King and the best animals. After Samuel finds this out, he butchers the King. So, in essence the commandment was eventually fulfilled,

    I’m afraid you’re confusing/conflating groups. The group that Saul killed, that you refer to, was one tribe or kingdom, out of the dozen or so tribes/kingdoms that were supposed to have been wiped out hundreds of years before but weren’t.

  13. Rico, it’s been a long time, so if you’re young, you may not remember contemporary accounts of President Kimball’s remarks about why children died in Pompeii and in Noah’s flood.

    The genocide PDF article you linked to includes a Christian apologist whose defense of God’s command for genocide mirror President Kimball’s.

    I forget where an easily accessible reference to Pres Kimball’s remarks on the flood can be found. But, I’m thinking _Miracle of Forgiveness_.

    To correct my previous comment, there were only 7 tribes/kingdoms specified by name that were supposed to be killed/wiped out when the Israelites entered Canaan, but others were mentioned that I assume were supposed to be removed/displaced. I think the total surpassed 12.

  14. All I can say is that SWKs remarks make absolutely no sense to me. I’ll take this as an instance of the recent LDS position of doctrine: http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/approaching-mormon-doctrine

    “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.”

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